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Hotseat - Neil Maher


Meet Irish sailing instructor Neil Maher, who runs the Youth Sailing programme for Sint Maarten Yacht Club. He is a happy person with a passion for sailing and sharing his knowledge with others. A quick look at his students on the dock after a lesson confirms this.

Where were you born? Tell me a little about where you grew up.

I was born and raised in Dun Laoghaire, which is about 20 minutes south of Dublin in Ireland. It has one of the biggest man-made harbours in the world with more than four yacht clubs. The town is not really the prettiest anymore, but walking along the seafront has some breath-taking views and on rare days in summer, you could even do it with an ice cream in hand!

Where did you go to school?

I attended an Irish-speaking school. All lessons took place in Irish, and we were forbidden from speaking English except while studying it. The school was Scoil Lorcain primary school and after that, I attended St. Michaels College for six years.

What did you do after high school?

I gave college a try, but found I spent far more time sailing than studying, so I left to pursue a career in the marine industry. I continued teaching and obtained my Yacht Master offshore. I then worked for Sunsail in Greece for three years, where I met my wife, Karen.

How did you get into sailing? And coaching?

When I was 13, my parents sent me sailing at the Irish National Sailing School against my will over summer holidays. I argued with my dad, but he just said I had to try it. I went along with a mind-set that I would not enjoy it just to prove him wrong, but by the end of the day, I had completely forgotten my need to be a stubborn teenager and just wanted to get back in a boat and try it again.

I then attended as many weeks of camp as possible before they asked me to help out instead of just sailing. They helped me get my instructor qualification and a few years later, I became a senior instructor responsible for all the lessons and overseeing 15 other instructors.

What brought you to St. Maarten?

I delivered a 33-foot boat from France to Tortola in November 2012, and went looking for a week's work to pay the airfare back. Instead, I received a year contract as an instructor. I happily accepted.

Tell me about the trip.

All in all I loved it. It was just Karen and me on board. We hopped down the coast of Europe, sheltering from passing storms. We got caught out one night off Portugal and spent 12 hours barrelling downwind in 55kts wind. Then we spent a few days with friends in Gran Canarias before setting off for 24 days before we arrived in Oyster Pond.

I loved that part of the trip. It was great to be sailing away from the European winter and feeling the weather getting warmer each day. I love the peace in the middle of the ocean and spent most of my time reading or steering. Karen and I have a rule on board that the stereo must never be turned off at sea, so we listened to some great music and sat up in the evenings for hours just talking to each other. The trip did result in the most unique Christmas dinner – tinned chilli with flat bread. I'm not sure I'd like to repeat it!

What do you like about living in St Maarten?

I just love that I can sail 365 days a year without losing feeling in my toes.

It's been hard being so far from family and friends back home, but the people I have met here have helped make up for that.

Where do you want to be in 10 years?

I really want to race single handed across the Atlantic, but I would like to do that sooner. Other than that, I have no idea – just somewhere on a boat.

What unknown skills or talents do you have?

I read a lot. I can play guitar to a reasonable level and can tell some of the worst jokes you have ever heard – a talent I inherited from my dad.

What do you enjoy reading? Can you recommend a good sailing companion?

I will read nearly anything, but I particularly enjoy sci-fi. My mother studied English at university so she regularly recommends books to me and I do read them.

The two books I take everywhere with me are Catch 22 and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. For books about sailing, I recommend Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brien

What's your biggest fear?

Zombies – irrational I know, but the very thought terrifies me.

What do you like the best/worst about living in St. Maarten?

I love the laid back feeling. It reminds me of Ireland: we try not to stress about what we can't control and it could always be worse.

The thing I like least is that I spend so much time teaching and coaching that every time there is a regatta on, I find I am working at it instead of sailing in it.

What irritates you?

Automated checkout machines at supermarkets. Thankfully, there are none in St Maarten.

And waiting for "things to buffer" when I'm online.

If you could invite three famous people (dead or alive) for dinner, who would they be and what would you cook for them?

Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy; Keith Richards, the Rolling Stones' guitarist; and author Oscar Wilde.

I'm not sure they would all get along. I would have to serve my personal favourite – even if they didn't like it – sausage and mash, just because I miss real sausages.