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The Mighty Sailing Spirit of Ireland's Northabout Returns to Mayo

1st April 2017
Jarlath Cunnnane’s own-built expedition yacht Northabout sails up Clew Bay in Mayo with Croagh Patrick beyond in October 2005 on her return from seasons in the Arctic and Pacific which had seen her transit both the Northwest and Northeast Passages, with Paddy Barry as co-skipper. In 2016, Northabout did both of the Arctic passages in one extraordinary seven week cruise, with Russian ice-voyaging expert Nikolay Litau playing the key role Jarlath Cunnnane’s own-built expedition yacht Northabout sails up Clew Bay in Mayo with Croagh Patrick beyond in October 2005 on her return from seasons in the Arctic and Pacific which had seen her transit both the Northwest and Northeast Passages, with Paddy Barry as co-skipper. In 2016, Northabout did both of the Arctic passages in one extraordinary seven week cruise, with Russian ice-voyaging expert Nikolay Litau playing the key role Photo: Rory Casey

The Irish Cruising Club draws its varied membership from every part of Ireland, and since its foundation in 1929, this eclectic group has seen its cruising range extend from European waters until they have now covered virtually every corner of the globe, their experiences narrated in the logs collated in their Annual Journal writes W M Nixon.

Achieving cohesion in such a disparate cross-section is quite a challenge, even though it regularly organises regional meetings ashore or local rallies afloat. And every so often, to add extra spice, it arranges an international gathering in a choice cruising area overseas, with the forthcoming 2017 Rally scheduled for Galicia in northwest Spain already very well booked, even if for most boats it involves the still-challenging crossing of the Bay of Biscay.

However, apart from the shared fondness for the privations of living in what is a confined and sometimes damp space in most of their boats, the bond which really holds the membership together is their readiness to exchange ideas about cruising yachts and their equipment, while the ready dissemination of special knowledge of coastlines and harbours which they know particularly well is a core value. This benevolent tendency has been structured into the club since it was founded, with ICC sailing directions for the coasts of Ireland starting to be published in 1930.

It was central to the new organisation mainly because one of the founders, the great Harry Donegan of Cork, had actually started preparing his own harbour and anchorage plans and sailing directions for West Cork for the use of others as long ago as 1912. Donegan was also one of the seven intrepid skippers who sailed in the inaugural Fastnet Race with his famous cutter Gull in 1925, when they placed third overall. So when the club was founded with a modest gathering of five disparate yacht with Gull in their midst in Glengarriff in July 1929, his revered position meant that his opinions were central to the development of the club’s ethos.

gull donegan2Harry Donegan’s Gull from Cork, one of the seven yachts in the original Fastnet Race in 1925. Gull and her owner were in the midst of the flotilla of five yachts which founded the Irish Cruising Club in Glengarriff in 1929. Photo courtesy RCYC
Even today, there is still not enough demand to make a commercial proposition for a professional publisher out of the production of sailing directions for Ireland, But with freely-given effort of its members, the Irish Cruising Club covers the entire coast in two regularly up-dated volumes. Thanks to the spirit of voluntarism which was imbued in the club from the start by people like Harry Donegan and other noted cruising pioneers such as Billy Mooney of Dublin, the information has flowed in, and when necessary, the Honorary Editor of the Sailing Directions is facilitated by members locally when there isn’t time to bring his or her own boat to the area requiring further research.

For some years now, the Sailing Directions editorship has been in the very able hands of Norman and Geraldine Kean of Courtmacsherry, whose current boat is the handsome Warrior 40 Coire Uisge. If you come across this fine boat in some unlikely little place, you can be reasonably sure that Norman has picked up a snippet of info from some local ICC member about a favourite but little-known anchorage, and he and Geraldine just have to go and try it out for themselves.

blind harbour3Norman & Geraldine Keane’s 40ft Coire Uisge on ICC survey work in Blind Harbour on Waterford’s Copper Coast. Photo Geraldine Hennigan

But inevitably much of their activity is hidden from view, and there is a great deal of backroom work in keeping the show on the road. Equally, for the most part the ICC is also a great believer in doing good work by stealth. Thus instead of making its views known, it is happy to let its Sailing Directions speak on its behalf. And while it makes bursaries available for young sailors with the Sail Training Ireland projects, this is all done quietly behind the scenes.

The nearest the Irish Cruising Club comes to going public is when its holds one of its Annual Dinner Weekends, which are rotated round the four provinces. They’re complex extended weekends in which boating activity is just part of the programme, but the style is largely set by the venue. And as the 2017 edition last weekend was in Westport with the organising done by the ICC’s western flag officer, the indefatigable Peter Fernie, and his dedicated team, be assured that the pace was hectic and varied.

In all, more than 300 members and their guests, representing the entire cruising and voyaging spectrum, gathered in the famously hospitable town and its picturesque environs on Clew Bay with Croagh Patrick providing a spectacular backdrop in seemingly permanent sunshine. They’d a very varied programme which - for 85 of them - included a visit to Clare Island, the summer base for the 16th Century Pirate Queen Grace O’Malley, who undoubtedly would have been an active ICC member had the Club been in existence in her day.

This determined socializing by a special-interest club seems at variance with the fact that today, with multiple means of communications and relevant information or exchange of ideas instantly available, the need for like-minded groups such as the ICC to actually get together is surely lessened. They do of course make a point of socialising if they happen to meet during the course of sailing the sea and cruising some choice coast. But beyond that, the reality today is that good old-fashioned social gatherings seem to be more important than ever.

young larry4In the ice as usual. The steel yawl Young Larry of Andrew Wilkes and Maire Breathnach received the Fastnet Award in 2014 for a circuit of North America which included a transit of the Northwest Passage. Photo Maire Breathnach
That said, in a group with a purpose such as the ICC, they much prefer if their Annual Dinner is made more business-like by seeing a presentation of the club’s most important international trophy, the Fastnet Award. This is for very special international seafaring and maritime achievements. But this handsome silver replica of the famous rock is given out only very sparingly, the most recent being in 2014 for Maire Breathnach of Dungarvan and Andrew Wilkes of Lymington in celebration of their complete circuit of North America – which of course included transit of the northwest passage – in the 44ft steel-built gaff-rigged yawl Young Larry.

But at the convivial gathering in Westport – presided over with great good humour and efficiency by new Commodore Stanton Adair from Belfast Lough – there was a presentation of the Fastnet Award which rang so many bells you’d have assumed that New Year’s Day celebrations had somehow arrived in the last weekend of March. For it went to that great ice voyaging legend from Russia, Nikolay Litau, whose most recent achievement in an intrepid seafaring and ice-negotiating career of 25 years and more was achieved as skipper of the expedition yacht Northabout during her utterly exceptional seven weeks circuit of the Arctic during 2017 – the Northeast Passage and then the Northwest Passage seen off in seven weeks flat by the PolarOcean Challenge.

A more appropriate place than Westport for its presentation to the new awardee (who looks as though he has been sent out by Central Casting to play the role of a Russian hero of ice and ocean) simply doesn’t exist. The 48ft Northabout was built in aluminium to a Caroff Dufloss design in Mayo entirely by Jarlath Cunnane and his team. It was of course from Westport that their great series of voyage began. And it was to Westport in October 2005 that Northabout returned, job done

northabout 2005 crew5Northabout’s crew back in Westport in October 2005 are (left to right) Dr Mick Brogan (kneeling), Rory Casey, Kevin Cronin, Paddy Barry, Jarlath Cunnane, Slava Milosovic, Colm Brogan and Gary Finnegan. Photo Rory Case

northabout 2005 crew5They’d definitely been in the Arctic….polar bear mother and cubs seen from Northabout in 2005. Photo courtesy Jarlath Cunnane

Naturally last Saturday night they got Jarlath Cunnane to hand over the trophy, for back in 2005 he won it in partnership with Paddy Barry. But Nikolay Litau’s connections with Ireland go back much further than this, for in 1992 he was with the late Miles Clark aboard Wild Goose during the circumnavigation of Russia by voyaging to Murmansk and then going through the enormous inland waterways from the White Sea to the Black Sea.

A bourgeois sport like yachting still had an ambiguous position in the Soviet Union even after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but somehow Nikolay was making his way in sailing, and in one challenging spot where his skillful boat-handling got Wild Goose out of a tight corner where she was in danger of being crushed by a giant Russian freighter, he drily dismissed praise of his skills by saying that it was something any good Bolshevik would be expected to do….

fastnet 2017 award7Men of the north. Nikolay Litau and the Fastnet Award with Jarlath Cunnane in Westport last Saturday night. Photo: Alex Blackwell
Miles Clark’s father was of course Wallace Clark, Irish Cruising Club Commodore from 1960 to 1963, and during the time of the Russian voyage in 1992, Miles’ brother Bruce was correspondent for The Times in Moscow, later working for the Economist, yet despite his demanding job, he was able to provide back-up support. This took on a new reality last Saturday night in the Great Hall of the People in the Knockranny House Hotel in Westport, when Bruce Clark was a very able translator for Nikolay Litau’s fascinating speech of acceptance.

nikolay litau8A man of considerable presence: Captain Nikolay Litau in working gear

To get the full measure of the man, the ICC Western Committee’s Citation puts it in manageable form:


“Nikolay Litau was born in 1955 in North Kazakstan. At the age of 32, he began sailing and took part in regattas and overseas cruises. In 1991 he received a Yacht Captain diploma. In the next year, he was invited as a supervising captain to Miles Clarke in Wild Goose, the first foreign yacht to sail through the inner waterways from the White Sea into the Black Sea.

From 1993 to 1996 he managed the building of a yacht, Apostol Andrey, and became the first to complete a circumpolar navigation. For this he was awarded The Royal Cruising Club Medal for Seamanship. In 2002, the Cruising Club of America awarded Nikolay Litau the Blue Water Medal for the first navigation of the North East Passage on a yacht.

In the autumn of 2001, the second round-the-world journey of Apostol Andrey took place. The route led from St.Petersburg via the Atlantic to the Antarctic, followed by the Pacific Ocean, shores of Alaska and the Northwest passage.

In the autumn of 2004 the third round-the-world journey of Apostol Andrey took place. This voyage took place around Antarctica, close to the Antarctic continent inside the 60th parallel. By 2013, Apostol Andrey under the command of Nikolay Litau had covered 150,000 NM.

In 2016, Nikolay skippered Northabout on the circumpolar expedition “PolarOcean Challenge,”, in which the Northeast and Northwest Passages were transitted in an unprecedented seven weeks venture.”

apostol andrey9Nikolay Litay’s own ketch Apostol Andrey, which he built in 1993-96, has voyaged more than 150,000 miles on all seas.

While in times past Nikolay Litau had received international awards for individual achievents, after 25 years of one astonishing voyage after another, the Irish Cruising Club quite rightly reckoned that it was the magnificent totality of all that he achieved which deserved to be recognised.

That this recognition should come in Westport made it all perfect. When Northabout was sold away from Clew Bay a couple of years ago, the word was she was going to be used as an expedition yacht in Antarctica, but her versatility is such that she was ideal for the northern circuit on one fell swoop.

It was an achievement which was celebrated in a gathering which recognized its true quality, for in addition to the home team the attendance included Anne Hammick of the Ocean Cruising Club, Clive Reeves of the Clyde Cruising Club, and David Mowlam of the Royal Cruising Club.

It went beyond sailing, as another guest was Brendan Mulroy, Chairman of Westport District Council, while the strong local sailing tradition which produced the Northabout spirit was personified by Blair Stanaway, Commodore of the friendly and thriving Mayo Sailing Club at Rosmoney, which is said to be one of the few – if not the only – yacht or sailing club in Ireland to be healthily in the black.

Wishing to savour this air of wellbeing, we went down to Mayo Sailing Club, and found it as ever to be an exemplary case of that “We Can Do It” Mayo attitude. The variety and quality of boats just emerging from winter storage was astonishing when you reflected you were on the supposedly remote west coast of Ireland. And as ever, Mayo ingenuity was abundantly in evidence, with an Amel Maramu ketch berthed alongside a recently-built private pier, and kept comfortably in place by an ingenious berthing system using rollers.

Later that night we learned the ketch was fellow ICC member James Cahill’s latest acquisition, while the private pier – his third, as he has two other boats to which he also likes to allocate private berths – was of course his own design and build.

We first met James in the 1970s, when he was cruising dinghies. In 1976 he sailed round Ireland in a 13ft 6ins open clinker dinghy, and I managed to get a photo of him with her at Murrisk in Cew Bay in 1978 when I was about to set out on a cruise in Connemara with the late Tad Minish.

cahill at murrisk10Murrisk Pier on Clew Bay, July 1978. Tad Minish is aloft on his Sparkman & Stephens yawl Kiff (an exact sister-ship of the famous Finisterre), and James Cahill has just arrived in the 13ft 6ins clinker-built dinghy in which he sailed round Ireland in 1976. Photo: W M Nixon

Since then, James Cahill has criss-crossed the Atlantic in boats he built himself, so the Amel Maramu is a new departure, a move into a professionally finished yacht. But the can-do spirit of Mayo as personified by people like Jarlath Cunnane and James Cahill still endures with greater vitality than ever, and I cannot think of a more appropriate place than Westport for Nikolay Litau to receive the Fastnet Award.

As for the man himself, if you have ever heard of some individual being described as having “presence” yet feel you have never been in the company of such a person, I suggest you spend a little time with Nikolay Litau.

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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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