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Tom Dolan: A People's Hero for Irish Sailing

26th September 2020
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Tom Dolan on Smurfit Kappa maintaining concentration, keeping the boat moving, staying on the optimum course……the Figaro Solitaire 2020 was a massive test of focus and wakefulness for the lone sailors over hundreds of miles in light winds Tom Dolan on Smurfit Kappa maintaining concentration, keeping the boat moving, staying on the optimum course……the Figaro Solitaire 2020 was a massive test of focus and wakefulness for the lone sailors over hundreds of miles in light winds Photo: Adrien Francois

When solo star Tom Dolan was told last Saturday evening that the exceptionally calm condition of the inner Bay of Biscay meant that the proposed final fourth stage of the Solitaire du Figaro 2020 would not be sailed, among the first things he did was to phone his longtime sailing friend Gerry Jones back home in Ireland. For that cancellation of the final stage confirmed the leaderboard on the results of the first three stages, and it resulted in the Meath sailor finishing the 2020 event at fifth overall as the best-placed non-French skipper since 1997.

It says much that, in the instant wave of euphoria and the wild party mood which swept over the leading dozen or so skippers in St Nazaire, Dolan's almost immediate instinct was to contact the sailing friend and mentor whom he'd met many years ago through Glenans Ireland in Baltimore, where Gerry Jones had recognised the young Meath man's enormous natural sailing talent.

Tom Dolan at a Pre-Race briefing during his early days in FranceTom Dolan at a Pre-Race briefing during his early days in France

It certainly wasn't a talent which you would have expected to emerge from Tom Dolan's background as the son of a farmer in that hidden part of north county Meath beyond the Boyne and the Blackwater. But one day his father happened to glimpse - in a Buy & Sell magazine - a classified ad with photo of a Miracle dinghy. It was a sort of enlarged up-graded Mirror which lacked the magic of the original and had totally failed to catch on in Ireland. Thus the price was for nothing, so a deal was done and the boat collected from Boyle in County Roscommon, and that weekend, Dolan Senior and his young son Tom were fulfilling the father's long-held dream of a little bit of sailing on the nearest decent-sized lake to home, which happens to be rather a classy one, as it's Lough Ramor.

Tom's first command – the Miracle dinghy was a rarity in Ireland.Tom's first command – the Miracle dinghy was a rarity in Ireland

Where it all began – Lough Ramor in the middle of IrelandWhere it all began – Lough Ramor in the middle of Ireland

Knowing how much Irish farmers value the tradition of the family farm passing to the next generation, it's doubtful if that little boat would have ever seen Dolan family ownership if the father had foreseen its ultimate outcome. For young Tom was hooked by this first very experimental introduction to sailing, and instead of spending the key years of his life in his 20s and early 30s in learning the lore of working the land, his home place has become Concarneau in Brittany, and he has been learning the salty ways of the ocean and the coast in the pressure-cooker world of French solo and dual sailing at the top level of the MiniTransat and Figaro Solo circuses.

As a young Irish person from a non-sailing background, he was in one of the later cohorts to find their way into our oddly-inaccessible sport through the Glenans Ireland set up in Baltimore, rather than through the more established route of family and friends. The Glenans business model was ultimately based on the frugal conditions which existed in late 1940s France, which transferred very well to the austerity of Ireland in the 1970s and '80s. But the advent of the Celtic Tiger and the ready availability of package holidays to sunshine-guaranteed sailing schools greatly reduced the appeal of Glenans in Ireland.

However, by the time its Baltimore operations were moving towards a close, Tom Dolan had found this means of vibrant self-expression through sailing and tuition with Glenan Ireland and was ready to spread his wings in a broader setting. And in Gerry Jones, he had met someone with a true talent scout's eye for sailing ability, a generous-hearted man who had a foot in both the established sailing world and in Glenans, and someone moreover who recognized and understood the growing determination of the young Meathman to take this sailing game just as far as he could.

Concarneau in Brittany. Tom Dolan's new home port is a characterful old place with a highly-developed modern marine industry. Concarneau in Brittany. Tom Folan's new home port is a characterful old place with a highly-developed modern marine industry.

So by 2011 aged 24, Tom had taken the step of moving to France to make his way in the small and very specialised industry which has developed around solo and short-handed racing, eventually settling in one of its most congenial centres at Concarneau in Brittany. He knew that he was already significantly older than many of the young Turks under the age of 20 who were establishing their mark through various sailing academies and specialised bursary schemes. But equally any overview of the French sailing scene showed some continuing stars who were much older than himself. And anyway, this was what he wanted to do, his determination never faltered even if, for the first year or so, Brittany in the depth of winter could seem a lonely enough place.

But enthusiasm and energy soon provides its own company, and his willingness to work hard and get involved meant that at times he could get into a boat maintenance and preparation programme that sometimes resulted in the loan of the boat to compete as a skipper in his own right in one of the lower-profile events.

This was mostly being done in events in and around the MiniTransat programme, the race across the Atlantic every four years for highly-developed 6.5-metre boats which can often prove embarrassingly fast when set in competition with much larger more orthodox craft. Even when sailing a loaned Pogo 2 in a Mini event, Tom was making his mark, such that he soon acquired the moniker of L'Irlandais Volante - the Flying Irishman – and this was further emphasised when he finally bought his own new Pogo 3 in 2015.

The Flying Irishman - this vid shows Tom at his best, carving his way through the fleet with the new boat

It all looks very complete and well-resourced, but he acquired the boat in the most basic form possible using limited funds built around a small inheritance – "I bet the farm" he quipped at the time – and finished her himself while making income from a Sailing Academy he was running in Concarneau with his close sailing buddy Francois Jambou.

Life was acquiring a more stabilised form and a settled Concarneau base as Tom and Karen Charles Boiteux set up home together. But while the sailing fundamentals were there, with the countdown to the 2017 Mini-Transat underway, good results were coming in during various preliminary events, yet a really solid main sponsor was still needed.

Thus although the new boat appeared in races during 2016 with various sponsorship logos on the sails, they were for small amounts, and in the entry lists she was unequivocally-named as "Still Seeking Sponsor". But one of those sponsors was Irish-based packaging giant Smurfit Kappa, in a trial deal negotiated through its Paris unit, and by 2017 this had been firmed up to become a main sponsorship for the up-coming Mini Transat, while encouraging support was coming from another direction in the form of Jack Roy, the newly-elected President of Irish Sailing, who made a point of being in La Rochelle for the start of the race with its 50-plus fleet at the end of September.

Tom Dolan and Irish Sailing President Jack Roy in La Rochelle in September 2017 before the start of the Mini TransatTom Dolan and Irish Sailing President Jack Roy in La Rochelle in September 2017 before the start of the Mini Transat

Although by this stage Tom was building up a personal support team around himself, the mental stress was still enormous, and in the early stages of the race, he made some very unnecessary mistakes for which he continued to chide himself when a psychologically better-prepared sailor would have long since moved on. But as the race progressed his sheer talent began to show through, and by the time the final leg Transatlantic to St Lucia was well underway, he was on top form, very much in contention and well placed in the top ten such that in the final stages he looked like being fourth.

But when Smurfit Kappa came into port, she was sixth. It was an excellent placing, but where had she slipped from fourth? The skipper was in a thoughtful mood, but finally, he revealed that in driving flat out in a classic trade-wind squall, Smurfit Kappa had pitch-poled and Tom found himself in the ocean, looking up at the keel of his inverted boat.

If you're going to pitch-pole, you wouldn't expect a rig of this relative size to survive the experience, yet Tom Dolan showed it was possible in the Atlantic in 2017.If you're going to pitch-pole, you wouldn't expect a rig of this relative size to survive the experience, yet Tom Dolan showed it was possible in the Atlantic in 2017.

Never before had a Mini-Transat boat pitch-poled and come up with her rig intact. Yet The Flying Irishman established a first yet again. Everything was still there and more or less intact as the little boat shook herself upright like a dog emerging from a river, and Tom hauled himself back on board to get things back on track. Although a couple of places had been lost when the somewhat subdued skipper came into port, his name and the boat's name were fully established as serious contenders, and it was time to move on to the exalted heights of the Figaro Solo.

There was much Irish experience and precedent to draw on, as it was in the Figaro that Damian Foxall first took centre stage on the global offshore sailing scene, and since then Marcus Hutchinson had developed his "Figaro Academy" which provided an entrée to this quintessentially French event for young sailors from other countries who accepted that while it may indeed have been very French, it was the only show in town at that level anywhere in the world.

Thus the Hutchinson clientele came from several countries, and young David Kenefick from Cork was among them for a couple of successful years. But with Hutchinson's involvement in the French offshore scene expanding to include the management of IMOCA 60s for events like the Vendee Globe, it was getting quite crowded up there for Irish sailors on the peak of top-level professional offshore racing.

Yet in this fast-moving world, Tom Dolan and Smurfit Kappa got themselves a Figaro 2 for that marque's last main series in 2018, and the Dolan career stayed well on track with the first prize for top rookie, with the awards due to be handed out at the Paris Boat Show in December, when the new foiling Beneteau Figaro 3 would be unveiled.

For now, the main target had become the Golden Jubilee of the Figaro Solitaire in June 2019, when the fleet would take in Ireland with a gala visit to Kinsale. So there was a very definite buzz in the air when the new-look foiling Beneteau 3s were unveiled at that Paris Show, with Irish Sailing's Jack and Rosemary Roy's reassuring presence in evidence to back up Figaro aspirants Tom Dolan and Joan Mulloy.

Joan Mulloy, Jack Roy and Tom Dolan and the Paris Boat Show, December 2018. Photo: Rosemary RoyJoan Mulloy, Jack Roy and Tom Dolan and the Paris Boat Show, December 2018. Photo: Rosemary Roy

But while Mulloy was very much a Figaro beginner at that time, and has since stood down from front-line competition after starting a family, Tom Dolan was seen as the developing force of proven achievement and significant potential, something which was underlined with his award of the 2018 Rookie Prize at the ceremony in the show.

Awards for Tom Dolan in the 2018 Figaro Solo at the Paris Boat ShowAwards for Tom Dolan in the 2018 Figaro Solo at the Paris Boat Show

Yet everything in 2019 seemed to conspire against more Dolan success in that season. For sure, there some events of high achievement, but the pressure of getting the fleet of brand new Figaros race-ready for the big event provided a host of manufacturing teething problems to which Tom's boat seemed even more prone than most. And though, when everything was in place and functioning properly, in steady sailing conditions he was clearly back to his old self as l'Irlandais Volant, it was a disappointing Figaro Solitaire, and he finished 25th overall.

But being Tom Dolan, he bounced back, albeit after some coruscating self-analysis which was published in July 2019 in Afloat.ie in response to the question: What was your own debrief after La Solitaire, and how does that affect your strategy for next year?

"When I was ahead I seemed to be as good as the best, and when I was behind I was terrible, as bad as the worst. So I want to get my head sorted out a bit. I am planning to work with a very good sports psychologist in Dublin who works with the Irish Olympic team. I saw her a bit last year, but this year time ran away with work on the boat and training and everything. The psychological side of it fell by the wayside. I did not put that side of it high enough on my list of priorities. I imagine the things I need to work are basic: Decision making, and how I can look after and manage myself better.

How to break the pattern of doing badly when you are losing. That's in the head, isn't it? I maybe concentrated too much on finding speed, and I did find it. And that's great if you are going fast in the right direction. But if you are going fast in the wrong direction……"

In due course, 2020 was approached in a much better frame of mind. But as the New Year turned, it became increasingly clear that the pandemic-facing world might have bigger problems to deal with than the state of mind of professional athletes. Yet in the end, it all does revert to the personal, and for Tom Dolan as for others in his situation, it was a matter of maintaining the healthiest possible attitude as the French sailing authorities grappled with ways of providing some sort of sport while complying with regulations, no easy matter in a country in which the shoreside aspect of major sailing events is often on an even bigger scale that the event itself.

New boat, full sponsorship – Tom Dolan gets to grips with the foiling Figaro 3 New boat, full sponsorship – Tom Dolan gets to grips with the foiling Figaro 3

With the Figaro put back to September, in July the Drheam Cup starting 18th July from Cherbourg and going round Brittany to La Trinite sur Mer offered an interesting challenge for standard offshore racers and the Figaro fleet racing both solo and double-handed. Apart from learning how to handle COVID-19 compliance ashore and afloat, it was very educational for the large mixed fleet in that the clear overall winner on the water was Figaro solo sailor Sam Goodchild racing Leyton which - for those who hadn't previously experienced it - was a very telling introduction to the stratospherically high standard of modern Figaro racing.

Covid-proofed…..Tom Dolan (right) and Francois Jambou racing to second in class in the big-fleet Drheam Cup from Cherbourg to La Trinite in JulyCovid-proofed…..Tom Dolan (right) and Francois Jambou racing to second in class in the big-fleet Drheam Cup from Cherbourg to La Trinite in July.

Tom Dolan for his part had teamed up with old shipmate Francois Jambou to race double-handed, and they took second in division, but now the challenge was to stay in tune and keep fit through times of uncertainty and frustration until the Figaro Solitaire got underway from St Brieuc in the middle of the North Brittany coast at the end of August, with the first stage 642 miles round the Fastnet Rock and back to St Brieuc.

Every stage was covered in detail on Afloat.ie here so now we can take the broader view of noting that while Tom Dolan was once again showing that he could be one of the fastest boats in the fleet, in 2020's edition he was spending more time making that speed in the right place and in the right direction.

In other words, he was a serious contender throughout, and it was hugely reassuring to note that when in subsequent stages he might find himself down the fleet, there was something remorseless about the way Smurfit Kappa chose the right tactical options and steadily milled her way into the leading group.

The four stages of the Figaro Solitaire, September 2020.The four stages of the Figaro Solitaire, September 2020

The most difficult stage was what proved to be the final one, 512 miles from Dunkerque down the English Channel and round west Brittany through the many islands inside Ushant and on to St Nazaire in Loire-Atlantique. Anyone who has cruised in that tide-riven maze of rocks and islands inside Ushant will wonder how on earth a fleet of 35 solo sailors could seriously race in light airs and misty conditions in such waters. Yet they did it, some did it very well indeed, and Tom Dolan was one of them, confirming himself into a good fifth overall when the first three stages were tallied in St Nazaire.

And that's where it ended. Difficult and all as it is to believe with the weather Western Europe has been experiencing since then, a week ago in St Nazaire the Figaro Solitaire organisers were looking at 36 hours of total calm right over the period they hoped to stage their final 183-mile "sprint". At first, they proposed a shortened course, but as the freakish weather became even flatter, it would have been a lottery if they'd managed a finish, and everything pointed to the decision last Saturday night, which led to that euphoric phone call to Dublin and the good news for Gerry Jones.

A solo skipper in harmony with his boat – Tom Dolan finished the 2020 Figaro in tune with ship and seaA solo skipper in harmony with his boat – Tom Dolan finished the 2020 Figaro in tune with ship and sea

So now the show is on the road more firmly than ever, with a delighted Smurfit Kappa looking forward to continuing with the Dolan campaign through 2021's Figaro Solitaire. And who knows what lies beyond that, with a crew of mixed gender in an offshore racing boat scheduled for inclusion in the 2024 Olympics, and Tom Dolan demonstrably an Irish offshore sailor of proven standard.

Certainly, it was something for thought when Sailing on Saturday was talking with Tom on Thursday, and he has already had some approaches from potential co-skippers. He was acutely aware that decisions made in the next few months could affect his sailing for years. But even so, the top item this week has been sleep and more sleep. Tom Dolan has been sleeping for Ireland since Monday. And he sure has earned it after more than a year of frustration, rounded out by three weeks of intense concentration and ferocious sleep deprivation.

But before hitting the scratcher, there was the prize-giving, and as Marcus and Meagan Hutchinson presented the Vivi Cup (named after their vintage 30 Square Metre) a couple of years ago as the prize for the top non-French contender in the Figaro Solitaire, this provided the opportunity for the Man from Meath to do his thing, and here it is:

Marcus & Meagan Hutchinson's classic 30 Square Metre Vivi gives her name to the trophy for the top non-French performer in the FigaroA boat about as different from a Figaro 3 as you can get – Marcus & Meagan Hutchinson's classic 30 Square Metre Vivi gives her name to the trophy for the top non-French performer in the Figaro – in 2019 it was Alan Roberts, in 2020 the winner is Tom Dolan

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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