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Pre-Olympic Global & Local Sailing Problems? They're Part of the Package

17th April 2021
Cover girls….The International Dragon Class on an evening race in 1969 at Royal North of Ireland YC on Belfast Lough. RNIYC introduced the class to Ireland in the late 1930s, and for many years had the largest fleet, sending forth the 1948 Olympic helmsman Eric Strain
Cover girls….The International Dragon Class on an evening race in 1969 at Royal North of Ireland YC on Belfast Lough. RNIYC introduced the class to Ireland in the late 1930s, and for many years had the largest fleet, sending forth the 1948 Olympic helmsman Eric Strain

The Olympic Flame is now well into its progression through Japan, on a Marathon of Marathons which is seeing runners of every shape and size and type carry it into all of the 47 Prefectures which make up that most enigmatic of archipelagos. For Japan is a country which – just as you feel you're beginning to understand it – seems to fade behind yet another veil of the unknown.

But as it is, we've more than enough unknowns to take into account for what we now have to acknowledge, with an effort of memory, is actually the 2020 Olympiad being formally launched in Tokyo in 98 days time in July 2021. And not least of those unknowns is the reaction of the people of the host country, as to whether or not the games should be staged at all in these pandemic times.

Having seemed to avoid the worst of COVID in the early days, Japan is now in something of a surge, yet only 1% of the population have been vaccinated as of this week. Of course, all the visiting athletes will have been vaccinated, and doubly or even trebly certified as coronavirus-free. But as the progression of the Olympic Flame has been largely unobserved other than by camera crews, the people of Japan have not only provided significant anti-Games majorities for a whole slew of opinion polls, but they seem have reverted to a natural state of isolation which – let's face it – was their normal way of life even in infection-free times.

Many of the Olympic events will in any case be taking place before restricted or non-existent crowd numbers, and overseas visitors will be severely limited. So for once sailing's relatively isolated status – in this case at Enoshima rather than in the main focus of events in Tokyo – may seem initially to be a real advantage. On the other hand, if the Japanese Anti-Games Protest movement really does get up a head of steam, Enoshima's relatively remote position might make it a target for roving mobs of demonstrators driven away from the Capital.

Obviously, that's a worst-case scenario, meanwhile, in the seemingly eternal count-down process, Irish sailing has been gradually strengthening its position, with the re-assuring place for Annalise Murphy in the Women's Radial Laser now underpinned by the position gained by Robert Dickson and Sean Waddilove in the 49er in last month's series at Vilamoura, perfectly rounded out with their Medals Race victory, which was Olympic standard.

Reassuring presence – Annalise Murphy winning Silver in the 2016 Olympics at RioReassuring presence – Annalise Murphy winning Silver in the 2016 Olympics at Rio

That superb closing performance must owe something to the fact that the pressure was off, for they had their place already. So all they had to do in the Medals Race was sail and sail and then sail some more, and enjoy it while they were at it, and there are few better ways of enjoying a race than winning it in such cool style.

So now the final searchlight swings to Finn Lynch, as mentioned in yesterday's Afloat with his two-in-seventeen chance of getting Ireland the remaining Laser Men's slot. But just how you can transfer that carefree joy which provided the glorious Dickson/Waddilove win across to a solo Laser sailor with a mountain to climb under a weight of expectation heaven only knows, yet maybe it can be done, and some day it might make for a thesis or two in sports psychology studies.

Current Tokyo lineup – Annalise Murphy, Robert Dickson and Sean WaddiloveCurrent Tokyo lineup – Annalise Murphy, Robert Dickson and Sean Waddilove Photo: WM Nixon

As for the tensions inevitable in the interrupted Olympic countdown and selection process, if it's any consolation there have been previous Olympics where the world in general has somehow emerged from a period of utter blackness to stage a successful Games.

For instance, the 1916 Games were supposed to be held in Germany, but they didn't happen as the main contest that year was the Battle of the Somme at the height of the Great War of 1914-1918. Thus the next Olympic Games were held in 1920, with the world still reeling from the devastating effects of the Spanish Flu Pandemic of 1918-1920 coming right on after the wholesale death and destruction of the Great War.

Anyone who thinks it's mildly heroic to manage an Olympic Games in 2021 pandemic conditions would do well to remember 1920. The chosen city was Antwerp, while Ostend was selected for the sailing events. Either way, it was very much Belgium which was the host country, gallant little Belgium had suffered most destruction in the Great War, yet the Belgians managed to pull themselves together and stage the first post World War 1 Olympic Games.

However, what with a War of Independence soon to be followed by Partition and then a Civil War, Ireland's attention was elsewhere at the time, yet for some Cork sailors, the 1920 Sailing Olympics in Belgium had a special interest.

In July 1914, the Commodore of the Royal Munster Yacht Club, Arthur Sharman Crawford, had appeared in Cowes with one of the first boats built to the International Metre Rule to carry the new-fangled bermudan rig, the Fife-designed-and-built Ierne.

Gold Medal Winner. The restored 8 Metre Ierne was originally designed and built in 1913-14 by William Fife for Royal Munster YC Commodore Arthur Sharman Crawford. But when she won the Gold Medal in the 1920 post-Great War, post Spanish Flu Olympics, she had moved into Norwegian ownership.Gold Medal Winner. The restored 8 Metre Ierne was originally designed and built in 1913-14 by William Fife for Royal Munster YC Commodore Arthur Sharman Crawford. But when she won the Gold Medal in the 1920 post-Great War, post Spanish Flu Olympics, she had moved into Norwegian ownership

The outbreak of the Great War at the end of July meant that Cowes Week was cancelled, but Ierne had already done enough to show that she was one of the hottest Eights around, and after the war she would have been a prime contender for the British place in the Eight Metre Class in the Belgian Olympics.

However, with advancing age and the difficult situation in Ireland, Arthur Sharman Crawford had sold Ierne to Carl Ringvold of Norway, who was duly selected to race for Norway in those 1920 Olympics, and won the Gold Medal.

Ierne in race-winning form, July 1914Ierne in race-winning form, July 1914

We can only imagine what Arthur Sharman Crawford – a man who contributed so much to the commercial and technical development of Cork city – must have felt about this result. "Mixed feelings" would be the least of it. Hover, perhaps we should remember that in 1920, the Olympic Games weren't quite the all-consuming global passion that they've become today, but they were certainly moving in that direction when the first post-World War II Games were staged in 1948, with London the host city and the sailing events staged at Torquay.

Everything was at a much more intense level as the last pre-war Games had been the meretriciously glittering show which was "The Hitler Olympics" in Berlin in 1936. The organisers of the London Olympics were determined to show clearly just who had won World War II, so those Irish sailors such as Billy and Jimmy Mooney, who had been thinking it was time Ireland mounted her own separate Olympic sailing challenge, felt they might find things difficult.

This was reinforced by many of their fellow yachtsmen in their home port on Dublin Bay still talking of it as "Kingstown", with two of the club ensigns continuing to display the union flag. But Billy Mooney and Douglas Heard had some high-powered contacts in the British sailing establishment, and far from being discouraged, the idea of an Irish team was greeted with enthusiasm in London as numbers were otherwise looking thin for the Torquay regatta in the post-World War II austerity.

Billy Mooney at the helm of the 74ft Mylne yawl Mariella in 1949. A consummate diplomat in sailing, he helped the establishment of the Irish Yachting Federation in 1947 in order to have the first Irish Olympic Sailing Challenge in 1948.Billy Mooney at the helm of the 74ft Mylne yawl Mariella in 1949. A consummate diplomat in sailing, he helped the establishment of the Irish Yachting Federation in 1947 in order to have the first Irish Olympic Sailing Challenge in 1948.

However, an Irish team would need some sort of national authority to seek recognition from, and affiliation to, the International Yacht Racing Union. Fortunately, the groundwork on this had already been done by J J O'Leary, Commodore of the National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, who had called a preliminary meeting on November 29th 1946 to explore the establishment of a representative body, and it was attended by 22 clubs represented by such leading sailing luminaries as Sean Hooper, Peter Odlum and Terry Roche.

Thus it came about that in the period 1947-48, there were three organisations looking after Irish sailing at a national level. The 1946-founded Irish Dinghy Racing Association was the most active on the developmental front, but for general affairs, the leading clubs still looked to the Yacht Racing Association (in 1953 to become the Royal Yachting Association) in London. Yet on July 4th 1947 at a meeting in the Royal Marine Hotel in Dun Laoghaire, the Irish Yachting Federation was brought into being primarily for the purpose of sending an Irish team to the 1948 Olympics.

The officers elected were Harry Donegan Jnr. (Royal Cork YC & Royal Munster YC) as Chairman, and Hon. Sec. Errol McNally (National YC), with a usefully representative committee. But the new IYF had been in existence for barely a couple of hours before it was struck by tragedy.

Its launching had been timed to coincide with a major regatta at the Royal St George YC followed by a combined Irish Cruising Club/Clyde Cruising Club/RORC race from Dublin Bay to the Clyde, and Harry Donegan had brought his 50ft Clyde 36 Sibyl round from Cork to take part. A near-gale came up on that Friday night, and despite being in Dun Laoghaire harbour, a sufficiently steep and breaking sea had built up to overpower Sibyl's dinghy when the crew were returning in the dark to spend the night on board, and it became the accident in which Harry Donegan Jnr was drowned.

For those left behind, the only course of action was to continue, and in the Autumn J J O'Leary and Billy Mooney went to London to formalise the IYF's separate identity with both the YRA and the IYRU. Nevetheless it's difficult to escape the feeling that new organisation's existence – already a matter of contention among Kingstown-minded Dun Laoghaire-based traditionalists – was permanently blighted by the Donegan tragedy, and within a year of the 1948 Olympics, the relevant functions of the IYF were subsumed into the Irish Dinghy Racing Association which developed over the next decade into being the nascent national authority with responsibility for the Olympic representation.

The Firefly Dinghy was designed as a two-hander, but for the 1948 Olympics it became the solo sailed boat……The Firefly Dinghy was designed as a two-hander, but for the 1948 Olympics it became the solo sailed boat……….   

Firefly capsize……..with mixed results

Nevertheless in its brief existence the IYF provided the focus for the 1948 Irish Olympic Sailing Challenge, with Jimmy Mooney racing the Firefly which was selected for the single-handed boat, while Alf Delany and Hugh Allen raced the two-hander, the 26ft Swallow Class sloop which was loaned to them by ex-Pat yacht designer O'Brien Kennedy who - it subsequently emerged - was actually the detail designer of the Swallow, even if Tom Thornycroft was credited with the overall concept.

The selection of a two-handed dinghy like the Firefly to be the solo sailing boat was in line with the host country's insistence that the 1948 Olympics be as British as possible regardless of the boat's suitability, for the Swallow was essentially a three man boat.

The three-man Swallow Class proved a very demanding two-hander at the 1948 Olympics.   The three-man Swallow Class proved a very demanding two-hander at the 1948 Olympics

However, the most extreme example of this British bias came in the Dragon Class, where their representative was Eric Strain from Royal North of Ireland YC in Cultra. Eric Strain was not at all averse to taking an all-Ireland view of sailing, for in 1946 he had gallantly but briefly tried to publish a little journal called The Irish Yachtsman. But as a hugely-talented helmsman, he was supported by a relative, Billy Barnett, an affluent engineer, who was the owner of the Dragon Class Ceres, built in Sweden by Johannsen.

In 1947 racing on the Clyde with Ceres, Eric Strain won what was then the class's supreme trophy, the Gold Cup, and as a result was selected to be the British representative in the Dragon Class at Torquay in 1948.

This was popular for all Irish sailors, but what nobody realised was that the YRA insisted that Eric Strain should race a British-built Dragon at Torquay, and thus he and his crew spent the first half of the 1948 season trying to get up to speed with the new Ceres II - beautifully built by Camper & Nicholson perhaps, but not a patch on the quintessentially Swedish Ceres I in terms of performance.

In order to set the 1948 Sailing Olympics in Torquay in their historical context, the Opening Party was held aboard the battleship HMS Anson, when the 221 participating sailors were joined by many friendsIn order to set the 1948 Sailing Olympics in Torquay in their historical context, the Opening Party was held aboard the battleship HMS Anson, when the 221 participating sailors were joined by many friends

Any suggestion they might revert to Ceres I was instantly smothered. But though they did get a commendable fourth overall with Ceres II at Torquay in 1948, the thought of what they might have done with Ceres I is one of those classically Olympic "what might have been" stories. They are dramas and sagas which we will doubtless see increased in number during 2021, as and if the Tokyo Olympics 2020 finally take place.

Published in W M Nixon, Tokyo 2020, Dragon
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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