West Cork, Ireland's own Lotus Land, should be designated a licensed substance writes W M Nixon. A licensed substance with a proper scientific code, to be administered only by highly-trained professionals. People in white coats. In a clinical setting. For West Cork is as much an induced state of mind as it is a place.
Geographically, it may be defined as somewhere down the road beyond Bandon or thought of as the coastline westward of the Old Head of Kinsale. Others insist it only really begins at Galley Head or even at the Stags. But either way, that's only West Cork as seen on maps or charts. Once you've inhaled it and lived it, it's in the mind and stays there – it's with you wherever you go.
It's a narcotic. A place beyond reality. An other-worldly coastline where the Fastnet Rock might be just another item of the furniture were it an ordinary rock, but that's to underestimate the mythos of the Fastnet Rock. Even when the Fastnet is seen every day, you don't take it for granted. Every time, it's as sacred and as special and as startling as Skellig Michael.
As for the coastline off which it is set, it's just glorious in its scenery and variety and selection of hospitable harbours. And they've crazy names to go with it. After all, when you think of it, who would knowingly select "Skibbereen" for the name of the main town? Crookhaven? No comment. And who, other than an author of works of absurd Paddywhackery, would choose "Ballydehob" as the name for a classic boat-building, culinary and cultural hotspot, yet it seems normal in West Cork.
As for one of the trendiest places on the entire seaboard, it's called Schull. But in times past, careless cartographers have now and again rendered it as Skull. No matter. As of yesterday evening, Schull's population was in the process of trebling as the August holidays arrived upon us. And if at times its ever-so-clever summer re-titling as Dublin 32 tries to take hold, rest assured that with the full West Cork treatment, everyone is a Schull sailor as the annual four-day GAS Calves Week gets underway next Tuesday.
For people from the other side of the planet, the word is the Calves are a trio of islands between Schull and Baltimore, out towards Cape Clear off Roaringwater Bay, which is so named because the Roaringwater River runs into a corner of it - the place itself has many areas of serene sea. Whatever the names, it's a great place to sail, and when they were trying to rationalise the traditional local pattern of local annual regattas in early August, the idea of a more compact basically Schull-based Calves Week for cruiser-racers came up.
Needless to say, those of us who had cherished the old West Cork Regattas in their original slightly anarchic form resisted the new name. After all, we have the fondest memories of great happenings in the vaguely eight-day programme of the old days, such as the extra-long week that included Schull Centenary Regatta of 1984.
That particular race looked like petering out entirely because of the onset of total calm when the leading boat on the water was the great Ron Holland-designed Imp, owned at that stage of her colourful career by Michael O'Leary of Dublin Bay. But this was the Centenary Regatta. A result was urgently needed. So the Race Committee simply moved the finish line to where Imp was sitting stopped, fired a finishing gun, and allocated places to the rest of the fleet accordingly. We had a result.
But times have changed. People prefer their sailing in manageable and digestible chunks, "Calves Week" is a handy brand name which is now well established. And who knows, but with the way the world is these days, Calves Week might still be going strong when Cowes and its Week is one with Nineveh and Tyre.
The fact that it's just a four day Week is something else which everyone takes comfortably in their stride, for four days of racing on the trot should be quite enough for anyone. The rest of the week's holiday can be given over to family and relaxation. Let us be clear, however, that when the racing is underway, it's quietly serious. Not gloomy, we hasten to add. But serious as in determined and competitive. For, in the end, quietly serious and determined racing is actually much more fun that so-called fun racing.
So the hosting Schull Harbour Sailing Club under Commodore Frank O'Hara have secured – for the first time – the services of renowned race Officer Alan Crosbie of Kinsale and his team, and the compact programme will test everyone's mettle within civilised limits. The fleet, which could well get up to the eighty mark with summer returning and a relaxed attitude to late entries now that everyone is in town, is to be divided into six classes today, viz Class 0/1, Class 2, Class 3, Class 4, White Sail 1 and White Sail 2.
The starts are at an easily-reached line within Schull Harbour mouth or at Copper Point, and while the starting sequence gets underway each day at a civilised time around noon, the programme rings the changes thanks to the varieties of courses, which the selection of islands combined with judiciously-place race marks can offer.
There are also acknowledgements to the regattas of yore. In times past in the old West Cork regatta series, the Wednesday saw Cape Clear regatta at which everyone won a prize – including boats, it emerged, which had not even put to sea from that quirky island's harbour. But eventually Cape Clear Regatta faded, yet the fondest memories have lingered, and this year's Wednesday's racing (August 8th) will finish off North Harbour, Cape Clear, where the recently much-upgraded harbour should be better able to cope with fleet numbers, and some hope to give it a larger role in future Calves Weeks.
Thursday also sees a very significant nod to the past with the annual race round the Fastnet Rock, starting and finishing in Schull. It's always magic, and after seeing the effect of the all-fleet-shared start of the Harbour Race at Volvo Cork Week at mid-July, there's a suggestion that the Calves Week Fastnet Race of Thursday, August 9th might see something similar.
Throughout all this, competition will be building as fleet leaders begin to emerge, and Friday's concluding around the islands and marks race will see the heat building to the final result in an interesting fleet which includes many of Ireland's top boats.
Defending overall champion is Paul O'Higgins' JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI from the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire, which had a great year in 2017, with the overall win in the Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race under her belt before she scored in style at Schull. This year her fortunes have been more mixed. But when she leapt to centre stage last weekend to win the stormy ISORA Race and put herself right in the frame in the ISORA Points Championship 2018, any suggestion that she might forego Calves Week in order to amass further points in the ISORA Race of August 11th were dismissed out of hand – the August holiday at the family place in Schull with a family-and-friends-raced Calves Week is central to the Higgins way of life, and the ISORA Championship can wait until the James C Eadie Cup Race on September 8th.
At the sharp end of the fleet, Rockabill VI finds herself in company with Conor Phelan's Ker 36 Jump Juice from Crosshaven, which doesn't seem to have stopped moving between major regattas since turning up at the Scottish Series in May. And with the amalgamation of classes 0 and 1, they should find themselves shaping up to Frank Whelan's all-conquering Grand Soleil 44 Eleuthera from Greystones, one of the most interesting and attractive boats in the current Irish scene, as any follower of Afloat.ie will know.
A Judel/Vrolik design of 2002, she still looks as fresh as tomorrow, and when she made her debut in Ireland exactly a year ago at Calves Week, despite being already 15 years old, she still wasn't out of the wrappers. The French owner from whom Frank bought her had wanted a white boat. But instead of a re-spray job, he's had her coated in a dense white plastic sheet, and when that was removed last winter, there was Eleuthera as good as new again in her midnight blue livery, a potent machine which is a delight to sail.
Another boat with an interesting history making the Schull scene is a case of local-boy-made-good. Dermot Cronin first made an impression on Irish sailing in Schull, but his burgeoning career took him to Dublin, and for years he has been associated with sailing successfully at home and abroad under Malahide YC colours. The most notable achievement was when he and his son Paddy won the Two-Handed Division in the Rolex Middle Sea Race of 2015 with their First 40.7 Encore. So when the likes of Eleuthera, Encore, Jump Juice and Rockabill VI line up in Schull next week, the impression that this is a fleet for serious consideration is right on target.
It will, of course, include at least two J/109s in the form of DBSC Commodore Chris Moore and partners' Powder Monkey, and the Jones family of Crosshaven's Jelly Baby. There's a historical gem in the form of the 1996-vintage Mills 36 Raptor, originally built as Aztec by David Harte (now very much of Schull himself) working with Garrett Connolly for Peter Beamish, but now raced by Denis Hewitt and partners from the Royal Irish YC, and fresh from the overall win in the Coastal Class in Volvo Cork Week.
Another historically-interesting entry is the 1978-designed Olson 30 Coracle VI (Kieran Collins), a modified Californian sledge design which, despite being mainly designed for Pacific Ocean offwind speed, is a remarkably good all-rounder which usually manages to be in the frame even in IRC racing.
Also in the picture is a visitor from Foynes on the Shannon, Derek and Conor Dillon's Dehler 34 Big Deal, which had the kind of Round Ireland Race 2018 you would dream of. Having been at mid-fleet for much of the race, from north Donegal onwards they seldom put a foot wrong in taking full advantage of locally favourable conditions, zooming up the rankings to take fourth overall and win the Two-Handed Division going away.
But while race-oriented boats with an established track record will inevitably take attention, the bulk of the fleet will be family cruiser-racers which have tidied themselves up for race-tuning and will be giving of their sporting best during the day while keeping some energy in reserve for the social whirl ashore.
As ever, there are times when it will be crowded in Schull's colourful village. Even though the new landing pontoon immediately north of the pier wasn't due for official opening until yesterday, through this past week, it has already been well used, and one evening our eagle-eyed observer counted no less than 61 (that's sixty-one) RIBs and inflatable tenders secured to it one way or another.
There are times when Schull's bustling little main street seems every bit as crowded. Yet the contrast with the fresh and colourful scene out at sea during the day, with flocks of racing sails coming and going on blue seas between islands and shore, is all part of what Calves Week is about. It's very much an essential part of the fabric of our annual sailing programme. And always, near or far, dim in haze or bright in the sunshine, there is the eternal Fastnet Rock – unmistakable, mysterious, iconic, the very symbol and spirit of West Cork.