Puma skipper Ken Read is so impressed with Galway after his two-week stopover for the Volvo Ocean Race, he is pledging to return to Ireland next year.
But it is not the sailing that is attracting one of the world’s most celebrated sailors to these shores, but life on dry land. Specifically, Ireland’s golf courses.
“I have played the best two rounds of golf in my life, so I don’t think I want to leave at all,” said the 48-years-old native of Newport, Rhode Island prior to Saturday’s race start.
Playing off a 12 handicap, Read squeezed in two games of golf at Co Clare’s Lahinch and Doonbeg just days before the fleet’s departure.
“ Two unbelievably nice courses. I shot an 80 on Doonbeg and that was was literally one of the best of my life. I had four birdies and I have never done that before.”
Lahinch, however, provided him with one of the “abiding” memories of his time in the west.
“The birdie on a par three at Lahinch - I forget the name of the hole, but it was a blind par three over a hill - I think it’s the fifth or sixth hole on the course - I have never seen a hole like it and I have never had a shot like it.”
The charismatic skipper and his boat Il Mostro endeared themselves to Galway - in no small measure due to his continuing good humour, praise of Ireland’s Volvo entry the Green Dragon, and of Galway.
“There is something about Ireland and myself that seem to like each other,” he says.
“Beginning with the unbelievable reception we got, it has been, and it’s hard for me to say because Boston is my home, but it’s been the best stopover I have ever been involved with - and all we have done is win races since we came here.”
“Everywhere we visited, everyone has been educated on the Volvo and have gone out of their way to be friendly to us and my whole family. I will remember that for as long I can, and we are already planning a trip back next spring.”
Having just pipped the Green Dragon for second place on the leg seven from Boston to Galway, Read and his crew then grabbed their first win when claiming the in-port race series. They also won all three pro-am races the following day.
“Coming in second after losing the rudder was a miracle, and that was testimony to the boat and the crew for not allowing that to stop our progress - almost like it pissed off the crew so it was like ‘goddammit, we are going to catch up if it kills us’ and it nearly did.
“Then we won the in-port racing - our first in this race - and then we go out the next day and win all three pro-am races. Now they don’t mean anything in terms of points, but it’s a momentum boost - it shows we are doing somthing right.”
Read also reckons it has something to do with an old sailing superstition - never win the practice race.
“We won the practice race in Boston and then got pounded. It’s an old superstition but I threw that aside in Boston, thinking it would be fun for all the people we had on board, so I thought, ‘Let’s just go with the race and everybody will be excited’. We got pounded the next day.
“So here we were winning the Galway practice race, and I thought, ‘ You know folks, I don’t care how good the experience is for you, we are not crossing the finish line first, we were not going to go through that again, and sure enough it worked. So I will never finish a practice race again first in my life - I promise you that.”
While Puma has been on the podium on several occasions during the 37,000 mile race, it was the Green Dragon’s first, and Read was one of the first to congratulate the Irish entrant on his achievement.
“To me the race is about teams like the Green Dragon, it’s not about Ericsson because that’s who makes up the race. Without a boat like Green Dragon you lose the character of the event,” he said.
Read believes the two crews bonded early in the event.
“We endeared ourselves to them and them to us when we did our sea safety seminar together. We had to hang out together for nearly three days in a tiny little town in England, and we went out and had a few pints together, told stories, brought up old stories, and since then the two teams have been very very close all the way round the world.
“ I am just proud of those guys. Their boat is not the fastest boat. They have had plenty of reason to pack it in and call it quits - just the fact they brought that kind of internal energy into this last leg to come third and please their home crowd - the way they did, that’s the story of the Volvo race.
“I am really proud of them, and happy to call them all friends.”
Read is one of the few yachtsmen who became involved in the sport as a professional after working in the business. While sailing at Boston University, Read was a three-time Collegiate All American (1981, 82, 83), but he went to work with a sailmaking company. Today he is vice-president of sailmaking company North Sails North America. That has not stopped him winning a host of accolades on the water - United States Rolex Yachtsman of the Year twice, more than 40 world, North American, and national championships in a variety of classes, and helmsman onboard two (2000, 2003) of Dennis Conner’s Stars & Stripes America’s Cup campaigns.
That experience, he believes, has helped shaped his leadership skills, balancing good humour with one of the toughest sports.
“ In my leadership style I use humour. We have a pretty light-feeling boat. Every once in a while there is tension, so you try to break it up with humour. I have always managed that way. It kind of breaks up a situation so hopefully you can move on to the next place you need to be.
“My theory is that if you don’t have fun doing what you are doing, then why do it at all - whether you are in business, sport, or pleasure. I told the crew before this thing started that I wanted to be really good friends with them when it was all over and I just wanted to have a blast. I have to treat this as a once in a lifetime experience, and that’s the way we have been doing it around the world.”