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Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association (ISORA) Has Golden Jubilee This Year

20th March 2021
The champion. Paul O'Higgins' JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI (RIYC), ISORA overall champion in 2019, and again in the truncated season of 2020
The champion. Paul O'Higgins' JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI (RIYC), ISORA overall champion in 2019, and again in the truncated season of 2020 Credit: David O'Brien/Afloat

On Sunday, August 29th 1971, a group of offshore devotees who had campaigned the previous day's annual cross-channel Abersoch-Howth Race for the James C Eadie Cup gathered in the bar of Howth Yacht Club and gave some purpose to their noontime drinks by progressing a discussion about expanding the North-West Offshore Association – the governing body for the race they'd just completed – into becoming the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association (ISORA).

Offshore racing in the area was nothing new, with Dublin Bay's Royal Alfred YC – founded 1870 – noted in the 19th Century for its cross-channel events to Holyhead, and more recently for overnight races which honed 24-hour seagoing skills in the club's Corinthian crews. Before that, the pioneering Dublin Bay to Cork Harbour Race of 1860 – repeated in 1861 and 1862 – had shown what could be done if there were sufficient levels of enthusiasm. And some recent research has suggested there may even have been a Round Ireland Race from Dublin Bay in 1831 or thereabouts, but there's much more work to be done before anyone can be sure whether or not that truly ground-breaking event actually took place.

Historic snapshot of the frontline yachts of the late 1880s – the start of a Royal Alfred YC cross-channel race to Holyhead in 1888Historic snapshot of the frontline yachts of the late 1880s – the start of a Royal Alfred YC cross-channel race to Holyhead in 1888

Meanwhile, there's quite enough to be going along with on what we know about the early days, with the Liverpool area's 1838-founded Royal Dee Yacht Club, and the 1844-founded Royal Mersey YC, running races and cruises-in-company for their super-wealthy members' large yachts, events which reflected links to both Dublin Bay and the Clyde, while the more modest Liverpool Bay YC established the Midnight Race to the Isle of Man in 1907.

That special event was taken over in 1925 by Tranmere Sailing Club on the south shore of the Mersey in Birkenhead, underlining the greater uncertainties of life after World War I of 1914-18. But TSC and more recently Liverpool YC have kept it going, staging the hundredth on 5th July 2019 with the winner being the Dublin Bay J/122 Aurelia (Chris & Patann Power Smith, RStGYC).

The J/122 Aurelia from Dun Laoghaire (seen here starting the Round Ireland race) maintained long-established cross-channel links by winning the 100th Isle of Man Race from Liverpool in 2019The J/122 Aurelia from Dun Laoghaire (seen here starting the Round Ireland race) maintained long-established cross-channel links by winning the 100th Isle of Man Race from Liverpool in 2019. Photo: Afloat.ie

Back in the 1950s this race, together with others which were staged in response to the fact that each August the focus of Liverpool saltwater sailing moved from the Mersey to North West Wales and Anglesey, had resulted in the formation after World War II of the Mersey & North Wales Joint Offshore Co-ordinating Committee.

The uniquely and splendidly complicated title surely deserves some sort of prize for accurately reflecting the challenges its committee were trying to achieve, something further exacerbated by the fact that further south around Tremadoc Bay to the east of the Lleyn, the sailing enthusiasts of Birmingham and other large English conurbations were seeking their brief period of summer sport from Abersoch, Pwllheli and Portmadoc. Thus it required the wisdom of Solomon to balance the brief programme such that each key offshore and passage race staged in the waters between Conwy and Pwllheli could achieve optimum turnouts for MNWJOCC-supported events.

Things had been a bit more simple, geographically speaking, on the Irish side even if the politics were now complex, but after the Irish Cruising Club had come into being in 1929, it took on the tradition of an offshore Whitsun Race in the Irish Sea, so much so that by the 1960s the ICC – along with the Royal Alfred YC - was playing quite an active role in Irish offshore racing generally.

In 1963, the Irish Cruising Club effectively illustrated the growing complexity of the area's offshore programme by attempting to set it in order, though it should be remembered that some of these events only attracted a handful of starters. Highlight of the season was the RORC/RStGYC Morecambe Bay Race of 220 miles on August 23rd, which also involved the NWOA. Sailed in heavy weather with a real southwest to west gale in the midst of it, the heroic overall winner was the Dublin Bay 24 Fenestra skippered by Arthur Odbert (Royal Irish YC)In 1963, the Irish Cruising Club effectively illustrated the growing complexity of the area's offshore programme by attempting to set it in order, though it should be remembered that some of these events only attracted a handful of starters. The highlight of the season was the RORC/RStGYC Morecambe Bay Race of 220 miles on August 23rd, which also involved the NWOA. Sailed in heavy weather with a real southwest to west gale in the midst of it, the heroic overall winner was the Dublin Bay 24 Fenestra skippered by Arthur Odbert (Royal Irish YC)

The M&NWJOCC for its part continued to see racing numbers expand, and it had felt confident enough to re-style itself the North West Offshore Association in 1962. And then with growing numbers from Ireland involved, and a strengthening association with the Royal Ocean Racing Club (which co-sponsored a main event with the NWOA in the Irish Sea-Cork area), any land-centric title began to seem inappropriate, and the idea of going head-on for the straightforward, self-explanatory and rather catchy Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association had obvious appeal by the end of the successful 1971 season.

The most immediate attraction of ISORA was that its acronym could be pronounced as an easily-remembered and distinctive neologism - not really an option with NWOA, and definitely not with M&NWJOCC. And the main mover in quietly promoting this move to a new stage was Dickie Richardson, who was the very personification of Liverpool sailing.

While he'd moved his sailing base to Holyhead SC (near which he and his wife Elspeth were getting much entertainment from converting a former Methodist chapel into a summer base for their exuberant family) he was the essence of best Merseyside, a consultant anaesthetist who was, of course, a member of the Royal Mersey, but felt much more at home next door in Tranmere Sailing Club with fellow boat bodgers, discussing technical boat matters in a ferocious cloud of pipe tobacco smoke.

Dick Richardson in 1972 aboard his boat of the time, the Hustler 30 Skulmartin, which he'd completed himself from a bare hull. Photo: W M NixonDick Richardson in 1972 aboard his boat of the time, the Hustler 30 Skulmartin, which he'd completed himself from a bare hull. Photo: W M Nixon

Not that he was a bodger himself – he made a very competent job of finishing several cruisers from bare hulls, with the boats taking up all of his front garden in a west Liverpool suburb. We got some of the flavour of this great man in our 2015 appreciation of him after his death at the age of 89 but that obit should have been titled "Sir John Richardson 1926-2015".

You see, during much of the time J. C. "Dickie" Richardson was playing a key role in Irish Sea offshore racing, one of his sidelines was chairing a committee to expedite the commissioning of a new hospital in Liverpool. As with all such projects, it had been running so desperately late that the directors took on board the suggestion that if they just had the nerve to appoint one of their own consultants, the no-nonsense Dr Richardson, as the chair of a special commissioning committee, then the hospital would be up and running within the foreseeable future.

They accepted the advice, Dickie and his hand-picked committee then worked their heads off, and the much-admired hospital was functioning within a reasonable time - so much so that all his colleagues and friends assumed he'd be getting a knighthood in the next New Year's Honours List as a very well-earned thank-you. Not a bit of it. For it emerged that in order to get the job done, Dickie had eventually been so utterly blunt (or brutally rude as some shy types claimed) to every civil servant and politician with whom he'd had to deal that there was absolutely no way he was going to get a gong.

So this then was the man who, around one o'clock on Sunday, August 29th fifty years ago, was persuading us that it was high time the NWOA became ISORA. And beyond that, the sky was the limit, as he saw the re-shaped Association's remit extending northward to the Clyde and southwest to Cork.

But where he might have sometimes been tough in his dealings with hospital contractors and managers, in Howth YC among fellow sailors fifty years ago, with us sharing the space with the likes of Hal Sisk of Dun Laoghaire, Bill Cuffe-Smith of Howth, Ronnie Wayte of Skerries who'd just taken second in class in the '71 Fastnet with the Hustler 35 Setanta, and Alan Stead from Holyhead, in HYC that Sunday it was a matter of quiet persuasion, leading to agreement to hold a more formal inaugural meeting in the winter, an event which went so well that in the Spring of 1972 the new Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association published its first comprehensive programme, listing full sailing instruction for events which ran from May until September, taking in all the main offshore races between the Clyde and St George's Channel round to Dunmore East.

Some of the ISORA fleet in Howth after a cross-channel race in 1980, with the fleet including (at centre) Dai Mouse III (now Sunstone) and the McGruer yawl Frenesi, as well as the first Round Ireland Race winner Force Tension (Johnny Morris) on right. Despite the primitive facilities at most ports, more than a hundred boats regularly entered the ISORA Championship each season. Photo: W M NixonSome of the ISORA fleet in Howth after a cross-channel race in 1980, with the fleet including (at centre) Dai Mouse III (now Sunstone) and the McGruer yawl Frenesi, as well as the first Round Ireland Race winner Force Tension (Johnny Morris) on right. Despite the primitive facilities at most ports, more than a hundred boats regularly entered the ISORA Championship each season. Photo: W M Nixon

The Association was based on a minimal but effective structure, with Dickie Richardson (who was also Commodore of Holyhead SC) as Chairman, his close friend and fellow medic Alan Stead as Honorary Treasurer, and Liverpool sailor Frank Drabble as Honorary Secretary. In those early years, the offshore brigade were happy enough to leave the basic "clerical" work to a Holyhead nucleus, as the Committee was based on largely autonomous local representatives, including Sandy Taggart in the Clyde, Jim Blaikie in Belfast Lough, John Ellis in Lancashire, Peter May and George Peake in the Isle of Man, and Hal Sisk in Dublin.

In its first full season of 1972, the programme attracted 102 boats from 20 clubs taking part in a total of 11 races, and there was also a "short regatta week" of inshore and coastal races, the Captain's Cup, at Holyhead, a precursor of subsequent big fleet biennial ISORA Weeks which were to run for several decades.

There were many reasons why the modestly-launched ISORA programme was such as success, and one of the more extreme yet plausible was The Troubles. With life ashore being blighted by unrest and atrocities, being at sea and then meeting with fellow-competitors afterwards at an enclosed venue provided security which facilitated hassle-free socializing among people from every nation around the Irish Sea.

Certainly the three-day absence - which participation in an ISORA race implied - put you in something of a cocoon, and as the programme became part of sailing's basic structure, there were those for whom it was essential to mental well-being. A classic case was Alan Lawless of Malahide, who raced the Shamrock Half Tonner Jonathan Livingston Vulture. Through the week he ran a demanding television sales and servicing organisation, but for seven weekends of the summer, he would simply disappear for his necessary ISORA medicine of a cross-channel offshore race against a fleet of like-minded souls.

Liam Shanahan's Dehler db2s Lightning (NYC) was an ISORA star in the 1980sLiam Shanahan's Dehler db2s Lightning (NYC) was an ISORA star in the 1980s

That said, those who sailed regularly in ISORA found that each season was slightly different, as the many areas involved – when they saw what could be done - became much keener to take possession of what they regarded as their part of the widespread ISORA programme. For the overall results from 1972 had revealed how widely the net had been spread, and how effectively the International Offshore Rule was providing effective handicaps.

The largest fleet was in Class A, and here the overall winner was Dick and Billy Brown's 35ft Ruffian from Strangford Lough, which they'd designed and built themselves in 1970-71. After a successful early season in the northern events, they came south for the concluding Holyhead-Rockabill-Dun Laoghaire Race, and showed the St George's Channel fleet a clean pair of heels to clinch the class title.

Class B was also finalised in that last race by HYC's Bill Cuffe-Smith with his new deep-keel Mark 2 Arpege Leemara, which he campaigned with efficient determination. Being an Aer Lingus Jumbo Jet captain, he had traditional first call on any unused airline meals left over at the end of each Transatlantic flight, and it's said that he once arrived home at his house above Howth Harbour with 37 ready-to-go airline dinners, which duly went aboard Leemara in several allocations, for as one of his crew observed, as long as they were winning they were perfectly happy to rotate through the airline ready meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner…..

Winners Enclosure. At the conclusion of the final race of the inaugural ISORA season in 1972 from Holyhead-Rockabill-Dun Laoghaire, the berth at the East Pier near the National YC found (left to right) Class B winner and overall champion Leemara (Bill Cuffe Smith, HYC), Class A winner and overall champion Ruffian (Dick & Billy Brown, RUYC), and Class C wnner and third overall Casquet (Paddy Donegan, SSC)Winners Enclosure. At the conclusion of the final race of the inaugural ISORA season in 1972 from Holyhead-Rockabill-Dun Laoghaire, the berth at the East Pier near the National YC found (left to right) Class B winner and overall champion Leemara (Bill Cuffe Smith, HYC), Class A winner and overall champion Ruffian (Dick & Billy Brown, RUYC), and Class C winner and third overall Casquet (Paddy Donegan, SSC). Photo: W M Nixon

Class C in that closing race was won by Paddy Donegan's lovely Robb-designed CB yawl Casquet from Skerries, but in the season-long series, Casquet had to be content with third, as the winner was Bert Whitehead's up-dated own-built Dee 25 Timbobbin from Holyhead.

This was all in the olden days, when waterside berthing facilities were primitive, and many events which we see now as pillars of the annual programme had yet to be introduced. Thus ISORA in its early days had the field largely clear to itself, but the administrative pressures were rising. Yet here again they were lucky, as in Jean Scott they found an administrative genius for secretarial duties who took it all in her stride such that through the 1970s the annual championship usually had a well-managed entry of more than a hundred boats.

By 1974 a biennial ISORA Week added to the complexity, and in 1976 it went to Crosshaven, where for the first time the fleet experienced the benefit of marina facilities. But the entry net was now spread so wide that some sections of the fleet were speaking forms of English that the rest of us scarcely comprehended, while many of the North Wales sailors comfortably slipped into Welsh when it suited them to exclude others from their conversation.

Then too, the Cork men quite reasonably wondered why they were going to so much trouble to host a race week for a crowd including many strangers from the Irish Sea when they should have been staging a proper Cork Week with their own unmistakable stamp upon it, and that's how things became thereafter.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the rather over-extended ISORA empire, the annual Scottish Series centred on Loch Fyne was becoming a mighty force in its own right, so clearly the sensible thing was for ISORA to stick to the knitting, concentrate on its core programme at the south end of the Irish Sea and the northern part of St George's Channel, and that's more or less what they've been doing ever since.

This highly-focused approach produced great racing in high-strength doses, and over the years the build-up of racing memories involving many boats and crews and owner-skippers of enormous character in such a crazy narrative that it's difficult to escape the conclusion that it would be impossible to make a book out of it. The story is simply too complex, and the cast of thousands too numerous and varied. Perhaps the only way to manage it is simply to tabulate each season's results with basic notes about weather conditions, and analyse the way that boat types have developed over the years.

The Club Shamrock Emircedes (Michael Horgan & Peter Ryan NYC) was a regular participant in ISORA Racing, and also raced round Ireland and in the Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race. For many years the Ron Holland-designed Shamrock in all its variations was a backbone of ISORA racing, and in 1984 Neville Maguire of Howth clinched the ISORA title with his Club Shamrock Demelza in the same weekend as his son Gordon won the All Ireland Windsurfing Championship.The Club Shamrock Emircedes (Michael Horgan & Peter Ryan NYC) was a regular participant in ISORA Racing, and also raced round Ireland and in the Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race. For many years the Ron Holland-designed Shamrock in all its variations was a backbone of ISORA racing, and in 1984 Neville Maguire of Howth clinched the ISORA title with his Club Shamrock Demelza in the same weekend as his son Gordon won the All Ireland Windsurfing Championship.

And so too have the socio-economic conditions in which ISORA has existed in its fifty years. From a time in which waterfront facilities were so primitive that the only comfortable place in a harbour was aboard your own boat, we have graduated to a situation where totally-sheltered pontoon berthing is the norm, providing easy access to clubs and nearby restaurants which vie with each other in the standard of their "hospitality product".

We have also moved in from a time when it was thought normal for offshore sailing enthusiasts – both male and female – to disappear in pursuit of their strangely uncomfortable sport in preference to putting in quality family time ashore in a variety of user-friendly and sociable pursuits.

Thus as the world rolled on and moved into a new millennium in 2000, while there were those for whom the ISORA programme was the basis of their summers sailing, there was a definite trend among a growing majority to concentrate on fewer and bigger and inevitably highly-publicised events which were more in keeping with the noisy spirit of the age, rather than the essentially private pleasure which is ISORA racing.

Numbers were declining so markedly that by 2007 it was decided to hold a gala winding-up dinner in the Autumn for the old association in the National Yacht Club, where one of the many things to be decided would be the re-allocation of ISORA's many prizes. But Divine Providence decided otherwise. A mighty storm blew up, and the ferries were unable to sail from Holyhead to bring across the Welsh and English elements of the funeral party. The dinner went ahead regardless with the Irish section in top form, and happily the event failed completely in its objective.

Far from winding-up ISORA, the gathering decided to revive it in a turbo-powered and more concentrated form, with the National Yacht Club seeking a three-year agreement from the rest of the membership for the NYC to run ISORA for the benefit of all.

Peter Ryan's has contributed greatly to the significant contemporary relevance of ISORAPeter Ryan's has contributed greatly to the significant contemporary relevance of ISORA

Since then, success in this bizarre outcome of event has been thanks to many, but mainly to two people - the NYC's Peter Ryan, who started his ISORA career with Liam Shanahan on the all-conquering Dehler dbs Lightning in the 1980s and then went on to race the Club Shamrock Emircedes with his father-in-law Michael Horgan, and Stephen Tudor of Pwllheli, whose family's offshore sailing probably goes well back to beyond the time of a young Henry Tudor who eventually became Henry VIII.

They've created an effective, leaner, fitter ISORA which has proven its underlying strength as sailing has tried to accommodate the pandemic and the on-off nature of lockdowns. Peter Ryan is currently the ISORA Chairman, and in this time of stress, he and Stephen between them cover most of the administration with a nimbleness of movement which is denied to sailing organisations with a significant shoreside structural element.

Stephen Tudor also plays a key role in ISORA todayStephen Tudor also plays a key role in ISORA today

For if you've the means of electronic positioning on the starting line markers, and race trackers on the boats, even a coastal race can take place completely independently of the shore providing you're dealing with qualified crews and compliant boats.

Yet it's something that involves escaping from the rigidity of thinking. Thus ISORA may have announced the possible parameters of a 2021 programme starting in late April, but those seriously interested know that it all may change from week to week, or even day to day.

Through the ins-and-outs of 2020's truncated sailing programme, ISORA steered a skilled path which resulted in a championship that was acknowledged as being well worthwhile. So much so, in fact, that at the end of the year we made Peter Ryan the Afloat.ie "Sailor of the Month" for December in an adjudication which was as much as token of hope that the best will be made of 2021 - whatever it may bring – as it was an expression of thanks for what he and ISORA had managed to achieve in 2020.

The supportive and congratulatory greetings which this adjudication inspired were very impressive indeed - positively heart-warming, in fact. So as the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association faces into its Golden Jubilee season, we know that, however difficult the outlook becomes, ISORA will make the best of it with as little fuss as possible.

RORC Commodore Michael Boyd and 2017 ISORA Champion Vicky Cox (J/109 Mojito, Pwllheli SC) at the ISORA Prize Dinners in the National YC 2017. In November 2007 a dinner was held in the NYC, ostensibly to wind up ISORA. The diners decided otherwise. Ten years later, this ISORA awards dinner attracted an attendance of 240.RORC Commodore Michael Boyd and 2017 ISORA Champion Vicky Cox (J/109 Mojito, Pwllheli SC) at the ISORA Prize Dinners in the National YC 2017. In November 2007 a dinner was held in the NYC, ostensibly to wind up ISORA. The diners decided otherwise. Ten years later, this ISORA awards dinner attracted an attendance of 240.

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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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