Enda O'Coineen's remarkable Journey To The Edge
David Roy chats to Irish entrepreneur Enda O'Coineen about his new book recounting his round-the-world sailing adventure and extolling the virtues of risk-taking in life and business
THE cover of Galway man Enda O'Coineen's new memoir Close To The Edge bills it as 'an amazing story of risk-taking in business and adventure', combining tales of his death-defying round-the-world sailing exploits as the first Irishman ever to take part in the legendary Vendée Globe solo yacht race with a forward-facing personal philosophy that's been key to his success as an internationally minded entrepreneur with interests in a variety of sectors including hospitality, publishing, energy and technology.
Perhaps taking after his great-grandfather, who joined the Klondike goldrush before returning home to Galway to plough his plunder into becoming a publican and family man, gambling with uncertainty has always been an essential catalyst for the Dublin/Prague-based O'Coineen (64), who began sailing in his teens. He writes that "risk taking flows through my life... it's what I do, who I am."
At just 21, O'Coineen crossed the Atlantic from the US to Ireland alone in an experimental sailing life raft of his own design and it wasn't long before he made his fortune by bringing credit facilities and cheap communications to Central/Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"It was really just an adventure and a way to get back home," he says of the this trans-Atlantic crossing and its impact on his later life.
"But inadvertently, it started me on a life of doing things differently. That was quite formative in terms of what I did. Otherwise I might just gone into a [normal] job."
More recently, last year his Kilcullen Kapital Partners purchased the Sunday Business Post and are in the process of transforming the venerable Irish Sunday title into a "digital big data platform"-enabled news source as The Business Post.
I caught up with the Galway man in Belfast prior to the launch of Journey To The Edge at No Alibis bookshop. Over coffee at The Merchant Hotel, he told me a bit about how his relationship with the city is intertwined with its maritime heritage – and it maritime future.
"I think the maritime side of Belfast is an incredible power potential," says O'Coineen, who is a founder of the Atlantic Youth Trust: proceeds from the book will go towards this educational programme which aims to broaden young people's horizons via sailing projects.
"I do a lot of sailing in Belfast Lough and I've had a lot of connection in the Tall Ships here. I first sailed in here with the Tall Ships in 1991 and was on the committee with Belfast Harbour and Belfast City Council to bring the Tall Ships back [in 2009].
"On my round-the-world trip, I took the boat around Ireland first and I spent a good deal of time with the boat in Belfast during preparations and training."
As mentioned, O'Coineen's Vendée Globe adventure is covered in detail in the new book, which shares its title with a documentary that actually takes viewers on board the Team Ireland vessel, 60ft yacht The Kilcullen Voyager. Of particular note is the heart-stopping moment when, 57 days into the race, the whole thing almost ended in disaster when a freak storm ripped off the Voyager's mast.
"I was 180 miles south east of South Island New Zealand and the Antarctic was 200 miles in the other direction," recalls the veteran sailor, who by this point had actually decided to reassess his love of risk-taking.
"In getting half way around the world I had made it through two particularly bad storms," O'Coineen continues.
"I was celebrating New Year's Day , thinking 'that's it, I've done my bit'. The irony of it was that just a few hours later, my whole world fell apart – literally."
Although the storm put paid to his Vendée race, the Galway adventurer made it to New Zealand and became determined to finish his circumnavigation – which he did in 2018, after forming an alliance with a similarly stricken French team as Le Souffle du Nord Kilcullen Team Ireland.
While many men would have been content to have tried and failed in such a challenging endeavour, something in O'Coineen refused to let him quit. Again, it all comes back to risk and reward.
"This book is about a story of going around the world – my 'journey to the edge' – but really it's about risk and it's about adventure and it's about pushing the boundaries," he enthuses.
"We've become a very risk-adverse society. We have just made it so difficult to do anything. Kids cannot climb trees because of insurance risks and there's 'helicopter' parenting. If people hadn't taken risks, this hotel wouldn't have been built – do you see what I mean? I really want to get that message out there."
He continues: "That's my whole point about trying to get kids engaged with the maritime: when you take them out of their daily environment you can stimulate the thought process. I was fortunate that when I was young I went away on boats, I travelled and crewed on boats in the Caribbean and travelled around South America – I'm not saying I'm anything special but it did stimulate me."
As an international businessman for whom success in mainland Europe has been such a key factor in his own life story, the Galway man is perfectly placed to judge the ongoing Brexit debacle which could soon place a trade border in the Irish Sea.
"Being in Europe doesn't mean sacrificing your culture or who you are – it just makes sense," argues O'Coineen, who is also president of the International Federation of Irish Pubs.
"When I went out to Prague and Warsaw, I was a second class citizen – but then when they joined the European Union it was absolutely brilliant. I mean look at the progress in 20 years, the mobility, the transformation. Kids can go and work anywhere in Europe, and that's what so exciting about what we have – but now people seem to want to blow it."
However, O'Coineen also believes that certain EU regulations are stifling for natural born risk-takers like himself.
"I think, in a bizarre way, that's what Brexit is about," he tells me. "Brexit is an ass, it's stupid – there's no doubt that Britain is much better as part of the European Union than outside of it – but there are so many rules and regulations that come from Europe done in the name of safety and standards, but actually, when you drill down, it's about control.
"Brexit is Britain rebelling against the rules and regulations – even though Brexit is not the way to solve it. That's delusional. We need Britain 'in', to stop that centralisation from within."
As a passionate seaman, O'Coineen says Ireland – and Belfast in particular – is no longer building upon its maritime traditions in a constructive manner.
"We've sort of withdrawn from the sea," he muses. "Belfast is obsessed by its maritime past but it's not really doing much to connect young people with the future. What's been done [with the Titanic] is fabulous, but it's becoming a museum – and you can't bring the youth up in a museum, it has to live and go forward.
"What you see in Belfast Harbour that was built 50 or 100 years ago would not have happened if young people had not gone away to sea and come back with ideas. The Atlantic Youth Trust's mission is to connect young people with the ocean and adventure. We really need a representative Youth Tall Ship for Belfast, and we're working on such a project.
"I think when you're looking at the past, you also have to look to the future."
:: Journey To The Edge by Enda O'Coineen is out now, published by Ballpoint Press.