Loud cheers rang out in the French port of Nantes Saint-Nazaire on September 7 when Irish super sailor Tom Dolan crossed the finish line of the 53rd Solitaire du Figaro.
In a magnificent feat of skill, endurance and sheer determination, the Meathman finished seventh in the three-stage race, which took place over three weeks, with 34 starters.
Sometimes the conditions were brutally difficult. So much so that at one point the brave Irishman, tied to the helm of his boat (Smurfit Kappa-Kingspan) in fierce weather, stayed awake for more than 30 hours.
Recalling how his love of sailing began, he recalled his childhood in Moynalty and his late father, who introduced him to the sport.
“When I was a child, around nine years old, my aul boy had an idea and bought a wooden canoe for a few hundred on buy and sell.
“He fixed it and took me sailing. I remember the bale string he tied to that boat, the blue string. And the lake.”
He took a break from sailing as a teenager: “Nobody in Meath is sailing as a teenager,” he laughs. “But still, every opportunity I had, I would fall back into it and I found it came very easily, very naturally for me. But you have to work on it. »
To get to where he takes his guts and self-confidence professionally: “In Ireland, single-handed sailing seems crazy. So I had to leave and moved to France with the Glénans when I was 23 or 24.
“It was exciting. But over the years I realized that I was losing touch with people and that I had sacrificed a lot to move. Regrets? “None. I could never have had a normal life. But what I’m doing now is very difficult and sometimes I feel like I’m living on another planet.
“When I was in sailing circles back home in Ireland, I was the country lad with the weird accent and I didn’t fit in there. a running club.
“This way [in France] I’m still an outsider, I’m still trying to fit in. But in my athletic performance, I fit in.
Running solo for weeks on end is not conducive to sleep. But Dolan is using autopilot to nap.
“I set my alarm clock for 20 minutes and doze off.” What would happen if a lone sailor had to doze off for six hours straight? “He would be the last,” he replies.
Did it overtake other solo sailors who were clearly sleeping too long?
“I know a boy who slept for an hour during a race. But we [solo race competitors] pay attention to each other. If we were all going one way and it was dark and a boat was going the opposite direction towards land, we would call that sailor on the radio and ask him if everything was okay.
Has he ever overslept this way? “No never.”
When asked if single-handed sailing for an extended period of time in bad weather can lead a mentally exhausted sailor into dark waters, he says, “Not the kind of racing I do”, before telling me about the Sunday time Golden Globe Race (the first single-handed, non-stop yacht race around the world), and the dastardly toll it took on participant Daniel Crowhurst, who sacrificed everything, then paid the ultimate price.
On the topic of isolation at sea, Dolan shares that in single-handed races, competing boats are regularly close together.
I wonder if they are so close that a ball could be thrown from boat to boat (it’s possible) and if sailors ever yell at or at adjacent competitors (they don’t, though that some shouting between riders is sometimes heard approaching the finish line of the final race).
I ask what was more difficult for him during the three week race he just finished, the mental or physical toll, or if they are irrevocably linked. “The fatigue during the last stage of the race,” he replies.
“The weather determines when I sleep or rest. But during the descent towards the north of Spain, there was an unstable wind, then a very strong wind on the way back. So there was no time to sleep at all.
“At one point the wind was so extreme that I went at least 30 hours without sleeping. When I started having exhaustion hallucinations, I was screaming loudly, singing, and punching myself in the face, to stay alert. My brain was so tired that I was daydreaming. Does exhaustion kill appetite? “It does. I had to force myself to eat.
There were also good times. When the weather permitted, Dolan on the run listened to music (The Saw Doctors) and comedy (Tommy Tiernan).
We talk more about solo racing and I glean that when he is at sea, he prefers sunrise to sunset. He does not eat fish on his racing boat. But that doesn’t mean he’s superstitious because he isn’t, even though he wouldn’t change the name of a boat.
Do things ever stop working while he’s racing alone? “Things are breaking. I had to abandon a race once when my mast broke.
Of course, while sailing solo, Dolan has a team following him.
“They help with the technical side of things and with communications and finance. But as long as I have a team on land, at sea I am in control of everything on board. Having no one to blame but myself is the ultimate challenge and so much more intense. It’s clear he loves every minute and he can rely on himself and he does.
Of his sponsors: Smurfit Kappa and Kingspan, he says: “I am grateful to them for believing and investing in me. They were great motivators for me.
Of course, Dolan believed in him from the start, long before the sponsors arrived.
I used most of my father’s inheritance to buy not a house, but a boat. There were times when I was so close to financial ruin that I almost gave up.
“In the early years, 2014-2017, things were getting pretty hairy. These were difficult times. But I got a sponsorship in 2017 and in 2018 I was fully professional and stopped having to borrow money.
What propelled him out of the green fields of Co Meath and into France and into professional sailing?
“I didn’t want to be a farmer. I didn’t like hard work. All wet and cold,” he laughs. He then pauses while we both review his current working conditions. “Yeah,” he said. “And look where I ended up.”
Tom speaks glowingly of his girlfriend – from France, Karine: “She supports me. We met when I started. She was hitchhiking in a boat at the time and she snagged a sail with me.” While serendipity seems to have played a role in Tom Dolan’s life, he doesn’t believe in fate.
“I was made to do what I do. I couldn’t do anything else. If you go hard enough, do everything to get it, give it all the energy you have, you will get there in the end.
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