‘Bittersweet’ moment for Irish sailor as 73-year-old Breton wins Golden Globe race

Jean-Luc Van den Heede finishes around-the-world race ahead of major storm

A historic victory for French sailor Jean-Luc Van Den Heede in the Golden Globe around-the-world race proved to be a bittersweet moment for former Irish competitor Gregor McGuckin.

The 73-year old veteran Breton sailor crossed the finishing line on Tuesday, ahead of a major storm in the Bay of Biscay, to win on the 50th anniversary of the original race that is widely regarded as the original round-the-world competition.

The 2018 Golden Globe seeks to recreate the original event by limiting competitors to old technologies, banning the use of electronic navigation aids and satellite communications except in the event of emergency and utilising similar-sized boats.

In winning the race, Van Den Heede shaved 100 days off the original race record set by Robin Knox Johnston who was on hand at Les Sables d'Olonnes, in western France, to welcome the winning boat home.


Formerly a maths teacher from Lorient in Brittany, Van Den Heede turned pro in 1989 and competed in numerous high-profile short-handed and solo ocean racing events with distinction.

He was one of 18 boats that started the 29,000 nautical-mile course on July 1st last year, including McGuckin who had hoped to be the first Irish sailor to complete a solo round-the-world race.

However, the 32-year-old Irish sailor was dismasted in the South Indian Ocean on September 24th during an intense storm that capsized his 36-foot boat Hanley Energy Endurance while he was in third place overall.

He was subsequently rescued and obliged to abandon his boat.

Twelve other entries were forced out of competition or abandoned for rescue.

Had McGuckin been able to continue intact, on the basis of the race to that point, he might well have secured a podium place at the finish if not actually threaten the overall leader for the win.

Currently in second place, Dutch sailor Mark Slats is expected to finish by the weekend although he had decreased Van Den Heede's lead to less than 100 nautical miles. McGuckin was close to Slats when he was dismasted.

Rig damage

However, Van Den Heede had already established a huge lead on the water before rig damage obliged him to be more risk-averse and slower in the closing stages of the race.

“It was bittersweet,” McGuckin said. “I’d probably have been a week or so behind. I’d given myself a 50/50 chance of finishing based on Vendee Globe race odds but I guess it was much worse than that in the end.”

Since his rescue just over four months ago, McGuckin initially worked on delivering boats before returning to Ireland to split his time between carpentry and working as a brand ambassador for Hanley Energy.

While he has no plans to enter another round-the-world race at this time, he still hopes to recover his boat that is adrift but secure 1,000 nautical miles from land.

“The tracker is still working and the batteries on board are fully charged thanks to the solar panels,” he said. “The boat was rigged to scuttle but his rescuers ordered him not to as the region is a conservation zone.

Once the season begins again, McGuckin plans to begin sailing again and will also attend the Golden Globe race prize-giving in April.

David Branigan

David Branigan

David Branigan is a contributor on sailing to The Irish Times