The Volvo Round Ireland Race 2018 - in just eight weeks time on June 30th from Wicklow - will be marking 20 stagings of this biennial classic. When first raced in 1980, it was with a fleet of very modest numbers, mainly of boats of the day. Thirty-eight years later, you’d expect significant change in any sport - and especially so in a vehicle sport like sailing. In our crazy game, developments in hull design, construction techniques, sail innovation, and rig configuration can see some previously unbeatable craft appear to age very quickly writes W M Nixon.
Yet other boats, thanks to some seemingly timeless basic concept, plus the best uses of the International Rating Certificate and the devotion of a loyal owner and dedicated crew, just keep going on and on and on, almost always in the frame. Thus a fleet like that which will be racing round Ireland will be an extraordinary mixture of newer craft set against decidedly vintage boats, with many coming under some sort of “in between” category.
Paul O’Higgins with the JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI – one of the newer boats - will be spearheading a remarkable Royal Irish Yacht Club group challenge in the 50-plus fleet, in a campaign which he will regard as dealing with unfinished business.
O’Higgins was the November 2017 Afloat.ie “Sailor of the Month” in recognition of his sporting approach to sailing. For even when - as in the annual early winter Turkey Shoot series in Dublin Bay – he is allocated a handicap so fierce that he almost has to be finishing when the other boats are starting if he is to have any chance at all of being in the prizes, nevertheless he still goes out and gives his fine boat a canter round the bay.
Equally, he took part in the Calves Week Regatta in West Cork in August in the right spirit, crewed by family and friends. In this case, though, as he was well away from Dublin Bay, he was able to win prizes too. But earlier in the year, we had seen the more serious side of Paul O’Higgins when he and Rockabill VI shipped aboard some seriously heavy hitters for June’s Volvo Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race, and they won going away.
It was his most notable major win to date. When the boat was still fresh out of the package in June 2016, it had looked as though Rockabill VI had her class neatly stitched up in the Volvo Round Ireland Race. But they hit one of those spooky localised calms in which this 704-mile classic seems to specialise, and sat going nowhere just east of Inishtrahull for three hours, while Dave Cullen from Howth YC and his merry men were making hay up the west coast of Donegal with the J/109 Euro Car Parks in a new wind, and this swept them into the class win that they held to the end.
The two crews socialized together mightily in Wicklow Sailing Club at the finish. But since then an interesting development has shown that Paul O’Higgins is seriously keen to take the Round Ireland trophy in 2018. The word was soon out on the waterfront that Mark “Mono” Mansfield of Cork, one of the key players in Euro Car Parks’ Round Ireland win, would definitely be doing the next race - but this time it would be aboard Rockabill VI.
However, having past winners on board in the RIYC group effort Round Ireland goes well beyond Rockabill VI’s battle-hardened crew. The top Irish boat overall in the 2016 race was the First 44.7 Lisa skippered by Michael Boyd RIYC. As revealed here last week, he’ll be back in 2018, but this time with the J/109 Jedi chartered from the Irish National Sailing School, with school principal Kenny Rumball (incidentally also RIYC) part of a very complete package. And of course Boyd has further Round Ireland form going right back to 1996, when he won overall with the J/35 Big Ears.
Referring back to the Afloat magazine of August 1996 which reported that race (and God be with the days of leisurely deadlines set by periodical printing dates), we find that the entire crew of Big Ears were jointly the Afloat “Sailors of the Month” for August 1996, and they were Michael Boyd, Jamie Boag, Patsy Burke, Brian Mehigan, P J Kennedy, Tim Greenwood and Michael Moloney.
But perhaps most importantly, the citation also includes Niall Dowling, who was responsible for getting the boat race-prepared at the Royal Irish Yacht Club. He has spread his wings more than somewhat since, and is a major force in Solent sailing, such that he and Michael Boyd teamed up to make Quokka 8 available as the “Steady Eddy” third boat in the winning Irish Commodore’s Cup Team in 2012.
And for 2018, Niall Dowling is back in the Round Ireland scene, but this time with the Ker 43 Baraka GP, which was formerly the highy-successful New Zealand-built American-owned Otra Vez.
The fact that since 2016 there has been a linkup between Wicklow Sailing Club and the Royal Irish YC, whereby the latter offers hospitality to Round Ireland entrants in the week before the race, is the ideal package for boats like Baraka GP, as she can be safely kept in what is arguably the best berth on the east coast of Ireland before sallying down to Wicklow for the start.
But as several seasoned round Ireland campaigners have readily argued, Wicklow is the only place from where the race should start. Not only did the Wicklow club set it all up in the first place so many years ago, but they have stuck doggedly with it since through thick and thin, and the entire town is in the Round Ireland mood as the start approaches. Equally important, no matter how little wind there is, the sluicing ebb out past Wicklow Head soon moves the fleet on its way, whereas a Dun Laoghaire start would find itself competing for space with the intricate Dublin Bay sailing scene, and maybe going nowhere very fast.
That said, in the week beforehand, the growing excitement at the RIYC’s unrivalled totally-sheltered waterfront location is part of an extraordinary ongoing saga which concludes with crews savouring the unique post-finish atmosphere in Wicklow SC – undoubtedly one of the world’s best decompression chambers.
It can become so congenial that we’ve done the circuit with a noted skipper on an 83ft Maxi, and then, having celebrated our finish, we’ve taken our leave of ship and crew with the words of the skipper ringing in our ears, that he too must soon hasten away with the boat to get back to her home port…… Yet a day or two later, we hear that they haven’t gone away you know - the après sailing still goes merrily along in Wicklow Sailing Club. It’s something very special.
Naturally, there are those who’ll say we’ll never again reach the heights of 2016, when George David’s glorious Rambler 88 set the pace for both line honours and the overall corrected time win, while the three 70ft MOD trimarans battled to the very end – and we mean the very end – to be first to finish and set a new round Ireland record.
But Race Officer Hal Fitzgerald of WSC tells us that in terms of solid genuine IRC entries representing Europe’s core offshore racing fleet, they’re actually ahead of the 2016 listing. And while the biggest boat may be “only” 65ft (she’s Richard Loftus’s keenly-campaigned vintage Swan 65 Desperado) there are interesting developments taking place at the other end of the size spectrum.
Sailmaker Yannick Lemonnier of WestSails.ie in Galway makes no secret of his enthusiasm for the MiniTransat 650 boat concept, and last year he persuaded the Volvo Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race organisers to permit three Irish-based MiniTransat boats to sail along with the fleet as a sort of associate entries.
Let it be said that they were by no means at the back of the bunch when they finished, as they set as much sail as your average 30-footer, and their crews are hyper-keen. But in order to attract attention from the main MiniTransat fleet heartlands in France, Lemonnier reckons that it’s the Round Ireland Race which has the real magic ingredient, and his enthusiasm has persuaded the Committee to include an “Associate Division” for two-handed MiniTransat boats, and they’ll be allowed to start with the main body of the fleet.
This latest twist in the story of a great race will in time become part of its mythology, which goes right back to that first race of 1980, when Johnny Morris of Pwllheli with the High Tension 36 Force Tension took line honours clear ahead of Dave Fitzgerald’s 40ft Partizan from Galway, with the IOR winner being the late Jim Poole’s Half Tonner Feanor.
But the “real” winner, under a handicap system set up by Wicklow SC to attract boats which mightn’t normally contemplate cut-throat offshore racing, was Brian Coad’s plump Rival 34 Raasay from Waterford, beginning a Coad-Round Ireland partnership which went on for years.
And it was with the 1982 race that we realised the Round Ireland had really arrived. The great Denis Doyle turned up from Cork with the almost-new Frers 51 Moonduster, already the undisputed Queen of the Irish offshore fleet and an international star in European waters in RORC racing. The Doyle seal of approval was the making of the Round Ireland race, and he was always there on the start line until the end of his days - he kept the lovely Moonduster for an exceptionally long time.
The pace of his involvement was top level from the start. He set a course record which looked pretty unbeatable in 1982, but then promptly bested it in an extraordinary circuit in 1984, going at such a pace that, as navigator John Bourke neatly put it, “we were seeing off an entire Irish county in every watch”.
Since then other names have become a leading part of the story, people like Eric Lisson from Cork with Cavatina and Peter Wilson with Bridgestone and Dickie Gomes from the north with a variety of boats called Woodchester and Eamonn Crosbie from Dun Laoghaire with boats of small comfort but high speed, while Colm Barrington showed us what could be done with a Volvo racer as the race developed such that it is now an integral part of the Royal Ocean Racing Club calendar and points system.
In fact, a gathering of the Round Ireland veterans from down the years who are still happily with us would make for an extraordinary assembly. But perhaps it’s better left to the imagination – these things can get out of hand. Way back in 1972, it was decided to hold an Irish Fastneteers Dinner for everyone who had ever done the RORC Fastnet Race on an Irish boat. It was a spectacular social success, an unrivalled reunion. But anyone who claims to remember it clearly very evidently wasn’t there, as it was that kind of party - the sort of tearaway memory-blocking affair you used to get back in the days before health warnings about safe units of personal alcohol consumption curbed things more than somewhat.
And in any case, it’s much healthier to live in the present and anticipate the near future, which is what the up-coming Volvo Round Ireland Race is all about. The fleet will range between Desperado at the top end (unless somebody is planning to spring a last-minute very big boat surprise, which wouldn’t really surprise us at all) and the MiniTransat “unofficials” at the other end, with mostly boats between 35 and 55ft in between. The one which has won most is probably Cavatina, while the oldest must be Darryl Hughes’ restored classic 43ft 1937-built (at Arklow) gaff ketch Maybird.
On many boats, there’ll be people doing their first Round Ireland. There really is nothing quite like it. Unless you’re a professional and the pre-race display routine is part of the job, it has to be said that Wicklow Harbour in the hours leading up to the start is a nervy and over-crowded place, and secretly you wish the fleet could be allowed to start at one minute intervals in the dark, with no attention whatever.
But then after you’ve sailed at least 704 miles along one of the greatest coastlines in the world, a completely new Wicklow appears ahead. Ideally, it would be a summery mid-afternoon with the Wicklow Hills looking their very best. You close in for the finish and find you’ve done well enough to be in the frame, even if Michael Horgan and Peter Ryan have gone well enough to grab the class lead.
Wicklow SC is in best decompression chamber mode, with welcome showers and pints and much banter and laughter. And then your son, who has raced round Ireland with you, makes it quite clear that you and your oldie mates are now superfluous to requirements - he and his pals will take the boat back to Howth in due course. So his mother appears as though by magic, and takes you up into the Wicklow Hills for a leisurely feed of the best Irish stew at the Roundwood Inn as the sun slowly works its way towards setting in sublime style. And all is very well with the world.
Volvo Round Ireland Race 2018 Entry List here