I originally started thinking about doing a circumnavigation not long after I sold my Formula 1 team. And even though Marie and I had been married for 35 years, I wanted to see if there was something we could do to bring us really close together. I didn’t think she would go for it, but she said yes, on two conditions: that she could learn how to dive and do a photography course. They were well within reason, so I traded up from my Oyster 665 to an 885. Then I started thinking: “Jesus, how are Marie and I going to live together on a boat – basically in the cockpit – for so long?” People always ask Marie how we’ve stayed married so long and she always says, “He goes away a lot.” But I shouldn’t have worried.
I was working with the BBC, so I had to plan my stops in places so I could get off, jump on a plane to commentate on the Grand Prix and then fly back. It turned out to be quite arduous in that respect: getting off in Lombok, then flying to Bali, then Bali to Singapore, and Singapore to Osaka to do the Grand Prix and then back again. I must have been out of my mind.
What helped was that Oyster came out with their World Rally, which took care of a lot of the planning. There were 26 boats that started in Antigua and we’d meet every month or so. You start off thinking: “My God, we’re all going to be together for the duration.” But after that first night, you don’t see another boat for ages. We were much faster than the other yachts because we were averaging nine, 10 knots and even going across the Atlantic we got it up to 21 knots, which is pretty amazing. Oyster said to us, “Look, this isn’t a surfboard you’ve got here!”
The only things we’d see at night in some places were debris in the water and unlit fishing boats. They don’t have anything like the same safety concerns that we’ve been brought up with. One night, we saw a shipping container; one of those would slice through a boat instantly, and then you’d just go. So we were on the radar the whole time, but with our warning systems, we didn’t have a problem.
Sometimes I’d ask myself: “What am I doing here?” I’ve got four kids, and grandkids were on their way, and I thought, “Am I being selfish? Adventurous? Or just plain mad?”
I found crew in the most unusual way. I’m very friendly with Kevin Moran, who played for Manchester United. We were out doing something and he said: “My cousin has her captain’s licence.” It turns out she was a practising dentist and a fully qualified captain. Her husband owned a sailing school, so I thought I’d better go and meet these guys. I got them on board as crew and since she was a qualified dentist and had medical training she treated all our cuts and bruises – and even did a job on one of Marie’s teeth at sea.
Our third crewmember was another Irish guy, named Alan. He was a trawler engineer and had no sailing experience, but I said: “I don’t care what experience you have, as long as you keep this thing going.” And he did. He was great. The crew were amazing. Alan would play his ukulele at night and I’d play the spoons and we’d all sing rebel Irish songs – it was ridiculous. But that’s what made it nice.
I’d been expecting Tahiti to be stunning, but I was a bit disappointed. But there was a nearby island called Moorea that was staggering. I would cycle around it every morning. An atoll called Rangiroa captured Marie’s attention. The entry into the lagoon is only about 10 metres wide and the water just flies in and out. I’ve never seen so many sharks, turtles… Even penguins. There’s a photograph somewhere of me swimming with 40 white tip sharks. That was a place that really made me think: “What the hell am I doing here?”
It’s a place you’d least expect to find when crossing an ocean, but was just spectacular.