#DINGHY SAILING – It is a common complaint that dinghy sailing is in decline. Veteran keel-boat sailors wax nostalgic about those long-gone days when huge fleets turned out for the major dinghy class championships writes our correspondent Magheramore.
However, a closer look at the dinghy park at the Youth Nationals did indicate where a problem may lie. All the boats were recent, the sails were new, many competitors were professionally coached or accompanied by their parents in a comfortable RIB. One would expect this, the young sailors (and their parents) want to do well. The impression given is that dinghy sailing is an expensive pastime requiring dedication, athletic prowess and intensive training. This perception may erect a psychological barrier to entry to the sport. Apprentice sailors, young in years or young of heart, may decide that other forms of messing about in boats are more accessible: crewing on big boats, angling, kayaking or rowing.
Racing is only one aspect of dinghy sailing. If racing is compared to track athletics, how about a nautical stroll in the park or some nautical hill walking! Dinghy cruising has been defined as sailing a dinghy for any other reason than racing. That may be too sweeping a generalisation. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that dinghy cruising is all about going somewhere in a small boat.
There is an extreme branch of the sport: the late Frank Dye's Wayfarer crossings to Norway and to Iceland; Webb Chiles circumnavigation in a Drascombe Lugger or the two Royal Marine officer's expedition through the North West Passage 17.5ft Norseboat. Oceanic openboat sailing has it's founding fathers: Shackleton and Crean, Captain Bligh and our own St. Brendan.
But just as not all hill walkers attempt to scale Everest, or even Carrantuohill, there are many who enjoy a more gentle sail. I have often admired a venerable Mirror, usually sailing without a jib, cruising round Dun Laoghaire harbour. If you look carefully there are Wayfarers, Drascombes and others tucked away at the top of many a sheltered beach or creek, waiting a family picnic, an evening sail or a trip out to catch a mackerel or two for breakfast. In parts of Donegal, and possibly elsewhere, the humble Mirror seems to have replaced the more traditional curragh. Used as a tender, a fishing boat, a swimming platform or for short sail the Mirror can be bought cheaply, launched and recovered single-handed and can be sailed (with one or two sails), rowed, paddled, sculled or even (shudder) motored.
A UK dinghy visitor Jady Lane moored in Athlone. Photo: Aidan de la Mare
Successful dinghy cruising does not depend on a new boat. Indeed one might be happier when beaching on a stony beach if the gel coat already has a scratch or two. Boats for such sailing are a personal and often somewhat idiosyncratic choice. Who would have thought that a Finn could be converted into practical cruising yawl? Or that a Mirror dinghy could cruise from the Severn to the Black Sea, with the skipper sleeping "comfortably" aboard. Stability is the one essential design feature, indeed some dinghy cruisers maintain that the Wayfarer is far too tippy a boat.
Many dinghy cruising sailors never progress beyond pottering or day sailing. A lifetime is too short to explore the nooks and crannies of the Irish coast line, not too mention the many loughs. When camping or self-catering beside the water, having a dinghy ready to launch greatly enriches the holiday. Yet, inevitably, there comes a day when the the skipper wants to sail out to that distant island, or around the point, too far to return the same day. At this point the huge advantage of exploring in a dinghy rather than on foot becomes obvious. Even in the smallest dinghy room can be found for a tent, foam mattress, sleeping bag, stove, provisions and, luxury, a bottle of wine and a corkscrew! The boat does the carrying rather than your back. There are many places round the coast where a tent can be pitched discreetly. The sea-kayaking fraternity have been doing this for years.
Most cruising sailors then realise that it is in fact more convenient to sleep on board. This is no less comfortable than sleeping in the kind of bivouac tents used by back-packers and cyclists. There is also one great advantage, by choosing an appropriate anchorage one can escape the midges!
Dinghy cruising is not a structured activity. Most cruising sailors are fiercely independent, and most stay well away from yacht clubs. Yet the Dinghy Cruising Association in the UK has 468 paying members (some of them in Ireland), with a further 29 joining in the last 3 months. Races are not part of their programme. Rallies can be low key – meet for lunch, or an overnight stay at specified spot (often conveniently situated within strolling distance of a welcoming pub). There is a developing trend to organise Raids – cruises in company, sometimes with an element of competition. An annual Raid is organised through the Great Glen in Scotland. Others are held in the Baltic. Above all, the traditional boat revival in France has been accompanied by explosion in events for "voile-aviron" (sail and oar). Especially if you have a wooden boat, you will be welcome at the big traditional boat festivals such as those held in Brest and Douarnenez. Perhaps one day there will be a Raid Ireland?
In short, pottering or cruising in small open boats is an exciting adventure open to all. The seamanship skills learnt taking a boat from Bray up to Dalkey Island, or from Dromineer to Mountshannon can be of much use to a budding sailor as learning to roll tack a Laser. In fact, dinghy cruising, probably renamed "adventure sailing", opens a whole new world for sailing schools and club training. Transition year groups or the local Scout troop would certainly be interested. As more extreme outdoor pursuits, from fell-running to bog-snorkelling, gain new participants, there is surely room for dinghy cruising – Magheramore
Wtih thanks to the Dinghy Cruising Association for photography in this article