For most of the Irish sailors who have committed to this year’s 20th staging of the biennial 704-mile Volvo Round Ireland Race on 30th June, it will be the central focus, the core pillar of their 2018 programme. And even though our increasing number of home-grown front-line international professionals might expect to see it as just another fixture in a busy worldwide working sailing year, they find that for anyone Irish, racing round Ireland continues to be something very special writes W M Nixon.
This was the abiding impression which emerged from this week’s decidedly convivial and crowded Round Ireland reception in the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire. This distinguished and ancient club of significant history has put its considerable muscle behind the much-smaller and more localised Wicklow Sailing Club (which inaugurated the Round Ireland in 1980) for the 2016 and now the 2018 staging of the race. The result has been a mutually beneficial relationship which sees the RIYC in its sheltered location within Dun Laoghaire Marina providing facilities for the larger Round Ireland contenders in the week leading up to the start.
But as the actual start approaches, with this year’s scheduled for June 30th, the final days in the count-down see a total shift of focus down the coast to Wicklow, to a Wicklow which is completely en fete and totally in focus for this one event in a way which a large and complex harbour like Dun Laoghaire could never be.
In terms of planning a Round Ireland campaign, with five weeks to go you’re already well into the final stages, but nevertheless, there’s still the chance that some significant “we’ll show ’em” last minute entries might emerge to add to the 54 boats already listed. And as to that total figure, former organiser Theo Phelan – he stood down in the winter after guiding the event successfully to record numbers through the dark days of the economic recession – reckons it will probably be around 50 boats which finally cross the starting line.
That’s a very respectable total, as the record fleet of the 2016 staging included the once-off appearance of George David’s Rambler 88, which won just about everything for which she was eligible, while there were also the three MOD 70 trimarans which also established what seemed like unbeatable records until later in the season, when the irrepressible Lloyd Thornburg with his MOD 70 Phaedo had another go, and chipped a little bit more off the time to leave what looks like a record so good it deserves to last.
In a way, that Round Ireland Race of 2016 was standalone-exceptional, starting with the fact that George David felt honour-bound to do the race out of respect and for thanks after the crew of Rambler 100 were rescued off Baltimore when their keel broke off at the rock during the Fastnet Race of 2011. As for the era of the MOD 70s, that has peaked and gone.
So for 2018 we’re back to a more normal way of things, with a strong international entry which actually well outnumbers the Irish involvement - it is, after all, part of the international RORC Programme, counting for extra points. But nevertheless the inescapable theme of this week’s party was that this was a gathering of Round Ireland aficionados, or as Roisin Hennessy, the Chair of the Organising Committee put it, we had an assembly of Round Ireland virgins, serial offenders, and addicts, and if you were one of their number, the sense of mutual enthusiasm and fellowship filled the place with warm camaraderie.
It was a good time to thank the many volunteers – it must be just about every member of Wicklow Sailing Club – who keep this show on the road, and after being welcomed by newly-elected RIYC Commodore Joe Costello, WSC Commodore Denise Cummins and David Thomas of Volvo Car Ireland were rightly effusive in their thanks to these dedicated helpers. And it was also rightly a time to give special thanks to the Race Directors past and present, for we’d three of them there – Dennis Noonan who was Mr Round Ireland for so long, then his successor Theo Phelan, and now former WSC Commodore Hal Fitzgerald.
Hal was candid in admitting that while he had some idea of the sheer quantity of work that his predecessors had undertaken to keep this unique show on the road, it wasn’t until it fell on his shoulders last winter that he got a true appreciation of what was involved - it is not a task to be undertaken lightly.
But it is now something which is built into the Wicklow DNA, so instead of dwelling on the backroom work involved, they generated an atmosphere of mirth and fond memories. Appropriately, there were presentations to Theo Phelan and his wife Orlagh, and Theo used the occasion for fond recollections of something rather special to the finish of the Round Ireland Race – the fact that each finishing boat is saluted by cannon fire regardless of the hour of day or night, or their placing in the race.
The empty cartridge from each cannon firing is then presented to the relevant finishing owner when he comes into the Race Office to sign his declaration, and Theo particularly recalls that great sportsman, France’s Baron Eric de Turckheim, when he came into the office, signed his declaration, and was presented with his cartridge shell. The rugged skipper of the highly successful Teasing Machine – highest placed boat overall after Rambler 88 herself and winner of many trophies – found his eyes welling up with tears. The cartridge meant more to him than all the silver and glassware which would follow in due course.
There were many such stories, for Round Ireland memories abounded, but to give it some focus they’d a panel discussion, moderated by David McHugh, for speakers Michael Boyd – highest-placed Irish entry in 2016 and overall winner in 1996 - Peter Wilson who won in 1994 and has been there or thereabouts in many races since, and journalist Elizabeth Birdthistle who was a complete round Ireland novice when she did the 2016 Race with Ronan O'Siochru of Irish Offshore Sailing in the 36ft Desert Star, and now spoke with eyes gleaming in all the zeal of the total convert.
Peter Wilson is one of those fantastic skipper-helmsmen who somehow smooth a rough sea when you’re slugging to windward, yet can find an extra-helpful wave which no-one else had noticed when looking for that extra quarter knot off the wind. Talking to him before the panel discussion began, I naturally asked what angle he’d be taking, and being a man of few words he said he hadn’t a clue, yet once up there and speaking, his face lit up and he conveyed that special feeling which comes when a boat is in the groove and the going is very good.
Elizabeth Birdthistle brought a fresh perspective which reminded Round Ireland veterans of just what an extraordinary project a first tilt at the circuit can seem to be, and how it profoundly affects your life in the countdown, and continues to do so afterwards.
This was a theme taken up by former RORC Commodore Michael Boyd, who has helped to ensure the Round Ireland Race’s current exalted status. Put at its most simple, he persuasively argued that it was something that any true Irish sailor would like to be able to list in their CV at last once. But then he went beyond that, giving it all an almost spiritual dimension which made you think that in another life he would have made a rather good Abbot of Glenstal.
For he talked of the special bonds of camaraderie which become enduring friendships after sharing the Round Ireland experience, he talked of the sense of embracing Ireland in a very special way through doing it, and he talked of how the post-race buzz can in some ways last forever in a way that many of us who have done it have thought afterwards, but he managed to put it in an almost poetic style.
Such elevated thoughts were soon being balanced by competitive banter in the lively crowd, with positions being taken as to pre-race favourites, and there’s no doubt that local-boy-made-good Niall Dowling, returning with the hyper-hot Ker 43 Baraka GP, is highly-rated, as he has ace navigator Ian Moore calling the shots, while James Carroll is managing the boat, and Dalkey-based Kiwi star Jared Henderson is also on the strength.
But then Dowling’s former shipmate Michael Boyd has teamed up with the Irish National Sailing School’s Kenneth Rumball for a private entry of the school’s highly-tuned J/109 Jedi, and even though the design may now be 14 years old, you’re in a dream world if you under-estimate the race-winning potential of a well-prepared J/109, with Pwllheli’s Vicky Cox and Peter Dunlop with Mojito – Irish Sea champions in 2017 – also out there to give it their very best.
As for their nemesis in last year’s Dun Laoghaire to Dingle race - Rockabill - her owner has signed up the formidable talents of Mark “Mono” Mansfield of Cork, and there’s just something about a JPK 10.80 which can pull off a real success when it’s really needed.
As usual in a fleet of this size, and a Round Ireland fleet at that, there’ll be an element of eccentricities in the entry list, and only Stephen O’Flaherty of Howth and RIYC would dream of racing his modern classic Sprit 54 Soufriere in such an event, particularly if they’d heard Peter Wilson talk eloquently of the experience of running down Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard in 40 knots of wind and more, while people back home on the east coast would be thinking it was just a normal mildly breezy summer’s day.
For if there’s one thing a Round Ireland Race teaches you, it’s the exceptionally localised nature of our coastline’s wind strengths, and the way it can test a boat and her crew. I can still remember coming in past Inishtrahull with the most of a Force 9 up our backsides, and yet we knew that the big boats barely a hundred miles ahead down at the Maidens Rocks off Larne were becalmed. Either way, the experience seems at some distance from a cheerful party on a sunlit Spring evening in the time-hallowed surroundings of the Royal Irish Yacht Club.
If it becomes a race of frequent calms, then the little fellows will simply have to sit it out and their handicaps will do the rest, but it’s the sheer unpredictability of the Round Ireland which is part of its unique attraction.
Another attraction for those ashore is that the entire starting sequence can be viewed from Wicklow pier. However, when it’s a reaching start, particularly with the wind offshore, the fleet tends to bunch towards the outer end, out at the Guardship, and well away from the pier.
After one such recent start, I happened to meet up with David Lovegrove, then President of the Irish Sailing Association and a noted International Race Officer, and he commented on the fact that the fleet ended up bunching in on the Guardship.
“If I were the Race Officer,” said he, “and we’d offshore wind conditions like this, I’d be very tempted to put a tiny bias in favour of the inner end of the line in order to keep the fleet in towards the pier and give the viewing public their moneysworth….”
Well, as it happens, there was David Lovegrove at this week’s reception in the RIYC. And for why? Well, as it also happens, for the first time, he is going to be the Race Officer for the Volvo Round Ireland Race on June 30th. Interesting. Very interesting. We’ll certainly all be looking with extra fascination at the way that starting line is laid.