The National Yacht Club of Dun Laoghaire – founded in 1870 – has long been one of Ireland’s leading sailing clubs in sporting competition inshore and offshore, while at the same time retaining a friendly, hospitable and “can-do” attitude to other sailors, and to the broader community with which it interacts ashore writes W M Nixon.
Yet even by its own high standards, the Club is currently on a wave of success, building on member Annalise Murphy’s Olympic Silver Medal of 2016 such that in 2017, under the engaging leadership of Commodore Ronan Beirne, the National has progressed through a golden year.
There is every indication that this encouraging state of affairs is going to continue through and beyond the NYC’s 150th Anniversary – its Sesquicentennial – in 2020, with the Flying Fifteen Worlds lined up for 2019. This is very much in line with the ethos of the “Sailing Club of the Year” contest, with the title being held by the winning club for the year following the one in which success was achieved, as the adjudicators like to feel that the year in consideration at the winning club is part of a steady and continuous progress, rather than a flash in the pan.
Mitsubishi Motors are Irish sailing’s most committed longterm sponsors, as they have supported the “Sailing Club of the Year” accolade for 32 years. This unique and informal competition was first inaugurated in 1979 and initially only covered Leinster, but after Mitsubishi Motors had become the enthusiastic sponsors in 1986, it went nationwide and the title of “Irish Sailing Club of the Year” became one of real prestige, based on a rigorous set of standards.
An underlying purpose of the award is to highlight and honour the voluntary effort which goes into creating and maintaining the unrivalled quality of Ireland's yacht and sailing clubs, and the dedication of their members. In making their assessment, the adjudicators take many factors into consideration. In addition to the obvious one of sailing success at local, national and international levels, considerable attention is also paid to the satisfaction which members in every branch of sailing and boating feel with the way their club is run, and how effectively it meets their specific needs, while also encouraging sailing development and training.
The effort and encouragement put into junior training is naturally a prime consideration, but the adjudicators also seek clear evidence of introducing newcomers from all age groups to sailing, and encouraging them to share the friendly ambience that a healthy club provides.
The successful staging of events, whether local, national or international, is also a factor in making the assessment. The importance of a dynamic and fruitful interaction with the local community is emphasised, and also with the relevant governmental and sporting bodies, both at local and national level.
The adjudicators expect to find a genuine sense of continuity in club life and administration. Over the years, the assessment system has been continually refined in order to be able to make realistic comparisons between clubs of varying types and size. With the competition's expansion in 1993 to include class associations and specialist national watersports bodies, the "Sailing Club of the Year" competition continues to keep pace with developing trends, while at the same time reflecting the fact that Ireland's leading sailing clubs are themselves national and global pace-setters.
While Ireland’s best-known clubs have featured prominently over the years in the winners list, with the Royal Cork Yacht Club at Crosshaven heading the leaderboard with five wins, the Mitsubishi Motors Awards Ceremony has seen the famous ship’s wheel trophy being handed over at convivial gatherings in smaller ogranisations such as Poolbeg Yacht & Boat Club in the heart of Dublin, Lough Ree YC on the Shannon, and Wicklow Sailing Club on the East Coast, while “homeless” organisations such as the Shannon One Design Association, the Irish Cruising Club, and the Irish Cruiser Racing Association have also had their Year of Honour.
This year’s winner has been the “Mitsubishi Motors Sailing Club of the Year” four times previously, the most recent being six years ago in 2012. Now, with five wins, they are second only to the Royal Cork on the leaderboard.
The National YC’s pre-eminence during 2017 resulted from a remarkable combination of events and anniversaries which resulted in the club going through the year on top of its game. It was the Golden Jubilee of its Junior Training Programme, which dated back to 1967 when a key figure was Carmel Winkelmann, co-ordinating the efforts of parents encouraged by Olympian Johnny Hooper, with the late Paddy Kirwan playing a leading role to create Ireland’s first fleet of Optimist sailing dinghies.
That particular Golden Jubilee was properly celebrated at various events at the Club in May 2017, with Carmel Winkelmann still much involved. And meanwhile the Junior Programme itself was more active than ever during the 2017 season, with a record number of participants guided by the Junior Captain role shared by Michelle Halpenny and Fiona Staunton.
In this strongly family-oriented club, having junior sailing as a central pillar of activity has long been the way of things. Though facilities may have been basic back in 1967, the developments since then have somehow managed to retain the character of the NYC’s attractive clubhouse while greatly expanding its boat-use space, and enhancing the utilisation of every corner of the building itself. Yet at the same time, the club complex is kept at a manageable and well-maintained size which makes the entire place attractively busy.
This steady development of amenities meant, for instance, that many years ago when keen NYC juniors wanted to move into trapeze-using 420 dinghies, the club could lead the way and encouraged others to join them. This drew in people like Cathy MacAleavey – who was from a non-sailing background – and another promising young sailor, Jack Roy from Greystones. His home club was promoting a class of Enterprises, but Jack was adventurous and inclined to take the 420 route, and the National YC welcomed him on board.
Down the years, this outward-looking and welcoming approach has greatly enriched a membership talent already strong in keen juniors from families long associated with the club, and through 2017 we saw many successful results of this attitude.
In due course, in addition to a successful sailing career of her own, Cathy MacAleavey and husband Con Murphy had not only established a Round Ireland sailing Record in 1993 which stood for very many years, but they’ve since gone on to make a major impact in many other areas of sailing, while their daughter Annalise Murphy is Ireland’s leading sailing figure today, an Olympic Silver Medallist who is currently contesting the Volvo Ocean Race.
Jack Roy meanwhile was also to become totally immersed in the National YC sailing scene, going on from 420s to several seasons campaigning a Flying Fifteen. But he also proved to have the ideal skills and enthusiasm to become a leading Race Officer, and in 2017 that administrative talent saw him becoming the President of Irish Sailing, while his sailing affiliations are now spread over several clubs.
This input into sailing organisations of national and international significance is exceptionally high in the Natonal YC membership. The current Commodore of Dublin Bay SC - arguably the world’s busiest local yacht racing organisation - is former National YC Commodore Chris Moore, a J/109 owner-skipper, while the longterm DBSC Honorary Secretary Donal O’Sullivan is likewise an NYC stalwart.
In recent years, the remarkable revival of the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association has been - from the Irish side - almost entirely a National YC-guided phenomenon, quietly but very persuasively headed by former NYC Commodore Peter Ryan. Somehow, he finds the time not only to be Chairman and general organiser of ISORA, but is almost invariably a keen participant himself, and when he’s not actually on the winning boat, he’ll be aboard one in close competiton.
This special link between the NYC and ISORA was very effectively demonstrated back in November, with the club hosting the ISORA Annual Dinner and Prize Giving. When the numbers wishing to attend from both sides of the Irish Sea soared above the 200 mark, the club’s renowned professional hospitality staff – manager Tim O’Brien and chef Cormac Healy – rose spectacularly to the challenge, extending the dining room onto the veranda and feeding 234 hearty matelots – all of whom had cleaned up a treat – to a splendid meal, the Guest of Honour being Royal Ocean Racing Club Commodore and 2017 Champion Michael Boyd, who himself started his sailing at the National, as his father was a noted Dublin Bay 21 owner-skipper.
This sense of history linked through the present is part of the NYC story. An awareness of it was much in evidence at a small but significant meeting in the National YC almost exactly a year ago, when ways and means were being explored of making Classic and Traditional boats a central element in the up-coming Dun Laoghaire Regatta 2017, in which the golden oldies would be given their place of respect and proper participation in order to mark the Bicentenary of Dun Laoghaire Harbour.
In the friendly atmosphere of a mid-winter bar lunch in the National YC, all things seems possible when discussed by Old Gaffers National President Sean Walsh and Dublin Bay OGA President Dennis Aylmer, together with Regatta Racing Director Con Murphy, and classic boat enthusiasts Cathy MacAleavey of the Water Wags and Shannon One Designs and Ian Malcolm of the Howth 17s and Water Wags.
The upshot of it all was that, for the regatta in July, a long bowsprit-friendly pontoon was moored off the National for the exclusive use of Classics and Traditionals. The word had meanwhile been spread among owners and crews of vintage craft from near and far, and the vintage fleet became the highlight of the most successful Dun Laoghaire regatta ever. The winner of the very special Kingstown Cup was the 1897-built 37ft Myfanwy from Wales, one of whose crew, Max Mason, was the furthest-travelled to be at the regatta – he’d come home from Australia to join his father Rob and shipmates on the supreme classic yacht.
The way in which the National YC hosted the shoreside needs of these special visitors made the Classics aspect such a success that although it was intended as a one-off to mark the Bicentenary, the word is that it will be repeated in future biennial Dun Laoghaire Regattas. Yet in the midst of all this hosting of events and visitors, the club continues to send forth sailors who achieve major prizes, and racing success was the way with the NYC membership right to the end of the year, with Olympic contender Finn Lynch winning silver in the Lasers in the Olympic Classes Championship in the Canaries in mid-December.
But such high-profile success is only the tip of an iceberg of sailing at every level for the club’s membership, which saw a net increase of upwards of 80 members during the year, with a round total of 1,100 members when all sections are included. Family membership is particularly strong, and it’s interesting that either spouse can be the nominated holder of the position. But then, gender equality has long been the National’s strong suit – the club’s first woman Commodore was Ida Kiernan, back in 2002-2005.
In the day-to-day running of the club, the ability to recognize the crucial stage where professional ability has to support and best utilise voluntary enthusiasm is one of the reasons for the National’s current success, and on the waterfront the club has a full-time sailing manager, Olivier Prouveur, who learned his skills in France and has deployed them since 2011 to back up the enormous NYC voluntary input, with Rear Commodore Susan Spain heading the team which encourages adult newcomers – they’ve a flotilla of club-owned Wayfarers to learn with, and 2017 saw 21 of these adult beginners receive their full competency certificates.
The sailing world to which they’re being introduced is all-encompassing, as Susan is the daughter of Cormac McHenry, the veteran of a solo Transatlantic voyage who is a former Commodore Irish Cruising Club, and currently a Trustee of the NYC. Long distance cruising seems to be something of a club administrators tradition – Honorary Treasurer Conor O’Regan successfully completed a three year round the world voyage with his wife Henrietta in their Rival 38 Panima before returning to the everyday life of sailing from Dublin Bay.
Another NYC couple currently setting the cruising pace are Michael and Anne Madsden with their Starlight 35 Gabelle, who have just been awarded the ICC’s Rockabill Trophy for 2017 in recognition of their seamanship and navigation in cruising to Svalbard, which everyone used to know as Spitzbergen, but whichever way you know it, it’s a very long way north and a world away from the considerable comforts of the National YC.
Perhaps it’s to create a contrast with those comforts that the club is so enthusiastic about offshore racing, because in addition to sending forth round Ireland winners such as Eamon Crosbie and also providing much of the impetus behind the ISORA revival, they also run the biennial Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race, which dates from 1993, the brainchild of Peter Cullen and the late Martin Crotty, and now run by Adam Winkelmann.
The sprint to Dingle attracted a record fleet in 2017, but although the NYC’s Shanahan family with their J/109 Ruth dominated it in 2015, in 2017 it was Paul O’Higgins of the RIYC with the JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI who took the honours.
However, the NYC has such a record of success among its members that they know the Dingle trophy will return to them in due course. As it is, two of the club’s most noted offshore performers during 2017 were Tom Dolan, who at sixth overall in a class of 54 boats was the best-placed Irish entrant ever in the Mini-Transat, and 17-year-old Cadet Member Lorcan Tighe. Lorcan may be best known for his links to the INSS’s J/109 Jedi which won Class 3B and the Roger Justice Trophy in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017, but he started his J/109 experience with the NYC’s Paul Barrington and partners in the J/109 Jalapeno, something which trained him towards his first Round Ireland Race in 2016, aged just 16.
Meanwhile, with a Commodore whose experience ranges from cruising round Ireland and out to St Kilda with a Ruffian 23, campaigning for years with a vintage Mermaid, and currently taking things at the sharp end in the cut and thrust of Flying Fifteen racing where Dave Gorman and Alan Green are pace-setters, Ronan Beirne is someone whose entire life seems to have been a preparation for heading the National Yacht Club with skill and style.
In this he is very well supported by Vice Commodore Michael McCarthy, another enthusiast steeped in the lore of the club, and by Honorary Secretary Peter Sherry and Honorary Sailing Secretary Peter Murphy, together with the large number of boathouse volunteers with the Meldon family – father Ian, son Killian – at the heart of multiple boat-handling activities in which the commodore himself is likely to be personally involved.
This enthusiasm to get people participating so impressed the powers-that-be that in the most recent round of Sports Capital Grants, the National YC was in receipt of one of the biggest grants to any sailing club, €142,375 to further develop the club’s programme for getting women and teenagers even more involved in sailing.
It all sounds like the functioning of a well-organised machine, but Ronan Beirne realised that the workings of the club may not be so well understood by ordinary members as it is by those directly involved at the coal-face. So a sort of weekly “Members’ Clinic” has been established, whereby any member with an enquiry, complaint or whatever will know that on a Saturday morning between 11am and noon in the clubhouse, there’ll be a member of the General Committee available to take note and answer questions on whatever concerns them.
It may seem a small thing, a matter of administrative detail. But when you think of it, it’s the small thoughtful details which combine to make for a club which work for its members, and they in turn will work devotedly for a club which has made itself such a pleasant place to be that it has a non-sailing House Membership of upwards of 60 locals who reckon that if you want to enjoy the true flavour of classic Dun Laoghaire at comfort with itself, then the National Yacht Club is the place to be.
And all that combined with success at sea makes the National Yacht Club a very worthy Mitsubishi Motors Sailing Club of the Year 2018.