The first time I sailed the Round Ireland Yacht Race was in 1986 aboard Philips Innovator.
That was a time when maxi yachts were not a feature of Irish waters. Innovator had sailed the Whitbread Round the World Race and was big news when she arrived in Ireland, having finished second in the Whitbread. I was one of the media members offered the opportunity to crew and jumped at the chance. There were Dutch professionals in charge, led by Skipper Dirk Nauta and amongst my memories are counting 33 tacks in an hour as the yacht fought the tides around Rathlin. And towards the end of the race his decision to tack in the Irish Sea and head unerringly for the finish line in a time of 100 hours, 50 minutes and 59 seconds.
Philips Innovator battles her way around Rathlin in the 1986 Round Ireland race, with me on the grinder starboard side
That was my first experience of working a deck grinder and around Rathlin that instrument became an item to which I took a particular dislike… But that’s sailing on big boats and she was big by Irish standards then, though not now. She was a Baltic 55, built in Finland and in later years became a charter boat called Outlaw in the Caribbean. I met up with her again in Fort Lauderdale when she was named Equity & Law in the 1990-91 Round the World Race when I joined the crew of NCB Ireland in the final leg of that race across the Atlantic.
In 1992 I sailed in the Round Ireland race once again, this time aboard Mayhem out of Galway Bay Sailing Club, a 44-footer, owned and skippered by John Killeen. For her size she had a tiller and that was demanding and unusual. Particularly demanding on some heavy nights along the western coast, when one of my memories is lying in my bunk off-watch listening to the cheery voice of the Tribesmen crew as they pirouetted the boat on top of another wave and cheered loudly as the yacht took off under spinnaker.
I was to do the race, which has many happy sailing memories for me, one more time but after that my involvement was reporting it, with memories of chasing the fleet in a Wicklow Club boat from the start line, rushing back with pictures and then driving back to Donnybrook to edit the pictures at Montrose and get them onto TV News. In later years the arrival of satellite vans made life much easier.
I have memories of seeing beautiful sunrises around the top of Ireland, magnificent sunsets, conditions which varied from flat seas to pounding waves and worried nights in darkness trying to keep clear of the coastline as lighthouses winked their warnings and huge waves and high winds tried to push us ever inwards where we feared becoming ‘bayed’ and fought for open water.
There were great names and people to interview – Michael Jones who started Wicklow Sailing Club’s great idea to hold the race; Dennis Noonan who sat in his eyrie, the Race Office built alongside the club house and, with an easy grace, controlled matters. The relief of getting ashore at the end of the race to the hospitality in the club, contrasted with the always-present even if never-admitted, bit of pre-race nerves before the start.
Interviewing people like the legendary Denis Doyle on Moonduster of the RCYC, only achieved after lots of persuasive effort and hearing his wife Mary tell him how soon she expected this legendary boat and then race speed record holder to be back in Wicklow and how many days she had provisioned the yacht for. One of her comments gave me the title for one of my television race documentaries, when she said that the crew would be using the Fray Bentos tins of steak and kidney pie if they were not back in four days. I called the documentary – Four Days or the Iron Rations – and Mary laughed about that.
There were yachts with names that stood out – Commanche Raider sailed by Norbert and Patrick Reilly, Jim Donegan’s White Rooster from Cork; the maxi Drum, named Mazda Drum for the race and other international boat names – Rothmans, Creighton’s naturally and Colm Barrington with the W60 named Jeep Cherokee which set a record of 76 hours 23 minutes and 57 seconds making the story of the race in 1998.
I broadcast radio programmes from the club house on the eve of the race start, sat on the rooftop lounge drinking nightcaps with club members and harbour staff and once was given the honour of doing the public address race start commentary. Great memories and so many other names and personalities flooded through my mind when Peter Shearer, the current Chairman of Wicklow’s Race Committee announced that next year, for the first time, there will be a separate multihull class.
That, I thought, is an example of how Wicklow has retained its dominance of the race, despite several attempts over the years by bigger clubs to wrest it to their locale.
It will add a new international dimension and should bring more excitement to the event which is a staple of the Irish offshore scene. Over the years they have established links with the Royal Ocean Racing Club and next June will host it jointly, as they did two years ago, with the Royal Irish Yacht Club of Dun Laoghaire. Spreading their wings and involving more people rather than maintaining an exclusive solo run, so that the race continues to be a Wicklow event is important so that clubs in locations that are not major centres, show what they can contribute to the sport.
There will be a new trophy for the multihulls and another new one for the best sailing school boat, as the race is popular with sailing schools.
Already Team Concise has pledged its three multihulls and Rambler 88 from the US, a sophisticated racing machine is committed to take part.
For me it is a long way from Philips Innovator and Mayhem, but it is the evolution of a special, iconic Irish race.
If you haven’t done it, try it.
The start line on the eighteenth of June at 2pm for the 19th running of the race should be a great place.