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Keeping Ireland’s Sailing & Boating Communities in Good Health is Always Work in Progress

28th February 2020
Strangford village’s own-build St Ayle’s Skiff. A sister-ship is to be built in Kilrush by Seol Sionna, builders and owners of the gaff cutter Sally O’Keeffe Strangford village’s own-build St Ayle’s Skiff. A sister-ship is to be built in Kilrush by Seol Sionna, builders and owners of the gaff cutter Sally O’Keeffe Photo: W M Nixon

This weekend two years ago, Storm Emma was sweeping Ireland, with onshore hurricane-force winds attacking much of the East Coast and wrecking a shed on Howth’s East Pier where, for decades, boats of the 1898-founded Howth Seventeen Foot class had been kept for winter storage.

Seven boats had varying degrees of such extensive damage that it was initially feared it could be a mortal blow for a historic class which was seen as a symbol of its characterful home port, for seven boats meant that pessimists feared that a third of the fleet had been wiped out.

But the class’s collective spirit - its instinctive sense of community - saw a group of 20 owners and crews and friends being assembled on the strength of their range of talents and access to lifting machinery. As soon as the storm had subsided, they were at work saving the boats from further damage by removing them from a place now in danger of total collapse. When darkness fell at the end of that “Day of Saving”, the seven boats were in a place of safety.

storm emma2On this day two years ago, Storm Emma had arrived. Somewhere under that wave breaking over Howth’s East Pier is the shed housing seven of the classic Howth 17s

howth 17s wrecked3The aftermath. Yet in just one day, all seven boats had been removed to safety, and only one was a total loss

Just one was a total loss, while the rest needed various levels of work – admittedly including major projects - to bring them back to full seaworthiness. But now the class is restored to fuller health and greater numbers than it has ever enjoyed before, with the “total loss” boat re-built thanks to some brilliant management by Ian Malcolm, and new enthusiasts are keen to join a class which so obviously provides such a vibrant sense of community.

However, we do not need such a specific yet ultimately manageable setback to demonstrate an attractive sense of community within most sections of the sailing and boating population. It’s to be found in all successful classes, this community spirit which - to put it at its most basic - can be a very successful marketing tool for those concerned with maintaining and maybe increasing numbers in sailing. But an extreme example such as the effects of Storm Emma emphasised just how important these communities, these “small platoons”, are within society as a whole.

howth 17 oonagh4 Back to normal. The Howth 17s are now back to full strength, and much of their racing is done from a convenient pier–based start line. This is third generation Howth 17 owner-skipper Peter Courtney racing Oonagh in Howth Sound. Photo: David O’Shea

Yet it is a mistake to think that a sense of community is something to be aimed for along some tunnel-vision route. On the contrary, it is surely more realistic to accept that a sense of community is a valuable by-product, the attractive evidence of shared enthusiasms and a welcome result of working together and taking part in group activities which are enlivened by a level of healthy competition when the boats are afloat.

It’s something which can be found in all areas of life, and in sailing and boating it manifests itself in many ways. One of the most clear-cut in Ireland is the class associations, which are as various in their character as their boats are in their types. All share a sense of community that is as natural as breathing which - while vitally important - exists as something almost incidental.

The Gold Standard in class associations is probably set by the GP 14s, who are seeing an increase in activity with the 2020 Worlds being staged in Skerries from July 25th to 31st. The Lasers may be bigger numerically, but they are solo sailed to create their own simpler dynamic, whereas the two-handed GP 14s have the need of added sailing abilities as they set a spinnaker, together with the demands of extra social skills and crew recruitment logistics.

gp14s racing5The Gold Standard in Irish class associations – hard driving for the GP 14s

There are many other One Design classes which share the powerful community ethic of sailing which lends itself to promoting this Sport for Life. Anyone who has ever seen the group activity which is the thriving Flying Fifteens at the National YC in Dun Laoghaire operating their purpose-designed launching and retrieval system will be impressed and aware of the vigour of this particular setup.

In the end, it is the prospect of regular quality racing which is the real engine in keeping any class motoring along. Yet even here, realistic local expectations are much more relevant than high-flown aspirations towards course-setting perfection in yacht racing.

flying fifteens6Flying Fifteens in Dublin Bay. Their co-ordinated launching and retrieval system at the National Yacht Club is a wonder to behold. Photo O’Brien

The mantra in business schools is Voltaire’s statement that Perfection is the Enemy of the Good. You’ll achieve much more overall if you’re happy enough with 85% achievement than if you’ve busted your gut and driven everyone crazy in getting to 97% of the arbitrary ideal, and back in Sailing on Saturday at the end of last August we were warbling on along these lines.

Some cheeky but unpublishable personal emails showed we were hitting the target for some folk, but we’d felt a bit like a voice crying in the wilderness until North Sails recently published the musings of their President Ken Read, which put the whole matter with much more authority

kenny read galway7The President of North Sails in Galway during the Volvo Ocean Race. Ken Read is one of sailing’s great sports. Photo: VOR

Ken Read is a good sport who can put the fun back into sailing when the opportunity arises, so let’s hear it for modern sailmakers for the great work they do in making Irish classic boats look much more attractive. In the old days, boats such as those two Dublin Bay specials, the Mermaids and the Water Wags, tended to have an unattractively starved look to their sails, which were no bigger and generous than was necessary, and were often unmatched and of different generations.

mermaid new sails8Suits you, sir…..The new style North Sails work wonders for the look of a venerable Mermaid. Photo: O’Brien

But today’s sails have freshened things up no end. A contemporary and stylishly complete suit with a loose-footed main with its own ample curve in the foot has given these old girls a new lease of life. And in the case of the Water Wags, the boats have the bonus of being the height of fashion in Dun Laoghaire, so much so that specialist builder Rui Ferreira of Ballydehob in West Cork is bringing new Water Wag No 51 to immaculate completion for noted Dragon sailor Denis Bergin.

For those who complain that these boats are of a concept which is ancient - the Water Wags date back to a 1900 design in a class which originated in 1887, while the Mermaids are from 1932 - we’d point out that, astonishingly, the Laser is now past the Golden Jubilee mark.

swift water wag9Full and generous. Modern sails go well on Guy Kilroy’s Dublin Bay Water Wag Swift. Photo: W M Nixon

And one of the most useful International One Designs in Ireland, the J/24, is not only 55 years old, but she was right up to speed in being created by designer Rod Johnstone and his co-builder brother Bob in their parents’ garage in Stonington, Connecticut in 1975. The boat become 24ft LOA because that was the biggest they could build her without actually knocking out an end wall, and the use of a Stonington garage on America’s east long pre-dated the American garage’s sacred role in the creation of Silicon Valley out west.

But here again the vitality of the J/24s, as with the other classes mentioned, is dependent on personally-owned (or in the case of the J/24s, syndicate-owned) craft being campaigned in a satisfying season-long programme, which may not appeal in the modern age with its fondness for life in a tasting menu. So the clubs are providing club-owned boats for occasional sailors who fear total commitment, and while there’s an element of “What’s everybody’s business is nobody’s business” about these communally-owned craft”, every so often they attract a rush of enthusiasm.

Another approach in attracting people towards boats and the sea is that it should all be part of a complete process including the building of the boat, which was seen with the 2012 completion of the absolutely charming 25ft gaff cutter Sally O’Keeffe designed by Myles Stapleton for the Seol Sionna group in West Clare, with Sally being constructed in a community effort guided by master boatbuilder Steve Morris in a large barn obligingly provided by a farmer at Querrin down towards Loop Head.

sally okeeffe10 The community-built gaff cutter Sally O’Keeffe has introduced hundreds of people to the sea and sailing at Kilrush on the Shannon Estuary

 Since she started sailing, Sally O’Keeffe has turned heads the length and breadth of the mighty Shannon Estuary, and has impressed with appearances at Cruinnui na mBad at Kinvara on Galway Bay, the Baltimore Wooden Boat festival in West Cork, and the Glandore Classics further eastward on the south coast of Cork, having gallantly sailed to all these places along the challenging Atlantic seaboard.

Back at her home port of Kilrush, she has been used for sailing and seafaring courses which have involved getting hundred of people afloat, the most senior being 90-year-old Miss Josephine Glynn of the long-established Kilrush family.

As the years have passed since Sally was first commissioned, it has become increasingly clear that another instructional boat-building project at Kilrush would be useful, and the opportunity to provide this has arrived through the BIM (Bord Iascaigh Mhara) FLAG scheme, which is operational from 2016 to 2023.

Most will know of it, but FLAG is Fisheries Local Area Group Development Scheme. The idea is to make funds available to smaller coastal ports and communities which have suffered economically and socially from the decline in small craft fishing activity, thanks to factors as various as the salmon netting ban, limitations on size of catch, and ever more efficient larger boats taking the small boats’ catch in a more economical style.

In Kilrush, they’ve got the idea that Seol Sionna should broaden its remit to include coastal rowing and the building of one of the Iain Oughtred-designed St Ayle’s Skiffs. They have proven a success around Strangford Lough as they’re just 22ft long, light and handy to built by the edge-glued marine ply method, making them a much more manageable proposition than the traditional and majestic 32ft-plus LOA traditional clinker skiffs which are the backbone of much Irish coastal rowing.

sally okeeffe crew11 Members of Seol Sionna aboard Sally O’Keeffe in Kilrush (Steve Morris is second from left in bow). Their next project is building a St Ayle’s Skiff. Photo: W M Nixon

With Luke Aston and Gerard Concannon putting Kilrush’s case for a complete St Ayle’s Skiff project which will comprise a complete building kit and a purpose-designed road trailer from Jordan Boats, they find they’ve hit the button spot on with a 100% grant from FLAG.

The first boat will be built as a proper Training Project under the direction of Steve Morris, James Madigan and Dan Mill, and while it’s for members of Seol Sionna, new members are very welcome and membership fees are a reasonable €60 for family, €40 for single, and concession for €20.

For those interested, try phoning Steve Morris at 087 799 0091 for details of what will assuredly be a rewarding and satisfying process ashore and afloat, as the St Ayle’s Skiff has so perfectly hit the target that they’re now being built worldwide.

St Ayles Skiff constructing australia12Their popularity is spreading worldwide – a St Ayle’s skiff under construction in Australia

As for BIM’s FLAG scheme, its applications can be very wide indeed, and it was of course used late last year to fund the six new Fireflies with which Irish Sailing is putting on Team Racing Instructional Roadshow under the direction of Rory Martin. We hasten to make the point that this is not done with the intention of holding a team racing tournament at each venue visited, rather it’s to give instructional insight into the tricks of the team racing trade.

The first instructional demo by the new Firefly squad took place in Dun Laoghaire last November, and in a week’s time they’re in Howth. This is a bit ironic, as it’s the high-powered fishing craft that frequent Howth which have done so much to change the face of the industry.

Not that there are many Howth owners involved these days. The sons and daughters of the old Howth fishing families are as likely as not to be found trawling documentation as corporate lawyers in the IFSC rather than trawling fishing nets through Ireland’s seas. But what goes round comes round, and it could well be that sons and daughters of those same corporate lawyers will be attracted to sailing thanks to the availability of it through Irish Sailing’s Team Racing Fireflies.

st ayles skiffs racing13Close racing among St Ayles skiffs – their basic design origins are Viking by way of the East Coast of Scotland

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WM Nixon

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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.

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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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