The Volvo Round Ireland Race from Wicklow back in 2016 was something of a unicorn event writes W M Nixon. George David’s majestic Rambler 88 took mono-hull line honours, the new mono-hull course record, and the overall IRC win - all at the once. And three MOD70 trimarans provided something similar. Surely nothing could ever match such a cornucopia of excitement again?
Well, the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2018 has been different, that’s for sure. It became - as top Irish Sea offshore racing guru Peter Ryan correctly predicted two days in advance - just about the oddest Round Ireland Race ever sailed. And yet, at the end of it, the pre-race favourites were right in there on top, up on the podium where everyone had expected them to be.
So what’s so remarkable about that? Well, the fact is that as this crazy event - dominated weatherwise by unprecedented high pressure - went along its 700-mile course, there were times when the pundit’s predictions seemed woefully off the mark, as in completely askew.
None more so than with the ultimate overall winner, Niall Dowling’s Ker 43 Baraka GP. The leader on the water of the entire fleet once she’d got past the lovely new Class 40 Corum off the coast of Kerry, Baraka suffered all the pains of the pioneer battling into the wilderness. It was she who got to the Skelligs and then the Blaskets to find that what had been a brisk but very summery nor’easter was in fact gusting maybe even to 45 knots around those dark, majestic and often spooky rocky peaks.
When you’ve a racing boat tuned to the ultimate degree to be competitive with the 40+ squad in the Solent, you just wonder – as did Boat Captain Jim Carroll – how much that suddenly very spindly-looking rig and hyper-light hull can withstand as you are blasted by squalls and thrash your way through steep and breaking seas.
She was raced by a mixture of professionals and Niall Dowling’s old sailing mates
It speaks volumes for modern boatbuilders and sparmakers and sailmakers that Baraka GP sustained only minor and repairable damage. She was raced by a mixture of professionals and Niall Dowling’s old sailing mates, while navigated by the peerless Ian Moore of Cowes and Carrickfergus. Everything was as it should be, and nothing more could be done except get on with racing. But even so, off the grim north coast of Mayo on Monday, the all-conquering Baraka GP was lying 24th overall on corrected time, with an awful lot of work to do.
Yet why did some of us still have this inescapable feeling that in due course, she’d climb this mountain and come out on top? The answer seems to be that we were sensing that the Emerald Isle – visibly becoming the Brown Isle even while this drought-stricken sun-blasted event progressed – was divided diagonally in terms of favourable racing conditions.
The circumstances were there to be seen clearly, hidden in plain sight. Mostly northeast winds dominated the early part of the event, sometimes with very considerable strength, becoming nor’westerly and then southeasterly at the end.
Southeast of the line from Fair Head to Mizen Head, the conditions made for reasonably fair and manageable racing. But northwest of that line, out along the Wild Atlantic Way, it was unfair in every way, it was a slogging match in which whoever could slog the hardest and the mostest and the fastest and in the best direction was ultimately going to come out tops, because that meant they were soonest back into reasonable conditions where they could make sailing hay and live again.
It meant that at different stages, many boats had their moment in the sun of success in addition to being in Factor 50 conditions of bright if hazy ultra-sun from dawn to dusk. It is painful to look back on our 17 reports, churned out three a day such that I was totally in a round Ireland bubble, and see who was king for the hour, and yet now know just how cruelly they were treated in the final figures at the finish.
Of the many examples of falling from grace, the ultimate has to be the JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI. Owner Paul O’Higgins could be forgiven for thinking that Donegal always has something malevolent in mind for him. Back in 2016, when it looked as though the brand new Rockabill VI was well set up for a class win, she ran into a flat patch at Inishtrahull and sat there for more than three hours in company with some other unfortunates, while boats ahead went on merrily towards the horizon, and boats astern closed up remorselessly over many miles.
Subsequently, he won the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race last year in convincing style, so this time Rockabill VI went forth in the round Ireland more strongly crewed than ever, and all was going fine until the Curse of Donegal struck again. They were turning to windward on starboard well to the west of Rossan Point in general company with the J/122 Aurelia (Chris Power Smith) and the X41 Team Fujitsu (British Army), when – shortly after 11am on Tuesday morning (July 3rd) - Rockabill decided to take a stab inshore. They sailed into a flat patch off Loughros More Bay, that wicked flat patch spread to envelop them in its deadly clutches, and there they sat for six hours while Aurelia and Team Fujitsu and many others bustled on past Aranmore towards Bloody Foreland and Tory Island and rapidly out of sight to very respectable placings at Wicklow.
In that same area but in complete contrast, father-and-son team Derek and Conor Dillon of Foynes on the little Dehler 34 Big Deal were later to begin to get going properly. They knew that Ian Hickey and his race-hardened crew on the veteran Noray 38 Cavatina from Cork would probably end up being their rivals for the chance of a low-rated boat doing exceptionally well if the race panned out in a certain way. And off Donegal, Cavatina was ahead.
Yet suddenly, it was as though Big Deal, only doing rather so-so at that stage, had became a boat transformed. Thereafter, she never really put a foot wrong. She played the best possible way with whatever hand she was dealt, just like Baraka GP was doing way up ahead.
Thus, by the time they got into the more sensible racing conditions southeast of Fair Head, Big Deal was positioning herself very neatly. She was making good steady progress, nothing spectacular but good and regular, slowly picking off boats.
On Thursday night, she followed Cavatina past the South Rock, but while the Cork boat found herself being forced in towards Carlingford Lough, Big Deal found her own private line of breeze from the southeast which enabled her to make weathering up towards her desired route of being on the direct South Rock – Wicklow line, and it proved a winning formula to bring her in yesterday morning, propelling her right into fourth overall and runaway victory in the two-handed division.
Big Deal arrived into a Wicklow Harbour seemingly serene and now quite crowded with boats already finished yesterday morning, but there was a minor storm brewing. We reported on Thursday evening how the Defence Forces racing the J/109 Joker sailed heroically to the finish, both to win the Services Division, and possibly even snatch second overall from Chris Power Smith’s J/122 Aurelia. On Thursday night, it seemed that they’d succeeded in one aspect, but nevertheless were back in third behind Aurelia overall. It has since transpired that owing to some glitch, Joker II was shown as racing with a rating 0.002 points higher than it actually was. She had in fact closely beaten Aurelia. But that was only by the way for the gallant duo on Big Deal. They’d sailed a race of perfection for the latter third of the event, and all was good with their world.
So now it’s a matter of tidying up the loose ends, but basically the Volvo Round Ireland Race has shown itself yet again to be the inevitable mixture of the expected and the unexpected, of conditions fair and foul, and of tidal gates becoming tidal alleys down which people find themselves going the full tidal tubes.
It has shown itself to be an event which can include a two-handed division, and as for the two-handed Mini 6.5s, we can only conclude that some were reluctant to include them because, despite being just 21ft long, they have an embarrassing habit of out-sailing larger boats. And it means that the Mini 6.5 Port of Galway is now the smallest boat ever to have sailed round Ireland non-stop.
Reduced to their most basic, the results as we understand it are that Baraka GP (Niall Dowling Royal Irish YC) took line honours and won overall, the J/109 Joker II raced by Commandant Barry Byrne of the Defence Forces with Mick Liddy as navigator was second overall, Chris Power Smith’s J/122 Aurelia (Royal St George YC) was third, the Dehler 34 Big Deal (Derek & Conor Dillon, Foynes YC) was fourth overall and won the two-handed division, the X41 Team Fujitsu racing for the British Army and skippered by Captain Donal Ryan of Howth YC was fifth overall, the Noray 38 Cavatina (Ian Hickey, Royal Cork YC) was sixth, and Nicolas Pasternak from France was first of the Continental competitors with the JPK 10.10 Jaasap in seventh.
In the Special Divisions, Port of Galway (Yannick Lemonnier & Cathal Clarke) topped the Mini 6.5s, while Irish Offshore Sailing of Dun Laoghaire scored a remarkable double in the sailing Schools Division, taking first with Desert Star (Ronan O Siochru) and second with Sherkin 2 (Daniel Smith).
Finally, the charismatic new Class 40 Corum was her division winner by a good margin in the end. And though as we post this there are still boats racing with the veteran gaff ketch Maybird (Darryl Hughes) off what must be the very tempting attractions of Inishbofin in Galway, the hotshot racers have already moved on. Maurice the Prof O’Connell has taken his leave from Aurelia to head off for today’s (Saturday) Round the Island Race starting in the Solent with the vintage Quarter Tonner Quest, an event in which - if close-knit plans dovetail neatly enough - he’ll find the opposition includes Baraka GP.
Others will reckon that today’s Royal St George Yacht Club Annual Regatta on Dublin Bay is just the ticket. But there’ll possibly be others who, after so very many miles of blue sea and brisk wind and very bright sun, might well wonder if it could just be still possible to find somewhere a nice green field or a pleasantly shaded bit of forest for some quiet contemplation.
Afloat.ie Round Ireland updates in this one handy link HERE