With just four weeks to go to the proposed re-scheduled start of the SSE Renewables Round Ireland Yacht Race 2020 on August 22nd, the word is that a final decision as to whether it is going ahead – and indeed, if it is still going ahead, then in what form – will be given next Monday, July 27th.
Most of those who have the resources, experience and energy to mount a practicable Round Ireland campaign will themselves be either sailing professionals with a realistic sense of how difficult it is to put an event of this complexity together while complying with Pandemic regulations which are mainly aimed at shoreside circumstances which cover the entire population, or else they will be successful business entrepreneurs who function all the time in a challenging and changing environment.
Either way, they will be well aware of the difficulties faced by those running an event which, while it may have been first sailed forty years ago and is being staged for the 21st time this year, is in effect a one-off happening each time round, with an in-built requirement to bring a wide-ranging selection of stakeholders along in concert with the organisers to fit in with the circumstances of the time, which are difficult in coronavirus-haunted 2020.
The key organisers in 2020 - Wicklow SC Commodore Kyran O’Grady with former commodore Hal Fitzgerald as Race Director - are dealing with a situation in which they are not only facing a non-level playing field, but the angle of pitch’s inclination is changing constantly, and for good measure it feels as though the goalposts are being moved all the time as regulations as to who and from what country can and cannot visit Ireland without needing quarantine seem to acquire different interpretations, depending on which official agency you most recently consulted.
With its traditional mixture of a week-long shoreside Maritime Festival in Wicklow town in advance of the race, coupled with the need for a fleet of 50-plus boats –some of them quite large ones - to be RORC-scrutinized beforehand, there are social distancing infringements possible at every stage. All of this is allied to the extraordinary crowding of the town on start day, with its harbour area and the coast nearby packed with spectators to create a nightmare situation for infection control, even if the worst of the current outbreak can be shown to have long passed in Ireland by August 22nd.
It is of course perfectly feasible to dictate viable shoreside controls and starting arrangements which would by-pass all this. But then, the resulting event and lack of a sense of occasion ashore would be at variance with the mythology and spirit of this race. Yet most sailors would be prepared to accept this. But inevitably, no matter what way a race is run in today’s special circumstances, the potential for friction with the non-sailing people of Wicklow town is a real cause for concern.
The current reality for sailing in merging from COVID-19 is that the more run-of-the-mill, sea-oriented and non-spectator-related your event is, the more likely it is that you can resume something approaching your normal sailing programme while still being regulation-compliant.
Ordinary club racing – and the more ordinary the better – ticks all the boxes. It’s a closed world almost entire unto itself. And it’s an activity which reaches its apotheosis in the Thursday night cruiser-racing in Dublin Bay, a specific nautical-and-neighbourhood phenomenon which some day will surely merit a proper sports sociology study.
Thus this week it mustered 112 boats, which is near enough a thousand sailors. Yet despite the numbers, it was broadly regulation-compliant. But as for attracting vast crowds of closely inter-acting infective droplet-spreading spectators – forget about it. People go down Dun Laoghaire pier on a pleasant Thursday evening for walks of varying energy levels, and if the sunlit sails of yachts add to the attraction of the scene, that’s fine and dandy.
But very few would go down to actually watch yachts race, for of course, that’s something best done while actually taking part in the race yourself, as it gives it much more meaning, whereas those strolling down the pier have better things to do, such as agreeing who is to put the bins out in the morning.
At a different level of sailing organisation, the nimbleness of the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association in working around the Lockdown requirements has been praised here in Afloat.ie several times, and this past week the YellowBrick tracker people piled in with their support on Twitter.
#ISORA are well & truly been back in the water with a host of races for summer 2020! We're proud to be tracking partners for their exciting list of races with #racetracking screens here: https://t.co/F6Oa16Ao7o #sailsafe #dublinbay #boats #yachtracing #CoastalSeries #IrishSailing pic.twitter.com/Qp96pMwJ2O— YB Tracking (@ybtracking) July 21, 2020
In effect in 2020, the ISORA programme is shaping up to be like virtual sailing, except that those little boaty shapes moving across the screen are real boats. It’s just that after the tracked finish, they don’t do traditional offshore-racing boaty things like heading straight for the berth nearest yacht club bar - on the contrary, they head for their compliant home berth, even if it involves sailing back across the Channel.
Admittedly ISORA has started 2020’s shortened season modestly enough with coastal races for their Irish fleet run on this side of the Channel, with an overnight Dun Laoghaire to Dun Laoghaire starting last night (Friday). But things step up on the 8th August with the Dun Laoghaire-Pwllheli Race which, if all the ducks are in a row, will lead into the Welsh IRC Championship when fleets on the other side can start to build up their points total.
The trans-national functioning of ISORA involves a useful mixture of very sharp minds together with more emollient folk who are able to get things done, and the Association’s Back to Boating Protocol – published on 10th July and mainly compiled by ISORA Hon. Sec. Stephen Tudor of Pwllheli – is an educational indication of just how determined the really keen sailing people are to get their sport back up and running, within the limits set by people who know little or nothing of the world of boats and the people who sail them. You can download the protocol below as a PDF document.
In fact, for those of us who are in sailing but perhaps have an overly relaxed attitude towards it, a look at the ISORA Protocol here is a reminder of how much has been put in place over the years to make our sport so attractive in normal times:
After the mental miasma of months of Lockdown, people are extremely keen to do the SSE Renewables Round Ireland Yacht Race. So much so that, for instance, those involved with the Darren Wright (HYC) charter of the Lombard 45 Pata Negra have been actively looking at the possibility of bringing the boat to Ireland from the Solent a fortnight in advance of the race to comply with quarantine regulations, should it be necessary.
On the other hand, boats with “alien” status may find their needs met by going to Holyhead or Pwllheli for pre-race prep, and then simply sailing across channel to the start without going anywhere near an Irish quayside or pontoon berth.
In all, fifty boats are currently entered, all of them good ones, and we’ve shown some in the photo line-up. Particularly interesting in the list is one of the most recent, Christopher Opielok’s Class 40 RockallC40 from Germany, which is a Class 40 sister-ship of Corum from France, a star in the 2018 race with the noted talent of Ian Lipinsky on board. The new boat is named Rockall in line with a family tradition, Rockall III having been the former Rosy, the Corby 36 which was the successful swansong boat of the late Roy Dickson in his long and distinguished offshore racing career.
In many parts of Europe, and particularly in France, there are Class 40 boats just itching for a major race, and they hope the Round Ireland will be it. But if it is not to be, then it’s perfectly possible that the Class 40 boats will give themselves a round Ireland race. But it will start and finish in France, and Ireland will be no more than the marks of the course.
Let us hope it doesn’t come to that. On the plus side, we note that as sailing gradually resumes, there has been no report whatsoever of one of the new COVID clusters being associated with some sailing event. On the contrary, the sailing community are generally a healthy bunch who have accepted the severe limitations on their sport in the interests of protecting much more vulnerable cohorts of society.
As they have been prepared to do that, they will, in turn, be prepared to sail a Round Ireland Race even if starts with a very diminished sense of occasion, for as the race progresses, the very grandeur of the course will give the event its proper status.
It is likely that over the weekend, the race organisers will continue widespread consultations, and those consulted will, of course, include the entrants. Of all people, they will most readily understand the quandary that Wicklow Sailing Club and their sponsors and fellow stakeholders face. Nevertheless, the feeling in the sailing community, particularly as they increasingly enjoy the health benefits which the gradual resumption of sailing is bringing, is that a Round Ireland Race in the age of YellowBrick is very do-able, even within strict shoreside limits.
And with sixteen high-powered overseas entries to balance the thirty-six from the home fleet, the high regard in which the Round Ireland is held internationally is clearly evident.