Sailing: Oceans apart

Jonathan Brown messes about in his dinghy on Chingford reservoir. Nick Moloney sails the world on hi-tech superyachts. So when amateur met professional at Cowes, it was an inspiration
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The Independent Online

Let's make this clear. I am a keen sailor. I am, however, also a crap one. Despite the modest nature of my talents, and the self-deprecation of my self-knowledge, I don't allow my lack of ability to get in the way of puppy-like enthusiasm. Far from it.

Let's make this clear. I am a keen sailor. I am, however, also a crap one. Despite the modest nature of my talents, and the self-deprecation of my self-knowledge, I don't allow my lack of ability to get in the way of puppy-like enthusiasm. Far from it.

During a recent outing on my home water - a small reservoir by the North Circular in east London - my wife, who crews our sailing dinghy, had had enough of my increasingly tyrannical and incompetent behaviour. As I screamed and floundered, she simply dived overboard and swam ashore, leaving me to be towed ignominiously home by the club rescue boat. So, when the opportunity arose to spend a day with one of the world's leading sailors and adventurers, I was unable to resist a meeting of such unequals.

Nick Moloney is due to set sail in September on the Vendée Globe - the gruelling solo round-the-world endurance race in which sailor, boat and the elements come together in harrowing intensity. For Nick, an affable 36-year-old who trained as a plumber in his native Melbourne before taking to the seas professionally, the voyage will be his last big-ticket sail before settling down to mere trifles such as future Olympic challenges. The Vendée - one man, one boat, four oceans and 100 days at sea alone - will be his third circumnavigation of the globe since he turned professional.

So when we met on board his boat on the first day of this year's Skandia Cowes Week, it was fair to say one of us had a lot to learn from the other.

The night before had seen this demure seaside town spring into life. There was something of the air of a university ball about the place. The big-name corporate branders were there, with their marquees and pop music; the pubs were overflowing and small knots of rudely healthy people in brightly coloured, matching Goretex were parading up and down the main drag. Most were stocking up on provisions from the local Somerfield, where champagne was on special offer. It is that kind of event.

On the day we met, the town resonated to the early-morning honks of a fog horn. But the skies cleared and the day was alive with possibility. Sea and horizon merged into a seamless blue. The light breeze (actually, for someone of my standard, it's a little bit windy) is causing some concern. But the Solent is a forest of masts and sails.

Moloney, flinty-eyed, obviously brave and highly competent, is refreshingly personable for a top-flight athlete. He also has a sense of humour. My first task, he told me, was to "grind up" the mainsail using a double-handed winch. Even with the help of another person, the task left my legs quivering from exertion. This is an exercise he must complete at least eight times a day, every day, often in towering seas, if he is to finish the Vendée, let alone win. It must be done despite snatching brief 20-minute bursts of sleep at a time for the duration of the race. But the physical side, it seems, is merely a detail to the psychological exertion required to be a world-beating sailor.

"Mental effort is 90 per cent of round- the-world sailing," he explains. To limber up for the task ahead he uses yoga, visualisation and meditation techniques.

His boat, the 60ft Skandia - formerly belonging to Ellen MacArthur - is specially adapted to soothe the mind. The panels of its cockpit - a claustrophobic pod of hi-tech wiring and a single, Captain Kirk-style command chair - are painted a light-custard colour. "Babyshit" is his preferred description. The idea is that this soothing colour will help iron out the emotional peaks and troughs that come with pitting the mind and body against the world's moodiest oceans. Too happy, and you get over confident and make a mistake. Too down, and you lose focus on the task at hand. In Berlin, explains Moloney, taxis are already painted this colour to cut down on road rage. Does it work? "Yeah, kind of," he says, although he doesn't like the colour.

With the sail aloft, and a few nibbles being passed round by the French-Australian crew, we got talking. When did the taste for such ludicrously ostentatious adventure strike? His road to Damascus moment came during a visit to New Zealand where he laid eyes on the Trophée Jules Verne. The race was devised in the early Nineties by two French sailors, Titouan Lamazou and Florence Arthaud, inspired by the exploits of Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days. The challenge, naturally enough, is to circumnavigate the globe in less than the 80 days achieved by Fogg. The record, which Moloney held for nearly two years until recently, has already been whittled down to the low sixties. "I had to have it," he says.

His odyssey began, and he first started crewing on the international circuit in 1992 for the Australian challenge in the America's Cup in San Diego, before transferring to the Italian team that went on to win the Louis Vuitton Cup.

His first round-the-world experience came in 1998 when he competed in the Whitbread, an experience that galvanised his ambition. But a more bizarre and painful challenge lay ahead - windsurfing across the Bass Straits between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. "I simply couldn't believe it had never been done," he says.

Training took an unusual form. The key to crossing the 160-mile stretch of water, he surmised, was getting through the "wall" - the point when the body runs out of glycogen and is forced to find an alternative energy supply. Turning traditional fitness techniques on their head, he took part in a series of events beyond his existing physical capacity, but without undergoing the usual rigorous training regime. These included a 230-mile bike ride, and extra-long "fun" runs during which he succeeded in hitting the wall on several occasions. The technique was controversial, and frowned upon by the adventure establishment in Australia, including the Victorian Institute of Sport, of which he is a member.

Undeterred, Moloney pushed on and completed the windsurf in December 1998 in 22 hours. "I am far and away not the best windsurfer I know. It was total willpower. I was completely exhausted and must have fallen in the water 80 times at least. The only way I kept going was because my chase boat kept shouting 'we are not coming back here'."

When he eventually arrived at Tasmania, he was dehydrated, with a blood blister the size of a watermelon on his hip from where the sail had been rubbing. Taken to hospital, he was placed on a drip as the press began asking questions about his race preparations. "I just got back to my flat and kept my head down," he says. But the record stood and he made it into the Guinness Book of Records. Just a few weeks later, however, he found himself embroiled in altogether more tragic circumstances.

The 628-nautical-mile Sydney to Hobart race is considered by many to be the toughest in the world. In 1998, a few hours before it was due to start, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology issued a storm warning. But it was too late to stop the fleet. The severe weather that blew in claimed the lives of six sailors. Of the 115 boats that took part, five sank, 66 retired and 55 crew members had to be rescued. Moloney was one of those forced to retire after his yacht, Wild Thing, suffered a damaged mast.

It was clearly a difficult time for him. Many of the people who had been critical of his Tasmanian escapade were at Hobart. The coroner who investigated the deaths was critical of both the weathermen and the race officials.

Yet more was to come a few months later when Moloney was forced to retire during the first leg of the Mini Transat, when his boat, appropriately entitled The Wild Colonial Boy, was rolled in another storm and its mast snapped. It was perhaps the most treacherous moment of his career.

"I was outside the boat and under the water and felt everything beginning to close down. I just gave up," he says. By a miracle, he came to the surface, recovered his composure and survived, suffering just a badly broken arm.

Three years later, he went on to fulfil his ambition. On his 34th birthday, as the only non-Frenchman on the maxi-catamaran Orange, he broke the existing Jules Verne record by seven days, crossing the finishing-line in 64 days, eight hours, 37 minutes and 24 seconds. The experience inspired his book, Chasing the Dawn.

It is a subtle path that adventurers such as Moloney walk, somewhere between irresponsibility, egotism and genuine heroism. But it is as figures of inspiration that those in the tightly knit world of adventure sailing see themselves.

Ellen MacArthur trundles past us on this sunny Cowes day- a million miles from the tragedy of Hobart or the perils of the Southern Ocean. Aboard her giant 75ft-trimaran B&Q is a cargo of corporate guests. At this level, yachting is a never-ending quest for sponsorship and financial support. Saddled with an élitist image, its jargon and rules a mystery to the casual observer, yachting has yet to make it into the mainstream of popular global sport. Those inside the business, for international yacht teams are becoming increasingly corporate in the way they organise and picture themselves, believe it can, one day, have the mass appeal of Formula One.

Sometimes described as a game of chess, played by rugby players in motor-racing cars, one of the key challenges in international yachting will be in making the forthcoming America's Cup, due to be held in Valencia in 2007, a success. It will be the first time the cup has returned to Europe in 150 years, and unlike in New Zealand 2002, it will be within easy reach of 300 million affluent consumers, and fall perfectly for primetime European television.

But it is at the personal level that it must resonate and inspire if it is to succeed. Ellen MacArthur tells how during the Vendée Globe race she received 52,000 e-mails. One of them said: "Ellen, you're such a gutsy girl that I felt I should be doing something with my life. So I went into the shed, fixed the lawnmower and mowed the lawn for the first time in two years."

So after a day out with Moloney, was I feeling inspired? Let's put it this way, I'm going sailing next weekend.