#rioti – The further west you go in Ireland, the more it all seems like a giant theatre set. With giant characters to match. We staid East Coast folk could probably cope with it if each of these outsize characters, who aren't necessarily physically large, confined themselves to just one OTT role. But they act out dozens of melodramatic parts. Each individual is a one-man or one-woman cast of thousands. And they've multiple crazy ideas to match.
Plus it's all set in a context where time is meaningless, or at least time is whatever you think it might be, communication seems to be by telepathy, and anything is written down only for the purposes of ignoring it.
In sailing, this western way comes suddenly upon you when you set forth with hope in your heart for an event on the Shannon. I don't mean one of those official events which have proper programmes, and are staged as regional, national or international championships for one design classes, and everything is done according to plan. I mean the quirkier happenings which stem from the nature of the great river and its magnificent lakes, and the unique possibilities which its myriad waters offer for event inventors and organisers whose soaring imaginations tend to out-strip their interest in the tedious nitty-gritty of putting a complex sailing programme together, and particularly of publicising it for those who might be interested in taking part. They tend to suppose that their pet notion is a thing of such beauty that it will acquire its own organisational and promotional impetus. As this becomes apparent, you can only think that the longest river in Britain and Ireland must have come within an ace of being named the River Shambles.
Thus on Thursday on Shannon waters we found ourselves sailing past Rockall. As one does of a Thursday. Or at least one does on Lough Ree. Down there, plumb in the middle of Ireland where they've had a sailing club of some sort in existence since 1770, they've been toying for years with the idea of staging a Round Ireland On The Inside Race, a sort of inverted compliment to Wicklow SC's biennial classic round the outside, as the Lough Ree course planned to go "inside Ireland and all her islands".
The buoy marking the Adelaide Rock in Lough Ree became Rockall-for-the-Day. Photo: W M Nixon
The two bright boys who have worked up the notion are David Beattie, owner of the 47ft Dutch sailing Lemsteraak Schollevaer, and Lough Ree YC Commodore Alan Algeo, who owns the 84ft Dutch motor barge Linquenda. As both boats had their centenary coming up in 2013, this was to be the year, and I had signed on for a day or three aboard Schollevaer, as the RIOTI event would be in the midst of agreeable cruises-in-company to the many watering holes around Lough Ree.
Unfortunately, the big freeze of a couple of winters ago put paid to Schollevaer's participation, as the ice burst a seacock (and no, I don't know why it's called a seacock on a lake either), and her major refurbishment subsequent to immersion, while almost completed, was going to miss the due date. So no Schollevaer. But not to worry they said, just turn up and we'll find you a berth.
So we drove west through a belt of rain which was lifting to promise a classic day of Irish Atlantic weather and a nice westerly sailing breeze to match, and arrived at Ballyglass to find Lough Ree's fine premises a hive of inactivity. Race Officer Beattie was aboard his other boat, the Shipman 28 Aeolus, looking quite the part in a yachting cap of a type I thought had disappeared after the Hitler Unpleasantness, while contemplating with Buddha-like stillness an array of signal flags which would have been more than adequate for Belfast on a sunny Twelfth of July. But of the Commodore there was no sign whatever. It emerged he was deep in the bilges of Linquenda, sorting a problem with a pump which had been proving inadequate to prevent his ship becoming the second centenarian barge to settle on the bed of Lough Ree within two years.
As for dozens of enthusiastic yachties mustard keen to take on this great challenge of a new Round Ireland Record (Inside Department), there was scarcely a sinner about the place, keen or otherwise. But that's how it is down the Shannon. Eventually it all comes together, and everyone has a great bit of sport. But in a region where the usual dinner arrangement is 8 o'clock for midnight, there's no point in expecting anything that resembles International Standard Time.
Commodore Alan Algeo, having sorted the bilge pump to keep the Commodorial barge afloat for another day, attends to domestic duties in Linquenda's large multi-purpose cabin. Photo: W M Nixon
Aboard Linquenda at the saloon table (a family heirloom), Race Officer David Beattie considers course options. Photo: W M Nixon
Eventually the Commodore emerged from a successful interview with Linquenda's bilge pump, and went about his domestic duties in the vast main cabin. There, we were soon joined by the Race Officer who then went through the options and finalised a course. Initial high flown ideas of laying special new marks in order to replicate Ireland's islands and headlands had been long since abandoned, and we made do with navigation buoys and Lough Ree YC's more-than-adequate system of racing marks across the southern half of the lake, the only real adherence to the original idealism being that the starting line in at Hare Island should be in line with the bearing from Wicklow Head. We were also told that with a clockwise course, we'd be leaving the navigational buoys marking the Adelaide Rock to starboard, and that for the purposes of this event the Adelaide Rock would be re-named Rockall.
Apart from it being politically contentious as to just who – if any – has a right to claim Rockall as national territory, this meant that we would be going outside Rockall-for-the-Day, when all the talk had been about going inside Ireland and all her islands. Then too, a worthwhile course meant we went round – in other words outside – gallant little Beam Island in the south end of the lake. But on this being pointed out, it was airily dismissed on the grounds that among Lough Ree sailors, Beam Island is regarded as The Actual Centre Of Ireland, so even a race going round the inside would just have to go round the outside of Beam island. Simple, really.
The course was a coastal circuit of the southern part of Lough Ree, starting and finishing at Hare Island on a line set on the bearing from Wicklow Head, with Beam Island the only island enclosed by a course which otherwise went "inside Ireland and all her islands".
The hot contender – Philip Watson's very souped-up Ajax 23 Pathfinder on her mooring at LRYC Photo: W M Nixon
The Race Officer geared for action in full dress uniform Photo: W M Nixon
Spectator boats and motherships centred on Linquenda Photo: W M Nixon
The fleet taking on this challenge for the first time made up in quality and variety anything it lacked in numbers. The star turn was undoubtedly Cathy MacAleavey, one of the Lakota crew whose Round Ireland Record (Outside Section) of 1993 still stands after all the faffing about by the MOD 70s in Dublin Bay last weekend. But far from taking on the inside record with some fancy multi-hull, as the start time (whatever it might eventually be) was approaching, Cathy was sailing down the lake from Lecarrow to compete with the classic Water Wag which she built with the tutelage of the great Jimmy Furey at that remote Roscommon port.
The Shannon One Designs were also making a pitch, and from the deep south and the mysterious and mountainous coasts of Lough Derg had come Reggie Goodbody with his elegant gaff sloop Amaryllis as mother ship for his impossibly superb Shannon OD, complete with million carat gold cove line. As for the white-hot keelboat division, elapsed time favourite had to be Philip Watson crewed by Roger Cagney with the Ajax 23 Pathfinder, which he has souped up in such style that you'd scarcely recognise her as the Squib's big sister - he even sets a masthead genniker which certainly puts the cat among the Three Jolly Pigeons down on the coast of the Goldsmith country.
It was in the cruisers I found myself a berth. John Banim was planning to put in a show with his Evasion 29 La Reveuse crewed only by his lakedog Rex, but it was decided Rex could sail as passenger, and we'd challenge for the Cruisers Two-Handed Division. It was a shrewd career move, as no other cruiser had only two men and a dog aboard. And this was one interesting cruiser. Most folk would think she's only a glorified motor-sailer, but back in 1980 Andre Beneteau designed, and his family firm built, this 29-footer which really does sail, yet provides accommodation to commodious motor-boat standard, with a comfortable dining area where the windows are so arranged that you can see out without having to stand up, which is not always the case with fancy deck saloons.
John Banim's Evasion 29 La Reveuse was the only boat in RIOTI which had also sailed round Ireland on the outside. Photo: W M Nixon
The Andre Beneteau-designed Evasion 29 is a motor-sailer which really can sail
The accommodation on La Reveuse is extremely good for a boat of this size
There are dual steering positions, and thanks to extensive windows and decklights, you really can sail the boat from below, the only drawback being that the cockpit's tiller steering and the saloon's wheel steering cannot be de-coupled from each other, which makes the tiller steering seem much heavier than it really is, though the powerful wheel is fine. That said, for family use you'd wonder at the safety of having a tiller and steering wheel which can suddenly turn when the other method is being used – children might get caught up in it, but it hasn't been a problem this far.
As for seagoing ability, La Reveuse proved herself with a round Ireland cruise – starting and finishing at Kilrush in the Shannon Estuary - in 2002. She experienced some rough weather, particularly on a passage from west Mayo to Killybegs, yet John and his crew never felt that the big coachroof and extensive windows were at risk. And thanks to that cruise, this was the only boat taking on the RIOTI challenge which had also sailed round on the outside.
In the early stages of grey weather sailing, Ventus (with Pathfinder even more distant) seemed to be building up an unassailable lead on La Reveuse. Photo: W M Nixon
As for the course, using the LRYC marks and some navigation buoys it was simply a coastal circuit right round the lower part of the lake, staying south of Nun's Island, with only Beam island consigned to the inner darkness. With the rain well cleared to the east, the breeze piped up from the west, and though it slackened at mid-afternoon in grey conditions, it soon came back brisk and fresh with sunshine to provide great sailing, with Lough Ree and its vast skies at their summertime best.
Lakedog Rex wasn't too sure he liked this racing business, but with the skipper busy on the helm, he was able to enjoy the usually off-limits comfort of the best settee berth. Photo: W M Nixon
It was no surprise that Pathfinder did a horizon job on the rest of us, but as we were later to discover, she'd a handicap so punitive she'd have had to finish almost before the rest of us had started if she was going to win on corrected time. Aboard Le Reveuse, we'd resigned ourselves to crossing the finish line third, as Pat Mahon's GRP Folkboat Ventus worked ahead – particularly to windward – in the first of the two rounds. But as we got to the bottom end of the lake for the second circuit, the breeze freshened and blew away the clouds, and our gallant little tubby cruiser settled to her work in the sunshine, and powered northward on a close fetch along the Roscommon shore to such good effect that as we were passing Rockall-for-the-Day for the second time, La Reveuse was dumping on Ventus, and we rounded the furthest turn at the Cribby Islands buoy a whisker ahead.
Final leg southward down the Westmeath shore. Once he'd got through Pat Mahon's Folkboat Ventus.................
............skipper John Banim was very determined to stay ahead. Photos: W M Nixon
La Reveuse managed to hang onto it – though only just - through a brisk run and reach back to the finish. The line crossed, Rex on his settee berth below could sense the easing of tension, and bounded out into the cockpit to find the new RIOTI Two-Handed Cruiser Champions high-fiving with exuburance.
Summer evening post-race at Lough Ree YC Photo: W M Nixon
The classes had got well strung out, and we'd been busy enough with our own work without trying to pay attention to the dinghies, but it was clear that one of the Shannons had sailed a mighty race, and it was Frank Browne of Portlaw in County Waterford who won by a country mile, while in the Water Wags, Ian Malcolm of Howth managed to finish ahead of Cathy McAleavey.
Frank Browne had a mighty win in the Shannon One Designs Photo: W M Nixon
It may have seemed a bit chaotic beforehand, but in the best Shannon traditions it all came together, and we even had an official set of results well before sunset. They were:
Keelboats & Cruisers: lst Ventus (Folkboat, Pat Mahon) CT 2hrs 11mins 44 secs; 2nd La Reveuse (Evasion 29, John Banim) 2hrs 15mins 6secs; 3rd Pathfinder (Ajax 23, Philip Watson) 2hrs 21mins 13secs
Shannon ODs: 1st No 86 (Frank Browne); 2nd No 138 (Alan Algeo); 3rd No 58 (Daphne Shackleton).
Water Wags: 1st No 8 (Ian Malcolm), 2nd No 41 (Cathy McAleavy).
Linquenda and friends ensconced in the reeds to begin her Centenary Party in Killinure Lake Photo; W M Nixon
Rachel Leech's much-travelled Ebenhaezer – recently returned via the Grand Canal from the Old Gaffers Association Golden Jubilee in Dublin – joined the Linquenda RIOTI party at Glasson Hotel. Photo: W M Nixon
The racing disposed of, the fleet re-convened along with Rachel Leech's much-travelled 64ft Dutch barge Ebenhaezer in one of the sweetest places on the Shannon, the little harbour in the northern end of Killinure Lake at Glasson Hotel & Country Club. It's ironic that this idyllic spot is at an establishment which majors in golf. But it provided a sumptuous Linquenda Centenary Dinner, and appropriate celebration for the establishment of the first Round Ireland On The Inside Record, which is held by Philip Watson and Roger Cagney regardless of where they might have finished with Pathfinder on handicap.
This weekend, the inland waterways racing is back in the numbers game in every way, with the annual Long Distance Race in two stages today and tomorrow, down the Shannon from Lough Ree to Lough Derg. Then the next major happenings are the traditional regatta weeks on Derg and Ree, while the Shannon One Designs have other events on their calendar including an outing to Lough Corrib, which some would argue is the most beautiful lake of all.
With so much going on, you can see why it was so difficult to fit a new event like RIOTI into the programme. So whether or not it will happen again is anybody's guess. Maybe it would be better just to remember it as one stand-alone perfect day's sailing. For RIOTI 2013 was that and more.
Shannon ODs looking more beautiful than ever at Glasson Photo: W M Nixon
Reggie Goodbody's characterful Amaryllis from Lough Derg will be returning home to Dromineer this weekend after the long distance race down from Lough Ree. Photo: W M Nixon