Niall McMonagle doesn’t look like a man who has had endure some of the most severe weather conditions the Atlantic Ocean has to offer.
Niall is a crew member of the Geraldton Western Australia.
The boat is participating in the famous Clipper Round the World Yacht Race.
Clean shaven, slightly tanned and wearing a brightly coloured polo shirt, Niall McMonagle has certainly used his time in Derry to his advantage.
“It’s nice to be back home. It’s nice to be in a big bed and it’s nice to be able have a warm shower,” he laughs.
The 21 year-old Belmont Crescent man looked weather-beaten and tired when he stepped off the Geraldton and back onto home soil last Saturday morning.
Waiting for Niall was his father, John McMonagle.
“It was great seeing my father again. He’s not a man to tell me that he’s always proud of me but I knew by the look on his face on Saturday that he was delighted to see me and proud of what I had done,” says Niall smiling.
John is a local businessman. Sadly, Niall’s mum Jackie passed away two years ago.
The oldest of three children, Niall has a brother Caoilfhionn (18) and a sister Eimear (14).
“I had a very privileged childhood. My fondest memories of growing in Belmont Crescent are of having my friends around the back of the house playing.
“I always liked it when there were plenty of people about the house.
“We went away on some amazing family holidays together so I definitely had a great childhood.”
Niall attended St. Patrick’s Primary School in Pennyburn before moving onto Lumen Christi College in Bishop Street where he studied Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics and History at A-level.
“I got accepted to study finance at Queen’s University in Belfast and I competed two years there but then things started to get bad with my mum so I dropped out of university and moved back home.”
Sadly, Niall’s mother lost her battle with cancer and died two years ago. However, Niall returned to education when he was successful with his application to study finance and law at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh.
“I am really enjoying it at the minute in Edinburgh. The course is great and I love the city. I’ll complete my course is 2014 and it’s my ambition to become a stockbroker and then hopefully return to Derry where I would like to work with my father in OMEGA [a property maintenance business of which Niall’s father is the managing director].”
As a youngster growing up in Derry, Niall played some football for Steelstown Brian Ogs but he developed a passion when he joined his uncle Vinny on a sailing lesson.
“My uncle Vinny and I have always been pretty close and I decided to go along with him this one day to try out sailing.
“I was instantly hooked and I started sailing small dinghies on Lough Swilly and I was also involved with the local yacht club.”
As a sailing enthusiast Niall had heard of the famous round-the- world Clipper race when he was younger but did he ever dream that he would get the chance to take part?
“If I am honest with you I never thought that I would ever do something like this but when I heard that the Clipper race was going to come to Derry I thought that it was too good an opportunity to pass by.”
Niall read that the Clipper race was planning on including Derry as one of its stops on the eighth stage of the race.
“I was back home working for my father at OMEGA at the time, when I read about it [Clipper race] in a magazine. My father and uncle Vinny were in the office with me and they told me to go for it, so I did.”
Niall was a little late with his application but he met a man involved in the organising of the race, David Cosworth, in Derry for an interview.
“I had a bit of an idea that I was going to get my chance,” says Niall.
“David asked me if I wanted to be on the Derry boat but I wanted to take myself out of my comfort zone and go on a boat where I didn’t know anyone.”
Niall was accepted and it cost in the region of £9,000 for him to take part in the eighth stage of the prestigious world yacht race. Was it money well spent?
“When you’re at sea you think to yourself, ‘what the hell have I let myself in for?’. But the feeling I got when I stepped off the boat and back onto home soil last week was like no other. It felt like I had accomplished something big - it’s hard to explain but I was glad I did it.”
After he was accepted, Niall underwent four weeks of intense maritime training in Gosport near Portsmouth.
On June 7 Niall met up with the other 15 Geraldton Western Australia crew members in New York.
“The boat was docked near Wall Street in New York,” he recalls.
“The first leg of the trip saw us sail from New York to Halifax. To be honest with you it was amazing because the weather conditions were perfect and the sail was so pleasant.
“I saw plenty of whales and dolphins and one evening I saw what is known as a perfect sunset. I was one of only two people on board the boat that saw it. Apparently a perfect sunset is when you see a purple flash of light just as the sun goes down past the horizon - it was amazing.”
After four days at sea, Niall and the rest of the crew reached the Canadian town of Halifax where they spent five days before setting sail for Derry.
Niall describes Halifax as a quiet place but as the saying goes you can take the man out of Derry but you can’t take Derry out of the man.
“It may have been quiet but it didn’t stop us from finding a few nightclubs,” laughs Niall.
“Halifax is an amazing place and if I really enjoyed my time there.”
The Geraldton Western Australia set sail for Derry on June 16 and reached their destination two weeks later on June 30.
Niall said that the journey from Halifax to Derry was testing and at times he wanted to be nowhere else but back at the family home in Belmont Crescent.
“Our breakfast consisted of porridge, lunch would have been a baked potato with chilli and then dinner was usually pasta or rice based.
“Everyone on board took turns at cleaning and cooking the boat. And if you were the morning shift you made lunch for the next group coming on and if you were the night shift you made breakfast for the others coming on. When you are living on a small boat with 15 other people you need to be organised, you need systems in place.
“The sleeping quarters were small bunks and I can tell you that we all really got to know one another at sea.”
Niall says that the weather conditions whilst crossing the Atlantic Ocean were “horrific” and said that he was concerned when he learned that the boat was sailing on the outskirts of Hurricane Chris.
“Some of the weather conditions I saw on the way to Derry were horrific. The hurricane was unbelievable and some of the waves were just out of this world but we got through it by working as a team.
“The funny thing is, some of the people on board the boat aren’t the people that you would see yourself getting on with in normal life but at sea you have no choice. The only thing you have is one another and that’s why it was so important that we worked as a team.
“There were times when the weather was so bad that I was scared that I might fall over the side but I suppose that was just natural.”
A few days before reaching Derry Niall was fast asleep when one of the other crew members woke him up.
“They told me they had something to show me - it was the coastline of Ireland. I never thought that seeing Ireland could be so good. I was tired and delighted at the same time - it was amazing.”
Niall and the rest of the Geraldton crew arrived in Derry last Saturday morning. Niall says that for the duration of the trip he was trying his best to talk Derry up to the crew of two Irish, three South Africans and ten English.
“I kept telling everyone how good a place Derry was but when we sailed under the Foyle Bridge last Saturday I didn’t have to say a thing - the people of Derry did the talking for me,” he says proudly.
“The reception we got was out of this world but there was a wee bit of me jealous of the Derry-Londonderry crew when they sailed in on Sunday. The people of the city came out in their thousands. It was just amazing to witness it.”
The Geraldton Western Australia set sail for the city of Den Helder in northern Holland yesterday. It’s expected that that it will take the crew four or five days to reach their destination and then after a few days spent in Den Helder the crew will make the final part of their voyage to Southampton.
“It’ll be an amazing feeling when it’s all over,” says Niall.
“I’ve made quite a few contacts through the captain of the Geraldton so I might hang about in Southampton and see if there are any sailing opportunities going.
“I am also looking forward to getting back home and spending some time with my family and my girlfriend Hannah McAllister.
“It’s been an absolute privilege taking part in the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race - it’s been a trip of lifetime and I’ll never forget it until the day I die.”