Wind in his sails

31-year-old Derry man Sean McCarter who will skipper a boat in this year's Clupper race
31-year-old Derry man Sean McCarter who will skipper a boat in this year's Clupper race

Sean McCarter’s is certainly a life less ordinary than the everyday Inishowen yachtsman.

The 31 year-old has been grizzled by ocean extremes ever since he was a teenager and now spends most of his time skippering super yachts on the high seas.

Since he was just ten years old he’s been in love with the adrenaline rush of yacht racing. The pre-teen steadied his sea legs in competitive dinghy races on Lough Swilly, under the watchful eyes of his father Andy and uncles John and Willie - all accomplished yachtsmen in their own right. During the school holidays he couldn’t wait to get out on the waves, working as a fisherman with the Browne family from Inch.

Although he’s now just 31 years old, Sean’s CV is impressive. It lists many high octane sea adventures aboard racing yachts on the ocean waves and charts his climb through the ranks to the top of his game.

The Foyle and Londonderry College and St Oran’s Primary School past pupil been around the world and back, and then around again.

But this week, the Buncrana man agreed to face the greatest challenge of his life so far when he grasped the opportunity to skipper a yacht in the Clipper 13-14 Round the world Yacht Race.

He is one of only 12 professional sailors selected to skipper one of the brand new fleet of stripped down 70-foot ocean racing yachts, which will be crewed by non-professional sailors as they compete in the world’s longest ocean race.

It’s a job he’s “relishing” but there’s much to done before the 40,000-mile circumnavigation casts off this summer for an eleven month long endurance challenge.

“I’ve raced around the world before but anything I’ve done will be very far removed from the Clipper experience. In the World Arc Rally for cruisers it was a luxurious sailing compared to what I expect from the Clipper experience - we had air conditioning, heating, fridges, dry cushions and could watch dvds. This is my biggest adventure so far, I don’t doubt that.”

Each one of the new Clipper fleet of yachts has been stripped to the bare bones to ensure they are the best racing machines they can be. Each vessel may have cost the guts of £1m to manufacture but there will be little luxury as up to 22 people are crammed on board with subsistence rations for each stage of the gruelling race.

Last year’s fleet of 68 foot Clipper yachts - including the ‘Derry~Londonderry’ vessel - which made three circumnavigations, has been scrapped and the local man is excited as the prospect of taking the helm on board one of the new racing yachts.

“We were out on one yesterday and I think everyone was very impressed by it, I certainly was. A lot of improvements have been made on the last boat, a lot of knowledge and experience has gone into the design.”

In fact it’s hoped that thanks to experience gained on the previous editions of clipper yachts that the new, bigger boats will be 10% faster. “That’s a big difference on the ocean”, Sean said.

The Buncrana man has not yet been told which city or company his yacht will be representing in the big race but he’s determined to give his all to securing a podium finish at the end of the global challenge.

“Of course I want to win. I’ve been following the Whitbread, Volvo Ocean Race, Vendee Globe and Clipper Race yacht races since I was 10 years-old, and it has always been a dream of mine to sail around the world.

“The Clipper Race is exceptional with its matched fleet of racing yachts. It is because of this you will see some seriously close ocean racing.”

However, it’s far from the clipper racing yachts that the young sailor cut his teeth as a seaman. Summer months and school breaks were spent on the Swilly and surrounding waters, whether racing dinghies or fishing.

“I grew up sailing boats of all shapes and sizes. But my interest really started when I was about 10 and started racing dinghies in the Swilly. I was hooked on it right away - it was all about the competition for me against my friends. It was great fun”

However, becoming a master yachtsman and skippering super yachts was and remains a very rare career choice for people in this country. But it was a career Sean would seek out, even switching from university in Edinburgh in favour of Plymouth to be at the heart of British yachting culture.

“I went to university in Edinburgh for a couple of years and studied geology but I then changed to study marine science in Plymouth. I was heavily involved in the sailing teams of both universities. As soon as I graduated I headed to Valencia to find out what the Americas Cup was all about.” It was the first time the Regatta of the race was held in Europe since the 1851 and Sean secured a job on board the corporate sponsor yacht for the Alinghi - the then holders of the world’s oldest international trophy. “That’s how I got into super yachts and I continued to work on large privately owned yachts since. Initially I worked as a deckhand, then First Mate, before spending a few years in the engineering department. For the last few years I’ve been a skipper.”

Having come from a family of sea lovers, Sean has continued the trend, marrying yachts’ chef Sofia seven months ago. He met the native of Gothenburg in Sweden “on board a 100 ft sailing boat on a transatlantic delivery to Barbados”. And she is backing her new hubby all the way in his latest global challenge. “Sofia is the one who pushed me towards this, I think because she realises more than anyone that it is something I have to get out of my system.

She’s also looking forward to doing a bit of travelling - coming to visit me at the stopovers around the world.”

Although Sean was in a boat in the Med somewhere” when last year’s big stopover party took place in Derry, he’s heard all about the spectacular homecoming ever since.

Thousands of people lined the quayside in Derry to witness the arrival of the ten strong fleet of 68-foot racing yachts competing in the Clipper 11-12 Race.

“My family and friends told me all about how it was great for the city and how they put on a great show.” Sean added that at Clipper headquarters in Gosport the Derry stopover “is still talked about”.

“Everyone has told me just how good it was - this is the ninth edition of the race but it stands out over other stopovers for Clipper.”

He added: “Clipper’s people are in talks with lots of cities and I think Derry is included in that as well.”

Looking ahead to the race, 2013-14 race there’s one particular highlight that stands out for Sean.

“I’m looking forward to the enormous challenge ahead of me, I can’t wait to tackle the unpredictable nature of the Southern Ocean.”

Sean will certainly be looking to avoid the fate of the last Derry man to skipper a yacht in the race.

Local man Richie Fearon was the skipper of the Cork Clipper when it struck a reef in the Java Sea and crashed out of the January 2010. The crew was successfully evacuated but the Cork Clipper was abandoned and lost at sea.

Although Derry now has its second skipper in the history of the prestigious round the world race, sailing is far from the popular career choice at home as it is elsewhere, Sean explained. “It’s an industry I didn’t know even existed until I moved away. In places like South Africa and Australia it’s treated very differently.

“I was in Cape Town a few years back and did some sailing courses with boys and girls much younger than me - it is quite an obvious career choice there.”

Sean recently moved to Gosport, where the training of around 700 (up to 20% of those have signed up to sail right around the world is getting underway.

When he’s on dry land, he normally lives in Palma, Mallorca - a Mediterranean Mecca for yacht enthusiasts.

The Clipper Race was founded in 1996 by sailing legend Sir Robin Knox-Johnston, the first man to sail single-handed, non-stop around the world in 1968-69.

He remains hands on in running the race and is heavily involved in selecting the skippers.

“The standard of applicants for this race was high and the successful candidates have been through a rigorous and challenging selection process to get to this point.

“I am sure that Sean will relish the challenges to come,” said Sir Robin. I know that we have chosen and exceptional group of people to undertake the task of leading our crews around the world.”