Offshore solo sailing star, Tom Dolan, tells the story of how he broke the mould by coming from the midlands of Ireland to finishing fifth in the world famous La Solitaire du Figaro in September 2020. His sights are now firmly set on the 2024 Olympic Games.
I’m a sailor who grew up on farm in County Meath, nowhere near the sea. It was just my mam and me for most of my life. I wasn’t a member of a yacht club. I didn’t have strong family connections in the sailing world. I didn’t fit the mould, you could say.
In school, if someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grow up and I said, “I want to be an off-shore sailor”, they’d say, “Go sit beside Jimmy over there, he wants to be an astronaut.”
But I broke that mould, and I made my dream a reality.
I always had an interest in sailing.
My father lived in Portsmouth in England for a while, and whilst he was there, he did a small bit. Whenever I’d watch pirate films as a kid, he’d be explaining what different parts of the ships were for and things like that.
One day, the two of us decided to go to Boyle in County Roscommon, to Lough Kee. We bought a little wooden dingy off the Buy and Sell with little red sails. There were ropes and all things missing from it. We spent the day fixing it up with bailing twine before we could take it out.
That’s a fond memory I have of one of my first times on the water. It’s one of the last memories I have of my father too.
I was a young lad starting secondary school. I was rudderless. I’d no clue what I wanted to do in the future. I ended up going to UCD for a year to study Agricultural Science, just because farming is what my Dad did. I dropped out and was on the dole then. I was completely lost.
Sailing gave me a whole new life of meaning and purpose.
A friend of mine saw a course in Coláiste Dhúlagh in Coolock called Outdoor Event Management where you’d learn about kayaking and sailing and things like that. I talked my way into the course, and I loved it. I felt like I’d found my calling.
As a part of the course, you are offered the chance to go to a sailing school in Cork called Glenans. I went down there, and it was the best experience I’d ever had. They were happy with me because they sent me to their branch in France, the biggest sailing school in Europe. That’s when I discovered offshore racing.
I met this old timer on a sailing forum online who had a small racing boat. A twenty-foot thing. He took me out a few times and then he said I could have it. In 2015, I took it out on my own and raced across the Atlantic Ocean. I’d been bitten by the bug then.
Things were looking up and I was really getting into it in France.
Sadly, my Dad passed away which impacted me greatly. He left me an inheritance, and in one way, it spurred me on to realise that you only live once. I used his money to buy my first proper racing boat. It was a bit better than the little dingy with red sails that we bought together before! The first race I raced in it, I won.
I knew I wanted to get to the highest level there is. Looking at The Figaro race, all the boats are the same. It’s the skipper that makes the difference. That’s when I knew I had a chance. The Figaro is the big one. But it costs money.
I stayed in contact with a guy, Gerry Jones, who would become an important mentor and friend, who had been on the board of directors back at Glenans in Cork. He said, ‘I’m good at finding money. You’re good at sailing. I’ll teach you, if you teach me and we’ll work something out’. So, he arranged for me to do a presentation in Dublin with Smurfit Kappa.
I arrived all suited up and waffled on to the guy for about 40 minutes. In the end he looked at me and said, ‘I was on a boat once. I was very sick.’. But he believed in me. And that was the start of my financial sponsorship!
Smurfit Kappa has been an amazing organisation to work with; I have been so lucky to work with them. They have many demands for sponsorship and chose me. Their trust, confidence and sponsorship has been key to my progress over the last three years,
The Figaro is the best in the world and that’s where I am now. I’ve proven I’m worthy of my spot. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that competing in an Olympics would be possible for me. But it is. It is a real goal now to be a part of the 2024 Olympics. That’s how far I have come.
Racing is intense. Compared to other sports, there’s no coach on the sideline. There’s no half time break. Our pitch is the sea. The weather is an entire beast you have to master. If something breaks, you’ve to fix it yourself. If you fuck up, it’s on you. There’s no “phone a friend.”
There are so many variables. The tide, the wind, your competitors. There are all these constant moving parts. It’s exhausting. You’ve to eat when you’re not hungry. You’ve to sleep when you’re not tired. You’ve to plan ahead as much as possible because the weather doesn’t plan around you.
But that’s what makes it so sweet when you arrive. To see what you’ve achieved out there is an unbelievable feeling.
You’re alone, but you’re never lonely. I’d talk to myself a lot. You see amazing sunsets and the odd whale or two. It can be beautiful.
It can be depressing too.
”We pass massive oil tankers and cargo ships full of stuff from Amazon that people don’t really need. There are palettes and plastic everywhere. I even sailed past a fridge once. It really gets you down.
I want to help make sailing more environmentally friendly. Sailing is definitely not the worst offender, but it can be improved. There’s a lot going on now to try and improve on it. They’re trying to create new sails out of linen, solar panels, and things like that.
I think the generation coming up are way ahead of the game. They’re so attuned. They’re going to be looking at us and say, ‘what the hell were ye at?’. It’s just unfortunate that we have to wait twenty years for them to make the break.
The sailing world in Ireland is very different to France, its more accessible than in Ireland
When I was doing my course, I’d go to Dún Laoghaire on a Sunday morning to try and do a bit of racing. I’d be standing there in a pair of shoes I bought from Lidl and I’d ask could I get a spot on the pontoon and some fella with a badge would tell me no. I wasn’t one of them. This farmer from Meath didn’t belong there.
In France, sailing is different. It doesn’t matter if you’re a baker, a teacher or a millionaire, sailing is available to everyone. The way it should be.
I still do feel like a bit of an outsider in the sailing world, but it doesn’t bother me. I’ve done a lot of mental preparation this year. You could have the best boat there is and perfect conditions, but if you’re not prepared yourself, you’re wasting your time.
A lot of the time the people I compete against are the biggest names in sailing. They’re the rock stars. So, when things started to go wrong for me, I’d be doubting myself and my worthiness. I’ve learned to handle that. It’s a motivating factor now. I’m ready to take on the best.
I don’t do this for the plaudits and recognition. I do it because I love it.