There is a time and a season to all things, and in some years, that time comes earlier than others. Ireland has been getting away with it in remarkable style in recent weeks, putting through 2017’s Autumn sailing fixtures in between some bouts of very extreme weather. But this weekend, it looks as though we have to accept that you can’t beat the system all the time. The big winds of winter are here. The likelihood of sailing anywhere, and particularly in today’s Freshwater Keelboat Regatta on Lough Derg for Squibs, Dragons, SB20s and Flying Fifteens and the Autumn League final day at Howth Yacht Club, will probably have been discounted in the face of Storm Brian. W M Nixon looks south for sunshine and sailing.
If asked to rank the international sailing events of which come centre stage this weekend for their public interest, the lineup would be top place for the Volvo Ocean Race starting from Alicante tomorrow, the 608-mile Middle Sea Race which starts today from Valetta in Malta would be in second, third would be the 37th Annual Student Yachting Worlds among the Frioul Islands off Marseilles, which conclude tomorrow after five days of racing, while the biennial 690-mile Hong Kong to Vietnam Race which is currently finishing would come fourth.
The Volvo Ocean Race’s pre-eminence is inevitable. It’s a big razmatazz-filled long-running event which will carry us right through the winter and on into June 2018, when the seven contenders will have girdled the world by both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn. They will fetch up to finish at The Hague in The Netherlands, right in the economic and political heart of the new Europe which may by then be emerging as Brexit takes shape, and the Volvo Ocean Race will make its own statement as representing a premier European brand of global status with dynamic Chinese connections.
However, before the proper show gets in the road tomorrow after the In-Harbour race this week, there have been the usual high dramas of a big-money event, with a relatively new Event CEO taking an early departure after his longterm plans proved to be a little too ambitious for the parent company, while one of the seven skippers was replaced in the week before the race because of a dispute about a budget over-run.
As for Irish interest, we’ve learned through Afloat.ie of our people involved at many levels in both the overall administration and within the teams. But now that it’s down to the real thing, with the first leg getting under way tomorrow from Alicante in Spain round the Iberian peninsula and north to Lisbon in Portugal – a very interesting 1450 miles for racing – the focus is inevitably on the gladiators, the sailors on the Volvo 65 One-Designs, and especially on Ireland’s stars, Damian Foxall aboard Team Vestas and Annalise Murphy aboard Turn the Tide on Plastic.
Damian Foxall we know as part of world sailing’s essential structure. The boy from Derrynane has carved out an international role at the upper end of the really tough global events. We could spend the rest of this blog outlining his sailing achievements, and his increasing prominence in the environmental movement, but will content ourselves by saying that until Damian Foxall is somewhere in the lineup, any major ocean racing event lacks a certain credibility.
Annalise Murphy signs-up for Dee Caffari’s Turn the Tide on Plastic campaign? Well, that was sensational. The campaign is backed by a Portuguese-based foundation which at one stage owned the formerly-Irish Volvo Racer Green Dragon as the organisation developed its profile. But that became information which was only by-the-way as the full implication was realized of the new direction which had been taken in the life-path of Ireland’s winner of the Silver Medal in the 2016 Sailing Olympiad.
Foiling Moth World Champion in the mega-fleet Moth Regatta in Lake Garda. And then when the big signing for Turn the Tide on Plastics was confirmed, we’d clearly moved on from a tunnel-vision Olympian to an all-rounder whose capacity as a very highly-trained athlete is uniquely allied with true sailing talent.Those who devote themselves to the Olympic route to the exclusion of everything else inevitably seem a bit one-dimensional. But early in the season of 2017, Annalise, had already emphasised an interesting extra dimension by becoming the Women’s International
It’s something which will certainly be tested to extremes in the weeks and months ahead, but for now the Volvo Ocean Race has seen much the most consistent build-up put in by the Spanish boat Mapfre, skippered by Xabi Fernandez. His CV includes an Olympic Gold Medal in the 49er and America’s Cup campaigns. While the Mapfre team were fourth in the previous Volvo, they showed real promise, and in 2017 they’ve been fastest out of the box, winning the very first encounter, their decidedly breezy race round the Isle of Wight in the midst of Cowes Week at the beginning of August.
Their longtime lead in the Fastnet Race was snatched away at the last moment, but they’ve always been in the frame, and in this week’s In Harbour race – obligingly sponsored by their parent firm – it was Mapfre which took the bullet.
So we go into tomorrow’s Leg 1 with Mapfre already the boat to beat. But with a course which includes all the vagaries of the western Mediterranean, all the problems of the Straits of Gibraltar, and the decidedly intriguing passage from the Straits to Lisbon, we’re going to know a lot more about the Volvo Seven within a few days.
Meanwhile, in the almost ludicrously picturesque Grand Harbour in Valetta, tension is humming in the buildup to the start at 11:00 hrs CEST of the 39th Rolex Middle Sea Race this morning, at 608 miles one of the world’s 600-plus offshore classics. And it’s as tricky a course as you’ll find in many year’s racing, going from Malta anti-clockwise round various islands of which Sicily is the largest, and then back to Valetta.
Along the way you’ve to deal with obstacles such as the Straits of Messina while becoming accustomed to seeing active volcanoes as part of the view. And as for the winds, they can be all over the place, and sometimes astonishingly savage.
Irish Sea connections go all the way back to the first race of 1968, when Solly Parker, who based his hefty Sparkman & Stephens 40ft sloop Deb in Holyhead, was persuaded by offshore racing stalwarts such as Dickie Richardson and Alan Stead that this new race was a must-do - Deb should be in it for the honour of the Irish Sea.
The logistics of getting her there and back scarcely bear thinking about, and her showing was only very middling. For although Deb could maintain a very good average speed in steady conditions – she is now Tom & Vicky Jackson’s Sunstone, arguably the most famous wooden cruising yacht in the word – the Middle Sea Race tends to favour boats which can accelerate quickly, and attain colossal speeds when conditions are right.
Since the Great Deb Expedition, the Rolex Middle Sea Race has always been of interest to Irish and Irish Sea sailors, and we’re on a roll with it these days, as Ian Moore navigated the 2016 overall winner, the Cookson 50 Mascalzone Latino, while in 2015 father-and-son crew Dermot and Paddy Cronin from Malahide won the two-handed division with their First 40.7 Encore, which was simply a sensational performance - there’s no other word for it.
The 110-strong fleet this year is as usual very eclectic, and exceptionally international with entries from Australia, New Zealand, the US, Chile, Lithuania and just about everywhere else you care to name, including countries which the rest of the world might think of as being involved in low key wars with each other, such as Russia and the Ukraine.
But then when you remember that ISORA was never more active than when the Troubles were at their height in the 1970s, then maybe offshore racing’s role in preserving civilised values in times of turmoil is something deserving of deeper examination. For although the competition may be fierce, there’s no greater symbol of peace than a racing yacht going about her harmless business.
With such a fleet, prediction is a real gamble, particularly as it’s expected to be light winds at first, with a fresher nor’wester spreading in on Monday. That looks to favour smaller craft, but as suggested, this is a race which is good for boats which accelerate rapidly and are capable of exceptional speeds, so the fact that George David’s Round Ireland Record-holding Rambler 88 is on the starting blocks is worthy of note.
2016 champion Mascalzone Latino is away doing the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race with Ian Moore as navigator in the buildup to the Sydney-Hobart 2017 in December, and at time of writing she was leading IRC overall, so back in Malta it may well be that our best hope is in the two-handed division, where the hugely-experienced and successful Brian Flahive of Wicklow has teamed up with Sean Arrigo to race the J/122 Otra Vez. She’s a boat regularly in the frame in the Middle Sea race, and is the two-handed favourite.
In terms of glamour attention, the focus is on the IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss, with Alex Thomson and Nin O’Leary of Cork co-skippering. Mixed messages have been circulating about her crewing arrangements, and the best word we have is she’ll be doing it with four, as the two boyos will be joined by Will Jackson and Jack Trigger. There’ll be just those two extra, as there simply isn’t room for any more in that very focused little cockpit.
In a vid interview with The Times of Malta earlier this week, you gained the impression that Alex was doing the Middle Sea Race single-handed, but this more recent posting tells us Nin is definitely there:
Getting the very purpose-designed Vendee Globe racer Hugo Boss out of the narrow waters of Grand Harbour is going to be a bit of a challenge in itself. And as for competing in the quirky and often restricting Middle Sea Race in a vehicle which is at her magnificent best tearing along off the wind in the wide open spaces of the Great Southern Ocean, well, under any Horses for Courses Protocol, the Middle Sea Race might well come under Cruelty to Animals regulations……..
But we’ll be delighted to be proven very wrong. In another area of the fleet entirely, we have the reliable solidity of Barry Hurley, doing his fourteenth Middle Sea Race, and building on past successes by staying with the surprisingly quick “performance cruiser” Xp44 Xp-Act, owned by Joseff Schultels who co-skippers with Timmy Camilleri. They’ve lined up formidable talent with a strong Irish flavour, as it includes Barry Hurley (originally of Cobh) and Shane Diviney (Howth) as well as the exceptional international talent of Jochem Visser of Fastnet 2007 fame, and there’s a link to Round Irelands too, as Carlo Vroon of Tonnerre is on Xp-Act’s strength, while the former Round Ireland star, the Ker 46 Tonnerre de Breskens, is in this race, now known as Tonnere de Glen, and French-owned.
Also French-owned, but of special interest to Irish offshore aficionados, is the new Teasing Machine III for the ever-enthusiastic Eric de Turckheim of La Rochelle. A Nivelt-Muratet 54, she was launched from builders King Marine in Spain on July 6th, but seemingly there just wasn’t the time to get her completely race-ready for the Fastnet in August, so this morning will see her debut on the big stage.
As for that remarkable wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing, the Xp44, we’ve additional interest here as ISORA’s Andrew Hall has chartered another of them, X-Prime. Indeed, charter is a strong theme this year, as Conor Doyle of Kinsale is into the fray with a Kinsale YC crew and the chartered DK 46 Hydra, a Mark Mills design of 2004 vintage.
For Irish crews chartering, it’s a very accessible event just when you need a dose of sunshine to face the winter. But the Middle Sea Race has an almost mythical appeal which draws them in from all round the world, with Australia represented by Ludde Ingvall’s extraordinary hyper-skinny maxi CQS, which is so narrow that she has to carry her shrouds on a modern version of the channels required by the old “plank-on-edge” gaff cutters. In fact, CQS looks for all the world like one hull of a catamaran with an enormous keel under it, and for the life of me I just can’t see the concept working.
More conservative yet capable of real speed at the top of the fleet is the 100ft Leopard, entered by Pascal Oddo of France, whose main purpose will be to finish ahead of Rambler. Rambler in turn may find herself nibbled at by some Maxi 72s, notably Dieter Schon’s Momo from Germany and George Sakellaris’s Proteus from the US.
With Cookson 50s still giving everyone a hard time, the presence of two of them will always have to be considered, and one of them – Endlessgame (Pietro Moschini) – has already put up a marker by winning the coastal race on Wednesday against 33 other boats.
As for the far travellers, New Zealand’s representative is the sporty 2012-built Elliott 35 Crusader, which looks like a lot of fun and is being skippered by Brett Elliott for owner Anthony Leigh. The Chilean entry Anita (Nicola Ibanez Scott) is a J/122 whose home club is listed as Puerto Williams YC. Puerto Williams is often the final port of call before departing for Antarctica. It’s not often you see an RORC entry list with PWYC named as home club, so we’ll keep a specially benign eye on Anita’s progress.
But as to the overall winner, it’s all wonderfully open. Maybe as much as a quarter of the fleet are in with a good chance. Now that really is sport.
Moving on to Item 3 on our Agenda of Interest, the islands of he Frioul Archipelago off Marseilles where the Student Yachting Worlds are entering their finals stages are about as different in atmosphere as possible from Puerto Williams. But sailing is sailing the world over.
And after all, it was in the Student Yachting Worlds of 2008 that one Nicholas O’Leary of Cork Institute of Technology won this championship overall by 0.9 points and had his first taste of international fame. So maybe the current UCD team of all the talents skippered by Jack Higgins can continue their progress up the leaderboard and provide us all with good news tomorrow.
Finally, it looks as though Ian Moore and Mascalzone Latino have it in the bag for the IRC overall win in the Hong Kong to Vietnam Race. So what’s the big deal in a race with only 13 boats, even if it does entitle ML’s crew to go in the Sydney-Hobart? Well the fact that an offshore race is finishing in a country that seemed a hopelessly war-torn zone no so very long ago is important. But equally, China – Napoleon’s “sleeping giant” – is very much awake. And sailing, like everything else, will be hearing a lot more about China.