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Mark Mansfield, 'Force of Nature' in Irish & International Sailing

13th October 2017
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Mark Mansfield – his expression may seem impassive, but he is at his most alive and alert when racing a sailing boat Mark Mansfield – his expression may seem impassive, but he is at his most alive and alert when racing a sailing boat

Mark Mansfied of Cork has been a major presence in Irish and international sailing for decades. With his considerable height and presence, and air of being intensely focused on the task in hand, he is at the core of any sailing crew and campaign with which he becomes involved, all with his usual 100% dedication. W M Nixon catches up with a continuing stellar sailing career as Mansfield’s renowned expertise in rig tuning and sail optimisation sees an extra aspect added to his life with racing boats.

Mark “Mono” Mansfield is a Force of Nature. It could not be otherwise. Of impressive height (6ft 5ins), and with an intensely and intelligently focused look to his face when the topic is of interest to him, the fact that he is at his most alive when racing a sailing boat defines his life.

As for his considerable presence, many of us can remember when, at a very youthful age, he was effectively the skipper of Turkish Delight, the “big boat” of the Irish Admirals Cup team of 1987. The boat was welcomed into the squad to comply with the required size range for the three boat team, and she came complete with a colourful and decidedly characterful Turkish owner who was determined to be part of the action, and could have dominated the on-board setup.

mark mansfield2Mark Mansfield, aged 37 in 1999. He had sailed his first Admirals Cup aged 19 in 1981, and skippered his first Admirals Cup boat in 1985. Photo Robert Bateman

But Mansfied – youthful and all as he was, being barely 25 – was well able to keep up his end of the deal for Ireland . And as much of the preliminary action had a strong Cork flavour, with wives, mothers and girfriends keeping an eye on developments as only the Cork sailing women can, I found myself talking to his mother about how Mark’s sailing ability and power of personality were far beyond what you’d expect of someone of his age.

“He has always been like that” she said. “As an infant he was of course a large baby, he developed very fast, and by the time he was eight months, it was all we could do to keep him in his cot. He’d haul himself upright by hanging onto the rails, and dominate the entire household just by sheer power of will, personality and determination. Looking back, I think that childhood cot was his first boat…..”

In the Cork way, Mark’s first boat was a present from his Godfather. It was a well-used International Cadet, but as his Godfather happened to be Harold Cudmore Senr, that Cadet had originally belonged to Harold Cudmore Jnr, one of the very first boats of his internationally stellar career.

But the problem with being Mark Mansfield was that he was always a big lad. He outgrew junior dinghies almost as soon as he’d acquired them, and so he felt more comfortable on larger craft, and soon was Number One man to his father Stafford Manfield, a classic Cork sailor who steadily worked his way up through boat sizes until in the 1970s he was the first owner of the Rob Holland-designed, Cork-built 30ft Club Shamrock Demelza, a winner in a very keen class.

shamrock demelza3The Club Shamrock Demelza’s first owners were Stafford Mansfield and his son Mark. Now owned by Steph Ennis and Windsor Laudan, the 40-yearold Demelza continues to win races, and is seen here doing so at the Sovereigns Cup in Kinsale

This made the Mansfields – for the father and son sailed on equal terms – the first of a succession of successful Demelza owners. In time, to acquire the db2 Luv Is, they sold the boat on to Neville Maguire of Howth, who won both the Irish Sea Championship and his class in the Round Ireland race with her, as well as many inshore championships. Then Neville in turn sold her to Steph Ennis and Windsor Laudan, who continue Demelza’s winning ways, even with the boat now hovering around 40 years of age.

But being part of Irish sailing history, through Demelza and other noted craft, is only of very incidental interest to Mark Mansfield today. His focus is on the current challenge, and the ones after that. He may be 55, but he lives in the present and looks to the future with a refreshing intensity, and this has been the hallmark of his entire sailing career.

Thus, even as he was increasingly involved in his father’s keelboat sailing with the balance of on-board command inevitably moving in Mark’s favour, for two or three years he was Mirror Dinghy racing in Cork Harbour despite being almost immediately too large for the boat.

But then the Laser made her debut in Ireland in the early 1970s, and this was the ideal boat for his already considerable (and athletic) size on the cusp of his teens. There were few enough topline Crosshaven sailors in Lasers in those early days before Mark had the freedom of his own driving licence, but somehow he got himself to major events and found his skills being sharpened by the Irish elite, a Who’s Who of subsequent stars in many sailing areas, with Gordon Maguire at their peak.

By this stage, the young Mark Mansfield was so totally immersed in sailing in so many different boats that academic pursuits took second place – or indeed no place at all – unless they were academic pursuits with a boat racing element, in which case they were given the total attention of a fiercely concentrated and considerable intelligence. But it wasn’t a formula for academic success in the orthodox sense, so after leaving school, college was set aside and he got a job in one of the main banks which, in those more easygoing times in the workplace, could be arranged to maximize serious sailing time.

It may have been “serious sailing time”, yet when Mark Mansfield is undertaking serious sailing with a crew who match his own enthusiasm, he is at his happiest, different indeed from the brooding and sometimes sharp-tongued presence which can manifest itself when he feels someone is not up to the job, or worse still, not giving of their best.

But then, his sailing career in his most formative years could only turn out someone like this. When he and his father moved on to the all-conquering db2 Luv Is, they set standards in inshore and offshore racing which few other boats could match, winning more trophies and major championships than he can quickly recall.

moonduster mansfield4“Men in White” – the new Moonduster’s crew in distinctive gear at her debut in 1981. Youngest crewmember was the 19-year-old Mark Mansfield. He was occasionally given the helm and found a special interest in the sails and rig

In that era, in 1981 he was also one of the “Men in White” aboard Denis Doyle’s new Crosshaven-built Frers 51 Moonduster, a total Crosshaven product as all the sails came from the McWilliam loft just up the road. By this stage, in addition to his skippering and helming skills, Mark Mansfield found himself increasingly absorbed by the special demands of rig-tuning and sail shape, and thus he found himself at age 19 – the youngest in the Moonduster crew  – with an interest which has developed over the years until now it is central to his sailing.

He didn’t totally move out of dinghies, as the early 1980s also saw him with an already well-used 505 which was certainly enough of a boat to be a really satisfying challenge for him. But even though he qualified for the 505 Worlds in Australia, it was a woefully under-funded campaign – a learning experience in itself – and it was little short of miraculous that they finished half way up an very competitive fleet.

Back home, he married Alethea in 1984, and they have two daughters, but sailing soon came centre stage again for Mark, and he was helm/skipper for Ireland in the 1985, 1987 and 1989 Admirals Cup, as well as hitting the big time international glamour with helming roles in the 1986 and 1988 Sardinia Cups.

For their own boat, after many successes with the db2 Luv Is, he and his father secured an X-Yachts Agency for Ireland, and this brought them the X-372 X-Cavator, which Mark raced with success in the 1988 Round Ireland race, and in which he perfected the famed “Mansfield controlled broach”.

X372 mansfield5An X-372 of the 1980s. With a sister-ship in the Round Ireland Race (though not in weather like this), Mark Mansfield perfected the art of the “controlled-flat-down-broach” to slither over mile-long salmon drift nets

In those distant days, parts of the Round Ireland Course were crossed by many almost-invisible salmon drift nets, some of them a mile long, and they were a special menace for fin and skeg boats.

Spending time finding your way round them could lose you the race, but in heavy spinnaker running approaching northwest Donegal – where the nets were thickest - Mark worked out a cunning plan. He went straight at the net flat out, and then in the last three or even less seconds, he threw X-Cavator into a spectacular broach which carried her sideways, right over on her ear with the rudder out of the water, clean over the net.

“If you saw this coming up” quips Mark, “it was good manners to to tell the crew below what was about to happen….”

The 1990s and the early 2000s saw his sailing take in extra areas while continuing with those in which he was already established.

The Olympic Star called, a challenging and often brutal boat to sail, and he was selected as Ireland’s Olympic Star Class helm four times – in 1992, 1996, 2000 and 2004.

mansfield star6“A mighty monster to sail”. The Olympic Star had a mainsail larger than many Half Tonners, but with only half the mainsheet tackle. Mark Mansfield and David O’Brien show that racing a Star is not for the faint-hearted

mansfield star7Mark Mansfield sailing the Olympic Star. “A monument to discomfort, an ergonomic disaster zone….” – yet people loved them, and still do

The shortage of resources to see the campaign right through to the end at peak performance told in the Olympic results, for although he managed a 3rd, 5th and 8th in the Star Worlds, and won the Star Europeans in 2004, an Olympic Medal eluded him.

In fact, during this period – when he also found time to be overall winner of the 1997 Spi Ouest Regatta in France - the boat you feel he was happiest with was the 1994 Crosshaven-developed 1720. These days, it’s difficult to remember the excitement this then-novel Sportstboat class developed at home and abroad. Entries for the World Championships – particularly if they were held at Crosshaven or Kinsale - pushed towards the hundred level, and Mark won the Euros in 1998, 1999, 2010 and 2011.

1720s mansfield8God be with the days…..in the late 1990s, the 1720 Sportsboat class could muster nearly a hundred boats at their Euros at Crosshaven or Kinsale Photo: Robert Bateman

mansfield hynes9Mark Mansfield and James Hynes about to celebrate after winning the All Ireland Sailing title. Photo: Robert Bateman

As the 21st Century progressed, honours descended on a sailor who was ever more diverse in his involvements afloat. Such was the demand to race other people’s boats that it has made sense to downsize his own personal boat to a handy 6 Metre RIB, but he was and is sailing more than ever, and became Ireland’s Sailor of the Year twice, and also twice won the All-Ireland Helmsman’s Championship.

1720 mansfield10Mark Mansfield revelling in the racing in the 1720s class in their prime. Photo: Robert Bateman

Although still sailing very much as an amateur, he brought the highest professional levels to so many campaigns that he can count no less than five overall wins in Cork Week, wins too at the Scottish Series and the British IRC Nationals with Conor Phelan’s 2006-built Ker 36 Jump Juice, and Commodore’s Cup success as well.

jump juice11Conor Phelan’s Ker 36 Jump Juice, on her way to winning the British IRC Championship, Mark Mansfield at stern in white cap Photo: RORC

So what’s it like to crew with such a powerhouse of sailing success? Sources with extensive experience of the Mono Mansfield phenomenon have put it pithily:

“He's a percentages sailor and conservative. He’s never a man to go out hard on either side of a first beat. Instead, he plays the fleet well to make sure he has leverage on the bulk of them. Consequently, he might not be first round a weather mark, but you can count on him in big fleets to be consistently in the top ten race after race.

Technically, very quick to set up rigs and understand sail shape and what makes a boat go quick.

A super steerer – he can really get the most out of a boat, sometimes by feel of the rudder alone.

A formidable animal when the breeze is up, but he also cuts it across the wind range

Doesn't suffer fools or crews ('trained monkeys') gladly.

Huge ability to concentrate for long periods, to a level which could be called hyper-focus".

Three years ago, Dublin Bay J/109 owner John Maybury asked Maurice “Prof” O’Connell of North Sails if he knew of someone who could sail with him and his crew to beef up their performance. The Prof suggested Mark Mansfield, and so began a remarkable relationship in which the Cork star was willing to travel the long road to Dublin many times in order to be given carte blanche to bring Joker 2 and her crew up to their full potential.

j109 joker13John Maybury’s J/109 Joker 2, which Mark Mansfield has assisted to conspicuous and consistent success Photo: Afloat.ie

A good boat was made into a great boat. Joker 2 with Mark Mansfield on board has been a stellar J/109 for those three years, with top honours in many areas. But after a year or so, Mark’s personal circumstances changed. After working for several years in a major mainline bank in Cork, and rising in the management ranks, twenty years ago he was offered the position of manager of the Cork office of one of the leading Dublin-based Building Societies.  

It was a demanding role, and being Cork, there was a strong personal element to it. Not everyone could have stayed the course, but Mark did. However, after twenty years of it, following on his time already spent in the mainline bank, he felt he had done his duty and more by the financial services sector. There was the option of taking early retirement at the age of 55, and he’d been developing interesting ideas about how he might spend the remainder of his working life. The opportunity of taking that early retirement at 55 was too good to resist. 

So at much more than twice the age at which most sailors go professional, Mark Mansfield quietly let it be known that he is now a fulltime sailor.

It proved to be a remarkably painless transition process. All the owners with whom he sailed knew that he already brought a level of commitment which was away ahead of many known professionals. Seen in the context of the overall cost of keeping a frontline boat in full contender condition, a fee for Mark Mansfield’s presence was only a small part of the overall budget, and extremely good value.

It was with John Maybury and Joker 2 that the new arrangement was first tested last year. In terms of the mood on board and success achieved, nothing fundamental had changed at an operational level. If anything, as John comments, while Mark was even more intense and concentrated during racing, he was more relaxed otherwise. After all, following a weekend’s racing in Dublin Bay, he was no longer facing the prospect of a long Sunday night drive home to Cork knowing that Monday would bring another morning of misery in the office.

So as far as sailing is concerned, Mark is as good and concentrated at it as ever, but is more relaxed when the day’s racing is done. For sure, he now has people to talk to who may be interested in using his services, but that old boyish enthusiasm has never left him, as Dave Cullen discovered when he set up the Euro Car Parks Challenge in the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2016 with the chartering of the Kelly family’s J/109 Storm.

He really did hit the jackpot, as he got both Mark Mansfield and Prof O’Connell in his crew. But at the halfway stage of the race, it looked as if Paul O’Higgins’ new JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI - likewise racing with a rockstar crew – had the class all stitched up.

But Euro Car Parks crew really did sail like pros. They simply never gave up. Any setbacks for Rockabill VI, and they were ready to pounce. And pounce they did, though it was murderous hanging on to their newly-acquired and slender handicap lead coming down the Irish Sea to become the only Irish class winner in the entire race.

Dave cullen Howth yacht club 0235Dave Cullen of Howth Yacht Club (pictured here on the tiller of Checkmate) sought Mark Mansfield for his 2016 Round Ireland campaign

Dave Cullen was so inspired by the vivid memories that, late on Thursday night this week, he leapt to the keyboard to give us the definitive picture of Mark Mansfield:

“Once I decided to embark on a Round Ireland Race campaign after an 18 year gap, and had identified the J/109 as a contender if it was to be a light airs race, next task was to assemble the best crew possible.

Without even thinking about it, my next phone call was to Mark “Mono” Mansfield. It was a natural decision having watched him conjure some fantastic results up on other J/109s, and watching him in action at the previous ICRAs in Kinsale, as he started before our class.

Immediately, Mark was really interested and having gotten ground clearance from the home office, all systems were go. Given the closeness of the ICRA Nationals at Howth and his busy schedule, his first sail with us on Euro Car Parks was out towards the start line in Wicklow.

Many will have heard Mark bellow his way around a race course from other boats, but quite the opposite was the case with us. Even putting us OCS at the start didn’t faze him, and we quickly settled into a pattern very comfortably as Mark rapidly displayed his huge skills in eking extra speed out of our J/109.

euro car parks14The big man on the wheel. Mark Mansfield on the helm of the J/109 Euro Car Parks (Dave Cullen) at the start of the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2016, in which she was the only Irish class winner. Photo Afloat.ie

Day Two turned out to be a horror show weather-wise, and Mark remained calm and positive as we pounded our way along the South Coast, taking miles out of our opposition. Mark’s imposing stature was at its most obvious when four of us jammed into the aft double cabin off watch, but nobody minded too much.

I have known Mark for many years and remember our first sail together on Infinity in Calves Week, when I was a little intimidated by his fearsome reputation. That soon dispersed when we had pre-race pints in Newman’s of Schull, and I realised what a fun guy lies behind that cool exterior.

What is most noticeable about Mark is that he is at his happiest when at sea. Our five days bashing around Ireland were what can be described as just good craic with Mark, where he mixed steely determination, great care for those less experienced, and a nice mix of fun and slagging.

It nearly feels as though Mark is uncomfortable ashore, as if he yearns to cast off again as soon as possible. Having raced against Mark in 1720s and Half Tonners, and then adding in our Round Ireland campaign (where we won Class, and were first Irish boat), there is no doubt in my mind that he is one of Ireland’s most talented sailors ever to emerge.

Leaving professional sailing to his later years is perhaps a waste of such a talent. But love him or leave him, you cannot but respect this huge talent on the race course”.

Even at 55, were Mark Mansfield to base himself on the Solent, he could make a fortune. As it is, his professional visits there recently have brought success. But Ireland is his place and his stage, and Cork is his home. So he has been looking at ways of adding an extra income dimension to his new role as a full-time sailor.

The changeover at UK Sailmakers Ireland in Crosshaven has provided an opportunity, and Mark is now an agent for UK Sailmakers, fascinated by the access to their hyper-computerised sailmaking facility in the Hong Kong (the largest in the world), while they still retain a complete frontline service in Crosshaven.

Mansfield Curran UKSails"Men in Black" – Mark Mansfield (left) and Graham Curran in the UK Sailmakers loft in Crosshaven

But while his first advice would be to use UK, he emphasises that he’s an agent, and not an employee. Thus his skills and status as a fulltime sailor, rigging specialist and rating expert can be accessed by boats kitted out by other sailmakers.

He is if anything keener than ever. And Monday morning is no longer something to be dreaded. This is the new Mark Mansfield. But if you’re thinking your boat’s performance could be much improved by having Mark Mansfield on board, you’d better get a move on. Paul O’Higgins has already signed him up on Rockabill VI for the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2018.

mark mansfield16Mark Mansfield seen recently at Howth in his new role. Having been racing the previous day in the Howth Autumn League, he has just given an hour’s interview for this blog, and is now about to go sailing with clients. Photo: W M Nixon

Mark Mansfield is contactable on telephone: +353 87 250 6838

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