#roundireland – The Galwegians are rattling the round Ireland cages. Tomorrow's noon start of the biennial Round Ireland Race from Wicklow will see a strong mid-fleet challenge from Galway University with a college-crewed Reflex 38, boosted by a front-of-the-pack show by the veteran Volvo 70 Green Dragon, captained by intrepid Galway skipper Enda O Coineen, the moving force behind the western city's involvement with the Volvo Ocean Race.
No-one would now claim that the gallant old Green Dragon is the fastest Volvo 70 that ever floated. But even the slowest Volvo 70 is potentially much faster than the next quickest racer in tomorrow's 38-boat lineup. So if we were in for a few days of normal Irish summer weather with a bit of breeze now and again, the expectation would be that the course record established by Mike Slade's 100ft Leopard back in 2008 could be knocked sideways.
But whatever the weather is, normal it isn't. It may well be that global warming is to blame. And it is true that even the rain is warmer these days. But there's a lot of it. That in turn has had all sorts of peculiar effects on the wind and weather patterns. Or maybe it's the other way round. Whatever, a couple of days ago we weren't looking at a record breaking scenario, with the possibility of light northerly headwinds off the west coast by Monday. But now it's looking slightly more hopeful with a good possibility of southerlies off the west coast by Monday evening, and only a mercifully small dollop of rain with it – the precipitation may have to be elsewhere, it has an annual week-long date at Wimbledon.
This modest change in the predicted conditions could generate enough power to get the Dragon moving. But meanwhile in the rest of the fleet there are plenty of boats which can give a fair show in any weight of winds, and it's a healthily international fleet now that the RORC have given it the same points status as the Fastnet Race itself – in fact, for the first time, Irish entries are outnumbered by visitors.
Defending champion Piet Vroon of the Netherlands is back with his extremely effective Ker 46 Tonnere de Breskens, while the leading French contender is Laurent Gouy (he has Connacht connections, and lists Clifden BC as his club) with his Ker 39 Inismor, which has already been in successful contention this season in RORC events between France and England.
If reasonable breezes appear, the most fancied of the home contingent would have to be Dun Laoghaire's Adrian Lee with the Cookson 50 Lee Overlay Partners, which as Ger O'Rourke of Limerick's Chieftain was overall winner of the breezy 2007 Fastnet Race. In Lee's ownership, this boat secured herself a special place in sailing history by winning the inaugural Caribbean 600 race, an annual event which now has a central role in the international sailing programme. But light airs are not a Cookson 50's favourite conditions, though with a bit of bite to the breeze, this canting keel machine becomes a flyer.
The Reflex 38 NUI Galway was the winner of last year's Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race, and with Cathal Clarke as skipper has the obvious potential, with her pacing being marked by sister ship Visit Malta Puma (James Gair).
Slightly down the size scale there are three J/109s which will sharpen each other's performance – Jedi (Andrew Sarratt) and Joker II (John Maybury) from Dun Laoghaire, and the Pwllheli challenger Sgrech (Stephen Tudor), whose crew lineup includes top ISORA honcho Peter Ryan of the NYC. Further up the J Boat range, the senior northern entry, Bruce Douglas's Spirit of Jacana from Carrickfergus, is a J/133 with a good racing record – she was top Irish boat in last year's Fastnet.
With light winds expected in the northeast part of Ireland on Wednesday, the smaller craft still trundling up the west and northwest coasts in the southerlies my be doing best, and yet again it could be the evergreen Noray 38 Cavatina (Ian Hickey, Royal Cork) which does the business. Lowest rated of all is the oldest boat in the fleet, the 1966 Sparkman & Stephens 36 Sarnia (Michael Creedon, National YC). One of the Italian-built fore-runners of the Swan 36 (same hull lines, different coachroof), Sarnia is something of a classic, and could do very well if the food doesn't run short and they simply keep plodding along. Let's hear it for Sarnia and vintage Italian style.
The Round Ireland Race will be just about done and dusted next weekend as the Volvo Ocean Race gears up in Lorient for the final stage to Galway on July 1st, where it's possible that the concluding inshore race will decide the top places. Ireland's brightest hopes are riding with Damian Foxall of Kerry aboard Franck Cammas's French entry Groupama. They now have a fairly comfortable points lead after the continuing implosion of Spain's Telefonica, skippered by Iker Martinez. But as the Telefonica experience has painfully demonstrated, a couple of gear breakages and one mistaken tactical call are all that is needed to knock the wheels off even the most promising effort. Current points: Groupama (Franck Cammas, France) 219; Puma (Ken Read, USA) 196; Camper (Chris Nicholson, NZ) 191; Telefonica (Iker Martinez, Spain) 191; Abu Dhabi (Ian Walker, GBR) 122; Sanya (Mike Sanderson, NZ) 39.
The revival of the old International Quarter Ton class continues apace (people simply have to do something in times of recession), and there's a strong Irish contingent of restored little boats in the three-day Coutts Quarter Ton Regatta starting in Cowes on Monday, headed by current Irish "Sailor of the Year" George Kenefick of Cork with Tiger – he's defending the Corinthian title. With more than thirty boats from several European countries, it's shaping up to be a cracker. So maybe this is where it's at in these straitened times. Certainly it looks much healthier than the Commodore's Cup in late July, which is basically just four British teams taking on Hong Kong, France and Benelux – it's far indeed from a cast of thousands in a blockbuster production.
W M Nixon's sailing column is in the Irish Independent on Saturdays