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Good Old Gaffers in Dublin Bay

7th June 2013
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steel-built 42ft Galway Hooker
Rik Janssen's steel-built 42ft Galway Hooker from The Netherlands limbering up in Scotsmans Bay before the start of the Leinster Plate 2013, with Master Frank and Naomh Cronan beyond Photo: Barry O'Loughlin
Good Old Gaffers in Dublin Bay

#oga50 – It's not the boats that are the marina manager's nightmare. It's the bowsprits. That said, the boats themselves, with their long old keels and huge propellor apertures, or even with funny little props set under the quarter – these boats can be problematic. With configurations like this, you can bet for sure they can be awkward enough to manoeuvre. And handling them in confined spaces, you need a masters degree in prop crawl.

Yet that is still something to which normal boaties can relate. But then you throw in a bowsprit as big as a telegraph pole, pointing into everywhere it isn't wanted like a snouty mongrel, then you really do have a problem in a confined harbour normally used by shiny little boats that can spin in their own length, and stop within seconds of engaging in astern.

All of which goes to explain why the Old Gaffers Association, celebrating its Golden Jubilee with a Round Britain challenge with a couple of diversions to Ireland, has tended to focus on major ports with long pontoons and longer quays for its main gatherings. In Britain the festivities are sponsored by Associated British Ports, while in Ireland it has been Dublin Port and Belfast Harbour who have put out the welcome mats. So the fleet came to Dublin Bay from May 31st to June 4th to be hosted by the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Associations through the generous hospitality of Poolbeg Yacht & Boat Club, and Dublin Port gave it all a fine fair wind.

The Old Gaffers Association was founded at Heybridge Basin beside the characterful little port of Maldon in Essex in 1963 to "preserve interest in, and encourage development of Gaff Rig, and to participate in the maintenance of our maritime heritage". Over the years, as some good Bermudan rig boats have matured, the gaff-rig-only line has been softened to include them, and the membership now even includes people with plastic boats.

The Golden Jubilee cruise – a season-long rolling event, with boats joining and leaving as they please - got under way from Maldon on April 21st 2013 in a very modest sort of way with just three boats initially participating, and only two of them – the 1898-built 31ft cutter Witch (Alistair Randall, originally built as the ferry to Gigha in Scotland) and the ferro-cement gaff-rigged take on a John Hannah design of 1924, the 37ft Bonify (Sue Lewis & Howard Wheelton) – planning to go the whole way round.

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Bonify (red hull) is one of the two boats which started the complete circuit from Essex rolling on April 21st. She is seen here at Poolbeg Y & BC as the Howth 17s start to arrive in port on Saturday June 1st. Photo: W M Nixon

But in their charm and individuality, Witch and Bonify symbolize the eclectic nature of the Old Gaffers Association, which cheerfully embraces all the odd old boats and eccentric owners that other organisations don't reach. And in their progress round the southeast of England, they were soon linking up with a a strong Dutch contingent which included craft as diverse as Rik Janssen's mighty Galway Hooker Cine Mara (superbly built in steel) and F J Schotman's exquisite little Lyle Hess-designed 28-footer Raven.

Gradually the fleet increased as the OGA50 made its way down the English Channel. But the vile weather of May hampered their progress, and few made it to a planned meet in the Isles of Scilly. However, despite headwinds a core group got round Land's End and across to Milford Haven, their numbers by now including 73-year-old Barbara Runnalls from Sussex gallantly sailing alone on the 23ft gaff cutter Moon River.

After days of adverse northerly gales in Milford Haven, the end of May finally signalled the start of something approaching summer, and they went north to Holyhead and a warm welcome from the local branch of the OGA. There too was Joe Pennington who had earlier sailed down from the Isle of Man singlehanded in his handsome big traditional cutter Master Frank, the only surviving Manx longline sailing fishing boat. On being congratulated on his achievement, Joe replied that when you've a Force 8 up your tail, there's no turning back...

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The Manx fishing boat Master Frank was sailed single-handed by Joe Pennington from Peel to Holyhead in a northerly gale to join the OGA50 Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

Through the last week of May, boats were converging on Dublin Bay from all corners of the Irish Sea, and in Howth the 115-year old classics of the Howth 17 class were in a flurry of activity to overcome the delays in re-fitting caused by the exceptionally cold Spring, as they were to race in the River Liffey between the bridges in the heart of Dublin on Sunday June 2nd as part of the maritime festival which would be a highlight of the OGA's visit.

The Howth fleet were joined on Thursday May 30th by the 36ft 1912-built yawl Ainmara (Dickie Gomes, Strangford Lough) which had scampered down from Strangford in a nor'wester which, downwind of the Mountains of Mourne, had been at the top end of Force 7. The old lady was on a busy programme, as she was designed and built by the great John B Kearney at Ringsnend in Dublin in 1912, and would be re-visiting her birthplace of 101 years ago for the first time in 90 years.

But during the time John Kearney owned her from 1912 to 1923, Ainmara had been overall winner of Howth's famous annual Lambay Race in 1921, so this had to be celebrated at Howth Yacht Club with an onboard party which had the old yawl well down on her marks. By the time it was over, Dickie Gomes had been assured by the Flag Officers that if he could see his way to staying on for this year's Lambay Race (it's on today), then HYC would make sure Ainmara won it again. But alas, as Ainmara was built in the same year as the Titanic but has survived rather better, this weekend she's berthed in Belfast at the Titanic Centre to play a central role in the OGA's visit to the northern port.

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The 101 year old Ainmara in Howth on May 30th to recall her overall win in the 1921 Lambay Race Photo: W M Nixon

Meanwhile, back around Dublin Bay, she still wasn't allowed to go straight home to Ringsend, as John Kearney's latter days from 1946 to 1967 saw him as an honoured Rear Commodore of the National YC in Dun Laoghaire. So on Friday May 31st under full sail to jib topsail, she progressed across Dublin Bay helmed by Pierce Purcell of Galway, whose late father was Commodore of the National YC from 1946 to 1948, when he owned the very attractive 35ft Kearney yawl Sonia.

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Pierce Purcell of Galway at Ainmara's helm in Dublin Bay – he crossed Ireland for the opportunity to sail a Kearney boat like his father used to own. Photo: W M Nixon

Sonia is now in Canada, but helming Ainmara across Dublin Bay was the next best thing. The Galway man brought Ainmara to the Dun Laoghaire harbourmouth nicely on time to be met by two of the Dublin Bay Mermaids (designed by John Kearney in 1932), which escorted the old yawl to the visitors berth at the National YC where Commodore Paul Barrington headed up his members in a welcome which was superb even by the National's notably high standards, with the club flagpole dressed overall and the signal JBK on the staff.

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"The old lady is ready to race". Ainmara poised at the pontoon at the National while her welcome party proceeds apace in the clubhouse. Photo: W M Nixon

The first sailing highpoint in the OGA visit to Dublin was to be a race on Saturday June 1st for the RMS Leinster Plate, newly presented by the Communication Workers Union to honour all those who were lost when the mailboat Leinster was sunk by German torpedoes at the Kish Lighthouse in the final months of World War I, and in particular the 21 postal workers who died in the ship's mail sorting room. The plan was to have a race which would retrace at least part of the Leinster's fateful route towards the Kish from Dun Laoghaire, but Race Officer John Alvey of Poolbeg Y & BC couldn't finalise the course for guaranteed finish at a reasonable time in mid-afternoon until early Saturday morning.

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It's the only way to fly. Afloat's David O'Brien with Dickie Gomes and crewman Brian Law after he'd conveyed them at record speed to the early morning Skippers' Briefing at Poolbeg Y & BC Photo: W M Nixon

So the Skippers' Briefing was at Poolbeg at 0800 hrs, with race start scheduled for Scotsmans Bay at 1100. This could have presented a logistics problem for Ainmara's crew already berthed in Dun Laoghaire, but fortunately nice Mr O'Brien from Afloat.ie turned up in the early morning with his fine Red Bay RIB, and they were delivered to the briefing and back again at speeds well north of 30 knots, also enjoying the first of many fine breakfasts supplied by Kate and her excellent catering team at Poolbeg.

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DBOGA Hon. Sec. Sean Walsh's heard 28 Tir na nOg had a good weekend of it, with a third on the Saturday and a first on Monday. Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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The Lyle Hess 28 Raven from The Netherlands had a fine race on Saturday, finishing second overall. Photo: Barry O'Loughlin
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Master Frank (Joe Pennington) was to lead at the North Burford Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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Ainmara starting to emerge from the pack Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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Dutch competition – the little Raven shows the big Cine Mara the way Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

As the forecast was for the brisk west wind to go light by mid-afternoon, the course went no further seaward than the North Burford Buoy. The reaching start was lively with some very long bowsprits pointing every which way and travelling at high speed, but everyone emerged still more or less intact and at the North Burford Joe Pennington's mighty Master Frank – her crew including longtime Galway Hooker/Arctic hand Paddy Barry – was in the lead. But Ainmara, having got herself into the hunt by sending up her jib topsail as the breeze eased, was settling into the groove and revelling in conditions that might have been made for her. She was clear ahead by the next turn at the Rosbeg East, and though the final leg from Rosbeg South to a finish at Drumleck was tricky as the tide was by now sluicing eastward across it to make it a challenging beat. But thanks to the party in the National YC the night before, Ainmara had Mermaid National Champion Jonathan O'Rourke as guest helm. He sailed the old Kearney yawl so well she had a very clear handicap win after taking line honours by a country mile.

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Sean Walsh's Tir na nOg and Paul Holden's Chick Pea battling it out. Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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Ainmara getting into her stride. Soon afterwards she hoisted her jib topsail, and was gone Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

While DBOGA Honorary Secretary Sean Walsh had a cracker of a race with his Heard 28 Tir na nOg, his crew including OGA National President Mike Shaw, when the numbers were crunched it was the lovely little Raven from Makkum in The Netherlands which took second, with Tir na nOg third. The top ten corrected time placings for the Leinster Plate give a useful overview of the widespread nature of the OGA Fleet:

Leinster Plate 2013 1st Ainmara (36ft yawl 1912, Richard Gomes, Strangford Lough) 01:45:39, 2nd Raven (Hess 28, F J Schotmann, Makkum, Netherlands) 01:54:26; 3rd Tir na nOg (Heard 28, Sean Walsh, Poolbeg) 01:55:56; 4th Verve (37ft Arthur Robb yawl, 1964, Brian Comerford, Dun Laoghaire) 02:07:15; 5th Master Frank (Manx Longliner, 1896, Joe Pennington, Isle of Man) 02:13:13; 6th Mona (Cornish Crabber, Denis Aylmer, Dun Laoghaire) 02:27:17; 7th High Barbaree (34ft Cornish Pilot Cutter, Tim & Liz Dodwell, Buckler's Hard, Hampshire, England) 02:27:46; 8th Chickpea (30ft Victorian cutter, Paul Holden, Howth) 02:28:39; 9th Cine Mara (42ft Galway Hooker, Rik Janssen, Schermer, Netherlands) 02:54:59; 10th Alice (Cornish Crabber, Mark Lynch, Howth) 02:56:59.

As the main fleet were finishing in the Leinster Plate, the Howth 17s were already making their way into Dublin Bay on their delivery race from Howth. In fact, two had arrived well in advance of the rest. These were Harriette Lynch's Echo and Ian Malcolm's Aura, which had come round to Dublin Bay hoping to do the Leinster Plate race. But having been late for the start, they strung along with the fleet nevertheless, and then when their doughty skippers and crews saw that the fleet clearly weren't going round the Kish as had been suggested months ago, they simply sailed their little boats out to the lonely lighthouse on their own, and having sailed round (it's in fine order, but smelling mightily of unconstipated seabirds) they sailed back again in plenty of time – despite a two-and-a-half hour beat in from the Kish - to join the party at Poolbeg. seabirds) they sailed back again in plenty of time to join the party at Poolbeg.

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The successful circumnavigator of North America, Andrew Wilkes and Maire Breathnach's 44ft steel-built gaff yawl Young Larry, comes into Poolbeg to join the party. Photo: W M Nixon

And what a party it was, rounded out by the presentation of the Leinster Salver to Dickie Gomes of Ainmara. Most of the Old Gaffers, having sailed so far to get to Dublin Bay, had never intended to go straight out again for a race. So for those of us arriving in late on Saturday afternoon to join the fleet for the first time, the effect of the crazy kaleidoscope of boats – everything from Rachel Leech's 64ft Tjalk Ebenhaezer brought across Ireland via the Grand Canal from Athlone, right down to the 12ft Droleen dinghy from Bray – was electric.

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Here they come – the first of the Howth 17s arrive at Poolbeg after a race fom their home port had ended in a dead heat between three boats. Photo: W M Nixon

And then the main fleet of the Howth 17s arrived, tacking up the river with jackyard topsails set. Somebody should have put up a trophy for their delivery race from Howth to the entrance to Dublin Port, for it was an epic sail in itself, much of it against the tide. With the distance to be sailed, it was assumed that a clear leader would have emerged by the time they reached the finish, so they had no-one at the end of the Bull Wall to time them in. It says everything about the spirit of the class that the three leaders were so close coming into the river that the Howth 17 Howth-Poolbeg Race 2013 has been declared a dead heat between Deilginis (Massey syndicate), Oona (Peter Courtney), and Rita (John Curley & Marcus Lynch).

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Rita (1) and Deilginis (11) dead heated at the finish of Saturday's race from Howth, and they each won a race on Sunday.
Photo: W M Nixon

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Rita (1) and Oona, the third boat in the dead heat in Saturday's race. Photo: W M Nixon

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Looking every inch a classic, Brian & Conor Turvey's Howth 17 Isobel turns elegantly to windward in the Liffey. Photo: W M Nixon

The Saturday night saw the Poolbeg complex a hive of socializing with boat talk and boat visiting and all the usual things that sailors get up to in port. We've already given a hint of the variety of boats, but the gathering in Poolbeg also included serious stuff like the mighty 55ft Annabel-J (Philip Cogdell), authentically built in 1995 with inspiration from classic Bristol Channel Pilot cutters, and the hugely impressive 44ft steel gaff yawl Young Larry (Andrew Wilkes and Maire Breathnach), which last year completed an extraordinary cicumnavigation of North Amrica, having transitted the Northwest Passage in one season.

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Through the bridge. The big pilot cutter Annabel-J and a trio of Howth 17s heading for the Eastlink. Photo: W M Nixon

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The fleet's in town – the two boats right foreground are the white 31ft cutter Witch (built 1898) and the 25ft Marguerite (built 1896). Photo: W M Nixon

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History in the making - Howth 17s and the lone Bray Droleen in the heart of the city Photo: W M Nixon

With boats like that all in the one place, you could have spent a week in detailed examinations. But soon enough it was Sunday morning, and at 1100 hrs the entire fleet passed through the raised Eastlink Bridge for a good-natured raft-up along the quays and up to the MV Cill Airne (the restaurant boat), aboard which Dublin Bay OGA President Tim Magennis was over-seeing commentary duties during a hectic day which included two in-river races by Howth 17s, a crazy and wonderful maritime ballet by Dublin Port's state-of-the-art multiple movement tugs, the Shackleton and the Beaufort, there were informal parades by all sorts of craft including an authentic currach with an even more authentic piper, then too there was Yoshe the famous old gaffer dog from the Netherlands in his little dinghy powered by a vintage Seagull outboard, a Sikorski helicopter from air sea rescue put in an appearance, and somewhere in the middle of it all the Howth 17s put in two races in very light conditions which made it like a sort of waterborne mystery play, but they still got two good sets of results even if the wind died before they could sail a final race.

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There was a very close river race between Marcus Lynch sailing Rita (1) and Davy Jones sailing Eileen (16) Photo: W M Nixon

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Deilginis (Team Massey) won the second river race. Photo: W M Nixon

So it was announced that instead of having to make do with only one winner, they were ahead of the game – they'd finished the day with two champions. The first heat was really close, with Rita (Marcus Lynch and John Curley) staving off repeated challenges by Eileen sailed by Davy Jones and George Curley, with Conor & Brian Turvey in Isobel placing third. The other heat, in even flukier conditions, saw the Massey team in Deilginis come from nowhere by working a private air along the north side of the river (they're Northsiders of course) to take a clear lead from Peter Courtney in Oona, with Silver Moon, sailed by Windsor Laudan and Steph Ennis, placing third.

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Senior sailors. Tim Magennis (President DBOGA, right) congratulates Dickie Gomes, skipper of Ainmara and winner of the Leinster Plate 2013, aboard the Cill Airne during the riverfest. Photo: W M Nixon

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Dublin Port's state-of-the-art tugboats gave a fantastic display Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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Old Gaffer pooch Koshe sailed to Dublin from The Netherlands, and toured the Liffey with his vintage Seagull outboard.
Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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Sails in the city Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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Water music, Liffey style Photo: W M Nixon

Needless to say when the Eastlink Bridge lifted again at mid-afternoon, despite highfalutin plans for a parade of sail everyone seemed to try leaving at once, but fortunately good humour prevailed on all sides. Invitably with the nature of a project like the Round Britain Challenge, some boats were already starting to think of moving on towards the next major gathering at Belfast this weeknd. And not surprisingly in a crowd of gadgeteers like the Old Gaffers, there were those for whom the siren call of the Isle of Man at TT time was just too good to resist.

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When the Eastlink lifted, everyone tried to leave at once, but there were no bumps. 64ft Ebenhaezer from Athlone (foreground) had the sense to wait. Photo: Barry O'Loughlin

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Winding down – summer evening at Poolbeg Photo: W M Nixon

Through the Sunday night, boats were quietly slipping away from the convivial throng at Poolbeg to head northeast for Peel under the Manx hills, and petrolhead heaven. But for others, it was a matter of gentle morning departure, after fulsome thanks to the kind hosts and wonderful hospitality of Poolbeg, away for a gentle and very sunny Bank Holiday Monday rounding of the Baily with Annabel J and Ainmara together, the big pilot cutter on a very leisurely progress for the first day with a new crew, planning a stop for lunch at Lambay and an overnight at Skerries, while the old yawl, her prizes secure, went on past the roseate terns rampant at Rockabill, and fetched up that night comfortably in Ardglass.

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Quiet day at sea – Annabel-J on passage towards Lambay on Bank Holiday Monday Photo: W M Nixon

But for some really keen Old Gaffer sailors, Bank Holiday Monday in Dublin Bay meant the first race for the Asgard Trophy, created by conservator John Kearon from bits saved from the saving of Erskine Childers' Asgard up in Collins Barracks. With the high pressure system well settled on Ireland, it was into the afternoon before there was a hint of a breeze, but the fleet had waited in patience, and they got a race and a result.

This time round, it was Tir na nOg's turn to take the prize by 63 seconds from Denis Aylmer's Mona, which means that over the two races of OGA50 racing in Dublin, Sean Walsh's cutter is the overall winner. He certainly deserves it – the quiet but steady effort as DBOGA Honorary Secretary that Sean put in over the winter to bring it all together made for a fantastic time for everyone.

Asgard Trophy 2013 1st Tir na nOg (Sean Walsh, Poolbeg) 00:52:11; 2nd Mona (Denis Aylmer, Dun Laoghaire) 00:53:14; 3rd Verve (Brian Comerford, Dun Laoghaire), 00:53:48; 4th Dreva (1936 34ft gaff cutter, Joe Ormond, North Wales) 00:54:53; 5th Marguerite (1896 25ft gaff cutter, owned Tim Magennis Dun Laoghaire, sailed Sean Cullen) 00:57:03.

This weekend, the fleet are well gathered in the new Belfast Harbour Marina right beside the extraordinary Titanic Belfast centre, close to the newly-restored ship Nomadic, the "miniature Titanic". She is so newly re-commissioned that tonight's OGA50 party on board is the first official function on Nomadic in decades. And then the fleet heads on, some to return directly to their home ports, others to continue the circuit via the Caledonian Canal, and others like Annabel-J making a real job of it by going north to the Shetlands before finally shaping their course southwards to many hospitable ports before the OGA50 Challenge reaches its conclusion with a mighty gathering in Cowes in mid-August.

We enjoyed our new friendships made at Poolbeg in the glorious first weekend of June. Now we'll follow their summer-long progress with special interest, these lovely people with their long bowsprits, their weird and wonderful boats, and their engaging enthusiasm.

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Where is everyone? Ainmara was one of the first to reach Belfast, and is seen here berthed at the new Titanic Belfast centre on Tuesday evening. The OGA50 party continues there tonight. Photo: W M 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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