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OutFoxing the Fleet

Ireland is running pretty short on heroes at the moment, with the economy in tatters and a cabal of wealthy conmen running for cover. Heroes are unlikely to be found in the Dáil, or the banks, or big business, and so we turn to sport.

On Saturday, one of Ireland’s marine heroes was recognised by his sporting community, but true to form, he was off doing battle with other men and Mother Nature, and could only connect via satellite.

Damian Foxall, currently mid-Pacific as watch leader on Ireland’s Green Dragon entry in the Volvo Ocean Race, was crowned Ireland’s Sailor of the Year, announced live on Tom MacSweeney’s Seascapes radio programme. Foxall, 39, was recognised as sailor of the month in February for his win in the Barcelona World Race, a non-stop round-the-world yacht race starting and ending in Barcelona. The Kerryman paired with French sailor Jean-Pierre Dick for the race, a 24,679 mile endurance test which they completed, unaided, in 92 days, 8 hours, 49 minutes and 49 seconds.

Foxall is the quintissential quiet man, appearing every now and then to meekly accept an accolade, before disappearing to silently do great things, the likes of which others only dream. He’s softly spoken, every word carrying authority, and larger in his presence than in his actual frame, which is surprisingly diminutive.

He started his offshore career with appearances in the famous Figaro race, the offshore sailing world’s sprint circuit, and progressed from there to bigger and better things, taking in a host of round-the-world races and speed record attempts. Offshore sailing, and solo sailing in particular, breeds a particular type of individual due to the stresses and strains it exerts. Racing a high-performance yacht over long distances is tough enough for a full team, but when you’re on your own sleep deprivation is heightened, and responsibility for all the navigation, the decision-making of the skipper and the brute force usually supplied by grinders rests on your own shoulders.

Foxall bears it with a simple shrug.

While not the skipper on board Ireland’s Green Dragon, Foxall is watch leader, and part of what sailors call the ‘afterguard’, the group of key decision-makers on the boat, akin to the generals in times of war. But unlike portly generals, you’ll see Foxall at the front line regularly. As someone who’s used to doing all the work himself, Foxall leads by example, and mucks in to the toughest work like an enthusiastic junior recruit.

I’ll not go on. I was lucky enough to sail with Foxall and the Green Dragon crew from Galway to Cork earlier in the year – the resulting article for the Sunday Business Post is here. Congratulations, Damian.

Markham is a freelance journalist and contributing editor with Afloat Magazine, Ireland’s Sailing and Motorboating Magazine.

Sunday Business Post, August 17, 2008

Preparing for a 39,000-mile yacht race is a matter of meticulous checking and rechecking before anyone even goes on the water. Lists are made and everything gets investigated two or three times. The boat, the rigging, the crew list and sail choices are all pored over for potential flaws. Everything is tested and retested.

It’s July 31 and Ireland’s Green Dragon ocean racing team are off the coast of Kerry testing their sails one by one. In October, they leave Spain for a sprint around the world by sea, crossing all of the world’s major oceans and stopping in ten ports, including Galway, on the way.

Having passed the Skelligs in thick drizzle, it becomes clear that someone has already screwed up the preparations. ‘‘Tofu? Who the hell thought tofu would be a good idea? Who eats tofu?’’ All the kinks get worked out during training, and the menu is no exception.

The voice is unmistakably Australian, and sure enough Tom Braidwood pokes his tanned head out from below decks, holding a silver bag of dehydrated tofu like it’s a nappy. The tofu discussion is indicative of what’s been a tetchy day off Ireland’s west coast, with little wind and barely a threat of sunshine.

A chorus of throaty males agree that tofu should be stricken from the shopping list, and that one of the female shore crew is responsible for this culinary faux pas. And then the bombshell hits. ‘‘Actually, I eat tofu.”

It’s Damian, standing at one of the twin helms, quietly dissenting, with a little grin on his face, and all eyes on him.

‘‘Yeah, but your missus buys it for you.”

‘‘Yeah, she does,” says Damian.

For anyone else on a boat, this would likely earn them a nickname for life, but few people would hold Damian Foxall over a barrel for a bit of bean curd.

If sailing were a sport that generated household names, Foxall, Green Dragon watch leader, would be feted like a Beckham or a Schumacher, and the paparazzi would stake out his home. Endorsement deals for sportswear would earn him the equivalent of the GDP of medium-sized island nations. He would be up there with Bono and Keano: Damo from Derrynane, a home-grown hero.

But despite sailing’s reputation as a sport for rich people, few make their fortunes in this sport. Despite being arguably Ireland’s best sailor, Foxall can walk the streets unnoticed, and today he is wearing a tattered old sailing jacket from a race he finished in 2002.

Few Irishmen have accomplished as much as he has offshore. He has circled the world seven times by sea and crossed the Atlantic 17 times.

Foxall hit the headlines three years ago on one of those crossings when his 70-foot trimaran capsized spectacularly in the Bay of Biscay, catapulting him into the water and breaking two of his ribs.

Last year, he was in the news for more positive reasons, winning the Barcelona World Race with Frenchman Jean-Pierre Dick. The pair raced their 60-foot monohull around the world non-stop against a fleet of other professional ocean-goers and romped home the clear winners.

So when it emerged that Ireland might mount a challenge for the Volvo Ocean Race, the world’s best-loved round-the-world yacht race, Foxall was a clear choice for the team administrators, despite his love of tofu.

When dinner is finally served, a grainy, peach-coloured slop vaguely resembling chicken tikka masala, Foxall pulls rank. Three of us are down below, bowls in hand, shovelling the hot goop into our mouths, when he calls for a sail change. There is no querying the request – it’s all hands on deck.

Dinner bowls are dropped in the tiny carbon fibre sink and everyone joins in hauling the A-sail from the stack of sails on one side of the boat up to the foredeck at the front.

‘‘Welcome to the Volvo Ocean Race,” says bowman Andrew ‘Animal’ McLean, a New Zealander. ‘‘Stacking sails around the world.”

After a day on board, you see what he means. A Volvo 70 race yacht carries 14 sails when it goes offshore, most of them so large that it takes at least three men to lift or move them in any way. While sailing, the unused sails are stored strapped to the deck, stacked securely along the outboard edge of the boat to help counterbalance it and keep it upright.

Each change of direction means everything gets hauled across the boat to the other side, several tonnes of gear moved by hand, sometimes as often as every 15 minutes.

Mostly the sails are dragged awkwardly around the deck in their bags as the boat lurches through the waves. The biggest among them is a marquee-sized piece of spinnaker cloth spanning 500 square metres, big enough to cover two tennis courts. The heaviest is the mainsail,175 square metres of laminated Kevlar, a durable, high-tech material used to make bulletproof vests. Thankfully, it stays aloft unless disaster strikes.

Shifting sails is back-breaking work, even in calm weather when the boat is steady underfoot, but becomes a dance with the devil in the conditions these men will hit in the South Pacific. In the rough stuff, top speeds peak at close to 75 kilometres an hour, and temperatures can be well below freezing. Green walls of ice-coldwater slam across the deck, and spray ricochets like machinegun fire off the hull.

The bow pitches violently over cliff-like waves and keeping your feet, even without a sail to shift, is a near impossibility. Imagine trying to stay balanced on the roof of a jeep while it off-roads in freezing rain, and you’re coming close to understanding.

Now imagine you’re carrying two full suitcases under one arm so that you can use the other to hold onto the roof rack. And if you fall off, you’re suddenly alone in the middle of an ocean, in water cold enough to kill you in three minutes.

It’s safe to say that this workplace is not governed by your average health and safety rules. The last race claimed the life of Hans Horrovoets, a Dutch sailor who was washed overboard to his death as the fleet neared Ireland. Horrovoets became the fifth person to die during the race since its inception. He wasn’t even at the bow; he was standing in the cockpit when a huge wave covered the deck. When it cleared, he was gone.

Fireman’s helmets hang below decks for the days when getting slammed into the hard carbon surface is a reality, or for rough days when someone has to climb the 29-metre carbon-fibre mast to check the rigging. The helmets have a full-face perspex shield to allow the bowmen to see even when the spray comes towards them like a gush from a fire-hose.

All bowmen also wear climbing harnesses around their waists, with tools clipped to them, ready to shimmy up a mast, pole or taut rope at a moment’s notice. There they hang calmly, dangling 50 to 100 feet over the surging sea to repair this or that, before skitting back to the deck.

Justin Slattery, another member of a trio of senior Irishmen on board, is one of a team of bowmen who inhabit the front of the boat, the thin end of the wedge. Along with Foxall, he’s as close to a household name as you get in offshore sailing terms and was on board the winning boat last time around as bowman.

That was his third circumnavigation in five years. Since then, he has helped to set several world records for offshore sailing. He survived the infamous Sydney-Hobart race in 1998, in which six sailors lost their lives in horrendous weather, and is a regular on high-performance superyachts around the world.

He and Foxall teamed up back in 2004, when they joined adventurer Steve Fossett in setting a new record for sailing non-stop around the world. Fossett’s adventures have since seen him disappear without a trace when his plane crashed in the Nevada desert last year.

In Playstation, a 125-foot catamaran, circled the globe in just 58 days, racing only the clock for what is known as the Jules Verne trophy, named after the author of Around the World in Eighty Days. This time, Slattery and Foxall will be racing six other crews in shorter, point-scoring legs, a format that has evolved considerably since the inaugural Whitbread Round the World Race in 1974.

Then the race stopped just three times, in Cape Town, Sydney and Rio, before heading back to Portsmouth. Until now, it has always featured the classic Southern Ocean legs around the bottom of the globe, from South Africa to Australia and/or New Zealand, across the fabled Roaring Forties, the latitudes between 40 and 50 degrees south, where storms rage around the world all winter, with no land masses to impede their growing ferocity.

However, the phrase ‘any port in a storm’ applies to the organisers now more than the sailors. The search for sponsorship has forced the Volvo Ocean Race to abandon its old haunts in pursuit of commercial partners, meaning this race misses out Australia and New Zealand for the first time in more than 30 years. Instead, it takes in Asia for the first time ever and pays a visit to Galway for the first Irish stopover.

The race starts in the Spanish city of Alicante on October 11 before heading south to Cape Town. From there, it turns left into the Indian Ocean, stopping at the port of Kochi, before sailing to Singapore and then Qingdao in China, the Olympic sailing venue. After that, it’s Rio, Boston, Galway, and then short sprint legs to Gothenburg, Stockholm and St Petersburg.

Each stopover turns into a week-long festival. Galway Bay will play host to an in-port race during the June 2009 stopover, where the seven Volvo Ocean Race 70s will dodge each other, and a spectator fleet, between Salthill and the Aran Islands.

Other on-the-water events will mark the two weeks the fleet are in Galway, with the boats moored in the dock in the town’s city centre, which will be converted into a regatta village, pumping €43million into the local economy.

A launch on the quays during Galway race week drew hundreds of spectators to watch as the Green Dragon crew were unveiled to the public for the first time, the docks teeming with stilt-walkers, race-goers and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who showed up to shake hands.

It’s a major coup for Ireland to host a leg stopover, and fielding a team in the race was one of the terms of the deal. Despite the prestige, the whole endeavour has proved difficult to fund. Tourism Ireland stepped in with the initial €8million to fund the stopover, and private donors have got the boat off the ground, but the team behind the stopover had to look east for partnership.

Another race port, Qingdao, stepped in as the white knight, with a consortium of Chinese property developers agreeing to foot the rest of the bill. Sailing is being pushed as a new sport for China’s burgeoning middle class, and the race will bring sailing to that massive new audience. All those Chinese eyes will be focused on the Green Dragon, who will add to their international crew the race’s only Chinese sailor.

Leaving China marks the start of the race’s longest ever leg. The leg from China to Riosends the fleet across the Pacific, around the legendary Cape Horn and up in to the Atlantic for the home stretch. It’s 12,300 nautical miles long, almost a third of the mileage of the entire race, double the longest leg last time around, and poses some unique challenges.

Getting some sleep will be the main one. Sailors operate in watches, usually four hours long. A 12,000-mile leg will mean sailing frantically for four hours and sleeping desperately for four hours, repeated in rotation for six weeks, which is a long time to be so sleep-deprived. Sleep on a Volvo Ocean Race yacht doesn’t always mean sleep as landlubbers know it.

Your four ‘off’ hours include time taken to eat, change out of wet clothes into a similarly wet sleeping bag and perform any other basic human acts of necessity like going to the loo or grabbing a perfunctory wash. Those precious four hours can be disturbed for any one of a number of reasons, too.

Just as the sails are stacked on the high side of the boat to help balance it, so too is everything below decks stacked on the high side. That includes gear, food, tools and people, so a sail change means shifting from your warm bunk to the corresponding cold bunk on the far side of the boat, and more than likely helping to shift all the other gear before putting your head down again. A tricky manoeuvre or ‘sail change’ might mean a rallying cry from the watch on deck, who need an extra pair of hands.

Sleep, when it comes, is on a hard perch of carbon fibre which transmits the shudder and slam of each wave directly to your spine. An adjustable mesh lip is provided to keep you from spilling sideways out of your bunk when the boat leans over. The crewmembers sleep feet forward so that if the boat slams into a wave and suddenly decelerates, they avoid being shot head-first, torpedo-like, from their bunk.

Conditions below deck are Spartan, cramped, humid and smelly. Twelve overworked, sweaty men and their damp sailing gear share the cabin and one solitary toilet towards the front of the boat. In the tropical latitudes, the hull becomes a floating sauna. Closer to the poles, she’s an ice-box. This is the habitat of the third senior Irishman on board, navigator Ian Moore.

Moore might spend the least time on deck out of the entire crew, but his input is crucial. As the navigator, he is tasked with routing the Green Dragon through weather systems, around or into storms depending on the day, and making the big tactical decisions that will either see the Dragons showered in glory or drowning their sorrows.

Moore’s strike rate is impressive. He won his first round-the-world race as a navigator on board a boat that set speed records almost daily. He has a string of significant wins to his credit and was instrumental in a Round Ireland win in 2004, guiding the smallest boat in the fleet to victory while navigating on deck for seven days straight.

In this race, while others sleep in bunks between watches, Moore will live the life of a harried workaholic executive, grabbing sleep in catnaps at his carbon fibre desk in the nav station, under the deck at the back of the boat. He will feed the sailors a constant stream of information from a bank of computers and sift through weather data for vital clues that determine the course to the podium.

How he will concentrate is anyone’s guess. As well as the smell and the constant, disconcerting movement, the din below decks is incredible. Ropes strain under loads that reach eight tonnes of pressure, and every slight adjustment to the sails sends noise like gunfire rattling around the cabin.

Footsteps, waves and wind, as well as the hum of the hull at high speeds, all add to the soundtrack. If the sailing wasn’t so exhausting, sleep would be utterly impossible.

It’s not just sleep that’s minimal – to save weight, everything is pared back to its lightest, most sparing and functional form.

There is no cutlery on board. For 12 men, there are six lightweight plastic ‘sporks’ with which to shovel food from bowl to mouth. Nearly all the food is freeze-dried, stored in foil space-bags, and the only cooking implements are two gas rings, on which sit two lightweight camping kettles, hung in a carbon-fibre workstation underneath the mast.

Three times a day, in time with watch changeovers, the kettles are boiled and 12 portions of freeze-dried meal powder are dumped into an igloo cooler, then rehydrated with the steaming contents of the kettles. The flavoured goo is stirred, left to sit, and eaten hungrily in shifts with the plastic sporks. Fresh water isn’t carried on board either and is made daily from seawater which is scooped up and desalinated by an on-board watermaker.

The only luxuries I can see on board are small bottles of tabasco and sweet chilli sauce, used to inject the goo with additional flavour when the rotation of powdered meals gets too much for morale to bear.

As we trundle slowly down the coast of Ireland, morale is high but the winds are low. Dolphins, or ‘jump-sharks’ as the crew call them, are everywhere. Slattery appears from below deck sporting a merino-wool vest given to him by a well-wisher at the Galway launch. He looks like a caveman and grins from ear to ear.

‘‘Whaddya think? I’m not sure.” It’s not a good look. We tuck into meal number two for the trip – rehydrated spaghetti bolognese – which is again interrupted by a change of direction and five minutes of work. Kernels of dry powder linger in the mix, having escaped rehydration, but the shredded beef jerky is surprisingly meaty.

When things calm down again, the veterans on board trade stories about bygone adventures. Braidwood, from the central coast of New South Wales, remembers spending an hour during the last Volvo Ocean Race with his boat lying on its side, sails flogging in a gale, having been flattened by the wind not long after the start.

He’s bitching that one of his crewmates claims to have slept through the whole ordeal while he was on deck trying to save the mast.

‘‘Nah, you can’t not hear something like that,’’ says Slattery. ‘‘He just rolled over and said: ‘I’m not dealing with that.”‘

Slattery, vest covered up, talks about overtaking hunting killer whales on board Playstation, their black-and-white backs visible through the mesh ‘trampoline’ between the hulls. Minutes later they overtook the hunted animal, a fin whale.

Foxall, meanwhile, is giving a running commentary on what he calls ‘‘God’s country’’, the Kerry coastline.

‘‘There is great lobster fishing in those caves,” he says, pointing inland to the shore he plied as a youngster. He points out the island where he’ll be holidaying with his wife and son for the bank holiday, and then turns to look at the Skelligs.

‘‘There’s a monastic dwelling on the top of the highest peak,” he says. ‘‘I got about halfway up and scared myself so bad I had to turn back.”

He’s either lying or doesn’t realise how ridiculous that sounds. He and his crew have seen waves as tall in the Southern Ocean and, over the next year, are likely to do so again. And there’ll be no turning back then, as they race hell-for-leather across the blue expanse. Around the world to Galway and beyond.

Ireland and round the world races
Ireland has long punched above its weight in global ocean racing, with representatives in every race since 1977.

Irish sailors have won on several occasions, with Noel Drennan and Ian Moore (a Green Dragon team member) on board the winning Illbruck entry in 2002, which was built by Corkman Killian Bushe. Justin Slattery (also on Green Dragon) was on board ABNAmro 1, which won the 2005/06 race.

Angela Heath (nee Farrell) was Ireland’s only woman on board Maiden, the first all-female entry in the race, in 1989, but the honour of first Irish woman to race around the world goes to Susan Kavanagh, who sailed the race in 1985/86.

The first Irish entry was in the 1989-90 race, when NCB Ireland came 12th out of 25. Since that attempt, a lot has changed.

The crew of NCB Ireland, which contested the 1989/90 Whitbread Ocean Race, raced against 24 other boats, all different in design and construction. By contrast, the seven Volvo Ocean Race boats are almost identical, all conforming to a single design rule.

Ireland’s Green Dragon boat weighs 14 tonnes (half of which is carried in the keel), is made almost entirely of lightweight carbon fibre and can fly a maximum of around 800 square metres of sail at any one time.

NCB Ireland weighed 28 tonnes before any gear was put on board. It was ten feet longer and had spinnakers a third smaller than the Green Dragon. It could fly a maximum of 535 square metres of sail and had a heavy aluminium mast. The Green Dragon was designed in California, built in China and launched in Britain. NCB Ireland was designed in Cork, built in Ballyfermot and launched in Dublin Port.

The team
Skipper: Ian Walker (37, GBR) Twice an Olympic medallist, this is Walker’s first ocean race campaign.

Navigator: Ian Moore (37, IRL) Already a Volvo Ocean Race winner, Moore’s experience will be crucial.

Watch leader: Damian Foxall (39, IRL) Ireland’s top offshore sailor, this will be the Kerryman’s third Volvo Ocean Race.

Watch leader: Neal McDonald (45, GBR) Vastly experienced ocean racer who has ‘unfinished business’ with this race.

Bowman: Justin Slattery (34, IRL) A Wexford native, Slattery already has a Volvo Ocean Race win to his credit.

Helm/trim: Anthony Merrington (35, AUS) His nickname, Youngster, belies 17 years and 120,000 miles of offshore racing.

Helm/trim: Tom Braidwood (36, AUS) A veteran offshore and single-handed sailor who managed the build of the boat.

Bowman: Andrew Mclean (29, NZL) At 100kgs, ‘Animal’ brings bulk to the bow. An engineer and a technical mind.

Helm/trim: Phil Harmer (28, AUS) Harmer could be kept busy as the boat’s dedicated sailmaker.

Trim: Scott Millar (25, IRL) The youngest on board. A former Ulster youth rugby player and keelboat star.

Bowman: Freddie Shanks (28, GBR) A regular on the global grand prix racing scene, and hugely experienced.

TBA: One Chinese team member, currently being picked from a squad of three.

Watch the Green Dragon team in Dublin Docklands between August 22 and 24;

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