Wicklow Sailing Club are best-known as the big-hearted little organisation which keeps the iconic Volvo Round Ireland Race show on the road with such style that it is now one of Europe’s premier events, with a stellar international entry list of 63 boats – many of them world famous - in June 2016. But where some other smaller clubs might find their own members’ sailing activities distorted or diminished through the voluntary organisational effort which is required to keep a biennial mega-event on this scale running smoothly, in Wicklow the reverse is true writes W M Nixon.
The big race – at 704 miles it is nearly a hundred miles longer than the other classics such as the Fastnet, the Sydney-Hobart, the Caribbean 600, the Bermuda Race and the Middle Sea Race – is run with the full co-operation of the RORC, and back-up support from the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire. Yet in Wicklow the club spirit is such that not only are there volunteers ready and willing to provide further assistance to key personnel such as the Volvo Round Ireland Race Organiser Theo Phelan and his team, but there is ample evidence that this high level of voluntary effort spreads into every corner of club activity. This is particularly the case with a thriving junior training and racing programme, in which the leading figures have been Dave Ballesty and Mark Redmond.
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Anyone who has been in Wicklow for the impressive, crowded and colourful Seafest which is clustered around the Volvo Round Ireland Race start at the midsummer weekend will have naturally tended to assume that, after the big event has been tidied up and its week of long-distance racing rounded out with the Friday night prize-giving, Wicklow sailing takes a well-earned rest.
Not so. The Round Ireland tents are folded away, and the real Wicklow, la Wicklow profonde, will have emerged within days. Toppers, Lasers, Picos and other two-handed dinghies will flock seaward for training, accompanied by busy instructor RIBS zooming about to encourage yet another new generation into proper sailing in a club which has produced notable sailors on the national and international scene such as Round Britain and Ireland two-Handed winner Brian Flahive, Commandant Barry Byrne the winning Skipper of the inaugural Beaufort Cup at Volvo Cork Week in 2016, award-winning international cruising man Alan Rountree who self-built – to an immaculate level – his much-travelled 34ft sloop Tallulah, and the popular Charlie Kavanagh, whose abilities as a seaman and sailing teacher are deservedly renowned.
But being Wicklow, these kids coming up through a club which has been producing distinguished sailors since its foundation in 1950 will have voluntarism in their genes. Wicklow SC has only around 160 members, of whom barely a hundred are full adult members. Yet not only most of the adults, but many of the young people too, see voluntary work for the club - both in keeping its activities at a high level while maintaining its fabric and the fleet of club-owned training boats in proper order – as part of the Wicklow way of doing things. And of course among all sailing folk, whether racing or cruising, dinghy or offshore, Wicklow Sailing Club is a byword for hospitality and making newcomers welcome to our sport.
With a thriving club life, it also plays a key role in its local community. Yet at the same time, every two years since 1980 it has organised the Round Ireland Race. And though there have been years when the entry has been thin enough, in 2016 everything came together with glorious success for a club which simply never gave up on the idea that a proper Round Ireland Race was central to the entire Irish sailing scene.
To say that the race organisers down the years since 1980 have beavered away behind the scenes to keep the show on the road only hints at the effort sometimes required to enable an event of this stature to fulfill its true potential. But since 2012, current organizer Theo Phelan has been working with a special statesmanlike dedication – some would call it Machiavellian skill – to raise the event onto a new plane. By 2016, with the full support of the RORC and its Irish Commodore Michael Boyd, together with the discreet assistance of the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire in order to provide a pre-race base for larger yachts, and the added involvement of superstar multi-hulls to make full use of a package which now included sponsorship from Volvo Car Ireland, the Round Ireland Race came of age and entered the big boys league.
Yet this all was done from one tiny club in a workaday commercial and country town whose small port has a very strong commercial bias. But when something is functioning as perfectly as Wicklow Sailing Club and the Volvo Round Ireland Race in 2016, perhaps it’s better not to dissect it all in too much detail. You might break the magic spell. So instead, we’ll just try and tell you who does what, and hope the story speaks for itself.
Wicklow Sailing Club has learned to live with the biennial appearance of the big one by ensuring that the Commodore’s two year term sees that the Round Ireland Race – which has to be in a non-Fastnet year – will be happening in the second year of office, when he or she is well settled into the top role. But even this was something which had to be learned, and the club is eternally grateful to a former Commodore Johnny Johnson, who gallantly served three years in order to get the sequence right.
However, when you’re drawing on such a small membership, the succession has to be carefully planned to make best use of the limited pool of talent, and when Wicklow Sailing Club’s officer and committee board underwent its usual total biennial change just ten days ago, Hal Fitzgerald stood down after his two year term as Commodore to be succeeded by Denise Cummins, who had been Honorary Secretary and thus will be tuned to every nuance of club life and administration when the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2018 comes roaring over the horizon.
Last year’s full list gives an idea of the many talents needed to keep any club operating smoothly:
Wicklow Sailing Club - 2016
Officers, General Committee and Sub-committees
President: Sadie Phelan
Commodore: Hal Fitzgerald
Vice-Commodore: Brian Malone (Lead for Try Sailing - Cruisers)
Rear Commodore Sailing: David Ryan (lead for Berthing Round Ireland)
Rear Commodore House: Gerry Nolan (Long standing, long serving member, came to cruisers after many years on the GP 14 circuit)
Hon. Treasurer: Fergus Somers (Lead for Finance Ctte)
Hon. Secretary: Denise Cummins
Membership Secretary: Joanne Logan (& Finance Ctte)
Dave Ballesty (ISA Training Centre Principal, Try Sailing – Dinghies, & lots of other work), Eugene Lynch (Communications & VRIYR Official Race Programme), Roisin Hennessy (Lead for Dinghies), Paul Hennessy, Kyran O Grady (Lead for boat maintenance & house fabric), Peter Shearer, Angela Higgins (Ballesy) (Lead for Grants & Club Development).
Volvo Round Ireland Yacht Race Organising Committee:
Chair & Secretary: Peter Shearer
Race Organiser: Theo Phelan
Asst Race Organiser: David Ryan
Commodore ex officio: Hal Fitzgerald
Volvo Round Ireland Yacht Race Catering Committee:
Sandra Fitzgerald, Liam Whitty, Paul Hennessy PLUS many, many volunteers, particularly those who fed the returning boats.
ISA Training Centre Principal: Dave Ballesty, assisted by Mark Redmond and Roisin Hennessy
However, in a club of this size it would be very counter-productive if people insisted on a clear job description, and stuck rigidly to their own interpretation of the brief. A delicate balance has to be drawn and maintained between recognizing who is ultimately responsible for some task, yet being prepared to leap in to do the job or at least assist with it during periods of particular stress.
And of course in a town like Wicklow – which mercifully is just far enough from Dublin to be its own place, healthily clear of rigid metropolitan attitudes – there’s interest in how people spend their time in their day jobs, and the lineup keeping the Wicklow SC machine moving along includes the talents of one of Ireland’s leading thatchers, Kyran O’Grady, who in 2017 takes on the additional role of Honorary Treasurer, whole another key figure is David “Farmer” Ryan who organised the participation of the Volvo 70 Monster Project in the 2014 Race, and is getting his sailing off to an early start this year with participation in the RORC Caribbean 600 in February.
As for the season of 2016, everyone will be well aware that in the Volvo Round Ireland Race for mono-hulls, the overall winner, line honours winner and establisher of a new record was George David with Rambler 88, while the multihull winner – by a matter of seconds – was Oman Sailing (Sydney Gavignet), which also established a new record.
But for aficionados, perhaps the most popular prize was what might be called the Corinthian Award, which doesn’t actually exist, but if it did who would have gone to RORC Commodore Michael Boyd who took third overall in the standard First 44.7 Lisa after sailing a virtually faultless race, a race which incidentally he won overall in 1996, racing the J/35 Big Ears.
Once it was all over, Wicklow life resumed, and local racing saw Jason Moran with the David Thomas-designed Hyrdo 28 Hydrogin win the cruiser classes, while the dinghy events were dominated by the annual Junior Regatta which produced a wide spread of results, and here’s a photo of the winners:
Wicklow Sailing Club last won the “Club of the Year” award in 1979. In those pre-Round Ireland days, they were experimenting with events which would make sailing more accessible, and Irish ports more welcoming, to sailors from elsewhere. So they staged a sort of cruising rally open to absolutely everything which floated, and from anywhere, and it worked very well to be the highlight of a busy season for a club which was starting to find its feet.
They’ve certainly found their feet very well indeed now. The entire Irish sailing community owes a mountain of gratitude to Wicklow Sailing Club for never losing the faith on the Round Ireland race, and bringing it to its present eminence through sheer dogged persistence, and an awesome amount of hard work, nearly all of it voluntary. They become the very worthy Mitsubishi Motors “Sailing Club of the Year” 2017.