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Cory McLennan – Young Solo Sailor – Vendee Globe

Cory McLennan Atom Ant

Cory McLennan is a young Solo Sailor who has big plans. At the age of eighteen he raced across the Tasman Sea from New Zealand To Australia, becoming the youngest person to do so.

In this Podcast interview, Cory shares his already impressive sailing experience and passion for sailing on the sea. We explore how he intends to achieve his goal of racing a foiling Vendee Globe yacht solo around the world.

Cory’s also got some great advice for young people seeking adventure. You can listen to or read or both, just click or touch the link.


LINDSAY: Today I’m interviewing Cory McLennan - a young New Zealand solo sailor who is living his dream.

Welcome to the interview Cory.

CORY: How’s it going Lindsay?

LINDSAY: Oh, very good thanks.

When did you first start getting interested in the sea and boats? Tell us a bit about your younger days.

CORY: So, I’m originally from Greymouth on the remote west coast of the South Island. Sailing isn’t actually something that most people aspire to do down there as the west coast is a pretty gnarly place to start sailing. My sailing started on lakes - a lake called Lake Brunner, and I was inspired to get into the sport at the age of seven on a family holiday. I read a book about Sir Peter Blake, about what he’d done and his sailing careers. After I got home I said, “Mum, Dad I want to start sailing.” From the age of seven it’s been life’s obsession ever since.

LINDSAY: Tell us a bit about what you think about young people and their attitude to adventure.

CORY: From a young age, I was always a dreamer and I think that’s a huge part of what makes adventure. People with dreams don’t necessarily follow every event or everything because they want to see and find out what it feels for themselves. With a whole lot of technology and social media, a lot of people are stopping that dream because they can be in contact with adventure so much. I think it has got harder for people to dream a little bit. For those that do, they need to just keep on dreaming and keep pushing for adventure because you can’t read about how something feels - you actually need to feel it. I always use the analogy to Sir Edmund Hillary didn’t climb Mt Everest because he knew what was at the top. He climbed to feel it and be there himself. I think that’s what young people need to do. Then you want to dream to feel that adventure.

Sailing you know, that rush when it’s 2'o clock in the morning, it’s howling and there’s waves and there’s water going everywhere, and you’re cold and damp and wet, but it’s the most exhilarating thing. Every day is different so you always are living a new adventure every day in yachting. I think that more people need to aspire to get away from an office, get away from normal day life and go out and do something different. It doesn’t necessarily have to be sailing around the world or climbing mountains, but they need to think, “What do I want to remember my life about?” and it’s not sitting at work every day. IT’s about living. I think that’s really what young people need to try and think about. When they’re going through school and when they’re choosing careers - what do they want to make of their life? I think it’s hard because, as I said, the world’s kind of run by money now and money controls everything but if they have a dream they just need to follow it.

LINDSAY: It is difficult to break out of the job trap once you’re in it, because we all need money. What are some of the ways they can get out there and escape that trap? How can they live an adventurous life?

CORY: Well life’s also about balance. A lot of people - they have to work, and we all have to work to get there but I mean having those dreams and goals can go hand-in-hand with work. It’s about, for me anyway, I’ve had this huge dream of sailing the world so I work really hard. Everything’s really hard because if it was easy everybody would be doing it. That’s why a lot of people don’t because it actually gets too hard and they give up. They need to just - if they have a dream, if they have a sense of adventure, they just need to follow it. Don’t give up because your dreams are worth so much more than giving up. Once you get there, it’ll be all worthwhile.

LINDSAY: So, it’s all about how you spend the money that you’ve earned and how you’ve tried not to waste it on frivolous things like on things that really don’t have much value in the long run. Memories are more valuable than material things, is that what you’re saying?

CORY: Yeah exactly. You’re never going to remember that iPhone you had back when you were 16, but I’ll tell you what I’ll always remember surfing down waves at 17 plus knots with spray in my face. I think life’s about enjoying it. You don’t need material things as you said, to enjoy life.

LINDSAY: You’re relatively young compared to me. How old are you?

CORY: 23.

LINDSAY: 23, and you’ve done what so far in your life? What sort of adventures have you already achieved at the age of 23.

CORY: When I was 16 years old I did my first ever ocean crossing. I got a scholarship from what is now the New Zealand Sailing Trust and I was able to sail the mighty yacht Lion New Zealand from Fiji back to New Zealand. That was kind of like the disease entered my blood veins and it kind of pushes me on to want to go to sea again. I did that from the west coast. I had to travel, I didn’t know anyone in Auckland at that stage.

Lion New Zealand

While in Fiji I met the owners of a boat - a Far 55 called Cotton Blossom II. Then that’s where my yacht racing in big keel boats started. I’d come up to Auckland and I’d do coastal classics with them, Bay Week Regatta and also an Auckland to Nouméa yacht race. I moved up to Auckland from the west coast and started a sail making apprenticeship with the Royal Sails. From there my solo sailing dream sprung and in 2014 became the youngest person to compete in the ITL solo Trans-Tasman yacht race.

LINDSAY: There were a few barriers to you actually competing in that because the age limit was 18, I think I read somewhere….

CORY: 21.

LINDSAY: Oh 21. Okay. How did you get over that? I mean you were 16 [19 actually] competing in that and the limit was 21. Tell us a bit about that story.

CORY: I basically contacted the race organisers and said, “Look I really want to do this race. This is what I’ve done.” Up until then I’d probably only done about 2500 where there was open sea miles, but I knew that I could do it. I kind of used Jessica Watson as an example. I said, “Look if a 16-year-old can sail solo around the world, why can’t a 19-year-old sail across the Tasman?” They said, “Yeah” and I think they didn’t expect me to actually make it to the start line, but I was. Even when I got to…I was down in New Plymouth getting ready for the yacht race…Going through all the briefings into that and they still weren’t sure whether they were going to let me race. It was still a week out. I’d spent all the money and fundraised and all that. They didn’t know whether they were going to let me enter. But, I kind of somehow through all the people that supported me, they talked them around.

Atom Ant yacht Track

I bet they regretted that. Some 200 miles off the coast of New Zealand I lost my auto pilot. I had a spare, but that didn’t last long. So yeah, I basically for 10 days ended up hand steering all the way across the Tasman.

LINDSAY: 10 days hand steering in a little boat - that’s incredible.

CORY: Yeah, it was hard I tell you what. Being tired is the biggest mental barrier any solo sailor can face. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go fast because I couldn’t leave the helm and go and put a kite up because the boat would just get knocked around by the waves and any bungee system I’d set up, it still couldn’t keep me going straight for long enough to get a kite set and then get it down and all that. Plus, I was just so physically drained. Yeah, i just hand steered. I’d steer from 17 to 20 hours a day and then basically hove-to for when the light winds keep the sails up and tried to balance it. So 16 days the crossing took me in the end. I got there and I crossed the finish line in Mooloolaba and set the record.

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I tell you what, solo sailing’s infectious and you soon forget all the low moments, and believe me there was a lot of low moments on that crossing - but you cross the finish line and the sense of accomplishment and all that low moments disappear. I think it was the next day I was trying to plan my next adventure.

LINDSAY : A mad addiction hey?

CORY: Yeah.

LINDSAY: Do you get seasick?

CORY: Yes, I do. That’s something that I’ve had to overcome my whole sailing career. When I was 15 and left Denarau Harbour and exited reef at Fiji and I thought, “I’m going to really see if I get seasick.” I didn’t take any pills. Well I spent the next 24 hours on deck heaving my guts out. Over the years I’ve learnt to deal with that. I’ve spoken to many doctors and nutritionists. Seasickness is a medical condition and so we treat it as such. I used a whole lot of different medications, but now I’ve finally found what works right for me. My go-to is a Scopoderm patch and on top of that just actually a normal nausea or seasick tablet. Two of them complement each other and seem to be able to keep it under control.

One of the other things I do is I’m very careful about what we eat. It’s about keeping your stomach acid as low as possible. Around the North Island something we used was alkaline water which stops that acid build up in your stomach, which actually causes you to be sick. We use things like you eat creamed rice, because it’s actually got energy in it but it doesn’t create stomach acid. It’s all about what you’re putting into your body that actually ultimately helps with seasickness.

One of the things we did when we were racing around the North Island at the start of the year, two-handed, it would be 2 o’clock in the morning and we’d be hungry. Well another great food is actually cold baked beans. Beans have a lot of energy in them and again the tomato base sauces that are in them doesn’t make your stomach acid rumble around. It’s just simple dietary things when you’re planning an offshore. If you do get seasick it’s something you really need to be proactive. You can’t go to sea and start taking seasick medication. I mean I’ll start taking tablets four days before a major event and then I’ll chuck the Scopoderm on two days before I go. Those medications are already in your body and already making that inner ear equalise. It’s management and no one that gets seasick that wants to sail should be scared off by it. It can be resolved, but it’s just different for everyone. You have to experiment. Unfortunately, that sometimes then makes you be sick.

LINDSAY: What’s the worst event that’s happened to you when working on the sea?

CORY: Losing my auto pilot, solo sailing- that was not a nice day. That was Anzac Day 2014. I mean there’s a whole lot of events. I’m a yacht racer and in around North Island we were up to east Cape just past Gibson and it wasn’t that windy, but there was quite a big swell running. We came off the waves and planted it into the water quite hard. We broke a lower shroud and around East Cape it was blowing 30 knots. We had to suspend racing and go back to Gibson and get repairs done so we could carry on racing. I think the hardest part for me in sailing is actually when stuff like that happens, it’s more disappointing not be able to finish something you started and worked so hard on, than actually things happening. I mean things can happen at sea but sailing and offshore sailing especially, you plan for these things to happen. Like when I was 100 miles out from the finish in Mooloolaba I was coming up the coast of Australia and there was so many ships around. There was this ship called Star Enterprise and I could see it on my AIS, I don’t know if it could see me, so I decided to move out of the way so I was clear. As I turned the helm my rudder collapsed off the back of the boat and I had no steering. You had this big ship running you down and you think, “Jesus that’s going to happen here,” but we’d planned for this to happen. On board, I had a spare rudder that I could fit and get on.

For me things can happen at sea that are really hard. It’s really hard to deal with, but actually not finishing something you put so much work and effort to actually even get to the start line is actually probably the hardest part for me and I guess any yacht racer.

LINDSAY : What are some of your happiest memories at sea?

CORY: Oh, as I’ve said before, I mean the happiest memories…Well I guess the most exhilarating stuff is actually fast, enjoyable sailing. Being on the ocean. Being free. You know, you’re in the middle of nowhere and you’re just surfing down these waves and you just think to yourself, “This is amazing. This is stuff that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.” You’ve got sea life around you, sunrises and sunsets that you couldn’t believe exist. Going to sea - there’s that saying, “ship sailors used to go to sea to rest,” they truly do. It’s a magical place to me.

LINDSAY: Yeah, no I understand what you’re saying. I think every mariners got a mobile phone full of sunrises and sunset photographs and sea life. It is truly magical out there and it’s very addictive.

So, what are your plans for the future?

CORY: To compete and really hope to win one day, the Vendee Globe - solo, non-stop, unassisted around-the-world.

LINDSAY: Just for those that don’t know can you tell us a bit about the boats that raced in the last race?

CORY: They raced in 60’ mono-hulls called a IMOCA 60. The last edition they’ve added foiled assist. These are 60’ boats that basically flying out of the water. Mono-hulls. Not like the America’s Cup stuff. These are the top of the line, as fast as you can sail monohulls. These guys are sailing solo. Now you think about the Volvo ocean race - well their boats at the moment, they’re 5’ bigger and they’re sailing them with a crew of eight. These guys are solo and are still doing the same speeds. No actually faster. It’s a race that kind of developed a whole lot sailing technology and everyone wants to go faster. It’s an incredible event. Incredible event.

Vendee Globe yacht SAFRAN

LINDSAY: Yeah, I’ll say. They wouldn’t come cheap so obviously you’re going to have to get some sponsors on board. How do you go about getting sponsors to cover those massive costs?

CORY: I guess this is where I talk about what I’m actually going to be doing. I’ve broken the next basically 10 to 12 years down into four-year sections - so mainly focusing on the next four years. Actually, it was only two days ago I launched my next sailing campaign which is actually called Rainbow Racing. Over the next four years I want to conquer the Pacific. That’s what we’re calling the sailing schedule. That takes in the solo Trans-Tasman, around New Zealand, Auckland to Fiji, Auckland to Nouméa and all these other types of events which the last event I’d love to do is the OSTAR which actually takes the boat and the campaign over to Europe and races from England to America - from Portsmouth to Newport, Rhode Island.

Cory McLennan holding flag

Rainbow Racing is a few years ago I went through a bit of a low point in my sailing, and that’s when I was struggling a bit with my sexuality. Finally, I got over that and I came out and I really looked at why that was hard for me and what I was scared of. I was scared that I wouldn’t be accepted in the sailing world, which is a very masculine world, and especially elite sailing. I wanted to make it known - actually sailing is a great place for everybody of all walks of life to be involved in. Anyone can be involved in it. So yeah, we launched Rainbow Racing and the drive behind that is to send a message to people that are any person, that you can be involved. We’re sending a message for equality and inclusion to break this perception of this masculine sport away. This is getting women into sailing, and more involved, and just everyone and make it a better place. Here in New Zealand homophobia in sport is a huge issue and there’s numbers that show less people are getting into sport and especially in the LGBT communities.

This is the give back part of the campaign. Right now, I’m trying to fundraise to put a Class 40 or Open 40 campaign together and do all these yacht races around the Pacific and then eventually take that campaign to Europe as I work my way to growing and starting the Vendee Globe.

LINDSAY: Those are great goals. Big goals and I’m very impressed with that.

It’s true that sailing is one of those sports where gender is really no barrier. I remember coaching a female team in the Coastal Classic Yacht Race with identical boats. We’d race the Navy boats up there and the females beat the guys, which was one of my great successes. One of the things I look back on and a huge win against the odds. All the guys were rock star sailors and the girls beat them. I was on board, but I wasn’t allowed to do anything to assist with the sailing.

Good on you for getting out there and being you. I really hope you achieve that ultimate goal of doing the Vendee Globe. What an amazing race that is. There’s so much video footage on YouTube if people want to have a look at that and just see how fantastic those boats are.

What advice can you give anybody that’s thinking of making the sea a big part of your life?

CORY: Just literally take that first step. Go down to your local yacht club say, “Hey I want to go sailing” and hop on a boat. It doesn’t matter what boat. It doesn’t have to be the fastest boat in the harbour, just get out there and go sailing. If you truly love it, being out there will be enough that you’ll just keep wanting to do it more and more. I know from the moment I stepped into a Opti I was just hooked. Just do it. There’s nothing to hold you back. People are always looking for crew. Sailors always want to teach their skills. They want people to be in the sport forever. Sailors are really great at sharing knowledge and teaching. Just literally go do it. You’ll never regret it.

LINDSAY: So, your website is?

CORY: corymclennanracing.com. On there is a lot of what I’ve done, what I’m doing, who I am, the companies that so far have been a big supporter of me. There’s some contact details there and links to Facebook with all the what’s going on. If you want to follow me, there’s a link to Facebook there - the Facebook page is also facebook.com/corymclennanracing and there’s updates of when I’m out on the water sailing and all that. If anyone wants any advice or help, just flick me a message. I’m more than happy to reply and if I can help out, help out.

LINDSAY: You’re a great guy. Thank you very much for that Cory and we appreciate you giving us your time and sharing your story with us.

CORY: No problem. It’s a pleasure.

LINDSAY: Alright then. We’ll see you later.

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1 comment
Phyl Billings says August 18, 2017

Very interesting. Certainly has the sea on his blood. Good Luck for his future sailing.

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