Professional Irish solo sailor, Joan Mulloy, writes about what it means to be a descendant of the infamous pirate queen, Grace O’Malley, the mental challenges of solo offshore sailing and her ambition to be the first Irish person to compete in the Vendée Globe race around the world.
I’m fascinated by my family history. So many incredible stories from generations past.
None more so than Gráinne Mhaol. I’m a descendant of Grace O’Malley, the pirate queen of Ireland. Maybe that’s why I’ve always had such a passion for sailing.
My Granny, an O’Malley, was a historian, so I grew up listening to her stories about Gráinne Mhaol and her adventures.
While much of our knowledge of Grace O’Malley came from mythical tales passed down through the generations, it’s only now that it is coming more into the public consciousness of who she was and what she represented. The story is reaching further and further. She was a tough lady to put it mildly.
To me, she’s as important in our history as Parnell, O’Connell, De Valera or Collins. She was a fearless female leader who went out there a got what her people needed to survive and thrive at a time of oppression and conflict. She was an enemy of the English but despite that she chose to sail from Clew Bay to London to meet Queen Elisabeth I, face to face, to work out a solution to their conflict.
So, in 1593 she sailed up the Thames in search of a peace agreement. It was a pretty ballsy move when you think about it.
That history is important to me and, to help keep the story alive, I recently re-created her journey. More than 400 years on from that historic event, I set off in my boat “Believe in Grace” which is sponsored by Grace O’Malley whiskey. I sailed under the Tower Bridge and up the River Thames under the black and grey sails emblazoned with the name of my famous ancestor.
”I didn’t meet the Queen. I didn’t resolve any conflict. It was a celebration of all that Gráinne Mhaol represented and achieved in her life.
Unlike her, I sail solo. People say, “You sail solo, wow, you’re so brave to do that.” But what I do is nothing compared to what Gráinne Mhaol did, not even 1% of her bravery.
For starters, people know where I am all the time. I don’t have to lead any fleets into battle or give birth below deck (I’m definitely never going to be in that situation).
While I couldn’t touch her in terms of bravery, it’s special to know that sailing is in my DNA.
From about the age of eight, I learned to sail in Clew Bay. My Dad is a mussel farmer there so, as a family, we always had a connection with the sea.
When I am home, I still look out on the bay and think, “Wow, this place is incredible!” It was such a privilege to grow up there.
I studied Engineering in college, and during that time, I did more and more offshore sailing which led to an offer of joining a boat for a year as professional crew. Believe it or not, before that, I never realised that I could sail and make a living from it.
So instead of pursuing my career in Engineering, I took an 85% pay cut to become a professional sailor, and I’ve not regretted a day of it.
In 2017, I committed myself to solo offshore sailing. If you don’t know what that is, the shortest race that I would compete in would be three to four days, sailing day and night 24/7. Each boat is identical, and we race around a course and back to port.
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Last year I became the first Irish woman to compete in the Solitaire du Figaro race. Each leg of that race is about 1000km which takes four to five days from one port to another, with about four legs of that distance.
My big ambition is to make it to the start line in the Vendée Globe race – a solo race around the world which takes place every four years. That would mean being at sea alone for about 90 to 100 days depending on how fast I go. I would be the first Irish person to do that.
Just like any other sport that mental preparation for performance is enormous.
It’s about finding that line between your confidence and your competence. Pushing out of your comfort zone and finding your flow. Keep pushing yourself, because you’re the only one that can influence the outcome.
It’s not just coping with being at sea alone, but there is always a part of you that won’t forget “I’m alone, on a boat in the middle of the sea.” I use that to motivate myself and even wake myself up from sleep, to keep pushing.
One of the big factors is sleep deprivation. During a race I would only sleep for about 10 or 15 minutes at a time, averaging about two hours in every 24 hours. You learn an awful lot about yourself and what your body is capable of.
Sometimes the racing is really intense, and you can only afford the bare minimum of sleep; four or five minutes here or there. Just enough to stop the information flowing in, give the brain a rest and enable you to stay on it. When that happens, you do end up in a place that you don’t usually go in your brain. Every little flaw in yourself is exposed. You’re in your own world with a very unique view. You get to know yourself on a much deeper level. You achieve perspective and a wider view of what’s important. Spoiler: it’s your friends and family!
”When you arrive back into dock, the feeling is incredible, and you think “Wow, that was mad! Mentally, I was somewhere else for a few days there.”
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The very first solo race I did was in March 2018. I’d quit my salaried job as an engineer, and I just went for it. It was a bit of a whirlwind, but I managed to secure a sponsor and there I was, ready to compete in a solo race for the first time. I was just ecstatic to be there.
Then about five minutes before the start of the race, my autopilot system stopped working. I radioed the other skippers for help, and they were suggesting things I could try, but there was as good as smoke coming out of the motor. It just wasn’t going to work.
The autopilot system steers the boat while you sleep. So, I wouldn’t be able to sleep for the whole race. The race was going to take anything up to 48 hours.
I took a moment and thought about my options. There were only two.
The first was that I retire from the race and return to port. Even as the thought entered my head I started to cry. The heartbreak of having to do that was too much.
There was only one other option left, and that was to go ahead and race.
I was so determined to compete and to finish that I prepared as best I could and decided not to leave the tiller (steering wheel) for the whole race.
I stayed awake for 42 hours. At that point, I started hallucinating quite severely.
I managed to sleep for 10 minutes, and I finished the race.
When I got back to port, I met some of the other skippers, my friends, who said: “you must have fixed the autopilot because we didn’t hear from you?” And I told them I had just stayed awake instead. They were horrified!
But that’s the thing, in solo sailing, you learn about the depth of your resilience and how far you can push yourself.
In terms of mental and physical strength, you have a reserve tank that you don’t usually go into. In that first race, I emptied the reserve tank, and things got a little weird. It’s not something you should do; it’s a rookie move. You have to keep the reserve tank topped up. I’m better at that now.
Danger at sea is almost ever present, but I feel in control of the risks I take which is the difference. So, ironically enough, what I do doesn’t feel dangerous to me.
With modern forecasting and communication, you have time to prepare for things like storm conditions. You’re at sea by yourself, so you over-prepare. Weather can be unpleasant, but you have a timeline. You know it will pass.
Despite the risks, my friends and family and my fiancé are incredibly supportive. They get why I do it and back me all the way.
There are bigger risks in this life. One of the biggest is the risk to our environment. When you spend a good part of your life at sea, you become even more acutely aware of that risk.
Last year, one of my main sponsors was Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM) who are doing so much to tackle the environmental impact on the sea like their “Fishing For Litter” initiative which involved repurposing old fishing boats to fish litter from the ocean as well as supporting research into what’s happening off our shores.
Even when you’re sailing through crystal clear water, you know that if you scooped some up and analysed it, you’d find it contains microplastics. We’ve done that to every cubic centimetre of the sea. It is crushing to think about that.
More and more, the sailing community are taking on environmental impact initiatives, and I’m proud to be part of that story. Maybe if more people get involved, we can create more positive action.
Quite apart from environmental awareness, sailing is an incredibly rewarding, lifelong sport. We need more young people to try sailing, and I’m hoping I can encourage more people to get involved and to join local sailing clubs.
I’m privileged that I’ve found my passion, and it became my profession.
I haven’t been short of inspiration along the way. My family have always pushed to do everything to the maximum. I’ve met people like Damien Browne who rowed solo across the Atlantic. I’ve been supported by another solo sailor, Enda O’Coineen, who has taken on all kinds of challenges and pushed the boundaries.
For now, my biggest challenge is getting sponsors on board so I can reach the start line and become the first Irish person to compete in the Vendée Globe race.
I promise I won’t run on empty this time.