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Irish Olympic Sailing Transformed in Thirty Days

27th August 2016
Fireworks with all the trimmings – celebration over Dun Laoghaire from the National YC while on the screen are Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy, her training partner Sara Winther, and longtime coach Rory Fitzpatrick Fireworks with all the trimmings – celebration over Dun Laoghaire from the National YC while on the screen are Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy, her training partner Sara Winther, and longtime coach Rory Fitzpatrick

On Thursday evening, sailing came centre stage in Irish life when our new Olympic Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy was officially welcomed back to her home port of Dun Laoghaire. She arrived by sea on a summer’s evening with flags flying in abundance for a public welcome by leading local and national politicians at the landing at the East Pier, followed by a Civic Reception by the County Council in the nearby People’s Park.

Then came the ultimate celebration - the home-coming party to outshine all parties - by Ireland’s sailing community. It was at her sailing home, the National Yacht Club, where she has been a member since she was six years old. There were more than 2,000 well-wishers from all over Ireland in the crowd packed into the clubhouse and onto its balcony and forecourt. Somewhere in the midst of them was’s W M Nixon, savouring the flavour of an extraordinary gathering.

It’s not the first time that Dublin Bay Sailing Club has re-arranged its regular sailing programme in order to facilitate the return to Ireland of a sailing superstar. But having missed out on the previous one back on Saturday June 20th 1925, when Conor O’Brien returned to what he sensibly called Dunleary with his 42ft Saoirse after his pioneering two year voyage round the world south of the Great Capes, we weren’t going to miss Thursday August 25th 2016 at the National YC to welcome back Annalise Murphy with her Silver Medal.

Particularly not after Dublin Bay SC Commodore Chris Moore had announced some days previously that he was going to move the formerly completely sacrosanct Thursday evening cruiser-racing weekly fixture to Wednesday, in order to clear the decks for the Annalise welcome. That was one very clearcut statement.

But before we get carried away by the great doings of last Thursday night, let us admit that back in 1925 they could also lay on the razzmatazz big-time when they’d a mind to do so. O’Brien’s circumnavigation with the Saoirse was the first notable voyage by a vessel flying the tricolour ensign of the new Irish Free State. It was a mighty venture which pioneered the traversing of the great Southern Ocean in such spectacular style with so much popular interest that when he returned, it was to find that Dublin Bay SC had cancelled their regular Saturday race in his honour.

conor Obrien SaoirseConor O’Brien’s Saoirse departs Dun Laoghaire on 20th June 1923 on her round the world voyage south of the Great Capes. Whe she returned on Saturday June 20th 1925, Dublin Bay SC cancelled Saturday racing so that the fleet could give Saoirse a special welcome home
This was to enable their fleet - many colourfully dressed overall in their best signal flags – to welcome Saoirse into port. But when he finally got ashore, there was a ceremonial procession all the way into Dublin watched by notable crowds, followed by a Gala Dinner at the United Arts Club of which he, as an architect and brother of the artist Dermod O’Brien, had been a founder member.

These days, the fact that Dun Laoghaire is so vigorously the capital of Irish sailing, and so much of an urban centre in its own right, makes the notion of moving on into Dublin for the focus of any home-coming celebration of a seaborn achiever seem absurd. Despite the sometimes fractious interfaces which arise between the various bodies involved with the harbour, the fact is that Dun Laoghaire is gradually developing the facilities of a major leisure port. Thus it has absolutely everything you need within the waterfront/harbour area for a series of events like Thursday’s complex programme, which for total devotees started around 5.30pm and was still going strong at midnight.

annalise_murphy_ribFlags and more flags – the Silver Medallist makes her return to Dun Laoghaire
crowds on pier for AnnaliseThe quayside welcome

The only extra that had been required beforehand was co-operation from the weather, and even that was forthcoming despite this poor summer. We’d a clear gentle evening when in theory you could move comfortably between indoors and out. But the reality was the crowd was on such a scale (I’d reckon there were many more than 2,000) that once you found a comfortable berth, you stayed put, and just enjoyed it all as proceedings unfolded.

Admittedly when you’re celebrating success at this level after a 36 year drought since the previous Irish Olympic sailing medal, any critical faculties will be decidedly muted, but everyone in my area agreed the whole programme went very well indeed. The waterborne parade in the harbour – choreographed by Dun Laoghaire lifeboat cox’n and RIYC Marine Manager Mark McGibney – went with such style you assumed it had been rehearsed, but apparently it hadn’t. Equally there was no chance of any rehearsal for the succession of shoreside events but they all held together, and the final intensive presentation in the National YC forecourt as night drew on was pure magic, rounded out by a fireworks display.

National Yacht Club forecourtAnd this was only part of the crowd on the forecourt…
The word is that somewhere in the background pulling the strings was Mr Fixit, Irish sailing’s invisible man Brian Craig, who is our greatest practitioner of the secret art of doing good work by stealth. Glimpsed in the crowd a couple of times, he didn’t look like someone who had the organisational problems of a major event on his shoulders. But then, he always looks like that.

Another rising star is Annalise’s brother Finn Murphy, who is so up to speed with the latest technology that he’s inventing it as he goes along. Naturally, as the public face of the National Yacht Club, Commodore Larry Power expressed concern that everything would be okay in the very hectic few days of buildup. But Finn simply told him not to worry, it would be all right on the night, and so it was.

Irish sailing did itself proud for an attendance which included 1956 Olympic Gold Medallist Ronnie Delany, Silver Medallist Sonia O’Sullivan, and our own David Wilkins who won the Silver in the Flying Dutchman in 1980. But perhaps the most memorable thing about the evening was the universality of the event. Club sailors from all over felt the urge to join with the National Yacht Club in marking this historic high in its busy life, and the mutual goodwill was tangible in the gathering dusk among the friendly crowd.

Of course, nobody denies that getting within shouting distance of a first Silver Medal is bound to involved stressful episodes, but those were receding into the forgotten past by the time Annalise and her support team got themselves on stage. She’d last made an official appearance at that pre-Olympics press conference in Dublin on Tuesday July 26th, when (see recent blog) it was quite clear that the new-look Annalise Murphy was very different from the frustrated sailor whose campaign had lost its way at the Worlds on May 20th.

But here we now were, only three months after that low point in late May, and only thirty days since that re-born vision on July 26th. Here we were, gazing in some wonder at a real live Silver Medallist, one who had controlled the final Medals Race with such competent and confident style that she moved from merely hanging onto to her Bronze Medal into a clearcut Silver Medal win.

Rory FitzpatrickSome thoughtful words from Rory Fitzpatrick. From left on stage are Kate Kirby (sports psychologist), Annalise’s mother Cathy MacAleavy, Rory Fitzparick, Larry Power (Commodore NYC), Finn Murphy, Annalise with her sister Claudine beyond, and on right (with red top) Sara Winther with Con Murphy and Colm Barrington beyond

It was something which deserved celebration for everyone involved, and it was a very inclusive gathering. For an Irish sailing crowd, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that the returning Murphy family and support team should have come home from Rio bringing with them the New Zealand sailor Sarah Winther. She’d failed by one place at the Worlds to secure the New Zealand qualifying position for the Olympics, such that New Zealand didn’t send a representative in the Women’s Laser Radials at all. So the frustrated Winther then reckoned her talents might be of some use to her friend Annalise Murphy, and as she’s a natural coach and perfect training partner, she brought to Annalise and her coach Rory Fitzpatrick a new dimension for the final countdown, which made a significant difference.

So while Annalise was made an Honorary Life Member of the NYC at Thursday’s gathering, Sara Winther – who’s still a bit surprised to find herself having an unexpected holiday in Ireland in the first place – became an Honorary Foreign Member, which will have heraldry experts scratching their heads, but we all know what it means.

Annalise MurphyThe Silver Medallist speaks from the heart

Every speech was right on target, with charming turns from Annalise and her family, a particularly good one from Rory Fitzpatrick, and a well-judged and encouraging one from Colm Barrington about where the Irish Olympic sailing effort can hope to go from here.

We’ll soon have the time and space to analyse them in detail, and having seen how much the extra effort Annalise Murphy put into getting to know the tricky sailing waters of Rio beforehand, and how much it contributed to her success, we’ve already been looking at the little Japanese island resort of Enoshima south of Tokyo where the 2020 Olympics will be held.

2020 Tokyo Olympic Sailing Venue The little resort island of Enoshima on Sagamai Bay south of Tokyo is the venue for the 2020 Olympics. And yes, that is Mount Fuji in the distance

But as the Annalise Murphy success has in its way contributed a textbook of how to put together and Olympic campaign and then bring it back on course when things go astray, we can be quite sure that all over the world, other people will be studying just how Ireland won this particular silver.

And as for repeating strategies which were successful in Rio, we have to remember that Japan is very different from Brazil. In Rio the Olympic authorities may not have objected to the fact that Annalise and her team preferred to set up their own base away from the barely-finished Olympic village, in an apartment convenient to the sailing area, and with facilities where they could control their food. But in the more disciplined world of Japan, it mightn’t be allowed.

However, that’s another day’s work. Let us conclude on another note entirely. In the many vox pop interviews on the media, people have been enthusing about what a marvellous role model and inspiration Annalise Murphy has become for Ireland’s young sailors. But surely that’s only partially true? Here at Sailing on Saturdays HQ, we reckon Annalise Murphy has become a marvellous role model and inspiration for all Ireland’s sailors.

Annalise's homecoming photo gallery by Joe Fallon

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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