The generally accepted view of the 1950s in Ireland is of an economically grim period when everything - including the spirit of the inhabitants - withered in the face of a seemingly permanent financial recession, with desperate emigration the only solution for many young and sometimes not-so-young people. And in sailing, even though the early years of the decade had seemed a time of hope, with the new vision of the 1946-founded Irish Dinghy Racing Association still in the ascendant and people like Douglas Heard and Freddy Brownlee of Dun Laoghaire ordering the exciting new offshore racers Huff of Arklow and Flying Fox from the design board of the innovative Uffa Fox, the underlying trend was soon going downwards.
The nadir was reached in 1954-1956, when the American dollar was high against the pound that was then the Irish currency, and a connection to America saw the disposal for short-term profit of what was virtually an entire flotilla of some good Dun Laoghaire-based yachts to new American owners.
Baltimore-built 6-ton yawl Evora
Inevitably there was a typically Irish upside to this, as the decidedly individualistic businessman Dermot Barnes, having found a lucrative American buyer for his attractive John Kearney-designed 1936 Baltimore-built 6-ton yawl Evora, reckoned that the most economical way to comply with the purchase requirement for the boat be shipped to America was to get a keen young crew to sail her across the Atlantic.
The delivery skipper was a determined guy called Michael “Styx” O’Herlihy, who had ambitions in showbusiness. Having reached the Promised Land with Evora, he promptly headed on west for Tinseltown, and became a huge success in television as a producer and director with Gunsmoke, Maverick, Star Trek, Hawaii Five-O, M*A*S*H, the A-Team and other top shows which one daren’t acclaim out loud for fear of age-recognition.
Meanwhile, Evora stayed on America’s East Coast for a while, but then someone with the west in their eyes took her away to sail round the world. The little Baltimore-built boat did well, as she got right across the Pacific to north Australia. But there the funds ran out, for in 1991 an Irish crew - voyaging round the world in some comfort in a Hallberg Rassy 46 – came upon her looking rather sorry for herself in Darwin.
It was a sad sight, yet it was also a reminder that back in the later 1950s, for most people all of Ireland was reckoned to be a sad sight. Yet when you consider some of the international businesses which were building on hard-earned success from a narrow Irish base during the 1950s, you can’t help but think this gloomy view of Ireland resulted from an unnecessarily negative groupthink which definitely wasn’t shared by everyone, yet was shared by enough for significant numbers to up-sticks and seek their fortune elsewhere.
Sparkman & Stephens-designed Gaia 36 Sarnia
As for those who stayed behind and made their way as best they could, we can see them as either dully unadventurous or quietly heroic. The quietly heroic were those who managed to build up businesses in that arid time, and it was as the photos by Michael Chester of last weekend’s lift-in at the National YC came up on the screen that there came a vivid reminder of one of the quiet heroes. For among the forty boats being heaved afloat in a remarkable day’s work, there was the 36ft Sparkman & Stephens-designed Gaia 36 Sarnia, now all of 54 years old, yet looking better than ever under the caring ownership of Michael Creedon.
She was built as part of a series-production in Livorno in Italy by Cantieri Benello in 1966 for John G Sisk (1911-2001). He wasn’t quite the father of all the Sisks, for there were Sisks of significance in the building trade from the mid-1800s in Cork, where they built the majestic City Hall in 1930. But it was this John Sisk who, in the difficult business climate of the later 1930s at the age of just 26, decided to move the company’s main focus of operations in 1937 to Dublin, where he’d been in school at Clongowes Woods.
Gradually he built the business through the patient winning of major contracts for hospitals, cathedrals and bridges, such that by the late 1940s the company was the first in Ireland to sign major construction contracts for more than a million pounds apiece.
Yet it wasn’t all work. In Cork the family had been into boats and even when Dublin-resident they continued to holiday at Crosshaven. But while his father and grandfather had been content with commissioning new pleasure craft from local boatbuilders around Cork Harbour, in Dublin young John G Sisk became an investor in a yacht building enterprise called the Dalkey Shipyard Company, which despite its name was based at the head of the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire.
Robert Clark-designed sloop-rigged Cheerful Maid
Subsequently, it became the Dalkey Yacht Company and was best known for building a number of Folkboats long before the class became ubiquitous in Ireland. But in 1949 and again in 1954, it also built two substantial yachts for John G Sisk himself, the 38ft sloop-rigged Robert Clark-designed sloop-rigged Cheerful Maid in 1949, and the 41ft 6ins Knud Reimers-designed yawl Marian Maid in 1954.
The order for the design of Cheerful Maid was placed with Robert Clark in London in 1943, when there certainly was a world war going on. But John Sisk and Robert Clark seemed determined to maintain some semblance of a more normal life, so much so that the completed design appeared in the London-published Spring 1945 edition of the then-quarterly magazine The Yachtsman.
This was all of six months before World War II ended in Europe, but such things were encouraged to a limited extent by the authorities as morale-boosting, for we can be quite sure that those fighting by sea and land would have devoured any information about the new boat as a harbinger of peacetime sailing.
Knud Reimers-designed yawl Marian Maid
Cheerful Maid, when she finally appeared in Dublin Bay in 1949, was classic Robert Clark, a witch to windward but a bit of a handful downwind with that heavily-raked rudder. For his next boat Marian Maid. John Sisk went for a less-raked rudder with some flat along the bottom of the keel, but the main interest in this new Dun Laoghaire-built Maid was that she was designed by Knud Reimers of Sweden to the new International 8 Metre Cruiser-Racer Rule, which had been mainly devised by James McGruer of Scotland.
Another Dublin Bay owner, Peter Odlum, had gone to McGruer for his boat to the new class, Namhara which was number 5, but John Sisk had a very European outlook, and getting a Swedish design was typical of his approach. However, although he sailed from the National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, and continued to maintain his membership of both the Royal Cork and the Royal Munster in Cork, he was a busy man in work and somewhat reserved too, with a strong focus on family life.
Thus the energetic social and sporting scene of Dun Laoghaire sailing wasn’t really his thing, and his time afloat was largely a private affair, such that his son Hal observes that while he loved sailing, he wasn’t all that keen on racing despite having competitive racing boats, as he felt it sometimes brought out the worst in people.
Yet although he could be a prodigiously hard worker, he’d a company rule that all senior managers and specialists in the now-large Sisk organization should retire at the age of 60. So by the time the 1960s had arrived, he was in the count-down phase of handing over the reins to his oldest son George, with key roles in the company also being fulfilled by his other sons John and Hal, with the latter bringing a special marine expertise through spending his college years at the University of Delft in The Netherlands.
Thus it was something of a joint family enterprise in selecting a new Sisk yacht for the mid-1960s, but the head of the family was ahead of the game in that he’d been in correspondence with designer Olin Stephens of New York, whose work he greatly admired.
The relationship between Sparkman & Stephens of New York and the offshore racing scene in Britain (and Ireland by extension) had not always been smooth. For although the very young Stephens brothers Olin and Rod and their indomitable father Roderick Senr had brought the all-beating Dorade to England in 1931 to win the Fastnet Race - which the brothers on their own then won again with Dorade in 1933 - no useful European design orders resulted from the campaign.
On the contrary, the result was less than pleasant. In 1933-34, Yachting World magazine ran a competition for a substantial yacht to the new 55ft rating rule of the Royal Ocean Racing Club, and the winner was a 72ft yawl designed by Olin Stephens. The detailed winning plans were published in the magazine in the best Yachting World style, and a Scottish whiskey magnate and notorious big game hunter after ivory (he proudly claimed to have killed more than a thousand elephants) promptly lifted the plans and took them to the noted steel trawler builders Hall, Russell of Aberdeen, and asked them could they build this boat in steel.
Trenchemer as she was to be called – named after William the Conqueror’s flagship of 1066 – was virtually finished, with her enormous spars well on their way to completion by McGruer’s on the Gareloch in their renowned spar shop, by the time Olin Stephens got to hear about it all. He felt badly done by, for apart from his rather shabby fee-avoidance treatment, he said that he could already think of several improvements he would have made to the design had he been involved in the building from the start.
The big game hunter claimed that as the design had been published as the result of an open public competition, he felt it was in the public domain, for use by anyone. In time, some sort of settlement must have been reached, for when the new Trenchemer’s details were eventually published in Lloyd’s Register, Olin J Stephens was acknowledged as the designer. But the whole business left an unpleasant taste, which meant that when the Stephens brothers brought the new Stormy Weather to England for the 1935 Fastnet, they took quiet satisfaction from clearly beating all the newest British designs, although they probably had mixed feelings from trouncing Trenchemer too, but her navigation was all over the place as the compass adjusters had been unable to fully offset the effects of the big steel hull.
After this third Fastnet win, they did finally get a proper design commission from the European side of the Atlantic, but it was from the Dutchman Kees Bruynzeel who was building a plywood manufacturing empire, yet found the time to commission and campaign a handsome new 54ft S&S design called Zeearand in the 1937 Fastnet race, and he duly won.
By this time Sparkman & Stephens were so busy with the expansion of their business in America and elsewhere that they didn’t need to expend unnecessary energy on cultivating a British clientele, and in Europe while they had a presence with a few boats in the Mediterranean, in northwest Europe they weren’t really centre stage again until 1959, when discerning Dutch owner Hendrik van Beuningen ordered the 35ft Hestia (she was S & S Design 1478, business was booming), and cut a mighty swathe through RORC racing and Cowes Week.
But by this time, yacht design was going into a fast-development stage, with the fin-and-skeg designs of Dick Carter coming successfully down the line in the wake of pioneering work by Ricus van der Stadt. Although the first S&S fin-and-skeg was the 43ft Deb (later Dai Mouse III, later Sunstone) in 1963, the skeg-hung rudder in this case looked like an afterthought rather than an integral part of the design.
Thus the traditional closed profile shape with the rudder now at an almost ludicrous angle was still the norm when the S&S-designed 43ft Clarion of Wight won the Fastnet Race for English owners Derek Boyer and Derek Miller in 1963.
So it was that, having first made their mark with the Fastnet win in 1931, after 32 years Sparkman & Stephens had become an overnight success in England. They were finally making their mark with the British offshore racing establishment, for although the difference between the RORC and Cruising Club of America rating rules had been seen as a barrier, ever since Bruynzeel’s Zeearand in 1937 the S&S team had shown they could create winners for European owners racing under the RORC rule.
Yet it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that this was finally accepted, and it was accepted for other rules as well. From Scotland, Peter Wilson ordered a new 8 Metre Cruiser-racer, to be called Nan of Gare, from Sparkman & Stephens. Fortunately, relations had already been smoothed with McGruer’s building the S&S designed Deb in 1963, for they were also to build Nan. But it may well be the Trenchemer bruising of 1934 still rankled, for having completed the design with Nan of Gare getting her first of many wins, Olin Stephens wrote a somewhat waspish critique of the International 8 Metre Cruiser/Racer Rule
For John Sisk in Dublin, this sudden rush to acquire a Sparkman & Stephens design threatened to de-rail his own developing relationship with Olin Stephens, but he needn’t have worried. The great designer wrote personal letters to Dublin revealing his concerns at making a proper change from an angled rudder on the back of the keel to a vertical and much more effective skeg-hung rudder which nevertheless looked as though it was an integral part of the whole concept, and he told of how they were working on a 36ft hull working on the basic canoe body which had proven such a success with Hestia, but with a new concept in the way the skeg-hung rudder blended with the whole.
He further revealed that a new company in Finland was hoping to mould boats to this design, but meanwhile his long-established relations with Italy meant the design – which in Finland was to become known as the Swan 36 – was coming into production in Italy as the Gaia 36 at an earlier date, albeit with a different coachroof and a special highly-engineered foam sandwich construction, and might John Sisk be interested in one of these?
For John Sisk in conference in Dublin with his sons George, Hal and John, this was all music to their ears. Their engineering outlook much preferred the greater rigidity of the foam build, they liked the sound of the builders, they were all for Italy, and by 1966 they were owners of the new 36ft S&S instant classic Sarnia, a very handsome yacht in an attractive shade of emerald blue, and a brilliant all-round performer.
Sarnia has been one of the most cheering things in Irish sailing ever since. It is good to know that such boats are among us, and it as entirely appropriate that she should emerge in such style from among the crowd last Saturday at the National YC, John G Sisk’s Dun Laoghaire club. Michael Creedon deserves every credit for being such a devoted custodian of a true classic.