With three-times-in-a-row class champion Joker 2 (John Maybury, Royal Irish YC) set to defend her title for an unprecedented fourth time, the Irish Cruiser Racing Association Nationals in Galway next week will be making history at least twice over in its first staging at the heart of the Atlantic seaboard. W M Nixon sets the scene.
The western rampart which is Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard is imbued with a truly heroic quality. Thrusting into an often hostile ocean, it can be totally off the scale of normal experience, and inevitably it has produced seafarers whose achievements continue to astonish the rest of us.
From ancient times, we think of St Brendan the Navigator and other voyaging monks. Myth and actuality may intertwine in the myriad stories of who did what and when, but there’s no doubting that such people did exist, and they definitely sailed long distances in small craft. It is also suggested that in 1492 in his pioneering Transatlantic voyage, Christopher Columbus had a sailor from Galway, one William Ayres, in his crew. And in a slightly more recent era, who could be more modern - a true role model for our times - than Granuaile, Grace O’Malley herself, the fearless Pirate Queen of Connacht, a magnificent woman who preferred to live afloat?
Set against such legends, it might seem to be stretching things to make modern comparisons. But there’s no doubting that today’s sailing achievements by Connacht mariners are much greater than the area’s population would lead us to expect. Think of what has been done on the oceans by Jarlath Cunnane of Clew Bay in Mayo. Or Bill King of Galway Bay itself. And more recently, we have the unsinkable successes against the adversity of Enda O'Coineen.
There’s something very special in the air west of the Shannon. So from time to time, it behoves the Irish sailing community to acknowledge this, and one effective way to do so is to stage the annual Irish Cruiser Racing Association National Championship in a truly western venue.
And where better than in Galway city itself, where you’ve excellent sailing and racing water as soon as you exit through the dock entrance? That said, selecting a venue and format for the annual Irish Cruiser Racing Nationals is always a real challenge in itself. And to solve it, there are those who say the simple option would be to incorporate the championship in Volvo Cork Week or the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta in one year, depending on which one is being staged, and then in other years have it within the Wave Regatta in Howth, or the Sovereign’s Cup in Kinsale.
But this almost entirely misses the point of what a National Championship is all about. All major sailing events are special. Yet a National Championship is extra special. It ultimately confers a recognised title on the winners and implies that certain strict standards have been met in the staging of the series.
Regattas, or more relaxed events like the Calves Week in West Cork during the past four days, tend to put the social side on a par with the sailing. However, in a National Championship, the sailing is paramount, even in hyper-hospitable Galway. Thus although some of the smaller One-Design classes in the enormous Dun Laoghaire Regatta do designate their racing as their Leinster Championship or even their National Championship, it would be an embarrassment if the many cruiser-racers involved were to find that they were sharing their racing with competitors who saw themselves as seeking that extra edge which the Nationals require.q
In fact, the organisers of Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta have made it clear that the last thing they need on their very crowded agenda is the extra burden of a full-on National Championship. So a format in time and place has to be found whereby the more serious cruiser-racer enthusiasts in ICRA can have their demands for a genuine stand-alone National Championship met, and at the same time they have to accommodate the fact that dedicated cruiser-racer ownership now extends far beyond the Cork-Dublin axis on which ICRA was founded back in 2002, when the initial meeting was held in the Granville Hotel in Waterford, and the first conference was staged in Kilkenny.
In 2018, life is moving so fast that 2002 is indeed a different country. Back then, the Cork-Dublin focus agreed between ICRA founders Jim Donegan and Fintan Cairns carried its own irrefutable logic at the time in terms of boat numbers and distribution. And in any case, they and their supporters could more or less make up their own scenario as they went along, for in the intense world of dinghy and inshore keelboat competition, the young Turks – male and female alike - tended to dismiss the cruiser fleet contests as “truck racing”, seeing it as something which they could approach with little seriousness, if they bothered with it at all.
Fast forward sixteen years and the scene is very different. A classic case in point, analysed in detail here recently in Afloat.ie, is the way in which the dinghy sailors of Greystones have created a dynamic interaction with owner-skipper Frank Whelan to make the Grand Soleil 44 Eleuthera into one of the hottest boats on the Irish coast in 2018. Not only one of the hottest cruiser-racers of the season, but a matter of intense interest to keelboat and dinghy sailors alike.
As for generally introducing people to sailing, ICRA has been a pace-setter. Former ICRA Commodore Nobby Reilly of Howth was an early experimenter with various Try Sailing ventures which became test runs for Irish Sailing. He was very keen to increase the crew pool with Sailing Introductory Days, knowing that from such a pool would come both new owners and new sailors. But he knew well that in modern life with its many distractions and rival attractions, cruiser-racing would have to make itself much more welcoming, much more beginner-friendly, in order to attract newcomers, and - more importantly - to keep them with the sport.
All of this was going on while the elephant in the room was growing ever larger. This particular elephant is the fact that cruiser fleets are increasing along the Atlantic seaboard, and if ICRA really is the national cruiser racing association, then from time to time the venue for its nationals has to reflect this with a major western fixture.
An acknowledgement of this was made when the 2013 Nationals were staged in Tralee Bay. It fitted in well with the annual programme as it came close on the heels of the biennial Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race. But unfortunately the weather was very poor, and though the gallant Bob Bateman got some spectacular images when the sun was showing between giant rain-squalls, many races were lost altogether, and they barely mustered the quota to get a result.
Since then, the annual ICRA Nats have been confined to venues between the Old Head of Kinsale on the South Coast, and Lambay island on the East. Yet as each local sailing centre continues to actively promote its own time-honoured regatta, finding a space to fit in an ICRA Nationals – with all its required resources of qualified administrative personnel – has sometimes been challenging.
And the growing fleets on the West Coast simply aren’t going away. On the contrary, they’re still growing, and they’re bringing fresh enthusiasm at a time when the established east and south coast centres are finding their fleets marking time as more boats move south to France, Spain and the Mediterranean, to avail of cheap flights, economical berthing, a more reliable climate, and the immediate feeling of enjoying recreation.
Thus the Irish sailing community should be grateful to the sailors of the Wild Atlantic Way for the fresh enthusiasm they’ve injected into the sport, with current ICRA Commodore Simon McGibney of Foynes Yacht Club a pace-setter in getting young people into the J/24, which has given sterling service as the entry boat for ICRA racing.
Yet when McGibney and other West Coats folk promoted Galway as the venue for next week’s 2018 ICRA Nationals, there was unease in some quarters. It may all be a lovely idea for smaller craft which can be trailed to the event, but for bigger boats – particularly those from Dublin - the logistical challenges of having your boat halfway round Ireland in late August are obvious.
But the growing western input had increased over the years, with the ICRA National Conference being moved to Limerick. East coast sailors may think of it as a west coast location, but in all-Ireland terms, Limerick is arguably the most central major population and economic focal point in the country.
Certainly, the ICRA Conferences staged there have been fruitful in developing a growing organisation which, in addition to administering and expanding cruiser racing at home, was much involved with Ireland’s winning of the Commodore’s Cup in 2010 and again in 2012.
The enormous range of international experience which ICRA can draw from within its own ranks will be of added relevance in future as the likelihood of offshore racing being included in the Olympics becomes more likely. But for now, in 2018, the primary target is a successful staging of the ICRA Nationals in Galway
Being a recognised national association carries its own special responsibilities, and it has been broadly recognised and accepted that it is right and proper that Galway should have its opportunity to stage the Nationals, for this is a mighty port which has contributed enormously to Ireland’s maritime life in general and sailing in particular.
Yet to do this, the Galway sailors have had to be prepared to sail all the way to Ireland’s east and south coast ports in order to take part in major national events, with the late great Dave Fitzgerald starting the trend by bringing Partizan to the first Round Ireland Race from Wicklow in 1980. He was to be followed in due course by Donal Morrissey with the special and much-travelled GK 34 Joggernaut, and from the Morrissey initiative there have spread out other campaigners, with Galway boats such as the Dubois 33 NowWhat (Lauren Heskin & Jim Grealish) an East Coast regular, while the university students of Galway should never be under-estimated in their endeavours at national cruiser-racing level, which eventually culminated in post-grad skipper Aodhan Fitzgerald of Galway winning overall in the Round Ireland in 2008, and his initiative has now been taken up by Aaron O’Reilly.
Other Galway sailors regularly trekking either by road or sea for competition elsewhere include Liam Burke who logged the miles first with the Corby 25 Tribal, and now does it with a Farr 31 of the same name. At the other end of the size scale, the intrepid adventures of Enda O’Coineen in the Open 60 class have inspired many, not least Joan Mulloy of Westport who currently races in the Figaro class but has hopes herself to take on the Vendee Globe mantle. And before all that, there was of course the joint initiative by Enda O'Coineen and the quiet man of the west, John Killleen, successful in their bid to bring the Volvo Ocean Race to Galway, while John Killeen also showed what could be done by organising the building in Galway city with Dan Mill of the mighty performance cruiser Nimmo, which started out to be an Open 60 in cruiser form, but ended up as very stylish 68-footer which turns heads wherever she goes.
So this is the place where the ICRA fleet is now gathering for a programme and facilities lineup which has been put together by a team including ICRA/WIORA Commodore Simon McGibney, ICRA Hon Sec Denis Kiely, Event Chairperson Martin Breen, Galway Bay SC Commodore Gary Allen, and many others.
To meet the requirements of a National Championships, they have the services of three internationally recognised race officers and their own teams in the persons of former ISA President David Lovegrove of Howth, Alan Crosbie of Kinsale fresh from running Calves Week in West Cork, and former GBSC Commodore Dave Vinnell who will be in charge of the White Sail Fleet.
With entries through the 50 mark at 53 boats as we post this, with Garry Allen reckoning they’ll hit the 55 as the racing gets underway, the required critical mass has been comfortably met, and we’re looking at one mighty interesting assembly, with the Queen of the fleet already in port. This is Conor Doyle’s new Xp50 Freya from Kinsale, and her early presence in Galway irresistibly reminds us of how Conor’s uncle the great Denis Doyle with his peerless Frers 51 Moonduster arrived in Wicklow in ample time for the start of the 1982 Round Ireland race, and thereby set that classic event on the high road to longtime success and inclusion in the RORC programme.
There’s a contrast in style and size, but not in significance of presence, in the entry by Anthony O’Leary of Royal Cork YC – captain of the winning 2012 Commodore’s Cup team – with his modified 1720 Antix Bheag. A normal 1720 Sportsboat doesn’t comply with IRC regulations, but with a clever little cabin added, she becomes ICRA-eligible, and Antix Bheag’s progress through the week will be watched with fascination.
However, at the small boat end of the scale, all the muscle will be with the J/24s. They had seven boats racing in Division 4 at the ICRA Nationals in Crosshaven in 2017 with Daragh McCormack of Foynes (winner this year of the recent Mermaid Nationals at his home port) taking the title with Stouche, they’ve seven again in Galway with the emphasis on youth right across the board if you accept that seasoned campaigner Flor O’Driscoll of the Royal Irish YC is the very personification of eternal youth.
His presence in Galway further reinforces the fact that the Royal Irish YC is best represented of the clubs from beyond the western seaboard, with their challenge spearheaded by the extremely busy J/109 Joker, which has already won the Corinthian Division in the Volvo Round Ireland race and the Beaufort Cup in Volvo Cork Week under Commandant Barry Byrne’s captaincy, and is now back with the “old firm” of John Maybury of Dun Laoghaire and Mark Mansfield of Crosshaven to see can they make it four in a row in the ICRA Nats.
Conveniently-trailed boats such as Corby 25s and Quarter Tonners are on the line including ICRA Vice Commodore Richard Colwell’s Corby 25 Fusion from Howth, and the Quarter Tonners Cri-Cri (Paul Colton) and Quest (B Cunningham and J Skerritt RIYC), while the top Half Tonner at Cork Week, Ronan and John Downing’s Miss Whiplash RCYC), is very much on the strength and would be a good tip for another of the national titles.
In terms of spread of entries, it’s a revelation for east coast sailors, as the most northerly entries have come all the way from Sligo Bay with Sean Hawkshaw’s Sigma 33 Wardance from Mullaghmore, while Conor Ronan’s Corby 26 Ruthless is from Sligo YC itself.
Mayo SC in Clew Bay is sending Gerry Daly’s Elan 31 Crozz, John O’Brien’s Dufour 365 Shonagh, Duncan Sclare’s Achilles 9 Freebird, and John Gordon’s X332X-Rated, while both sides of the Shannon Estuary at Foynes and Kilrush will have strong contingents taking on the Galway Challenge.
And being Galway Bay, we also have a fresh-water entry from nearby Lough Derg with Kieran Ruane’s Sun Odyssey 32.2 Christina from Garrykennedy.
It’s not easy running the Irish Cruiser Racing Association. A thriving land-based specialist national sailing organisation with its membership spread along every coastline and through the lakes will almost invariably have locations in more distant parts which feel they aren’t getting a fair crack of the whip in hosting major events.
Yet would a tendency to centralise major events, as they do in the UK sailing with the Solent, be suited to Ireland’s fleet distribution and fierce local pride? It would seem that ICRA has to find its own way, difficult and all as it can be. And next week, sailors of goodwill everywhere will be wishing the ICRA Nationals 2018 in Galway the very fairest of fair winds.