Imagine being away from your family and friends for ten months, confined in minute living quarters with countless strangers for company.
Imagine working and sleeping, working and sleeping with no downtime in between.
And imagine working against the threat of piracy, whilst battling raging storms and unforgiving heat.
It doesn’t exactly sound like anyone’s idea of paradise, but for one man, it is a dream come true.
The responsibilities for Sean McCarter, as skipper of the Derry-Londonderry-Doire crew are endless, not least of all ensuring the safety of his crew, in an incredible round-the-world race that is almost at its half way point.
McCarter, originally from Buncrana, but who went to school in Derry, is the man tasked with leading the 70ft Derry yacht against some of the finest sailors in the world into some of the most exotic locations, all in the spirit of adventure and competition.
But it has been far from easy.
Setting out from London last September, McCarter will have led his crew on an incredible 40,000-mile journey around the globe, making it the world’s longest ocean race, stopping at 16 ports on six continents over 11 months.
McCarter and his crew are currently in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on their way to Singapore, race eight of sixteen.
The Derry News caught up with McCarter in the middle of an exhausting schedule, but with the Derry crew on a high following two recent podium finishes.
What has been your favourite moment so far?
Usually I find it really hard picking favourites but this one is easy! Sailing up the Derwent River into Hobart, Tasmania on a calm morning at dawn on the 30th of Dec. Although we'd all been thinking and hoping our lead was enough for several hours, none of the crew or I mentioned victory until we were almost in sight of the finish line. Once we realised that not even the fickle winds and strong currents of the Derwent could stop us, the stress and utter exhaustion of pushing beyond what we thought possible was replaced by relief and a huge sense of satisfaction at winning Race 6 of the Clipper Race.
What has been the most challenging aspect of these races as a team, and individually?
As a team, there are lots of challenging aspects but I would say that one physical and one mental stand out above the rest.
Firstly, the physicality needed to race these boats at a high level is draining. Without exception, every crew member has lost weight since the start. Our bowman who was already slight, dropped 12-kilos in less than two months! Then there are the injuries; living on a 70-foot platform for up to a month at a time without really being able to move around but being expected to push out intense bursts of work sporadically results in the inevitable pulled muscles, stresses, bangs and bruises. Basically every crew member is carrying some sort of knock and we're only half way.
Mentally, the most challenging part as a team has been bouncing back from races that we had performed well in but not been lucky enough to get the results we wanted. The shortened course in race one saw us go from second to eighth in a matter of hours. The Doldrums in race two dropped us from first to sixth.
Having to turn back to drop off a casualty in Race 4 knocked us from second back to ninth eventually, although this was still a very impressive result given the circumstances. Race 5 saw us go from a possible podium to fifth at the last minute due to a wind hole off the east coast of Australia. Picking ourselves up as a team after each of these setbacks and having faith in ourselves was not easy but ultimately rewarded with our win in the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race last month.
Individually there are various challenges as well. All of us have left loved ones behind and there is nothing more difficult that waving goodbye knowing that you won't see them again for up to ten months in some cases.
Tell us about your two podium finishes. Where those expected?
As a team we knew from early on in the race that we were capable of podium finishes. By the time we reached Sydney we were beginning to feel like we had a monkey on our back and the weight of underperforming was becoming hard to bear. I'm sure we were all wondering whether we'd ever be able to make everything click as we knew how many different factors can knock you back.
I'd be lying if I said winning the Rolex Sydney Hobart Yacht Race was expected. Although we were confident with our crew work and boat-speed, the level of competition and desire to win from all the other teams combined with it being one of the most challenging races in the world meant it could have been anyone's race.
Following it up with a second place in Race 7 to Brisbane was important for us as we wanted to prove that it wasn't a fluke!
How well have the crew bonded so far. Do you get much down time?
I have said from the beginning how lucky we are to have such a great bunch. The crew have been absolutely brilliant and no matter how tough conditions are or what drama has just occurred on deck, we always have a laugh about it afterwards. We are very proud of the fact we are one of the only boats to still have their entire round the world crew. I have no doubt that the bonds made are for life and not just a boat race.
One of the toughest things about the race is the stopovers. We have on average a week in each port which doesn't sound bad but when you take a day to thoroughly clean the boat, a couple of days to make repairs and improvements, a day or two to repair or service sails, a day’s shopping to cater and stow food for twenty people for a month plus a day or two corporate sailing, suddenly there aren't enough hours in the day.
The physical challenges of such a feat are obvious, but what about the mental challenges? Away from the cameras and the fans, it must be difficult, and perhaps lonely?
There are a number of mental challenges that I try to manage as best I can. Being away from my wife is one of the hardest but up until now Sofia, my wife, has made it to three or four of the stop-overs. Unfortunately there is a four month gap until the next one! As mentioned previously the stopovers are pretty hectic and by the time you reach start day you are looking forward to getting back to sea where life is less stressed. People are always amazed at the responsibility that the skippers shoulder; taking twenty amateurs across a dangerous ocean. I acknowledge this responsibility but try not to dwell on it; otherwise I might not leave the dock! Although I enjoy the crew and we get on really well, there is an element of separation between skipper and crew. It is for this reason that the skippers tend to stick together as their experiences are different from those of the crew to many extents.
Is there a fear factor involved, not so much with the competitive side, but because of the weather and storms, and even pirates? How do you boost your crew?
There is a natural tendency for the crew to play off the skipper’s emotions on any boat. I am generally quite relaxed and have a fair amount of confidence in both my abilities and that of the crew and boat. Therefore there is very little to fear normally. The Clipper Race have an excellent meteorologist who sends daily weather information so even if there is bad weather, we always have enough time to prepare. There is a very slight risk of piracy on this current leg but we are well trained in how to reduce the chances and also how to react if approached.
What has been the scariest moment so far?
Getting knocked down in the Southern Ocean was more of a concern due to the two serious injuries sustained. It happened so quickly that there wasn't time to be scared, less than a minute later the boat was up and running at 20 knots again!
Until the other night, I would have said that there hadn't been a scary moment so far. However, after being enveloped in the biggest thunder and lightning storm I've ever experienced at sea, with torrential rain, zero visibility and fork lighting touching the water on either side of the boat simultaneously, I went below to check the radar. My heart stopped when I glanced at the screen and saw a cargo ship coming straight at us at 18 knots knowing he wouldn't be able to see us as we were in 'Anti-pirate' mode with AIS (Automatic Identification System) and radar transponder switched off. It looked like a collision was imminent as I grabbed the VHF radio and tried to warn him of our presence to which there was a deathly silence. I shouted for all hands on deck in life jackets, turned the engine on and tried the VHF again while trying desperately to plug in the GPS wire to broadcast our AIS position. Two things happened in the following seconds that brought hope to the situation. Firstly there was a reply in broken English from the ship. Secondly I had time to check the now functioning AIS and realised someone had left it zoomed out and the ship looked a lot closer than it was. It calculated that we had ten minutes until potential collision. After a brief but somewhat excited conversation with the officer of the watch we finally got confirmation that they had picked up our location and would take avoiding action.
How do you find living in such a confined space? Is it part of the thrill or do you get homesick sometimes?
It's hard to be thrilled about sharing a space the size of an average living room with nineteen other people, especially when temperatures are at 36 degrees as they are at the moment! However, it's something that I've done a lot and so long as everyone pulls their own weight and respects each other’s (limited) privacy, it's not so bad. I think everyone gets homesick from time to time but most of the time we are so focused on racing, sail changes, etc that there is no time to think about it. You are so exhausted that by the time you get off the deck, you sleep until someone wakes you for the next watch.
If the race finished now, would you be content with your achievements?
If you had offered us the results we've had now back in London I think we would have taken them happily. But there is a strong sense of belief in the team and a new found confidence that I believe has raised our objectives. Without having discussed it formally, we are looking a lot more at the bigger picture.
We are consciously covering boats that are near us in the overall standings and forming strategies to maximise points hauls without focusing on a set position. For example sacrificing a first position to claim three bonus points at a Scoring Gate then finishing in second or third in the race works out better in the long run as not only do you get the same number of points but you deny the opposition a potential high score with bonus points.
And finally, what are you hoping to achieve by the end of July, individually and collectively?
By the end of July I hope I can tick my three main objectives of getting crew and boat around safely with everyone having enjoyed their experience.
Collectively I think we are starting to understand what it takes to achieve results and aiming towards a possible podium finish. However, a lot can happen between now and then especially with the North Pacific to cross during winter not to mention that 40% of total race points are still available between San Francisco and London. We'll continue to push hard and try to remain consistent.
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