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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.