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Ireland’s Boats & People – How Do We Get Them Together?

30th January 2016
national 18 afloat_wmnixon
Surely this is the perfect image of our sport? Wouldn’t it make anyone with life in them want to get out and go sailing? Yet while this photo of Tommy Dwyer of Cork with his new Phil Morrison-designed National 18 sailing three-up during last November’s National 18 Demo Day at Howth certainly captures the joy of our sport, it also illustrates the problems we have in recruiting newcomers. Photo: Emmet Dalton

The recently-published ISA Survey of Club Racing commissioned and supervised by Board Member Jack Roy has started the process of putting together a realistic picture of how we sail and go afloat for recreation, and it was analysed on publication here in Afloat.ie.

It’s logical to have made the beginning with club racing, as racing provides its own narrative and a straightforward set of entry numbers and results. But it will become more complex as the national authority tries to provide realistic figures for day sailing’s less competitive aspects. And of course, once we enter the world of cruising as defined by sailing and boating projects which include passage making, both coastal and offshore, together with overnight on-board stops, then it can become much more difficult to get meaningful data.

Yet with the ISA’s Cruising Conference for February 20th already booked out within a few days of being announced on Afloat.ie, clearly that is an area in search of services and support, a section of sailing which is difficult to quantify yet obviously of strong interest to a significant number of boat enthusiasts. W M Nixon takes a look at how the complexity of our sport’s many specialities makes it difficult to provide a clearcut picture for possible recruits to sailing.

Where would we be without the International Optimist Dinghy? The little solo-sailing boxes and their attendant support teams of mum and dad and the dog and the old 4X4 or station wagon or people carrier or whatever may seem to take up an awful lot of space and time, and all just so that one little person can go sailing.

But at least that one little person does go sailing. The ISA figures are brutally straightforward. In terms of genuine turnouts afloat at clubs throughout Ireland, in boat numbers the active Optimists are exceeded only by the Lasers, and this is arguably because Lasers aren’t age-limited, whereas the Optimists most definitely are.

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Optimist airborne. This is Ireland's second most popular class

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Ireland’s most popular dinghy class, the Laser is seen here at the Zhik Irish Nationals at Ballyholme

So we give a qualified cheer for the success of these two little boats. But it’s qualified because they’re single-handers which fail to provide any crew-relating sailing skills. Leading sailing figures as diverse as Des McWilliam of Crosshaven and Norman Lee of Greystones have been eloquent in promoting the notion that we should be doing more – much more – to encourage two-handed boats, and if we can persuade people into three-handed boats, well, so much the better.

Certainly that’s one of the reasons why our header photo says so much. A lone sailor in an Optimist or Laser promotes too much of a solitary, even an isolated image. And a two-handed boat like the GP 14, whose strong fleet figures in the ISA survey show the class’s vigour, is arguably just an act for a dynamic duo – it’s Strictly Come Dancing goes sailing…..

But getting three together to race a characterful boat like the National 18 with style – now that’s something special, that really is a superb combination of people skills interacting with sailing talent. And it’s a joy to behold. Yet anyone can see that for a complete beginner to sailing, this extraordinary silhouette of Tommy Dwyer’s National 18 against the November sky above the Hill of Howth will have an otherworldly air about it – “That’s not for me” is as likely a response as “Let’s have a go at that”.

Even those of us who have been in sailing for longer than we care to remember find the image decidedly thought-provoking, for we have some idea of what has been involved in creating the circumstances for this seemingly effortless balancing act, this lighter-than-air effect in the unlikely setting of a November afternoon.

Over the past year or so we have been recounting in Afloat,ie how the Cork Harbour National 18 Class, with very tangible backing from the Royal Cork Yacht Club, have been in the forefront of the development of the new ground-breaking Phil Morrison take on the long-established National 18, which is a developmental class which from time to time takes a leap in hull design, and moves forward in order to keep the spirit alive.

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The National 18s are part of the fabric of Cork Harbour sailing. Before the new Morrison boats arrived in July, the old fleet were seen here in May 2015 after their annual race to Ballinacurra in northeast Cork Harbour in company with the Dwyer brothers’ cruising ketch. Photo: W M Nixon

Acceptance of this is something which seems to be bred into Cork’s National 18 enthusiasts, many of whom have the advantage of being firmly of the opinion that a proper dinghy needs three people to sail it. But the social matrix which has built up around Cork Harbour over many decades with this concept at its heart is not something which will necessarily travel easily to other areas, and although the six boats of the National 18 flotilla which visited Howth for the Open Day got a great reception and gave many people from other classes a marvellous time afloat, it’s probable that the very different mood around sailing in Dublin means that something so technically and socially challenging as a three man dinghy is a step too far.

Sailing in the greater Dublin area seems to exist within a framework of independent balloons. While there are those who will happily move from one boat type to another and cheerfully spread their talents and enjoyment about, by contrast there’s the Dublin Bay Sailing Club Thursday Evening Phenomenon.

Thursday is when the DBSC cruiser classes go out to race. And there’s an entire cohort of people, mostly folk who work in offices in the city, who on a Thursday evening go straight to Dun Laoghaire, get aboard a pontoon-based cruiser owned by someone else, go out and race in some very specific crewing job, then come back in and have supper in club or pub with their shipmates, and then that’s it until next Thursday. Just one evening each summer mid-week is their entire sailing programme. Weekends are for something else. And as for the hassle and mixed joys of boat ownership and maintenance, that’s not their department at all.

It’s a very metropolitan, very citified yet specialized way of doing things, and Dublin is one of the very few cities whose location facilitates it. It will be fascinating to measure it, for Dublin’s way of sailing is steeped in history and tradition. But for now it’s refreshing to look at a place which has had a sailing tradition in times past, but somehow lost it, yet it’s coming back again, and one of the good news stories towards the end of 2015 is that the new Youghal Sailing Club has been accepted into the ISA fold.

Youghal at present is a difficult place for sailing, as the tidal power of the mighty Munster Blackwater sweeps straight through the estuary and along the old town’s waterfront, and the creation of any meaningful modern facilities will have the immediate difficulty of silting by incredibly adhesive black mud.

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With the sun out, and the tide in, Youghal looks to be an ideal location for the easy installation of a marina….....Photo: W M Nixon

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….but with the sun in and the tide out, the mud problem is revealed. Photo: W M Nixon

Thus, as dedicated Afloat.ie readers will have recently observed, no sooner had one group announced that a marina in Youghal was on the way than another longer-established group quietly suppressed the story, as they’re well aware of the engineering and dredging difficulties involved, and premature announcements will only slow any project in the long run.

In the fullness of time, a marina at Youghal will be a godsend for any cruiser plugging along the south coast. It’s not always the easiest coast in the world to make a passage along, sometimes it can seem an awfully long way to Cork from Dunmore East or Kilmore Quay even if you do make stopovers at Dungarvan or Helvick, and there are times when the hardiest seafarer is glad enough to get his boat secured to a good big pontoon.

But that’s for the future. Meantime, the locally-based keelboats are using either the restless anchorage off the town, or the more serene pool across the estuary at Ferry Point on the east shore, while the new club’s flotilla of GP 14s are stored in spare warehouse space during non-sailing time, and when they do go sailing it turns out their clubhouse is a moveable feast - it’s a caravan which can be towed to a choice of sailing locations.

Youghal Sailing Club caravan 7
A moveable feast. Members of the newly-affiliated Youghal Sailing Club with their caravan HQ, Adrian Lee in doorway. Photo: W M Nixon

On the national stage, it is young Youghal GP 14 sailor Adrian Lee who has been among those flying the club’s flag, and there’s hope in the air. When we were there in May on a fine day that promised a summer which never arrived, we couldn’t help but think that when they do get their facilities and maybe even a clubhouse, they’ll look back to the days of the caravan and ad hoc racing arrangements with sweet nostalgia. For sometimes, it’s much better to be travelling than it is to arrive.

But for the rest of us, the message from Youghal is simple. The sea is for sailing. Use it or lose it. By all means get proper people surveys done which indicate the way numbers are shaping up and things are going. But really, if you want to persuade people to go sailing, the best way is by example, getting afloat as much as possible yourself. And maybe then you’ll find the time to welcome aboard newcomers too.

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Reviving Youghal sailing – on race days, the club’s caravan is simply towed down to the pier and the races are started from there. Photo: W M Nixon

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Youghal’s massive public slip provides launching for the YSC sailing dinghies, but during 2015 the boats had to be stored at the other end of town when not in use. Photo: W M Nixon

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The pace-setter. Adrian Lee of Youghal SC with his Duffin-built GP14. Photo: W M Nixon

Click to download: ISA Survey of Club Racing 

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