To say that Dun Laoghaire Harbour is facing a period of administrative flux is an under-statement. This exceptionally complete and totally artificial haven, for so long such an integral part of Dublin Bay that people perceive it as a natural feature of the coastline, finds itself today in the throes of functional change writes W M Nixon.
It is moving on at last from being a commercial working ferry port, with a very strong recreational side, to a new identity as a leisure facility providing for multiple activities afloat and ashore. This arguably unique and undoubtedly massive granite structure is finally beginning the keenly-anticipated process of officially becoming a public amenity and a marine sport and general recreational area, with all the myriad challenges of finance, user priorities, accessibility, responsibility and day-to-day running and maintenance requiring a fresh way of thinking.
In the midst of this radical change, one noted Dun Laoghaire commercial recreational business – an operation which in its earlier days had something of a maverick reputation - is increasingly seen as a pillar of the new arrangements which will have to be developed to secure the Harbour’s future.
The Irish National Sailing School is celebrating forty years of existence in 2018. Yet it still seems to operate with that special energy of the new game-changers who are determined that their vision of a properly developed sailing future for Dun Laoghaire – and for Dublin Bay and Ireland too – is seen as one of the right ways to go.
So there’s a certain surprise in realising that founder Alistair Rumball has been involved in running the school for all of those forty years - and he was in other marine teaching enterprises even before that. And it speaks volumes for the dynamics of the Rumball family that he has had the full-hearted and often actively involved support of his wife Muriel, who in shore life also found the time to be a primary school teacher who went on to be a principal.
The underlying strength of the family is underlined by the fact their son Kenneth (30), is now fully in charge of the process of taking the INSS into the new era, developing its products and widening the already extensive scope of its operations as the largest sailing school in Ireland, and probably Britain too.
Yet Kenneth is by no means just an inheriting successor. He may have been working full-time with the school for eight years with the priceless talent of being a good teacher, but he is very much his own man, and is a leading figure in sailing far beyond the routine boundaries of a basic sailing school, with a string of international offshore racing successes in his CV both as crew and skipper.
This reached a new peak last August when the INSS’s J/109 Jedi, skippered by Rumball and crewed by INSS trainees and alumni, won both her class in the Rolex Fastnet Race in the Open Division, and the Roger Justice Trophy for the highest-placed sailing school boat from a total of 33 entrants.
The glamour of the sunny Solent during the hectic summer day of a Fastnet start seemed like another planet when your columnist visited the INSS on a wet afternoon this week. Yet the school’s shoreside premises in that snug southwest corner of the innermost reaches of Dun Laoghaire Harbour were busy with people coming and going and early season courses under way, with Kenneth Rumball himself a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, actively involved at every level on and off the water.
Although other waterfront organisations in Dun Laoghaire may still be warily assessing the new situation in port administration, the INSS is busily moving ahead. Just the previous week, they’d signed on to acquire the keys to the upper floor of the marine training building where for years they’ve had to make do with crowded facilities on the ground floor. Their now self-contained and very extended premises have been given a mighty facelift in record time, and this week, the feeling of potential, the sense of newly available and much-needed space, and the reassuring aroma of fresh paint, would have put anyone in an optimistic frame of mind.
"The Irish National Sailing School is celebrating forty years of existence in 2018. Yet it still seems to operate with that special energy of the new game-changers"
Yet this building with its re-born vitality is only the centre for a spread-out sort of shore base, with the INSS having had to create sailor and boat facilities as and where they could find them in the Inner Harbour area. Ideally, they’d have liked to move to one of the quays in the former Coal Harbour and set up a larger and more centralized base there. But the INSS has survived and thrived through being fleet-footed and flexible, and when the possibility came up less than two months ago of taking over the upper floor of their then-shared premises, they entered negotiations and moved in last week upstairs to set to work on renovating the place.
On Saturday May 12th they’ll hold an Open Day when everyone can get some sense of the extraordinary range of services and courses which the INSS offers for potential sailing enthusiasts of “all ages from 4 to 84”, and for powerboat fans too. They’ve a fulltime staff of 8, and at the summer’s peak will have an extra 65 seasonal instructors using a fleet of 250 boats. Mostly these are small craft, but they also have a fleet of special training Squibs and six 1720s while the main development introduced by Kenneth while he was still running the school in tandem with Alistair was particularly into offshore racing, and he also got the more competitive trainees into involvement with the local racing fleet.
Like everyone else, the INSS felt the pain during the recession years, but the show was kept on the road by carefully managed cutbacks and a continuing profitable dalliance with Tinseltown. Yes, the film business. In addition to his demanding sailing school duties, for years Alistair Rumball had been the man to go to if you wanted anything to do with boats, ships and the sea for movies being made in Dublin and up at the big studios in Wicklow.
So when the making of the Vikings TV series loomed over the horizon in Wicklow just as the rest of the economy fell off a cliff, Alistair Rumball found himself up to his ears in profitable Viking ships and Norse lore. Meanwhile, down by Dun Laoghaire Harbour, the INSS came through the thin times, and has emerged as a strengthened pace-setter in waterfront potential and the development of Irish sailing.
Now it is Kenneth Rumball on the helm, and his personal sailing career goes some way to explain why he is of such significance in the development of Irish sailing in general, and Dun Laoghaire Harbour in particular. The oldest of three – sister Alison is 28 while brother Alexander is 22 – the basics of his background are standard south Dublin, even though his father Alistair was born and bred in Malahide, while his mother Muriel is from a Carlow farming family.
"Now it is Kenneth Rumball on the helm, and his personal sailing career goes some way to explain why he is of such significance in the development of Irish sailing in general"
He went to Sandford Park School and then took a commerce degree in University College Dublin, going on to work briefly as an accountant before deciding at the age of 22 that his life was in sailing. With a less congenial family, you could well imagine that having one’s childhood so dominated by a sailing school that had to be nurtured through some difficult times might have been a turn-off for everything to do with boats and sailing. But Kenneth cheerfully admits that sailing got him completely at the age of five or six, and it has had him ever since.
He can even remember the exact occasion when it happened. His father was experimenting for a season with a second training outlet across Dublin Bay at Sutton Dinghy Club, and the very young Kenneth was brought along one day to see how he would respond to the introduction of beginners Topper sailing. He recalls vividly a growing sense of excitement at personally realising how sailing a Topper worked, and though he’d had his first capsize before the day was out, that sense of excitement has never left him.
He joined the Junior Section in the Royal St George YC, and particularly recalls the enthusiasm of Junior Training officer Peter O’Reilly in keeping a boisterous group of kids on the right sailing track – today, he fondly lists the people who have mentored him in his sailing development, and Peter O’Reilly is right up there with his father and mother in shaping those very early sailing days.
He got deeply involved with the Optimists even though his parents’ situation meant they couldn’t do the complete Oppy Parents thing, but he did get in some top level overseas racing, with the highlight being the worlds in Corpus Christi in Texas in 2002, before moving on to the International 420 and a partnership with Dave Moran, whose father Shay had been a noted Fireball and offshore sailor who was to become the Commodore of the RStGYC.
Being in a two-crew situation was much more to Kenneth Rumball’s taste, and he immersed himself even further in competitive sailing, while his first steps towards being a fully-involved teacher/instructor in the INSS had long since been taken. With the 420 racing bringing good results, at the age of 16 he made the decision that all other sports were secondary and only for keep-fit purposes - sailing was his one and only participant sport.
He and Dave Moran got involved with the 420 circuit in Ireland and Britain with such enthusiasm that for two winters they used the “nursery waters” of Broadmeadow in Malahide for continuous training, while on the competitive front they not only took the top place ever for an Irish 420 at Kiel Week in 2004, but were top Irish boat that same year in the Euros in Croatia.
2005 was their best year, with progress through the season taking in Kiel Week, the Volvo Youth Worlds in Korea, and the European Juniors on Lake Garda, where they found themselves winning races and finishing equal second at the end, but the countback put them in the Bronze Medal position.
Throughout this International 420 campaigning, they were notably meticulous in analysing performance and equipment functioning, an approach which has provided longterm benefit in all subsequent boats both for the school and personal campaigns, and particularly with the offshore racers.
"Rumball first moved into offshore racing in 2006 aged 18 – that awkward age in sailing when the support of the highly-structured youth sailing scene suddenly falls away"
Rumball first moved into offshore racing in 2006 aged 18 – that awkward age in sailing when the support of the highly-structured youth sailing scene suddenly falls away. He became tactician and helm on the Half Tonner Blue Berret Pi both inshore and offshore. But he and Dave Moran had far from forsaken the dinghy scene - in 2007 they took delivery of a custom-built Fireball which they campaigned with success at home and abroad over several seasons until they exited in style by winning the Irish Nationals at Sligo in 2013.
By this time his readiness to commit with total dedication to any sailing campaign when time was available had brought him into the orbit of offshore star Barry Hurley, another of his key mentors whose range of contacts saw young Rumball gain experience of the offshore majors such as the Fastnet, Middle Sea, and Sydney-Hobart Races and drawing on the wisdom of the calibre of Jochem Visser, while at home he soon found himself shaping up for the Round Ireland.
Their most notable success abroad was second overall in the 2014 Middle Sea Race, by which time Kenneth Rumball was a recognized offshore racing professional. And even though after his first decidedly rough Fastnet Race in 2011 he had promised himself he wouldn’t do it again, and he definitely wouldn’t do it in a “little” J/109, his seemingly unquenchable enthusiasm for sailing revived itself, and his most notable success to date is the 2017 class win in that selfsame Fastnet Race, achieved in……well, what else but a J/109?
His level of enthusiasm for sailing would be understandable in someone who works in an intensive job deep in some financial district, far out of sight or sound of the sea. Yet this level of activity is maintained by a man who spends much of his time teaching people to sail and handle powerboats at all levels from absolute beginner to top standard.
This it was altogether typical that on the day I met him he’d first been afloat at 7.30 am, and between further classes afloat and ashore, he didn’t expect to leave the premises until about 9.30pm.
He exudes energy, but relaxes a bit when he talks of the people who have mentored him, and the great specialists who make the sometimes awkward Dun Laoghaire waterfront work in their own private way, despite the fact that shore-oriented planners and rule-makers tend to think totally in a land-based mindset.
Realising that he needed to know about sails, at an early stage he go himself a six week job with Des McWilliam in Crosshaven. “Des was a one-man sail-making academy” he fondly recalls, “and I have seldom enjoyed an intensive learning course so much. You couldn’t have a better or more entertaining sail mentor than Des’.
As to how today’s plastic boats are repaired or modified, he had his own in-house teacher – his late uncle Arthur Rumball had made it his speciality to maintain the INSS’s hugely varied fleet, and in Arthur’s crowded and busy workshop, there was much to be learned about working with glassfibre in all its forms.
He has learned about rigging with the one and only Gerry Doyle, in fact the only area where he hasn’t had hands-on experience is in spar-making, but doubtless that will happen in due course. Meanwhile, his thoughts switch to The Brotherhood, the Dun Laoghaire Mafia as his father calls them, the real people who keep the waterfront functioning effectively and who - like Kenneth Rumball himself - seem to maintain an eternal affection for boats and the sea.
He could make a long list of them, but says that if you wanted to name somebody who symbolizes the real Dun Laoghaire waterfront spirit, you can find no-one better than Mark McGibney, the fulltime Sailing Manager of the Royal Irish Yacht Club who is also the Dun Laoghaire Lifeboat Cox’n.
In this private world, Kenneth Rumball is happy and at home, a key member of a very special community. Yet he transcends the limits of a sailing school with the direct links he gives his hundreds of trainees to the bigger world of international sailing and top-level offshore racing.
As we head into the weekend, it can be confirmed that Jedi is still very much on the strength, and for the Volvo Round Ireland Race on 30th June, she and Kenneth Rumball have been chartered as a complete package by former RORC Commodore Michael Boyd, who not only was top-placed Irish skipper in the 2016 Round Ireland, but he won it overall in 1996 in the J/35 Big Ears, which will add some intriguing connections this year when Jedi starts the 704-mile course this year at Wicklow
The INSS’s pioneering offshore flagship, the veteran Reflex 38 Lynx, has been sold to David O’Connor’s outfit Wild West Sailing at Mullaghmore in Sligo, and she has been replaced by an ideal all-rounder, the First 36.7 Lula Belle formerly owned by Liam Coyne, and overall winner of the two-handed division and much else in the Round Britain and Ireland race.
As for the INSS’s in-house club, the Irish National Sailing Club, its inshore keelboat campaigning options have been broadened by the acquisition of an SB20, and the INSC will be very much in contention in Greystones this weekend in the SB20 Westerns.
We’ll leave it to the SB20 class to explain how their Westerns are being held in that most easterly of sailing centres. For now, it’s enough to know that with their extended clubhouse coming on stream this weekend and a recruiting drive under way for extra instructors as trainee bookings are very much on the up-and-up, the INSS in Dun Laoghaire is on a real roll of success in every area of sailing and powerboat instruction, from absolute beginners to top level competition inshore and offshore.
Once upon a time, the Irish National Sailing School was seen by the sailing establishment as being the outsiders, the rebellious new boys on the block. But now, with the entire future of Dun Laoghaire Harbour’s administration in a state of flux, it is the old sailing establishment which finds itself having to adjust to new and changing circumstances.
In this new world on the waterfront, it is the expanding, confident and high-achieving Irish National Sailing School which finds itself in the unlikely role of being seen by some percipient observers as a key part of the new sailing establishment of Dun Laoghaire - the real pace-setter. Truly, we live in interesting times……