Enda Ó Coineen Q&A: ‘It’s the toughest sporting event in the world’

Enda Ó Coineen is an adventurer taking on the world’s hardest race. The 60-year-old businessman will attempt to become the first Irishman to sail around the world solo, without assistance or stopping, on his boat, the Kilcullen Voyager.

Enda Ó Coineen Q&A: ‘It’s the toughest sporting event in the world’

The Vendée Globe Challenge, founded in 1989, is one of the great tests of human endeavour. Starting on November 6th in Les Sables d’Olonne on France’s Atlantic seaboard, 29 skippers will attempt to sail around the world before returning to the starting point by next February. They will sail from west to east around continents and icebergs on the 29,000-nautical-mile (53,700km) route.

Q: Did you enjoy your ‘bon voyage’ event?

A: We had a big buzz with schoolkids in particular. We had about 130 of them all asking some extraordinary oddball questions, especially good questions relating to the event. So it’s quite exciting now.

Q: What was your favourite oddball question?

A: ‘Are you afraid?’ (Laughs) The answer is yes, totally. I think it’s good to be afraid. It’s healthy so you’re on high alert and I’ve been preparing a lot for the event.

The other one they asked me was my big secret to good navigation, so I kept them in suspense and eventually I told them my secret was to steer around the rocks!

It’s 26,000 miles of ocean so we literally steer around the planet. We leave France and we go 1,500 miles south to Cape Town.

The shortest distance between Cape Town and Cape Horn is through the South Pole, so we’re literally going around the ice and back up.

Q: When and how did this idea come about?

A: It’s the culmination of a lifetime of adventure and it’s been on my bucket list – or, as I call it, my f**k it list.

The final decision to go came last March but my first big momentum came at a New Year’s party at 1am on January 1st, 2015. If you think about things too much, you’ll never do it, so I called the owner of the boat at 1 in the morning.

I’d been negotiating its purchase and I just agreed the price on the phone. I was a little in awe. These boats are very demanding, very complex and very challenging to sail, and though I was a gifted amateur sailor all my life, this is a different type of sailing.

This is the Formula 1 of the ocean, except it’s friendly to the environment and it’s clean.

Q: Tell me about your history of crossing the Atlantic…

A: I crossed the Atlantic first time when I was 21. I had been working in a life-raft factory, so I developed the concept of a sailing life-raft.

I’m a bit west of Ireland and somebody bet me I wouldn’t do it, so I did it. I came back from America to Ireland in a 15-and-a-half-foot inflatable dinghy. I’m the first, and probably the last, person ever to do that. (Laughs)

Q: How do you put in context the difficulty of the Vendée Globe Challenge?

A: They say it’s the toughest sporting event in the world. What other sport are you deprived of sleep, or has the physical demands, or time demands? There’s more people who have climbed Mount Everest than have completed this event.

There’s more people who’ve been in space than have completed this event. It’s been run every four years for the last 27 years and there’s only 70 people who’ve ever completed the course.

Q: That’s quite a risk, when about half the competitors drop out…

A: I do think about the risk. I’ve gone to every extreme in preparation but there’s certain things you can’t prepare for like walloping into a whale who’s asleep, or you hit an iceberg or something like that.

We get satellite photos of the icebergs but they only pick up ones that are 100 metres long, so ones smaller than that can be a bit of a risk – the growlers.

Q: Are you in it to win it or in it to complete it?

A: I’m in a race and I shouldn’t admit it, but I don’t really care about the race. I care about the personal journey.

I care about the youth programme we launched, which is connecting young people to the ocean and adventure. And we’ve a project to build a new youth development vessel in Ireland, so we’ll be raising money for that.

What I care about is trying to get around the world safely. My big challenge will be to quell the competitive instinct.

Q: Mentally and physically, how well prepared do you have to be to travel solo, non-stop for roughly three months?

A: You’ve got to handle the physical part, but the psychological part is the toughest. Still, you could be more alone in the middle of Patrick Street in Cork than you will be in the middle of the Atlantic.

You’re isolated, but not necessarily alone. Loneliness is an unusual thing.

Q: And how does sleep fit into all this?

A: When you’re in shipping lanes or bad weather, you’ll have an alarm so you wake up every 20 minutes. Your body will adjust to the patterns.

But when you’re away from the lanes and in calmer weather you can sleep a few hours at a time. So it really depends on where you are.

Q: Have you planned how to pass the time on board?

A: You’re never short of things to do. You’re very busy. It’s 24/7. It’s work – sleep – work.

I’ve also brought a trumpet – I’m learning to play and nobody can hear you out there. I write poetry and I do some music too.

Q: Your boat must be an incredible vessel to take on this?

A: She’s built like the hull of an airplane. She’s Kevlar, carbon, very light and quite strong. She’s very environmentally friendly, energy neutral and each hydro-generator does 40 amps.

She’s got desalination plants, which make fresh water out of salt water. She’s got three satellite systems and 10 water-ballast tanks, five either side.

She’s nine tons, but the keel is four-and-a-half tons. She’s self-righting. This boat is 20% faster than the Volvo Ocean Race boats.

Q: How much investment goes into a boat like that?

A: There are about 10 boats that have a very significant budget and mine is about 20% of that. I’ve brought in Bioline, a French agricultural company, and sponsors to off-lay some of the costs.

I’m competitive and the objective is to get around, while linking in with the schools’ programme that we launched. With the kids’ questions, the interest is phenomenal.

We want to reach out to every primary school in the country and there’ll be a lot of online content for every teacher and headmaster to download.

Q: When is the expected finish?

A: I’m provisioned for 120 days, but I’m hoping to do it in 100.

More in this section

Sport Newsletter

Latest news from the world of sport, along with the best in opinion from our outstanding team of sports writers

Sign up