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We Have a Gold Medallist for a New Olympic Category

8th December 2012
We Have a Gold Medallist for a New Olympic Category

#olympic – If there was an Olympic category for Nasty Tricks, there'd have been a runaway Gold Medal for whoever anonymously revealed – just as London 2012 was getting under way – that red hot Irish sailing prospect Peter O'Leary had infringed regulations at the 2008 Olympics by betting successfully on the outcome of the Star Class, in which he'd been a participant, but had failed to make the cut for the medal races.

Since 2008, O'Leary had upped his game in major style. With David Burrows of Malahide as crew, and a new state-of-the-art Star class boat as his 2012 campaign accelerated, he was very much in the hunt with the Silver Medal at the class's huge Bacardi Cup regatta in Miami in March. Then they won Gold in the pre-Olympic event at Weymouth, the Sail for Gold regatta in June.

A month later, when everything was looking good in the final couple of days countdown to the big one for Ireland's medal prospects, both in the Star class, and with Annalise Murphy in the Women's Laser Radials, the anonymous bomber struck. There was no time for the International Olympic Committee to make any sort of investigation of the Beijing bet allegations, let alone a definitive one. So they declared the matter sub judice until after the games were over, and the great regatta went ahead with O'Leary a participant, albeit a wounded one.

For although the IOC may have put the matter to one side, this didn't oblige everyone else to do so. Had the O'Leary/Burrows crew fulfilled their previous form, and their good showing in the opening races of the Olympics, we can be sure the matter would have raced to the top of the news agenda if they'd been within shouting distance of one of the top prizes. But the strain of all the wrong sort of attention showed, and the Irish crew slipped down the rankings. Though they qualified for the medal races, they finished a lowly tenth of the ten boats, so the Beijing betting controversy was no longer relevant.

Now the matter has been closed at official level with a statement on Tuesday from the International Olympic Committee at their end-of-year conference. They have let O'Leary off with a warning, as they've found "no proof of any match-fixing" and that O'Leary "was not fully aware" in 2008 of a new protocol against participants betting on Olympic results.

So a nuclear cataclysm has been reduced to a storm in a teacup. But make no mistake, at the time this was nuclear and then some. The entire Irish Olympic sailing project was knocked off balance right at the start of the Games. The ill effects on the O'Leary/Burrows crew were obvious. But we can only guess at the collateral damage to Annalise Murphy as she became the focus of all Ireland's Olympic sailing hopes, under severe stress as her initial excellent prospects for Gold slipped to a fourth at the finish.

In the end, it was just completely and utterly sad.



HE'S BEHIND YOU! The Christmas panto season comes early to West Cork on Sunday December 2nd as a humpback whale take a mighty leap behind Wave Chieftain, whose squad of whale-watchers look steadily the other way. Photo: Simon Duggan/Provision

Whales are brainy, and they've a sense of humour too. The thought sprang irresistibly to mind when Monday morning's papers carried this wonderful photo, taken on Sunday off Baltimore at the precise moment a humpback whale did a mighty leap out of the sea behind a ship's complement of earnest whale watchers aboard the dive boat Wave Chieftain, with every last one of them looking the other way.

They're allowed a certain amount of watchfulness relaxation aboard Jerry Smith's Wave Chieftain now and again, as they've shown that when it's a matter of life and death, they can conduct successful sea searches against all the odds. Back in August 2011, Wave Chieftain found the five missing crewmembers from the capsized Rambler 100 with perhaps only minutes to spare before an incident became a tragedy.

Whatever, this is some whale – we'd thought Fungie at Dingle was impressive, but a humpback is in a different league altogether. Nevertheless if you're near Fungie and he's in a jumping mood, it's more than enough to be going along with. After the 1995 Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race we stayed on for a few days to savour the many joys of West Kerry, and one afternoon with what seemed like a million people on board, we went out in the sunshine to the harbour mouth to see the mighty dolphin.

The crowd aboard included waifs and strays from other boats which had raced to Dingle, so you can guess that the coherence of the shared thoughts and recollections was uneven at best. But the fact is, we returned to port with everyone convinced that Fungie had jumped clean over the boat, going neatly between the mast and the backstay.

There'd been a complete carnival atmosphere out at the Dingle entrance, with the fleet of spectator boats whirling every which way as the mighty dolphin leapt among them. People were jumping overboard to join him, including Johnny Rooney from our boat, and how somebody wasn't decapitated in the threshing of propellers heaven only knows, but the atmosphere was such that you felt you could walk on water – that's the effect Fungie can have.

Earlier in 1995, we'd a rather more scary encounter with a whale while sailing out to Spain (a busy year, was 1995), trundling along minding our own business and not looking for whales at all. Snug behind the sprayhood in the cockpit on a damp evening while the Autohelm did all the work, the mate and I were having a mug of tea with the essential fig rolls and chocolate digestives when we suddenly realised we were sailing past an enormous whale which was parallel to us, and only about ten feet away.

She really went on and on and on, she was enormous – and we soon knew it was a she, for she was keeping herself between us and her calf. If the gap had been any less, a swish of her tail would have ended for ever our enjoyment of Barry's tea with the fig rolls and the chocolate digestives.

Out in Spain, we met up with some experienced ocean sailors, and I recounted this experience to one who had in his time seen a blue whale, the biggest of all. He upset me with his response. "I don't believe you," said he. "But I swear it's true" said I, "we really did get close to this whale that was pushing towards a hundred feet in length". "Of course you did" said he. "I accept you saw this whale, and I know that a size like that is within the realms of possibility. But I don't believe for a minute that you two were drinking tea at that time of day".



Mike Balmforth had not been in good health for years, but it was still a shock to get the message on Sunday that this stalwart of the maritime world had died peacefully that morning after a sudden deterioration in his condition. He was busy about the world of boats and maritime communications to the very end, and only three days before his death I'd received the usual efficient Balmforth email in response to a query I'd sent him about a boat I'd glimpsed while cruising in Scotland in August.

That was the Balmforth way – do the job without making a song and dance about it. His achievements in many areas were prodigious, yet unlike many people whose activities cover a broad area, he was the most low-key operator you could meet – he simply didn't have the time or inclination to be flamboyant. Nor was he noisily energetic, but he got things done.

Most recently, he has achieved further acclaim with his comprehensive Cruising Companion to sailing the Irish coast, a continuation of the concept he developed to cover the west coast of Scotland in a way that puts interesting flesh on the bare bones of the basic sailing directions. That he made such a good job of it was because of his great experience in cruising, and in so many areas of the marine industry and the world of boats and sailing, combined with his wide knowledge in the demanding sphere of maritime publishing.

But unlike many writers, he was equally good in administration and management. I first became aware of this back in the early 1960s when he was Honorary Secretary of Queens Universty SC in Belfast. The rest of us simply wanted to get on with college sailing and having a good time, but Mike was the man who did the work behind the scenes to ensure that grants for new boats were increased and the money used to best effect.

Even in his schooldays he played a key role in the junior section at Strangford Lough YC at Whiterock, so as he was active in Scotland in many positions of maritime significance at the time of his death, his effective input into maritime administration spans more than half a century. As too does his involvement with the practical side of boats and boatbuilding - with his father (who was to die all too young), Mike had built one of the first Enterprise dinghies to be seen in Strangford Lough, thus when he went up to Queens his technical knowledge in commissioning new racing dinghies for the Sailing Club was invaluable.


The late Mike Balmforth's last boat, the Dawn 39 Greenheart completed in his back garden to his own specifications, is a superb cruising vessel, a fine expression of his special skills as a sailor and maritime technician. Photo: W M Nixon

He was to be involved in a number of areas both geographically and career-wise before settling in Scotland. He built production cruisers – the T24, T27 and T31 – with Chris Perfect's company in the south of England on the shores of Chichester Harbour. He then became a staffer with Yachting Monthly in London, rising to be Deputy Editor. His sailing horizons expanded – he was a regular participant in offshore racing in many areas including the Fastnet Race, and he honed his cruising skills. Then he really began to find his feet as a partner with Caledonian Yacht Services in Glasgow, an all-embracing organization based on yacht brokerage but busy in most areas of boats and boat-building.

With his marriage to Alison, the doctor daughter of a boatbuilder in Argyllshire, his position in Scotland was complete, yet he always retained close links to Ireland. However, the west coast of Scotland and particularly the Clyde area was where he was busiest, and he was soon much involved with that large and very effective organization the Clyde Cruising Club, while at the same time developing his business interests in several sections of the marine industry.

He also oversaw the completion of several cruising boats for his own use, starting with bare hulls and installing functional yet attractive accommodation, and deck layouts which worked very well, both based on his intelligent experience of seafaring. With craft such as the very special Ruffian 8.5 Sgeir Bhan, and two boats of the David Alan-Williams designed Dawn 39 class, Mike had boats which he could race and cruise in the case of the Ruffian 8.5, and cruise extensively with the Dawn 39s.

The first Dawn 39 he owned in partnership, the second one was his true dreamship, the handsome Greenheart which was completed from the bare mouldings in his back garden on the shores of the Clyde. Aboard Greenheart, he and Alison and their family and friends cruised happily to many places both near and far, and she was and is one of the most admired cruising boats afloat.

Throughout this time he was keeping up a formidable pace of work, yet as his worsening heart condition increasingly restricted the amount of physical work he could undertake, he simply transferred his abundant energies and very active mind to developing Clyde Marine Press. His renowned managerial and administrative ability and skill in committee work led to his appointment to council or committee on an increasing number of public bodies and national associations, while his knowledgeable collation of pilotage information saw him being elected as a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Navigation.

All this was achieved despite deteriorating health which eventually required quadruple heart surgery, and resulted in complications which meant that for the final years of his life, he required kidney dialysis every 48 hours. But he never complained, he kept up a work rate which was greater than that of many men in full health, and he and Alison continued with their busy and sociable life in Scotland and abroad.

This was complemented by a growing family – their two sailing sons Des and Robin both made them very happy grandparents. Mike Balmforth may have reached the three score years and ten, and his achievements are many, but his life has been cut short. He is much mourned by his many friends, and our heartfelt sympathy goes to Alison, and to Des and Robin and their families.

Published in W M Nixon
WM 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

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