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Irish Sailing Season of 2020? Despite Everything, There Definitely Was One

5th December 2020
Sunshine at sea, clouds over the land – the season of 2020 is defined at the National Yacht Cub's Sesquicentennial Regatta in Dublin Bay on September 5th, with Flying Fifteen Class Captain Neil Colin (DMYC) racing Ffuzzy with Margaret Casey Sunshine at sea, clouds over the land – the season of 2020 is defined at the National Yacht Cub's Sesquicentennial Regatta in Dublin Bay on September 5th, with Flying Fifteen Class Captain Neil Colin (DMYC) racing Ffuzzy with Margaret Casey Photo: Con Murphy

It would be needlessly painful to look back at the Afloat.ie features of a year and more ago anticipating the coming sailing season of 2020. They exuded optimism, anticipation, energy and enthusiasm for the approaching twelve months. They looked forward to a season at home and abroad which showed every promise of being the greatest Irish sailing year ever in local, national and international terms.

But as it happens, there's now little or no discussion of What Might Have Been. We've been through a lot. And we obviously still have a great deal to get through. But we've learned to cherish the good things that did happen, while the mood of the sport of sailing is clearcut - we're moving on.

Thanks to our sailors and organisers proving so adept at managing to pull some sort of regulation-compliant sport and seafaring out of the severe limitations of a rolling pandemic, we've reached the sensible stage of living for the moment and the future, while enjoying the memories of those sometimes contorted happenings which, in the end, made for an interesting, absorbing and – when it happened – an enjoyable season.

The heart of it all - the Royal Cork YC at Crosshaven.  Photo: Robert BatemanThe heart of it all - the Royal Cork YC at Crosshaven. Photo: Robert Bateman

In achieving this, the Royal Cork Yacht Club set a mature example which encouraged and sustained the rest of the community. 2020 began with the RCYC – acclaimed at New Year for the seventh time as the Mitsubishi Motors Sailing Club of the Year – facing with justifiable pride and confidence into its Tricentenary Year with an internationally supported programme which reaffirmed its unique historical position going back to 1720.

Yet as the shutters began to come down, the RCYC - calmly led by Admiral Colin Morehead – set an example of mature acceptance which carried valuable influence way beyond the world of sailing. The season the RCYC had planned over several years as they worked towards 2020 had been shaping up to be utterly exceptional in its quality. But the national and global health crisis - faced by us all as February became March - was likewise utterly exceptional. It was unprecedented in a hundred years.

Admiral Colin Morehead of the Royal Cork Yacht Club: His calm and responsible leadership when the pandemic struck his club in its Tricentenary Year was exemplary. Photo: Robert BatemanAdmiral Colin Morehead of the Royal Cork Yacht Club: His calm and responsible leadership when the pandemic struck his club in its Tricentenary Year was exemplary. Photo: Robert Bateman

In this time of need, the inevitably high profile series of cancellations which the Royal Cork had to implement was done in such a considered, reasonable and indisputable way that Admiral Morehead and his team carried not just their club with them in a remarkable display of unity, but they provided an example to others on land and sea which resulted in one of the most gregarious and sports-mad countries in the world sensibly accepting extreme social limitations which, in the long run, have stood Ireland very much to the good.

Sailing may not be a spectator sport, but it is a very visible activity when it does occur, particularly with substantial racing. Thus although many club fleets were approaching full commission as lockdown loomed, the fact that the boats stayed on their moorings or in their marina berths - or indeed didn't launch at all – sent a very strong message in line with national policy.

Before all this, there had been the first achievements for the year's Irish sailing in Australia at Sail Melbourne in January, where the National YC's Annalise Murphy – ultimately selected to be Ireland's Laser Radial Women's representative when the 2020 Olympiad is staged in Japan in 2021 – got herself back in contention while young Eve McMahon successfully took the opportunity to get acquainted with seriously grown-up competition.

But for Ireland, the real star of the show was Optimist sailor Rocco Wright of Howth, who in Melbourne was overnight leader going into the final race in a fleet of 255 boats, and came home with the Silver before going on to avail of the last of unfettered travel in February with the Optimist Euromarina Trophy in Alicante in Spain, where again he took Silver, this time in a fleet of 401 boats.

Rocco Wright (left) takes Silver in the 401-boat Optimist fleet at the Euromarina Cup in Alicante in FebruaryRocco Wright (left) takes Silver in the 401-boat Optimist fleet at the Euromarina Cup in Alicante in February

Back home the sporting lights were going out big time by mid-March, leading into total April lockdown. But then in May when the first wave began to ease as the approaching summer's more benevolent weather began to work its magic, the infection figures began to go the right way and some restrictions were scaled down. It was highly-focused club administrators such as Howth Yacht Club Commodore Ian Byrne who trawled through the sometimes confusing official directives in order to provide a meaningful guide to sailing folk as to what they could do afloat, and when and where.

Such guidance was needed in a time of frustration and bewilderment, for it was becoming increasingly clear that being near or on the sea played a beneficial role in combatting the virus. Yet it would have been irresponsible and selfish for sailing enthusiasts to flaunt their good fortune when a large section of the population was restricted in locked-down isolation in unpleasantly confined spaces.

But equally, there were increasing possibilities for sailing after the first wave of COVID-19 had clearly peaked, and key organisations such as Dublin Bay Sailing Club under Commodore Jonathan Nicholson and Honorary Secretary Chris Moore explored the possibilities and timings while planning the production of a virtual DBSC Yearbook 2020 in co-ordination with Afloat.ie.

Nimbleness, flexibility and shoreside numbers control were pivotal to it all, and in this the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association led by Peter Ryan of Dun Laoghaire, and the South Coast Offshore Racing Association headed by Johanna Murphy of Cobh, were well-placed to deliver the goods, with ISORA in particular providing a remarkably complete programme even though – for Irish sailors - it had to be restricted to our own waters, as a planned expansion to take in cross-channel races to Wales was stymied by more sever restrictions being imposed on the Welsh side in August.

People who get things done – Peter Ryan of ISORA and Johanna Murphy of SCORAPeople who get things done – Peter Ryan of ISORA and Johanna Murphy of SCORA

By late June and early July, restricted club racing programmes were getting under way. But in early July the winds and weather were uncooperative, and it was in the second week of July - on the evening of Thursday July 9th to be precise - that a brisk and sunny northwesterly swept away a period of wet and gloomy calm to provide the Royal Cork cruiser-racer fleet with their first real contest of the year, and they and photographer Bob Bateman grasped the opportunity to make a clear statement that while the sailing season of 2020 was going to be in a very truncated form, there nevertheless was going to be some Irish sailing at its very best.

We're here! The keelboat racing season starts for the Royal Cork on Thursday July 9th.  Photo: Robert BatemanWe're here! The keelboat racing season starts for the Royal Cork on Thursday, July 9th. Photo: Robert Bateman

Up in Dublin Bay the season had been moving gingerly into action at much the same time, and when the fresher more summery weather arrived to bring everyone to life, DBSC found their fleet numbers were pushing towards the 140 mark, while the venerable Water Wags – doing their own thing as usual – managed a best turnout of 24 boats.

Thus if we take the broad view, it means that nationally, somewhere towards a half the people who could have been going sailing chose to do so once it became available in its limited form. Everyone was entitled to their own approach to it amidst the uncertainties and plain horrors of the pandemic, and some clubs chose to function only for junior sailing which came under the heading of teaching and training.

Don Street's secret – live well, live long, and sail a DragonDon Street's secret – live well, live long, and sail a Dragon

But of course there were gung-ho types who raced afloat the minute it became remotely possible, and in Glandore the irrepressible Don Street has his 90th birthday some time around July 24th, and that became the focus of a super summer series for Glandore's famous classic Dragons.

Up in Howth while juniors had been in action from an early stage, the keelboats really got going with the Aqua Two-Handed Race round Lambay on July 18th, with 38 boats racing and Diane Kissane and Graham Curran winning in one of the HYC club-owned J/80s.

Summer perfection – Sutton DC Commodore Ian McCormack and Nobby Reilly on helm, racing a J/80 in the Aqua Two-Hander Round Lambay at Howth.  Photo Lynn Reilly Summer perfection – Sutton DC Commodore Ian McCormack and Nobby Reilly on the helm, racing a J/80 in the Aqua Two-Hander Round Lambay at Howth. Photo Lynn Reilly

Meanwhile, the local classes were coming to life, and eventually, enthusiasts like Ian Malcolm coaxed 13 of the 1898-vintage Howth 17s afloat, with Shane O'Doherty and partners in the 1900-built Pauline winning the annual championship (the "Worlds", would you believe) while the annual Lambay Race went to the Massey-Toomey syndicate in the 1907-built Pauline. As for Howth's Puppeteer 22s which date back to 1978, some have reached the age to make them ripe for restoration, and it was one of these, Puppeteer Number 1 Shiggy Shiggy restored by Paul McMahon & Laura Ni hUallachain, which won.

The 1907-built Howth 17 Deilginis, winner of the 2020 Lambay Race, has undergone many restorations…Photo: W M NixonThe 1907-built Howth 17 Deilginis, the winner of the 2020 Lambay Race, has undergone many restorations…Photo: W M Nixon

…..while the 1978-built Puppeteer 22 prototype Shiggy-Shig has just undergone her first restoration, and it may have helped owner Paul McMahon to win the 2020 Class Championship…..while the 1978-built Puppeteer 22 prototype Shiggy-Shig has just undergone her first restoration, and it may have helped owner Paul McMahon to win the 2020 Class Championship.

The dinghy classes got going properly by mid-August at Crosshaven, and though a storm was to blow out the Lasers competition, the four day AIB Optimist Nationals concluding on the 16th August were if anything plagued by over-light winds. It came down to the wire with Johnny Flynn of Howth snatching it by one point from the home club's Ben O'Shaughnessy, with Howth's Rocco Wright third, while the National YC's Clementine van Steenberge was top girl at fifth.

Cork Harbour's unique (in Ireland) fleet of National 18s had reminded everyone of their exuberant existence when Charles Dwyer's Shark II won the Dognose Trophy over the same August weekend, but their Irish Nationals weren't staged until 12th September when an eight race series saw the title go to Nick Walsh, Rob Brownlow and Eddie Rice in Fifty Shades ahead of Alex Barry in FOMO and Colin Chapman's Aquadisiacs in third.

In Dun Laoghaire, it's the Flying Fifteens which top the listings as the largest One-Design keelboat class, and in August in a final period of easing on travel restrictions, they managed to stage a 16-boat-limit Nationals at Dunmore East, and in a blast from the past, superstar John Lavery was persuaded out of retirement to campaign with Alan Green, and in rugged conditions, they recorded a convincing win.

This was heartening news for the National Yacht Club, for the sheer scale of the Royal Cork Yacht Club's pandemic-induced cancellations had tended to obscure the fact that 2020 was also supposed to see the 250th Anniversary celebrations of Lough Ree YC, the 150th (the Sesquicentennial) of the National YC in Dun Laoghaire, and the 125th of Howth YC.

The fact that all four clubs were managing to get substantial sailing of some kind was – in the circumstances of 2020 – a matter for celebration. But by August and particularly by early September, it was all taking place in the knowledge that thus far, the predictions of the epidemiologists had proven remarkably accurate, and so the expectation of a second wave in September was accepted as highly likely.

Thus sailing levels in August were almost frenetic, but it was sensibly done with a minimum of razzmatazz. They'd a splendid long weekend Quarter Millennial Regatta at Lough Ree, but other than those actively involved, most folk didn't hear about it until afterwards. Equally, the Mirrors had their Nationals at Sligo apparently organized through a system of telepathy, but that enabled them to keep it comfortably compliant in every way.

The SB20 Bango on the way to success at Lough Ree's Quarter Millennial, with junior champion Ben Graf on helm, LRYC Commodore John McGonigle at middle, and owner Kevin Fenton forward. Photo: Alex HobbsThe SB20 Bango on the way to success at Lough Ree's Quarter Millennial, with junior champion Ben Graf on helm, LRYC Commodore John McGonigle at middle, and owner Kevin Fenton forward. Photo: Alex Hobbs

Shannon One Designs helping Lough Ree YC celebrate its Quarter Millennium. The Shannon Class celebrates its own Centenary in 2022. Photo: Con MurphyShannon One Designs helping Lough Ree YC celebrate its Quarter Millennium. The Shannon Class celebrates its own Centenary in 2022. Photo: Con Murphy

The Mirror Nationals at Sligo, venue for the 2021 Mirror Worlds. The winner in the 2020 Nationals was Lough Ree's Caolan Croasdell (foreground). Photo: Con MurphyThe Mirror Nationals at Sligo, venue for the 2021 Mirror Worlds. The winner in the 2020 Nationals was Lough Ree's Caolan Croasdell (foreground). Photo: Con Murphy

And then in mid-August, there was the big one, the Fastnet 450. In the Irish Sea, Peter Ryan with ISORA had shown what could be done with minimum staff and maximized close communications, and by season's end he was to have a completed programme with Paul O'Higgins' JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI (RIYC) the champion.

On the south coast meanwhile, the first weekend of August saw SCORA run a testing-the-waters Kinsale-Fastnet-Kinsale race which didn't frighten the horses or anyone else, and had the Murphy family's Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo from Crosshaven emerging as winner. So this in conjunction with the quiet success of ISORA saw the Fastnet 450 put together, the "450" being the combined ages of the National YC which hosted the start, and the Royal Cork which hosted the finish.

Legends of sailing. Clayton Love Jnr of the Royal Cork YC and Carmel Winkelmann of the National YC at the NYC before the start of the Fastnet 450. Clayton Love was Admiral of the Royal Cork for its Quarter Millennium in 1969-70, while Carmel Winkelmann was one of the founders of the pioneering NYC Junior Division in 1967, and the IYA Junior Programme.Legends of sailing. Clayton Love Jnr of the Royal Cork YC and Carmel Winkelmann of the National YC at the NYC before the start of the Fastnet 450. Clayton Love was Admiral of the Royal Cork for its Quarter Millennium in 1969-70, while Carmel Winkelmann was one of the founders of the pioneering NYC Junior Division in 1967, and the IYA Junior Programme.

The Murphy family's Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo from Crosshaven was winner of both the Kinsale-Fastnet-Kinsale and the Fastnet 450 races.  Photo: Robert Bateman The Murphy family's Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo from Crosshaven was the winner of both the Kinsale-Fastnet-Kinsale and the Fastnet 450 races. Photo: Robert Bateman

The course was Dun Laoghaire Pierheads-Fastnet Rock-Cork Harbour entrance. It was a rugged one for a good fleet with the 35ft Red Alert from Greystones dismasted, and in a cracker of a finish, the Murphys with Nieulargo took second on line honours but claimed the CT win from first-to-finish J/122 Aurelia (Chris Power Smith, RStGYC) while the small but high-rated SunFast 3300 Cinnamon Girl (Cian McCarthy Kinsale YC, with Mark Mansfield on board) was third across in an event which, at the time and in retrospect, was a season's highlight.

Tom Dolan's Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa found form in 2020Tom Dolan's Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa found form in 2020

Abroad, Tom Dolan suddenly found his mojo racing Smurfit Kappa in Le Figaro Solo. As he said himself, he was doing nothing with the Figaro 3 that he hadn't done in 2019, yet in 2019 he was in the crab grass, but in 2020 after they finished in St Nazaire he was very much in the frame, and made a speech at the prize-giving which went viral.

Irish Cruising

Any cruising which was taking place was inevitably muted, with attention being drawn to the problems of boats which had been in the Caribbean where the pandemic spread like wildfire, and getting out and back to Europe was the only alternative to being in lockdown for weeks or months and restricted to staying in board.

With flights being cancelled wholesale, crew were unable to get out to join homecoming skippers, and on the shores of Clew Bay, Mayo-based Ocean Cruising Club officers Alex and Daria Blackwell ran a comprehensive guidance system which helped many home. Meanwhile, all Ireland watched nervously as one-armed solo skipper Garry Crothers from Derry with his Ovni 435 Kind of Blue made the long hop from the Caribbean to Lough Foyle singe-handed in absolutely every sense of the term.

Garry Crothers on Kind of Blue with his daughter Oonagh (left), his wife Marie, and daughter Amy in cruising mode in the Caribbean. When the pandemic arrived, the one-armed sailor was alone, and had to sail back to Ireland on his own Garry Crothers on Kind of Blue with his daughter Oonagh (left), his wife Marie, and daughter Amy in cruising mode in the Caribbean. When the pandemic arrived, the one-armed sailor was alone and had to sail back to Ireland on his own

The Quinlan-Owens family's DanuThe Quinlan-Owens family's Danu

He did it, and did it well, and a few weeks later the Quinlan-Owens family with their 43ft steel ketch Danu made their keenly-anticipated homeward landfall in the Aran Islands, having made the best of their homeward voyage by being the first boat to get clearance into the newly COVID-free Azores, which seemed like a different world entirely from the pandemic-plagued Caribbean and Europe.

As for Irish waters, the cleverest move of all was made by the 1926-vintage Limerick trading ketch Ilen, which in late August and early September "between two tropical storms and ahead of lockdown", managed an educational cargo cruise between Kinsale, West Cork, Dingle, Limerick, and the Aran Island carrying consignments of choice artisan products.

The Limerick ketch Ilen in Greenland in 2019. In 2020, she fitted in a Coast and Cargo cruise in Ireland between two tropical storms and a pandemic…..Photo: Gary Mac MahonThe Limerick ketch Ilen in Greenland in 2019. In 2020, she fitted in a Coast and Cargo cruise in Ireland between two tropical storms and a pandemic…..Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

September sailing

The early Autumn saw a revival of the progression towards the 12-month-delayed Olympics, firstly with Kiel Week – where the Irish squad indicated there's work to be done – and then the Laser Europeans in Gdansk in Poland, where Finn Lynch was on form for Ireland and took a personal best.

But it all went a bit sour afterwards, as Danish champion Anne-Marie Rindom came down seriously ill with COVID-19 on her return home, the infection having apparently been brought into the championship by a Portuguese sailor.

While all this wasn't exactly sung from the rooftops, the story spread quickly, and increased the focus in safety in Ireland, where all the Irish squad had test clear on their return. By this time, with the staging of events being decided on an almost day-to-day basis, the marking of the National YC's 150th in Dun Laoghaire with a regatta had become a matter of allocating one of DBSC's Saturday race's for up-grading to all-classes regatta status, and this had taken place in style on September 5th, just in time as the graphs were starting to up again as summer receded.

It became a case of get it done while you can, and after the 1720s found they might be straying outside the limits by going back to Baltimore to complete their nationals, they finished the job at Crosshaven with Rob O'Leary taking the title.

In Cork Harbour itself, meanwhile, the annual Cobh-Blackrock Race is so such a part of the fabric of harbour life in mid-September that not staging it was unthinkable, so they defined the socially-distant limits required and off it went, with Denis Byrne's little T250 Cracker winning out overall to take the Moonduster Trophy from a remarkably diverse fleet.

Denis Byrne's Cracker, winner of the coveted Moonduster Trophy in the Cobh-Blackrock Race.  Photo: Robert BatemanDenis Byrne's Cracker, winner of the coveted Moonduster Trophy in the Cobh-Blackrock Race. Photo: Robert Bateman
The first (and only) race in the Howth Autumn League provided one of 2020's most perfect sailing days for Simon Knowles' J/109 Indian chasing down three of the hot Howth Half Tonners. Photo: Judith MalcolmThe first (and only) race in the Howth Autumn League provided one of 2020's most perfect sailing days for Simon Knowles' J/109 Indian chasing down three of the hot Howth Half Tonners. Photo: Judith Malcolm

But the shadows were closing in. Dublin Bay SC knew it was experiencing its final races even as Howth YC staged its opening (and only) race of its Autumn League in idyllic conditions. The Water Wags pushed the envelope to its limits with their final race – finishing in an appropriately emotion-inspiring sunset – proving to be 2020's last formal race in Dun Laoghaire, for the new rise of the virus saw the planned Laser Masters at the Royal St George YC cancelled at 24 hours notice.

The sun sets on 2020 club racing…..with the next lockdown imminent, the Water Wags see the sun set on Tim Pearson winning from Ian Malcolm, with Martin Byrne coming in on port tack.  Photo: Cathy Mac Aleavey The sun sets on 2020 club racing…..with the next lockdown imminent, the Water Wags see the sun set on Tim Pearson winning from Ian Malcolm, with Martin Byrne coming in on port tack. Photo: Cathy Mac Aleavey

It would have been a depressing note on which to finish the 2020 speed-sailing season, even if club activity has continued with carefully-regulated junior training sessions and events which come in under the radar using the newly acceptable buzzword of "Clinics".

But come October, and 2020's Irish sailing concluded on the most wonderful high imaginable, reinforced by an end-of-month international success. At mid-month, Pam Lee of Greystones and Cat Hunt blasted away southward from the Dun Laoghaire to Kish Lighthouse round Ireland record line in the foiling Figaro 3 Iarracht Maigeanta. Their only ambition was to set a time for a female two-handed Irish circuit, a time which until then didn't exist. So they comfortably did what they set out to do.

Cat Hunt and Pam Lee on the Figaro 3 Iarracht Maigeanta. Their record-making, record-breaking circuit of Ireland in mid-October was a tonic for the sailing community.Cat Hunt and Pam Lee on the Figaro 3 Iarracht Maigeanta. Their record-making, record-breaking circuit of Ireland in mid-October was a tonic for the sailing community.

Yet by whizzing round in just 3 days 19 hours and 41 minutes with all Ireland's sailors following them on the Yellowbrick tracker loaned by Peter Ryan of ISORA, they outperformed all sorts of comparable times going back nearly 20 years, including the existing two-handed record set by a male crew in a Class 40. Now that really was a good note to finish what may have been the weirdest Irish sailing season ever experienced, but it was very definitely a sailing season nevertheless.

Butt before we could finally declare it was all over, there came a last bit of good news from a distant island before October was out. In Malta, the organisers of the annual Rolex Middle Sea Race hung onto the staging of their flagship event on a day-to-day basis even as pandemic numbers surged in Europe. Their monitoring was rigorous, but even so, of the 71 boats entered, only 50 made it on the day, while an international listing of 21 countries had been whittled down to 15 by the start.

But it still had all the makings of a good race – "depleted but not defeated" as they put it - and in Ireland, Nin O'Leary of Crsshaven had gone into self-isolation in order to qualify. Then when he got to Malta, he passed the tests there, and was clear to ship aboard the Dutch-owned Reichel Pugh 72 Aragon. They won their class.

The Reichel Pugh 72 Aragon – first in class in Rolex Middle Sea Race with Crosshaven's Nin O'Leary on board.The Reichel Pugh 72 Aragon – first in class in Rolex Middle Sea Race with Crosshaven's Nin O'Leary on board.

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WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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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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