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The Smallest Boats To Sail Round Ireland – A Story of Courage & Character

22nd September 2018
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Home again – solo sailor Richard Hayes in his Ireland-circumnavigating Laser is welcomed back to Rinville and Galway Bay Sailing Club Home again – solo sailor Richard Hayes in his Ireland-circumnavigating Laser is welcomed back to Rinville and Galway Bay Sailing Club Photo: GBSC

The contrast could not have been greater writes W M Nixon. On Friday, September 14th on Ireland’s relatively sheltered East Coast, 302 Laser dinghies came in from Dublin Bay to Dun Laoghaire’s elegant and busy harbour to conclude the penultimate day’s racing in the Laser World Masters 2018.

And away to the west at the head of Galway Bay, a lone Laser came into Rinville to receive the enthusiastic greetings of a welcoming flotilla, and the homely embrace of Galway Bay Sailing Club.

Richard Hayes had completed his solo epic, a round Ireland voyage which had seen him log a total of 1,324 sea miles (2,452 kilometres) in 54 sailing days.

But they were by no means 54 consecutive sailing days. For he had happened to hit on just about the most awkward summer for sailing a Laser round Ireland that we’ve had for a decade, with many days unsuitable for sailing for various reasons, ranging from prolonged flat calm to two named storms – Hector and Ernesto – and going on to include seven days of impenetrable fog and three capsizes.

ireland map2The Ireland challenge. While a Laser can slip through inside Achill Island with no bother, and Richard Hayes was even able to avail of the old canal inside the Mullet Peninsula at Belmullet in northwest Mayo, there are long stretches of inhospitable coast where you just have to keep on sailing.

He took his departure from GBSC at their Open Day on Sunday, May 27th, and sailed into an exceptionally lengthy period of windless high pressure. So totally calm was it that, with the need to find somewhere to stop each night, it took him ten days to get clear beyond Slyne Head from Galway Bay itself in order to start the first northward major stage of his clockwise circuit.

Already, it seemed likely that the circuit was going to take much longer than the eight-nine weeks he’d originally envisaged. That in itself would have deterred many, who would at the very least have postponed until a more favourable weather pattern began to develop. But this was no light-hearted venture undertaken on a whim – he was determined to simply keep going on until he got there.

richard michael3Richard and his father Michael celebrating the safe completion of the voyage at Galway Bay SC. While Michael drove 4,000 miles in all with the little Campervan in the hope of being able to provide shore support everywhere possible, there were inevitably stages where Richard was very much on his own. Photo GBSC

Richard Hayes – as the photos show – seems a perfectly normal 40-something, as ready for a laugh and good company as the next man. Yet there’s a serious and thoughtful side to him, and two or three years ago, thanks in part to his work in Galway as a Chartered Physiotherapist, he became even more aware of the woeful lack of provision for cardio-vascular problems, and particularly the shortage of defibrillators and trained users at key locations. So the idea developed of a very special fund-raiser in support of the Galway-based CROI Heart & Stroke Charity, and it increasingly became something which had to be done before he could get on with the rest of his life.

Doing it through a very special sailing achievement seemed the most natural way. From Tipperary originally, he was introduced to sailing at the age of eight by his late mother on Lough Derg, and was soon in the thick of it, active on the junior racing front at events all over Ireland.

He showed a talent for teaching sailing, and in 1993 was signed on for a summer as Junior Instructor at Galway Bay Sailing Club. The West Coast soon had him in thrall, though his sailing experience was widening to include cruiser-racing in Galway, Cork and Dublin, while a spell in America saw him actively crewing several boats, the largest a fifty footer.

galway bay sc4Galway Bay SC, Richard Hayes’ “Home-from-Home” club. Photo: GBSC

But Galway was always where it was going to be despite his ties to his boyhood home, such that even after 15 years of living and working in the western city, he still refers to Lough Derg YC as his “home club” and Galway Bay SC as his “home-from-home” club. He was drawn to the health field and particularly physiotherapy, an interest to which the fairly athletic Laser sailing gave an added edge. And the Laser in turn provided the vehicle to make his fund-raiser a manageable proposition. As the various sections of the project were worked into place, he received direct sponsorship support for the voyage itself from Homecare Medical, Galway Crystal, Optique and the renowned Mary’s Fish Shop in the city, while the national names which chipped in included CH Marine, Dubarry and Marine Parts Direct.

As we shall see, solo-sailed Lasers have been taken round Ireland before. Indeed, there’s even a boat a tiny bit shorter in overall length which had done the circuit, albeit with two on board for most of the venture, and a shorter circumnavigating sailboard too. But there’s something about the perfection of the 4.2 m (13ft 9in) Laser which chimes so well with the unique demands of a round Ireland voyage that when it is done with a Laser, it is always as though it is being done for the first time.

You’re so closely in touch with nature, and yet still seeing it from the slightly separated world of a boat, that sailing a Laser round Ireland is to a significant extent a spiritual thing. It’s probably as near as a modern boat can come to providing a meaningful link to the voyaging monks of our ancient history, and their astonishing achievements along and away from the Irish coast in frail currachs.

It’s something which seems in no way diminished by the availability of modern communications, because for very long periods, no matter how much shore support you’re receiving, you’re inevitably very much on your own. This was emphasised in Richard Hayes’ case, for although his father Michael gave over his summer to driving a well-used campervan along the coast to be there when his son came into port, the roads by no means closely follow the shore, and some of the tiny gaps in the cliffs the Laser had to seek shelter in were unreachable by road.

gary sargent boat5Gary ‘Ted’ Sargent – complete with safety helmet – on his way solo round Ireland in 2016. In addition to the company of dolphins, he had a support boat. Photo courtesy Gary Sargent

Unlike his friend Gary ‘Ted’ Sargent of Howth, who did the Laser Ireland circuit from Schull to Schull in 2016 as a fund-raiser for the charity ChildVision with an on-water support team somewhere nearby with a RIB, Richard Hayes’ voyage for CROI was done without any support team afloat, though from time to time along the coast, he would get friendly supportive company from other boats.

Basically, he’d decided it would be more manageable on his own at sea, with his father Michael as near as possible (and sometimes it’s not really near at all) with the Campervan. Thus the planning beforehand included the detailed study of aerial photos of the coast, particularly the many sections dominated by cliffs, where prior knowledge of even the tiniest possible landing place hidden in the coastal wall could be a life-saver in the event of a sudden deterioration in the weather.

Although he was on his own at sea, it was very much a family effort, with his sister Libhin continually monitoring him remotely on a choice of two tracking devices, while his other sister Michelle was on admin and is continuing with the fund-raising, which is ongoing and eventually hopes to raise €15,000 for CROI – you can contribute to it here

Along the coast, his father Michael’s patience and supportive enthusiasm was a great strength, for the voyage gathered its own momentum, and Richard found himself being conveyed to interviews with local radio stations and other centres of communication, such that he has arrived back with an even stronger belief in the good heart of Ireland’s smaller communities, and the complete, generous and unquestioning kindness of strangers who took him into their homes and provided for his every need, reinforced by the way in which they readily accepted that he and his family should be doing a thing like this.

cliffs north mayo6The unforgivingly grim cliffs of North Mayo. Richard reckons that when you’re spending a lot of time sharing space with a coastline like this, sometimes it’s better to concentrate entirely on your own little world in sailing the boat
Speaking to him through this past week has possibly been too soon after the experience to expect his thoughts and recollections to be fully processed. Perhaps they never will be fully processed – maybe he’ll always find that there’s some new angle on a thought or experience which will develop beneficially. But certainly in speaking with him it seemed that here indeed was someone whose body had moved through so much experience that it was still waiting for his soul to catch up……

That catching-up of the soul will be an enriching experience. But as it is, his memories – a colourful bundle of contrasts – tumble out. Although he started in what became an all-pervading calm over most of Ireland, up in northwest Mayo and Donegal he found – as many have before – that they have their own weather systems entirely. But one of the joys of sailing a Laser on a project like this is that you can simply go inside islands inshore and offshore which have to be taken on the outside by deep-draughted high-masted boats, and thus he blithely went through Achill Sound without needing to wait for a bridge-opening, and equally he was able to avail of the almost-forgotten fact that there’s a canal at Belmullet inside the Mullet peninsula, closed off to most boats by a road bridge, but no problem for a Laser.

However, north of Belmullet the heavily-cliffed Mayo coast is daunting in the exteme, and it looked so grim with visibility closed in that Richard said the best thing was to put looming cliffs out of his mind for a whole, concentrate on the sailing and find a safe haven in Portacloy, which he duly did. If you’ve ever been to the remote cliff haven of Portacloy, you’ll know it’s not the sort of place you’d associate with the fun sailing of a little Laser.

fair head7A major turning point is finally reached – approaching Fair Head, Ireland’s most northeasterly point. Photo: Richard Hayes

But as he gradually made his way along the much indented coast of Donegal, monumental coastlines became part of the daily visual diet – it’s big country. And it by no means fades to domestic scale as you get on to the north coast – everything is rugged until you get right round to Belfast Lough, when the prosperously green County Down coast is such that sometimes the Mountains of Mourne seem more like garden ornaments than the real thing.

There was much windward work, and with his professional training, he was well aware that maintaining a virtually fixed position for hours and end in order to keep the Laser at optimum speed was physiotherapy hooliganism, so there were times, such as on a long leg on the wind laying along a coast, that he simply had to tack for a while for all that it wasn’t making ground, simply to let his muscles and bones stretch in a different direction. Then at other times with wind strengths fluctuating wildly, he’d have to be prepared to put into any nearby beach to change down the rig size.

hayes off tramore8Onto the south coast at last, and approaching the headland at Tramore Bay with its three towers, one of which is topped by the famous Metal Man. This was a good passage-making day that began at Slade to the eastward of Hook Head in Wexford, and finished at Bunmahon along Waterford’s Copper Coast. Photo: Richard Hayes

But then at the end of a day’s sail along less challenging coasts, he would shape his course for a useful little bay with a beach, and having passed the entrance to Cork Harbour he “made port” at Fountainstown, linked up with his father, and found ready new friendships ashore among those who live by the beach, including Sue McWilliam, wife of the recently-retired Des of the sail-making clan.

richard hayes sue mcwilliam9Friends met and made along the way….Sue McWilliam with Richard and Michael at Fountainstown Beach outside the entrance to Cork Harbour. Photo courtesy Richard Hayes

Such moments of friendly contact ultimately emphasised how necessary it was to press on if conditions suited next day, but in time he got round the Old Head of Kinsale and down to West Cork, stopping among other places at Tragumna and then next day on west through Gascanane Sound and into Crookhaven, where everything came to a stop for days with dense fog and weather warnings.

The season was getting late by this stage, and the window was becoming very narrow by the time he got past the Mizen and on -with various stops - for the most westerly point at Blasket Sound, by which time Richard and his team might reasonably have hoped they were approaching the home stage. But County Clare was determined to severely test this Tipperary man with his Galway notions, and along the cliffs between Loop Head and Kilkee – an unbroken wall of rock you might well think – he was grateful to have the knowledge of a tiny cove from his prior research, for he came out of a capsize badly in need of somewhere to recover, and this secret ‘Hayes Haven’ was nearby and just the job for those in peril on the sea.

Eventually he got to Liscannor in North Clare with September well upon him, and no progress with Small Craft Warnings in abundance. But there was only a passage of just under fifty miles left. Admittedy it was along the Cliffe of Moher and past Doolin and along the Burren round Black Head and into Galway Bay past Ballyvaughan. Spectacular stuff. But he felt that with just one clear day he could knock it off.

behind big wave10It doesn’t need an exceptionally large running sea for a Laser hull to become invisible when sailing the Atlantic. Photo courtesy Richard Hayes

On Wednesday, September 12th, that day came, a brief day of sailing perfection - fair winds and many accompanying dolphins friendlier than he’d seen at any time during the voyage, and the 48 fantastically varied and dramatic sea miles to Galway city knocked off in less than eight hours, the passage of a lifetime.

There was a day to gather himself, and then the welcome home on Friday evening to Galway Bay Sailing Club. Richard Hayes had done his bit and then some, but the fund-raising continues.

That’s the way it is with sailing epics in the 21st Century. Charitable fund-raising is a given. It was the same with Gary Sargent’s circuit for ChildVision in 2016. And in both cases, it was also the Laser which was the gift itself which just kept on giving. For in 2016, the Laser also gave us Annalise Murphy’s Silver Medal at the Rio Olympics. And in 2018, in addition to Richard Hayes’ great voyage, the little boat gave us the Laser Masters Worlds, an event in the utmost spirit of generosity.

hayes sails up bay11Into the final mile to the finish at GBSC

gbsc welcome party12Welcome home and well done – the reception at GBSC

It all makes life in the 20th Century and way back in the previous Millennium seem almost buccaneering, for want of a better word. Back in the 1900s, if some somebody wanted to sail a small boat round Ireland, they just went off and did it, telling as few people – if any – as possible. Partly this was because the admittedly much more sparse officialdom of those days might have tried to prevent it, but it was also to save one’s parents from worry, because the west coast of Ireland in particular had a scary reputation.

Thus among young sailors it was thought quite something in 1961 when Kevin and Colm MacLaverty and Mick Clarke went round Ireland in three-and-a-half weeks in the 18ft Belfast Lough Waverley Durward. A Waverley is a bit like a carvel-built Mermaid made just one foot longer, and with a keel, which made Durward the smallest keelboat ever to go round Ireland.

durward donegal13Back in the mists of time……..the 18ft Durward well into the latter half of her pioneering clockwise round Ireland circumnavigation in 1961, seen here in Sheephaven in Donegal with Colm MacLaverty and Mick Clarke on board. Photo: Kevin MacLaverty

Yet a significantly smaller boat was to make the circuit unaccompanied in 1976. Thus was the unstoppable, inimitable James Cahill of Clew Bay, who took an open 13ft 6ins clinker sailing dinghy - which he’d built himself - right round Ireland, usually with one crew, but at some stages he was on his own. He not only survived, he subsequently thrived and made an Atlantic circuit cruise with a 42ft steel cutter Ricjak which he’d also built himself, and these days he cruises in a Maramu 54 ketch and is renowned for his extensive collection of Irish currachs, representing every known type.

cahill boat murrisk14James Cahill bringing his 13ft 6ins sailing dinghy alongside Tad Minish’s yawl Kiff at Murrisk on Clew Bay in 1978, two years after he’d sailed the little boat round Ireland. Photo: W M Nixon

But then in 1981, Belfast Lough came centre stage again with Rob Henshall of Cultra, who went round Ireland alone in a canoe. There are other canoeists who have circled Ireland, but doing it solo is still in a class of its own. However, Rob Henshall was only getting started, for nine years later in 1990 he went round solo on a Laser. Not only was he unaccompanied by a support boat, but he had no means of non-visual contact with the shore, and no shore team either.

henshall laser15Rob Hensall with the Laser he sailed round Ireland in 1990
He set himself very high if slightly crazy standards, for after the Laser episode he got to thinking of doing it on a sailboard. By this time he was a water-specialist instructor at the Gortatole Outdoor Education Centre in Fermanagh, but heaven alone knows what the powers-that-be might have made of his plan. For the core of it when he did it in 1992 was total self-reliance both afloat and ashore if need be, though when he reached shore he often found that kindness of strangers which is very much part of the Irish coastal experience.

He took a 3.7 m Bic sailboard which at 12ft 1in is the shortest vessel to have made the circuit, and despite loading himself with a backpack and the board with minimal but essential gear in a mainpack on the “foredeck”, he got round in 45 self-reliant days, losing two stone in weight in the process although he was definitely carrying no spare flab before he went.

henshall sailboard16Will he ever get it to move at all? Rob Henshall departs on his heavily-laden Bic sailboard in 1992. Photo courtesy Rob Henshall

henshall sailboard17Yes he did get it to move……the laden Henshall sailboard making knots, with (inset) Rob relaxing when he completed another passage. Photos courtesy Rob Henshall

Since then, he too has settled down, but there was a flash of the old Rob Henshall a few years ago when the dollar was in freefall and the internet made the availability of bargain boats in America very accessible. So he nipped over in the Autumn and bought a 40ft ketch and simply sailed her straight across the ocean to his new sailing home in Lough Swilly. A Transatlantic passage in a medium-sized sailing boat when October is veering towards November does not accord with received opinion, but then very little of Rob Henshall’s seaborn activities ever did.

henshall at fastnet18Rob Henshall as he is now, during a sail past the Fastnet Rock with his ketch Inspiration of Swilly. Photo courtesy Rob Henshall

The fact that we are considering them again is thanks entirely to Richard Hayes’ great achievement. Think what you like about his voyage being made unaccompanied by a support boat, but it achieved its purpose in style. It showed courage and determination of a high order, it gave us a privileged glimpse into the life and dynamics of a very special family, and it was for a very worthy cause – that donation link again is www.idonate.ie/solosailireland

We can be quite sure that he and the others who made these special voyages endured considerable hardship and struggle at times. But now and again the conditions smiled on them, and we end on a high note with the vid from Richard’s final 50 mile passage from Liscannor round into Galway Bay. Shortly after he got to Galway Bay SC itself, the weather shut down completely, and has been going totally haywire ever since, so this glimpse of that vital final weather window is doubly precious here

As to the future, there’s a whisper that the three Laser solo circumnavigators may be having a get-together before Christmas. You’d guess that Comfort Zone Sailors need not apply…..

gary sargent schull19Laser solo circumnavigator Gary ‘Ted’ Sargent celebrating at Schull on completion of his voyage in 2016. Photo: Tom MacSweeney

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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