While today’s galaxy of our top international sailing talent draws in its stars from many parts of Ireland to focus their energies and campaigns through a relatively few major centres, there was a time when one charming little estuary village north of Dublin produced much more than its fair share of exceptionally talented sailors. These included four Olympic sailing representatives, one of whom became a Silver Medallist. W M Nixon finds himself musing on Malahide while savouring the first race of the MSL Park Motors Mercedes-Benz Autumn League at Howth Yacht Club.
A good Autumn League race is sailing at its best, and last Saturday’s Mercedes-Benz League opener at Howth was vintage stuff, with 103 boats shaping up to their various starts on two course areas to round out a season of mixed weather and great achievements.
It was a classic ridge day between Friday’s heavy rain and Sunday’s rising gales, and it started as such a total meteorological punctuation mark between two vigorous weather systems that the more pessimistic anticipated an all-day calm. But with racing beginning at the very civilised time of 2.30 pm, a building south to southeast breeze was able to fill in sufficiently to provide excellent racing without continuing to strengthen or become cold to an uncomfortable level. And while clouds tried to develop, in time they melted away to enable that extraordinary September sunlight to work its magic again.
There’s such a variety of craft taking part in the Howth event year after year that, to do it justice and get the full flavour, Sailing-on-Saturday tries to bluff its way on board a completely different boat for the first race each September. So having done it last year with Algy Pearson on the Puppeteer 22 Trick-or-Treat for a classic One Design ding-dong, and the previous year with Stephen O’Flaherty with his exquisite Spirit 54 Soufriere and his energetic crew with their many permutations of asymmetrics and whatever, for 2016 everything pointed to a seriously veteran cruiser racing in one of the non-Spinnaker classes, and we struck gold with a quick phone call to Robert Michael.
He and his wife Rose have owned the Jeanneau Sun Fizz 40 Mystique of Malahide since 1989, and their 27 happy years with this very sensible Philippe Briand-designed sloop could provide a useful case study of how to organise and make best use of a good all round performance cruiser based in Ireland.
In her day, with production at a peak in Europe from 1980 to 1984, despite her relatively sedate looks the Sun Fizz 40 was deservedly a best-seller. So much so, in fact, that with her manageable size incorporating really good accommodation, it was said that when Jeanneau stopped building her, the moulds ended up in the US for another production run with some local mods for the American market.
That used to be dismissed as a waterfront myth. But a brief research session will reveal the existence across the Atlantic of the very familiar-looking O’Day 39 and O’Day 40, rendering further denial pointless. So those who were in on the early days of the Sun Fizz 40 were trend-setters in a trans-European trans-Atlantic movement, and when the first ones finally arrived in Ireland in 1982, delayed not by a lack of enthusiasm but by a sluggish economy and outrageous VAT rates on new boats, we eventually managed a boat test for Afloat Magazine.
But that wasn’t until September 1983, when there was no doubting the recently-acquired boat was second-hand. Yet it was worth the wait, for we liked this attractive “soncey big boat”. That favourable view came from Dick Brown of Weatherly Yachts in County Down, who had taken fifth overall in the 1982 Round Ireland Race in a new Sun Fizz 40 which had been the first one on the island, but had come into Northern Ireland ownership as the tax rates there weren’t so punitive.
As it happens, I did the Sun Fizz 40 test (it appeared in the magazine in November 1983) with the late Brian Hegarty, a leading example of those highly-accomplished offshore racing and serious cruising people who emerged from the sail training school which was Malahide. So it seemed entirely appropriate that when the actual boat we’d tested joined mainstream sailing in 1989, she became Mystique of Malahide, owned by Robert & Rose Michael.
Those who are strangers to the ways of Fingal will find it curious that people whose sailing is so totally related to Howth seem to be completely intertwined with Malahide as well. Yet Robert was HYC Commodore in 1996-1997, while Rose is lead fund-raiser for the Howth Branch of the lifeboats to such good effect that she has twice been awarded the RNLI Gold Badge.
But their boats have long had “of Malahide” as an integral part of the name, and they wouldn’t dream of living anywhere else other than in their childhood home of Malahide, a place which has its own distinctive and distinguished sailing history.
However, as Malahide was a very small village within living memory, it took a while for its sailing infrastructure to catch up with the rest of Ireland. Initially it was just a boatyard with motley craft anchored off, including a couple of locally-based cruisers which sometimes found negotiating the very shoal sand bar at the entrance a trying business, for if you got it wrong there was no way of disguising the fact from your friends and neighbours.
Then a flotilla of Mermaids – some of them very successful - began to put Malahide on the sailing map, and in 1958 Malahide Sailing Club –now Malahide Yacht Club - came into being, one of the reasons being that the damming of the arches under the railway embankment across the upper estuary of Broadmeadow Water in order to prevent pillar erosion had given the local sailors an entirely new permanent sailing nursery to match the estuary and open sea sailing they could access below the embankment.
This facilitated the very rapid growth of a class of Enterprise dinghies – mostly home built - which provided another outlet for Malahide’s prodigious reserves of potential sailing talent, which had already put down a marker when the young Burrows brothers Richard and Johnny, with local lad Robin Hennessy as crew, had sailed their Mermaid the long haul to Wexford on a camping cruise in order to take part in the Mermaid Nationals, and duly returned with the trophy.
In fact the Burrows family – the children of noted Malahide-resident environmentalist, ecologist and extremely hard-working journalist George Burrows – exploded on the Irish sailing scene, and it was altogether typical of their style that Richard and Johnny did the Round Britain and Ireland Race in a little Shipman 28, newly-built in Limerick, at a time when they were also devoting much energy to building their working careers.
That was the Malahide way: work hard and sail hard. In a relatively short period it produced people like Robin Hennessy who won the Dragon Gold Cup in 1972 with such style that he was odds-on favourite for a Medal at the 1972 Olympics, only for a key crewmember to be struck down by a debilitating virus, and Robert Dix, who at 17 became the youngest-ever winner of the Helmsman’s Championship of Ireland in 1970, and represented Ireland in the Montreal Olympics in 1976.
However, it was 1980 when an Olympic Silver Medal finally came the way of Malahide with David Wilkins hitting the target in Tallinn. But while that is inevitably most remembered in this year of all years, there were many other outstanding achievements for the by-now rapidly growing estuary village, with another formidable talent emerging with the many successes – both inshore and offshore - of sailmaker Philip Watson, who like many others of Malahide, had first made his mark in Enterprise racing.
A remarkable pace had already been set when Robin Hennessy, crewed by Malahide clubmate Robert Michael, won the “British Helmsman’s Championship”, the Endeavour Trophy, in 1968 when it was sailed in Enterprises. Crewman Robert Michael – “Micko” to everyone – had learned his sailing in an unusual way. For though his family lived in the heart of Malahide, as a hospital doctor his father had a month’s clear leave every summer. Thus the family high-tailed it for the peak of the summer to the family place in Sneem in County Kerry, where young Robert learned about sailing through trial and error with a well-worn International 12 dinghy.
But by the age of 15 back home in Malahide, he was skippering a loaned Mermaid and that in turn led on to a stellar competitive sailing career that included racing with Sean Flood when they won the Irish Dragon Championship with Aletta.
The trouble with an idyllic sailing childhood such as Malahide provided in its developing days is that, in due course, adulthood intrudes. In time, Micko found himself becoming an item with near neighbour Rose Burrows, who had herself been a top achiever in Enterprises before taking off for a spell working in the big yachts in the Mediterranean. Having got together again, in order to make a living they each started complementary businesses in the security industry.
Robert found himself running his own company called Security Wardens. But as that was a 24/7 occupation, he needed the outlet of brief but guaranteed sailing relaxation, and it was provided with the winter-long Sunday morning Laser Frostbite series which had been inaugurated in Howth in 1974. It has been running every winter ever since, thereby giving the Howth club a continuous sailing programme since Opening Day in April 1974.
However, for the increasingly over-worked Robert Michael, inevitably he took on board the notion that Malahide was for living and shore life and going to work, but Howth was for sailing. So in 1982 – by which time he and Rose had a family with two daughters Lucy and Cathy, but they also had a new Moody 29, Mystique of Malahide – they naturally put their names down for a berth in Howth’s proposed club marina, for this was a clear ten years before anything like a marina was developed seven miles away at home in Malahide.
There were many other Malahide boat owners who did the same, so in that exciting but tricky time in the 1980s when Howth was in the process of transforming itself from a small local organization into one of the biggest clubs in the country with its own state-of-the-art marina, HYC Commodore Tom Fitzpatrick sensibly decided that the significant Malahide group in the club should be properly represented in its administration. He invited Robert Michael to let his name go forward for election to the committee, and the rest is history, as the Malahide man became a popular Commodore in 1996, while Rose in turn was taking over her mother Daisy’s key role in running the fund-raising for Howth Branch RNLI.
And although Malahide has had its own marina for 24 years now with the entrance channel marked and dredged, most of those Malahide sailors who took the big step of signing up for Howth marina back in 1982 have stayed on, and it would be impossible to overestimate the positive contribution the “Malahide crowd” make to Howth sailing.
In fact, they’re maybe getting the best of it, as their lives are more clearly defined. Leafy comfortable Malahide is for civilised day-to-day living, but rugged workaday fishing-minded Howth – only about twenty minutes away - is for boats and sailing. The Malahide folk know where they stand, whereas those of us who live on the Howth peninsula itself, and particularly right beside the harbour, can sometimes be a bit confused.
Certainly a sense of orderly progress and personal development is the abiding impression of the way things have worked out for Robert and Rose Michael. With the Moody 29 Mystique of Malahide, they not only day-sailed and cruised this comfortable boat, but they raced her with vigour in club and regional events with considerable success, which would have delighted designer Bill Dixon, for he knew the Moody 29 was a good ’un, but he didn’t realize she was quite that good.
Early each season with a pack of the lads, Robert would take the little Moody for a successful foray to the annual Scottish Series in Tarbert, but once he and Rose had moved up to the Sun Fizz 40, this pattern became modified. While the bigger Mystique of Malahide was fine for club racing and series like the Autumn League at Howth, and also added an overall win in the Lambay race to her CV, the fact that she likes a decent and preferably steady breeze hampered her performance at Tarbert, yet each passage up there reminded her crew of just what a super boat she was for comfortable fast cruising.
So while Robert and his old mates still took off for ten days towards Scotland at the end of May each year, they now went outside the Mull of Kintyre for a busy cruise of the nearer Hebrides, and this proved such a successful seasonal opener that other Malahide-yachts-from-Howth would join with them in some years for a mini cruise-in-company.
Aboard Mystique of Malahide, they enjoy a club-organised Cruise-in-Company provided it leaves them with plenty of space to do their own thing, and their furthest south cruise found them in the wonderful Morbihan on France’s Biscay coast after an Irish Cruising Club cruise-in-company in Brittany.
This year, the 150th Anniversary of the Royal Ulster YC on Belfast Lough provided provided a Cruise-in-Company to Scotland with the ICC and the Clyde Cruising Club, but that only got the fleet as far as Tobermory. For many this was far enough, as Scotland was experiencing it rainiest summer in many years. But the folk on Mystique of Malahide were determined to get to Skye, and though they didn’t get clear of the rain completely, they managed a clear day when anchored in the wild and mysterious Loch Scavaig in the heart of Skye’s Cuilin Mountains, and they’d another unexpectedly perfect summer’s evening at the enchanted Skye anchorage of Isle Ornsay.
The charm of cruising is its unexpected delights, and heading south again after three days of continuous rain, a pet day came through to provide a weather window for photographer daughter Lucy to record the puffins on the Treshnish Islands west of Mull. The only other place I’ve ever seen puffins in such profusion is among the Shiant Isles up in the North Minch, yet there they seemed very wary of our little boat (she was only a 25-footer), so much so that I commented on their shyness, to which the sardonic shipmate responded that if you’d a nose like that, you’d be shy…..
Yet the crew of Mystique of Malahide found that the many puffins of Treshnish weren’t at all shy of people, as their presence meant the puffin population was temporarily protected from the usual predators such as gulls and crows. After three days of rain, the place was a hive of activity with the entire puffin population busy cleaning out their burrows, so much so that Rose was reminded of the spring cleaning season in Malahide in the old days. And now, she remembers that enchanted day with the puffins of Treshnish as the highlight of the cruise, despite the other recollections of the entertaining camaraderie of the cruise-in-company, the sheer majesty of the Cuillins, and the joys of a good sail when the weather relented.
So in joining Mystique of Malahide for the first race of the Mercedes-Benz Autumn League last Saturday afternoon afternoon, I was stepping aboard a well-loved boat which was hoping to round out a very complete season with a good final racing series. Although we raced against this Mystique with our 35-footer for many years just as previously we’d raced against the Moody 29 with our former 30-footer, it was probably the first time I’d sailed with Robert & Rose, and it was certainly interesting to see what had happened to the boat since I last examined her in detail in 1983.
Robert Michael is one of those handymen who is never happier than beavering away in his workshop at home making or improving little bits and pieces for the boat, all of which make her more comfortable, but she is still basically the same boat which, in the French style of the 1980s, can sleep ten if you really wish it, but mercifully she is provided with two toilets, so she’s an extremely civilized and comfortable boat for up to six people to go cruising, knowing that you can take more from time to time if need be.
Her rig is compact and attractively seamanlike – she has one of those forestays attached about half a metre from the masthead which very usefully prevent any tendency to spar inversion - while the lengths of her double spreaders has been carefully calculated so that they really do the job they’re required to do very well, but aren’t overlength, enabling the genoa to be set to perfection.
Philippe Briand got it right in 1980, it still looks very right, and when the breeze freshened in to the perfect strength for Mystique, our crew were determined to give of their best in the up-coming race against sixteen boats, a goodly turnout which, despite it being a non-spinnaker division, included some talented and determined helms whom we knew wouldn’t give an inch.
But before the start, there was the usual pre-race sociability of sailing among the fleet and saluting friends old and new, including the Galway crew with Nowhat who’d come across country to do the Howth series just as, in times past, Donal Morrissy and his Galway crew with Joggernaut contributed to so much to the East Coast’s Autumn festival
With the President of the Irish Sailing Association, no less, as Principal Race Officer on HYC’s highly individual Committee Boat, there was a sense of occasion, but the imperatives of racing took over. It could have been any start in any venue, it was the here and now that mattered, and with Colm Bermingham with his successful Elan 333 Bite the Bullet not giving us an inch of spare space, the hefty big Mystique of Malahide found herself right at the Committeee Boat very close on the line as the start sounded.
It was a start so good it was surely too good to be true, and almost immediately the recall sounded and the radio squawked: “One boat over the line”. It was something which could have been debated on board Mystique, but being minimally crewed we’d had no-one at the stemhead. The only option was taking the medicine. There was soon a gap through which we could make our escape and gybe back round the Committee Boat to re-start. Not a doddle by any means with a hefty big boat like a Sun Fizz 40, but here we were, starting again, but this time lying very sixteenth with an awful lot of work to do to get back in the races.
But Mystique and her helmsman did themselves and us proud. Gradually we started picking off the other boats, and in one memorably perfect mark-rounding, we took four places at a stroke. The pace intensified towards the finish as we began to get among boats we should have been racing with throughout - it was real racing with the Howth and Ireland’s Eye coastline looking its best in the returned sunshine. As we squeaked across the line to snatch sixth on the water by three seconds from Richard McAllister’s Force Five, it was with a feeling we might even be in single figures on corrected time.
Later in the evening, we learned it was rather better than that. Although there was no way we were going to challenge Stephen Harris with the all-conquering First 40.7 Tiger which had sailed a wellnigh perfect race to win every which way from Harry Byrne’s Sunrise 34 Alphida with Dermot Skehan’s MG 345 Tough Nut third, it turned out we’d the three three sixes – sixth on the water, sixth on IRC, and sixth on ECHO.
More than reasonable in the circumstances. But as our day generally had been more than reasonable in terms of sailing enjoyment, we were in no particular hurry to get ashore to find out the actual results, and lingered over the traditional post-race sausages in the cockpit in more summery conditions than Howth has experienced for most of the supposed summer.
Up in the club the joint was heaving within and without, as they’d to get through all the post-race business of the first contest of the Mercedes-Benz Autumn League, and then re-focus the place entirely for the black tie ball which was to mark the final rounding out of Gary “Ted” Sargent’s epic One Wild Ride sail round Ireland in a Laser during the first part of the season, a project which has raised a truly remarkable €27,000 for ChildVision.
So with one thing and another it was Sunday evening by the time I phoned the skipper of Mystique to thank him again for Saturday’s sport and the sheer pleasure of sailing with good shipmates on a properly-used boat. We yarned of this and that, and then he closed the conversation in typically Micko style.
“Just one final thing before you go” says he. “I think you should know we weren’t actually over the line at the start. It was Terry McCoy who was OCS……”