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Happy Irish Sailing Days May Not Be Here Again For a While, But We Can Hope…

26th December 2020
The sort of days which will return "when all this is past". The Doug Peterson-designed Contessa 35 Witchcraft of Howth racing in ISORA Week 1991 in Howth The sort of days which will return "when all this is past". The Doug Peterson-designed Contessa 35 Witchcraft of Howth racing in ISORA Week 1991 in Howth Photo: Patrick Roach

Our header photo is one whose use had not been anticipated for at least another month, and hopefully not at all. For it was optimistically expected that by late January, we'd have evidence the vaccines were beginning to work, with their roll-out accelerating by means of ever-greater degrees of efficiency in a general situation of the pandemic being under control, and thus a sunny escapist image of a magic sailing moment would be superfluous to requirements.

However, writing this a couple of days before Christmas, the abiding thought for now is attributable to Chairman Mao, or so it's said. Admittedly he wasn't exactly a laugh-a-minute merchant at the best of times. But his response to the supposedly uplifting cliché from a follower during The Long March, to the effect that it's always darkest just before the dawn, was well flattened by the Chairman's monotone response: "It's always darkest just before it gets completely black".

A bit OTT even in these straitened times, perhaps. But a week ago just as Sailing on Saturday 19-11-20 was hitting the screens, the news came through that the 2020 Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race had been cancelled for the first time in its remarkable 76 year history, with just a week's notice.

It should not have been such a surprise and so much of a special disappointment, but even the almost unlimited research resources of the vast Nixon Verbiage Industries complex had failed to provide the info that there'd been a new and particularly virulent COVID outbreak in Sydney's northern beach suburbs, while the Tasmanian Diplomatic Corps had completely overlooked its duty to inform us that their authorities – previously noted in the 19th Century for keeping Irish patriots forcibly sequestered on their lovely island – were now taking steps to prevent anyone coming near the place at all.

This should have been this morning's header photo – the start of the Rolex Sydney-Hobart RaceThis should have been this morning's header photo – the start of the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race

That would admittedly have removed the maddening dawdle up the Derwent which has frequently concluded the Hobart Race since 1945, but it has also wiped out the Sydney-Hobart Race completely while it's at it, leaving those of us who rely on it as a Yuletide release valve when all the seasonal pressure dial readings are rising.

This is not helped by the news that, having kept it at bay in exemplary style, Tokyo is now experiencing a COVID surge of unprecedented power, which suddenly makes everyone aware that the supposedly secure Olympics 2020 in their new slot of July-August 2021 may not be such a surefire runner after all.

Yet just across the China Sea, the People's Republic - where it all may or may not have begun – is holding China up to the world as the perfect ideal of how to deal with COVID-19. So the inescapable logic is that if Japan cannot now hold the year-late Olympics, the entire circus should be shifted across that same China Sea to a place where – having put up completely new fully-equipped hospitals from scratch in six weeks - creating half a dozen Olympic arenas in a couple of months should be a doddle.

Finn Class racing at the 2021 Olympic venue of Enoshima near Tokyo. The postponed regatta in July-August – which would have been the Finns last appearance as an Olympic class - is now itself in question with a new pandemic outbreak in JapanFinn Class racing at the 2021 Olympic venue of Enoshima near Tokyo. The postponed regatta in July-August – which would have been the Finns last appearance as an Olympic class - is now itself in question with a new pandemic outbreak in Japan

But as we are now only too well aware of the kind of regimented and highly-disciplined social structures which makes such things possible in China, as a precaution our would-be Olympians would do well to get a copy of the Little Red Book for bedtime reading, while the Olympic Council of Ireland should be exploring ways and means whereby our athletes can gain associate overseas membership of the Chinese Communist Party, as such a link would smooth the way should a Chinese location become the 2021 Olympic Venue of last resort.

Forgive the ramblings, but this morning all over the world Rolex Sydney-Hobart followers should be tuning in to a race already under way, and getting their very necessary dose of Australian summer and sailing culture. It's not quite Mad Max territory, but there's enough in the varied characters who strut their stuff each year in the dash to Hobart to make you realise that it's only from Australia that Max Max could have emerged.

But instead, we have to retreat into a miasma of sailing memories conveyed through preferably sunny photos, and for years this image of the red boat in sunshine has been sitting in a corner of my screen with the notion that bringing it up full screen will blow away any temporary melancholy.

It's a ploy which doesn't always work, as its contrast may only accentuate the downer. But generally, it does the trick. It was taken during ISORA Week in 1991 or thereabouts at Howth, and I'm racing the partnership-owned Doug Peterson-designed 1976-built Contessa 35 Witchcraft of Howth (we bought her at Hallowe'en 1990) with shipmates-for-the-week John MacDonald on left (he's the father of noted sailors Emma and Ross) and Don O'Donnell on the right in the white hat, with the rest of the willing crew assembled from the hiring fair which gathered at the top of the marina bridge each race morning, for in those pre-offshore sailing school days, ISORA Weeks were magnets for people keen to get involved in the offshore game.

The photo is by Patrick Roach, longtime photographer with Yachting Monthly who later branched out freelance, in fact, he may have done so by the time this was taken, for not only did this one appear on the cover of Yachting Monthly nearly thirty years ago, but variants from it provided the cover girl for other sailing publications. It seemed that magazine Art & Picture Editors just couldn't get enough of a bright red boat in vivid sunshine when usually they had to make the best of white-hulled or occasionally dark blue boats in poor light.

The 1912-built Ainmara and the 1976-built Witchcraft together at the Down Cruising Club in Strangford Lough. In 1964, the Round Isle of Man Race was won by Ainmara. Thirty years later in 1994, it was won again under the same command, this time by Witchcraft. The 1912-built Ainmara and the 1976-built Witchcraft together at the Down Cruising Club in Strangford Lough. In 1964, the Round Isle of Man Race was won by Ainmara. Thirty years later in 1994, it was won again under the same command, this time by Witchcraft.

Another plus is that you can see some of the faces. Only John MacDonald can remember Patrick being there in his little RIB, the rest of us were recovering from the challenge of getting our ludicrously large spinnaker up and drawing. But this has been achieved, we're starting to pull away from the next boat in line, and for a nano-second – captured by the photographer – pure existential bliss is the mood of the moment.

The Contessa 35 is a remarkable boat, heavy for her size – she's nearly two tonnes heavier that the large Sigma 38 - and notably comfortable in a seaway, with the weight tending towards amidships, a feature we emphasized in making her a proper cruiser-racer by carrying an over-powered electric anchor winch beside the mast. and having the 83 metres of 7/16" chain in a self-stowing vertical box under it beside the mast, which is well aft.

This midships weight location greatly reduces hobby-horsing to windward, and removes that awful corkscrew steering you get on a breezy broad reach when all the weight of the boat's chain has been stowed right forward because the builders' marketing department won't allow such crude stuff as ground tackle to intrude into the luxury accommodation….

Witchcraft on passage from Kinsale to Glandore during the 1996 Cruise-in-Company, showing the successful slightly luminous topside finish she was given as an experiment by a classic car paintwork expert. Although she carried the heavy ground tackle expected of a 40-footer, as the anchor winch and chainlocker below it were at the mast, there was little or no adverse effect on performance. Photo: Kevin DwyerWitchcraft on passage from Kinsale to Glandore during the 1996 Cruise-in-Company, showing the successful slightly luminous topside finish she was given as an experiment by a classic car paintwork expert. Although she carried the heavy ground tackle expected of a 40-footer, as the anchor winch and chainlocker below it were at the mast, there was little or no adverse effect on performance. Photo: Kevin Dwyer

For about nine years we raced and cruised Withcraft of Howth flat out until the steam began to run out of the partnership (it's rather more difficult than keeping a marriage together), with my own energies then being further deflected by interactions with orthopaedic and other surgeons.

But for those nine years, all things seemed possible in cruising to all sorts of places between the Faroes and Spain, and going round Ireland more times than we could remember, two of them in the race from which we emerged with some silverware, as we did from ISORA racing, the Scottish Series, Cork Week where one morning we woke up to find the boat had somehow provided overnight accommodation for eleven people, and the Dingle Race where we simply cruised on round Ireland afterwards, while a Witchcraft speciality was the Autumn League at Howth, where our crews might include everyone from Arctic veterans who thought racing a bit of a joke, to champion dinghy sailors who though all sailing other than racing was a bit of a joke.

Cork Week, and the fleet's in Crosshaven. Somewhere in the midst of them all is Witchcraft, anticipating Airbnb with sometimes as many as eleven sleeping on board.Cork Week, and the fleet's in Crosshaven. Somewhere in the midst of them all is Witchcraft, anticipating Airbnb with sometimes as many as eleven sleeping on board.

Our biggest problem in racing was that bright red hull colour. As the starting fleet swelled towards the line, there was no way an absurdly conspicuous red stemhead could be hidden in the crowd of white boats in debatable OCS situations, so we erred on caution, knowing that the boat's extraordinary windward performance would soon get us back in the hunt.

This was something which was well demonstrated at Cork Week when a Force 9 suddenly squall swept through the fleet as we were slugging upwind to the Fountainstown Mark. While it seemed as though the entire Sigma 33 fleet were reversing in formation close past us, in fact, they were just about holding their own whereas our old warhorse has simply found her stride, and her powerful streaking to windward though the bulletlike spray was such that the helmsman had experienced a total facial defoliation by the time we finished racing.

The red hull – superbly built by Jeremy Rogers at Lymington when I think the great Bill Green was working with him – fascinated everyone, not least a little guy whose name now eludes me. He used to be intrigued by the developing hull re-spray facility at Malahide Marina, as his own business was in re-spraying cars and particularly classic cars, where he was given free rein to replicate some unusual colours.

He saw something in Witchcraft's hull that invited experimentation, and offered us a virtually free re-spray that, he assured us, would actually make her glow. We were a bit afraid that we'd end up with something like one of those metallic colours you very quickly get tired of, but what the hell, we could always get her re-spayed again. So our little genius went to work and produced a beautiful quality finish with a slightly luminous effect which never faded, proved remarkably hard wearing, and we didn't tire of it – which was just as well, for year after year each Spring it polished up again as good as new.

The true cruiser-racer in proper ISORA long weekend mode. Witchcraft in Lighthouse Cove on Bardsey in Northwest Wales, August 1993. The previous (Thursday) evening she'd arrived across channel from Howth in to Port Dinnllaen for supper at the Ty Coch Inn. Early next morning, down to Bardsey Island for Friday breakfast (mega-feast) in Lighthouse Cove and leg-stretch ashore. Friday lunchtime across to Aberdaron for pub lunch and visit to historic little chapel where Welsh "national poet" R S Thomas is priest. Friday afternoon, super sunny sail to Pwllheli for monumental pre-race party with Squire Jones at Penmaen. Saturday: Pwllheli-Howth Race, which is also RORC event. Sunday in Howth, guests at party for winners in Evora, the Jameson house. Photo: W M NixonThe true cruiser-racer in proper ISORA long weekend mode. Witchcraft in Lighthouse Cove on Bardsey in Northwest Wales, August 1993. The previous (Thursday) evening she'd arrived across channel from Howth in to Port Dinnllaen for supper at the Ty Coch Inn. Early next morning, down to Bardsey Island for Friday breakfast (mega-feast) in Lighthouse Cove and leg-stretch ashore. Friday lunchtime across to Aberdaron for pub lunch and visit to the historic little chapel where Welsh "national poet" R S Thomas is priest. Friday afternoon, super sunny sail to Pwllheli for the monumental pre-race party with Squire Jones at Penmaen. Saturday: Pwllheli-Howth Race, which is also a RORC event. Sunday in Howth, guests at party for winners in Evora, the Jameson house. Photo: W M Nixon

As for our re-spray genius, it was a doubly-useful experience. His experiment was a complete success. He was deservedly pleased with what he'd done, which was much admired. But in working with other regulars in the boatyard, he'd quietly come to the conclusion that if his serious mortgage was going to continue to be paid with little effort, he'd have to stick with the classic cars. And who could disagree with him?

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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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