By Ryan Rowe
If you find yourself with time to appreciate the Ayrshire coast, you can marvel at some of the finest sailing waters in the world. Picturesque inlets and spectacular coastal scenery are separated by elegant blue sea. The main attractions are Ardrossan, Largs and Troon, which provide a gateway not only to some of quaintest and most beautiful islands in the country, but also further afield to Skye and the Highlands to the north, Ireland to the west and England to the south.
Boat racer Conrad Colman is desperate to return to Scotland for a taste of this. The 33-year-old is famous for being the first New Zealander to finish the Vendee Globe ocean race – a 40,000 kilometre-plus round-the-world yacht race – and only the third sailor in history to complete the pursuit under jury rig (makeshift repairs to the boat), with a time of just under 110 days 2 hours; he visited Scotland at the end of March but didn’t see any of Ayrshire. Of the trip he tells me: “It’s a lovely spot. It reminds me a lot of the scenery of New Zealand. Beautiful, really nice.” He took in Glasgow, Glencoe and some of the country’s famous lochs in what he says was a “very express trip” before stressing: “I’m certainly very keen to experience Ayrshire when I come back, I’m looking forward to it.”
You can’t blame him. And, rather interestingly, there’s similarity between Colman and the Ayrshire coast, in that both are under-appreciated and relatively unknown outside of their own community. Few people know much about sailing other than it exists. But everyone that does knows about Colman. His miraculous endeavours at the most recent Vendee Globe – known in the boating circle as sailing’s Everest – propelled him into the sailing limelight like a ship under the beam of a lighthouse. Before that he’d raced in the Mini Transat, the Route du Rhum and the Barcelona World Race, and won the Global Ocean Race.
Born into a family of sailors in eighties New Zealand, Colman first learned how to skipper a ship under the tutelage of his father. He also followed in his father’s footsteps to America, where he went on to study at the University of Colorado, graduating as a Bachelor in Economy and Political Sciences.
Colman set sail for France to chase his yachting dreams, in pursuit of history in the Vendee Globe. There’s no question the mild-mannered Kiwi did that, but such is the calmness in his light-hearted tone that it takes me a while to fully comprehend the magnitude of the situation when he describes his near-death experience to me.
But before that, Colman and I are chatting about what he’s done since leaving Scotland. He says he’s been “running around like a crazy man.” Such is the hype surrounding the Vendee Globe in his adopted country, Colman hasn’t had much of a chance to relax, and the brief lunch date with his family out in Lorient town is a welcome return to serenity.
“My return from the Vendee Globe has been very full-on in the sense that there’s been a lot of media obligations but it’s been great to have the fantastic opportunity to talk about my experience at sea, the challenges that I faced out on the open ocean and the campaign that I put together. I’m very pleased to share this story with others and hopefully inspire them to take on new adventures as well.”
I ask Colman where his passion for ocean racing came from, and how he got involved in such a unique sport. I assume it’s massively more popular in New Zealand than in Scotland. How foolish of me.
“It’s surprisingly not much more commonplace, the reason I say that is because the Vendee Globe is a solo race, it’s only really the French who do solo ocean racing.”
“Why is that?”
“It comes from the culture of the country; it’s defined by its heroes. In France there have been solo sailors who created a culture of ‘sticking it to the English’ so they gave an impression of national pride and these exploits got lots of exposure and that’s blended into the culture of the country.”
Scotland is similarly defined by its legendary figures and Ayrshire has been fertile ground for these legends to grow. Robert the Bruce and Robert Burns have their roots in Ayrshire, two men who in very different ways have inspired generations to follow.
The man who inspired Colman as a child was Sir Peter Blake, one of the most decorated and celebrated sailors in history. Blake held the fastest round-the-world time for three years in succession in the nineties and led his country to multiple America’s Cup wins (sailing’s equivalent of the World Cup). He was also a keen environmentalist, like the man he inspired. Tragically however, while on an environmental mission on the Amazon River, Blake was shot dead by pirates. Dying for a cause sounds much like another hero with links to Ayrshire: William Wallace. But while much of what has been written about Wallace is up for debate, what the Daily Telegraph wrote in 2001 of Blake’s impact is not:
“If the four armed and hooded bandits who boarded Sir Peter Blake’s yacht Seamaster near Macapa on the River Amazon on Wednesday and murdered him were motivated by theft, they took something precious beyond words: the life of not simply New Zealand’s greatest sailor but one of the world’s finest and most revered yachtsmen.”
In terms of training for the event, Colman dives into the world of endurance sports. “When I was in America and lived in Colorado I was a mountain biker at a very competitive level and my tradition when I was a mountain biker was to create the most extreme circumstances in my training so that the race in comparisons would be comparatively easy, or at least manageable. But a race non-stop around the world is arguably the hardest sporting event on the planet so it’s not something you can recreate in a more extreme way because it’s already at the pinnacle of sport.”
The sailing waters of Ayrshire are sheets of blue brilliance. Trips across the sea to the likes of the Holy Isle, Little Cumbrae and Arran in particular offer unique opportunities for novice sailors and world-travelled yachtsman alike. But the sheets aren’t spread widely enough to provide adequate room for ocean racing training. It’s unlikely Colman would be able to return here to prepare for any extended period for his next circumnavigation, despite Ayrshire’s appeal, so his modus operandi on his next visit will be purely pleasure (something we can provide).
“The way you train for a race around the world,” he begins assuredly, “Is by going across the Atlantic, learning different manoeuvres; it’s a very sequential process. For the Global Ocean Race I spent a year training racing across the Atlantic in a small, 20-foot boat, going solo from France to Brazil. After that I moved up to a bigger boat in 2010 and did another transatlantic race – the Route de Ruhm – and I took that experience into taking on the world.
Despite the years of arduous and meticulous practice and preparation, Colman was plunged into peril during the Vendee Globe. Just before the distance was completed, Colman’s boat dismasted and he ran out of food. His race – his lifelong dream – was in jeopardy. He pauses, as if reliving (albeit briefly) those daunting moments. “My mental preparation came from the fact that I’d absolutely bet the farm on being a solo sailor and it’s been a 10 year goal of mine to get to the Vendee Globe, it was something I did work on every single day for 10 years. And so when things go wrong and you’ve got so much committed and invested in it then there’s no way you can turn your back on it. There was no question of giving up when the going got tough.”
I noticed in his answer that Colman had not mentioned specifically how he dealt with the lack of food. It wasn’t an attempt at a cover up to try and make him look invincible. It was just that food became such an afterthought as he strived to simply keep his boat, and his body, in one piece as the waves battered against the vessel.
“In comparison to the world of challenges I faced during the race, which most notably were a fire on board, 100 kilometre winds in the Southern Ocean which dragged my boat flat on the water and out of control for a time and the finally the dismasting. It was such an extraordinary period of misadventures that made me very stressed so being hungry, and losing 10 kilos, was far from the worst thing that happened.
“What was the most terrifying moment? Can you pick one?
“Well there were two if I’m honest, one most afraid for myself and another when I was most afraid for the boat. Talking about myself I once actually went overboard and it was in the middle of the night, the sea water was at five degrees and it was a very frightening moment. There was a very real risk of death. It was just a piece of string that saved my life.
“The other one, for the boat, was the dismasting. It was an incredibly difficult moment. Obviously it’s near the end of the race and it’s something expensive, it was very tough. The mast came down and it all became very complicated and there was a danger the mast could make a hole in the hull.”
Colman battled the wild conditions desperately for four long days as he strived to save his ship. This was an “enormous challenge” and he was unsure if he’d make it home to his wife and kids. Unsure probably didn’t cover it, because Colman’s father suffered that very tragic type of fate.
“My father was killed in an accident on board a yacht. So despite that family history I’ve still gone on to become a professional sailor. So for my wife and my mum they know what the consequences can be. But because of that I’m a very safety conscious sailor.
“Do you ever race in memory of him?”
He pauses, again in that mindful way, before proceeding with his answer. “Not directly, no. I definitely think about him when I’m at sea that’s for sure. He’s not so much a guardian angel but he does make me think twice and extra safety conscious.”
Describing the moment he finally did cross the finish line, Colman says: “It felt incredible, really. I was very relieved too. It was also a very intense satisfaction. Happiness was too fragile an emotion. I’d been chasing this for ten years and the wheels had metaphorically come off just before the finish line when the mast came down.” He was never certain, not until that last moment that he’d be able to make it.
“When you’re out on the ocean you are the most isolated people on Earth,” Colman asserts. There are certain places along the Ayrshire coast, and the rest of Scotland’s west coast, where one can feel similarly remote and secluded. I’m standing at Troon Bay, leaning on my car and admiring the water. In a pure coincidence, earlier in the day I had driven past Whitelee Wind Farm, the hub of renewable energy in Ayrshire. This is another passion of Colman, who is the first man to complete the Vendee Globe without using fossil fuels. “We’re flying the flag for renewable energy and also for my title partner, Foresight.
“It’s also why I came to Scotland, because renewable energy is developing strongly in Scotland at the moment and I’d like to use my kind of campaign to really highlight the great things Scotland is doing and how many people can benefit from this.”