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Round Ireland Race – Wicklow's Child Outgrows the Family Home

31st January 2014
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Denis Doyle's Moonduster
Denis Doyle at the helm with Moonduster. His enthusiastic support moved the Round Ireland Race into the international league, and his regular participation set performance standards which greatly enhanced the event. Photo: Bob Bateman
Round Ireland Race – Wicklow's Child Outgrows the Family Home

#roundireland – With the announcement that Round Ireland Race organisers Wicklow Sailing Club have taken on Dun Laoghaire's Royal Irish YC as Associate Club for this year's race on June 28th, W M Nixon looks back on 34 years of a pivotal event, and suggests that the new twinned arrangement deserves full support and increased participation.

"Mixed feelings" defines the reaction to the announcement that Wicklow Sailing Club have taken on Dun Laoghaire's Royal Irish Yacht Club as a partner in staging the biennial Round Ireland Race. Until now, even though the largest boats tended to be Dun Laoghaire-based before the event, there's no doubting the real scene of the action was twenty-one miles to the south in a characterful little river port where the unique and very special pre-race atmosphere was charged with emotion and tangible memories of previous stagings of this often epic event.

But in the 34 years since the first race was sailed in 1980, boats have got bigger, and media coverage and tracking of the race have become much more sophisticated. Expectations have been raised. Yet Wicklow Harbour has stayed the same. Indeed, the likelihood is it's going to be even more of the same as the pickup in the economy continues and the number of ships using Wicklow – some of them astonishingly large for the place, and many of them discharging or loading decidedly anti-social cargoes – starts to increase again.

In an age when local trade, exports and jobs are more important than ever, a biennial special-interest sporting event which hopes to transform a busy little commercial port into a yacht harbour of international standard, even for only a few days, is going to receive decidedly mixed messages both from the neighbourhood community, and from those who hope to take part in the race.

With proper recreational boat berthing facilities close to the south in Arklow, and northwards at both Dun Laoghaire and now Greystones, the fact that berthing for anything more than a small handful of visiting boats is inadequate in Wicklow by international standards becomes a bigger drawback with every staging of a race which is at the very heart of Irish sailing.

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Wicklow Harbour in the summertime, with two substantial ships in port, and visiting yachts rafted up at the outer pier. Photo by Kevin Dwyer courtesy of Irish Cruising Club.

In fact, it was when the peak turnout of 53 boats was achieved twenty years ago that it was clear something needed to be done if the race's growing international stature was going to be maintained. But in 1994, the improvement of facilities in other ports was still at an early stage, so people accepted that being in over-crowded rafted-up berthing in a commercial port setting was part of the Wicklow Round Ireland Race thing.

And of course, the ultimate Wicklow Round Ireland thing was the very fact that a little local sailing club, thanks to one or two key enthusiasts and visionaries supported by loyal teams of clubmates, had been able to pull off the audacious coup of making a non-stop round Ireland race happen, and keep it happening, and successfully too, by making its existence the core tenet of their club's existence.

Other bigger clubs and sailing organisations had made noises about staging a round Ireland race in times past, and there'd been an early three-stage circuit from Ballyholme in 1975. But it was a once off. Yet when Michael Jones of Wicklow announced that his club would be running the first non-stop Round Ireland Race in June 1980, and that come hell or high water they'd stage it biennially thereafter, his sheer determination, and the fact that Wicklow is a significant distance from the then-hidebound Dublin Bay sailing establishment, meant that offshore racing folk with a bit of the rebel in their makeup leapt at the chance to do something completely new.

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Pre-start manoeuvring at the first Round Ireland at Wicklow, June 28th 1980. Boats are (left to right) the High Tension 36 Force Tension, Shamrock Orinoco, catamaran Snowball, and the Rival 34 Raasay of Melfort.

The challenge attracted thirteen starters from many parts of Ireland, including two round Ireland junkies who had already done that first three-stage race from Ballyholme in 1975. They were Jim Poole from Dun Laoghaire, who'd come second in 1975 with his Ruffian 23, but now had the Ron Holland Nicholson Half Tonner Feanor, and Brian Coad from Waterford, who'd done the first race "in his own good time" with a Folkboat, but now was skippering the Rival 34 Raasay of Melfort, very much a cruising boat but she was to become a round Ireland regular.

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The start. High Tension is already on her way, Brian Murphy's Crazy Jane leads the next bunch from Tony Farrelly's Crystal Clear, Brian Coad's Raasay, and Dave Fitzgerald's Partizan, with Feanor trying to get the right side of the Committee Boat as the tie pushes her south.

The best of a cautious start on Saturday June 28th 1980, in a sluicing ebb and a light to moderate east nor'east breeze, was made by the de Ridder-designed 36ft High Tension-class One Tonner Force Tension, skippered by serial offshore racer Johnny Morris, the boatyard owner from Pwllheli in North Wales. Next across was persistent boat-modifier Brian Murphy from Howth with his own-built David Thomas-designed 28ft Hydro, a boat which was almost permanently in a state of Work in Progress, and eventually became a 31-footer with a needle mast which her ingenious owner was to assemble from bits of scrapped Dragon masts.

After that they came in a rush led by the Cavan doctor-entrepreneur Tony Farrrelly with his Shamrock Crystal Clear (Cavan Crystal was one of his many ventures), closely followed by the Waterford veterinarian Brian Coad with his Rival 34, and then came Galway mining engineer Dave Fitzgerald with his handsome Holman & Pye 41 Partizan, a true cruiser-racer of that era.

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Saturday June 28th 1980, and spinnakers set south of Wicklow Head as the fleet of thirteen boats sets off on the first Round Ireland Race.

They'd a spinnaker broad reach for a while after getting past Wicklow Head, but eventually the wind headed them, and in the lead the Welsh team on Force Tension found themselves hard on the wind for 75% of the course. Down in the body of the fleet, a very determined race was being sailed by Jim Poole with Feanor, his National YC crew including Enda O'Coineen who's originally from Galway, so it was ironic that for much of the race the 30ft Feanor was neck-and-neck with the much larger Galway boat Partizan.

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Feanor revelling in fair winds off the west coast during the first Round Ireland Race. Photo: Enda O Coineen

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Jim Poole on Feanor off Aranmore in Donegal, neck-and-neck with the larger Partizan. Photo: Enda O Coineen

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The money shot. Dave Fitzgerald's Partizan from Galway is the first star of the now-traditional image of a boat coming out of the dawn to finish the Round Ireland Race at Wicklow

Force Tension came to the finish in the small hours of the Saturday morning after 5 days 15 hours 2 minutes and 21 seconds, a very leisurely time by today's standards. Partizan was next in two hours later, and as the dawn was breaking the Galway crew were first ever to star in that classic Wicklow photo of a round Ireland finisher coming in with the sunrise. Feanor was in only two hours later, and immediately corrected in to a formidable lead on IOR which she held despite the conditions now favouring slightly lower-rated fast-reaching boats such as the Hustler 35 Red Velvet (Dermod Ryan, RStGYC).

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Dave Fitzgerald (fourth right) and his crew aboard Partizan in the early morning in Wicklow shortly after finishing the first round Ireland Race. Partizan competed a number of times during the 1980s, and usually had a bet on with Patrick Jameson's similarly-sized Swan 40 Finndabar.

However, being the first time round, Wicklow SC also had their own handicap system as they'd to include one multi-hull entry, the catamaran Snowball. Under this "Race Handicap", the winner was Brian Coad's Raasay of Melfort, despite the fact that this very comfortable boat didn't get in until the Sunday.

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History is made. The first set of published results of the first Wicklow Round Ireland Race 1980

With a retiral rate of only 20% - which reflected very well on Wicklow SC's pre-race qualifying and scrutineering process – the Round Ireland seedling had been properly planted, but now it needed encouragement and nurturing. That came big time with the next race in 1982, when Denis Doyle from Cork turned up with his 1981 Crosshaven-built Frers 51 Moonduster, and his involvement encouraged other noted larger international contenders such as Ciaran Foley's Storm Bird. But while other skippers came and went, The Doyler gave his whole-hearted support to the Wicklow Round Ireland Race for many years, and he was an example to everyone else, as he and his hugely-supportive wife Mary stayed in a B&B near the harbour for the pre-race days, and at every turn ensured that the race team in WSC got the encouragement and credit they deserved.

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Moonduster comes to the finish line in 1982 in a brisk nor'easter – a scan from Afloat magazine August 1982.

Moonduster in turn put in stellar performances which gave the event its proper glamour. In 1982 she set a good course record despite a nor'east gale giving the leaders a right pasting along Ireland's north coast. But it was 1984 when she sailed the definitive round Ireland record race in fresh to strong west to nor'west winds which curved at just the right time to enable the big varnished sloop to fly. "We saw off an entire Irish county in every watch" was how navigator John Bourke (later the Commodore of the RORC) was to put it after the finish.

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The Fastnet astern, and it still only Sunday.......a carnival atmosphere aboard Moonduster as she shapes her course for Mizen Head in 1984's record-setting race, with Neil Hegarty to lee on the helm, Brendan Fogarty and Grattan Roberts in foreround, and is that Donal McClement behind them?

Moonduster's 1984 record of 3 days 16 hours 15 minutes and 43 seconds was a prodigious time for a mono-hull sailing a circuit course at a pre-ordained time, its quality underlined by the fact that it took a 60ft catamaran – Robin Knox Johnston's British Airways – to shave a bit off it in May 1986 with a designated own-time-choosing challenge. As for mono-hulls in the Round Ireland, it wasn't until Colm Barrington came along with the Volvo 65 Jeep Cherokee that The Duster's time was bettered, and it took a hundred footer to better it yet again with the current record set by Mike Slade's Leopard – helms including Gordon Maguire - in 2008.

But while records by superstars captured the headlines, for the vast majority of sailors the Wicklow Round Ireland Race really has been a matter of taking part personally while doing the best you can. And in its thirty-four years, the event has built up an extraordinary mythology in which the unique and sometimes maddening situation in Wicklow's crowded river has been seen as part of the mix.

But recent years have also seen a real game changer with the Round Ireland Race becoming recognised as part of the RORC Championship, up there with the Fastnet and the Middle Sea Race in terms of points loading.

In times past, every time a big boat was brought in by a sponsored crew, they simply had to be based in Dun Laoghaire, as Wicklow hadn't the space to accommodate them in fully-sheltered berthing, while the business of getting sponsor's guests anywhere near the boat was an unattractive proposition from an old-fashioned and crowded pier.

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The start of the Round Ireland Race has become something special. This is 2012's race with the Wicklow scenery briefly in some sunshine in a very poor summer. Photo: W M Nixon

Oddly enough, though, the economic recession continued to preserve the old way of having things essentially based around Wicklow, with Dun Laoghaire only as an add-on. There simply haven't been the big money sponsored large yachts taking part, while the hyper-keen entries from the main body of the international RORC fleet, such as Piet Vroon's Tonnere de Breskens from The Netherlands and the Gouy family's Inis Mor from France (and Clifden!) were so keen to race, and so understanding of local enthusiasm, that they happily went along with the traditional setup.

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Closing in for the gybe under the cliffs south of Wicklow town in 2012, round Ireland racers include two contenders in the RORC Championship, the Ker 39 Inis Mor (red gennaker) and the blue-hulled Tonnere de Breskens. Photo: W M Nixon

However, the economy is on the move again, and it's reckoned interest in the Round Ireland Race could blossom much more rapidly and strongly if the RORC support could be backed by the provision of pre-race berthing facilities which approach international standard. But set against that, after so many successful stagings of the race, Wicklow SC's Round Ireland Race experience and database is unrivalled, while the club's commitment to its town and quaint little port is total.

Whether the connection to the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire in the linkup's proposed form is the longterm solution remains to be seen. But if the sheer goodwill which permeated the reception in the RIYC announcing the partnership is anything to go by, then it will work.

And there's no doubt the Royal Irish has the ideal setup for show-casing high profile entries before the race in the sort of scenario top-end sponsors dream about. Yet it's ironic, as it it's all a case of Blessed are the Grumblers, for They Shall Inherit the Earth. It's largely forgotten now, but when Dun Laoghaire Marina was finally installed to become an overnight success after 25 years of struggling by its proponents, some of the most formidable opposition had come from a very old Old Guard within the RIYC membership, largely among the pavilion membership who liked to enjoy the view of boats bobbing about on moorings as they enjoyed their leisurely lunch.

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The Royal Irish YC provides the unbeatable combination of an historic clubhouse beside a modern marina. It's ideal for showcasing boats, as demonstrated here by the 70ft classic Hallowe'en, which was line honours winner in the 1926 Fastnet Race. Photo: W M Nixon

Yet now, here is the historic clubhouse with a world standard marina to which they even have their own private secured access. In your wildest dreams, you couldn't have visualised a better setup for allying modern facilities with a traditional clubhouse totally imbued with Irish and international sailing history at the highest level.

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At the reception for Wicklow SC's Round Ireland partnership with the Royal Irish YC in the RIYC clubhouse were (left to right, back row) David Ryan, Kevin Johnson, John Harte and John Johnson (all WSC Round Ireland committee), and front row Peter Shearer (WSC Commodore), Theo Phelan (Round Ireland Race organiser) and Paddy McSwiney (RIYC Commodore).

So in choosing the RIYC s their race partner, and in planning to set up an auxiliary race office within the RIYC clubhouse while retaining the start and finish line at Wicklow, the Wicklow SC people have chosen well. In its three decades-plus history, the Round Ireland Race has had only four organising secretaries – Michael Jones, Fergus O'Conchobhair, Denis Noonan and now Theo Phelan. It is the latter who is powering the Dun Laoghaire linkup, and it moves the Round Ireland Race onto a higher plane of development potential, aiming at a hundred entries by 2016, with this year's race on Saturday June 28th seen as the first step in a new stage of the journey.

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Theo Phelan, David McSwiney and Sadie Phelan, President Wicklow SC

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Peter Shearer, David McSwiney and Theo Phelan at the Round Ireland reception in the Royal Irish YC.

It is up to the rest of the Irish sailing community to support them, and to take part if at all possible. In fact, dare we say it, but you aren't really a proper Irish sailor unless you've at least started one Round Ireland Race, and having a few in your CV is good for the soul.

Do it, and you'll find you care very much indeed that the Round Ireland Race should continue to grow and prosper. Those of us with Round Ireland experience will know only too well what a tricky path it is that the organisers have now set themselves. Let them be encouraged by knowing that, while our heads may be in Dun Laoghaire, our hearts are in Wicklow.

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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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