There are three Royal Cork Yacht Clubs. One is the globally-recognised historic institution which is directly descended from the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork founded three hundred years ago, the oldest yacht club in the world. The second is a remarkably successful competitive sports organisation which produces sailing and offshore racing athletes to Olympic standard. And the third is a friendly neighbourhood sailing club in a charmingly extended clubhouse, a club which is integral to its community of Crosshaven, and a quietly important part of the everyday life of its ordinary sailing members, while at the same time being the flagship expression of the Harbour of Cork in its recreational mode.
This year, the globally-recognised historic institution was naturally taking world centre stage as the focal point of a major international celebration of its seniority in our sport. But as that has been largely cancelled in a timely, mature and exemplary response to the worldwide pandemic of coronavirus, the other steady, rocklike and ever vital third version of the Royal Cork has emerged, gallant and unbowed, to continue the Club’s time-honoured role of serving its own people and place, playing the key role in providing the people, the boats and the enthusiasm for Crosshaven sailing to resume in a carefully-planned way at an area level.
The club and its antecedent organisations may have had several homes over the centuries. But ever since the Royal Munster Yacht Club moved from its up-harbour Monkstown base to quietly take over the new premises of the Cork Motor-Boat Club at Crosshaven in 1923, a location has developed where sailors of all levels and ages – from young absolute beginners to seasoned international campaigners – can get in their sport from a base which is secluded from the many other busy activities of this magnificent harbour, yet at the same time provides speedy and convenient access to the great sheltered stretch of water and the open sea off it, with fine coastal cruising areas within easy reach.
The centralisation at Crosshaven became complete with the amalgamation – led by Clayton Love Jnr - of the Royal Munster at Crosshaven and the more senior Royal Cork from Cobh, in 1967 at Crosshaven in time for a two year Quarter Millennial Celebration in 1969-70. And while the more recent development of new marina and berthing facilities all round Cork Harbour have seen additional organisations moving into the mainstream of sailing provision, the Royal Cork at Crosshaven continues to be in a league of its own in the breadth of its activities, influence and leadership role.
It is something which Irish sailing at large tends to take for granted as being the way things in Cork harbour - and particularly Crosshaven - have always been within living memory. So it can be salutary to hear the views of perceptive visitors when they first discover the vibrant Crosshaven mixture of international sailing centre and down-home community-focused training and sailing centre.
Once such was world sailing pioneer Robin Knox-Johnston, who first became acquainted with the Crosshaven scene when it was a stopover on a five-stage two-handed Round Britain and Ireland Race. Having done several such events involving a number of ports in different countries, he was accustomed to the fleet in which he was racing being the complete focus of attention in each visited port.
But while Crosshaven was tops in warmth of welcome and efficiency during their 2-3 day stopover there, his abiding impression is of a second parallel club which burst into life each morning as shoals of RCYC junior sailors in a variety of classes from Optimists upwards went afloat in waves of sail for a day’s training and racing. The young crews did take in the wonder of the fleet of internationally-renowned ocean-racing specials which were visiting their club. Yet they were equally determined to get out and get sailing themselves regardless of the sailing Gods in port, and that was what particularly impressed Robin Knox-Johnston.
This flurry of the junior trainees going afloat each weekday summer morning is of course repeated at many clubs throughout Ireland. But it is the Royal Cork’s comprehensively organic and evolving waterfront along the Owenboy River which gives the many aspects of a classically healthy sailing club such a special dynamic, with a natural interaction between the different levels of interest and ages of those involved.
It is this easy continuation and interaction between the generations and the different levels and types of sailing and boating interest which gives the Royal Cork a formidable core strength. That strength has withstood whatever adverse events have come the club’s way over three centuries, and provided it with the inner confidence to face the demands which the Tricentenary would pose.
For although Cork Harbour and the socio-economic circumstances around it in 1720 were ideal for the highly-innovative creation of the world’s first yacht club, the times have moved on. Other places have found that their own success enabled them to move sailing development ahead, and there has been an undoubted tendency for the centre of gravity of the international sailing scene to move away from sometimes wet and windy islands off the northwest coast of Europe, towards places with a warmer and more reliable climate.
Yet despite that, while it may have been through thin times, the spirit of sailing never went from Cork, and as the sport in its modern form developed through the 1900s, the Water Club evolved into the Royal Cork Yacht Club, acknowledged in its ultimate seniority by organisations as venerable and distinguished as the Royal Yacht Squadron and the New York Yacht Club, and gallantly sailing on among the clubs of the world as “neither the biggest nor the wealthiest, but simply the oldest and the best”.
Thus as the countdown of five years and more to its Tricentenary in 2020 took shape, the RCYC faced its year in the global sailing spotlight with quiet confidence and thorough planning. The way that other leading international clubs responded favourably, supportively and co-operatively to its proposals augured well for a very special year indeed, and with Colin Morehead installed as the 42nd Admiral at the AGM on January 21st 2020, everything was settling into place as planned.
And then came COVID-19. It took some time for some major administrators and indeed for many governments to grasp the totality of what was happening as the pandemic spread. But the Royal Cork Yacht Club gave both the sailing community and the world at large a clear example in its precise response. Just two months after its anticipation-filled AGM in January, on March 27th the RCYC confirmed that as indicated on March 15th, all events in June and July relating to the Tricentenary – which included some very major international events in July – were cancelled.
In business administration, they say that any decision - even a wrong decision - is better than no decision at all. But there were many who reckoned the RCYC, through its senior officer board of Admiral Colin Morehead and Vice Admiral Kieran O’Connell (Chairman of the pillar event, Volvo Cork Week) were being hasty. Yet they were proven right twice over both in making a timely decision, and in making what has proven to be absolutely the right decision.
The fact that the Royal Cork took this momentous step, this highest of high-profile decisions so soon, made it much easier for other sailing clubs and organisations to follow suit. And as the rightness of what was an extremely painful but very necessary decision at the time becomes ever more apparent, the Royal Cork’s unique local, national and international positions makes its emergence from the Lockdown of greater relevance than other clubs.
For although clubs and organisations more inherently nimble than the Crosshaven club may have seemed to pioneer the lockdown exit in a speedier fashion, the RCYC’s status as a role model is unrivalled, and any action it takes in these extraordinary circumstances has to be carefully considered.
Thus it’s reassuring to know that as soon as the clampdown had been imposed, the club’s decision-makers were closely monitoring developments, with the Admiral setting the tone with his clear belief that whatever happens, 2020 is still the Tricentenary year - you simply cannot postpone such a thing - and it is their clear duty to do their very best for whatever visitor-involving events that might still possible in August and September.
But meanwhile, as local Lockdowns ease, their first duty is to their own members and the gradual restoration of the RCYC programme of junior training and club events, particularly club racing, and this has been under way at a quietly-accelerating socially-distance conscious pace since June 9th, with the pace accelerating at the end of June such that as of this weekend the club has already staged seven races for adult classes, while the juniors have had less formal contests as part of their curriculum.
The calm competently managerial style of Colin Morehead has been at the heart of it all, and when we remember that he had spent three years and more in detail planning of the Tricentenary before becoming Admiral on January 21st this year, it’s clear that here is a strong and able character capable of a heroically philosophical approach to a major setback, yet the description of him as “stoical” seems somewhat inappropriate, for he has accepted and dealt with the change in the RCYC’s plans with a good-humoured attitude which has helped to cheer up everyone.
But then, Colin Morehead is Cork sailing blueblood through and through, and calmness in the face of sailing administration adversity is bred into him. His grandfather married Alice Donegan, daughter of the quintessential Cork sailing polymath Harry Donegan (1870-1940) of the legendary inaugural Fastnet Race veteran Gull, while the Morehead's themselves were a long-established sailing family. Colin’s father Robert raised his family in a Lee-side house in Blackrock where boats were never far away, while summer holidays with the grandparents in Currabinny meant total involvement with the Crosshaven sailing scene, in Mirror dinghies, a Laser later, and crewing in his father’s Sadler 25 Blue Jay, those he raced against including one Robert Bateman, racing the David Thomas Quarter Tonner Robin, which became Irish Quarter Ton National Champion (ECHO) before her owner-skipper started to devote all his time afloat to sailing photography.
As for young Colin Morehead, in the summer after leaving school he spent three months Solent-based as a crewman on the mighty former J Class Velsheda, which in those distant days of the 1980s was a long way from the immaculately restored classic she is today. Her then-owner was Terry Brabant, a Southampton scrap-metal merchant who was gallantly obsessed with getting the long-decommissioned Velsheda sailing again, and the result was mixed - to say the least - but she was definitely fully-rigged, and a colossal sailing challenge.
Yet Colin Morehead emerged unscathed and toughened from an experience with left him with some extraordinary memories, and he went on to work with AIB in a number of posts which took him to Dublin for several years – he crewed with Harry Byrne at Howth in the successful Club Shamrock Rapparee and with a colleague who had a GRP Folkboat based in Dun Laoghaire - and he’d a period with the bank in the Channel Isles where he met his future wife, Irene McEvoy from Clare, and they now have two children, Robert (16) and Katie (11) – while he kept up his sailing with crewing on a Contessa 32. Then after the mandatory stint with the AIB outpost in the Isle of Man, he found his way back to AIB in Cork around the turn of the Century (he now manages the Cobh Branch) and made a gentle return to Crosshaven sailing by buying George Bushe’s last boat, a GRP Seamaster 23 to which the great yacht-builder had added many super-useful extras, making an already good little boat very good indeed…
But the boom times were rolling, like everyone else he up-graded – in Colin Morehead’s case to a Bavaria 33 – and found himself Captain of the Whitesails Class. It was now that the Royal Cork became fully aware of his infectious and effective enthusiasm, which saw him introducing all sorts of imaginative handicap systems which gave everyone a chance. This was soon resulting in unprecedented regular turnouts of more than thirty boats, and an annual prize-giving dinner which filled the club with just this one class alone, for everyone picked up a gong of some sort or other.
But then came 2008 and the economic crash, and everyone had to pause for breath. Boat-less for a while, as the first green shoots appeared Colin Morehead got himself a little Orkney motor-boat just to get afloat. But he craved sailing, and as his “Recession Buster” he traded across to the 1991-vintage First 210 Bene Bebe. She was meant to be a stop-gap sailing cruiser, but as anyone who has sailed this long-lived Beneteau marque in one of its many manifestations will know, this is one big-hearted little boat, and for a Cork harbour enthusiasts she meets all your needs, so he still has her and is well content.
But his imaginative work with the White Sails Class had been noted, and he was asked by RCYC Admiral Pat Lyons to take on the Royal Cork’s implementation of the of the Irish Sailing Association’s Try Sailing initiative, which he did with such success that for 2016 he was the recipient of the ISA President’s Award. Yet by the time he received that at the ceremony in Dublin in February 2017, he was already well-drawn into chairing the RCYC Cork300 Committee, and plans for 2020 with many international ramifications were well in place with considerable detail and commitment when he became RCYC Vice Admiral in 2018, on line to become Admiral for the Tricentenary in 2020 with its huge and complex international and national programme centred around Crosshaven.
For the rest of us, the sheer random destructiveness of the pandemic in this year of all years in the Royal Cork Yacht Club is still almost impossible to grasp, yet for those right at the eye of the storm, an almost preternatural calm seems to have taken over. They’ve led the way in accepting that the international aspect of the celebration simply won’t take place - for it’s something that just can’t be postponed for a year or even two years - and almost immediately they’ve re-focused on the core of the club with the clear message that the Tricentenary is still very much being celebrated, there’ll be major events such as the Optimist Nationals and the Laser Nationals in August, and in the meantime, all energies are being devoted to getting the club racing and home events programme running smoothly with numbers steadily building up as people adjust to the new circumstances.
Thus as of today (Saturday) the Royal Cork at Crosshaven has already completed the Admirals Chace in Cork Harbour last Saturday, and eight significant club racing days and evenings too, while the junior programme has been under way in controlled form since June 9th.
Naturally, it was all being done in a tentative sort of way initially, but Wednesday and Thursday of this week have clearly crossed a threshold, with Wednesday seeing the National 18s racing with relish in three contests, albeit in grey conditions so of course the winners on a scorecard of 2,1,2 was 50 Shades, sailed by Nick Walsh, Eddie Rice and Rob Brownlow.
As for Thursday, for a while, it looked like an evening of calm air ghosting as the fleet went out. But a brisk a brisk and sunny nor’westerly swept in, and suddenly everyone found they were sailing again without a care in the world other than the immediate concerns and demands of boat racing, with Bob Bateman’s photos saying it all.
The White Sail fleets were at it last night, both at Crosshaven and across the harbour at Cobh, so club sailing is rapidly getting up to speed in Cork Harbour. And there is indeed a Royal Cork Yacht Club Tricentenary Celebration under way, even if tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon will see a brief occasion of some formality at Crosshaven to send up the signals at RCYC that Volvo Cork Week 2020 is cancelled.
At the beginning of this week, that such an event was scheduled to take place at all seemed a matter of some solemnity. But since then, we’ve had the sheer joy of sailing re-assert itself in Cork Harbour. Life very much goes on, albeit in a modified form such that we conclude with a video issued by the RCYC on Thursday and fronted by Admiral Colin Morehead himself, guiding us through the new ways of using that much-loved clubhouse.