It was the dogged determination of Wicklow Sailing Club 38 years ago that brought about the beginnings of an event which has since become an internationally-recognised cornerstone in the complex structure of the Irish sailing programme writes W M Nixon. Today, the 20th staging of the biennial 704–mile race around our island home gets underway at 2.0 pm in what is now the time-honoured manner off the Wicklow pierheads. And as it does, we’ll remember those who got it going, and kept it going, so many years ago. And we’ll also remember their successors who have kept it going ever since, through times good and bad.
There’ll be a Naval Service guardship in attendance in proper style to mark the starting line for the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2018, while the characterful little port town will be in full maritime festival mode to celebrate the running of one of world sailing’s most interesting and challenging events.
For although in terms of scale it may seem to be far outshone by the great transoceanic and global-circumnavigating races, for the many amateur crews involved, taking part in this race is a major personal challenge. It’s at their own expense, and uses up at least a week of precious holiday time, while also requiring participation in qualifying events. So for them, this is the Big One. This is the special Race of Races, which hundreds – indeed, thousands - of Irish sailors wish to have in their CVs at least once, and in many cases as often as possible.
It provides a race course which has just about everything. And as with any outdoor sport in Ireland, the weather is significant. In fact, being wind-reliant, the weather is absolutely paramount in importance. So the present circumstances of exceptionally summery weather provide yet another twist to the Round Ireland challenge, as the possibility of relying for progress on developing daytime sea breezes, followed by evening calms before there’s a lighter night breeze off the land, makes it seem to be shaping up - to quote one sage veteran of the race - as potentially the most unusual Round Ireland Race ever staged.
Certainly in every way the outlook is about as different as possible from 2016’s race, when the winds (and sometimes the rain) were more than generous, and records tumbled in the face of onslaughts by giant multi-hulls and George David’s all-conquering silver bullet, the mighty Rambler 88.
In terms of excitement and glamour, that 2016 race reached such heights that the more pessimistic assumed that 2018 would seem a bit of a damp squib by comparison. But you’ll find neither “pessimism” nor “damp squib” in Wicklow Sailing Club’s vocabulary. On the contrary, they’ve simply soldiered on with their usual optimism and determination, and with the support of the Royal Ocean Racing Club together with their growing squad of active supporters at home and abroad, they’ve come up with a fleet for this year’s race which is actually more truly representative of the modern international offshore racing scene than any previous Round Ireland lineup, and is healthily split almost exactly 50/50 between overseas challengers and Irish boats.
The entry total has finally settled on 56 boats, reduced by one this week with the sudden withdrawal of the current ISORA Champion, the J/109 Mojito (Vicky Cox & Peter Dunlop) from Pwllheli. While regrettable, it’s put in perspective by acknowledging that Mojito has shown herself eminently beatable by other J/109s, while in last year’s big one, the Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race, she was well bested by Paul O’Higgins’ JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI (RIYC), whose already strong crew for this year’s Round Ireland already includes Mark Mansfield, class winner in 2016, and has recently been further reinforced by the addition of noted sailor Kieran Tarbett.
The main IRC fleet ranges in size from a threesome of smaller craft - the two J/97s (Lambay Rules, Stephen Quinn Howth YC) and Windjammer (Lindsay Casey & Denis Power), together with the potent French Sun Fast 3200 (Jean-Francois Nouel) – all the way up to the veteran Swan 65 Desperado of Cowes, while the selection of mostly modern types is remarkable.
However, in the midst of them are some classic veterans which still give a good showing for themselves when well sailed, and one of the stars of the 2017 Fastnet Race, Paul Kavanagh’s 45-year-old Swan 44 Pomeroy Swan, is returning to the land of his ancestors to race around Ireland in the two-handed division under the name of Cooperation Ireland, an organisation which this international businessman holds in such high regard that he is one of its Ambassadors.
As for age, the oldest entry has to be the 1937-built 43ft gaff ketch Maybird (Darryl Hughes, Arklow & Poolbeg). Tyrrell of Arklow-built, she’s a near sister of Billy Mooney’s famous Aideen which won her class in the 1947 Fastnet Race.
By contrast, the newest entry could not be more different, as she’s the very latest Corum from France, a hot new Open 40 which is so fresh out of the wrappers that so far we’ve only been provided with a photo showing her front half out on recent test sails.
Her two-man crew are very worthy of note, being renowned Figaro veteran Nicolas Troussel, with mini-Transat legend Ian Lipinski. And Corum spearheads a very international open 40 involvement with the Round Ireland Race, as their five entries are drawn from Finland, Norway, and the two from France.
They will of course be racing as a separate division, and in the main body of the fleet - the healthily-varied IRC classes - the favourite on paper has to be ex-Pat RIYC member Niall Dowling with his Ker 43 Baraka GP. With boat captain Jim Carroll (also RIYC), Baraka is fast in everything in every direction. But by streaking ahead in summery weather, while you may indeed be getting yourself that much sooner into more favourable winds, equally you can be first to sail out of wind altogether, as happened with Anthony O’Leary and his Ker 40 Antix in the 2015 Dingle race (which matches the first half of the Round Ireland course) when Antix lost the overall lead to Liam Shanahan’s J/109 Ruth (NYC) and sister-ship Mojito.
So everything depends not only on being able to read the slowly developing wind patterns correctly, but also being in the optimum location as the new breeze sets in. It ain’t easy. In fact, often it’s totally impossible, but old hands will tell you that the secret as calm threatens is never to lose steerage way, even if it means actually sailing away from your destination
Baraka GP and other flyers may zoom away from Wicklow this afternoon in the sea breeze-reinforced east to northeast breeze, and they’ll make fine race-winning progress to the Fastnet and beyond. But on present weather predictions, they might then find fresh northerlies out beyond the Blaskets to slow them back in beating conditions, northerlies which may have veered to more favourable east to nor’east breezes by the time the significant group of smaller but very competitive craft such as Rockabill VI and the four J/109s come along to face the challenges of the west coast.
With their performance sharpened by the intense competition that they have in Dublin Bay, the J/109s can never be discounted, but it’s the unusual combination of 1996 overall Michael Boyd (RIYC) on the Kenneth Rumball-prepared J/109 Jedi which is getting special attention, as Boyd was top-placed Irish skipper overall in the 2016 Race, yet the only class win by an Irish boat was the victory by Dave Cullen’s J/109 Euro Car Parks, which had the formidable talents of Mark Mansfield and Maurice “Prof” O’Connell on board.
This time around, they’re rivals, with Mansfield very present on Rockabill VI, while the Prof has been giving much of his talent this season to Chris Power Smith’s J/122 Aurelia (RStGYC). Thus as recently as Wednesday this week, the highly-tweaked Aurelia was seen out on Dublin Bay testing her very latest and impressive-looking brand-new North headsails, while her kite sizes have also been maximized. So you can be very sure this is no bog-standard J/122, and some of the wise money might be going Aurelia’s way.
But as the fleet spreads out, and we learn that in Ireland our experience in dealing with the high summer sea breeze effect is rather limited - particularly along the West and North coasts – the sheer spread of boats of genuine potential throughout the fleet at every size may well mean that by some stage at least 25 boats will have had a real chance of being on the podium at the finish.
That’s one of the many fascinations of the Volvo Round Ireland Race. You can as quickly envisage a scenario where Roger Smith’s J/109 Wakey-Wakey (Poolbeg & Dun Laoghaire) can find herself towards the top of the leaderboard, for the word is that she’s going very fast indeed these days, if not always in the most favoured direction.
And then while the huge potential of the JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI is rightly drawing the attention of one of the pre-race favourites, let it not be forgotten that the fleet includes two of her older sisters, the JPK 10.10s Jaasap (Nicolas Pasternak, France) and Jangada (Richard Palmer, UK) which showed very well indeed in last year’s Fastnet Race.
Thus if the hottest favourites find circumstance turn against them or they slip up in the slightest way, there’s a whole second tier of very competently-sailed boats ready to step into their shoes. And never under-estimate the importance of character in a tricky race like this.
Current Irish “Sailor of the Year” Conor Fogerty of Howth is doing the race on one of these “second tier” craft, co-skippering with Susan Glenny on the First 40 Olympia’s Tigress. Glenny’s main interest has shifted recently, as she has been appointed to head up the Maiden operation, re-commissioning Tracey Edwards’ historic global-racing maxi. But the deal between her and Fogerty to co-skipper in the round Ireland was set up in Antigua after the RORC Caribbean 600 in February, and they’re sticking with it even though Fogerty also has other distractions.
His Sunfast 3600 Bam! – just back from the Caribbean – is undergoing work down Solent way in preparation for the 1800-mile Round Britain Race in August, which he’ll race two-handed with Howth clubmate Simon Knowles. And then just last week, he sailed his pet boat, the 1976 Ron Holland-designed Half Ton World Champion Silver Apple from Howth to Cork and back, mostly single-handed. This was so that he and the historic boat could join the party to celebrate the publication of the designer’s memoirs at the Royal Cork YC in Crosshaven. So Conor Fogerty is either certifiable or he’s the supreme sportsman and enthusiast or maybe he’s all three, but whatever - his involvement in any race in any boat should never be underestimated.
As the weather forecasts lengthen further into the future, one scenario sees Ireland at the middle of next week in mostly easterly winds while generally, good weather persists. Overall, it is not a picture which is unfavourable to the smallest or the lowest-rated boats, and in these circumstances, one name always comes up on the radar: Cavatina.
The Royal Cork-based Noray 38, campaigned for many years by Eric Lisson and subsequently by Ian Hickey, is an integral part of Round Ireland Race folklore, and her low rating combined with her crew’s ability and determination to keep going and maintain their competitiveness has often been rewarded with success in the past, and it could perfectly well happen again in 2018.
As for the oldest boat in the fleet, Darryl Hughes’ gaff-rigged ketch Maybird, she’ll find in time that she’s sailing a race of her own. But at least the conditions expected for today’s start will give her the boost of getting fairly quickly away from the start area, following which the crew have been told that, if needs be, they’ll keep going for a fortnight to get back to Wicklow.
At that most hospitable of ports, the club and community effort which goes into making this event and its associated shoreside happenings such a major success is awesome in its level of voluntary enthusiasm and commitment. As Wicklow’s Roisin Hennessy, Chair of the Organising Committee, has put it, anyone and everyone showing a pulse have been drawn into voluntary work of some kind to keep the astonishing show on the road.
And today, the action really starts. The trackers will have an intriguing story to tell as the core narrative of the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2018 gets underway.
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