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All Sailing Super Stars, By George

21st September 2013
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"The wonderful Egeria". This 1865-built schooner was one of the most successful boats owned by a Royal St George YC member during the halcyon years at the height of the Victorian era, when the club's yacht fleet tonnage was one of the largest in the world. Egeria was owned for more than thirty years by Belfast businessman John Mulholland who, as Lord Dunleath, was Vice Commodore of the Royal St George YC from 1892 until 1895
All Sailing Super Stars, By George

#rsgyc – The word on the grapevine is that the Royal St George Yacht Club, currently the Mitsubishi Motors "Sailing Club of the Year", is planning a special festive event to celebrate its 175th birthday. The whisper is that it will be a gathering to honour those members who have won major events and titles right up to and including Olympic medals.

We've been allowed a glimpse of the list, and it's very impressive. Which is what you'd expect from a club which has shown an extraordinary ability to adapt successfully to changing circumstances, while displaying a special talent for recruiting promising sailors from all round the country when they come to Dublin, either to go to college or to work.

Yet even as they keep a weather eye open for potential members who will give as much to the club as it will give to them, the club's administrators never lose sight of their past. And what a past it has been. Like many great clubs, it started modestly enough around 1838 as the Pembroke Rowing Club in south Dublin. But the oarsmen of the Dodder soon reckoned that the cleaner waters of the new harbour out on Dublin Bay, where Dunleary had recently been re-named Kingstown, would provide more pleasant conditions than the fetid Liffey.

As for their sport, several key members were thinking of moving into slightly larger craft, driven by sail. Suddenly, the new club took off. Boat sizes and numbers increased exponentially, the membership became rather grand and extremely wealthy, and by the 1850s the little rowing club had morphed into the Royal St George Yacht Club, with handsome and frequently extended premises on the waterfront, and a membership list which seemed to include just about every great landowner in Ireland who had the slightest interest in the rapidly growing sport of yachting.

In looking back from the present day, we tend to think that the modern emphasis on active participation is just that – a modern thing. Indeed, it's said that it was a member of the George, when it was at the height of its affluence, who occasioned the apocryphal story which captures the sprit of certain yacht owners at a time when most wealth was concentrated in very few hands. Cue to stately home somewhere in Ireland:

The Butler waits upon his lordship, and clears his throat in a meaningful manner.

His Lordship: "Yes, James".

Butler: "My Lord, I have just been in conversation with our land agent".

HL: "Indeed".

Butler: "And he tells me that we are living in financially stringent times".

HL: "Is that so?"

Butler: "Such seems to be the case, my Lord. In fact, the agent tells me that we may have to implement some cutbacks in the usual expenditure".

HL: "Nothing too severe, I trust".

Butler: "Well, my lord, I'm afraid the agent thinks that we may have to sell the yacht"

HL: "Sell the yacht?"

Butler: "Regrettably so, my Lord".

HL " Good heavens. D'you know what, James? I didn't know we had a yacht. Well, I do declare. Isn't life just full of surprises? I'll need to think about this".

But while there were George members who shaded towards this approach to yachting, there were others who really did sail the seas. One of the original Pembroke men, William Potts, had moved up from rowing to serious seagoing with the substantial new cutter Caprice, and in 1850 he cruised to Iceland.

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The cutter Caprice in which William Potts, a founder member of the Royal St George YC in 1838, cruised to Iceland in 1850.

As for the racing side of things, we have to remember that this was still in its infancy in terms of organisation even if Lough Erne YC had been formed in Fermanagh as long ago as 1820 specifically to run yacht races, and thus records of early sailing events are often incomplete and inconclusive. After all, the George had already been in existence for a dozen years when the schooner America won that famous race round the Isle of Wight in 1851, but the fact that it was a scratch event which took no account whatever of different yacht sizes in collating results shows indicates the relatively primitive site of the sport of yacht racing at the time.

But the rapid increase in wealth in the latter half of the 19th century meant that the development of yachting, and its regulation, accelerated markedly. In Ireland, it was in Belfast that economic growth became most rapid, and the new wealth accumulators from the north were keen to get involved. The Ulster Yacht Club did not get founded until 1866, and it became the Royal Ulster YC in 1869. But meanwhile one of the richest and most energetic of the new Belfast linen magnates, John Mulholland who later became Lord Dunleath in 1892, had been spreading his sailing wings as a member of the Royal St George.

By the 1860s, schooner racing was the apex of the sport, and in 1865 Mulholland commissioned the 153-ton schooner Egeria from the top designer-builder of the time, Wanhill of Poole. At just under 100ft LOA, the beautiful new vessel soon became known as "the wonderful Egeria", and for more than a decade she was the winner par excellence with more than sixty major trophies to her credit, while her owner was so fond of the boat that he kept her for many years after she had been out-classed as a racer.

In Egeria's competitive years, Mulholland was no absentee yacht owner. On the contrary, he seems to have been the Denis Doyle, the Piet Vroon, of his day, enthusiastically racing his lovely ship with a crew of 12 wherever there was good competition to be had. He embodied the best of the sporting instincts among the active yacht owners in the George, which had been a leading club in supporting the idea of "flying starts".

This marked a change from the early days of yacht racing, where the starting gun was fired with all competitors lying to their anchors. A flying start under full sail across an imaginary line was much more fun, and in Dun Laoghaire harbour it could be extremely sporty when the big yachts got crowded. As for the finishes, they were recorded by the naval officer/marine artist Richard Brydges Beechey, so we have a fair idea of what they could be like, but the image is augmented by an account of "the famous Egeria" making an in-harbour finish under full sail to win: "....what a fright the Egeria gave the multitude of yachts lying at their moorings when, on returning to Kingstown harbour she, on rounding the buoy, had so much way on that she absolutely ran through the crowd of yachts. The escape of many craft was little short of marvellous...."

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A cutter finishing in the harbour at the Royal St George Regatta, 1871, as recorded by Richard Brydges Beechey. The larger schooner at anchor on left may be Egeria

By the time Beechey was recording the scene, cutters had taken over from schooners as the premier racing class, but here too the Royal St George was to set the pace with John Jameson and his legendary Irex. The Jameson family had been moderately prosperous whiskey distillers in Dublin since 1780, but in 1864 phylloxera wiped out the vines in the brandy districts of France. With brandy supplies dwindling, Irish whiskey and soda soon became such a fashionable drink internationally that the entire Jameson family entered the ranks of the mega-rich.

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John Jameson's 1884-built cutter Irex was the most successful racing yacht of her era. She is seen here after winning the annual regatta of the Royal Harwich YC on England's east coast

John Jameson himself, while an extremely able businessman and talented sailor, was personally rather shy. However, his younger brother Willie was anything but, and the Jameson brothers with the 1884-built Irex were enthusiastic campaigners on all coasts with John the backroom boy, while Willie was front of house. And the fact that every time Irex won a regatta, the name John Jameson appeared in the newspapers was no harm at all for their whiskey sales. Then at Cowes Week after a spectacular race in heavy weather in which the Irex won by half a boatslength, as the brothers were anchoring afterwards, the rowing gig from the royal yacht arrived alongside and a written message was passed on board: "The Prince of Wales compliments and congratulations. His Royal Highness would be very pleased if Mr Jameson could join him for drinks before dinner".

John Jameson became hyper-shy, and said to Willie he couldn't be dealing with a situation like that at all. But Willie said not to worry, he was Mr Jameson too. So off he went to the party and got on so well he stayed to dinner. And when the Prince of Wales was planning the building of the superb Watson cutter Britannia a few years later, he asked Willie to be owner's representative during the building and commissioning, and subsequent racing.

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The day Britannia came to call. The new royal cutter Britannia in Dun Laoghaire harbour in 1893 on her delivery voyage from the Clyde to the Solent, "and Mr Willie Jameson was seen on board". Note that a boomless gaff trisail is set instead of the full main.

Needless to say, nobody really believed it back in Dublin, so when the brand new Britannia was being sailed south to the Solent from the Clyde in 1893, Willie Jameson made damned sure she called to Dublin Bay, and the local papers duly reported that "Mr Willie Jameson was indeed seen on board". But while he was a great man for a party, Willie could be cussed enough. When the Britannia was being scuttled in 1936 in accordance with the recently-deceased George V's will, the Royal Family sent Willie Jameson her steering wheel as a memento of his time on board in a key role. But he promptly sent it back with a curt note saying that when he sailed the Britannia, she was tiller steered....

The Jameson standing in sailing was such that when Lord Dunraven decided it was time he took up sailing in the mid-1880s, it was as a member of the Royal St George and aboard Irex that he got his first taste of the sport, an experience which followed with his two increasingly acrimonious America's Cup challenges in the 1890s which, mercifully for the George, were made through the Royal Yacht Squadron to which the County Limerick peer had transferred his allegiances.

Back in Dublin Bay meanwhile, it was a very active and successful Royal St George sailing member, wine merchant George Black Thompson, who was one of the sailing men involved in codifying yacht racing through the Royal Alfred YC's pioneering work. But G B Thompson was primarily a George man, and just as it is with the club nowadays, he was keen to encourage promising newcomers. Thus in 1892 when his 5 Rater Shulah was becoming out-classed competitively but had the ability to become a fast cruiser, he was more than happy to sell her to two young brothers who had been teaching themselves to sail with a Water Wag dinghy up on Lough Dan in the Wicklow mountains, and now wanted to cruise.

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G B Thompson, a leading member of the Royal St George YC for many years, introduced Erskine Childers to the possibilities of cruising in 1892. He succeeded Lord Dunleath as Vice Commodore in 1895.

Shulah's new owners were Erskine and Henry Childers. They soon took Shulah away from Dublin Bay with a cruise to the west of Scotland, where they laid the boat up and cruised the Hebrides again the following summer. After that, Erskine Childers began his career in London. He decided Shulah was too deep for his new cruising area in the Thames Estuary, and acquired the Vixen which, after a cruise to the Friesian islands and the Baltic, became the fictional Dulcibella, "heroine" of his best-seller novel Riddle of the Sands.

Published in 1903, the Riddle of the Sands hinted at the possibility of war between Germany and Britain, which duly came in 1914. But at the same time many of the Royal St George members were facing their own problems with the breaking up of Ireland's largest estates under the Land Acts. That and the Easter Rising of 1916 and the establishment of the Irish Fee State in 1922 meant that in the space of just three decades, the club had gone from affluence to a relatively sparse existence.

Yet somehow it adapted, and in time the club was back in the forefront of sailing in an Ireland which may have seemed changed. But was it really? As a member of the new Free State Government put it, "we are the most conservative revolutionaries ever seen". So, far from the relics of ould decency like the old royal yacht clubs being wiped out, in time they began to thrive again, and by the mid-1930s the George was extending its forecourt to accommodate sailing dinghies such as the Water Wags, while members also were involved in forming the new 17ft Mermaid class

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Billy Mooney, who had sailed from Howth between 1919 and 1943, then moved to live in Sandycove and became very active in the Royal St George, of which he had already been a member for many years. A founder member of the Irish Cruising Club, he is seen here at the age of 74 when he was still to be seen sailing as a member of the George squad in Firefly Team racing, another area of sailing in which the club played a pioneering role.

As World War II ended in 1945 and international sailing resumed, the club was right in there, with a leading member, Billy Mooney, winning his class in the 1947 Fastnet with his 43ft ketch Aideen. The Mooney family – Billy and his son Jimmy - were a formidable force in sailing, and were also in the forefront of the establishment of the Irish Dinghy Racing Association. It was a fellow dinghy enthusiast, Douglas Heard, who was to become the first "commoner" to be Commodore of the Royal St George, succeeding the Earl of Iveagh, one of the Guinness family, in 1960.

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Douglas Heard (left) and designer Uffa Fox discussing the new Huff of Arklow on the club veranda in 1950

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Well ahead of her time. Douglas Heard's Flying Thirty Huff of Arklow, designed by Uffa Fox and built by Jack Tyrrell, incorporated design features which were not generally adopted in offshore racing boats for another thirty-five years. Photo: W M Nixon

There was of course nothing common about Douglas Heard, who somehow found time to record the Irish sailing and boating scene on film while at the same time being an active participant, as his interests encompassed just about every branch of sea sailing, while his passions included the preservation and restoration of Ireland's inland waterways. Offshore racing and distance cruising were among his activities, and in 1950 he had his friend the innovative designer Uffa Fox create the plans for a Flying Thirty racer/cruiser. In effect a double size Flying Fifteen, this very advanced boat was built by Jack Tyrrell in Arklow, and though she was so far ahead of her time as to inevitably have weaknesses on some point of sailing, off the wind she was unbeatable while her seagoing credentials were amply demonstrated by cruises to Iceland and the Azores.

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Three stages of development in the Royal St George YC premises. The clubhouse (right) in the 1880s. when there was much more in the way of green spaces on the Dun Laoghaire waterfront.......

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.....and in 1934 shortly before the forecourt was extended to provide improved dinghy space and better access to deep water....

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......and the Royal St George Yacht Club today, providing full facilities for all branches of sailing. Photo: David O'Brien

In compiling the first provisional list of the George's significant sailing award winners which currently goes back only to 1946, the organisers of the upcoming 175th Anniversary celebrations have produced 12 pages of data, many of them very tightly packed with names. The word is that this list will soon be available to members so that anyone who thinks that he or she (or an ancestor) has been overlooked can have their claims to inclusion considered. Outsiders seeing it may note names which are better known for their associations with other clubs, but the fact that they are George members, or were at the time of their achievement, is inescapable.

As it stands, it's a formidable data-base. You get the flavour of it by the listing of Olympic sailors. Since 1948, when Alf Delany and Hugh Allen raced in the Olympics two-handed class, members of the Royal St George YC have been involved more often than not, the only post World War II Olympics in which they haven't sailed for Ireland being 1956, 1968, 1984, and 2000, with the supreme achievement being the Silver Medal won by David Wilkins in 1980. 

The Irish Helmsman's Championship has also been a happy hunting ground, with Douglas Heard winning an early staging in 1947 while the most recent was Tom Fitzpatrick in 1998 in a lineup of 16 winners. But such achievements are only the peaks of a broad swathe of success which has encompassed an extraordinary range of members and boats going right back to 1838. So it is timely that the club should be celebrating its own achievers in this the year of its 175th birthday, as the Club of the Year trophy was mainly in recognition of the Royal St George Yacht Club's achievement in staging the hnyper-successful Youth Worlds in 2012, and providing support and encouragement for the University College Dublin team as they underwent their rigorous buildup towards runaway success in the Student Yachting Worlds just eleven short months ago.

It will be quite a gathering, this cheering of the champions. All things considered, we can surely agree that the seagoing section of the Pembroke Rowing Club has done rather well.

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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