Sixty-year-old Sailor Enda O’Coineen was aiming to become the first Irish person to sail single handed around the world in the Vendée Globe solo race, however, it didn’t go to plan.
Enda O’Coineen was aiming to become the first Irish person to sail single handed around the world in the Vendée Globe solo race. That was until his mast broke of his boat in the Southern Ocean on New Year’s Day, taking him out of the race. He was then stranded more than 300km from the southern coast of New Zealand at sea alone with no mast or sails. Enda didn’t call emergency rescue services, believing he got there of his own free will and he’d find his own way out. Here he tells us how it all unfolded.
Enda’s O’Coineen 60-foot boat, the Kilcullen Voyager, was rocketing through the Southern Ocean during a dark moonless night with huge three- to four-metre swells and a building 20-knot wind. He was really enjoying being back in the race, having stopped briefly in the shelter of Stewart Island, New Zealand, to do some repairs.
He thought he’d fixed the software problems on his self-steering device that helms the boat in the case he’s doing jobs and adjusting sails. But, it started to malfunction in the stormy conditions, causing the boat to gybe suddenly out of control. As the boat turned and the main sail and the boom slammed across violently, Enda was caught by surprise.
He was in the cockpit of the Kilcullen Voyager trying to work on the self-steering when a massive wind gust hit them. He remembers seeing that it was 35 to 40 knots on the wind gauge. Gale force. The malfunctioning self-steering caused the boat to gybe suddenly again. The boat took off full speed down the face of a wave and smashed into a wall of water at the bottom. His 60-foot boat stopped instantly, but the 100-foot mast snapped in two right off the deck.
“There was an almighty crash. There was broken rigging thrashing around and ropes flapping everywhere. I was lucky to be alive.”
“There was an almighty crash. There was broken rigging thrashing around and ropes flapping everywhere. I was lucky to be alive. A rope could have wrapped around my arm or leg and pulled me overboard with it, but it didn’t. I had to crawl around the boat on my hands and knees and start slashing the lines. I became mister slasher with my knives.
“There was a high risk that the broken mast and rigging could puncture the hull of the boat below the waterline and I’d be in real trouble. I had two razor-sharp knives to cut all of the lines free, and then the mast, sails and rigging sank deep into the Southern Ocean.
In a second, Enda’s plans, hopes and ambitions were destroyed.
He recounts, “My whole life went over the side of the boat. My dream. My race. My boat. All shattered. I went from being in a fast-moving, high-performance racing yacht to bobbing around alone in three- to four-metre swells in the Southern Ocean. My whole world fell apart.”
“Once I was done and I’d sealed up the hole in the deck a bit, I went down to my bunk and cried. I then managed to sleep for a bit.”
The 60-year-old Galway man was two months into his circumnavigation of the world when disaster struck. He had already sailed 13,153 nautical miles (more than 24,000km) alone through the Atlantic, Indian Ocean, and the Southern Ocean, and was heading across the Pacific to Cape Horn in Chile. Enda and 28 other sailors had set off in the Vendée Globe race from Les Sables d’Olonne in France on 6 November 2016. He was in 15th place when the mast came down. And he was alone and very afraid.
“I would like to say that I wasn’t afraid, but I was terrified. But, I’m a survivor and my survival instinct kicked in as I cut all the ropes and rigging free. I just thought about solving the problem. It was exhausting. Once I was done and I’d sealed up the hole in the deck a bit, I went down to my bunk and cried. I then managed to sleep for a bit.”
“When I woke up, I had another kick in the arse. I had to get back up and figure out how to get going again. I was alone 180 nautical miles (333km) from the southern tip of New Zealand in the middle of the Southern Ocean with no means of propulsion because there was a rope wrapped around my propeller. Pardon my language, but I was f*cked.
“Pardon my language, but I was f*cked.”
However, calling for help wasn’t something Enda was willing to do.
“I didn’t want to call emergency rescue services. The nearest fishing boat was around 150 nautical miles away. I had some spare battens for the main sail so I slashed them together like a tent. I put a jib on it upside down and could manage to sail at around two or three knots. I started to limp slowly to New Zealand.”
Heartbreak in the Southern Ocean
As he shambled towards New Zealand, Enda battled with his emotions and his relationship with risk. He was torn between relief at surviving and being gutted that his dream was destroyed.
“I was heartbroken and devastated that it was all over. I know it’s a first world problem. I’m very lucky with the opportunities I’ve had and I knew I was lucky to be alive and not have been swept overboard. The mast snapped on New Year’s Day, just three hours after I’d made a pledge to myself to take fewer risks in my life, both in business and personally. It felt quite ironic to me.
And it was slow progress getting himself and his wounded boat to New Zealand.
“When I was racing, I’d cover around 400 miles in a day. With my mastless boat and makeshift jury rig, it took me six days to sail 240 miles. But I was getting out of there myself. I didn’t want to call rescue because I’d been there of my own free will. I got close enough to land, and I got a fishing boat to tow me into Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand.
“I hadn’t really prepared for failure in my round-the-world mission. I had all the safety equipment and everything, but I didn’t think it would happen to me. I’ve always sailed and I’d done two single-handed transatlantic trips to qualify. I’d done 15,000 nautical miles on that boat.
Enda has been a sailor for most of his life. He’s self-employed, working in business investment and corporate finance. He bought the boat, Kilcullen Voyager at 1am on New Year’s Eve a couple of years previously, but back then he still wasn’t sure he’d enter the race. He had always admired people who did the Vendée Globe race but it was the ocean adventure that really appealed to him more than the competitive race.
“The big thing for me is not the competition, it’s the challenge,” he says.
“Being that close to nature, and at its mercy, it’s an amazing challenge and I feel privileged to have been able to take it on.”
At the launch of the race in November in France, a French politician spoke about how it’s a celebration of man versus the elements. Enda’s take is that, “It’s about getting out of your comfort zone. It’s so stimulating to be completely on your own in nature, navigating your own way around the world. Being that close to nature, and at its mercy, it’s an amazing challenge and I feel privileged to have been able to take it on.
Enda’s other driving force was to use the race to inspire young people to get involved in sailing through the MSL Mercedes Benz Primary Schools Programme. He is also involved in the Atlantic Youth Trust, an Irish sailing charity that teaches young people to sail on tall ships. It has links with the Spirit of Adventure Trust that does the same in New Zealand. And so when he reached New Zealand, he put his time there to good use.
He recounts, “It’s quite funny that I ended up there, so I’ve been promoting our trust and we’re learning from the New Zealand model. I’m committed to getting more young people out doing adventures and sailing, and many schools were following my journey. So it’s been worthwhile from those points of view.”
Never give up!
In the end, the Vendée Globe race was won by Frenchman Armel Le Cleac’h in 74 days, 3 hours and 35 minutes. The race typically has a drop out rate of around 50%, with retired sailors scattered through Australia, South Africa, Tahiti and now New Zealand.
Despite being out of the race, Enda’s aim is to finish what he started. He’s that kind of guy. “My ambition is to finish the single-handed trip. I’m not sure how, or when, or in what boat yet. I’ve a load of balls in the air on that.
“I could get a mast from another boat that’s dropped out of the Vendée, or I could use another boat. I’ll go home for a while, and if my family don’t lock me up, I’ll come back to New Zealand and finish the trip. I just want to finish the single-handed round-the-world trip. It’s a personal thing I want to do and there’s no timeline on that.
“The learning I take from this is the unbelievable power of the elements. The earth. The mountains. The oceans.”
“The learning I take from this is the unbelievable power of the elements. The earth. The mountains. The oceans. It really hit me in Christchurch, New Zealand. A city that has been destroyed by the power of an earthquake. Whole mountains moved. Harbours silted up.
And despite all the dramas that the race threw at him, Enda is grateful for the adventure that the Vendée gave him.
“So many people live so much of their lives indoors and spend too much time bitching about stuff. I learned to take responsibility for myself out there on the ocean and we all should do that. Yes, I had misfortune in my race, and I can’t blame anyone else for that. I can’t blame the elements. It taught me the power of the elements and how we have to adapt to them.
“I learned to take responsibility for myself out there on the ocean and we all should do that. Yes, I had misfortune in my race, and I can’t blame anyone else for that.”
“The elements have no emotion. They’re just there; 50-knot winds come and 10-foot waves come and two days later they’re gone. They’re indifferent. You’ll never master them or overcome them. It taught me that you just have to go with it and adapt. It really struck me when I was living on the edge in a race like that every day. I’m so lucky to be alive.”
Despite not making it to the finish, Enda is still the first Irish person to even qualify and attempt the race. Will he achieve his dream and be the first to finish his mission? We hope so, and regardless we’re pretty sure that there will be plenty more chapters still to come in this story. In Enda’s own words from his last ship log, “Life itself. Lucky to be lived. Merci.”
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