Sailing is a vehicle sport. No matter how well we may succeed in spreading the cost of buying and running a boat through group ownership and other schemes, inevitably it has an inbuilt level of expenditure which other sports that require much less equipment - or even none at all – do not have to take into consideration.
In the event of a serious economic recession, not only do vehicle sports like sailing experience an immediate downturn in activity, but it takes them longer than other sports to recover. Thus although some would claim that the worst of the recent economic recession was over by 2012, in sailing there was still a very perceptible downturn long after that. It’s only in the past year, buoyed up by a successful season in 2016, that a real buzz has come back into Irish sailing. W M Nixon reckons the mood in his home club of Howth Yacht Club has perceptibly changed for the better as the 2017 season swings into top gear.
The plan was that we’d title this piece “Howth sailing gets its mojo back”. But no sooner was it aired than it was pointed out by former HYC Commodore Brian Turvey - a very shrewd observer of the entire Irish scene - that one of the many signs of a revival in sailing on our peculiar peninsula is that Pat O’Neill has changed from his trusty old E-Boat Octopussy. He has replaced her with a sparkling newly re-furbished J/80 which looks gorgeous in dark blue. And of course her name is Mojo, clearly there for all to see.
But more power to Pat. His move into the J/80s is one of the signs of the new mood of optimism about the place, which was still distinctly sticky last year in July when Kieran Jameson led a purchasing team to the Solent to snap up competitively-priced but good quality J/80s in order to build up Howth’s club-owned keelboat-training flotilla.
It was something of a leap in the dark. But with the 2017 season fully upon us, the word is the J/80s are booked solid for training, club racing and corporate events, and the club will be sending five of its own fully-crewed J/80s across the bay next month to compete in the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta. And yes, instead of sitting back on their laurels, those involved are looking at ways of developing the scheme, while being very wary of the dangers of over-rapid expansion.
For those whose main interest is in dinghy sailing, all this must seem a little strange. After all, Howth’s young dinghy sailors have been on an impressive roll of success for some time, with major scores at the highest levels being obtained by the likes of Ewan McMahon, Aoife Hopkins, Dougie Elmes & Colin O’Sullivan, and many others.
But a successful yacht club has to be much more than just dinghy racing, even when that dinghy racing brings home major international prizes. In Howth YCs case, it is offering the complete package, and it must look after the needs of a large keelboat sailing sector in the membership. A full-scale clubhouse with all facilities, extensive keelboat and dinghy parking space, a 250-berth marina, two fixed lift-out cranes and a drying pad, together with swinging moorings served by club launches – in Howth, that has become the expected standard.
Keeping a complex of this nature running smoothly is a huge day-to-day challenge, and there have been ups and downs in the thirty years since the “new” clubhouse was opened. In a way, its early success contributed to its difficulties. With this glamorous building in the midst of the harbour, the Howth area acquired a new image. Initially, the club had the scene almost entirely to itself in providing catering. But its attractions meant that characterful little restaurants were soon popping up all around a working fishing and sailing harbour which somehow had to cope with becoming a visitor magnet at the same time.
Thus where members of the club would formerly have done their eating-out in the club, now they found themselves tempted into ringing the changes among the multiple choices available in a village which was being transformed into something verging on the trendy, while around its harbour it was almost Breton in character
Equally, behavioral patterns were changing. Modern families were becoming much more demanding of parental attention with shared activities and interests. People simply didn’t have the time available to give total dedication to sailing as they had in times past, while for newcomers to the sport, rival attractions and activities were always tempting, with sailing becoming just another item on a menu of leisure choices.
Through these changing circumstances, Howth YC had to adjust while remaining true to itself, a club catering for every sort of boat from the 1898-founded Howth 17s and other One-Design classes through a wide variety of offshore racers and cruisers (the Cruising Group is the largest section in the club), and on to the extremes of exotica, with the most modern dinghies and a devoted group into the foiling Moth.
All that’s before you add in the thriving junior section with its many Optimists and other junior boats, the substantial fleet of winter-sailing Lasers, and an extraordinary class which – like the Howth 17s – is to be found nowhere else as a class, and that’s the Puppeteer 22s. They are so Howth-centric that you’d think them slightly off their rockers were it not for the fact that throughout the season they’ve mustard-keen turnouts of 18 to 19 boats for every race, and it’s tremendous racing at that.
Even at the very depths of the downturn, it was clear the potential was there, but what was lacking in the trough was that vital economic component - consumer confidence. The Howth YC demographic with its preponderance of young couples was particularly hard hit. It’s difficult to get the full enjoyment out of sailing when you’re worn down by thoughts of negative equity. Pessimism is not the spirit in which to keep such a complex social and sporting structure functioning successfully.
By the time the tide finally turned, numbers had definitely declined. But there were still enough people left for whom sailing was if anything more important than ever. They were there to have things ready for any improvement in potential interest. “Try Sailing” initiatives were run with infectious enthusiasm, and far from being exclusive in its outlook, the club went out of its way to encourage involvement in sailing in any shape or form.
This was all going on in the background until this past weekend, when we suddenly realized that Howth was putting itself on the line on the big screen. We’d a significant presence at the Scottish series. And two of our leading offshore sailors, noted two-handers Colm Buckley and Simon Knowles, were making their fully-crewed debut with their newly-acquired J/109. She’s called Indian after the motor-cycle brand which preceded Harley Davidson as the height of style in America, for Colm is a bike-nut when he’s not sailing.
They were in the ISORA Dun Laoghaire to Arklow race in a fleet which included the two hottest offshore racing J/109s in the Irish Sea, Sgrech and Mojito. Meanwhile in Plymouth, Howth’s one and only Conor Fogerty was making final preparations to start the OSTAR in his Sunfast 3600 Bam!, after being sent on his way with a fund-raising dinner organized by Aidan MacManus of Howth’s King Sitric Restaurant. The King Sitric long pre-dates today’s HYC clubhouse, where in any case Aidan is a popular member, having more than done his duty inshore with the Howth 17s, and offshore in many boats both as owner and crew – he was aboard with the great Roy Dickson when Imp won the Philip Whitehead Cup in the 1987 Fastnet Race.
The Club’s lines of communication were becoming ever-further extended, with the ancient Howth 17s far away in France. Under longtime owner Ian Malcolm’s inspiration, they had managed to get six of their boats to southern Brittany for Morbihan Week with 1500 other boats of varying levels of strangeness. Even in such company, the old Seventeens still stood out. But they were a long way from home with road trailers of varying quality, and the route home was the extra-long one via Cherbourg. It took very little morbid imagination to visualise some corner of a foreign field becoming for ever a Howth Seventeen.......
Yet by and large, it has all come good. Admittedly Conor Fogerty is still out there in the Atlantic, and will be for some time yet, battering into an ocean which is in a foul mood. But the boats are back from Scotland with prizes won, Stephen Quinn’s J/97 Lambay Rules and the Kelly family from Rush’s J/109 Storm both topping their classes. In the ISORA Race, Indian won overall by two minutes from Mojito, which is quite a debut and then some. And finally on Wednesday the wandering Howth 17s rolled back into the club yard as cheeky as ever, and keen to get themselves re-launched and sailing again in time for today’s Lambay Race, which has been a pillar of Howth sailing since at least 1904.
In fact, under Commodore Joe McPeake’s energetic leadership, Howth is having an entire Lambay Weekend over the Bank Holiday, starting off last night with a short shared jaunt around the nearest island of Ireland’s Eye. But the Lambay today is the big one, as it incorporates an ISORA event which will swell Class I to at least twenty boats, and the word is that Indian, having made such a successful debut last weekend using “older” sails, will be cutting a dash today with a completely new set of threads.
It will all be in the context of this re-shaped Lambay Weekend for a club which has found itself anew:
“We have re-energised the spirit of the club” comments Joe McPeake. “The spirit was always there. A club which has survived through thick and thin for more than 120 years definitely has spirit. But for two or maybe even three years, that spirit was almost dormant. Yet it was always there, and now it burns brightly again.
My own ambition is to see our members and their family and friends looking on sailing as fun. Serious fun in some cases, but fun nevertheless. To achieve that, we’re looking at everything in a fresh way.
Certainly our sailing programme will be even more energetically implemented, and we’ll give every encouragement to those who carry the name of Howth Yacht Cub with success to other places.
But ultimately a club’s success lies in its being seen as the true home of sailing in its neighbourhood, and a vital part of the larger community. With a new emphasis on voluntarism, we’re working towards a sailing club with broader vision, and a sense of involvement for all members. A lot has happened already. But believe me, a lot more is going to happen”