Annalise Murphy’s role in raising sailing’s profile in Ireland was brought home to us last weekend when The Irish Times ran a St Patrick’s Eve Quiz. Set by Eoin Butler, it aimed to test how truly Irish we who like to think we’re Irish really are writes W M Nixon
It was presented as something mildly entertaining at a highly appropriate time. But as with all questionnaires, much more profound truths could be discerned from the very nature of the questions, all of which probed a little more deeply than at first seemed the case.
So there we were, ploughing through a hundred seemingly innocuous Irish-flavoured queries in glowing stoveside comfort on a March night when winter still clung on outside. And of those questions, just ten were about sport.
Tempting as it was to get into a word-war about whether sport in Ireland merits a mere ten percent of our national interest, we let it go for the very good reason that, of the ten sporting questions, one was about details of the winning by Annalise – she has reached that special celebrity status of not needing a surname any more – of her Silver Medal at the Rio Olympics in August 2016.
Sailing in times past had the image of being very much a minority sport, and then some. So getting ten per cent of the sporting questions was actually pretty good going. But there was further encouragement in the way the question was framed. It asked not what medal she won - for that’s too widely known - but rather what kind of boat was she racing – was it (a) the RS-X, (b) the Laser Radial, (c) the 470 or (d) the 49erFX?
Now, of course, that question could be answered in seconds with the use of Google. But the very fact that the question was asked on the assumption that proper participants should be able to answer straight off the tops of their heads is an indicator of how far we have come.
The notion that there are many people all over Ireland who now have some knowledge of Olympic sailing classes is heart-warming. And it’s thanks to the Annalise breakthrough. We were reminded of it yet again on Tuesday night, when she was the star attraction as enthusiasts filled the Brent Suite in the Marine Hotel in Sutton for a fund-raiser for the Rob Dickson-Sean Waddilove 49er campaign which, after their Gold Medal in the Under 23 Worlds at Marseille last September, has seen a re-gearing of their plans, with their programme towards the 2024 Olympics in France being fore-shortened into a duel for a place in Tokyo 2020.
Either way, these things need substantial resources, and while a neighbourhood fund-raiser is only going to make a minor immediate dent in the money-pile required, the hope is that the power-focus of strong local goodwill may well lead on to more lucrative connections.
With Annalise generously giving of her time to provide the major draw for the new boys on the 2020 Olympic block, the spirit of Sutton enterprise and Fingal sailing was able to put on a special show of top stars. It was very much a shared enterprise between clubs, for although Howth Yacht Club may be far and away the biggest club in Fingal, Sutton Dinghy Club makes an enormous contribution to small boat sailing, while Sean Waddilove came to sailing at the age of seven through the Taste of Sailing Programme at Skerries Sailing Club.
With Annalise along to tell her story of the ups and downs of Olympic life as the star attraction, the Guest of Honour was the Mayor of Fingal, Councillor Anthony Lavin, while Senator Catherine Noone was there for the Government, and Commodores Stephen Boyle of Sutton Dinghy Club and Ian Byrne of HYC represented the many facets of sailing on a peninsula which has produced more than its fair share of sailing stars over the years.
Yet as is often the case, it was people who do good work under the radar who pulled it all together, as this possibly unique event was co-ordinated by Hugh Gill of Sutton DC and Sailing School, working with Robert Dickson’s mother Susan and former HYC Commodore Brian Turvey. Behind the scenes, they calculated it out so neatly that when enough seats had been put out for what they reckoned would be the optimal number for such a show, just seven extra chairs had to be added at the end. And as we milled towards our places with a crowd of enchanted adults and starstruck kids, it was with the growing realisation that the organisers had hit the jackpot.
For how else would you get a crowd so well representative of a busy sailing region which not only included national champions, but there were European champions as well, while to top it all we’d four Afloat.ie “Sailors of the Year”.
There was the National YC’s Annalise from 2016, seemingly the girl next door yet she won an Olympic Silver in style. Then from just up the hill there was HYC’s Conor Fogerty, top awardee in 2017 for his victory in the OSTAR and bubbling over with enthusiasm for the imminent arrival of his new foiling Figaro 3 which he will be racing in the international programme under IRC with the Fastnet Race and the Autumn’s RORC Transatlantic in prospect.
And then there were the stars of today, Rob and Sean who struck gold in every sense in Marseille on Saturday, September 1st 2018, and soared along into the “Sailors of the Year 2018” title at the RDS on Friday 8th February this year.
The general goodwill was palpable, considerably boosted by the Marine Hotel generously donating the use of the spacious Brent Suite and providing free tea, coffee and biscuits, while 14 businesses provided an impressive array of raffle prizes. At the peak of it all there was Annalise, whose generosity and enthusiasm remains as strong as ever after nine years on the Olympic treadmill. And we also had the supportive presence of former European Under 21 Laser Radial Champion Aoife Hopkins from just up the hill, looking radiant after successfully overcoming illness last year.
Then we had the boys themselves, Rob and Sean, perfectly matched to race a sailing machine which could quite reasonably be described as the Devil-Boat. For the 49er is an unforgiving beast which will give you the sail of your life when everything in a complex matrix of factors is just right, but will dump you in a flash if just one element is out of sync.
So there we were, mostly club sailors who bask in the reflected glory of such international success, yet left almost be-numbed by the sheer level of dedication and the unbelievably rigorous training routine which is required of those keen enough to begin to start on the ladder towards true international and Olympic success.
That Annalise was able for it, and was then enthusiastic enough to go on to the challenge of the Volvo World Race on which she also gave an insightful run-down, speaks volumes for the very special character of “the girl next door”.
It’s a special character which Rob and Sean also show every sign of manifesting. Their dedicated and methodical yet visionary approach to their campaign is an inspiration. They’re operating on a different level of sailing to the rest of us. Yet on Tuesday the Olympians came back to their roots, they were among people who knew them and wished them well, and in all it was a night of heightened yet positive emotions.
Next up on the agenda for all the Olympic hopefuls is the Princess Sofia Regatta in Palma at the end of March. That is when the results obtained will start to become seriously significant. Meanwhile yesterday (Friday), key members of our Olympic squad were present in Dun Laoghaire for the official opening of Irish Sailing’s new waterfront Performance HQ.
While Tuesday’s gathering in Sutton was very sociable and supportive, the fact is that within Ireland, much Olympic sailing training has been a relatively solitary business undertaken from the athletes’ home club, with few people about during off-season weekdays to provide an encouraging atmosphere. But a proper Performance Centre should provide a mutually supportive environment.
Meanwhile, we remain buoyed up by special warm memories of a remarkable outpouring of community goodwill in Sutton on Tuesday night. A true sense of community is not provided by some static ideal. On the contrary, it is provided by shared feelings with a sense of purpose, and that was something very much in evidence in the Brent Suite on Tuesday night.