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Afloat.ie's "Sailor of the Year" Celebrates Twenty-Five Years

5th February 2021
At the double. Anthony O'Leary of Crosshaven and Annalise Murphy of Dun Laoghaire are the only contenders to be Afloat.ie "Sailors of the Year" twice – himself in 2010 and 2014, and herself in 2012 and 2016 At the double. Anthony O'Leary of Crosshaven and Annalise Murphy of Dun Laoghaire are the only contenders to be Afloat.ie "Sailors of the Year" twice – himself in 2010 and 2014, and herself in 2012 and 2016 Credit: Robert Bateman and IOC

In these long-lived times, a Silver Jubilee is not what it used to be in an era when Golden Jubilees, Centenaries, Tricentenaries and whatever you're having yourself are cascading around us in an almost continuous nostalgia-fest.

Nevertheless the healthy Quarter Century of the Afloat.ie "Sailor of the Year" contest deserves celebration, as it has evolved since its inception to give a true reflection of Irish sailing in all its historic and extraordinary variety. And it has done this by being based on monthly awards which – at an early stage – weren't found to be enough to truly reflect our sport's exceptional diversity, and so in some months the adjudicators have allocated two or even three awards.

Thus although this weekend we honour the outright overall winners of the past 24 years, we do so in the knowledge that each of them represents the tip of a decidedly impressive iceberg which, in a busy year, will have seen between twenty and thirty very special sailors honoured for exceptional achievements that, in the one month when they shone with extra vigour, were genuinely incomparable.

Failure is an orphan, but success has many parents. Yet as it happens, there really were several inputs for the creation of Ireland's "Sailor of the Year" competition back in the winter of 1995-96, for it was something whose time had clearly come.

In September 1995 John Lavery and David O'Brien of the National YC had won the Fireball Worlds in Dublin Bay, and as winter drew in, they were invited to the glitzy Texaco All-Star Sports Awards in Dublin, where the attendees had been selected by the sports editors of the national newspapers.

David O'Brien and John Lavery on their way to winning the Fireball Worlds in Dublin Bay, September 1995David O'Brien and John Lavery on their way to winning the Fireball Worlds in Dublin Bay, September 1995. The celebration of their success at the Texaco All-Star Sports Awards two months later played a role in the creation of the Sailor of the Year contest based on monthly awards in 1996

As it happened, there had already been a sailing presence in this gala ceremony back in 1974 when Bill Whisker of Ballyholme was there as the GP14 World Champion. But generally sailing was seldom represented, and the two Fireball stars of 1995 got to thinking of how our sport might have its own All Stars Annual event, where people from widely different sailing disciplines might get together to celebrate our sometimes crazy world of people who sail boats.

Meanwhile, the formidably effective Deirdre Farrell, Press Officer for the rapidly expanding Irish Distillers, was receptive to ideas for a broader involvement with sailing sponsorship. For although she ran the boisterous prize-giving for the biennial Round Ireland Race, she'd been particularly impressed with the turnout at the Round Ireland Sailing Record Gala Dinner which Cork Dry Gin sponsored at the National YC in November 1993 to celebrate the new and truly astonishing record set by Steve Fossett, Con Murphy, Cathy Mac Aleavey and their shipmates in the 60ft trimaran Lakota.

The celebration of Lakota's 1993 Round Ireland Record with an impressive assembly of sailors from many backgrounds in the NYC in November 1993 contributed to shaping the template for subsequent "Sailor of the Year" award ceremonies. Photo shows (left to right) Con Murphy, Cathy Mac Aleavey, Steve Fossett, David Scully and Brian Thompson The celebration of Lakota's 1993 Round Ireland Record with an impressive assembly of sailors from many backgrounds in the NYC in November 1993 contributed to shaping the template for subsequent "Sailor of the Year" award ceremonies. Photo shows (left to right) Con Murphy, Cathy Mac Aleavey, Steve Fossett, David Scully and Brian Thompson

It was something which had to be put into perspective to give it meaning, so in the early Autumn of 1993, Deirdre Farrell worked in conjunction with what was then print Afloat Magazine to extract a list of developing round Ireland sailing times going back to the 19th Century. Those who were in that list and still happily with us were invited along to a unique one-off event, whose participants reflected an even more diverse Irish sailing scene than that provided by the Round Ireland Race prize-givings. For instance, we'd the likes of Steve Fossett of Lakota rubbing shoulders with Rob Henshall from Fermanagh, who'd gone round Ireland unaccompanied on a Bic Sailboard, and there were legendary deep-sea cruisers who hadn't thought in terms of racing or records for years.

That was an inspirational memory, and it was fascinating how, when an idea's time has arrived, it can take shape with lightning speed. All-encompassing monthly awards were clearly the way to go in building up a "Sailor of the Year", and a link-up with the Irish Independent newspaper - for which I wrote a weekly sailing column for more than thirty years - gave it extra heft when allied to the "central command" of Afloat Magazine with realistic support from Cork Dry Gin.

The first Afloat.ie "Sailor of the Year", Mark Lyttle is seen in training in Dublin Bay for the 1996 OlympicsThe first Afloat.ie "Sailor of the Year", Mark Lyttle is seen in training in Dublin Bay for the 1996 Olympics. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien

Still at it….Mark Lyttle in Dublin Bay September 2018, immediately after winning the Premier Division in the World Laser MastersStill at it….Mark Lyttle in Dublin Bay September 2018, immediately after winning the Premier Division in the World Laser Masters

Much has changed since, but the line of the Afloat.ie "Sailors of the Month" has been a strong and steady golden thread which now – 25 years on – has in its time given a well-deserved place in the spotlight to more than 600 individual monthly winners, all of whom - as the competition realized its full potential and the awards ceremony took on a smooth-running structure – will have been present at one of the annual gatherings when the gongs were distributed and the overall winner emerged.

Quite a few of them were, of course, to win monthly awards in several years, and two very special sailors have won the annual overall award twice – Anthony O'Leary of Crosshaven in 2010 and 2014, and Annalise Murphy of Dun Laoghaire in 2012 and 2016. But much and all as we'd like to mention all the 600 or so sailors who have featured in the monthly awards since 1996, in this age of brief concentration spans, the 24 winners until now will be quite enough to be going along with for today:

Mark Mansfield of Crosshaven was overall winner in 1999Mark Mansfield of Crosshaven was overall winner in 1999

SAILORS OF THE YEAR 1996-2019

1996 MARK LYTTLE (Dun Laoghaire)

Top Irish Laser sailor at home and abroad, successful debut at Atlanta Olympics including race win. (He was subsequently winner in World Laser Masters in Dun Laoghaire, 2018 – sailing is truly a sport for life).

1997 TOM ROCHE (Dun Laoghaire)

Top-scoring skipper in best-ever Irish Admirals Cup Team, placing fourth overall in thirteen teams

1998 TOM FITZPATRICK & DAVID McHUGH (Howth & Wicklow)

Top Irish 470 sailors at home and abroad

1999 MARK MANSFIELD (Crosshaven)

1720 European Champion in big-fleet event, All Ireland Helmsman's Champion

2000 DAVID BURROWS (Malahide)

Top Irish Finn, race-winning performance in Sydney Olympics 

David Burrows of Malahide, Sailor of the Year 2000David Burrows of Malahide, Sailor of the Year 2000. With the Internet still in its infancy, it was amazing how much info and promise you could cram into a magazine cover

2001 MARIA COLEMAN (Baltimore)

Olympic Women's contender, ranked second in world in Europe Class by ISAF

2002 ERIC LISSON (Crosshaven)

Round Ireland winner with multi-champion Cavatina

2003 NOEL BUTLER & STEPHEN CAMPION (Dun Laoghaire & Swords)

Laser 2 World Champions

2004 EAMONN CROSBIE (Dun Laoghaire)

Round Ireland Winner and multiple offshore champion with Ker 32 Voodoo Chile 

Maria Coleman of Baltimore was the first female Sailor of the year after an ISAF global ranking of second in the Women's Europe ClassMaria Coleman of Baltimore was the first female Sailor of the year after an ISAF global ranking of second in the Women's Europe Class

2005 JARLATH CUNNANE & PADDY BARRY (Mayo, Connemara & Dun Laoghaire)

Circuit of Arctic Ocean with self-built expedition yacht Northabout

2006 JUSTIN SLATTERY (Wexford & Kinsale)

World-class professional offshore sailor, on winning boat twice in Volvo Ocean Race

2007 GER O'ROURKE (Kilrush & Limerick)

Overall winner 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race, also class winner Sydney-Hobart Race and second overall Transtlantic Race with Cookson 50 Chieftain 

Ger O'Rourke of Limerick helms his Cookson 50 Chieftain to the finish line to become overall winner of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2007Ger O'Rourke of Limerick helms his Cookson 50 Chieftain to the finish line to become overall winner of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2007

2008 DAMIAN FOXALL (Derrynane, Co Kerry)

Overall winner and co-skipper with Jean-Pierre Dick in Barcelona World Race

2009 MARK MILLS (Wicklow)

Rapidly-rising international design star, particularly successful in emerging Southeast Asia market

2010 – ANTHONY O'LEARY (Crosshaven)

Team Captain and Boat Skipper for Ireland's first Commodore's Cup win

2011 - GEORGE KENEFICK (Crosshaven)

Multiple success across several disciplines including All Ireland Helmsman's Championship

2012 - ANNALISE MURPHY (Dun Laoghaire)

Fourth place in Women's Laser Radials in London Olympics, was in lead for first three days.

2013 - DAVID KENEFICK (Crosshaven)

Figaro Solo "Rookie of the Year", aged just 22 

David Kenefick (22) of Crosshaven racing his Figaro 2 FullIrish to be Rookie of the Year in the 2013 Figaro SoloDavid Kenefick (22) of Crosshaven racing his Figaro 2 FullIrish to be Rookie of the Year in the 2013 Figaro Solo

2014 - ANTHONY O'LEARY (Crosshaven)

Captain and boat skipper with Irish Commodore's Cup team in regaining trophy

2015 - LIAM SHANAHAN (Dun Laoghaire)

Winner of Dun Laoghaire-Dingle race and ICRA Boat of Year with family-campaigned J/109 Ruth

2016 - ANNALISE MURPHY (Dun Laoghaire)

Silver Medal in Women's Laser Radial at Rio de Janeiro Olympics

2017 - CONOR FOGERTY (Howth)

Class and handicap winner in Single-Handed Transatlantic race with Sunfast 3600 Bam

2018 – ROBERT DICKSON & SEAN WADDILOVE (Howth, Lough Ree & Skerries)

Gold Medal in Int. 49er U23 Worlds

2019 - PAUL O'HIGGINS (Dun Laoghaire)

With JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI, ICRA Boat of Year, ISORA Champion, and winner Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race

2016 winner Annalise Murphy with the new 2017 winner Conor Fogerty at the awards ceremony in the RDS2016 winner Annalise Murphy with the new 2017 winner Conor Fogerty at the awards ceremony in the RDS, February 2018. Photo: Brian Turvey

Next week we'll know who is the Silver Jubilee winner, but for now some memories of winners and awards ceremonies won't go amiss when current circumstances prevent the physical presence of both.

For there certainly was a time back in the early noughties, in an era when Cork Dry Gin were still allowed to sponsor sporting events, when the annual gathering in the theatre and socialising area in the Visitors Centre at the Jameson Distillery in Dublin was a major Springtime event which knocked the winter for six, and accelerated the planning and anticipation for the new season.

Indeed, it became such a fixture that we found ourselves being drawn into the world of high diplomacy. As Anglo-Irish relations thawed after the Good Friday agreement of 1998, there was increasing talk of a Royal Visit to Ireland, and the powers-that-be were casting around for events which could accommodate preliminary visits by junior royals to test the waters. Princess Anne was noted for her interest in sailing, and gradually the idea took shape that she might do the honours at the "Sailor of the Year" awards up at the Distillery.

2003 Laser 2 World Champions Stephen Campion and Noel Butler with Anne, Princess Royal, at the 2003 Sailor of the Year  Awards ceremony2003 Laser 2 World Champions Stephen Campion and Noel Butler with Anne, Princess Royal, at the 2003 Sailor of the Year Awards ceremony in the Jameson Centre, February 2004

It was a very Irish solution to a potentially tricky international sticking point. But the Princess Royal is a good sport, seemingly game for anything, and if boats are involved so much the better. As for the setup at Irish Distillers, they had Deirdre Farrell on top of her form to ensure that all went smoothly, which it duly did. So much so, in fact, that we have the photo from the ceremony of 2004 when Noel Butler and Stephen Campion received the big award of 2003 for their Laser 2 World Title as though a presenting Guest of Honour of this calibre was par for the course.

It was leading into a time time when the Irish economy was accelerating so rapidly that in one crazy year we'd no less than three different Irish Commodore's Cup teams, and it wasn't until people slowed down with the "new economics" of 2008-2009 that things became focused, resources were better utilized, and Anthony O'Leary assembled and led a pared-back team which did the business in 2010 – Ireland had finally won the Commodore's Cup, and he became clear Sailor of the Year

However, the economy was taking so long to emerge from the crash of 2009 that Ireland by-passed the 2012 series, but came back with a bang in 2014 with O'Leary leading again to such good effect that the Commodore's Cup was ours once more, and he was the first to become Sailor of the Year twice.

That said, in the missed year of 2012 another rising talent ably filled the gap. Annalise Murphy had been right on track for medal honours at the 2012 London/Weymouth Olympics until the final race – staged absurdly close to the flukey shore to facilitate spectators – became such a lottery that she did well to hang on to fourth in the final tally. But that brought the National YC star a deserved Sailor of the Year title which she replicated in style in the Rio Olympics by taking the Silver and becoming the second person to register the double in the "Sailor of the Year" listings.

Yet although racing inevitably dominates the single yearly title, the monthly awards reflect every aspect of our life afloat, and in 2005, cruising finally came out tops. It was a hectic year, as Peter Killen of Malahide and his merry men were making a pioneering cruise of the Antarctic with the Amel Super Maramu Pure Magic. But at the other end of the planet, Jarlath Cunnane and Paddy Barry on the former's own-built expedition yacht Northabout were in process of completing their circuit of the Arctic Ocean, and when Northabout successfully returned to Clew Bay in October, they became hot favourites for the 2005 Sailors of the Year title.

The contrast in Sailor of the Year winning boat types – Arctic circumnavigator Northabout (Jarlath Cunnane & Paddy Barry) returns to Clew Bay and the benign presence of Croagh Patrick in October 2005The contrast in Sailor of the Year winning boat types – Arctic circumnavigator Northabout (Jarlath Cunnane & Paddy Barry) returns to Clew Bay and the benign presence of Croagh Patrick in October 2005………Photo: Rory CaseyRobert Dickson and Sean Waddilove get up a head of steam to win the 49er U23 Worlds at Marseille in September  2018 …..and Robert Dickson and Sean Waddilove get up a head of steam to win the 49er U23 Worlds at Marseille in September 2018

Inevitably the health of the national economic cycle plays a role in sailing activity, and in 2009 things were barely on tickover on Irish waters. But there were green shoots and fresh opportunities elselwhere, and international County Wicklow-based yacht designer Mark Mills – who had first leapt to fame in 1996 with Aztec for Peter Beamish of Dun Laoghaire, where the boat is still based but now called Raptor - grasped opportunities in southeast Asia and other localised hotspots of economic vitality such as the Mediterranean.

He did so with his boats gaining so much race success that he became Sailor of the Year, an unusual but popular choice which has been reflected in 2020 when he became Sailor of the Month in April for international awards when lockdown was preventing practically all other sailing.

But for the most part, it has been actual sailing which has won out, and inevitably it has been racing which sets the pace and wins the gongs. Looked at overall, the home ports of our Sailors of the Year reflect the focusing of the numbers, with the main centres figuring significantly in a listing in which both Crosshaven and Dun Laoghaire provide double winners. But it is Crosshaven which has two siblings as winners with George and David Kenefick, and within two years of each other too.

However, in taking the complete overview, if you really want to give one of your male offspring a head start in the long race to become the Afloat.ie "Sailor of the Year", you might do well to think favourably of calling him Mark or David……

Meanwhile, here's a final detailed look at the 2020 lineup, for which voting concluded on January 30th

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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