If this year had gone anything like according to plan, today (Saturday) would be seeing the SSE Renewables Round Ireland Race from Wicklow getting going, with Afloat.ie providing a list of riders and runners in this column today, while getting ourselves geared up to bring you regular updates as the race progresses. And meanwhile, one-armed sailor Garry Crothers would either be cruising in the Pacific in his Ovni 435 with a minimum crew of two, or taking his departure from the Azores with his old friend Ken Curry and his daughter Amy to sail his boat Kind of Blue home to either Lough Swilly or Lough Foyle in northwest Ireland.
Yet instead, thanks to COVID-19, we’re all in semi-limbo, just hoping that the Round Ireland will still be sailed on its postponed date of 22nd August. And certainly, the entries are rolling in with vigour (44 at the last count), as it’s northwest Europe’s last best hope of a decent offshore race of international standards in 2020.
But the public health situation in face of the pandemic requires constant monitoring, and while it’s looking good for those Irish sailing pillar events that have been put back to late August and September, the sailing community are sufficiently mature to realize that this late-season 2020 programme is still very contingent on certain positive trends being steadily maintained.
That said, this weekend’s forecast of distinctly unsummery and sometimes very windy weather may well make some would-be Round Ireland crews grateful for the two-month postponement.
Yet while we wait, with sailing as we have known it for centuries, with its lively mix of sport afloat and intense socialising ashore very much on hold, our sport is gradually returning in muted form while complying with socially-distancing and limited contact bubble group requirements to make it possible.
At the local heart of it, the timeless solo-raced Laser – now 51 years old, and as good-looking as ever – has played a key role at club and sailing school level, so much so that when they got controlled sailing going at Greystones with 37 boats first time out using the full width of the in-harbour beach-and-ramp for distance-complying launching, the abiding impression was of “an explosion of Lasers”.
It’s all part of a gradual return to what might not be sailing normality for a full year, or even more, yet it’s definitely sailing of a sort. But in the meantime, we also need the inspiration of something which is in the league of great sailing ventures and challenges to encourage us to maintain patience through the sometimes tedious re-building of sailing, and we’re lucky enough to have two different examples.
One is going to be provided next week from Les Sables d’Olonne from June 24th to 28th by the Figaro Maitre Coque challenge in the Bay of Biscay for Ireland’s Tom Dolan and Kenneth Rumball in the Figaro 3 fleet of thirty, including many of France’s top solo contenders.
And the other is the continuing story of the solo voyage home from the Caribbean by one-armed sailor Garry Crothers, who is now well through the halfway stage in his 3,600 mile voyage from the Sint Maarten back to Ireland.
At the beginning of the year, after two years of Atlantic and Caribbean cruising with his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue, Gary was working on plans and notions of going on through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific. As his fellow voyagers would put it, The West was in His Eyes.
Yet the rapidity with which the onset and spread of COVID-19 changed everything was a stark reminder of just how much the modern pattern of ocean cruising among paradise islands and along exotic coastlines is dependent on general world peace, effective governmental systems, a functioning international air travel network, and widespread levels of reasonably good health.
When that health of the general population is threatened by a rapidly spreading pandemic which respects no normal frontiers, far from being welcomed as guests, the large international “standing fleet” of ocean voyaging yachts are seen as threatening potential carriers of death-dealing virus to vulnerable little island and coastal communities.
The clamp-down was as sudden as it was total, and instead of meandering the oceans in a carefree way, the ocean voyaging community – particularly in the Caribbean where they were faced with the onset of the Hurricane Season from mid-June onwards - found themselves having to quickly implement plans to lay-up their boats as best they could - sometimes in places of limited facilities - in order to get what might well be the last flight home.
Either that, or they resigned themselves to staying put as not-very-welcome guests of the nation, with the only other option being preparation to sail for home as soon as possible, abandoning their long-dreamt more distant voyaging plans for the time being and possibly even forever.
It was an anxious situation for even the most fully-resourced ocean voyagers. But fortunately, they had the support of their global body, the Ocean Cruising Club. Thanks to the control network set up by OCC Vice Commodore and Rear Commodore Daria & Alex Blackwell, there was guidance and monitoring available.
The control centre could have been anywhere in the world with good electronic links, but as it happens the Blackwells live beside their own hidden anchorage deep among the islands of Clew Bay in Mayo. So as a result, their remarkable Irish-based transoceanic efforts of support to many boats and saw them becoming our “Sailor of the Month (International)” for May, an award which was enthusiastically and deservedly widely acclaimed.
It has been and continues to be a very international operation, including of course several Irish or Ireland-bound boats, such as the Hanse 540 Vibe to Crosshaven, the German-Irish Bee-Fenix family with their Hanse 430 Saoirse safely back to Malahide, and the Kinvara and Galway Bay family of Vera Quinlan and Peter Owens with their children Lillian and Ruari on the 39ft steel ketch Danu, getting from Antigua to the Azores with a minimal wait in quarantine isolation in Horta until the islands lifted restrictions last Monday (June 15th).
But while these crewed vessels were able to do things in a reasonably clearly-planned way, Garry Crothers with his big Ovni 435 in the little Dutch island of Sint Maarten found his situation going from acute to severe. Had the COVID-19 not arrived, he would probably by now have been be in the Pacific, with his longtime Derry shipmate Ken Curry and one or two friends or family to give the Philippe Briand-designed aluminium Kind of Blue (she was built in 2003 in Les Sables d’Olonne, where else?) enough crew to do justice to her exceptional sailing and sociability potential.
Yet instead, the options seemed to be closing off on an almost hourly basis. The basic plan was scaled back until the minimum requirement was that Garry get Kind of Blue to Sint Maarten where the famous airstrip – pilots call it the one-chance landing – provided an outside link which would bring Ken and Garry’s daughter Amy to the island, and they’d leave as soon as possible for the Azores and home.
It was quite a comedown from the lovely plans of endless Pacific cruising. But as the situation deteriorated from day to day, Garry increasingly realized just how vulnerable, how exposed and alone, ocean cruisers - and particularly solo sailors can feel - as the defences ashore slam shut, and the drawbridges are pulled up to exclude potentially virus-carrying visitors.
For the flight plans by Ken and Amy were blown away to extinction amidst the escalating international air traffic cancellations. And although there were other long-term ocean cruising boats in Sint Maarten, their crews were already much depleted, so he drew a blank in finding just one shipmate among them.
He was faced with either digging in on the island until some easing of international air travel arrived, or sailing alone the 3,600 miles for home, because at the back of his mind was the thought that he could be immured in Sint Maarten for months, and he was determined to walk his daughter and shipmate Amy down the aisle at her wedding in September.
In the end, there was only one choice, and on June 1st, Kind of Blue took her departure sailing solo from Sint Maarten, preferred destination the Foyle Marina in Derry, for her lone skipper felt that once he had the ocean rhythm going, taking the tempting stop at the Azores would put him off the pace. And anyway, the centrally-windless Azores High-Pressure Area was likely to be building, but going well west of the islands and into the Atlantic westerlies far northwest of them would be the best option for a June Transatlantic west-east voyage, while still being a major challenge for a solo one-armed sailor in a 43ft boat.
Who is Garry Crothers?
So who is Garry Crothers? Even his age seems a matter of debate, as he first made a story on this as being aged 62. Then it was upped to 66, but in fact, he’s 64. Whatever his age, he has lived several lives, yet he’s lucky to be alive at all, for back in 2007 he had a life-changing motorcycle accident which he has resolutely refused to prevent him continuing to lead a very full and active existence.
He’s originally from Bangor in County Down, where he started his sailing with dinghies and then Sigma 33s in Ballyholme Bay. His focus shifted across Belfast Lough to the University of Ulster campus at Jordanstown where he did radio studies, but every bit as importantly, he met Marie from Dunloy in the far north of County Antrim in 1974. And while he - after graduation - went off to travel the world as a Radio Officer in the Merchant Marine, they kept closely in touch such that when she started a career in social services in the City of Derry in 1980, it was the beginning of their long association with that unique place, where for some time now – they were married in 1984 - their family home has been in Culmore on the west shore of the Foyle, where the city is veering into Donegal.
With a family started, he left the Merchant Marine and sailed into a job in the rapidly-developing IT department in Queens University Belfast, where he rose to a position of unusual power as Senior Network Manager. The commute back to Derry was manageable, the family became two daughters - Amy and Oona, one now a doctor, the other a dentist – and his sailing continued from Lough Swilly with his steel sloop Mexos, which included extensive Hebridean ventures, while there was also other cruising with skipper Alan Seaton from Coleraine.
Meanwhile, at Lough Swilly he’d found a kindred spirit in Ken Curry - who was later to own, sail and cruise a Sadler 25 - as Ken was developing an interest in the Sailability concept in a cross-border context, which began to interest Garry with his technical turn of mind.
But this became more focused after 2007, when there’d been the motorbike crash. Garry was buzzing along – and I can’t imagine he was exactly going slowly - when a car ahead of him tried to make a sudden U-turn. The resulting crash was horrific, and it would have done for a lesser man, but we’re talking somebody very special here. Somehow he gradually emerged from a litany of injuries – several of them unbelievably severe – until in the end the only real problem was that while the surgeons had saved his very badly damaged left arm, he had little function in it, and it caused chronic and frequently acute pain.
For nearly ten years he battled with the burden of this arm, exploring all forms of pain relief while busy with others things such as developing Foyle Sailability with Ken and others. In 2015, four Lough Swilly and Derry yachts – one of them commanded by Garry – cruised a round Ireland fund-raiser in 2015 from their sea base at Greencastle in Donegal to Sailability Centres at Carrickfergus, Carlingford, Royal St George YC in Dun Laoghaire, Kinsale, Galway and Killybegs.
Meanwhile, the slow but sure mills of the legal process had been grinding on, and eventually, Garry received compensation for the 2007 accident. The accident had been life-changing, but so was the amount of the compensation. So while he’d sailed and cruised for some time in his own little steel sloop, this gave him the opportunity to up-grade big time, and he made a very shrewd choice indeed in going for an Ovni 435.
But with this remarkable acquisition entering the equation and all sorts of fresh possibilities of serious voyaging arising, another decision was needed. For nearly ten years Garry had been struggling to make his left arm into something useful and relatively pain-free instead of a sometimes excruciating burden, and he felt he was making no progress.
So Ken knew that maybe something was up when he got a phone call one Sunday evening in 2017 from Garry to see would he like to meet for a pint of Guinness. It was by no means the first time they’d shared a pint together, but this was special, as the upshot of it all was that Ken soon learned that, after much thought, his friend was having his crippled arm removed in an operation in the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald on the far side of Belfast the first thing next morning.
Yet he’d barely had time to reflect on the most convenient route from Derry round Belfast to visit his shipmate post-operation in the distant Dundonald hospital before the phone rang late on the Tuesday afternoon: “Are you coming for a pint?”
Garry Crothers had been away to Dundonald, he’d had his wasted arm removed, and he was now back home in Derry and feeling great and virtually pain-free and a just a little bit thirsty.
So clearly we’re not dealing with some run-of-the-mill guy here, and this vid from the recent RNLI Bangor Online Bowline Tying Competition shows him managing his condition with such competence that it makes you think the rest of us might be just a little over-laden by having two arms……
The passage home from the Caribbean has not been easy. Even though Garry has what Daria Blackwell agrees is an almost Zen-like calmness with a sensible determination to keep up his sleep levels, the tropics at night served up disobliging squalls, such that through one long period of darkness, he was struggling to save his main after one of the full-length battens started to come adrift and threatened to wreck the entire sail in the fierce gust.
Just think of what would be involved in doing that yourself with your two strong arms in full daylight, and you begin to get some idea of what Garry has overcome. Now, at last, he is into those classic Atlantic westerlies which aren’t as classic and as steady as we’d like to think, but for steady showing of sea miles they’re vastly preferable to hot squalls from all over the place, and as he has enough fuel for 700 miles of motoring, Ireland is almost within reach regardless of what now happens to the sails.
That said, sailing is his thing, and given half a chance, Kind of Blue is a real joy in which to sail the ocean. We wish him good luck, fair winds and a safe landfall, for, in his voyage, he is sailing for all of us. He is sailing for the Round Ireland fleet which didn’t go today, and he is sailing for the Clipper fleet which won’t now be arriving in Derry in August.
You can follow the progress of Kind of Blue and other OCC boats as entered by Alex Blackwell OCC here