Missing the boat

Ger O'Rourke has had to put his sailing dream on hold while he gets to grips with business reality, writes Kevin Corbett

THERE'S running a tight ship and there's running a tight ship in the Volvo Ocean Race. Just ask Ger O'Rourke.

A last-minute, low-budget entry into the race, grabbing the chance to fulfil a boyhood dream, O'Rourke's Delta Lloyd-sponsored boat literally hit the rocks in Taiwan in January and the repair bill convinced the Limerick man to consider his options.

"The story goes like this," he tells me over the phone on his way to Galway for last weekend's in-port race. "In Taiwan, there was a problem with..., ah, we literally ran out of money to be honest with you.

"We were on a very tight budget and what happened was the boat hit rocks and we put into Taiwan to do repairs. The insurance covered the repairs, but it wasn't going to cover it for a few months. It would take a few months to recover that sort of money.

"So I went to my sponsors Delta Lloyd and asked them would they be interested in chartering the boat off me for the rest of the race and that I was committed elsewhere and what not. They agreed to step in and charter the boat for the rest of the race. So that's really the sum of it."

So while he's still a team member, his involvement is purely nominal at the moment. The situation isn't a dead loss of course, now the boat is chartered and run as a commercial venture.

The issue comes to the fore with the fleet in Galway and what was for O'Rourke the bittersweet sight of his own boat sailing into port after the transatlantic trip from Boston with another man at the helm. There is a hint of regret, but he clearly is not the type to wallow, even though a long-held dream of his could be sailing into the sunset.

"Yeah, of course there would be some regret. I'd love to have done the Transatlantic from Boston, that would be a dream to sail into your own home place, but there will always be a next time.

"Unfortunately with the credit crisis the way it is, I've more important things to be thinking about, with banks and that. My company is taking a bit of a squeeze and I have to concentrate on work at the moment. That took priority so I had to forgo the dream for at least another while, though I'm getting older."

The years advance, though that is not necessarily a bar to O'Rourke competing in what has been described as "the Everest of sailing".

"Well you have Magnus Olsson, he's an incredible character, he is the skipper of Ericsson 3 and he's about 10 years older than me. I'll tell you right now, he's probably fitter than me, for sure, I'd have to go back to the gym and work it out. But I reckon there could be another race left in me, who knows?

He acknowledges though that if he doesn't do the next one in three years' time, he probably wouldn't get to do the one after that.

"You'd need to be working for 12 months in advance to get to that state of fitness.

"It's ok doing a little race here and there that you're in and out in two weeks, but to do the whole race you need to be at the peak of physical fitness. Now I believe you can still do that, as long as you're under the age of 55, but really it's a young man's sport."

The bar to competing in the race again, as a skipper on his own boat at least, would more likely be financial, given the massive budgets required to run a team.

Ericsson are running boats with budgets of €50m, PUMA is running with a budget of around €20m. The Irish/Chinese venture, Green Dragon, which received €8m from the government and another €4m from the Chinese has been finding it tough to keep the show on the road. In that context Delta Lloyd's ability to compete initially on a budget of €3m was all the more impressive.

Now that the Dutch company has taken over fully, O'Rourke says there has been a little more money invested: "They've hired more professional crew. They've obviously raised the level of the game a bit, so the whole thing is going well."

It's this financial, and sporting, reality which makes the likelihood of him appearing in the race again that bit more remote.

"At the end of the day," says O'Rourke, "the races are so expensive and a sponsor deserves a professional, and I'm not a professional, I'm an amateur sailor. I'm doing it as a hobby. They're spending so much money on projects, they would think, 'if you can get a Maradona, why would you pick his manager'?

"That's what they expect in today's terms, they're looking for Olympic sailors, that are fully professional and they pay the wages for that. So, from that point of view, I'm not too sure that I'll ever do a whole race. I might do a leg here and there a few in-shores here and there, but I'm not sure whether I'll have the physical strength or stamina or even the criteria to be a sponsor's idea of a pro for the whole race."

There is no suggestion that he has given up on the possibility, though. After all, he never imagined he'd get this far and compete in the race he had watched on TV throughout his childhood.

"It would have been a long term dream, rather than an ambition. I never thought I'd achieve the ambition. The race is around for a long time, it used to be the Whitbred and some of the people who, to me, were rockstars, famous sailors, they have all done it."

So, while his hand may be off the tiller and the local aspect to the boat is diminished, he's still proud of launching the venture: "It's nice to see there's a Limerick boat involved in the Volvo Ocean race, the Galway boat, the green team may be the Irish entry, but the Limerick boat went around the world and there's a lot of Limerick sailing people and, I'm sure, from all over the country who were glad to see the boat in the race, even if it was under the Dutch flag."

For now though his focus is closer to home and whatever it takes to keep his business Chieftain Construction on the front foot. He's not an easy man to get hold of, spending time out of the country or in back-to-back meetings seeking openings.

He never uses the word recession though. You get the feeling such a word has too negative connotations for him. Rather he characterises the problem as 'the credit crisis' and he has harsh words for the government and the banks.

"I'm not too impressed with Brian Cowen. NAMA still don't know what they're doing, the banks don't know what they're doing. There is a lot of indecision out there."

The banks' role in the crisis is his main bugbear: "What has happened is the government has put billions in the banks. Of every ten loan applications we put in, nine are refused and these nine are all meeting the same criteria as they were 12 months ago, before NAMA, before the banks were capitalised, so nothing has changed.

"Basically the government has bailed the banks out and the banks aren't lending any of that money. So what they should do is monitor the historic ratios for lending prior to bank capitalisation and monitor it on a monthly or weekly basis to see has it changed with every half billion you put into these banks. and if it doesn't, take 'em over.

"What they're doing is sitting on the money, they're not spreading it out into the community. It's creating unemployment, it's creating unrest, it's driving property markets down and it's a downward spiral.

"Nobody's monitoring it. Lenihan came along and gave them billions and he never put a scale rule on the payment, so you could monitor before and after if it has freed up any credit and it hasn't, not a red cent."

Like everyone else, he has little choice but to work within this reality, but it must make it all the harder not to be living the dream.


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