A while back, the off-the-wall idea was mooted of creating a line of quality face-masks, tastefully printed or even embroidered with sailing and yacht club logos. The world of high fashion was already on to the idea of designer-labelled COVID-contesting kit, and in our more sedately-minded sport, some of us were thinking it might soon become a good idea to have logo-featuring facial covering if the pesky disease thing didn’t go away, thereby requiring us to make mask-wearing as nearly trendy as possible, with - in some cases - the useful juice of a touch of snobbery to give it spice.
Certainly, it will take something extra to get sailing folk to use the things. For us, they generally come with distinctly unpleasant associations, because for anyone who runs a boat with a touch of DIY effort, facemasks are part of the scenario, and they are inextricably linked with the most horrible jobs of all, such as getting the anti-fouling racing-smooth in under the aft end. And though you should of course also be wearing goggles, many don’t, while those of us wearing spectacles find our misery with specs is exacerbated with a mask by seeing everything through thickening mist.
Of course, I’m not suggesting you should immediately use your crisp new club logo-embellished quality facemask for those nasty jobs. But that said, after this coronavirus has been stalking us for a year or two, a certain cachet will attach to arriving down to join your work team of crewmates under the mighty ship, and attacking the preparation work on the nether parts of the vessel attired with an obviously very well-worn washable Royal Cork Yacht Club face mask to protect your schoolgirl complexion, and keep those nauseous fumes and poisonous particles out of the vital tubes.
It reminds me of when I first met up with American sailors wearing the always-trendy Sperry Top-Sider deck shoes. This wasn’t until the 1960s, yet the Top-Siders had been around since 1935, when Paul Sperry had become mighty inventive with non-slip soles after slithering over the side of his boat one night in Long Island Sound while wearing the usual glorified tennis shoes which passed for deck shoes in those days.
His eventual creations, with the uppers based on moccasin design, were soon fashionable, and even in the late 1960s, they still looked so good by comparison with anything in Europe that they were the height of style, and never more stylish than when looking well worn, as though they’d notched a Bermuda Race and then a Fastnet Race as well.
In fact, while I sometimes saw an American wearing an immaculately-polished pair of Top-Siders, there was never any doubt that this was well-loved footwear of considerable vintage, and it was virtually unknown to see anything remotely like a new pair of Top-Siders. Apparently the secret behind this was that, when you finally did have to buy a new pair, you’d get your gardener to wear them for a busy fortnight or even a month before you’d dream of using them yourself……
Royal Ocean Racing Club
We can’t of course get some obliging employee to wear our club-logo facemask to give it honourable venerability, but how the idea of such facemasks turn out will become part of the quaint world of club regalia folklore. Club cravats and bow ties are really a bit too much for most of us, but once upon a time, when people still wore ties, the seahorse-logo neck-tie of Royal Ocean Racing Club (where our own Laura Dillon is currently Rear Commodore) was quite the thing to be qualified to wear, and one evening in that wonderful RORC clubhouse in the heart of London, a fresh-faced young offshore-racing enthusiast burst into the bar and brightly announced to Douglas Campbell, the 100% proof Scottish barman, that he’d just become a member, and would like to buy a tie.
Douglas had a Scots accent so deep and growly you could have run the lighting off it, so he just looked up from under his heavy eyebrows and gruffly demanded: “Silk or Terylene?”
Younger readers, ie anyone under the age of about 60, will need to know that Terylene was the fancy new world-beating synthetic fibre which eventually became known, American-style, as Dacron. Our new young member back in the day in the RORC knew exactly what it meant, but he needed to be apprised of the full significance of the choice, so he responded: “I just don’t know Douglas, which do you recommend?”
Douglas ground out the reply, with his deep slow voice made even slower and deeper and growlier by this over-keen assumption of first-name familiarity:
“Well, if you just want to hold the trousers up, the silk will do. But if you need to start the outboard, then it has to be the Terylene”.
That was then, nowadays people need to be told that many offshore racers’ tenders carried quaint Seagull outboards which you started by winding a removable pull-rope round a wheel on top, and in extemis in the absence or breakage of that pull-rope, you were well stuck if somebody’s tie wasn’t up to the job – it was no laughing matter.
And nor is COVID-19, but heaven knows we need something to brighten our days as the full effects of this pandemic threaten to embrace us again in Lockdown claustrophobia, and we find that our news of sailing sport is increasingly reliant on local events which would probably be much happier to be left on their own to get on with their usually fairly private sailing.
As the dates of what would have been major national and international fixtures come and go with events un-sailed in this pandemic-constrained season, we find we’re cherishing the more manageable second-tier fixtures with a strong home-club bias which can still be staged with the proper controls in place. These are events which will probably have a slightly quirky character combined with a distinct local flavour which will provide an inbuilt level of crowd-control in these strange times.
For they are indeed strange times when, for long enough, it had seemed that “Three’s a crowd” was the mantra of the day, with social-distancing providing the code. And even now when the basics seem to be that we’re allowed close groups of ten if we watch our manners, we must always remember the ultimate fallback ruling is: “If in doubt, stay at home”.
In those circumstances, how do you transfer the safety of home and its instinctively-known rules and restraints into the fluid sociable structures of the group behaviour which used to be the natural basis of sailing’s shoreside post-race gatherings?
Dublin Bay & Cork Harbour cruiser fleets
“With some difficulty, and in a mood of constant vigilance” seems to be the answer, as we see modern classes such as the Dublin Bay and Cork Harbour cruiser fleets develop a controlled form of their normally hyper-sociable programmes, while in classic labour-intensive classes such as the Dun Laoghaire Water Wags and the Howth 17s, it seems to be a matter of baby steps - for want of a more robust phrase – as acceptable crew bubbles are evolved to make racing possible.
But with every race in a shortened season thus becoming more precious in an already limited programme, people will not lightly relinquish their carefully-assembled crew bubbles for initially attractive short-handed events. Thus when it was announced some time ago that Howth’s annual Aqua Restaurant Two-Hander Race’s format – formerly aimed at the cruisers – was going to be extended to all Howth classes when raced today (Saturday, July 18th), it seemed a reasonable enough idea at the time, when personnel limitations looked like being a central theme of the 2020 season.
However, since then the ancient Howth Seventeens have been carefully building up their fleet afloat together with the maximum crew groupings qualified to race the boats, so now their attitude to the Two-Hander invitation is: “Thanks, but no thanks”.
In a normal season, the 1898-established Howth class would sail an impressive total of between 55 and 60 races. But in this shortened season, even with some add-ons if the Autumn proves clement there’ll be far fewer races, and each one will be that much more precious as a result.
The time-honoured Saturday Howth 17 contests - each one a mini-regatta with the fleet resplendent in their jackyard topsails – have become such a pillar of the class’s programme that the idea of one of them being a race in which personnel numbers are reduced to just two per boat is something which smacks of sacrilege when they’ve found that a Howth 17 will often give of her best with four on board.
In an age when modernity is such a dominant feature of popular thinking, building up such a large group of enthusiasts with their shared joy in racing boats of an ancient type is a remarkable community achievement, but it doesn’t just happen by accident. Slightly interested newcomers are gently but persuasively drawn into the net until they become totally committed class enthusiasts.
And though the boats are based on a revered One-Design concept, an assiduously maintained double-scoring system of both scratch and handicap divisions is a class-strengthening recognition of the differences in human abilities and aptitudes, as it ensures that nearly every boat genuinely wins a prize.
In some ways, this was the biggest difference I noticed when I moved from the north to the south of Ireland very many years ago. Up north, One-Design means One-Design, and the idea of having a handicap division within a One-Design class probably offended against the tenets of the majority religion.
But in Dublin Bay and Howth, handicapping in One-Designs was regarded as being every bit as normal as having handicaps in club golf, and it was something which contributed greatly to the extraordinary longevity and good health of many of the OD classes.
The strong historical basis of all this became evident recently when the Water Wags Honorary Treasurer David Clarke was putting some old paperwork in order, and he discovered that the yellowing documents included a copy of the Evening Herald for Friday 3rd September 1939.
At first glance, you might think the Dublin daily evening paper had been kept because its front page featured disturbing news from Eastern Europe regarding an increasing unpleasantness between Germany and Poland. Indeed, maybe that had something to do with it. But the real reason it is in there is because it includes the DBSC Handicaps for the next day’s racing, on Saturday, September 4th 1939.
And they don’t half bend over backwards to keep everyone in each class involved. Few more so than the Water Wags. They may not match the mixed cruisers, where one boat – the deliciously misnamed Windward – is allowed 41 minutes. But then the Water Wags were allegedly One-Design, yet northern OD sailors would have been appalled to discover that they were so tolerant that one boat – Glanora – was generously allowed all of 15 minutes by the two hotshots, Coquette and Penelope.
Olympians Finn Lynch & Annalise Murphy
Quite what handicaps the number cruncher of 1939 would have applied to Olympians Finn Lynch and Annalise Murphy who won the Water Wags on scratch this week is beyond the realms of speculation, but those seriously interested in the well-being of grass roots sailing will have noted that Ian Malcolm with the 1915-vintage Barbara (allowed 4 minutes back in 1939) placed fourth on scratch in the Wags on Wednesday in Dun Laoghaire, while on Tuesday he had taken line honours with his 1898-vintage Howth 17 Aura at Howth, a double classics performance which few if ever can have achieved before, and evidence that, truncated season or not, some people are determined to get in just as much sailing as they can in this truncated season of 2020.
Thus they’re now developing the idea that Howth’s attractive marina/clubhouse complex provides an ideal sailing sport setup in the time of coronavirus, as on the land side it’s a completely closed compound which also provides the club’s only access to moored boats in the outer harbour, a closed compound where entry can easily be restricted to one gateway, and registration and contact tracing can be rapidly developed, particularly with Wave Regatta from 11th to 13th September in mind.
Round the Kish
As it is, the sailors of Howth have been quietly putting their good fortune to proper use, with the second race of the Fingal Series being staged last Saturday to see Dermot Skehan put in a masterclass demo with his Humphreys-designed Toughnut to do a horizon job on the rest of the fleet of sixteen in a race which took them out round the Kish, and meanwhile, HYC Cruising Group Captain Willie Kearney liaised with the sailing club at Skerries (where so far as I know there’s still no harbour master) in order to ensure that there’d be enough clear quay space for his fleet of 18 Howth cruisers to berth in a social-distance compliant style, and Skerries Sailing Club obliged.
Meanwhile, we note that the Royal Irish YC is right up to speed with the continuing twists and turns of the un-winding and re-winding of the regulations, with a crisp notice issued yesterday informing members that if they want a beer or two after today’s DBSC race, they must still order food with it.
Some day, some day maybe very distant, somebody is going to set a mighty computer to work at calculating just how much weight the thirstier part of our nation has had to put on in order to be comfortably un-parched, and yet COVID-compliant….