There have been several Irish offshore racing sailors who have been making national and world headlines for some years now, but in recent weeks and months the wave of new enthusiasm for the big ticket events has surged to fresh heights.
One of the stories underlying all this is the potential for a specialist marine industry base in Cork Harbour serving the continuous needs of the most advanced racing machines, and providing a launch pad for global campaigns. The idea has been around for some time now, but as reported in Afloat.ie as long ago as April 1st 2015, while the goodwill may be there, a firm decision is still awaited.
Local minister Simon Coveney has since moved on from the Marine to other Government departments. His present very senior role in representing Ireland through the Department of Foreign Affairs in decidedly turbulent times will mean that the needs of something so difficult to gauge for significant political and economic benefits will scarcely be top priority.
Yet for the many leading Irish sailors – both men and women – who have launched themselves into the decidedly uncertain world of top level professional competition, the problem of resources and facilities to keep the show on the road is always present, and frequently at crisis levels. W M Nixon wonders how there is going to be enough in the sponsorship pot – both nationally and globally – to help them all fulfill their dreams.
On Tuesday, Afloat.ie received confirmation of a “virtual press conference” in Cork, in other words a clearcut announcement that Nin O’Leary’s co-skippering of the IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss with Alex Thompson was going to move on to a full-blooded Vendee Globe campaign by O’Leary himself, possibly with a new boat.
In the meantime, the word on the waterfront is that the two skippers may do the two-handed Barcelona World Race 2018 in the current boat. But beyond that, the campaign plan for the charismatic O’Leary, mentored by Thomson and orchestrated by Stewart Hosford, is rumoured to be the building up of enough resources to keep this boat, yet also build a new one.
This is because the boat is still almost state-of-the-art, she has some features still absent in other boats, and could be serious opposition in someone else’s hands. Thus the ideal scenario is to maintain control of their current technology and design, while moving on to the next stage of development with an even more advanced boat for the Vendee Globe in 2020.
We’re talking mega-bucks here, and the relationship with Hugo Boss has been very fruitful, but the elephant in the room - which hasn’t been mentioned yet - is how long will the Hugo Boss sponsorship continue?
This may all become clearer within the next ten days, as Thomson, O’Leary and Hugo Boss are headed for Ireland, with Cork in their sights on Monday 28th and Tuesday 29th August, and then they’re in Dun Laoghaire for a very public appearance on Wednesday August 30th, and staying until the Friday, September 1st for the ongoing launch of their new brand Ireland Ocean Racing.
This puts them top of the billboards. But we mustn’t let it blind us to the hopes of other campaigners, and on Thursday of this week, Tom Dolan made his final public appearance in Ireland before returning to France for the countdown towards the start of the Mini Transat 2017 from La Rochelle at the beginning of October.
Although Tom has some support backers whose logos appear on his sails, he makes no bones about his overall situation, as his Pogo 3, IRL 910, currently enters races under the name of “Still Seeking a Sponsor”. Whether his presentation in the National YC on Thursday will turn on any money taps in Ireland remains to be seen, the fact is that it’s in France he makes most impact. But in Dun Laoghaire, his burning enthusiasm left an abiding impression, for although his chosen life-path may be more exciting than running the small family farm in Meath, there are times when it’s a massive struggle.
Tom is one of several Irish international offshore wannabees and established skippers who have made a point of having the cup of coffee with Marcus Hutchinson. Hutchinson has transformed himself from being a young sailor who first learned his craft in Howth into an international sailing campaign management figure who maintains his Irish connections through Kinsale, yet is now a key presence at the French-led cutting edge of specialist offshore programmes.
It’s rumoured that in Brittany he has access to a large warehouse full of IMOCA 60s and Open 40s and whatnot. What we do know for sure is that he was very much the background force in Paul Meilhat’s stunning victory in the IMOCA 60 SMA in the recent Rolex Fastnet Race, a neatly-read campaign whose success was highlighted by the inescapable fact that Hugo Boss finished eighth out of the nine IMOCA 60s competing.
SMA with her dagger boards was optimized for windward work, whereas Hugo Boss with her foils most emphatically wasn’t. But while those in the know are aware of this, Joe Public simply sees the final results and takes it from there.
Marcus Hutchinson’s deep well of sound advice is available to those who seek him out, and he is generous with his knowledge and sensible thoughts. Talking to Afloat.ie yesterday morning, he made the point that of the current wave of French superstars in the bigger boats, many have done the Figaro Solo at least a dozen times, and he reckons that setting out to take on the Vendee Globe straight from a career – however successful – in fully-crewed boats, is akin to taking on Everest solo without first trying a few smaller mountains on your own.
The list of those specialist sailors from Ireland who have made a point of seeking advice and assistance at some stage from Marcus Hutchinson is both impressive and fascinating, as it includes Damian Foxall, Justin Slattery, Enda O'Coineen, David Kenefick, Joan Mulloy, Sean McCarter, Tom Dolan and most recently Conor Fogerty.
And a salient fact which emerges in talking to some of them is the thought that while the Alex Thomson/Hugo Boss campaign was impressive, its central ethos of being stand-alone was ultimately counter-productive.
Two of the lone skippers mentioned above went so far as to say that if the Hugo Boss campaign had been prepared to mix it a bit more with the strongholds of French single-handed sailing in Brittany, then they would have won the Vendee Globe instead of coming second.
That’s undoutedly one for the speculation mill. But it gets a certain reinforcement from a statement this week from Nin O’Leary, to the effect that moving the base from Portsmouth to Cork would have the beneficial result of making the major French centres seem more accessible, as there’s almost a feeling of being trapped in the Eastern Solent, whereas in Cork it’s open water – and open thinking - all the way to Ushant and beyond.
This desire for open water and open thinking is spreading. One of the most interesting news items of recent weeks was that Olympic Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy hoped to secure a berth aboard Dee Caffari’s Volvo 65 for the up-coming Volvo World Race. Unfortunately the knee injury Murphy exacerbated with a spectacular capsize at the conclusion of becoming the International Moth Women’s World Champion 2017 on Lake Garda has put that idea on hold, but this shift of interest from the grind of Olympic training on a tedious four year cycle to the more stimulating world of big-time offshore stuff, with maior events coming up in rapid succession, reflects a discernible pattern of changing public awareness.
So Olympic sailing, ever mindful of the need to continue to attract public attention by whatever means, is going to include a test offshore series, probably for two person boats, in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020.
This is of particular interest to any Irish sailor desperately seeking sponsorship, for the reality is that on our island, there are only half a dozen sports – if that - which are big enough to make an impact on their own. The minority sports - sailing included - only figure significantly in public awareness if they come up in the Olympic searchlight.
That Olympic searchlight in turn encourages others to get involved, thereby stretching the cloak of sponsorship ever thinner. So it will be some time, if ever, before we see a joint approach to the challenge of raising sponsorship for this branch of sailing. And Heaven knows, but it’s difficult enough to get an effective short-handed sailing campaign of international standard up to speed without the endless worry of finding the money. Yet that’s the way it is. But if you really do find the challenge irresistible, Afloat.ie’s advice is to make arrangements to have a cup of coffee with Marcus Hutchinson before you do anything else.