Time was when youth sailing and junior sport generally were dealt with very cautiously by mainstream media, if at all writes W M Nixon. Apart from the need to provide space for young people to develop their personalities and sporting skills unhindered by too much attention and expectation, the youthful sportsmen and women and their activities were changing so rapidly that what they were doing, or had recently achieved, had already become history by the time they were properly recorded and analysed.
Then inevitably with rising stars there come the awkward years of the late teens when they’re growing into young adults, with the possibility of a psychological reaction against activities which have dominated their formative years, exacerbated by the fact that they have difficult career and training choices to make.
Ideally, it may well be that all this should happen out of the limelight. But the development of social media, and a much greater understanding of the support and coaching needs of potential high performers at important stages in their development, has made youth sport much more public. It can be tough at times – very tough, in fact - for the participants and their family and friends and supporters. But these days, everyone is aware of the scale of the challenge, and of the ways that encouragement and special services can be provided when necessary for those at every level of performance.
On this weekend of all weekends, with the ISA All-Ireland Junior Sailing Championship being staged at Schull where David Harte at the Fastnet Marine & Outdoor Education Centre has done so much to encourage new talent at local and national level, it’s timely to stock-take on this year’s top Irish junior sailing achievements at home and abroad to provide further insight into where we’re going from here, knowing that while sailing ability can manifest itself at all ages, the key Olympic success years seem to be between 25 and 36.
With all Ireland still basking in the glow of Annalise Murphy’s Olympic Sailing Silver Medal, we can have little doubt that this is a game-changer in the provision of resources for our sailing. The central decision makers are analysing facts and figures which will guide them in their sourcing and allocation of support for developing facilities, for particular boat classes, and for individual athletes and their personal programmes.
It will of course ultimately depend on increased funding, and the subsequent sensible use of resources. But when we look back on the achievements already logged by young Irish sailors in 2016 when - from time to time - sailing’s general public became aware of how some campaigns were somehow progressing despite a woeful lack of resources, it’s understandable that two viewpoints can emerge.
One of these will point to the British model, where the rise towards Olympics heights of achievement came with generous support through National Lottery funding going to those who achieved the required levels. But this was done with a ruthless weeding-out of those who didn’t quite make the grade. “Sport for All” this was not, but then that’s the way the Olympics are – it’s sport for the elite, while providing sport-watching for all.
Yet even as the wealthier nations made their regal progress towards Rio and other major events, Ireland was scoring tops in doing well on a shoestring. We carried features here on Afloat.ie on how the 19-year-old Finn Lynch (he only turned 20 in April) was battling towards an Olympic place in the Laser supported by a private funding initiative organised by Carmel Winkelmann of the National Yacht Club, while before that we’d a look at the rapidly rising talent of an even younger star, Aoife Hopkins.
But the stories of Finn Lynch and Aoife Hopkins were only two of many stories of young Irish sailing stars who continued to achieve international success in campaigns mainly supported by family and friends rather than through any official channels. For the ISA resources were limited, and the reality at the top level is that a sizeable chunk of the money available must go to professional input from coaches, sailing partners, psychologists, physiotherapists, nutrionists, marine technology experts and so forth, and the best of these specialists are expensive stars in their own right.
The achievement of success in the face of limited resources was heart-warming stuff. But having seen since the very beginning of the year the return of young Irish sailors – some of them very young indeed – fresh from success in significant events abroad, it is reasonable to hope that as they progress up the ladder, they can expect support of a more structured kind than the ad hoc raising of funds we were seeing with young sailors like Finn Lynch, Aoife Hopkins, Ewan McMahon and several others, who had found themselves placing reliance on the kindness of strangers in sometimes very distant countries in order to nourish and develop their talents.
Inevitably, there’ll be those who say that making it tough in every way at various crucial stages is part of the character development process necessary to produce champions. But experience indicates that, on the contrary, understanding, encouragement and support -including the absence of anxiety about basic funding – is the environment within which talent will best flourish, for heaven knows it’s tough enough already out there on the international racecourses and through the selection processes.
In a telling interview with Afloat.ie on July 26th a clear three weeks before Annalise won her medal, Colm Barrington of the Olympic Steering Group gave a succinct summing-up and analysis of the Irish Olympic sailing situation, and his thoughtful conclusions are more relevant than ever. For although he is standing down as Chair of the Olympic Steering Group, his formidable talents are focused on the Irish Sailing Foundation www.sailingfoundation.ie/the-foundation/ which he played the key role in establishing in order to support, develop and make sustainable a repeatable structure that is already basically in place with the James O’Callaghan–directed ISA Performance Pathway, and thus the ISF is very much in the business of high–powered fund raising.
This has its own unique challenge in that sailing only genuinely comes centre stage in the national consciousness every four years when the Olympics are taking place, while in between it can very easily slip below public awareness. And it’s understandable that for ordinary sailors who potter about the seas in their local events or simply through going cruising, whether by day or for longer periods, all this begins to sound like some high-powered project from the business pages of a leading newspaper or website, rather than bolstering the wellbeing of their beloved sport whose attraction for such people might be the opportunity it offers to get well away from the frenetic world of the higher reaches of commerce.
So perhaps if we put more human faces and stories into the mix, maybe we’ll all feel less intimidated. Certainly my own recollection of this year’s junior successes began early in January when a group of us went up to Dublin Airport in a little expedition organised by Howth YC’s newly-elected Commodore Berchmans Gannon to welcome home Dougie Elmes and Colin O’Sullivan, complete with their new Bronze Medals from the 420 in the Youth Worlds in Malaysia.
Now young Dougie is from Kilkenny and started his sailing in Dunmore East, and is every bit as well-known around Crosshaven, while Colin O’Sullivan is a product of the wonderful sailing nursery of Malahide. But as it happens, for some years now Graeme Grant has been running an intensive 420 programme at Howth, and he produces potential stars who then come under the wing of 420 National Coach Ross Killian. The result is that while the rest of us were enjoying typical late December and early January weather in Ireland, the Elmes-O’Sullivan-Killian combo were campaigning successfully in Langkawi where the sun seems to have shone all the time, and Howth YC were quick to put down a marker for their claim to the newly-won title.
It was a good start to the year, and it was an experience which makes you look with benign fellow-feeling on TV news snips of people welcoming home sports star at the airport. But it would only have been in their innermost utterly secret thoughts that anyone might have harboured the dream that before the summer was out, on a balmy August night we’d see the most unbelievable outpouring of what seemed the entire Irish sailing community’s joy at the National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, when Annalise was honoured for her Silver Medal, a celebration which has now rightly entered the ranks of Irish sailing mythology.
But while both medals marked highs, their celebrations provided opportunities to learn again of the enormous efforts which go into any realistic sailing campaign, from the highly technical to the very mundane. For instance, if your developing sailing star is still under the age of 17, they won’t be eligible to drive a car. Thus the logistics of finding the best young sailing competition in Ireland means that the Mum & Dad Towing & Taxi Service is an essential component for any worthwhile campaign, and frequently it can involve the whole family.
The late Claire Bateman endearingly remarked that she could always tell that Spring was just around the corner when, towards the end of the week, she noticed an increase in the number of Dublin-registered 4X4s (not all shiny new by any means), trundling along the Cork-Bandon road with an Optimist on top, maybe another couple of Optys on a double trailer astern, the vehicle itself packed with assorted parents and kids and their baggage and gear, and the family mutt with its head hanging out the window, the whole shebang on its way to the big Optimist national opener down at Baltimore.
When you’ve grown up in a family where that’s an accepted part of life, the commitment and sacrifice essential for working up towards realistic international competition will be in your DNA, And there must be a dozen book-length family stories in this lineup of Irish youth sailing successes during 2016, all of which have been reported in Afloat.ie. Nevertheless it’s quite an impact when you see Irish successes in this mind-blowing list:
420 Class: Douglas Elmes & Colin O’Sullivan: Bronze Medal
LASER RADIAL WORLDS U19
2nd Nicole Hemeryck, 6th Jenny Fekkes, 8th Sally Bell.
LASER RADIAL WORLDS (Girls)
7th Nicole Hemeryck, 11th Aoife Hopkins
LASER RADIAL WORLDS U17
6th Ronan Walsh
Girls: 1st Sophie Crosbie, 2nd Ella Hemeryck, 3rd Jenna McCarlie
Junior Fleet: 3rd Justin Lucas
1st Ewan McMahon, 3rd Johnny Durcan
3rd Liam Glynn (6th OA), 7th Ewan McMahon
The high point has to be Ewan McMahon’s winning of the Silver Medal at the KBC Laser Radial Worlds in Dun Laoghaire from 23rd to 30th July, a massive event which in all attracted nearly 350 entries from 48 countries. McMahon, who had just turned 17 in June, has by no means had it easy progressing to the top ranks. He found most fulfillment and great success in racing a 420, but became too tall for that two-man boat (he is now 6ft 2ins, though extraodinarily thin), and had to find his way in the Laser Radial as best he could with no access to significant central funding during 2015.
Yet somehow he got himself to Canada for the Worlds entirely on his own with no supporting coach, got himself organized with accommodation and a chartered boat, and got to grips with racing a Laser Radial at world level. A year later, he almost wins the Gold, and has a very good Silver and a triumphal lifting ashore in Dun Laoghaire. Just recently, as a reward for that Silver Medal, Team Aqua invited him out to Cascais for three days of racing earlier this week aboard their RC 44 in highly intensive fleet racing from which he emerged unscathed, only to return to school on Thursday and break his toe on the first day back in the classroom…..
That’s one of the problems with junior sailors. They’re so hyper-active that they seem to sustain more than their fair share of injuries which aren’t necessarily related to sailing, but the recuperation process can certainly foul up sailing campaign plans. Even Annalise Murphy herself reportedly managed a broken nose a long time ago when out on some intensive training cycling, but a vital point she made at that gala reception in the National YC on August 25th was that she has never sustained an injury or any disablement while sailing, and she credits that to a large extent on the very positive input from leading sports physiotherapist Mark McCabe.
This emphasis on the need for young sailors to have access to proper physio services is enthusiastically supported by Oisine Hannan, the mother of the Hemeryck sisters Nicole and Ella who are both in our list of junior achievers. Oisine is a mine of information on everything to do with supporting junior sailing campaigns, and she is also a physiotherapist by profession. Yet when her eldest daughter Nicole began to experience a sore back after moving up from Topper racing to a Laser, a consultation was arranged with Mark McCabe, and things were put right.
But at least with anything involving Lasers, finding competition locally and nationally is a straightforward business. So spare a thought for sailing mother Yvonne Durcan of Cork. For although Johnny, one of her twin sons, was happy enough campaigning a Laser with many successes which are listed above, twin brother Harry only had eyes for the First 29er skiff, and he persuaded young Harry Whittaker to join him for a spot of campaigning.
The trouble is, 29ers are about as rare as hen’s teeth in Ireland, and that includes Crosshaven. Thus the two boys found themselves linking up with a small 29er group in Scotland who had a coach, but most of the time they were just training themselves against the clock, tearing around Cork Harbour entirely on their own, perfecting various manoeuvres while trying to imagine they were in the midst of a fleet of 29ers.
The situation was encapsulated by young Durcan doing his final school exam on the 26th June, and then departing that same evening for a campaign which saw them get 23rd in the 29er Worlds in Medemblik in Holland, a very respectable result. But it was only the beginning. By the time the UK 29er Nationals were held in Torbay in Devon, the two Harrys were flying, and they won overall against a fleet which included the Bronze Medallists from the Worlds. So now their sights are set on getting to the 29er Worlds 2017 in California. Following that, they might consider joining the 49ers, but that’s another day’s work. For now, the target is raising the resources to get to California, and in the meantime finding 29er competition wheresoever it might be.
In discussing top level adult sailing, inevitably the point comes up that even with all the support in resources and personnel which might be made available, there are inevitably a few times when the individual athlete will feel very much alone. But with young sailors of exceptional promise and ambition in Ireland, not only are there many times when they personally feel very much alone, but their families can actually feel isolated by the uphill struggle to support, help and nurture the young talent.
Let us hope that with the tidal wave of goodwill which is engulfing Irish sailing following the Olympic Silver Medal, we can find some way to take some of the strain off young sailors and their families who make enormous personal sacrifice in pursuit of a dream which, if achieved, the rest of us are only too happy to share.