Valuable life lessons while sailing Ireland’s coast
A good team of people will overcome any adversity, including a lack of toilet paper
Elizabeth Birdthistle off the Skelligs with Clement Pelissier, Dr Rupert Barry and David Garforth. Photograph: Jacques Diedericks
Pacing the pier in Wicklow harbour I cursed the overprescribed adage of suits declaring “feel the fear and do it anyway”, so often bandied about at comfortable office seminars.
There were only two options ahead; circumnavigate Ireland as fast as we could, arriving back a week later to celebrate, or else end up in a life raft bobbing around at the mercy of the ocean’s vagaries.
Why had I made this impulsive decision to improve the skillset of my newly acquired taste for sailing, choosing to race around Ireland, non-stop for over six days in a 36ft craft shared with eight others, living in 25sqm without washing, and only ever getting a maximum of 2½ hours’ sleep at a time?
The alternative could have been to sail at leisure in jade green waters, free diving for sea urchins for lunch and overnighting in interesting ports.
Memories of a compulsive offshore survival course came back to haunt my rash decision. Dangers of urine retention whereby modesty of urinating in a life raft can lead to death, we were warned to “ignore [British Adventurer] Bear Grylls, and never under any circumstances drink your own urine” – ours would be toxic.
Added to this were the entire psychological effects a sailing disaster can have on a crew, where cognitive paralysis reduces one’s mental ability to that of a small child.
When the instruction to be at Dún Laoghaire Marina a few months prior to have my fingerprints taken, I assumed it was for identification purposes in case my body was hauled out of the Atlantic. It wasn’t, it was merely to allow access to our boat Desert Star for training sessions.
This sums up my naivety to a tee. I had lots of experience aboard motor boats but this was a different kettle of fish entirely.
Packing was simple as there was no luggage allowed, one stepped on board wearing boots and four layers of gear. The only extras permitted were a toothbrush and change of underwear stowed in one’s pocket. We would share a tube of toothpaste and sun cream. Cigarettes went in as medication, as the crew who had met only six weeks prior to the race did not need a sailing rookie on nicotine withdrawal.
Muddled amid angst and anticipation I hopped on board and joined the crew; Irish dermatologist Dr Rupert Barry, English marine biologist David Garforth, Irish baker Brendan Coughlan, South African restauranteur Jacques Diedericks, Irish scientist Louise Gray, French first mate Clement Pelissier and Irish skipper Ronan O’Siochru.
We set off from the start line in Wicklow, as the sun beamed over the anxious crews on the 64 boats below.
Within minutes we were overtaken by big shots from the US and Middle East. Like marine Ferraris they fled past us. These boyos on their multi-million dollar crafts had decided this race was a contender for world sailing domination, and were happily ensconced in hotels four days before most boats reached the finish line.
A day later as we passed the Fastnet Rock the weather changed and a ubiquitous silence fell.
Known as Ireland’s Teardrop, as it was the last part of the country seen by emigrants in the 19th century, five metre swells spewed our boat Desert Star all over the seas, and within hours she bore the moniker Desert Storm.
Like an airborne virus, the swells turned the crew’s pallor to insipid green. Sea sickness struck and for 48 hours buckets of vomit were silently passed up from the cabin below. At this stage, a third of the boats in our class retired as crews were so ill.
We had a three-hour watch system for two crews of four, whereby respite from deluges on deck came in the form of sleeping bags. Known as hot bunks as bags are warm from the previous occupier, on one occasion the bag which I longed to occupy reeked of the regurgitated contents of a fellow crew member’s stomach.
Having the constitution of a horse, thankfully and ironically as I was the rookie, I never felt unwell, but other crew members were fortunate to have Dr Rupert Barry on board who monitored water intake and doled out medication.
We shared two cabins between eight, as the third (forward) cabin was a wet room in an attempt to dry our outer layers. More akin to the size of an Ikea wardrobe laid flat, trying to get into a dry bunk with wet floors was like attempting to enter a washing machine on a spin cycle, as the ocean threw the craft, angled at 45 degrees all over the place. But sleep on turbulent seas is the best I have ever known.
After the Skellig Islands, we saw little of the western seaboard as we were 30 miles offshore. At this stage the gods were on our side and a gentle breeze ushered us up the west coast allowing us to tuck in to the lockers laden with food. No dried nonsense here our skipper O’Siochru assured us; his crew must eat well.
Fortuitously we had a baker and restauranteur on board. Brendan Coughlan arrived for the race armed with 150 Danish pastries and a multitude of healthy brown rolls. I can safely say, despite their delectable flavour, it will be a while before we all eat pastries again.
Whatever alchemy restauranteur Jacques Diedericks applied to carrots at midnight off the Mayo coast remains a mystery, but even in plastic bowls devoured via plastic spoons, they remain a fond culinary memory.
Everything on board was rationed, including water to 1.5 litres per person per day – for drinking, cooking and washing teeth.
After waking at 3am off Rathlin Island, I noticed our boat was at the same point when I had gone off watch three hours previously. We hadn’t moved, the lack of wind and ebbing tide meant we had, in fact, travelled backwards.
Noticing after a trip to the Lilliputian loo, the stock of toilet paper amounted to half a roll, I stuck my head up to the cockpit announcing the dilemma. In best case scenario we had three days to go with half a roll to share between eight people.
Moonlit night watches floating on charcoal satin seas lend themselves to intense personal dialogue.
Perhaps it’s the distance from life’s stresses, where Pandora’s containers are left securely on shore, and focus is on survival that barriers are down. I have never laughed so much in my life and yet have never been so disciplined.
After six days, exhausted, filthy and teary eyed, I, at the helm, had the honour of taking Desert Star over the finish line, where we celebrated.
Arriving washed and rested into Dún Laoghaire harbour the following morning, a man held the marina gate open for me. Kindly assisting me to my car with my load of filthy sailing accoutrements, he remarked on my jacket, the proud memento bearing my name and race details.
After confirming my participation in the race he proffered his business card inviting me to join his Saturday race crew. Feeling like the great pretender, but knowing my jibs from gybes, I chuckled the whole way home.
Besides improving my sailing skills, this race gave me some valuable life lessons. A hot meal, dry clothing and a warm bed are really our only requirements in life, and a week without a mobile phone is actually a blessing. Being surrounded by a good team of people will overcome any adversity, and toilet paper is really one of life’s simple luxuries.
Next on the bucket list is the ARC, the Atlantic crossing which takes place in November. Any takers?
Volvo Round Ireland Race
Yacht racing dates back to the 1800s when the demand for tea in the UK was such that the first vessels to return from Shanghai could demand a huge premium. Along with tea, the second cargo on these vessels was opium; 1860 saw 280,000 lbs of the drug imported to Britain.
Established 38 years ago by Wicklow Sailing Club, the Volvo Round Ireland Race runs every second year alternating with the Fastnet Race.
The course is technically 704 miles, we covered 768 miles. Rules are: with just the use of sail, keep all landmarks except Rockall to starboard and circumnavigate Ireland as fast as possible.
The 2016 overall winner, in just over 51 hours, was Rambler 88 owned by American billionaire George David. We finished seventh in our class in just over six days.
Talking with experienced sailors with many ocean races under their belts, they consider this race to be more arduous than most other international races, including the Fastnet, Sydney to Hobart, the Caribbean 600 and transatlantic races due to tidal variations, constant course changing and weather.
Australian Matt Fahey has flown to Ireland for the last three races: “the challenge is the mixture of heavy and light weather plus Atlantic conditions, it’s tougher than Sydney to Hobart Race; it’s also a day longer at sea.”
Entries are now open for this year’s race which starts on June 30th. See Roundireland.ie