Irish sailing’s informal inter-club competition has named a “Club of the Year” annually since 1979, and since 1986 the title’s steadfast sponsorship support from Mitsubishi Motors has made it an integral part of the national sailing scene. Yet it has proven to be something which does not lend itself easily to imitations elsewhere. Other sailing countries have tried to establish versions of it. But somehow it has never worked as effectively as it has in Ireland, where the size of the country, the number, size and variety of our clubs, the sense of community within our sailing, and our very long history of having clubs in some form at the heart of our sport - all these factors contribute to making this special competition viable in Ireland.
These elements combine to contribute to a continually developing awareness of how a successful club must play a key role in its local community as well as making a contribution of significance to the national sailing programme, while at the same time encouraging new boat talent and interest at every level. At the same time, club officers and committee have to be acutely aware that they are functioning in a constantly changing socio-economic environment in which the “business model” of a sailing club has to be continually monitored, regularly modified, and sometimes radically changed if it is to continue operating successfully. W M Nixon tries to capture the mood of Wicklow Sailing Club as it takes on the mantle of “Mitsubishi Motors Sailing Club of the Year 2017” with the new sailing season getting into its stride.
There’s something about Wicklow Sailing Club that makes everyone lighten up as they step through the front door of its friendly little clubhouse. It becomes a characterful little place where people of many backgrounds from a wide swathe of the Garden County and beyond express their shared enthusiasm for boats and people and those who sail them – and more particularly, for those who would like to sail them, but need encouragement to enter what is a strange world for people from a completely different landbound background.
For it was Wicklow Sailing Club’s energetic and imaginative ways of encouraging their own youngsters afloat, together with others from a non-sailing background, which contributed greatly to its becoming the Mitsubishi Motors “Sailing Club of the Year 2017” at a very relaxed summer’s evening ceremony this week.
Of course the club’s continued and determined staging of the biennial 704-mile Volvo Round Ireland Race, which attracted a record and very international entry of 63 boats with records tumbling every which way in 2016, was an important consideration in the winning of the award.
But those involved in the adjudication quietly kept tabs on Wicklow SC’s levels of more ordinary activity after the big event had been tidied away at the end of June. Its successful staging had seemed to involve just about every member of the club in some voluntary function, led by Race Organiser Theo Phelan and his Chairman Peter Shearer, so you might have expected Wicklow sailing to relax for a while.
Not a bit of it. Junior sailing and introductory courses under the direction of the likes of Dave Ballesty and Mark Redmond were up and running again within days, the local dinghy racing and cruiser-racing programme was back in action with Jason Moran scoring tops in the latter in Hydrogin, and on the national and international front, Wicklow’s own Barry Byrne – now Commandant Barry Byrne – skippered the Defence Forces’ J/109 Joker 2 to a convincing victory in the new Beaufort Cup, the inter-military and maritime agencies offshore sailing competition which, in its inaugural year in 2016 in Cork, attracted an international entry of 32 boats and crews.
Such achievements, and those of other renowned Wicklow offshore sailors such as Brian Flahive, Simon Greenwood, Charlie Kavanagh and Alan Rountree, speak of a well-balanced club whose friendly premises - in the very maritime setting down at the beginning of the East Pier clustered close with the Wicklow lifeboat HQ, they’re in a sort of citadel of the sea – are popular for hosting events of local organisations which may have no connection with the sea whatever.
It was this particular sense of welcome which was most evident for those arriving for this week’s presentation, with Wicklow Sailing Club represented by new Commodore Denise Cummins and also by 2016 Commodore Hal Fitzgerald, while WSC’s national and international partners were there with Jack Roy, President of the Irish Sailing Association, and leading ISA Board members including Brian Craig of Dun Laoghaire and Sarah Byrne of Greystones as well as CEO Harry Hermon and members of his staff who deal directly with Wicklow, notably Eastern Region Development Officer Sarah-Louise Rossiter.
The leading international organisation with which Wicklow is most closely involved is of course the Royal Ocean Racing Club who provide massive support for the Round Ireland race. Although current Commodore Michael Boyd – a round Ireland winner in 1996 and top Irish boat in 2016 – couldn’t be there personally, he ensured he was very ably represented by his brother Paddy Boyd. Paddy is a veteran of several Round Irelands but is also, as it emerged on the night, a veteran of a certain event which made Wicklow Sailing Club the very first Sailing Club of the Year way back in 1979, in the brief pre-Mitsubishi Motors years - more of that later.
Today, the Mitsubishi Motors team are still led by Chairman Frank Keane, who has been involved since 1986, and Frank and his son Brian and their group arrived into WSC to find themselves being welcomed not just by the great and the good in national and international sailing, but also by leaders of other Wicklow marine, business and administrative bodies whose presence very effectively demonstrated how WSC is at the nexus of the little commercial and recreational port’s interaction with the sea.
Mitsubishi Motors involvement with sailing continues to have a decidedly personal element, as Billy Riordan, CEO of Frank Keane Holdings, the parent company, is both a keen SB20 sailor in Dublin Bay and beyond, and an Optimist dad at major competitions all over the country. His group included Mitsubishi Motors MD Gerard Rice and their Wicklow agents, Dale Moran and Gavin Moran of the Morans of Avoca group, something which meant they were inevitably described in the course of the evening as being the Mitsubishi Motors agents for Ballykissangel – that’s showbusiness for you.
Keeping us all on the right track was Roseita Burke, Mitsubishi Motors Marketing & PR Manager, who is now renowned in sailing for getting good weather for this annual event. It’s usually staged early in the summer just as the “proper” season is getting into gear, and the winning clubs get into the spirit of it all by dressing overall as though it’s Regatta Day. But it all wouldn’t quite work unless we’d a sunny evening, and despite the week’s decidedly mixed weather, once again Roseita worked her magic, and the sun shone.
But if all this organizational effort goes unrecorded it’s soon forgotten, and an ace photographer is needed, so when key WSC administrator Peter Shearer - a former Commodore and Round Ireland Chairman who has now taken up the reins as Honorary Secretary - assured us that in Angela Higgins the club had its own amateur photographer who could produce work of professional standard and was very good at getting the right people into the right groups, it all seemed too good to be true. But as the results show, it was true, Angela was brilliant, and her huge contribution to the success of the evening speaks volumes for the voluntary spirit of Wicklow SC.
Inevitably in such a surge of life there were those who couldn’t be there, and ISORA Chairman Peter Ryan, whose organization had already run its first race of the year from Dun Laoghaire to Wicklow on April 22nd, and is personally a great fan of what Wicklow does for offshore racing, was absent with the sad death of his mother - our thoughts were with him. And our thoughts were also very much with WSC President and very long-serving and active member Gerry Nolan, who was over the moon about his baby being Club of the Year, but he’d been kept in dock in hospital under doctor’s orders. So good wishes were conveyed directly to him through his wife Angela, who was there for him at the party, and it was quipped that, being Gerry, he’d probably re-organised the hospital’s CCTV cameras in order to follow events in WSC.
It was such a remarkable gathering of so many viewpoints from within Wicklow and beyond that it was an ideal opportunity for new Irish sailing Association President Jack Roy to tell us, in his speech, of his hopes and plans for Irish sailing. This is a President for us all. He’s not just a President for the top international medal-achieving sailors, but a President for whom the interests of the ordinary club sailor or indeed anyone who’s interested in sailing - whether they race a bit or limit their activities to cruising or simply day sailing – merit close attention and support.
His parents were founder members of Greystones Sailing Club, and the President reckons the smaller clubs such as big-hearted Wicklow (it has about 160 members with all categories included) are the true life blood of sailing, “the core strength of our sport around the coast”.
During his Presidency he intends to visit absolutely every club in Ireland , which knowing Jack means in several cases it will be many times. His exuberant enthusiasm, shown through his many race officer duties and personal Squib sailing and cruising with his Halberg Rassy cutter, is an inspiration to his members, and it enables him to voice strong opinions on re-shaping sailing for its own good.
Despite being a commited boat owner himself, he is more than ready to welcome those who just want to taste sailing without financial commitment, and he particularly commended Wicklow’s club ownership of sailing dinghies which are made readily available for public use.
Jack Roy had many other fresh and invigorating ideas, but as we’ll be shortly doing a full interview with him for a future Sailing on Saturday, we’ll give those views and others a proper airing in due course. Meanwhile, this week he brilliantly conveyed the goodwill of the entire Irish sailing community to Wicklow SC in their success, and the gratitude of all involved to Mitsubishi Motors for their continuing support of an informal but important competition which helps us all to understand and support Ireland’s sailing clubs in a positive way.
On behalf of Mitsubishi Motors, Billy Riordan, CEO of Frank Keane holdings, spoke particularly if his own enthusiasm for the way in which the “Club of the Year” competition encourages clubs to re-think their relationship with the larger community around them. Sailing clubs are a vital interconnector between sea and land, and their unique position enables them to provide lines of communication which are of benefit to everyone, while the use of their premises for non-maritime events has contributed greatly to mutual understanding.
But as mentioned at the beginning, simply being in Wicklow Sailing Club makes everyone lighten up, and Billy went cheerfully off script to talk of his own experiences in taking part in the Round Ireland Race. This is a rite of passage for every Irish sailor, and for most of us - as in Billy’s case - the memories can be of great amusement as much as they are of more serious stuff dealing with the challenges of racing on the Atlantic Ocean.
In response to all this, Wicklow Sailing Club Commodore Denise Cummins made a speech which so perfectly encapsulated the spirit of the club and the mood of the evening that it’s only right and proper to reproduce its key messages:
“It is my pleasure to welcome you all to Wicklow Sailing Club tonight. We are delighted to see so many friends from near and far joining us on this special evening. In particular we welcome the Club of the Year adjudicators, and are honoured to have Frank Keane and Billy Riordan and their team from Mitsubishi Motors.
We welcome Jack Roy our new ISA President, and also Paddy Boyd – well known to many of us – representing his brother Michael, Commodore of our very good friends at the Royal Ocean racing Club.
We welcome too the representatives from our local community, who give us as a club so much support. Representatives from the RNLI, from Wicklow Chamber & local businesses, from Sailfest, from the County Council, from local Sports Partnership, from nearby sailing clubs, from other water-sports clubs, and so on - it’s great that you are all here.
Our club President, Gerry Nolan, was really looking forward to this evening’s reception, but unfortunately as you have heard he is unable to be here. We are delighted to see that Angela could make it here tonight. We wish him well and look forward to seeing him again as soon as possible. But now that I think of it, he has remote access to our security cameras so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if he was keeping an eye on me right now!!
I have been a member of this sailing club for a number years now, not that long, but I certainly wasn’t here when WSC was first awarded the Club of the Year back in 1979, the first club to receive the award. However, we do have a photograph of the presentation of the award in 1979, a photograph which includes a bearded & only slightly younger-looking Winkie Nixon!
As Commodore of WSC, I would like to thank Mitsubishi Motors for this award, the Mitsubishi Sailing Club of the Year 2017. We are both delighted & very proud to accept this wonderful award. It will be displayed with great pride of place in our club.
I would also like to thank Mitsubishi Motors for continuing to sponsor this award and we acknowledge their contribution, reflected in the ethos in that company, not just to us as a club, but indeed to the local community. It underlines the recognition of the hard work of volunteer club members and the community. Our club is firmly based in the community and we receive a lot of support from the local community here in Wicklow.
The ethos and spirit of the club has evolved over many years and on my watch I want to ensure that this continues on into the future.
Last year’s Committee Boat, as we might call our club administration, started with an able crew of many helpers. This honour of running Wicklow Sailing Club is now bestowed on our 2017 group.
It is easy to take over when a ship has been running a good course, and sailed with skill and good judgment. A special thank you to Peter Shearer, Gerry Nolan and Kevin Desmond for working hard as our anchors, while Hal Fitzgerald was on helm as Commodore, and provided a steady hand on the tiller .
Theo Phelan as Race Organiser of the Round Ireland is our kite, our spinnaker, always on a run leading us ahead. Our mainsail handlers and trimmers - Dave Ballesty, Roisin Henessy and Mark Redmond - have organised and trained many sailors for years, and last year in particular the dinghy section was one of high achievement - they are the power house of sailing from the root up.
Brian Malone and Eugene Lynch are our headsail and foredeck men, converting the juniors and turning them into Cruising Adult Sailors.
Angela Higgins and Fergus Sommer are our telltales, helping us to pick up the change in wind and ensure we are in tune with our community, environment and surroundings.
Kyran O’Grady is our mast and boom, supporting every facet of the club while ensuring the sheets and halliards don’t get tangled, yet in addition he is the glue which holds the club together.
David Ryan is our bow-sprit, always looking at least eight feet ahead, always looking outward and forward. Not all clubs have this vision, let alone a visionary like Farmer Ryan with his practicality combined his direction and passion.
Yet the boat whch is the club cannot sail without the wind, and our wind is our volunteers and our sailors, all our members who keep us moving forward, pushing us, carry us through the course, across the line to every finish.
Thank you to our friends in the local community who give us such great support. It is wonderful to have an opportunity to say a big thank you to everyone, who turn out week after week throughout the year, and who make the club the great place it is.
It is very fitting that the award is made during this week, which is National Volunteer Week. This deserves celebration. So while the club is all about sailing and fostering the community and getting people on the water, ultimately the club is also about having fun. Tonight is one of those many fun occasions. So now you know what you have to do for the remainder of this evening, which I hope you will enjoy.”
Which they most certainly did. And during it, Paddy Boyd reminisced about Wicklow’s first win back in 1979, when they got the trophy for organizing a sailing rally open to everyone. He was one of the few present this week who had taken part all of 38 years ago, and it showed Wicklow SC what it could do if it spread its wings. It certainly gave Wicklow the Great Idea. The following year in 1980, the Round Ireland Race was inaugurated. The rest you know.