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Royal Cork Yacht Club’s Example is Inspiring in Cork Harbour’s 50 Years of Progress

13th June 2020
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Where the spirit of sailing lives on, after 300 years and more. Yet only fifty years ago, there were no marinas at all in Crosshaven Where the spirit of sailing lives on, after 300 years and more. Yet only fifty years ago, there were no marinas at all in Crosshaven Photo: Robert Bateman

Time was when fifty years seemed a long time in the life of any sports organisation, and indeed in life itself. Golden Jubilees were a big deal, to be celebrated with much fanfare. In fact, even 25 years of organisational continuity were worthy of festivities. But then, the general mindset was programmed by the fact that many sports only became properly codified towards the end of the 1800s, while the organisations which grew from them were generally only finding their feet around the turn of the century in 1900.

The new Century was barely under way before it was riven by two World Wars, in 1914-1918 and again in 1939-1945. In between them, in Ireland in the period 1919 to 1922 we managed to fit in a War of Independence, Partition and a Civil War. None of this was remotely comparable in scale to the major geopolitical changes and industrial carnage of the global conflicts, but they caused major disruption and tragedy at a local and personal level, such that just one decade of civilised life and gentle progress began to seem like a long time, a major achievement.

Yet despite the Troubles in Ireland between 1969 and 1998, the general mood since the end of World War II in 1945 has been one of peace and progress, however deceptive that may become under close analysis. The effect of all this – allied to markedly increased longevity until too many people started getting obese in recent years – is that fifty years no longer seems such a very long time.

Willem van der Hagen’s 1736 painting of Cork HarbourAn unrivalled heritage afloat. Willem van der Hagen’s 1736 painting of Cork Harbour with the then-unextended though fortified Haulbowline Island at centre, showing at last seven yachts of the Water Club in the group of vessels heading towards the channel past Cobh. Courtesy RCYC

We see it in Irish sailing in particular by noting the number of people around us who can remember participating in the Quarter Millennial Celebrations of the Royal Cork Yacht Club in 1969-1970, and were looking forward to being involved in the RCYC’s Tricentenary this year.

Back in 1970 – which after all was only 25 years after the end of World War II - fifty years still seemed a very considerable length of time, making the Royal Cork’s 250 year of existence all the more remarkable. That was something which was underlined ten years later, when much fanfare accompanied the Irish Cruising Club’s Golden Jubilee Cruise-in-Company in 1979, with a large international fleet sailing westward from Crosshaven to the incomparable cruising grounds of southwest Ireland, made popular over the years by the key ICC founder, Harry Donegan of Cork.

The 1895-designed Cork Harbour OD Imp The 1895-designed Cork Harbour OD Imp making full speed seawards in the 1950s. When the new Class Association was formed in 1896, Harry Donegan – the very personification of Cork sailing enthusiasm - was its first secretary. He also was a formidably successful helmsman in a CHOD, he took part and placed third in the first Fastnet Race in 1925 in his 17-ton cutter Gull (becoming a founder member of the Royal Ocean Racing Club), and in 1929 he played the key role in founding the Irish Cruising Club, starting with a cruise-in-company westwards from Cork Harbour, and concluding with the formation of the ICC in Glengarriff. In addition to his many achievements afloat and ashore, he was a talented painter of marine subjects. Photo: Tom Barker

But nowadays, fifty years is something we just take in our stride. And perhaps it is this modern compression of the half-century which has helped us to cope with the unbelievable reality that the visionary and meticulous plans for the Tricentenary of the RCYC have been up-ended by a worldwide pandemic, a lethal disease which originated in a wet market in the depths of China, and has spread so totally and ruthlessly across the world that we will probably never really know the true extent of its fatal effects.

Preventing those dreadful effects from being even worse has become a national project. Yet before the need for this became totally clear, even the most utterly pessimistic observer could not have imagined how totally the necessary safety measures would effectively wipe out the RCYC celebrations.

Sailing is of itself a very healthy sport, and the people who participate in it are usually from a vigorous cohort of the population. But that in turn means that our post-sailing socialising is unusually intense. So we know that the resumption of sailing is requiring a complete re-set of the way we go about our activities afloat, and how we access them. But meanwhile, the thoughts of the sailing community are very much with the sailors of Cork, and the way that their hopes and plans were caught precisely in the target cross-hairs of the spreading pandemic.

Yet the way that the Royal Cork YC has responded to this unbelievable reversal of fortune has been an inspiration to us all. The inevitable cancellations have been timely and efficient, and the members have rallied round in a spirit of mutual support, while Admiral Colin Morehead has been the very model of calm philosophical acceptance and example as he leads his members in handling this extraordinary challenge.

Colin Morehead, Admiral of the Royal Cork Yacht ClubColin Morehead, Admiral of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, whose calm and philosophical acceptance of the effects of Lockdown, after he had devoted three years to planning the Tricentenary, has been much admired in sailing. His sense of the continuity of Cork sailing is emphasized by the marine artwork he has chosen to be photographed with – it is one of Harry Donegan’s paintings of a Cork Harbour OD. Courtesy RCYC

Colin Morehead himself had been working on the plans for the Tricentenary for three years and longer, and while he was doing that, it was Pat Farnan as Admiral who led the club to such good effect through the busy countdown years that RCYC entered 2020 already feted as “Club of the Year”.

It was all systems go, and then it was all systems on hold as the grim news came from the east, and then with gruesome inevitability, it was all crowd-gathering events on cancellation. Yet it was done with a dignity and graceful acceptance which set the standard not just for Irish clubs, but for world sailing generally.

It is impossible to overestimate the beneficial effect which the gallant –indeed noble – manner in which the RCYC has dealt with the circumstances has contributed to the general good. Then too, the broad benefit of the community spirit within the club has manifested itself in many ways, with the National 18 class leading the charge in the full development of eRacing, while members with a real feeling for the extraordinary history of the club have got together to produce an online series - Way Back When – which features on the RCYC website, and explores many areas of club activity and Crosshaven history, all with an attractive personal touch.

Limited club sailing has of course finally resumed this week in controlled circumstances with emphasis on the juniors, while family sailing – always central to the Cork scene – has been returning as the restrictions are eased, though there’s still a long way to go, and everyone is mindful of the need for careful monitoring at every stage.

The History of the Royal Cork YC was published in 2005, when it was honoured as “Irish Book of the Year”. The History of the Royal Cork YC was published in 2005 when it was honoured as “Irish Book of the Year”. Written by historian Alicia St Leger, it was based on the club’s unrivalled collection of artefacts, documents, memorabilia and sailing records curated by Honorary Archivist Dermot Burns

What with the fresh look at the club’s past through the Way Back When series, coupled with the fact that the Club’s monumental history - based by historian Alice St Leger on RCYC archivist Dermot Burns’ unrivalled collection of records and artefacts going back to 1720 and beyond - was published to several awards and much acclaim in 2005, provides an enduring base of shared awareness. This, when combined with the eRacing, the Webinars, and now the ordered resumption of sailing in gradual socially-distanced steps, tells us all that the RCYC is very much alive and well.

In fact, nothing has become the Royal Cork Yacht Club so much as its graceful acceptance of the inevitability of cancelling much of its Tricentenary celebrations. It tells us much about how the Club and its members have matured and thrived over the centuries into the unique institution which has been a club for long enough to be planning a Tricentenary in the first place. As sailing resumes on a broader scale, the RCYC will find that their standing in world sailing is greater than ever.

As it is, they should take every encouragement from the progress that they and their magnificent harbour have made in terms of facilities and activity since 1970, which becomes abundantly clear from most of 1970’s monthly editions of Irish Yachting & Motorboating, Afloat.ie’s direct predecessor, which in 1970 was dominated by the RCYC Quarter Millennium.

Irish Yachting & Motorboating, featuring Denis Doyle and Sir Francis Chichester Lead page from the June 1970 Irish Yachting & Motorboating, featuring Denis Doyle and Sir Francis Chichester inspecting the new Gipsy Moth V under construction in Crosshaven Boatyard

Denis Doyle and Francis Chichester considering Gipsy Moth V’s new-style fin-and-skeg configurationTwo men of the sea in serious mood – Denis Doyle and Francis Chichester considering Gipsy Moth V’s new-style fin-and-skeg configuration, with the 7-ton keel cast in Dublin. At such moments when cameras were about, Chichester was obliged to look serious, but in fact he regarded Crosshaven as one of his favourite places to relax and enjoy.

We really started to roll with the May issue, in which the lead item in Seascape, the opening collection of stories of particular interest to the Editor, led with the building of Francis Chichester’s 53ft Robert Clark-designed Gipsy Moth V in Crosshaven Boatyard. I hadn’t forgotten just how much Chichester had loathed the committee-designed Gipsy Moth IV in which he circled the world in 1966-67 with one stop at Sydney, but I had forgotten - until re-reading the story fifty years down the line - that he’d been so impressed with the improvements Sydney yacht designer Warwick Hood had made to the boat during the Sydney stopover that he at one stage contemplated getting Hood to design Gipsy Moth V.

However, in the end he went back to Robert Clark, designer of Gipsy Moth III which had been built by Tyrrell of Arklow, and as Clark by this stage had formed a working relationship with Crosshaven Boatyard through Denis Doyle, that’s where Gipsy Moth V was built.

Crosshaven built, and looking well: Gipsy Moth Crosshaven built, and looking well. Gipsy Moth brought a refreshing simplicity and clarity of design with a notably good sailing performance after the complications and problems of Gipsy Moth IV

When we all went back to Crosshaven in July through various offshore races finishing in Cork Harbour, Gipsy Moth V was afloat and Francis Chichester was in the village and having himself a fine old time among the crews who took part in the week-long Quarter Millennia Offshore Regatta which followed the feeder races.

This relaxed state of affairs came to an end when Mary Doyle took the nautical knight up to Cork Airport to meet an incoming flight with the formidable Sheila Chichester on board. The plane pulled up on the apron outside the Terminal Building, and almost immediately a distinctive red trouser leg emerged from the opening door. Chichester whispered to Mary: “Oh dear. That’s the trouser suit we were knighted in at Greenwich. I think the fun is over for a day or two.”

Meanwhile, everyone else continued to have much sport and fun throughout the Cork summer of 1970, but in looking back at those magazines of the time, the abiding impression is of the greyness of it all, mainly because black and white photos were still totally dominant, but also there’s the primitive nature of the facilities.

The Royal Cork Yacht Club's clubhouse in 1970The Royal Cork YC’s clubhouse in 1970, with the long sloping jetty across the mud in the foreground. Photo: W M Nixon

The Royal Cork clubhouse was only a tiny hint of what it has become today, though I do rather miss the old bar – originally from the time of the Royal Munster YC – which was in the shape and spirit of the great aft cabin of a mighty ship from the Golden Age of sail, but it wasn’t remotely commodious enough for today’s level of business.

As to getting afloat, it had been by a long jetty across mud – incredibly adhesive mud, as revellers would learn from time to time - and then by dinghy or club launch to your moored yacht out in the Owenboy River. However, by the time of the special regattas of 1969 and 1970, a large floating pontoon had been assembled at the club, and there was limited -though for many boats tide-sensitive - rationed berthing there.

first partially tidal RCYC pontoon was in place for the Quarter Millennium in 1969-70The beginnings. This first partially tidal pontoon was in place for the Quarter Millennium in 1969-70, but it wasn’t until 1974 that the RCYC had the beginnings of its marina, yet it was the first club marina in Ireland. Photo W M Nixon

Yet it wasn’t until 1972 that Ireland saw the first salt-water marina, and that was a local council amenity at Coleraine on the estuary of the River Bann on the North Coast.

But then 1974 the Royal Cork installed the beginnings of its marina, a new-fangled and very popular Autumn league followed that same year as a consequence, and since then progress has been taking place on almost every coastline - despite what some still-deprived areas might think - and it is Cork Harbour which has been leading the way.

This has been fulfilling an historic tendency. After all, the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork came into being partially because the landowners around the harbour sometimes found the most convenient way to get about his complex area of water and into the city was by boat, and it didn’t take long for working boats used for personal transport to be developed into something more luxurious.

Then the age of steam brought a new wave of harbour transport, with routes criss-crossing the harbour, and steamer piers and landing stages being installed at strategic locations, with many of them – or the remains of them - still in evidence. Local railways did provide an alternative, and so too did roads and cars as both improved, but the steamers survived for a remarkably long time.

When John G Sisk, who recently featured here as the first owner of Sarnia, was a schoolboy in Cork during the upheavals and dangerous strife of the early 1920s, for his safety he lived in his parents’ house in Myrtleville, travelling home by the harbour steamer to Crosshaven each evening and then continuing by pony and trap the two miles to the house.

Being John G Sisk, he optimised this situation. He knew that he would spend some time on the early morning steamer going back up to Cork city next day, so he was able to spend his evenings roaming freely in boyish adventures in the fields and beaches of Myrtleville, knowing he’d a clear time-slot for his homework on the morning ship to school.

Cork Harbour Paddle Steamer in the Port of CorkCork Harbour Paddle Steamer in the Port of Cork. They gave convenient access to piers and landing stages strategically located all round the harbour

All round Cork Harbour you can see the remains of the old steamer call-points, and there are many other little local ancient harbours too, some so old their original uses are forgotten. For a while, indeed, it seemed that the great days of Cork Harbour as an amenity, every bit as much as it’s a commercial asset, had been forgotten too.

But that has changed in the past fifty years, and particularly the past twenty. The Port of Cork and the Council have been beavering away installing landing and berthing facilities at key locations through this myriad island-filled harbour, transforming it for mini-cruising, for although there are real beaches in some choice locations, elsewhere mud is still king, and getting neatly and cleanly ashore at a safe berth makes all the difference in visits to the islands and remote locations.

Cork Harbour 1970, when there were very few officially-recognised berthing and landing facilities. Cork Harbour 1970, when there were very few officially-recognized berthing and landing facilities

Cork Harbour 2020 landing and berthing facilitiesCork Harbour 2020 is very much work in progress, with most years seeing significant additions to landing and berthing facilities. 2020’s big breakthrough will be Cove Sailing Club’s new marina at Cobh which is currently being installed, thereby bringing the Harbour’s marina total up to six - or seven if you count the extensive berthing facilities available in Cork City itself, and eight if you add in the Naval Yacht Squadron’s berthing in Haulbowline. Imaging: Jack O’Keeffe

The two people who lead the movement in making the best possible use of everything that Cork Harbour now has to offer are Monkstown’s Jack O’Keeffe, who’s busy with Drascombes when he’s not busy with kayaks when he’s not on some project involving Meitheal Mara (with it sometimes being a combination of all three), and Eddie English of Cobh. Eddie’s webinar this week, providing a guide to every hidden corner of this fantastic history-laden harbour, was required viewing, an eye-opener for anyone whose knowledge of Cork Harbour is restricted to biennial participation in Cork Week.

Cork Harbour guru Jack O’Keeffe in his DrascombeThe Drascombe that gets to places the locals didn’t even know existed – Cork Harbour guru Jack O’Keeffe racing single-handed in the Dun Laoghaire Harbour Bicentenary Regatta in 2017. Photo: W M Nixon

Eddie English’s First 36.7 Holy Grounder at Blackrock Castle Eddie English’s First 36.7 Holy Grounder at Blackrock Castle in the upper harbour

Jack O’Keeffe put together the remarkable “Corkumnavigation” of Cork city by kayaks and paddleboards last weekend, a real adventure which took the participants from crowded city-centre quaysides with visiting naval vessels looming over them, right into what seemed like the deepest heart of the countryside with trees closing overhead above clean narrow and winding waterways, while at other times they were going through a cityscape which might have been Venice.

Cork City directly accessed from the sea by last weekend’s CorkumnavigationIt mightn’t quite be Venice, but who’d have thought this was an area of Cork City directly accessed from the sea by last weekend’s Corkumnavigation. Photo: Jack O’Keeffe

Cork Harbour which seem very distant indeed from the open seaThere are parts of Cork Harbour which seem very distant indeed from the open sea, and this is one of them, reached in Cork City during last weekend’s Corkumnavigation. Photo: Jack O’Keeffe

Next weekend, Jack is leading a Drascombe flotilla around the harbour, and he’s to give an illustrated talk on the Inner Harbour to Meitheal Mara shortly, so it was time to update available data. It’s thanks to him that we have the interim gazetteer of landing and berthing facilities around Cork Harbour, for it’s such a complex place with so many small local developments taking shape that it needs constant monitoring by people like Jack just to keep up.

No better man. On Wednesday evening, I was supposed to be phoning him at home to discuss how this was all coming together, the idea being that he’d be comfortably at his desk slurping a cup of tea or something stronger, and comfortably able to take the ideas forward. But while there was a semi-liquid noise when I got through, it was a squelching rather than a slurping, and he seemed slightly breathless.

The lost harbour of Carrickgremman on Little IslandDrascombes are the Heineken boats – they reach the places the others can’t. This is the “lost” harbour of Carrickgremman on Little Island. Photo: Jack O’Keeffe

“Don’t mind me” he said. “I’ve just heard about a tiny hidden Cork Harbour beach I didn’t even know about, and I just had to go and see for myself. I’m nearly there, and I think I can see a little patch of sand. If you don’t get some photos from me later tonight, you’ll know it was quicksand….”

The photos arrived. But what with Jack boldly going where no skipper had ever gone before, and the unquenchably enthusiastic Eddie English taking his First 36.7 Holy Grounder into places where most of us wouldn’t take a paddleboard, we’ve serious Cork Harbour information overload. So you’ll just have to go and see for yourselves, confident that if Lockdown continues in some limited form, there’s already an entire cruising universe within Cork Harbour without having to even think about going out to sea.

landing pontoon on Spike IslandA convenient facility to provide access to a fascinating place - the landing pontoon on Spike Island, with Cobh resplendent beyond. Photo: Jack O'Keeffe

And in all its glory, the place is another expression of the continuing spirit of the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork as expressed through the Royal Cork Yacht Club and all the other clubs around this unique area of sheltered scenic water. In this time of travail, we wish them well, and thank them profoundly for the fine example they’ve set for sailors everywhere.

Paddy’s Point along the causeway towards Haulbowline Calm morning in a busy harbour. The aerial view from above Paddy’s Point along the causeway towards Haulbowline with the Naval Base complete with Yacht Squadron marina, and Cobh beyond with a cruise liner in port. Photo: Port of Cork

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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