It’s called the SCORA Fastnet 450 which is a zinger of a name, whatever it means, and right now it’s taking shape as we go along in best pop-up style, having come centre stage after the Round Ireland Race was COVID-cancelled last week. And for those who would complain that it’s all much too short notice, at variance with the best traditions of sensible sailing organisation, well, they’re wasting their breath. For as we shall see in due course, the daddy of them all, the Kingstown to Queenstown or Dun Laoghaire to Cobh Race of July 1860, was something of a pop-up event too, all of those 160 years ago.
But to return to the here and now, the Fastnet 450 starts off Dun Laoghaire under the auspices of the National Yacht Club in two weeks time on Saturday, August 22nd, and the race begins with 150 years in the kitty, as that’s the anniversary the National YC is marking this year.
The course then zaps southward down the East Coast leaving the Tuskar Rock to starboard before heading on out past the Coningbeg for the long haul (it’s not always to windward) along the south coast to the Fastnet Rock, which is then left to starboard in a handbrake turn as the fleet heads back up the coast to finish at Roche’s Point at the entrance to Cork Harbour, and the social-distance complying welcome of Royal Cork Yacht Club at Crosshaven.
The RCYC then nonchalantly pops its cool 300 years of existence into the shared temporal pot, and bingo, we’ve the Fastnet 450, which somehow manages to seem right up to the minute and yet properly historical a well.
South Coast Offshore Racing
Clearly there are some very innovative and energetic minds in the South Coast Offshore Racing Association at work here, with SCORA Commodore Johanna Murphy of Cobh and Royal Cork YC’s Rear Admiral Annamarie Murphy working with Olympian Mark Mansfield. Speed is of the essence, and they managed to get the officially-vetted details in proper form up on the Royal Cork YC website at noon yesterday (Friday), so if this alleged Sailing on Saturdays seems to be hitting your screen well before Saturday in Ireland, please loosen up a bit – it’s already Saturday in Ulan Bator……
In the meantime, some targeted marketing (i.e. ringing around likely runners and putting up a click spot for expressions of interest on Afloat.ie on August 2nd) was extremely encouraging, with 22 boats very strongly interested even before it went official. Being quite late in the season, those who think it’s a good idea were nevertheless a bit concerned that Irish Sea boats mightn’t want to end up positioned in Cork in late August, but these fears were groundless, as the preliminary indications showed a skewing of two-thirds East Coast, and one-third Cork.
Of course, with this emphasis on the ability to accommodate late entry decisions, some boats may wait until they see what the ten day forecast looks like before committing, but it is highly likely that the Cork fleet will be into double figures by the time the boats are being positioned to Dublin Bay. And though some of them will leave that to the delivery crews in the days immediately prior to race, if enough are planning to do it over the weekend beforehand (i.e 14th to 16th August) maybe they could make a little race out of that too, for people are just gasping for any sport they can get.
As it is, for now on Friday, August 7th it’s a list good on quality and quantity, with the pace-setters from the south coast inevitably being the top boats from last weekend’s Kinsale-Fastnet-Kinsale Race, where Mark Mansfield guiding Cian McCarthy’s new Sunfast 3300 Cinnamon Girl found himself sailing on the same IRC rating of 1.023 as Denis & Annamarie Murphy’s Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo, which had the formidable talent of Nin O’Leary on the strength to provide an Olympian contest.
As reported, Nieulargo made a breeze of it, finishing five minutes after noon on the Saturday to take line honours, and though Cinnamon Girl was next in half an hour later, those rating figures were inescapable, and Finbarr O’Regan’s Artful Dodger (KYC) and Stephen Lysaght’s Reavra Too, also KYC, slipped into second and third on CT before Cinnamon Girl came home on fourth overall.
However, it’s early days yet, and the paid-up within two hours listing (in arrival order) for the Fastnet 450 already shows plenty of talent for form spotters and results-predictors to pick over as we go through the stages of the growing entry list and developing weather towards the start.
As of 3.0pm Friday, the boats are Red Alert (Rupert Barry), Aplusd (Flynn Kinsman), Humdinger (John Coleman), Blue Oyster (Mark Coleman), Nieulargo (Denis & Annamarie Murphy), YO YO (Brendan Coughlan), Valfreya (Mark & David Leonard, Juggerknot 2 (Andrew Algeo) and Blackjack (Peter Coad).
Some people find the speed of development of this race unsettling, others find it stimulating, but either way we’re inevitably reminded of the great General Dwight D Eisenhower, who gave traction to the military theory that ultimately plans are worthless, but planning is everything. He never claimed it as his own original idea, but after he’d enshrined it, its apparently almost vulgar dismissal of accepted establishment beliefs came to be seen as disguising the brutal truth.
For if ever there was a peacetime period when set plans are useless, but continuous planning is essential, then we’re living through it right now in sailing as in everything else. For sure, you have to set out fixed times for races starting and the other event-planning paraphernalia. But both organisers and participants now have to realize that it all may have to be changed at very short notice, and then maybe changed again.
The SSE Renewables Round Ireland Race from Wicklow was one of the last major offshore races scheduled for 2020 which involved a significant shoreside element, for it is inextricably associated with the town and club which has been running it for forty years.
It was that indispensable shoreside element which was its undoing. But even as the cancellation of 2020’s Round Ireland was moving remorselessly up the agenda, the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association was demonstrating that it was possible to stage offshore events of limited scope by running races aimed separately at its fleets on each side of the channel, with the courses set within national territorial waters, and virtually no direct shoreside involvement at all - they were races for sailors run by sailors, but using robots and trackers
However, the clear boundaries to this approach became evident as we neared the date for the first cross-channel foray, which would have raced the combined fleet race from Dun Laoghaire in Ireland to Pwllheli in Wales this weekend. But the different regulatory systems in each jurisdiction raise difficulties which would have been exacerbated if an international entry gathered for the Welsh IRC Championship in Tremadoc Bay, and in a sudden yet inevitable announcement last weekend, those plan were abandoned.
Thus would-be organisers have had to stand back and assess what has or has not been permissible in the developing situation. And that hardy perennial of our sport in Ireland – straightforward club racing with known personnel involvement – is proving to be the backbone of our sailing in 2020.
And in the coastal and offshore scene, as it’s clear the only racing permissible has to be within Irish territorial waters, so the raw logic of a race from Dublin Bay to Cork with a Fastnet-rounding extension was inescapable if there was going to be any meaningful event before the season was out.
It’s essentially the basic race of the absolute essentials. The boat numbers are in Cork Harbour and the greater Dublin area, so boat movement prior to the event is minimized. Autumn will be just around the corner, so Dublin owners will be appreciative of having their boats no further from home than is absolutely necessary.
So how can we claim that the glaringly pop-up element of it all is nothing new, in fact it’s positively historic. Well, back in 1860 the Royal St George Yacht Club in Dublin Bay had organised a week of regattas in early July, and the dedicated Admiral of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, the remarkable Thomas G French of Cuskinny in Cobh - still going strong at the age of 80 years - saw an opportunity for implementing his long-held dream of a distance race from Dublin Bay to Cork Harbour.
But instead of having a great blaring of publicity beforehand for this then-novel idea, he quietly circulated the idea in what we now think of as pop-up style among those owners and skipper – they came from many parts of Ireland and from England too – in the days before the week in Dublin Bay, and during the course of the regatta socialising ashore, he continued to quietly press the idea.
After the regattas had concluded, no less than 16 boats – of very varied size and type – had accepted Admiral French’s challenge of racing the 130 miles to Cork, and it started on the 14th July. But it was still very informal, with those entries only being finally firmed up on the morning of the race as the Admiral visited each boat in turn as they lay anchored, and personally collected the entry fees based on boat size, while wishing owners and crews the very best of luck and encouragement.
That year, Admiral French didn’t sail the race himself, as he wanted to get to Cobh to be sure the Royal Cork YC in its impressive premises (now the Sirius Arts Centre) was ready to receive the finishing fleet in appropriate style, a journey which in itself must have been quite an effort for an 80-year-old, as the railway system wasn’t to be extended to the Queenstown waterfront until 1862.
Before travelling back to Cork, the Admiral supervised the start of the race and saw it well on its way. Much of it was sailed in rugged windward conditions, but light airs prevailed at the finish off the Cobh waterfront for a real knife-edge conclusion, with Sir John Arnott’s 39-ton cutter Sybil – designed and built on Cork Harbour by Joseph Wheeler of Lower Glanmire – winning line honours and the race by three minutes from J.W.Cannon’s 40-ton cutter Peri, with Cooper Penrose’s 90-ton schooner Kingfisher another two minutes astern of Peri.
Sybil was skippered by the amateur ace Captain Henry O’Bryen, who had reputedly relinquished the helm for a total of only one hour during the race, a triumph for Corinthianism before it had became profitable or popular, if we may mix metaphors for a moment.
You would have thought Admiral French would have received eternal credit and respect for inaugurating this first recognisably modern offshore race. But Sybil’s owner Sir John Arnott (1814-1898) was something else, a real go-getting Scottish-born entrepreneur who’d arrived into Cork in 1837 aged 23 and launched himself into a sometimes rocky commercial career which at various stages involved heavy investment in department stores in Ireland and Scotland, horse racing both as an owner of thoroughbreds and of noted race courses, steamship companies, railways, and for a while the inevitable newspapers, in his case The Northern Whig in Belfast and The Irish Times in Dublin.
Arnott was always a man in a hurry, so it’s possible that he thought the distinguished flag officers of the Royal Cork were a bit conservative in their management. Thus he was one of a bunch of shaker-uppers who set up a new club in Cobh, the Queenstown Yacht Club, which they cleverly up-graded by taking on the tattered-remains of the old Royal Western of Ireland YC, founded in 1828 in Kilrush by Maurice O’Connell and his nephew Daniel of Derrynane among others, but wandering more or less homeless after the horrors of the Great Famine of 1845-47 had wiped out fripperies like yachting on Ireland’s Atlantic seaboard.
After a vague period in Dublin, suddenly the old Royal Western emerged re-born in 1861 in Cobh with Sir John Arnott as Commodore, and Henry O’Bryen – in a shrewd bit of window-dressing worthy of Arnott’s at their best - drafted in as Vice Commodore of the Royal Western of Ireland despite his family’s connections with the Royal Cork going back to the original Water Club of 1720.
However, all these seemingly-rebellious Young Turks in the re-born RWIYC had retained their membership of the Royal Cork YC and would in time become part of its establishment lineup. But everything seemed up for grabs in the early 1860s, and though the Kingstown to Queenstown Race was sailed again in 1861, the management at either end was less clear.
Be that as it may, the 1861 race was started in Dublin Bay on 19th July, and once again mustered 16 starters with the winner being Colonel Huey’s slippy 62-ton cutter Osprey, with designer-builder Joseph Wheeler’s own 48-tonner Avalanche having to make do with second despite having led into Cork Harbour in light airs, while E J Saunderson of Lough Erne YC was third with another even smaller and slippy craft, the 34-ton cutter Phasma.
Admiral French’s own 61-ton yawl Spell took part this time (see first name on written entry list above), but although he was to continue as RCYC Admiral until his death in 1866, he’d already been 77 when he took over as Admiral in 1857, and his enthusiastic promotion of the Kingstown-Queenstown race’s first staging in 1860 suggested an old man in a hurry to promote an idea which he’d been carrying for some time.
Certainly, at the Kingstown to Queenstown Race’s third staging on July 11th 1862, there’s a clear impression that others had taken it over, as the host club on Dublin Bay has become the Royal Irish YC from their impressive 1851-completed clubhouse, while the trophy is an expensive bit of silver plate presented by the Royal Western of Ireland YC.
For anyone seeking abstruse historical connections, it’s of interest that The Liberator, Daniel O’Connell of Derrynane (1775-1847) had been present at both the foundation of the Royal Western in Kilrush in 1828, and the meeting in Dublin on July 4th 1846 when the 1831-founded Royal Irish YC had been revived. Meanwhile, in 1862, the third Kingstown-Queenstown Race once again attracted 16 starters (though there’s no note of any entry limit), and they ranged in size from three 35-ton cutters – Ariadne (G Higgins), Coolan (G Robinson) and Glance (A Duncan – to two 130-ton schooner, Galatea (T Broadwood) and Georgiana (Capt Smith Barry).
The clear winner was the 50-ton cutter Phosphorous owned by W Turner - who is doubtless immortalized in modern Cork by Turner’s Cross - while C J Tennant’s 90-ton cutter Clutha was second on the water, but Galatea won the schooners and was reckoned second on handicap.
They arrived into the finish at Cobh where the Royal Western of Ireland was now well-established as the second club with premises at Westbourne Place next the Queen’s Hotel, and a membership which by 1863 included the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Carlisle, as well as Sir Robert Peel, at that time Chief Secretary for Ireland. So heaven only knows what politicking was going on behind the scenes, for the Royal Cork, still with T G French as Admiral, had been well settled into its purpose-designed new clubhouse in Cobh since 1854, and no-one doubted its claim of seniority in its descent from the Water Club of 1720.
As it happened, 1863 was probably the high point of the RWIYC’s time in Cobh, for the rest of the decade saw a period of economic decline, and the Dublin Bay to Cork Harbour Race wasn’t staged again until 1888. While the Royal Cork came through the thin times as it had come through many others, in 1870 the Royal Western of Ireland YC was quietly wound up at Cobh. But in the west of Ireland, and particularly with the Glynn family of Kilrush and the The Knight of Glin across the Shannon Estuary, enough of its memorabilia, artefacts and records survived for it to be revived with the opening of Kilrush Marina, with the club’s greatest modern success being Ger O’Rourke’s overall victory with the Cookson 50 Chieftain in the RORC Rolex Fastnet Race 2007.
Meanwhile, after the race of 1888, this fascinating course lay unused until 1937, when it was reinstated by the Irish Cruising Club. Naturally, Harry Donegan’s famous 18-ton cutter Gull led the contingent up from Cork to do the race, though she was under the command of Harry Donegan Jnr – “Young Harry” – as Skipper Donegan was already unwell. But he was delighted to see his beloved ship come into the harbour well in the lead approaching the finish at Cobh, until in a calm at the Spit Light within a short distance of the finish the tide set her onto the spit to the mortification of her young crew, as she dried out completely while John Kearney from the National YC in his own designed and built 38ft yawl Mavis took line honours, with the corrected time win being taken by one of the smallest boats in the fleet, Francis Cobbe’s Scandinavian built 6-ton Bermudan sloop Curlew from Malahide.
When racing from the Irish Sea to Cork was revived after World War II, it was in the form of the RORC Beaumaris to Cork Race, but with the folk memories still there of hard won places being lost in the flukey conditions within Cork Harbour, the finish was moved to Roche’s Point, while race from Cowes insisted on being even further from land influences – they finished at the Daunt LV.
The biennial Beaumaris-Cork Race was kind to Irish boats, with winners including John McConnell’s hefty Bermudan cutter Susannah (National YC) in1964, and Johnny Pearson’s 8 Metre Cruiser-Racer Orana (Howth YC) in 1966. But with boats becoming faster and mileage demands rising, in the 1970s it became the Holyhead-Fastnet-Cork Race, and it had a real buzz about it during the great days of Irish campaigning towards an Admirals Cup Team, with a startling new 40ft boat – a Two Tonner called Irish Mist II designed for Archie O’Leary by Ron Holland – setting a scorching pace.
So now, with racing restricted to territorial waters, we’ve come full circle and then gone beyond it, with the Dublin Bay to Cork Harbour theme restored, but with the 1970s addition of the Fastnet loop brought back to give it a bit of bite. This Fastnet 450, it’s quite the business – it has something for everyone who is serious about offshore racing, and is a beacon of hope for everyone who tries to keep sailing alive through this weird year.