In the days when sailing was a seasonal sport, a few main pillar events dominated the international programme. The Sailing Olympics. The America’s Cup. The Fastnet Race. The Dragon Gold Cup. The Sydney-Hobart Race. The Whitbread Round the World Race. And maybe a few others – we all had our favourites writes W M Nixon.
There weren’t many of those key events. Yet in a more leisurely era of primitive communication, they were enough to be going along with, and people became accustomed to the long intervals between them, intervals when we could concentrate obsessively on our own local and national sailing at events which were of little interest to anyone else.
But the advent of the Internet has changed sailing as it has changed everything else. Instant 24/7 communication demands a fast-running stream of narrative with images to match. In this new environment, the former pillar events find they are just part of an endless tapestry, and they have to take their chances with everything else to gain attention.
Time was when the fundamental changing of boat types in the America’s Cup would have been a matter of major interest, blowing every other sailing headline off page and screen in a big way, and for a long time.
But we’ve comfortably taken in our stride the recent gradually-released information that sailing’s peak event - the oldest international sporting challenge in the world - is reverting to mono-hulls, after three editions of supposedly setting the world a-fire with hyper-fast catamarans.
Here and there, devoted pot-stirrers found it difficult to provoke anyone to break sweat over the matter. Maybe in the core of the America’s Cup community – if there is such a thing – there was a weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth. But among the rest of us, there was sublime indifference. We knew there’d be time enough to consider the new boats as the outlines of the next challenge became more clearly defined. And if there’s litigation in the meantime, that will be entertainment. Meanwhile, there’s a busy Autumn programme of major international events, several of which have a significant Irish interest, and that’s where our attention is focused.
Currently, the top story still has to be the confirmation of Annalise Murphy as a crewmember aboard the Volvo Ocean Racer Turn The Tide On Plastic. The sense of excitement when she was mentioned as a “probable” was tempered by the fact that she’d sustained that knee injury during a crazy capsize in the last race on her way to becoming the International Moth Women’s World Champion, and we’d to wait for total recovery from it before the Volvo World Race chapter in her life could properly begin.
Quite what her sports physio Mark McCabe had to say about the injury is probably unprintable, for a point made about her campaign towards the Olympic Silver Medal was that it was his guidance and skill which kept her injury-free at crucial stages in training and during the Olympic campaign.
We should all have a Mark McCabe for everyday life. But for now, the Olympics seem so yesterday in the Annalise story, for what she has undertaken may be sailing, but it certainly isn’t sailing as she has known it for so many years with a Laser Radial.
But despite that capsize, clearly she could hack it with the special demands of a foiling Moth, so now she is now re-shaping her enthusiasm, basic athleticism and special sailing skills to serve a team cause. And as of this morning, it has to be the most interesting single story in Irish sailing, particularly now that the Volvo 65s and their teams are gathered in Alicante, with the entire fleet being lifted out on Monday for the final meticulous checks.
There’s a special edge to it, for this year’s race - which starts on October 22nd - will see a much greater emphasis on the Southern Ocean. So as we move steadily towards the Centenary in 2023 of the beginning of Conor O’Brien’s pioneering of the global southern route for yachts with his Irish-built 42ft Saoirse, it’s more than appropriate that there’s a significant Irish presence in the developing Volvo setup, where the Alicante Volvo Race Village will open on 11th October, and the In-Port Race will be staged on Saturday October 14th.
King of it all for Ireland has to be Damian Foxall, who has raced or broken records round the world so often he has probably lost count, but this time he’s on the strength of Team Vestas. For Foxall, the link to Conor O’Brien is particularly special, as Damian hails from Derrynane in far southwest Kerry, and Derrynane was Conor O’Brien’s favourite port – you can see his signature in the Visitors’ Book in that superb watering hole so beloved of voyagers, Bridie Keating’s pub.
But if Damian is King, Annalise is Queen, for even among the hugely talented Volvo crews, an Olympic Silver Medal – or any Olympic Medal for that matter - is rare enough. Indeed, it’s so rare that part of the fascination of the Annalise/Turn the Tide on Plastic linkup will be in how they work out together.
Annalise carries the flag for Ireland’s east coast in Alicante, while Justin Slattery will do it for the south if he turns up, as Damian Foxall expects. Others from Ireland include James O’Mahoney who’s also with Team Vestas, where Thomas John McMaw is Senior Project Manager to keep up the green jersey count, as too does VOR event contractor John Donnelly.
But as our colleague Tom MacSweeney pointed out on Afloat.ie on Monday, it is Kerry which packs the punch in Alicante, as Brian Carlin of Tralee leads the team of OBRs (On-Board Reporters) who will be embedded on each boat, while Lucy Hunt who runs the Sea Synergy Awareness Centre at Waterville (it’s just over the mountain pass from Derrynane) is Sustainability Education Manager for this edition of the Volvo Ocean Race, and will co-ordinate a schools programme.
However, for those who like to be up to speed with all in the main international sailing stories with Irish interest, some time soon there’ll be the Student Yachting Worlds in Marseilles, where UCD led by Will Byrne will be challenging for a trophy which Ireland has won in times past. Originally we were told it would be in September, but when students are running the show themselves, there’s freeform organization and timing, and the most recent date we see is still Marseilles, but not until October 17th to 22nd.
So the top up-coming interest is in La Rochelle towards the end of September, with the fleet gathered for the two-stage 4050 mile Mini-Transat (there’s a stop in the Canaries), with the race starting on Sunday October 1st. Ireland’s Tom Dolan with IRL 910 is currently fourth in the world rankings in the Mini Transat Production Boat Class, so he’s in with a good shout for a podium place. And we’re all behind him, with Irish Sailing President Jack Roy and Ireland’s Sports and Cultural Attaché in France the Guests of Honour at Tom’s party in La Rochelle at noon on Saturday September 30th.
Then in October, in addition to the Volvo World Race start and the Student Yachting Worlds, there’s the Rolex Middle Sea Race from Malta on Saturday October 21st, just the day before the Volvo gets going across in Spain. But there’s always lots of Irish interest in this annual Mediterranean classic, with the winning Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino last year being navigated by our own Ian Moore, while this year there’s added spice with the possible inclusion of the IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss with Alex Thomson and Nin O’Leary hoping they’ll find conditions better suited to their very specialised flying machine than they did in the Fastnet Race back in August.
For those who look on into November, the Transat Jacques Vabre gets going from Le Havre on November 5th with a preponderance of IMOCA 60s, but for operational reasons Hugo Boss is not expected be among them. However, what’s clear is that the international programme is now non-stop, for by November we’ll be getting advance info on the Sydney-Hobart Race on 26th December 2017, which is the saving of Christmas for many of us.
Meanwhile this morning in Douarnenez in Brittany the Figaro Fastnet Solo gets under way, and Autumn Leagues start to flex their muscles in Ireland, with Howth’s series starting today and running for six weekends, so the topline action continues at home and abroad in an unending stream.
There’s an old Arab saying which goes: “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on”. It could reasonably be said of world sailing that there may indeed be dogs barking, but the purposeful rattling of camel harnesses is now virtually continuous.