Friday Crew Catch-Up: Meet Stephen O’Connor

16 July 2015

In this week’s Friday Crew Catch-up we meet round the world Team Olivier crew member Stephen O’Connor, 55, who is a retired Group Commander in the London Fire Brigade.

After dedicating his life to saving lives and helping others, Stephen, who has Type 2 Diabetes, has taken up sailing and is heading out into the blue beyond in search of the next chapter in his life.

Name: Stephen O’Connor
Age: 55
Nationality: British
Team: Team Olivier
Signed up for: Round the world

Why did you decide to do the Clipper Race?

I was in the London Fire Brigade and retired exactly 30 years from the day I joined. When you are in the Fire Service you have an adrenaline rush whenever you are called to big incidents and such, but when you retire that completely disappears. You can choose to sit at home and reminisce or you can open a book, start a new chapter in your life and learn a new skill. That’s exactly what I’m doing with ocean racing.

I almost did the 2013-14 race but my mother unfortunately was incredibly poorly at the time and I couldn’t leave her. My mother has now passed on and with the sale of her house finalised, it’s allowed me to do this. In a way it is a nice present from my Mum, as I wouldn’t have had the money to do it otherwise.

What led you to do the full circumnavigation?

I’ve never competed in anything apart from doing a 100 yard swimming race when I was about six years old, so perhaps entering a year-long ocean going race is a bit extreme but I’m very much looking forward to it all. I think it will be a doorway to the rest of my life.

You could buy a bigger house, or get a bigger kitchen – there are a hundred and one things I should be doing with my inheritance money, I know that. But I can’t put a cost on fulfilling a dream, and opening a new chapter in my life. For the last two years since I retired it’s been hard to watch my mother go but thanks to Mum, I’ve got the opportunity to do this. I’ve worked hard all my life and now it’s time to do something I want to do.

What are you most enjoying about the Clipper Race experience?

I love being part of a team and I love working with complete strangers. It’s great that everyone is from different backgrounds. I also like the skipper’s knowledge, professionalism and unflappability, which is key.

What has most challenged you so far?

I’ve never sailed before. I’ve had boats sports cruisers and speed boats but nothing like this. Learning what a halyard was and what a sheet was like a whole new language for me but it’s all been fantastic. Hard work but definitely worth it.

The sleep deprivation has been quite a thing. The night before last, the on watch tacked in the middle of the night. It was 3am or something and three of us fell out of our bunks, so I will make sure I do up my lee cloth more securely in future!

I have Type 2 diabetes which is controlled through tablets and injections that I give myself in the morning and evening. The only thing I have to make sure I do is recognise when I’m feeling tired and have some nourishment when I need it. Our team victualler is actually planning to take our crew’s measurements and sizes at the start and keep updating it all the way around the world to understand the effect on our bodies.

What do your family think about your decision to sail around the world?

My son is quite ambivalent really. He is a man of few words but can see why I’m doing it and I think he will follow in my footsteps in a future year. It would be great to perhaps sail a leg together one day. My daughter is a little worried but I’ve assured her I am doing something I really want to do.

My grandson is five and is really excited. His school in Essex is really supportive and I’d like to use the Unicef angle to keep them involved in sponsoring the teams and following us around the world. I’ve been in to talk to the pupils about what I’m doing and hopefully we can even bring some of them and the teachers to St Katharine Docks in August to see the boat. It is a great thing for them to learn about.

What skills do you think you bring to Team Olivier?

I’d like to think my experience as a Group Commander in the Fire Service can help me bring some clarity and calm in certain type of situations on board. I thrived on the incident management and developing people side of the job. Those skills are certainly transferable to this.

I think I have good emotional intelligence and can recognise when people have low moments and need a bit of a break, but also know how to help get the best out of people. I think I can understand where people are coming from.

I also like to think I’m a positive, can do, optimistic sort of guy. I want to help people which is the Fire Service nature in me. It is quite interesting to see people who have never been part of a team as its something that comes very natural for me, and it feels great to be back in that team environment.

What are you expecting to get out of the race?

I’m very much looking forward to meeting all the people, seeing different places, and hopefully winning some legs too. After working with Olivier this week, I’ve had a chance to watch him in action. His English is good. He doesn’t talk too much but what he does look at is the boat, the boat, the boat, the boat. You couldn’t ask for anyone more qualified or knowledgeable person to be in charge of us, so I’m confident that we will do the best we can.

A lot of my team mates are European, so in 2017 I will use my experience on the race to judge whether we should stay in the EU or not. I will make my decision based on this trip!

Who knows, I might think Qingdao is the most beautiful place in the world and end up living there. The Clipper Race broadens your horizons I think. You meet people from all over the world from all different backgrounds and with the great support staff on the race I don’t think I’ll feel lonely on the way round. It’s going to be a beautiful experience.

If you would like to join Stephen and race the world’s oceans this year, please get in touch via the apply section of the website. We are now also recruiting for the Clipper 2017-18 Race.

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