We’re living longer than ever. But as the years advance, are most of us really living, really alive? Or are we merely existing, and allowing our diminishing physical abilities and shrinking mental interests to be dictated by out-of-date concepts about expected lifespans and the appropriate behaviour for each age group? W M Nixon snuffles around a tricky topic.
Sean Craig of Dun Laoghaire, Helmsman Champion 1993, a successful veteran of several classes new and old, and now a notably-fit 50-something whose main international sailing outlet is the Laser Masters, has been adding extra impetus to the age-and-sailing conversation.
It was our story about the great Gordon Ingate winning the 2018 Australian Dragon Championship at the fine age of 92 which got this discussion going. It has to be confessed that particular story was put together in the first place because I’d been on the lookout for some good reason to re-use one of my favourite photos, of Ingate’s handsome Robert Clark-designed Caprice of Huon cutting through Cowes Roads in magic style, when he won everything of significance in Cowes Week 1965, and the RORC Channel Race overall as well.
It’s a wonderful photo – there’s an entire universe, a complete era, all in that one image if you take the time to examine it in detail. But then, in pinged an email from Don Street in Glandore about how he’s still racing Dragons at the age of 87, and Ingate’s success at 92 was confirmation that the Glandore Dragons can expect to be racing Don and his very veteran Gypsy for at least another five years yet, with no quarter given or expected.
This got a discussion going in various social media circles around the Glandore Dragons, and made everyone realize yet again that chronological age is a very blunt instrument, and of doubtful value in assessing how old a person actually is. But although we were living on the mantra of “Sailing - A Sport for Life” for some time, it was a slogan of mixed value when set against the fact that nowadays the trendy way for some people to live by is to have “Sailing: A Sport for This Weekend” on one occasion, and then the following weekend it might be hill-walking.
For such people, “A Sport for Life” has something of the prison sentence about it. But for those of us for whom the entire paraphernalia of sailing - and particularly the boats themselves – is what it’s all about, it’s difficult to relate to the hyper-casual approach, for in reality for us, boats and sailing are not seen as providing a sport for life – rather, they’re a way of life which we adjust with the passing years.
Either way, the fact that they give us an absorbing interest keeps the years at bay. Yet events of the past year have thrown our generally held notions about age and sailing into some further confusion, even though it’s quite some time since America’s Cup legend Dennis Conner opined that 45 is the prime age for a world-class helmsman. That led some top youth-oriented field athletes to deride the very idea that sailing was a sport at all – on the contrary, said they, it should be seen as a vehicle and technical activity.
But within sailing, we in turn also have our age prejudices at the lower end of the spectrum. After the storm-hammered Sydney-Hobart Race of 1998 saw the loss of five lives, new regulations were introduced, and one of them was that there was to be a lower age limit of 18 for participation. Old salts would have reckoned that’s about right. When all’s said and done, they argued, you need maturity and the experience and stamina it provides to be a useful crew-member on a fully competitive offshore racer, and there are the legal obligations for minors to be considered too.
Yet here in Europe we don’t seem to be so strict. After all, the 16-year-old New Zealand-born Dutch girl, Laura Dekker, completed a solo round the world voyage in her 38ft ketch Guppy in 2012, and she was 14 when she started in 2010. It may well be that in sailing along the coastlines of some countries, she was contravening their regulations about both minimum age and sailing single-handed, but she did it so quickly that she’d gone beyond the horizon before the authorities could do anything effective to stop her, though they’d tried. And as for a minimum age for events like the Fastnet, I’ve a feeling there may have been competitors as young as 12 completing the race as crew.
Here in Ireland we have our own offshore wunderkind in Lorcan Tighe of Dun Laoghaire. He still isn’t old enough to race the Sydney-Hobart, but at 16 he did the Volvo Round Ireland of 2016 with the Irish National Sailing School’s Reflex 38 Lynx, and not as a trainee - he was bow-man - while in 2017 he did the Rolex Fastnet Race in the INSS’s class-winning J/109 Jedi as a senior crewman/instructor, aged just 17.
On Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard, the junior pace offshore has been set by schoolboy Conor Dillon of Foynes Yacht Club, racing several campaigns with his father Derek on their Dehler 34 The Big Deal. They won the two-handed division in the 2014 Round Ireland Race, and their scorecard also includes the Fastnet and the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Races. It’s remarkable youthful experience which has been put to further good use with Conor becoming a leading instructor in the sailing academy at Foynes.
Old-fashioned notions about the need for the experience of the years were further knocked on the head in the Mini-Transat in November. The Mini-Transat does have some quite senior sailors, though at 30 years our own Tom Dolan, who finished 6th overall, was maybe slightly above average age. But all notions of the ideal age for the Mini-Transat – one of the toughest events of all – were blown out the window when it was won, and won well, by Erwan Le Draoulec, aged just 20.
Some of us will find that a bit spooky. After all, here he is, just 20, and already he’s won the Mini-Transat – what on earth does he do next? In fact, the lad himself has made one ambition clear – he wants to sail the Atlantic again, but this time “properly”, taking time to enjoy the voyage and savour the experience, rather than tear across it like a demented bat out of hell, pushing a tiny and permanently wet boat to the absolute limits.
But when a 20-year-old expresses a hope like that, it reminds us of just how very alive sailing makes us feel, and reinforces the notion that if only more young people could find an interest in boats and sailing, or something comparable, then the world would be a better place. So it’s good news that the Sail Training Ireland programme in 2017 attracted numbers which harked back to the Asgard II heydays, and that in turn is encouraging to those promoting sailing as an interest for young people throughout Ireland.
But why should it just be young people? Partly it’s because the Powers-that-Be can easily identify the cohort they’re aiming for. It simplifies things, the same way as - in the final analysis - the only way that sailing can really impinge on the national consciousness is when it’s an Olympic sport.
Yet those who are involved along the waterfront and afloat in bringing sailing to young people know that there are significant numbers of people of more mature years who would dearly like to be introduced to sailing if they could only be encouraged into it in the right way.
One who is well aware of this is Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick. When they were unveiling their new flotilla of Limerick-built CityOne sailing dinghies designed by the late Theo Rye a couple of years ago, as the CityOnes and the re-created gandelows made their way out onto the Shannon in the heart of the city, it was clear that some of these young sailors were no longer in the first flush of youth.
The response to a comment about this was classic Gary MacMahon: “You have to understand that Sailing is a Sport for the Youth of All Ages. That’s all there is to it”.
This pithy reply came to mind when Sean Craig sent his eloquent follow-up to the Gordon Ingate story, as Sean – with that 1993 Helmsmans Championship and other titles under his belt - is now of sufficient years to qualify for the Laser Masters, and this has given him an entirely new perspective on the limiting effects of age, or rather the lack of them if you have a positive attitude.
After all, most of us remember that when the great Denis Doyle did his last Fastnet Race with Moonduster at the age of 81 in 2001, he was asked why he kept going, and he responded with a twinkle that he couldn’t think of anything else to be doing when August in an odd-numbered year came round. He was gone from among us within months, but he left inspiring memories.
As too did the legendary Norman Wilkinson, who simply kept on successfully racing his veteran Howth 17s until, shortly before his death, he raced his last one at the age of 82 in 1998. And he very appropriately won, for it was the Class’s Centenary Race.
Equally, Sean Craig has been inspired and sometimes astonished by the ages of some of the Laser Masters, and he has fired in some eloquently-expressed and heartfelt thoughts which capture a viewpoint so well it had us having a friendly discussion on the possibilities of changing places for a month. I’d be the high-powered bond trader, Sean would become the harassed hack…….
We can be reasonably sure that one half of that job exchange would quickly wreck the global economy. But as for communications in Irish sailing, they’d run along just fine, as these thoughts from Sean Craig reveal:
“The catalyst was your enjoyable piece about Gordon Ingate. I’ve always been inspired by guys like this who stay so competitive into their later years. The great Alf Delaney was something of a hero of mine down at the Royal St George YC, all the more so because he was still dinghy sailing so late in life. Thankfully it’s more of a trend generally now, in Ireland as well as globally. One thinks of Curly Morris, still ultra-competitive in his GP 14 well into his 70s, with two plastic hips and one plastic knee, or is it the other way round? And in Dun Laoghaire, Louis Smyth can still be seen blitzing around Dublin Bay in his Fireball, now into his 80s. Amazing!
And amazing too is Ireland’s own Denis O’Sullivan of Monkstown Bay SC, and also sometimes Caribbean based, well into his 80s and still blasting away with the Laser Masters. I’m aware of this for I now sail Lasers. I’m a very late convert to Single-handers and feel like I’m learning out all over again. But it’s great fun, great exercise and, crucially, big fleets whether you’re club racing, doing an Irish circuit event, or competing overseas.
I kind of knew the Laser was bit of a cult internationally, hardly surprising, given the numbers. My new boat this year is Sail Number 213,000 +. But I had no idea just how old some Laser racers are in some countries. For example, I competed at my first Laser Master Worlds in Split last September. It was a huge fleet at 350 boats but I would like to refer you to the results for “Radial Great Grand Master & 75+”, in this results link (scroll down) ; here
There you will see that no less than SEVENTEEN of the sailors in the 65 year old plus category were in fact over 75. To see these guys competing, socializing and handling such a physical boat as the Laser is, to me at least, very inspiring. Here’s an example of one of these guys, Peter Seidenberg, with a “Sailing World” profile here
Perhaps you’ve heard about Peter, one of the finest examples of what the International Laser Class Association has decided to call “Legends” rather than Over 75 or 75-85, like the other Masters ten year brackets. There’s another guy I met in Croatia, in his late 60s, from the US who has his own website devoted to all things Laser Masters http://www.impropercourse.com/ This is Doug Peckover, another fabulous sailor but who only has sight in one eye (effectively) and he religiously writes up each Master Worlds he attends, for the website. You can read “About us” and “Worlds Diaries” for the last 21 World Championships.
Of course the rest of the story here is that Ireland hosts the 2018 Laser Master World Championships in Dun Laoghaire in September. We are expecting up to 400 boats (split evenly between Full Rigs and Radials) from 50 countries. I am open to correction, but I wonder is this the largest One-Design regatta ever held in Ireland, including even the largest gatherings of Optimists?
A personal hobby-horse of mine is that we should embrace and encourage these “silver racers”. Yet many simply take the glass half empty approach of harping on about lack of younger sailors. Of course that’s true, but that’s another debate. What we can see is, just as the MAMILs (Middle Aged Men In Lycra) are taking to their road bikes in their thousands, certain Irish dinghy classes are featuring great numbers in their 40s, 50s and 60s like never before.
I remember giving up dinghies 20 years ago to proceed through J/24s, Flying Fifteens and SB20s because I was told (and was persuaded erroneously) that at 30, I was too old for dinghies……. The times they are a-changing.”