#sailing – With so many major international events descending on Irish sailing throughout the 2012 season, it's inevitable that our own home grown classics slipped quickly from the headlines. Yet now, as we see the national programme winding down towards the Helmsman's Championship in October, an appraisal of the summer's highlights shows that the Round Ireland Race from Wicklow has enduring significance.
Denis Noonan and his organising team stick doggedly to the task of keeping this 704- mile challenge in place, and in 2012 they achieved a major breakthrough in getting the round Ireland the same points weighting as the Fastnet Race (which is held in alternate years) in the annual RORC programme, which is as near as we get to a Northwest Europe Offshore Championship.
Thanks to this enhanced status, for the first time there were more overseas boats than home grown entries. In the contest for first place, defending round Ireland title holder Piet Vroon from the Netherlands with his superb Ker 46 lost out by just 12 minutes to father and son team Bernard and Laurent Guoy of France with the 39ft Inis Mor.
This resulted in celebration at Jason Ker's design office, as the Guoy machine is a Ker 39, sister-ship of Anthony O'Leary's Antix. And there was celebration in Connemara too, as the Guoy family have a place near Clifden, and they make a point of listing Clifden Boat Club as their requisite club when racing round Ireland.
All of which is fine and dandy, but it's when we look at the bigger picture that the really encouraging factors emerge. The RORC season-long points series recently concluded with a cross-channel overnight sprint from England to France, and the outcome of the championship hung on this final race, with a number of boats which had built their points total on a good round Ireland result well up on the leaderboard.
Going into the race, the title was Inis Mor's to lose, and it was a close-run thing. They did it by the skin of their teeth – a so-so fifth overall was enough to stay ahead of Tonnere – overall winner of this final contest - by just one point.
It made for a specially happy ending. Losing would have been unthinkable – Bernard Gouy celebrated his 69th birthday during the course of the race, embodying the Irish Sailing Association's dictum that sailing is a sport for life.
So now Inis Mor of the Clifden Boat Club is the RORC's Yacht of the Year, and already leading campaigners will be setting the 2014 Round Ireland Race at the heart of their programme. Meanwhile, other boats which showed well in the Round Ireland have spent the remainder of the 2012 season battling it out in the Irish Sea programme, and one of the top contenders, Stephen Tudor's J/109 Sgrech from Pwllheli, is the new ISORA champion, taking a title which should have been defended by Matt Davis's Sigma 400 Raging Bull from Skerries.
Unfortunately, the Bull broke from her moorings and came ashore on Skerries strand in a northeast gale back in May. Miraculously, this popular boat didn't become a total loss, but she was out of racing for the rest of the summer. Maybe some day there'll be a proper harbour at Skerries, enabling the Fingal port to take its rightful place as a leading Irish sailing centre.
THE MERMAIDS' GRANNY AND THE OLD LIGHTSHIP
Despite the decidedly rumbly anchorage at Skerries, for one Irish class it's something of a Mecca, and in August the Mermaids naturally gravitated to Skerries for a week of racing to celebrate their 80th Anniversary. Skerries always held a special place in the heart of the Mermaid's creator John B Kearney, something which is celebrated by the spectacular photo in the National YC of his most famous cruising yacht, the 38ft yawl Mavis, sweeping in to the finish of a Skerries regatta in the 1940s with Skipper Kearney – an outstandingly successful racing helm – in happy command.
Before he designed and built Mavis in 1923-25, he built the 36ft Ainmara in 1910-12 in just 18 months in his spare time, and as Mavis is now in America, Ainmara has become the flagship of the Kearney fleet in Ireland, the Mermaids' Granny.
By a happy chance, the lightship Petrel, the HQ of the Down Cruising Club in Strangford Lough, was also built in 1912, being completed on the north side of the Liffey while Ainmara was being created in Ringsend. For both vessels to have reached their Centenary is wellnigh miraculous and definitely worthy of celebration, so last weekend Brian Law, President of the Down Cruising Club, hosted two days of parties to mark the occasion.
The Mermaids' Granny – owner Dickie Gomes has Ainmara looking very trim for her hundredth birthday. Photo: WM Nixon
Ainmara has featured here in recent weeks as we did a Centenary Cruise to the Outer Hebrides in August with longtime owner Dickie Gomes, but the story of Petrel deserves to be more widely known. Back in the 1960s the nucleus of the Down Cruising Club was a few like-minded can-do cruising boat owners who needed some sort of base at Ballydorn in the northwest of Strangford Lough, and they put in a sealed offer with the Commissioners of Irish Lights for a recently decommissioned 1912-built lightship.
But they were outbid by Dublin's Hammond Lane Foundry, who saw the Petrel as valuable scrap. There's a manhole cover near my house which has Hammond Lane Foundry 1970 stamped on it, and the Petrel must have been within an ace of being that manhole cover. However, the Down Cruising Club folk didn't let the initial setback stop them, they worked on their contacts in Irish Lights, and turned their powers of persuasion on the scrap merchants of Hammond Lane. A deal was done, and in September 1968 the Petrel arrived in Ballydorn and has been there ever since, a marvellous asset to locals and cruising visitors alike.
It's that old Dublin northside-southside thing transferred to Strangford Lough. The former lightship Petrel was built on the north side of the Liffey in 1912, while at the same time Ainmara was being built in Ringsend. Photo: WM Nixon
Because a lightship is built so specifically for one purpose, it has taken real vision to convert the Petrel into a charming club headquarters while retaining the spirit of the old ship. It has been done brilliantly, she's immaculately maintained, and this small club – they have less than 50 full members – is an impressive example for other organisations large and small, afloat and ashore.
So she provided the perfect setup to start the weekend with the Ainmara party. The weather obliged by coming in with one of those perfect Autumn evenings which is like summer only better, and folk turned up who had sailed on the old girl more than fifty years ago. Then next day it was Petrel's turn, with the Down Cruising Club members assembling more than half their total fleet in a sunflower raft out in the anchorage, followed by a barbecue on board ship which could have coped with any sort of weather conditions, as they've modified the after-deck to accommodate a very seamanlike marquee.
A vintage weekend. The Down Cruising Club do things their own way, so they have a President where other clubs might have an Admiral. In response to my suggestion that as they're going to be on the lightship for ever, it might be more appropriate to call their top honcho the Head Keeper, a very senior member pointed out that in addition to lightships, zoos have Head Keepers. But then as he surveyed the heaving throng in the hugely hospitable lightship bar, he added: "D'you know, you might just be right"