By its very nature the 35,000 mile Volvo Ocean Race that started from Alicante on Saturday attracts the hardiest of sailors. They are usually men with tough teak muscles and a hell of a lot of fortitude, capable of withstanding the roughest of seas in temperatures that can range from -5 to 50 Celcius.
Yet on Saturday, amid the celebrations that accompanied the departure of the eight-yacht fleet, including Ireland’s Green Dragon and the Dutch-Irish entry Delta Lloyd, these sailors briefly revealed their real emotions. They did so in front of television cameras that beamed out pictures to millions in more than 100 countries in the world, and amid the thousands of visitors who flocked quayside for the farewells.
For four hours before the king and queen of Spain officially started this epic sea-going marathon, wives, girlfriends, families, and friends gathered dockside to spend the last precious few moments with their loved ones.
The Green Dragon team of 10 sailors boast some nine children - all under eight years of age - and their farewells were a poignant reminder of the dangers inherent in this year’s nine-month sailing challenge around the globe.
Justin Slattery, Ireland's experienced sailor of two round the worlds, including a winner on ABN Ambro One last time out, is the Green Dragon's bowman. Well used to heading off on sailing adventures, this is the first time he has had to leave his child behind. Revealing it was a real "wrench", Slattery clung to Molly, knowing that not only would he see her just briefly during the 11 port stopovers in the next nine months, but he would also miss her first birthday, celebrated yesterday. The Slatterys were taking no chances with their precious cargo. Appropriately dressed in a knitted green cardigan, she also was decked out in a lifejacket as he hugged her tightly before boarding the Green Dragon just seconds before she pulled out of the docks.
Earlier in the day the arrival of crew member Anthony Merrigan with his wife and newborn daughter Lola, just six weeks old, attracted the attention of an international camera crew. Damien Foxhall, meanwhile, escaped the boardwalk to take some quiet time with his wife and 15-month-old Oisin away. Skipper Ian Walker's two daughters, Emilia (7 ) and Zoe (5 ) looked like pros, posing in front of the cameras - until such times as Walker too mounted the steps to leave. Then the tears flowed as the 60ft Green Dragon departed the docks to the sounds of U2's ‘Elevation’.
More nervous that any of the sailors was Tom Roche of the National Toll Roads. One of several Irish businessmen who have backed the project, he was selected as the "guest" allowed to spend the first 90 minutes on board the yacht – an exhilarating experience for any landlubber until such times as he was thrown overboard to be picked up by Irish shore manager Johnny Smullen in the team's inflatable. His Majesty King Juan Carlos 1 of Spain and his two daughters had also been aboard two of the race starters. The Infanta Doña Elena had left the dock with her father onboard Telefónica Blue, while the Infanta Doña Cristina was onboard Telefónica Black before being transferred to the Spanish navy frigate Principe de Asturias to start the race.
The weather too played its part. Despite earlier fears that high winds might delay the start, the 20 knots northeasterly and choppy seas provided an unexpected fast start for the eight yachts, who were forced to reef their mainsails. And there were anxious times for the Green Dragon who suffered their first hiccup. Just an hour earlier, a halyard obstruction had forced Slattery and Freddie Shanks up the 75 foot mast. That fixed, another unexpected problem arose due to the frequency of the television camera interfering with their computers.
The Green Dragon, however, forced to start on a port tack, sailed through the starboard fleet as they headed out to the first mark before a spinnaker hoist as they headed southwards towards the Straits of Gibraltar and an epic voyage that will take them around the globe.
For only the second time in its 31 history, Ireland has entered this race; and for the first time it will host one of the 12 stopovers. The Green Dragon's entry into the heavyweight crown of world sailing is seen as a major accomplishment for the project founders, Galway's John Killeen, Eamonn Conneely and Enda O'Coineen, and CEO Jamie Boag.
Now, having got the boat to the start line, the attention is turning to Galway which will host the start of leg eight from May 16 to 23 next year.
Alicante presented a perfect example for the Galway brigade. Like many Spanish cities, it already boasted a marina for the thousands of leisure yachts and cruisers that are attracted to that sunny part of the world. Yet their authorities have spent some €15 million renovating their docks to accommodate the ocean race - warehouses were turned into offices, including a media centre that boasted hundreds of press, radio, magazine, and television journalists.
The race village attracted some one million spectators during the two weeks – many of whom were drawn to the Ireland team base. Shared with Ireland's second entry, the Dutch backed Delta Lloyd and skippered by Limerick's Ger O'Rourke, and Team Russia, whose entry is backed by a Russia businessman with their mission to save the whales, Ireland provided the visitors with a taste of what is to come in Galway.
International journalists had been treated to a dinner organised by Tourism Ireland and prepared by Good Food Ireland. The following evening at the team's official farewell , guests were again treated to Irish hospitality, including Galway City Councils’ delegation, headed by Mayor Padraig Conneely who mingled with his Chinese counterpart, harbour master Brian Sheridan, former minister Bobby Molloy, representatives of footwear sponsors Dubarry, and local Galway Sailing Club members. During the day Arcana theatre company and their The Massive Heads of U2, complemented Inis Oirr musicians Micheal O hAlmhain and sons who provided the traditional music.
Chariman of Let's do It Galway, John Killeen, says Alicante has shown the group how an empty dockyard can be transformed, and he promises Galway will provide a more colourful environment, particularly given its close proximity to the city.
“Certainly the scale of the event was an eye-opener for many people and a great model from which we can work. It was great to see so many Galway people taking time off to travel over,” he says.
While most of the facilities involved large-spending corporate bases, Ireland’s stand provided a traditional Cead Mile Failte, which Killeen says will be replicated in Galway.
Competing in the Volvo requires a total effort, onshore as well as on the water, and John Killeen says that while the 35,000 mile race proves the ultimate endurance test, the most important outcome is to reflect Ireland and Galway in a positive way throughout the world – not just for the next nine months but for a lifetime.