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The Stormrider Who Searched Our Oceans' Limits

Nick Maloney is the sailing adventurer who swapped a career in the America’s Cup to push the limits of what one man and a boat could survive amid the wrathful storms of the open ocean

In the world of top-class sailors, a storm isn’t always something to be avoided – the faster the wind, the faster the boat, and Nick Maloney is one of those souls brave enough to attempt to ride maelstroms into the record books. He had just finished his second America’s Cup, poised to enjoy a long and illustrious career in that arena when he simply turned his back on it and walked away.

He sought a more personal challenge, one that would allow him to find the limits of his own skill and bravery, while going terrifyingly fast in a boat: the 1997-90 Whitbread Round the World Race (now the Volvo Ocean Race). Before the race had even started he and his crew diverted off course to connect with a strong storm cell that was spinning off the North American coast. The wild ride pushed them further down track than any monohull yacht had previously travelled over a 24 hour period, making them the world’s fastest ever sailors.

This feat set the tone and new World Records followed including being the first to windsurf across the notorious, shark-infested Bass Strait, as well as the Jules Verne record for the fastest non-stop unassisted lap of the planet under sail, shaving over a week off the previous record to get around in a reality-warping 64 days. Maloney says that in sport we all have our own Everest and when he finished that journey he was standing on his own personal summit.

In the Southern Ocean your next closest human is in a space station above your head

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Q: Does the epic scale of the oceans ever overwhelm you when you’re at the furthest points from land?
A:
‘Absolutely! This may sound quite dramatic but our sporting field does not have doctors on the sidelines or an ambulance 500m away with the keys in the ignition. We share an arena remoteness with the likes of mountaineers, explorers and pioneers. In one sector of the Southern Ocean, around the world sailors find themselves in a situation where your next closest human is in a space station above your head.’

‘If any situation gets critical then you are often 3-5 days away from any real assistance or potential rescue in 3°C water temperature where your lifespan is minutes if submerged. You need to be a fighter and you really need to want to live in these parts of the world. To push harder than your next opponent, or against the clock in record runs, you need to want this achievement with all of your heart and mind.’

Q: What’s the biggest storm you’ve ever sailed through?
A:
‘Without question a huge storm in the Southern Indian Ocean during the 2004-5 Vendee Globe solo nonstop around the world race. I completely lost control of the situation and my survival became critical in a 30-hour battle against water leaking into the boat and being rolled completely upside down by huge waves.’

‘It led to a satellite phone call to my father to tell him that I was quite sure that I would die at some point over the next few hours, and said my goodbye. This sounds dramatic but the situation was very real and it broke me emotionally. I have never been so afraid for my life. I was below the Antarctic ice convergence zone, halfway between South Africa and Australia, alone and getting the beating of my life in conditions that I had never previously seen or have experienced since.’

Q: What’s the most important skill for a long-distance, high speed sailor?
A:
‘Bravery! The ability to channel focus and to push away fear. At high speed, mid-ocean there is always the risk of equipment failure or hitting debris in the water, where you can basically go from fighting for a record one minute to fighting for your life the next. To be able to focus purely on speed and performance while blocking out the ‘what if’ is extremely important.’

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Q: What has been your toughest sailing challenge?
A:
‘Without doubt the Mini Transat yacht race. Across the Atlantic solo in 21ft-long boats with minimal communication or weather information. My attempt to complete this race ended in a near drowning when I was washed off my boat by a large wave in a very strong storm in the Bay of Biscay. This was the first time that I had really almost died in the sea and the first time that I was unable to achieve a significant goal that I had set for myself. I fell into a pit of self pity for a few weeks and what brought me around was spending time coaching and sailing with the Australian Paralympic team, and realising that although I had not achieved my goal, although I had broken my arm in the incident, that I was actually very fortunate and needed to simply ‘grunt up’ and get back on with tackling my goals.’

Q: Did you ever return to fight that battle again?
A:
‘My failed Mini Transat race was a course from France to Guadeloupe sailed in the solo format. A few years later I returned to the same course (France to Guadeloupe) in the largest participated solo race in the world, called the Route du Rhum. I prepared differently this time yet I had some mental demons to deal with. That edition of the race became iconic due to a huge storm that wreaked havoc on the fleet.’

‘I fought through that storm to lead my division across the Atlantic, arriving in Guadeloupe in first place and setting a new course record. This is my most cherished sailing achievement given that I was very concerned about taking the course again solo – I was afraid, yet in the storm I don’t think I have ever been stronger mentally. I was a warrior in that race, completely focused and determined to simply fight through any bad weather and simply finish the passage. To win under such pressure and strain was an incredible personal moment and achievement.’

Q: What’s the best piece of sailing advice you’ve ever been given?
A:
‘Oh there have been so many but one is ‘never stop three steps short’ and this refers to completing tasks with the same level of effort that you begin them with. Never back off prior to the finish and coast home. And never leave anything to chance: minimise the need for luck.’

Nick Maloney is director of Apsu whose Superfood Multivitamin is designed to support the nutritional needs of athletes and active busy people; visit Apsu.life

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