IN HER ELEMENT Westport sailor Joan Mulloy aboard the Irish Pirate Queen. Pic: Oliver Bauduin
Trailblazing sailor, Westport woman Joan Mulloy chats to Ger Flanagan about her seafaring hopes and dreams
OVER 400 years after Granuaile departed Clew Bay and sailed her ship up the River Thames to demand an audience with Queen Elizabeth I, her descendent Joan Mulloy is attempting to recreate that historic journey.
The tale goes that the fearless Granuaile met Queen Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace to discuss the Crown’s persecution of her people, and after successful negotiations the Clew Bay Queen sailed back to Ireland unscathed.
Thankfully for Westport sailor Mulloy, whose maternal grandmother was an O’Malley, Irish/English relations have become slightly more diplomatic some five centuries later as she prepares to retrace her ancestor’s voyage next month.
Mulloy’s motives aren’t to demand a meeting with Queen Elizabeth II, but instead she’s doing it ‘more as a celebration’. Rather fittingly, Mulloy has secured sponsorship from Grace O’Malley Whiskey, which will allow her race on the circuit for the season.
She’ll arrive into London under the black and grey sails of the ‘Irish Pirate Queen’ too.
“We thought it would be a fun thing to do,” the 31 year old told The Mayo News. “And once we had the Grace O’Malley Whiskey sponsorship on board, they also thought it would be a brilliant idea.
“It will be so cool to recreate her voyage and bring the boat to the centre of London, to Tower Bridge, with ‘Irish Pirate Queen’ written on the sails.
“If you think back to that time, it was a pretty ballsy thing for her to do. She wasn’t the English’s favourite person, so to sail up the River Thames during that time, she and her crew were pretty defenceless, and to manage to chat to Queen Elizabeth, woman to woman, to try and work things out, it’s a cool story.”
The journey along the northern coast of Ireland and across the Irish Sea is expected to take Mulloy seven days, with her arriving into London on September 7.
Unlike her pirate ancestor, Mulloy will sail solo on her journey, like she has done since 2017 when she decided to take the plunge and launch her own solo offshore sailing career.
Mulloy learned to sail at Westport Sailing Club as a child and continued her interest in the sport throughout her college years at NUI Galway. Her first taste of solo racing came after her graduation in the Round Ireland race. The bug bit strongly after that, so much so that she left a steady job in engineering to work as a crew member for a solo sailing team in the United Kingdom before deciding she was ready to be her own captain.
A year later, Mulloy made history by becoming the first Irish woman to ever compete in the La Solitaire Urgo Le Figaro, the ocean’s equivalent to the Tour de France. For the race’s 50th anniversary this year, Mulloy was amongst the racers for the 2,000 mile race once again, the first leg of which stretched from Nantes to Kinsale.
“It was amazing, brilliant to arrive into Kinsale this year,” she said. “Last year all the legs were in France and that’s where I did my training. The race is a massive deal in France; over 400,000 people turned out to see the boats.
“The people who win the race are household names. So it was really cool to have it come to Ireland and for all the people in Ireland to see these boats and to see what I’ve been on about all this time.”
Offshore solo racing is incredibly challenging, both mentally and physically. Sailors will spend days on end in solitude, navigating testy waters whilst hungry and sleep deprived.
It’s not for the fainthearted.
“It took five days to sail from France to Kinsale,” she stated. “With solo sailing you can’t really sleep very much because you have to keep an eye on the board, your navigation, where you’re going and if you’re going fast enough.
“You probably sleep around ten or 15 minutes at a time, so you end up really sleep deprived. By the end of the first leg [Nantes to Kinsale], I probably slept about an hour or two every 24 hours.
“But this is something I always wanted to do. It takes a lot of motivation to wake up every ten or 15 minutes in the race, but I’m really competitive, and it’s that drive that does it.”
While completing the 2019 Figaro was a hugely proud moment for Mulloy, she does look back on the experience with some regrets. The search for sponsors to help cover the €350,000 costs for the season deprived her of some valuable training time and ultimately impacted her performance.
“Last year, getting to the start line was probably the hardest part,” she recalled. “I had to get the sponsor, the boat, do the training and get qualified, and then getting to the finish line felt like a massive achievement.
“This year I had that same feeling, but because I was a bit late with the sponsorship I didn’t feel like my performance was very good, so I have a few regrets on that.
“But if you don’t get the sponsors, you can’t go train. So when I should have been out training, I was in the office trying to find a sponsor. So if I could change one thing this year it would have been to get more training done.
“Although I think a sportsperson is always going to say that.”
Around the world
In many ways, Mulloy is the modern-day trailblazing equivalent to Granuaile. She’ll finish out this season with a few events around Ireland, in places like Carlingford and Greystones. Her ‘ultimate goal’, however, is much greater than anything she’s ever attempted before – the Vendée Globe – a non-stop round-the-world race widely regarded as the Everest of offshore sailing.
It’s a race that only one Irish person has ever skippered, and a challenge that might even have daunted her seafaring ancestor. It would be a magnificent chapter in the O’Malley history books.