By accident and design, Irish sailors are on top of the world

The Green Dragon is different in that it is uniquely Irish

On Monday the public will have a rare opportunity to hear some of the Volvo Ocean sailors’ life stories.

Two of those yachtsmen are Ireland’s best - Damian Foxall and Justin Slattery. Yet they arrived into the world of sailing by quite different methods.

Justin Slattery, who is the Green Dragon’s bowman, hit the scene “quite by accident”. Indeed the 34-years-old from Co Wexford did not even start sailing until the unusual age of 17.

“When I was a kid I managed to step on board NCB Ireland, the first boat entered into the Round the World about 20 years ago. It was in Dunmore and I just loved everything about it - the adventure side of sailing around the world. I guess it was always at the back of my mind when I started sailing that I would love to do something like that.”

Yet when leaving school Slattery still had not earmarked sailing as a possible career.

“I didn’t quite know what I was going to do, so instead of going to college, I did a two year leisure management course in Cork and that is where it started.”

Two years sailing dinghies and lasers as part of the course, and Slattery was hooked. That necessitated a move abroad, firstly working on delivery trips and then for charter companies.

“Although I had done a lot of racing on dinghies, I had to get to know bigger boats and how to handle myself around them. A lot is also getting to know the people involved, and it did take a while to get a handle on the scene.

“After a while I started to race on bigger boats, then I began to get paid to race on bigger boats, and eventually I began to get paid to sail full time.”

In contrast fellow Dragon teammate and watchleader Damian Foxall was destined for a life at sea, particularly growing up in Derrynane in Kerry “literally on the water”.

“My mother sailed, my father sailed, and my grandfather sailed. I started off windsurfing and dingy sailing, and there came a stage when my parents asked me what did I want to do. I was pretty interested in marine biology, but like any kid that age I decided to take the easy route - like become a windsurfing instructor- that was my big aim in life.”

However a move to big boats was inevitable. Like most yachtsmen delivery trips were essential in getting to know the business, and although Foxall still keeps in touch with the smaller boats, the American Grand Prix circuit beckoned after several years racing in the Caribbean.

Since then Foxall has carved out a reputation as Ireland’s leading yachtsman, being awarded Ireland's Sailor of the Year for 2008 after winning the two handed non-stop Barcelona World Race with French sailor John Pierre Dick. That feat saw him become the first Irish to win a non-stop round the world race. Two Volvo Ocean Races, four ORMA Trimaran campaigns between 2002 - 2007, numerous European and World Championships, and two America’s Cups are listed on the 39-year-old’s impressive CV.

Sailing for Ireland on an Irish boat, however, is extra special for both men. Last time Slattery won the race with Dutch entry ABN Amro One - the yacht that Limerick’s Ger O’Rourke has entered as Delta Lloyd this year.

“Winning the Volvo was the biggest thing to do since I began sailing,” says Slattery. “The next thing is the Amerca’s Cup and I was involved with the British entry, but that has been tied up in court.”

That was fortuitous for the Green Dragon, who were putting their campaign together at the same time.

“I had never been part of an Irish ocean racing team and I felt these guys might crack this. It would be very hard to watch an Irish entry like this in the race around the world without being a part of it.”

The Green Dragon, says Foxall, is different in that it is uniquely Irish, although partly backed by Chinese sponsors. “Although we have sailed on Admirals Cup teams and in our own particular global challenges, a project on this large scale for an international campaign is a first. Ireland has not had representation at this level in 20 years, and there has not been that opportunity for Irish sailors.”

As a result neither yachtsmen lives in Ireland at present. Foxall lives in Brittany with his wife Suzyann and 23-month-old child Oisin, while Slattery is based in the Hamble with wife Susan and daughter Molly who turned one when the Dragon was en route to South Africa on leg one last October. But both have carved out careers in professional sailing through hard work and on their own merits, while developing a host of skills along the way.

Foxall maintains that sailing is not just a sport, but also a career, a hobby, or simply a pastime.

“There are the pure forms of the sport like the Olympics where you focus on one little boat in the finest detail going around a triangle for 10 years and maybe you get to go to the Olympics, and if you are very good, you may win a medal. Then at the other end there is the ocean racing which we are doing now or the America’s Cup.

“There are vast opportunities for people - not just pure sailing as we do it, but in project management, communications, logistics, accounting, engineering. Any career you can think of when applying yourself after school can be found in sailing industry.”

•The ‘Meet the Sailors’ seminar will be held on the Topaz Main Stage in the Race Village at 11am, weather permitting, or in the Galway Pavilion.

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