There is no other event quite like the annual Afloat.ie Volvo Irish Sailing Awards writes W M Nixon. Ireland is small enough for most of the key people in sailing ashore and afloat to know each other personally. So it becomes for all the world like a very extended family gathering, albeit with upwards of 500 people there last night. Yet at the same time, our island is large enough to produce such a variety of sailing and boat types, with the talents to race and sail them well, that a celebration like this ultimate family party in the RDS has a virtually global scope.
And the contribution made in exceptional performance and other special ways which qualified the 26 contenders for the “Sailor of the Year” title were such that it wouldn’t be accurate to describe the Robert Dickson & Sean Waddilove achievement as the peak of a mountain of national success in sailing.
On the contrary, it would more accurately capture the flavour of it all to assert that their outstanding Gold Medal in the Olympic 49er U23 Worlds in Marseille at the beginning of September was seen as the highest peak in an extensive mountain range of Irish sailing success and special achievement, a very complex mountain range which spreads across an astonishing variety of sailing disciplines.
While the Frank Bethwaite-designed Olympic 49er may have been around for two decades now, for most sailors it still looks like something out of a future beyond Star Wars, while others might argue that its origins would more likely be found in Lethal Weapon. Either way, this is no sailing machine for the faint-hearted, and it has taken its injury toll on Irish Olympic wannabes.
Yet the wonder of the annual Irish sailing awards is that last night the Dickson/Waddilove triumph found itself pitched against a lineup which included no less than three other contenders who had been sailing hefty gaff-rigged craft in waterborne endeavours of a totally different type, and somehow it all seemed to make sense in a shared love of the sea and sailing.
Certainly, the solid group of supporters from Dungarvan who were there for Maire Breathnach and her award-winning cruise to northeast Greenland in the impressive 64ft gaff cutter Annabel J were in no doubt that it was right up there among the best, and well worth cheering.
Equally, a very representative group from the Defence Forces was there in strength to give well-earned support for their man Commandant Barry Byrne and his team, with their achievement in multiple class victories with the J/109 Joker 2 in the Volvo Round Ireland Race in July, followed by the successful retention of the Beaufort Cup in Volvo Cork Week.
And though the youngest sailors have their own categories coming directly from Irish Sailing, some of their achievements were so outstanding that they deserved to be in the open category against all-comers, and thus we had the Optimist victories of Justin Lucas of Cork and Tralee to be individually highlighted, as was the success of Hugh O’Connor of the National YC in Dun Laoghaire in managing to pull second overall out of the biggest Topper fleet ever seen at the largely windless Topper Worlds in China.
Faced with such a selection of talent and success, the adjudicators had no easy task, for the online poll – in which thousands participated - is just part of the final selection process, albeit a very important part. But in the end, after one of the most exhausting adjudicating sessions of recent years, the white smoke went up for the Dickson/Waddilove team.
Anyone who has been following the story of their lengthy but steadily developing progress – which was originally aimed at the 2024 Olympics – will be well aware of just how keen and dedicated these two young sailors are in their aim of getting to the top in two-man dinghy racing at the highest international level.
When others of their age might have been literally messing about in boats, Dickson from Howth and Waddilove from Skerries recognised kindred spirits in each other. They saw shared ambitions which could – if properly harnessed – result in an almost monastic dedication to the highest ideals of sailing achievement.
And from a human point of view, the story has everything, as Dickson is a cradle sailor – his grandfather is boat legend Roy Dickson, while his sailing father Ian well appreciates what he has undertaken – while Waddilove by contrast is out of the blue. As a teenager he availed of one of the Try Sailing courses at Skerries, he was almost immediately hooked, and his family have also been as supportive as they can of a mission which has inevitably developed as one long hard road.
At a key stage of their joint development, they came under the coaching wing of the inspiring “Polish Sailing Svengali”, Tytus Konarzewski, and a daunting six-year programme of continuing development towards the 2024 Olympics was in being. But September’s Gold Medal at Marseille has raised all sorts of new possibilities, and during the winter the pair have been training with other Irish 49ers at Vilamoura in Portugal.
They were briefly home for Christmas and a spot of R&R, but for athletes training intensely at this level, R&R isn’t quite what the rest of us might think - somehow they found time on Christmas Day itself for “a short 10km training run”.
Since then they’ve been on a busy routine with guidance from Ross Killian, Mark McCabe and Irish Sailing’s James O’Callaghan and Rory Fitzpatrick in Vilamoura with the two other Irish 49ers of the Donnelly brothers Tadgh and Sean of the National YC, and Ryan Seaton and Seafra Guilfoyle of Ballyholme and Royal Cork respectively.
Their return to Ireland to collect the award will be only the briefest, although they did find time on Thursday to make their number in Howth YC and belatedly collect the Silver Fox Trophy for HYC’s top achievers in 2018. But although the next major staging post in their programme is the Princess Sofia Regatta 2019 at Palma from 30th March to 6th April, there’s a lesser-known 49er Championship called the Portugal Grand Prix coming up next week from February 14th to 17th at Vilamoura, and it seems to be rising in stature by the minute.
At it, Dickson and Waddilove had planned mainly to work on improving their starting techniques. But after hastening back to Portugal after collecting their award last night, they may well find they’re getting more attention than expected. This morning, however, the rest of us can simply reflect on the wonder that is Irish sailing today.