Mulloy on a high at the pinnacle of endurance offshore racing
Sailor has little time for gender issues as she races single-handedly for days at a time
Joan Mulloy’s 2018 goal is to compete in the Solitaire du Figaro, a multi-stage race for about 40 boats every August
Truth be told, Joan Mulloy isn’t too bothered about the male-dominated world of professional sailing. That the status quo is changing ever so gradually is fine, but the sport offers plenty of alternatives where gender isn’t an issue.
For this 31-year-old Westport sailor that means the pinnacle of endurance offshore racing that places incredible demands – physical and mental – while racing single-handedly for days at a time.
With so much to organise, both in advance of competition and during it, there is little space for issues of gender politics – everyone just gets on with the job.
Nor is the intensity an issue, especially as sailing full-time offers her a way of continuing a love of the sea that started from early childhood in Co Mayo.
Competing in the single-handed circuit also means upping sticks to France, where a popular following exists for this most rugged form of sailing. It regularly attracts crowds numbered in the hundreds of thousands for major events.
Mulloy is now based in Lorient amongst the abandoned second World War submarine pens. It is a proven route dominated by French sailors but also notables such as Britain’s Ellen MacArthur and Kerryman Damian Foxall, probably Ireland’s most accomplished ocean-racing sailor.
Her 32ft Figaro 2 boat is located in a marina that is akin to a graduate school. There is her fleet, then the 40-footers all the way up to the 60-footers that are the regular round-the-world boats, and a couple of giant 100ft-plus boats dedicated to breaking distance records.
All are stripped out, and it is bare essentials only, even relying on freeze-dried food. The only creature comfort is the cushion at the navigation station in the cabin that might also double as a bunk. The daily – hourly – routine is work and rest.
“I did a lot of mountaineering when I was younger and friends said to me ‘you’re just into suffering’ but it was through mountaineering that I realised that you work hard all day towards some objective and then the reward is when you finish,” she told The Irish Times. “I love offshore sailing, being on your own in the boat with so much to think about, and you just make all the decisions all the time.”
So, what about the suffering, how is it managed?
“You have to plan for it. Lots of people hate sailing upwind [as its often bumpy and very uncomfortable] but I love it, and am quite fast so I don’t mind bashing off waves. I do get seasick but I wear a patch behind my ear so it’s okay, and also when sailing solo you often don’t have time to be sick.
“I know exactly the conditions that I’ll be seasick in, so it’s another thing to manage and plan for with about four lines of defence well in advance, so if one doesn’t work you go straight to the next one.”
So, is she secretly hoping to be Ireland’s Ellen MacArthur?
“I’d love to be! I learnt to sail when I was seven or eight [as did MacArthur] and my Dad worked on a mussel farm as did I later, and I was also an instructor at Mayo Sailing Club,”
Yet despite her indifference towards stereotypes and the other male preserves within the sport, Mulloy retains a pragmatic streak and her declared ambition is to become the first Irish woman to compete in the Vendee Globe, the single-handed, non-stop race around the world that starts and finishes from Les Sables d’Olonne in western France every four years.
Stripes to earn
The only previous Irish entry in this race was Enda O’Coineen 18 months ago who was dismasted halfway around and forced to abandon his attempt. He completed his circumnavigation last weekend on a different boat when he sailed solo from New Zealand to Les Sables.
But that 33,000 nautical-mile challenge is still a distance off for Mulloy: she has stripes to earn first.
“It’s all theoretical unless you have a sponsor,” she says. And recently she crossed that bridge by securing her main title-sponsor that has unlocked her ambition.
“While we still have some supporters to sign up, BIM has provided the vast majority of the budget, and our theme of “Taste of the Atlantic” is nice because it brings so many different groups in behind us. With my background I have a little weight to speak about it as I’m not just coming from the yachtie side or just coming from the farming side.”
Following the classic French system, Mulloy’s 2018 goal is to compete in the Solitaire du Figaro, a multi-stage race for about 40 boats, all sailed single-handed every August.
For much of this race’s 40-plus year history it almost always called to an Irish port, but poor local interest in the event compared to the massive following in France has seen Irish stopovers dropped.
That has not stopped Irish sailors from entering, and Mulloy is aiming to feature in the “rookie” division this year. Meath sailor Tom Dolan will also enter making for an unprecedented year for Irish short-handed sailing as several other single-handed efforts elsewhere are under way.
The “rookie” moniker is somewhat of a misnomer, and although not intended to disparage newcomers it belies the vast experience needed in advance of considering a solitaire campaign.
For Mulloy, growing up on the western seaboard led to many trips in those notoriously challenging waters.
Through NUI Galway, where she studied civil engineering, she sailed on Discover Ireland in the 2012 Round Ireland Race. In the build-up to that she completed a full circumnavigation of Ireland by racing in the Dún Laoghaire to Dingle Race.
She then competed in the 2013 Fastnet Race before returning to the Round Ireland start line, this time in David Ryan’s chartered Volvo 70-footer Monster Project. Skipper Andy Budgen was impressed, and offered a full-time job on board so she went on to clock up several thousand sea miles plus a couple of transatlantic races and passages.
She has not encountered any misogynist in sailing, but knows people who have.
“Maybe I just haven’t spent enough time in the professional end of the sport. Or maybe I’ve just been lucky that my friends that I’ve grown up sailing with have never batted an eyelid and just let me get on with it. The teams I was selected for did so because of my ability, and [gender] didn’t come into it.”
Whether bias is an issue in sailing won’t be relevant for her over the coming years – being a crew of one takes care of that issue.
“It’s strategic in a way to choose the solo route because your destiny is 100 per cent in your own hands: nobody has to select me for a team, it’s up to me to work hard to make myself successful, and that’s the only factor.”