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'You're cooking, steering and navigating on your own for three months... it's incredible'

Ahead of embarking on an international yachting challenge, veteran sailor Enda O'Coineen tells Ivan Little why he chose to launch his solo round-the-world attempt in Belfast's Titanic Quarter.

Published 29/08/2016

Top team: Enda O’Coineen and Andrew Baker, from Saintfield, his reserve skipper
Top team: Enda O’Coineen and Andrew Baker, from Saintfield, his reserve skipper
Welcome party: from left, Peter Cooke, incoming chairman of the Atlantic Youth Trust; Lord Glentoran (Robin Dixon) current Atlantic Youth Trust chairman; Belfast Lord Mayor Bryan Kingston; Enda O’Coineen and Neil O’Hagan, Atlantic Youth Trust executive director
Setting sail: Enda on the Kilcullen Voyager in Belfast

A marina close to the Titanic slipway may not have been the most auspicious place to launch Team Ireland's first tilt at a prestigious round-the-world solo yacht race.

But old sea dog Enda O'Coineen from Galway was happy to be in the Titanic Quarter to encourage young sea pups to think about following his nautical lead as he prepares for his greatest-ever maritime challenge.

Sixty-year-old Enda brought his impressive 60ft mono-hull yacht, the Kilcullen Voyager, north to show it off three months before he sets sail single-handed on the non-stop Vendee Globe race which takes place every four years, starting and finishing in France.

The gruelling race usually features 30 yachts but fewer than half of them normally complete the unforgiving three-month lap of the world.

And Enda will be delighted just to cross the finish line in the Vendee region of France early next year.

The Voyager is totally self-contained with two desalination units that turn salt water into fresh water; two satellite systems to maintain communications with Enda's back-up team plus two self-steering systems, though the skipper has psyched himself up to sleep for only 20 minutes at a time.

"If you sleep for much longer you never know what could come over the horizon, especially if you are in a shipping lane," says Enda, a successful telecommunications entrepreneur and author who will be doing everything for himself on the Vendee. Everything.

And that includes treating himself if he sustains any injuries in the race where it's not unknown for sailors with a broken leg, for example, to have to sort it out for themselves because help can be up to four days away.

Any outside assistance from anyone for Enda, who will survive on freeze-dried food, would mean automatic disqualification from the race.

And if a solo skipper has to be airlifted off his yacht because of a life and death emergency his vessel can sometimes have to be sunk if no one else can get on board.

But if Enda should encounter any problems before the race even starts, a sailor from Saintfield will step in.

But 26-year-old reserve skipper Andrew 'Hammy' Baker from Saintfield isn't wishing Enda ill. He's been training with him and optimising all the boat's systems and trying to work out how to tackle any difficulties that might arise with them during the race.

Andrew hopes that his own day will come to take part in the Vendee which is sometimes described as the Everest of sailing challenges.

Which is somewhat ironic because Andrew doesn't just want to be the first Northern Irishman to sail in the Vendee - he also wants to do an unprecedented double by climbing the real Everest as well.

"I would love to get the sponsorship to take part in the Vendee and then go up Everest as well, though as yet I haven't climbed any mountains."

The Volvo Ocean Race, which is the world's most famous competition and which has fully crewed yachts over nine stages, is also on Andrew's wish list.

"And why not? I like to aim high," says Andrew, who saw a familiar face as he sailed into Belfast on the Kilcullen Voyager last week.

For his brother Gordon was also on the water, taking tourists on a spin around Belfast docks with the Lagan Boat Company for whom he works and which boasts that they offer the world's only Titanic tour.

"A number of people on his boat admired the Kilcullen Voyager as we came in and Gordon casually said to them that his brother was on it," says Andrew, who is an experienced solo sailor on 33ft yachts, having done well recently as he completed the month-long Solitaire du Figaro race in France which is regarded as a proving ground for the Vendee Globe.

Andrew admits that round-the-world sailors mightn't be regarded as right in the head by landlubbers. But he says: "What's crazy? Some people sit in an office nine to five and work for someone else. Maybe that's crazy?"

Andrew, whose nickname comes from his middle name Hamish, has been buoyed by the success of Irish sailors at the Olympics, including Annalise Murphy who won the country's first silver medal in sailing in 36 years.

And he is confident that aspiring young sailors will have been inspired by what they saw in Rio.

He acknowledges, however, that sailing is an expensive pursuit and is often seen as the preserve of the wealthy. But he hopes that the new campaign to acquire a tall ship for Ireland will open the sails to youngsters from all backgrounds here and in the Republic.

And that's where the Atlantic Youth Trust (AYT), which is Enda's charity partner for the Vendee, comes in.

The imposing Tall Ship the TS Royalist was moored alongside the Kilcullen Voyager in Belfast and brought admiring glances from dozens of young people who visited both vessels.

The AYT's executive director Neil O'Hagan says: "We have been working for the past three and a half years on both sides of the border to get both governments to agree to fund a tall ship similar to the Royalist.

"We want to run it as a youth development, peace-building and cultural integration project to take a cross-section of society from north and south to teach them teamwork and leadership as well as communication and life skills."

The AYT's ambitious proposals, which would see 40 young people at a time going on 10-day sail training voyages, would cost £12m to bring to fruition.

And the project has been backed in recent plans for government both at Stormont and Leinster House.

"They were really big breakthroughs," says Neil. "We're hoping to see the first part of the funding released later this year and look to get the full capital release by this time next year for the building of our ship."

The AYT says the funding required in a drop in the ocean, so to speak, compared to the investments in the likes of Titanic Belfast and HMS Caroline.

"They have celebrated the past but we want to see investments in the future for the next chapter in the maritime story," adds Neil who sees Enda and Andrew as great ambassadors for the AYT.

Among the highlights in Enda's colourful career have been two solo transatlantic races in the Kilcullen Voyager which he had to undertake to qualify for the Vendee.

But when he was younger Enda also crossed the Atlantic in what one friend says was "little more than a rubber dinghy".

However Enda, who's been known to play musical instruments like the trumpet on his solo journeys, says the craft was a 15ft sailing life raft that he built himself.

"Someone bet me that I wouldn't cross the Atlantic in it. So I did," says Enda, who adds that the sea has been in his blood ever since, though the Vendee is the pinnacle of his career.

He concedes that the race will be physically daunting, but says it will be even more of a psychological challenge.

"You're on your own for three months and you have got to cook, steer and navigate. It's an incredible adventure even if it's all a bit schizophrenic.

"You are on your own, a thousand miles from land, doing 20 knots in an amazing boat. On the other side of the coin, though, you can be totally terrified in awful weather conditions where you're wet, you're miserable and you feel your world is falling apart," says Enda, who has long admired the competitors in the Vendee. It was this respect which led to him putting the race at the top of his bucket list, though with a nod to Father Jack in the TV series Father Ted, he prefers to call it his 'feck-it' list.

He made up his mind to buy a yacht at a New Year's Eve party in 2014.

"I rang the owner Mike Golding, who's a famous offshore sailor, and we agreed a price at one in the morning," he says.

But the change of name for the yacht had nothing to do with the name of a town in Kildare but rather with a branch of his family, the Kilcullens who were from Enniscrone in Sligo but who emigrated to all arts and parts of the globe

Enda recalls: "When I was 21 I found myself in St Thomas on the Virgin Islands and I rang my mother at Christmas and she told me to look up an aunt called Kilcullen who lived there.

"I'd planned to stay a day but ended up spending a month there discovering all these cousins I never knew I had."

During his quieter spells on his yacht Enda says he'll probably write a book and poetry on board The Kilcullen Voyager which not only has a painting of the Claddagh ring from Galway on the side but also a quote from a WB Yeats poem, The Cloths of Heaven.

It says: "I have spread my dreams under your feet. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams."

And why did Enda choose those words? "Because the Vendee is my dream," he says.

Belfast Telegraph

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