Menu
Allianz and Afloat - Supporting Irish Boating

Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

Tom Dolan: Ireland's 25th 'Sailor of the Year' Provides a Heartening Story for Our Time

13th February 2021
A short season maybe, but all their stars were in alignment in 2020 - Tom Dolan on his Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa A short season maybe, but all their stars were in alignment in 2020 - Tom Dolan on his Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa

The Figaro Solo was arguably the peak in sailing competition – both inshore and offshore – in Europe during 2020. In a truncated and contorted season, somehow the crème de la creme of international solo sailing were guided into a contest which – in late August and early September - complied with pandemic regulations, and yet provided out-and-out competition of the highest order, in which a final placing in the top half of the fleet was an achievement of world standard.

The level which has been reached at the sharp end of Figaro 3 racing had already been very forcefully demonstrated back in July, when a first testing of the offshore racing waters in France with the Drheam Cup – for a fleet of hundred-plus boats from Cherbourg on the north coast round to La Trinite in South Brittany – saw first place on the water and under every handicap system being taken by rising Figaro star Sam Goodchild from Falmouth racing solo.

Tom Dolan racing hard. The cockpit of a Figaro 3 is Spaghetti Junction on a permanent basis. It would take at least five sailors of average ability to handle the lines which a Figaro sailor controls soloTom Dolan racing hard. The cockpit of a Figaro 3 is Spaghetti Junction on a permanent basis. It would take at least five sailors of average ability to handle the lines which a Figaro sailor controls solo……….Photo: Thomas Deregnieaux

…..and as well as sail handling solo, he's on his own in deciding whether or not he'll cross clear ahead on port tack…..and as well as sail handling solo, he's on his own in deciding whether or not he'll cross clear ahead on port tack. Photo: Thomas Dregnieaux.

It was a very eloquent demonstration of the level being reached by the stars of the Figaro, as Goodchild comfortably beat some very hot fully-crewed larger boats. But he also beat some Figaro boats being sailed two-handed, including Tom Dolan's Smurfit Kappa, which he was racing to second overall in the Two-handed Division with longtime shipmate Francois Jambou.

Despite Goodchild's outstanding performance, in the bigger picture it was an encouraging result for Dolan, as he'd had a frustrating year in 2019 – his first with the new foiling Figaro 3 – after he'd made a solid start in the class in the last year of the Figaro 2s in 2018.

But even with that frustration of 2019, his sponsors in Smurfit Kappa had seen his promise fulfilled in earlier years. They were in for the long haul. They knew that Tom Dolan had what it takes. And everyone's faith and patience was rewarded in 2020 with a stellar performance when the Figaro Solo racing may well have been at its highest pitch ever.

The Figaro Solo 2020 presented exceptional challenges for single-handed sailorsThe Figaro Solo 2020 presented exceptional challenges for single-handed sailors

For though some former Figaro top scorers may have re-directed themselves into the approaching Vendee Globe in November, so many other events had been pandemic-cancelled that the carefully-planned Figaro circus between lockdowns soon became the only show in town, attracting many superstars.

And when it got going, it soon became clear that while Tom's problem in 2019 had frequently been a matter of "going fast, but in the wrong direction", in 2020 he was "going even faster, and this time in the right direction at the right time".

Tom Dolan rounding the Fastnet well-placed in 2020's Figaro SoloTom Dolan rounding the Fastnet well-placed in 2020's Figaro Solo

A thorough psychological analysis and personal re-programming in the Autumn of 2019 was proving of enormous benefit, and in watching the race unfold on the Tracker, it was fascinating to see that even when Tom and his usual pace-makers had got themselves into a less than ideal situation, it seemed to take only a couple of quick tacks or an hour or so in a slightly different offwind direction for them to be right back in the hunt.

So L'Irlandais Volant – The Flying Irishman – was back in town and then some, and though his final placing of fifth overall in a fleet of 34 may at the finish in St Nazaire may not have put him in the medal list, it very certainly gave him the VIVI Trophy – donated by Marcus & Megan Hutchinson – for the best-placed non-French skipper - in fact, he was the best-placed since 1997.

Tom with his trophies in St NazaireTom with his trophies in St Nazaire

To put it further into perspective, the overall winner by just ten minutes was Armel Le Cleac'h, taking his third Figaro overall win while looking forward to the Vendee Globe in November. He was anticipating the VG not because he was taking part, but in sitting it out he was keeping an eye on his 74-day record from the 2016-2017 Vendee Globe, as eight of the latest-generation IMOCA 60 foilers were in the thirty-plus fleet.

The reckoning was they might complete in 70 days. But it became a matter of Around the World in Eighty Days. So Le Cleach's record will stand for at least eight years, and in adding a third Figaro victory during the lead-up to all this, Le Cleac'h was firmly establishing himself as currently the worlds most accomplished solo offshore racer.

Thus the fact that, at various stages during the Figaro Solo 2020, Tom Dolan found himself looking astern to keep the tabs on Le Cleac'h's Banque Populaire X indicates that the Meathman was undoubtedly playing Senior Hurling offshore. And in the final tally, he was securely ahead of the likes of Phil Sharp, pre-race favourite Sam Goodchild, and - perhaps most importantly of all - Erwan le Draoulec, who had so convincingly beaten him in the MiniTransat of 2017, thereby giving Dolan an impressive line-up of bested stars which adds considerable lustre to a career which, at Thursday Night's Annual Irish Sailing Awards, received yet more deserved recognition.

Yet in chatting to him in a phone call to Concarneau yesterday morning, Sailing on Saturday found we were talking with a sailing superstar who is still a droll Meathman who delights in sharing his joy in fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming an offshore sailor.

The shaping of a champion – a young Tom Dolan in his early days in France at a pre-race briefing……….The shaping of a champion – a young Tom Dolan in his early days in France at a pre-race briefing……….

….and at an early Mini-Transat briefing……. ….and at an early Mini-Transat briefing……. 

…..and Tom Dolan as he is today, in thoughtful mood before the start of the Figaro Solo 2020…..and Tom Dolan as he is today, in thoughtful mood before the start of the Figaro Solo 2020

So how did a farm-boy from a 48-acre property deep in North Meath beyond the Boyne in one of those places which is much more easily found if you've been there before, how on earth did he come to this ambition? For it was so off-the-wall in his little primary school that when his class were asked what they wanted to do in life, Tom's answer was so sure and certain that the teacher said: "Go sit beside Jimmy over there. He wants to be an astronaut".

But apparently, although life rotated around the farm which had been in the family for several generations, Tom's father Jim had spent some time working in the south of England in and around Portsmouth, where a friend had taken him sailing a couple of times. And then eventually back on the farm where Tom was the only child of Jim's second wife Ann (he has two older half sisters, one in New York and the other in Portsmouth), if there was a pirate film on television, Jim delighted in explaining the sailing details of the ships involved to Tom.

Where it all started – Lough Ramor in high summerWhere it all started – Lough Ramor in high summer

Thus sailing was gently but steadily climbing up the agenda, and one day Jim spotted a little sailing dinghy – maybe a Mirror or its newer less successful version the Miracle - for sale very reasonably priced in Buy & Sell magazine just up the road at Lough Key in Roscommon. It was soon bought with missing ropes substituted where necessary with binder twine, and by the following weekend they were sailing it on nearby Lough Ramor, with Tom's interest in sailing further reinforced at an increasingly difficult time as his father was ill.

He writes of it now:

"That's a fond memory I have of one of my first times on the water. It's one of the last memories I have of my father too.

I was a young lad starting secondary school. I was rudderless. I'd no clue what I wanted to do in the future. I ended up going to UCD for a year to study Agricultural Science, just because farming is what my Dad did. I dropped out and was on the dole then. I was completely lost.

Sailing gave me a whole new life of meaning and purpose.

A friend of mine saw a course in Coláiste Dhúlagh in Coolock in North Dublin called Outdoor Event Management, where you'd learn about kayaking and sailing and things like that. I talked my way into the course, and I loved it. I felt like I'd found my calling.

As a part of the course, you were offered the chance to go to the Glenans Sailing Centre (now defunct in Ireland) in Baltimore in West Cork. I went down there, and it was the best experience I'd ever had. They were happy with me because they sent me to their branch in France, the biggest sailing school in Europe. That's when I really discovered offshore racing".

By 2010 his life was rotating around sailing in Brittany in the greater Glenans circle, but at home, things weren't looking good. His father died on June 5th 2011 – ten years ago this summer, and sharply remembered through being side-by-side with D-Day. Thus the still-bewildered rising sailing star who ticked all the boxes – for Tom Dolan was a good learner, a good sailing teacher, and a star performer in boats too – was faced with the big decision.

If he was to fulfil his dream, as her only child he'd to leave his widowed mother on the farm. But maybe sensing this would happen, his father had always said: "You only live once, make the best of it".

So Tom returned to Concarneau and France. And when probate was finally given on his father's complex estate in 2016 with the farm being kept in the family, Tom remembered the paternal advice, and took his own inheritance and invested in a new Pogo 3 MiniTransat boat, for he'd already achieved success with a borrowed and decidedly worn Pogo 2, and felt that the only way forward was to "bet the farm" with this newly-inherited and modest resource, and go for a boat that would have him in with a chance, even if initially it was the most basic of unfinished boats which required many months of his own work to bring it up to standard and the right levels of finish.

But working hard at all hours was now second nature to him, as there was always something needing doing around boats in Concarneau to help him turn a bob or two, and he and Francois Jambeau additionally ran a successful coaching academy afloat.

The breakthrough boat – Tom in 2016 with the new Pogo 3 which he'd bought in the most basic form through an inheritance from his father.The breakthrough boat – Tom in 2016 with the new Pogo 3 which he'd bought in the most basic form through an inheritance from his father

But time was slipping by, he was 28 by 2016, and he felt if he didn't make the breakthrough soon he'd miss any opportunity of getting into the major league. However, with the new boat nearing completion, things were starting to improve on the vital corporate sponsorship front, with developing links with a global Irish company which had a strong presence in France. This linkup was developed through an old friend whom he'd met during his Glenans days in Baltimore, and he writes:

"I stayed in contact with Gerry Jones, who would become an important mentor and friend, who had been on the board of directors back at Glenans in Cork. He said, 'I'm good at finding money. You're good at sailing. I'll teach you, if you teach me and we'll work something out'. So, he arranged for me to do a presentation in Dublin with Smurfit Kappa.

I arrived all suited up and waffled on to the guy for about 40 minutes. In the end, he looked at me and said, 'I was on a boat once. I was very sick.'. But he believed in me. And that was the start of my financial sponsorship.

An excellent start. With the first sponsorship deal secured with Smurfit Kappa in 2016, Tom was soon showing what he could do in the Mini Transat ClassAn excellent start. With the first sponsorship deal secured with Smurfit Kappa in 2016, Tom was soon showing what he could do in the Mini Transat Class

Early days in the Smurfit sponsorship, when Tom Dolan Sailing was still something of a cottage industry in Concarneau. Early days in the Smurfit sponsorship, when Tom Dolan Sailing was still something of a cottage industry in Concarneau

Smurfit Kappa has been an amazing organisation to work with; I have been so lucky to work with them. They have many demands for sponsorship and chose me. Their trust, confidence and sponsorship has been key to my progress over the last three years,"

It says everything about the status of Smurfit Kappa that while they have a very distinctive and widely-recognised name, it doesn't say a thing about what they do, yet it's generally known that they're an Irish-headquartered global leader in the cardboard and packaging industry, and for several years they've become pace-setters in making their industry more eco-friendly.

Thus this strong sailing sponsorship, which began to develop at least four years ago, has proven a magically successful match-up, with everyone's stars in alignment last Thursday when the news spread in the morning that Smurfit Kappa CEO Tony Smurfit had announced an exceptionally successful trading year with good prospects worldwide, and then in the evening their own cherished international offshore racing skipper was announced as Ireland's "Sailor of the Year" in the 25th year of the contest, making him the Silver Jubilee Sailing King.

Jack Roy was an enthusiastic supporter of Tom Dolan during his Presidency of Irish Sailing, and he is seen herewith Tom in La Rochelle for the start of the 2017 Mini Transat Jack Roy was an enthusiastic supporter of Tom Dolan during his Presidency of Irish Sailing, and he is seen herewith Tom in La Rochelle for the start of the 2017 MiniTransat

It has been a tough journey getting here. The 2017 Minitransat went well. Even if Erwan le Draoulec remained persistently in the lead, it looked as though Tom was going to be fourth overall, but in strong winds in the last night approaching the finish, his little boat was caught up in a giant version of that breaker which recently caused Annelise Murphy to achieve her first ever backward-flip in the Laser at Lanzarote, and in Tom's case - nearing St Lucia in December 2017 - his boat was pitch-poled in the complete somersault.

It gave him a record which can never be matched. It was the first time a MiniTransat had pitch-poled without breaking her mast. That said, there was plenty of sorting out to do before Tom could resume full racing, but he still managed to finish sixth, albeit in a distinctly subdued frame of mind.

By any standards, the rig of a MiniTransat 650 Pogo 3 is exceptionally tall, making it a miracle that Tom Dolan survived a pitch-pole while running hard in the Atlantic without losing the mastBy any standards, the rig of a MiniTransat 650 Pogo 3 is exceptionally tall, making it a miracle that Tom Dolan survived a pitch-pole while running hard in the Atlantic without losing the mast.

By the following year, his sponsorship from Smurfit Kappa had been transferred to a second-hand Figaro 2 for a first season in the Big Boys Game, and it went well, but 2019 – the Golden Jubilee Figaro Solo Race, and Kinsale a prominent stopover port – was nightmare stuff. Fortunately, when his mother came down from Meath to experience the culture shock of being in the Figaro circus in all its glory in Kinsale, it was still early in the series, and hope was in the air. But it was finding hope at the end which showed that Tom Dolan and his sponsors were of the right stuff, and in 2020 their faith in themselves and each other has been rewarded in spades.

"So this is what you do?" Tom with his mother Ann in Kinsale, May 2019"So this is what you do?" Tom with his mother Ann in Kinsale, May 2019

For most of the time, Tom has also drawn on the strength of the reassuring presence of his significant other, Karen Charles Boiteux, and theirs was a cheery household yesterday morning as Tom made plans to continue with today's launching of his Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa despite Concarneau having more than its fair share of snow.

Like all thorougbreds, Smurfit Kappa has her official name and a pet name, for across the transom in discreet lettering it says Cailin Rua III CC – Red Haired Girl 3 of Concarneau, in honour of the first "Red Haired Girl" which he sailed with his father on Lough Ramor, and the second, which was the Pogo 3 raced in the Mini-Transat.

Tom finishing at St Nazaire to take fifth overall and the VIVI Cup in the Figaro Solo 2020. And Cailin Rua sails on…….Tom finishing at St Nazaire to take fifth overall and the VIVI Cup in the Figaro Solo 2020. And Cailn Rua sails on…….

For although his life may now be centred on Concarneau and the uniquely successful French offshore racing scene, he keeps closely in touch with his past and with home and with longtime friends such as Gerry Jones. But equally, he lives in the present and thinks much about the future, which for someone in his position has almost infinite possibilities, and for 2021 will be built around the Figaro Solo 2021. With continuing pandemic, the dates won't be announced until March, but until then with the new-look Fastnet Race finishing in Cherbourg in August, the Beneteau Figaro 3s have been offered their own class within the Fastnet Race, though they've to register interest by March 1st.

Not so very far down the line, there's the likelihood of a two-handed female/male crewed offshore class in the 2024 Paris Olympics, with the sailing in the Mediterranean, and Tom Dolan is definitely interested in sailing in that for Ireland. Either way, Tom has shown he's well able for it all when sailing has to be compressed into intensive elite bubbles to cope with the requirements of pandemic.

It's good for Ireland to know that, in the 25th round of this award, the Sailor of the Year has emerged as a man of exceptional natural talents in a boat, a man whose sheer ability and determination has brought him upwards despite a sometimes rather discouraging system. We salute Tom Dolan, Sailor of the Year.

The 2020 Afloat Sailor of the Year sails on to success. The continuing sponsorship with Smurfit Kappa has been a shared learning experience which has developed into an environmentally aware campaign The 2020 Sailor of the Year sails on to success. The continuing sponsorship with Smurfit Kappa has been a shared learning experience which has developed into an environmentally aware campaign

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

Email The Author

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.

We've got a favour to ask

More people are reading Afloat.ie than ever thanks to the power of the internet but we're in stormy seas because advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. Unlike many news sites, we haven’t put up a paywall because we want to keep our marine journalism open.

Afloat.ie is Ireland's only full–time marine journalism team and it takes time, money and hard work to produce our content.

So you can see why we need to ask for your help.

If everyone chipped in, we can enhance our coverage and our future would be more secure. You can help us through a small donation. Thank you.

Direct Donation to Afloat button

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

Featured Sailing School

INSS sidebutton

Featured Clubs

dbsc mainbutton
Howth Yacht Club
Kinsale Yacht Club
National Yacht Club
Royal Cork Yacht Club
Royal Irish Yacht club
Royal Saint George Yacht Club

Featured Brokers

leinster sidebutton

Featured Associations

ICRA
isora sidebutton

Featured Webcams

Featured Events 2021

vdlr21 sidebutton

Featured Sailmakers

northsails sidebutton
uksails sidebutton
quantum sidebutton
watson sidebutton

Featured Chandleries

CHMarine Afloat logo
osm sidebutton
https://afloat.ie/resources/marine-industry-news/viking-marine

Featured Marinas

dlmarina sidebutton

Featured Blogs

W M Nixon - Sailing on Saturday
podcast sidebutton
mansfield sidebutton
BSB sidebutton
wavelengths sidebutton
 

Please show your support for Afloat by donating