Tootlafrance talks to the French-based solo sailor during her stopover in Kinsale
Joan Mulloy cuts an energetic and youthful presence that belie her age (32) and the fact that she’s come from having a short sleep after a marathon five-day journey across stormy seas from Nantes to the chic town of Kinsale.
This is what someone doing what they love best looks like. Although qualified as an engineer, the Westport native has been a professional sailor for some years now, mainly based in France and flying the flag for a sport that should be making far more column-inches in an island nation such as ours.
She is taking place in the La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro solo race – an annual event that sees the crème-de-la-crème of solo mariners compete in a highly demanding competition. This year’s race is regarded as the most competitive ever in the competition’s 50-year history and Joan was in stellar company. Added to that was the fact that inclement weather en route caused the arrival to be a full 24 hours later than expected so there was certainly no shame in the fact that she arrived last in 45th place. She’s also one of just five female skippers that began the stage in Nantes on Sunday, 2nd of June and one of two Irish skippers in the field (the other being Meath’s Tom Dolan).
France is, in many ways, the epicentre of the world of professional sailing. It’s a country of high boat ownership rates compared to Ireland and has a complex physical, economic and social infrastructure built around the sport. Joan is in France most of the year. She does all her training there and is currently based in St Gilles Croix de Vie on the Vendée coast.
Joan throws her back in jealousy when I reveal to her that my three sons went to secondary school in Schull – a school with the rare and enviable facility of a sailing school on the doorstep of their coastal location. “Don’t underestimate how lucky they were,” she says. “I’d be twice the sailor I am now if I had that kind of start.
“I had learned to sail when I was eight and I kept the sailing up over the years as a hobby – moving from smaller boats to bigger boats. When I was in university (in NUIG), I joined the college sailing club and started to sail more on my own rather than with my family.”
In 2012, Joan competed in the Round Ireland Yacht Race. It was her first introduction to team offshore sailing and it was something of a game-changer:
“That introduced me to a whole new side of sailing that I really loved: endurance, tactics, weather, strategy; the big-picture stuff… I love that kind of Category-two-level fun!
“Then the next Round Ireland race came up and I got offered a spot on a boat. At the end of the race, the skipper turned around to me and said ‘Would you like to come and work on the boat full-time?’ That was a real lightbulb moment for me. I thought ‘Wow, you can be a professional sailor, just like that’. I knew you could be a professional sailor, of course, but I just didn’t dream that I could be a professional sailor.”
Joan put her engineering career on hold and became a professional sailor for a year. Although she was impassioned by the experience as a crew member on a racing yacht, her real childhood dream was in a solo career.
“Since I was a kid, I’ve been reading Ellen MacArthur’s books about her circumnavigation of the globe (the now-retired Englishwoman broke the world record in 2005 for a single-handed non-stop circumnavigation). That part of the sport – sailing solo around the world – really captured my imagination… Ellen was only 24 when she did the Vendée Globe race.”
The Vendée Globe is the premier round-the-world non-stop single-handed race. The only person to win it twice is Michel Desjoyeaux, who is amongst the competitors taking part in this year’s Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro – a race the 53-year-old has, incidentally, won three times.
“The solo offshore scene was the one that really got me. It combines so many different aspects. You have to be very self-reliant, you have to be technical, you have to be good at what you’re doing… everything. For me, it was the ultimate challenge. It’s amazing being part of a team. That’s a whole different feeling but for me, to sit down and challenge myself to something is really interesting. That’s why it attracted me.”
A stint with a British solo racing team working as a technical manager gave Joan some valuable insight into the technical side of things. After that, she took up an engineering post which was, she says, a dream job… on paper at least.
“It was as perfect an engineering job as you could get as far as I was concerned: I was independent, we were using new technology… if I could describe the perfect job, that would be it, but I still wanted to go back sailing. For me, that was the litmus test.”
The life of a professional sailor involves a lot of time spent raising money. Seeking sponsorship for the next vessel and/or the next event while keeping oneself fed and clothed is essentially what it’s all about. She nods her head at my suggestion that she must spend more than half of her time and energy securing funds to continue what she loves doing:
“I think it’s probably more like three quarters of your time securing funds to a quarter doing sailing. Another Irish sailor – David Kenefick – worked it out that for an average professional sailor, each day that you spend actually sailing is the equivalent of €4,000. So, by the time you’ve raised enough money for the year and then you divide that sum by the number of days you spend sailing, that’s the figure you get.”
Part of the challenge for me is that I want to build an Irish campaign in Ireland. It’s something that I have in the back of my head all the time – that maybe at some point in the future, I’ll be able to do that.
“I love France and I love living in France, but I’m Irish – it’s my identity and it’s who I am and I would love to be able to be based in Ireland and help to set up the kind of infrastructure that they have in France.
No mobile phones are allowed in these races. New technology and weather apps give certain advantages to sailors that may be uneven so you can only talk over an open VHF channel.
Joan’s main sponsor is the new Irish whiskey brand Grace O’Malley Irish Whiskey. They’re supporting her on the Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro and Joan will also be racing under black sails emblazoned with the logo of the famous 16th-century Pirate Queen, aka Grainuaile – a somewhat fitting sponsorship match given the parallels between Joan’s swashbuckling career and that of her formidable ancestor. According to Joan, it was as good a case of serendipity as one could find in the world of sports sponsorship:
“We went into the meeting and sat down and each side presented its story. Then we kind of stopped and looked at each other and all went ‘Wow, this actually works! I think we have a story here!’ That was really cool and when you have that kind of response, it’s just great.”
The progress of La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro can be followed on the official website here, where you can also look at previous stages.