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How Tall Ships inspired Kevin to embark on voyage of a lifetime

The annual round the globe race, which will attract 500,000 people to Belfast next year, gave Kevin McVeagh the courage to explore the world. Stephanie Bell reports.

The streets of Chicago are a world away from the tensions at the flashpoint Ardoyne interface - and one young north Belfast man who has made his home in the Windy City agrees that life couldn't be more different.

Kevin McVeagh had wanted to escape the sectarian tensions in the community where he grew up from a very young age and now, at the age of 25, he has been living the dream for the past four years, working in his ideal job as a soccer coach in a country which couldn't be more different from his own.

He credits his new life to the experience and tools he gained while part of a young volunteer crew in the Tall Ship Race when he was in his mid-teens.

Young people are again applying in their hundreds for the opportunity of a lifetime to be part of the 2015 race which will leave from Belfast.

For Kevin it proved life-changing and gave him the confidence and courage he needed to spread his wings and experience life in another part of the world.

"I always hoped to move out of Belfast and the Tall Ships made me realise that I wanted to travel," he says.

"I still think Belfast is a great city but with the world being as big as it is I thought that I would try and see at least some of it.

"Through Tall Ships I had the opportunity to experience different cultures and different cities that I had never been to or probably would have never thought of visiting.

"America was always on my bucket list to at the very least visit and with some hard work and luck I have ended up living here. I don't think I would ever have made the move without the experience of Tall Ships, though."

The Tall Ships is one of the world's most spectacular maritime races and there are 80 places up for grabs for young people wanting to take advantage of what is widely regarded as the opportunity of a lifetime next year.

Belfast City Council recently hosted an open evening for those interested in becoming trainee crew members for the 2015 races - one of the biggest events to come to the city.

Those selected will play a pivotal role on board the ship on the first leg of the race as it sails on an 11-day voyage from Belfast to Alesund, in Norway.

More than 300 people have already registered their interest for one of 80 places on the programme which remains open for application until today.

The Tall Ships Races 2015 will be the third time that Belfast has hosted the races, having also welcomed the spectacular flotilla in 1991 and 2009.

The event next year is expected to attract 500,000 people, with another 500,000 seeing the arrival and departure of the vessels along the Northern Ireland and Irish coasts.

Lidl Northern Ireland, who are host port sponsors of the Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival, which will officially welcome the ships to the city, will also subsidise eight lucky staff members to take part.

For those who are considering this unique opportunity Kevin believes that he is proof of just how life-transforming an experience it is.

Currently working for the largest soccer coaching company in the United States, his job has taken him across a large part of the country and offered him experiences he says he would never have considered had he not taken part in the race.

"I was lucky enough to participate in a total of three Tall Ship races over a two-year period in 2005-2007 and was also as a volunteer for the Ocean Youth Trust.

"As I think back to my first experience as a 15-year-old kid from the Cliftonville Road in north Belfast - where at that time sectarianism, violence and bombings were a normal part of everyday life - I was blind to the fact that I was about to embark on an experience that would change my life."

It all started for Kevin when, along with four friends, he was asked to take part in a cross-community programme in the Hammer Community Centre in the Shankill area.

As a Catholic brought up in a staunch area he had never known what it was like to meet or make friends with people from "the other side", and the Shankill Road in particular appeared to him as formidable as a no man's land.

"It is still hard to explain to people what it was like growing up in Belfast," he says. "You felt you couldn't walk in certain places as you were afraid people would find out your religion and you would be in trouble. When I took part in the cross-community project I was about 15. Meeting Protestants made me realise they are the same as us and we were all trying to do the same things.

"You couldn't escape the Troubles. When you put the news on every night there was always someone who had been shot or a bomb going off and I knew pretty early that I didn't want to stay."

The Shankill project lasted six weeks and saw young people from both sides of the divide meet twice a week to go over team-building exercises facilitated by programme director John Nelson.

At the end of the six weeks the group was taken on a three-day sail around the north coast of Ireland on the Lord Rank to test how far they had come. On that voyage we were tested on how we could work as a team and it put the 12 of us in an environment where supporting and helping each other would be the only way that the voyage could succeed," he says.

"On the crew we had people from Norway, Scotland, Holland, France and England. We made great friends and the trip was a success and at the end of it I was told by John that I would be representing north Belfast and sailing in the 2005 Tall Ships Race."

In total, Kevin ended up taking part in three Tall Ship races over the next few years, visiting a number of cities and countries for the first time including Dublin, Cherbourg and St Malo in France, Newcastle in England, Lisbon in Portugal and Fredrikstad in Norway.

"I never really took an interest in sailing before the Tall Ships but after the first voyage I wanted to get involved more and this led to me taking part in two more voyages, one of these on the Swan Van Makkum and the other on Lord Rank.

"Teamwork and team-building was a huge part of what we did on board. You are put on a 'watch' for four hours on and eight hours off and you are responsible during that time for the ship and what goes on. You are in a race so if the ship is changing course you quickly learn how to put the sails up and down when needed.

"I had no skills. I had never ever been on board a boat until the cross-community project and I didn't even know how to tie a knot but you have a Watch Leader who is very helpful and they tell you what you need to do to succeed. Once you do it once or twice you very quickly learn what is involved."

The end of the race is an unforgettable experience for the crew as they are welcomed into port by thousands of well-wishers and get to parade and fly the flag of their ship in what is a carnival-style atmosphere.

"Walking down there in front of thousands of people watching you fly your flag is amazing," says Kevin. "After the Tall Ships I had the confidence and the desire to leave Northern Ireland and experience a bit of the world. I learned valuable life lessons that I wasn't aware of at the time but which helped me gain the experience and tools to be successful in another country."

Kevin's parents Bridie, a civil servant, and Kevin, who works in the Community Development Office of Belfast City Council, were a huge support in helping him make the move to America.

He also has a brother, Mark (30), who is a DJ in New Zealand, an older sister, Karen (32), who is head of drama in a school in Manchester, and a younger sister, Orlaith (21), who is at university in Sunderland.

Kevin attended Edmund Rice College in Glengormley and then went on to study sports coaching at Southampton Solent University from which he graduated in 2010, moving to America in 2011.

While at university he applied to work during the summer months for Challenger Sports who are a British-based company and the largest soccer coaching company in America.

He spent 10 weeks in California, travelling the length of the West Coast and coaching summer soccer camps for American kids.

Upon graduation, he secured a full-time post with the company and moved to New England, where he worked as a director of coaching at Harvard Soccer Club.

In 2012 he became a regional director for Challenger Teamwear, providing soccer uniforms to clubs in New England.

The following year he moved with his job to the midwest region, covering Indiana and Michigan, and is now based in downtown Chicago.

"The lifestyle can be long hours and long drives, but it's all worth it when you get to drive past the Chicago skyline every day," he says.

"I'm pretty lucky. I've worked on the West Coast and the East Coast and now I live in the midwest.

"I haven't been to the south yet but that's on my to-do list. I enjoy what I do and I play for the local gaelic football club out here with a bunch of other Irish guys.

"I go home once a year, usually at Christmas. I enjoy living in Chicago, it is a great city where there is always something going on. Although the winter months are tough because of the cold, the other seasons are awesome.

"Being in this job has lead me to travel this year to the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, Las Vegas, the Dominican Republic and Cancun in Mexico.

"I sometimes have to pinch myself to think how lucky I am to experience these great opportunities. I am very thankful to the people I have met in America that have taken me in like one of their family.

"I couldn't have done any of it without the support of my parents or the experience of the Tall Ships.

"I would urge young people to go for it and grasp it with both hands as it gives you life skills you need to succeed and it is a life-changing experience."

Sign up for an amazing experience

  • There are 80 volunteer places up for grabs for young people in what will be an exciting experience aboard the Tall Ships next July
  • There will also be opportunities to self fund the trip for those who are not selected
  • No previous sailing experience is necessary as full training is provided but applicants must be available for a total of two weeks which will include three separate training sessions this month, and in January and spring of next year
  • The closing date for applications to become a trainee crew member is today, with the selection process taking place from November 24-28
  • For details on how to apply, visit

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