The International Dragon Class and Kinsale seem to have been made for each other. When the Dragon Gold Cup is staged at the glossy south coast port next September, there will undoubtedly be a natural harmony to the event. With both, there’s that proper sense of history kept in perspective, yet invoked when necessary to give an extra meaning to a place and a boat which, in 2020, are discreetly but definitely about the good things in life.
For sure, in places like Glandore further west you can keep a vintage wooden Dragon thanks to the can-do enthusiasm of many of the local class, and the proximity of the master craftsmen classic boat builders of West Cork, one of whom - Rui Ferreira of Ballydehob – will himself be racing his own golden oldie timber Dragon next year. All that will be in the midst of creating some of the finest Dublin Bay Water Wags ever seen, and keeping the Ette Class clinker dinghies of Castletownshend in prime sailing condition for their brief but busy racing season at the height of the summer.
But in Kinsale where the steep and picturesque town crowds about and above the harbour - thereby putting all space at a premium - the mood is different, and fibreglass is dominant in boat construction, while space is money, and the utilization of every square inch is a priority. Thus when noted TV seafood chef Martin Shanahan was trying to shoehorn his award-winning restaurant Fishy-Fishy into a prime site located precisely the right distance from the Kinsale waterfront, he realised that many of the problems he faced were similar to yacht designers trying to optimize confined interior spaces.
So he called on the talents of locally-based designer Rob Jacob (a renowned sailor, including much experience with Dragons) whose partnership Jacob Lynch Small may have started by specialising in superyacht interiors for an international clientele, but now they’re into prestigious design work of all kinds. Thus Rob was able to make an inspired and nautical input into some of the planning of Fishy-Fishy, a natural and neighbourly aspect to the Kinsale way of life.
But then, Kinsale today is a sailing and maritime universe, stylishly coping with most aspects of sailing from cruising through top end racing - which enthusiastically includes the national and international Sailability initiative - right on to junior beginners in the energetic Optimist programme, with the shape of the natural harbour and its relationship with the town ensuring that the interaction between sea and land is always dynamic.
Yet as anyone who knew Kinsale before it began building its current prosperous presence as Ireland’s premier hospitality port, time was when its image was different. Once upon a time, Kinsale was the British Navy’s main south coast port. But as the ships became larger, a new base had to be established with room for development, and in 1805 the move came to Cork Harbour itself.
The miniature port the Navy had abandoned back at Kinsale became something of a quaint ghost town, its attractive small scale architecture hinting at a hub of activity in times now well past, and a sense of dereliction was in the air. That mood lasted well into the 20th Century, and though there had been earlier attempts to get local sailing going on a more organised basis, it wasn’t until 1950 that Kinsale Yacht Club was brought into being by some dedicated enthusiasts who were determined to keep their little club going despite the fact that the 1950s were an economically grim decade in Ireland.
It could reasonably be argued that the very existence of the sailing club, with its growing class of blue-sailed Enterprise dinghies, played a key role in having Kinsale – the Sleeping Beauty – ready for awakening as the good times started to roll with the approach of the increasingly prosperous 1960s. In an astonishingly short time-frame, the place was transformed as its full potential was realized, the revival being so much better because most of those involved fully appreciated the remarkable heritage of what they were restoring and re-purposing.
It’s quite an achievement to have a port town which is so healthily imbued with a vigorous sense of the here and now while having a strong and clear sense of the future, and yet it lives comfortably with the evidence of an intriguing past all around and through it.
Doubtless those who were at the heart of it have their own ideas of when the tipping point came to move Kinsale YC into the major league. Some reckon the club’s long association with the Flying Fifteen class – now replaced by the more versatile Squib as KYC’s small keelboat OD – was when the activity became noteworthy. But for the rest of Ireland, it looked as though it was in the early 1960s. That was when the apparently sudden move of the main focus of the south coast Dragon Class took place, from what was then the Royal Munster YC at Crosshaven swiftly along the coast to Kinsale.
There’s something about having an active Dragon class associated with your club that adds a special cachet. They may have been around for 90 years, but somehow the Dragons always seem to be just slightly ahead of their own development curve, for though the hull which is such a delight to sail is still precisely the hull as designed by Norway’s Johan Anker in 1929 for members of the Royal Gothenburg YC just across the border in Sweden, the rig has been up-dated and refined, and the deck, cockpit and “cabin” layout have moved on to be a long way from the two-berth weekend cruiser and club racer originally envisaged.
The class spread quickly in Scandinavia and then beyond. In Britain and Ireland, it first took hold in the mid-1930s in the Firth of Clyde, to such an extent that the Clyde sailors put up the Gold Cup in 1937 for an annual international Dragon competition, its staging to be rotated between Scotland, Norway, France, Sweden, Germany, Holland and Denmark.
It was not until a re-structuring of the competition that Ireland came to be included among the exclusively European countries which might be invited to host the Gold Cup. By that time the Dragon Class had been through the international mill, having become an Olympic Class in 1948, and then losing that status in 1972.
For some international classes, that might have been seen as a mortal blow. But many – probably most - Dragon sailors were delighted to be freed of the Olympic straitjacket, and the class widened its appeal to bring in people who were attracted by the level of sport and sociability provided, and the logistical challenges of getting boat and crew to the more distant venues made possible by the rapidly improving quality of road trailers and the continuing development of the European road network.
The Dragon has of course spread globally to become a popular worldwide one design keelboat class, as renowned designer and marine guru Uffa Fox had suggested was possible way back in 1937. But even so, for Dragon sailors in Ireland, the fact of being on an island out in the Atlantic has created a hierarchy of favoured international events. Although the Worlds are often seen as beyond reasonable reach, the Gold Cup can also sometimes be stretching the resources more than somewhat, and so a preferred hunting ground has been for the British Open, the Edinburgh Cup.
That said, the Gold Cup trophy (it really is solid gold) came to the island of Ireland early in its existence, in 1947 when it was raced on the Clyde and won by Eric Strain of Royal North of Ireland YC helming Billy Barnett’s Ceres. The competition itself made its debut in Dublin Bay in 1990, with the winner being Denmark’s legendary Poul Richard Hoj Jensen. He did it again another time in Dublin Bay in 1997 to continue the tradition of the Danes being the most prolific winners, but then in 2012 when the Gold Cup contest made its first visit to Kinsale, the winner was Germany’s Tommy Muller.
Thus Eric Strain’s 1947 win stands alone, even if Irish boats were there or thereabouts in other finals. But two years after Strain’s remarkable win, the Edinburgh Cup was inaugurated, and this fitted neatly with the Irish Dragon Class’s logistical capabilities.
That said, the development of easy-travelling road trailers was still in its infancy, and when the Royal North of Ireland YC at Cultra on Belfast Lough hosted the new trophy for the first time in 1953, Dublin Bay Dragon ace Jimmy Mooney sailed north to compete in A F Buckley’s Ashaka, and sailed home again with the newly-won cup wrapped in a traditional seaman’s jersey under the foredeck.
Jimmy Mooney won it again at the same venue in 1958, this time with Nirvana II co-owned by Buckley. But then there was a drought until 1971, when Robin Hennessy of Malahide sailing Joe MacMenamin’s Alphida won at Cultra. Alphida proved to be one of the most successful Irish Dragons, as she was subsequently bought by Conor Doyle to join the thriving Kinsale fleet, and he won the Edinburgh Cup at Royal Forth (Edinburgh) in 1975, and at Abersoch in 1976.
Another Kinsale star, Tony O’Gorman, then took over the running with Galax, and he won the Edinburgh Cup at Cowes in 1978, Cultra in 1980, Abersoch in 1982 and Cowes again in 1984 at a time when the class was at it height in Ireland.
Simon Brien of the Cultra fleet won in 2000 and again in 2012, both times at his home club. But meanwhile Don O’Donoghue, who was instrumental in bringing the Dragons to Glandore, won in 2008 at Plymouth, and then in 2011 another new name comes up in the listings. Martin Byrne who was to become Commodore of the Royal St George YC - he scooped the Edinburgh Cup at Abersoch in 2011 to add to Jaguar’s many successes.
Overall, it is the Kinsale group who have the edge for success down the years, so there’s everything to sail for when the Gold Cup fleet gather in Kinsale next September. But the International Dragon Class is now a numerous and competitive fleet of 1500 actively-raced boats worldwide, and when 160 of them turned up in Sanremo last month for the 90th Anniversary regatta, Ireland did mighty well to see Daniel Murphy and Brian Goggin get a race win, while Laura Dillon – All-Ireland Champion Helm in 1996 – took a win in the classics, and the 89-yeat-old Don Street of Glandore, sailing a boat three years younger then himself, was acclaimed with the Spirit of the Dragon Class Award.
Thus the International Dragon is if anything more challenging - yet at the same time more rewarding - than ever in its 90 years of sailing. The success seems to be down to a unique combination of a specific boat type attracting a certain kind of person with a healthy attitude to sailing sport. Perhaps we should simply accept that this is the way it is, rather than trying to over-examine what is, in its way, something quite magic.