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Flying a Kite for the Olympics

20th October 2012
Flying a Kite for the Olympics

#sailing – Kiteboarding anyone? Or perhaps you'd prefer a spot of kitesurfing? They're arguably one and the same thing, and what they're called depends on which part of the world you're doing it in, and the sea state. Whatever, beachwalkers in Ireland will have been well aware of the rapid growth and development of this extreme form of sailing in which athletic ability allied to skill in harnessing the power of the wind is unrivalled in any branch of watersport.

Next month it comes centre stage in Dun Laoghaire when the International Sailing Federation Conference – which is being held in Ireland for the first time – has to consider and confirm the lineup of categories which will be used at the Rio de Janeiro Sailing Olympiad 2016. And one of the most important matters on the agenda is the possible replacement of windsurfing by kiteboarding as an Olympic sport.

For casual beach-walking observers only concerned that they and their dogs don't get caught up in the lethal control lines of the kite sailing brigade, it's a wonder that there is any way at all of evaluating and scoring such an utterly off-the-wall and totally individualistic activity. But not only is it managed somehow, it has been developed to such an extent that there's a world circuit, with professional riders, and the kitesurfers' pro circuit are doing their thing down in Achill and other nearby west coast venues for the next ten days as part of the world series.

Unfortunately, just as it was when the Windsurfer Worlds came to Dungarvan in West Waterford a couple of years ago, after a spell of unpleasant weather things are settling down for a few days to frustrate anyone who has been beating the drum about Ireland being the place for big winds and big-hearted kitefolk.

But the show goes on with international development. For the first time ever, kiteboarding has been included in the most recent listings of the ISAF World Rankings published last week, with Adam Koch (USA) the men's Number One, while Italy's Riccardo Lecesse is second and there's equal third for France's Julien Kerneur and the USA's John Heineken. Steph Bridge of Britain tops the women's rankings, with Caroline Adrien of France in second and the Netherlands' Katja Roose third.

As for the kitesurfing specialists, among those making the scene in Achill and other points west are top names like Patri McLaughlin, Ryan Coote and Keith McGeown, while the women's division sees Ireland's Jade O'Connor gamely challenging world leader Ninja Bichler of Germany.

With any luck, a week hence there'll have been enough wind to get the rest of us up to speed with kites and their Olympic potential. It's all happening very quickly, but the Olympic sailing machine can sometimes move surprisingly swiftly in order to keep up to speed with global trends. Traditional sailors, however, are a conservative bunch. They'll tell you that there are old sailors, and there are bold sailors, but there are no old bold sailors. So it took most sailing folk quite an effort to grasp the fact that Windsurfing had become an "Olympic yachting" activity. Now the old salts may have to readjust their mindsets yet again – goodbye windsurfing, hello kiteboarding?

One noted mainstream sailor who has been trying his hand at kitesurfing is Nin O'Leary of Cork, who ensured his place in the international sailing hall of fame by winning the Student Yachting Worlds for Ireland in France two years ago. The 2012 staging of this important event is now in final preparation in La Rochelle, with racing starting in a week's time and UCD representing Ireland.

In the Mediterranean, the final major event of the 2012 European offshore season, the Middles Sea Race out of Malta, starts today with two Irish boats in the record fleet of 90 boats. The two-handed division is being contested in the JOD 35 Dinah by Barry Hurley, who has already done the race six times crewing other people's boats, while Des Kelliher's First 47.7 Galileo races the fully crewed division.


Is there life for a boat class after the Olympics? It's said that the International Dragon Class (featuring as one of the keelboat classes this weekend at the increasingly popular 'Autumn Fresh-up' at Dromineer on Lough Derg) has never looked back since it was dropped fom the five ring circus – it is now more popular than ever among discerning owners who care as much about their boats and the people they race them against as they do about their sport.

Once upon a time, the Olympic three-man keelboat class was the Soling. It's said that during the 1960s, the Soling was selected in preference to the Etchells 22 for the Olympics because the Scandinavians with their Soling were better at the politics of international sailing, which was very Eurocentric in those days. They ran ran rings around the Americans with their Etchells 22 in the committee rooms, even if the Etchells had run rings round the Soling out on the water.

Be that as it may, the Etchells 22 is now the very epitome of cool on the international one design circuit. But as for the Soling – well, I believe they may have a class still going at a muddy creek in Lancashire where the boats float for about four hours in every 24, but apart from that the Soling in 2012 is making zero impact in the glamour stakes.

So in Port Ellen on the Scottish island of Islay back in August when summer was strong upon the Hebrides and we were gently cruising north, in ambling around the harbour in the sunshine I was intrigued by the hulk of a boat which had been hauled clear of the sea into a beachside meadow.

It took an effort of imagination to visualize the conditions which might have brought this pointy little machine to this sorry yet not totally broken state – after all, she was still sailing along through the long grass in some style, albeit with her rig long gone. Obviously she was some sort of former inshore racer which had been cabined-up in order to become an offshore performance cruiser, but it took a while to realize that here was the final incarnation of an International Soling.

The way she had been converted for offshore sailing was basically sound, even if it would get no marks for design aesthetic. And yes, if you're absolutely mad keen on saving boats which everyone else thinks are lost causes, it's perfectly possible that she could be made seaworthy again at enormous cost in time and money - but there are boats in need of help and restoration which are much more deserving causes.

The little old sea warrior of Port Ellen should be left in peace. She probably had a gallant bash at something like the Round Britain and Ireland Race a very long time ago, or even a Transatlantic. There may even have been a tragedy involved – we didn't ask. But now she has a pleasant resting place with a roll in the hay, and we should respect that.


The cabins added later wouldn't have won a design prize, but they were probably quite effective within their limits. Photo: W M Nixon


It's an International Olympic Soling in her final incarnation, sleeping in the sun on a Scottish island. Photo: W M Nixon

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WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago