Taking on the world
By Ewan MacKenna
Or more specifically, his land.
Next weekend, for the first time in over a year, Justin Slattery will walk on Irish soil. He’ll step off his ship ‘Azzam’ as the 2011-12 Volvo Ocean Race finishes up in Galway and then, unlike during the race itself, he knows exactly what to expect. After all, this is his fifth time to circumnavigate the globe. The crisp taste of fresh food won’t wear off for a couple of days, washing away the chalky, powdery staleness of the freeze-dried meals he’s been eating since the race set sail from Alicante last October.
There’ll be welcomes and congratulations and hugs from family and friends and drinks offered all round. And then there’ll be that silence that he still struggles to deal with.
“It’s a huge anticlimax once it’s over. You’ve been flat out for over a year including the four months training in Abu Dhabi in the build up, and all of a sudden the breaks come on and next thing you find yourself sitting at home wondering what just happened there. It’s a really strange experience.”
From the comfortable surrounds of the outside, where all you see of Slattery and his life is the occasional highlights show you flicked onto by accident, it’s not as strange as wanting to hang onto your sea legs a little longer. Because, for every school of dolphins playfully racing them, for every basking shark and giant turtle and albatross in the Southern Ocean, there’s usually been a blanket of pain and hardship to suffocate all that vibrant joy.
Then again, you have to be a bit strange to do what Slattery does. As a bow man, he has what’s perceived to be the toughest job in the toughest race out there and still he wants more.
“The role entails setting up all the manoeuvres,” he explains.
“So every time there’s a sail change, I’m at the front end of the boat and I’ll be the one clipping up the new sail and sorting everything out and making sure it goes smoothly. To give you an idea, every sail we put in the air can be worth €40-50,000 so you don’t want to get it wrong. Some of the manoeuvres can be quite complicated and tricky, especially in the conditions we are sailing in with water gushing over the deck.
“Even keeping yourself in position is hard enough, let alone handling sails and everything else. And we are lifting very heavy weights. With 10 sails on board, each can be in excess of 120 kilos a piece when they are wet. And when you are tacking and manoeuvring, you can be moving two tonnes of gear at any one time.”
Slattery has lost a lot of his accent to a wash of foreign tones collected from those he’s sailed with and ports he’s slept in. At one stage he even says he’s from “Cork, that’s in Ireland” and you get an insight into how small the world is for some people.
All that makes Slattery like the fascinating neighbour you never knew anything about because he’s had one of the more interesting and successful careers amongst Irish athletes and is regarded as one of the very best in the world at his job. Indeed, since at age 16 climbing on board a ‘Mirror’ dinghy — named after the tabloid newspaper because of it’s affordable working-class origins — his life is a list of achievements as startling as they have been gruelling as they have been largely unnoticed in these parts.
Just for starters, he held the trans-Atlantic record by the time he was 23 and then was on board in 2004 as Steve Fossett skippered the 125-foot catamaran ‘Cheyenne’ around the world in 56 days. As a result, for a while at least, he was part of one of the most prestigious records there is in sailing.
“I was quite a late starter but once I began sailing, I never stopped. I’ve been sailing practically every day of my life since.
“I travelled abroad once I finished a two-year course in Cork, basically getting to know bigger boats and working my way from one job to the next until I became a professional. So to go from that to a circumnavigation record was special. And Fossett, he didn’t have the most sailing experience but he handled himself very well. It’s not very often you meet such a determined character.”
He says that like a man that’s never stared at himself in the mirror and asked himself a searching question. He may not realise it but he is that determined character. Before the start of this year’s race, The National newspaper in the UAE ran a feature that began with the following. “As an antithesis of laziness, we find the 37-year-old Irishman Justin Slattery, a human being so unafraid of work that even elite sailors marvel. That is rare praise, given the tireless nature of their ilk.”
He’s also the only Irishman to have won the round the world race when onboard Dutch entry ABN Amro in 2005/06 although he looks set to be joined on that pedestal by Kerryman Damian Foxall in Galway. But if that race was one he’ll never forget, this year has provided many memories he’ll try to take a damp cloth to and wipe away for good.
“We’ve had a really tough time on Team Abu Dhabi,” he says.
“We started brilliantly and won the first in-port race in Alicante. Then we had a bit of a disaster, we lost our rig, our mast fell down on the first night of the first leg which put us out of contention for that leg. We had a pretty tough time with boat speed so we’ve been struggling a little bit. But we’ve won enough in-port races to be top of that table and we won the transatlantic leg from Miami to Lisbon and that’s probably been the highlight of it all.
“But we’ve had our fair share of frustrations. If you are not doing well in this race, it’s incredibly tough to keep your morale high. You still are going out there and competing as hard as anyone and if you are not pulling in results, it’s all without reward.”
Certain aspects make it even harder. There’s the mental nature of the race and when in rough seas, he’ll sometimes think of his four-year-old daughter who travels the world with the Volvo school.
“She’s already been to 15 or 16 countries, her passport is quite funny to see. But she’s loving it. She’s at school with Swedish kids, French kids, you name it, there’s quite an international feel between of all the crews. And then during stopovers, they actually go to school with local kids in the cities we are in.”
Then there are the physical pressures too, lurking around every narrow corner of the boat but that’s just part of life on board. The 10-man crew is split into watches, with four-man teams taking four-hours at a time while the skipper and navigator work their own programme. It’s during that time off he fits in eating, sleeping and whatever little relaxing is to be done.
“The four hours on is pretty full on, just four guys pushing a Volvo 70 as hard as it can be pushed. Then you have your down time. Invariably, if you are getting four or five hours sleep a day, then you are doing well. You can go periods of up to two or three days with very little sleep. Or none at all depending on conditions. There are some periods when you just can’t sleep. You’re in your bunk and you’ve got the deck or someone else six or seven inches above your head. We are all stacked up on either side and very often the motion is so extreme and violent, you develop a cat grip just to stay in your bunk, never mind get any sleep. It can be very tough, in terms of fatigue.”
On this race, there have been plenty of those times. After they left Alicante for the 6,500-nautical mile leg one to Cape Town, they sailed straight into a storm and sustained damage that crippled them.
Within 24 hours of leaving Miami for Lisbon, they were in a tropical storm off the coast of the United States and it took two-and-a-half days to clear the system. The night they left Auckland for Itajaí in Brazil, on the longest leg of the race at 6,705 nautical miles, Slattery still remembers hearing the wind reports on the radio.
“You know you’re going to get no sleep and you know you are going to get punished. The radio just said ‘50 knots, gusting 65’ and there’s nothing you can do. You’ve to get on with it.
“I think I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t frightened at any stage. We tend to get everything in this race from dealing with tropical cyclones to sailing in notorious parts of the world like the Southern Ocean where there are massive waves and you can be further from land than a satellite. You are very much isolated and at best you’ll have one of your opposition come and get you if something goes wrong. You are running on adrenaline as you drive these machines as fast as they can go for 24 hours on end for up to three weeks at a time.
“You are constantly under pressure and not just from a competitive point of you, just the conditions. There are tonnes and tonnes of water coming over the deck at any one time and we are all clipped on to what we call jacklines. The idea is they’d keep us from getting washed off. Thankfully that’s never happened to me because I think if I were, I wouldn’t be here speaking to you.
“There’s very little chance of recovery, given the conditions and the speed of the boat. And with all that, you have to have a lot of trust in the crew. It takes a while to gain confidence in what they are doing while you are trying to sleep. Really the people we are racing with at this level are very professional but you do lie awake in your bunk at times wondering what the hell is going on. It can feel a lot worse down below than it does when you are up and in charge of things.”
Given all that, it’s strange to ask about the most worrying moment as if there’s been more than the odd day of low wind where the heartbeat has slowed. But there was one day that was more extreme than any other.
Skipper Ian Walker detailed their Southern Ocean experience in his log.
“It’s amazing how quickly your priorities can change from racing to survival. One minute we were riding the back of a front making 500 miles a day towards Cape Horn, the next we were genuinely concerned for our own safety as we sat with a damaged hull in freezing conditions 1,700 miles from the nearest landfall. When the drama started, I was on deck facing 35 knots of wind in the pitch black. Despite having little sail area we had still picked up some huge waves and were hitting speeds of over 30 knots. Suddenly the call came from below to slow as they heard some ‘worrying noises’.
“On further investigation we confirmed the crunching sounds were coming from sheared core material in the hull’s port side. This in itself was not a problem but more bad waves could rapidly propagate the damage and worse still the outer and inner skins could be breached. By lunchtime we were ready to tip ‘Azzam’ on its side and send Justin over on a halyard in a survival suit and harness to push 32 bolts through the holes as they were drilled from the inside. I could never have imagined drilling 32x10mm holes through the bottom of our boat when 1,700 miles from land with no possibility of rescue.”
You mention this to Slattery and his response is typically professional.
“I was over the side in 30 knots of wind, the water was freezing,” he says, in a tone that could be used to describe changing a tyre.
“It’s not really something you want to be doing but nevertheless we affected repairs which allowed us to sail the boat on to Chile where we could fix the boat properly.”
Considering the hardship, you ask him why he does it and he says there’s so much excitement. He gets to see the world and with the route of the race constantly changing, this time around he’s been to Sanya in China and the Maldives for the first time.
There’s the speed junkie in him too and he reckons there’s no a sailor in the race that would prefer a calm day to rough seas.
“There are other things too. I put it down as the top level of sailing you can do and it’s why everyone in this race keeps coming back. But there are little things that you keep with you too. In all the sailing I’ve done, I’ve seen more whales between the Azores and the coast of Ireland than anywhere else. It’s always spectacular to see a mammal like that and you are taken by it, no matter how often you see them.
“Also we headed for Galway the last time, there was bonfires lighting on the Aran Islands and that was a great surprise. As was the crowd when we got there. So it’s exciting and I would love to be the first Irishman back there this time.”
And then there’s his family, too, who he’s seen flitting by in obscure cities here and there on his journey.
The silence will come and he’ll deal with that in a few weeks, but first there’ll be the food and friends and noise as he steps back onto his land.
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