Enda O’Coineen sails towards history in the Vendee Globe

Conor Clarke targets overall World Championships title with ‘Embarr’ in Miami Beach

Enda O’Coineen waves from the “Kilcullen Voyager” as he leaves to take part in the Vendee Globe solo around-the-world sailing race. Photograph: Jean-Sebastien/AFP/Getty Images

A first for Irish sailing was marked last Sunday at Les Sables d'Olonnes in France when Enda O'Coineen on Kilcullen Voyager started the Vendee Globe, the single-handed, non-stop, unassisted race around the planet.

The actual moment has yet to happen as completion of the course, in about three months’ time, will be the history-making achievement. On past performance, only half the fleet will succeed.

For the irrepressible O’Coineen, that’s enough of a goal. He is happy to leave winning the race to one of the new generation of foiling 60-footers, assuming they aren’t each beset by the almost inevitable technical problems that are beyond self-help thousands of miles from land.

While the Galway man pursues his dream in this rare arena – rare at least for Irish sailors – the notion of competing somewhere in sailing’s vast assortment of international classes is not so unusual for many small boat crews.


One example is Conor Clarke’s near-obsession with the Melges 24-footer, one of the original breeds of sportboats from the 1990s sailed with a crew of five and known for its planing ability downwind in medium conditions.

That obsession may culminate at the end of this month when his team on Embarr moves to Miami Beach for the World Championships. Their goal there of the overall title has been boosted by second place overall at the recent North American Championships.

Biggest threat

Reigning World and European champion

Chris Rast

is the biggest threat and though the


crew have beaten him before, the game will be to stay in contention among the top three all the way to the final day.

"The competition is unbelievable: the standard is so high with top sailors and pros on every boat," Clarke told The Irish Times. "You're racing against people and names that you read about in magazines all the time, both America's Cup and Olympic."

Inevitably, that means "jockeying up" his crew so Maurice "Prof" O'Connell (trimmer) is joined by Stu McNay (helm) and Dave Hughes (tactician) as the paid hands in addition to himself and Aoife "Bearla" English.

Although the class is 50 per cent dominated by American boats, Clarke reckons the best competition is on the European circuit where the Italians are the main force along with German, Hungarian and other eastern European countries so the Irish boat will be shipped over following the World Championships next month.

“It’s definitely an elite class and my budget definitely isn’t as big as many of the others,” says Clarke who estimates some teams spend several hundred thousand dollars per season on their campaigns. “We’re by far the lowest budget boat of the top ten crews.”

Club racing

After several years campaigning on the Irish-built 1720-Sportsboat, Clarke found the build, speed and weight of the smaller boat instantly appealing, despite the large fleets of the domestic boat around 2000-2002.

“It was the 1720 that killed the growth of the Melges in UK and Britain and if it wasn’t for it, the Melges would have done much better in Europe,” said Clarke who keeps his own 1720 in Lake Garda for racing and even cruising while still hoping one day to bring it back to Ireland for club racing and the national championships.

“If you’ve sailed a 1720, this [the Melges 24] is everything you wanted it to be. It’s much more thoroughbred; it will respond – even when you’re on the point of broaching – it will respond to the rudder. There’s a point on a 1720 when God takes over, when you’re broaching and you know it and you get a five-second warning but nothing you can do about it.”

For the expat Clarke, who is focusing on curing his addiction to the Melges class while based in Jamaica planning a new business venture, it means he has to contend with managing his team drawn from all corners of the world.

“Our biggest problem is that we don’t spend enough days sailing together each year,” he said. “We sail together about 20-25 days but to be really competitive, we’d need 40 days – we’d be guaranteed of winning it.”

David Branigan

David Branigan

David Branigan is a contributor on sailing to The Irish Times