It has had at least two different event descriptions since it was first sailed all of seventy years ago. Back then, Irish sailing was finding its feet in the late 1940s, becoming re-energised in the exciting developmental world of modern dinghy racing. It was the time of Fireflies, and of the visionary move of establishing the recently-formed Irish Dinghy Racing Association’s new IDRA 14 Class. On the water, all-classes Dinghy Weeks were being held, and the idea of rounding it all out with an annual Championship of the Champions – the Helmsmans Championship – seemed a natural from the word go. W M Nixon celebrates the continuing existence of something which - for many years - was unique to Irish sailing.
The Helmsmans Championship quickly became a key part of what Irish sailing is all about. And even though it become more and more of an artificial construct over the years as different class types proliferated, with the selection of one Championship boat to accommodate widely-different boat-type experiences inevitably becoming ever more problematical, there’s a stubborn streak in us which keeps it going as a celebration of true amateur sailing.
For the line–up of helmsmen racing GP14s this weekend – it’s only male helms, alas, though women sailors have won in times past – sees the deliberate absence of the professional and semi-professional stream. This is down home sailing out in strength, even if some of the participants – such as Olympic Finn U23 Bronze Medallist Fionn Lyden of Baltimore (he’s the nomination of the Irish Team Racing Association) – will harbour hopes of moving on to Olympic Pathways.
All-Ireland Championship Competitors (Class - Helm - Club - Crew Name):
Shannon One Design - Stephen O'Driscoll - Lough Derg Yacht Club - John O'Driscoll
J24 - JP McCaldin - Lough Erne Yacht Club / Sligo Yacht Club - Liz Copland
Laser Radial - Sean Craig - Royal St George Yacht Club - David Johnston
2016 Champion RS400 - Alex Barry - Monkstown Bay SC/Royal Cork YC - Richard Leonard
Puppeteer 22 - Colin Kavanagh - Howth Yacht Club - Conor Barry
Dublin Bay Mermaid - Sam Shiels - Skerries Sailing Club - Eoin Boylan
Squib - Greg Bell - Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club - Martin Weatherstone
IDRA14 - Alan Henry - Sutton Dinghy Club - Simon Reville
SB20 - Stefan Hyde - Royal Cork Yacht Club - tbc
RS200 - Neil Spain - Howth Yacht Club - John Downey
RS400 - Gareth Flannigan - Ballyholme Yacht Club - David Fletcher
GP14 - Shane McCarthy - Greystones Sailing Club - Andy Davis
ITRA - Fionn Lyden - UCCSC, BSC, Schull - Liam Manning
ICRA 3 - Paul Gibbons - Royal Cork Yacht Club - Grattan Roberts
Ruffian 23 - Chris Helme - Royal St George Yacht Club - Alan Claffey
Laser Standard - Liam Glynn - Ballyholme Yacht Club - Ryan Glynn
You only have to give reasonable attention to that list to grasp the diversity of people, talents and boat experience that they’re trying to bring together for meaningful racing on the beautiful waters of Lough Owel (it’s pronounced “ool”) in Westmeath.
Further to emphasise the “down home” spirit of it all, the hosts, the recently re-furbished Mullingar Sailing Club (they celebrated their Golden Jubilee in 2014, including publishing a fine club history co-ordinated by Veronica Lucey) may be very centrally placed in Ireland. But they’re possibly further from any other yacht or sailing club than any other comparable club in the country, so they have to be true to themselves and their love of local sailing.
It certainly seems that way, for prosperous Mullingar is a world unto itself, the quintessential Irish country town. Yet it does have waterways connections, for the Royal Canal (re-opened in 2010) encircles the town like a moat on its way from Dublin to join the Shannon near Longford.
And the shining jewel in the green countryside, the ideally-sized-for-good-sailing Lough Owel, is not only a marvelous recreational amenity, but its pristine water is Mullingar’s reservoir, and it also doubles as the reservoir for the Royal Canal.
Anyone who is into Irish canal lore will of course be familiar with LTC Rolt’s seminal book Green and Silver, about the circular voyage in the late 1946 on Ireland’s inland waterways, an inland cruise which started from Athlone in the hired converted lifeboat Le Coq and went eastward to Dublin on the Grand Canal, and then returned west via the Royal Canal to the Upper Shannon.
Tom Rolt and his crew were particularly charmed by the Royal Canal, and intrigued by the inviting channel which came into it at Mullingar to bring the water from Lough Owel. So they punted their way up the Lough Owel feeder. But these days, with its role as a public water supply, Lough Owel is not officially part of our already very extensive inland waterways system.
However, there’s another link to those distant Green & Silver days which is decidedly special. If you go back to the very beginning of the list of previous winners of the famous silver salver here: you’ll see that the first winner in 1947 was the great Douglas Heard, who had become first President of the Irish Dinghy Racing Association in 1946. Douglas Heard was also a devoted advocate for the inland waterways, and when the closure of the Royal Canal was planned for the end of 1954, he voyaged the weed-filled length of it that summer in his motor-cruiser Hark (like Le Coq, a converted lifeboat) partly in protest at the closure, and partly in sad celebration that it had existed at all.
So it’s very moving to think that here we are in 2017, and the Championship of Champions is being staged on a lake which has a very real link to something of significance in the remarkable life of Douglas Heard, the first Champion Helm. And the fact that the Royal Canal is now fully alive again is perhaps the most astonishing thing of all, for the coming of the railways in the mid-19th Century soon out paid to its limited commercial success.
So sailing in Mullingar can find a real link, however tenuous, to the first winner of the Helsmans Championship. But before we finally get around to assessing this year’s prospects, there’s one final part of Mullingar Sailing Club’s story which must be shared. Since 1972, their next-door neighbour - until he died three weeks ago - was the world-renowned author J P Donleavy, creator of The Ginger Man.
Donleavy’s 200-acre estate, with the rambling house of Levington Park at its heart, fronted along Lough Owel to the immediate southwest of Mullingar SC. And though he’d been something of a recluse in his latter years, it was not unknown for him in his early days next door to drop by the club when some sailing event was taking place, gradually fulfilling his role as something of the local country squire.
Certainly MSC’s Fleet Captain Michael Collender is sure that Donleavy was occasionally about the club out of curiosity though not as a sailor, and thinks there a photo somewhere to prove it. But if they find it, they should be warned that as a result, Mullingar SC will inevitably become part of the J P Donleavy Research Trail for post-graduate doctoral students of literature. That could be a bit of a nuisance when your purpose in life is to provide economical sailing in pleasant but unpretentious premises which give convenient and immediate access to excellent sailing water.
Thus Mullingar SC and the GP 14 Association are kindred spirits, and the enthusiasm of the Irish GP 14 Association in providing eight boats of equal standard from all over the country for this Championship of Champions on Lough Owel has, as usual, been under-pinned by hard-headed practicality. For this, after all, is the class which negotiated the economic transit of an entire flotilla of Irish GP14s (was it 22 boats in all?) to Barbados for the worlds in April 2016, and the overall winner was Shane McCarthy of Greystones.
So with the Irish GP14 Class’s exceptional spirit, they have had enthusiastic owners delivering top boats to Lough Owel, the furthest being from as far away as the distant end of Lough Erne in Fermanagh. That’s J P McCaldin, who’s actually racing the championship as the J/24 representative. But he’s getting the double value GP 14 sailors expect, as the class’s national end-of-season event, the Hot Toddy, is going to be staged at Mullingar in a week’s time, and JP’s boat will be there on site, ready and waiting.
Another typically GP 14 touch is that the Irish Association is hoping to make the boats even more equal by providing them all with absolutely identical new genoas. At first glance, it all sounds a bit extravagant. But outgoing President Stephen Boyle of Sutton Dinghy Club (he sails as crew for his 17 year old son Peter, and has recently been succeeded, after a three year stint as President, by David Cooke of Skerries) assures me that the Irish GP 14 Association just don’t do extravagant. The eight brand new genoas from Jim Hunt and Andy Davis (Shane McCarthy’s crew) of HD sails will be getting a bulk discount, and will be immediately sold off once this event is over – “We might even make a tiny profit”.
Many of the Mullingar SC officer are themselves GP 14 sailors, the current officer board being Commodore: James Hackett, Vice Commodore: Sean Duffy, Rear Commodore Gearoid O’Bradaigh, Hon. Sec: Kieran Milner, Hon. Treas: Brian Walker, Junior Sailing: James Hackett, Fleet Captain Michael Collender, and PR Officer Veronica Lucey.
But MSC has been known to host exotics such as the Shannon One Designs and the Water Wags. Yet it’s Geeps, Mirrors and Lasers which set the regular pace, with the GP 14s in particular having a long and dynamic relationship with the club.
So they’re making a proper weekend of it, with a dinner tonight in the Annebrook Hotel in the heart of town, and racing going right to he finish tomorrow afternoon. Defending champion is of course RS 400 speedster Alex Barry of Monkstown Bay on Cork, but with the boat selected being the GP 14 and the extraordinary range of talent lined up to sail them, it’s wide open, even if the smart money will inevitably be on Shane McCarthy, who has his world champion crew Andy Davis with him.
We’ll know it all by Monday morning. But meanwhile, let it be said that it has been utterly heartening researching this piece, and talking to so many happily enthused club sailors. This is the real sailing in Ireland, l‘Irlande profonde. This is the Ireland that still thinks the event is the Helmsman’s Championship, and that it’s run by the Irish Sailing Association.
The rest of us will go along with the ISA’s re-branding as Irish Sailing. Personally, I think it’s a good idea. But this All-Ireland Championship thing we’re not so sure of. After all, when the Helmsman’s Championship was inaugurated seventy years ago, it was unique to Ireland, its brand name was new and unique.
So why change it to something which is imitative of another completely different area of sport in search of very ephemeral public recognition? We should only allow it if Irish Sailing somehow gets permission to flood the sacred turf of Croke Park, and stages the Helmsmans Championship there in the manner of Nero’s naval battle in the Colosseum. Then it would be acceptable to call it the All-Ireland Sailing Championship, for Croke Park is the only place where true All-Ireland sporting events can take place.