Menu
Allianz and Afloat - Supporting Irish Boating

Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

Irish Sailors Have Almost Forgotten That IRL Also Means "In Real Life"

29th May 2021
Bring it on…..for the past 14 month, the nearest we've got to being In Real Life is through the national ID letters on our sails, as seen in the First 31.7s racing in Dublin Bay
Bring it on…..for the past 14 month, the nearest we've got to being In Real Life is through the national ID letters on our sails, as seen in the First 31.7s racing in Dublin Bay Credit: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien

While there may have been nothing exactly like the current schedule-wrecking Pandemic before, in times past - nationally and internationally - we've come through comparable catastrophes. And enough of previous generations have survived to tell the tale and provide guidance when future generations are faced with a similar situation.

Cynics will of course gleefully leap on the fact that if enough of us hadn't lived through the Black Death or whatever, it would take millions of years before anything remotely resembling the human race evolved again. And if that was the case, we could only hope that the new wave of evolution would have come up with a premier species kitted out with something rather less troublesome than the current human body's problematic skeletal framework, plumbing arrangements, power systems and thought units.

Be that as it may, we meanwhile have to make the best of what we've got, and can only wonder at how generally unaware the current generations seemed to be pre-Pandemic of the appalling effects of the Spanish Flu piling in on the end of World War I a hundred years ago.

In fact, I knew of only one senior sailing man who ever even mentioned it, and that was Billy Doherty, who in the 1960s used to charter his 36ft 1912-built J B Kearney yawl Ainmara to groups of us when we were relatively penniless schoolboys and students, mad keen to go cruising from Belfast Lough under our own command.

Billy Doherty of Donegal, the Godfather for a whole generation of young Belfast Lough sailors. It wasn't generally known that his lifeview was significantly shaped by narrowly surviving the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919. Photo: W M Nixon   Billy Doherty of Donegal, the Godfather for a whole generation of young Belfast Lough sailors. It wasn't generally known that his lifeview was significantly shaped by narrowly surviving the Spanish flu pandemic of 1919. Photo: W M Nixon  

A Donegal man, Billy became a popular neighbourhood policeman in Belfast, augmenting his income with some beautiful building of clinker dinghies. His passion for boats was such that in 1957 he commuted his pension to raise the lump sum to buy Ainmara, and thus the modest £20 weekly charter fee he charged us actually played a significant role in keeping her going, even if he sometimes did have to wait until somebody's maiden aunt was generous at Christmas in order to make up the final total.

As for the boat's availability, the only unchangeable fixture in Billy's season was the annual regattas at the beginning of August back among his people along the Donegal shores of Lough Foyle, where he'd a couple of salmon-fishing licenses to exercise, and Ainmara was expected to be flagship as the Greencastle Yawls – also known as the "Drontheim Boats" as they were descended in design from standard boats imported from Trondheim in Norway – raced in fierce competition.

The traditional Greencastle yawl evolved from a Norwegian typeThe traditional Greencastle yawl evolved from a Norwegian type

Outside of that, for June and much of July Ainmara was tearing about the seas with young ne'er-do-wells aboard, taking in cruises to St Kilda and round Ireland, and somehow winning the 1964 Round Isle of Man Race overall too. In fact, we got so much out of the boat that some of us helped Billy and his son Wesley with the fitting-out, and over the years we became friends and talked of much.

But it was only once in an East Belfast pub that Billy mentioned he'd almost been a victim of the Spanish Flu. Typically of young Donegal men with limited futures, in 1919 aged around 17 he'd gone to Glasgow in search of work, and Glasgow being in the midst of the epidemic, he'd soon contracted the disease.

People were dying all round him, and he'd only one thought in his feverish mind – to get back to Moville so that his mother would at least have a body to bury. Somehow he got himself aboard the packet-boat for Derry down at the Broomielaw on the Clyde, and collapsed in a large shared sleeping cabin where many of the other recumbent forms never woke up when the ship reached the Foyle.

The Glasgow-Derry steamer Rose was built in 1902, and became much-used by the people of Donegal in going to Scotland to search for work   The Glasgow-Derry steamer Rose was built in 1902, and became much-used by the people of Donegal in going to Scotland to search for work  

However, Billy Doherty did wake up, feeling better by the minute with lots of motherly home nursing, and each day more determined to live life to the full. Thus when the opportunity to buy Ainmara arose in 1957, it was no contest. He commuted his pension to raise the funds, and as a result for ten years he had the Grand Annual Return to Donegal, and many of the younger sailing enthusiasts on Belfast Lough had the benefit of a sort of one boat sail self-training organization in which they somehow learned to be their own sea-going skippers.

But perhaps the strain of surviving the Spanish flu in 1919 had left hidden ill-effects, for in 1967 Billy Doherty died of cancer. But the story of Ainmara continued, for one of the young sailors who had benefitted from the "Doherty Scheme", a relative newcomer to the sport called Dickie Gomes, was determined to buy her. I counselled him against buying a 55-year-old boat, but for Dickie it was Ainmara or nothing, and so it came to pass.

Dickie Gomes with Ainmara during her Centenary Cruise of Scotland's West Coast in 2012. He'd bought her in 1967 despite being advised against "getting involved with such an old boat", he owned her for more than fifty years, and she has since gone international under Swiss ownership, with her home port now at Dunkerque. Photo: W M NixonDickie Gomes with Ainmara during her Centenary Cruise of Scotland's West Coast in 2012. He'd bought her in 1967 despite being advised against "getting involved with such an old boat", he owned her for more than fifty years, and she has since gone international under Swiss ownership, with her home port now at Dunkerque. Photo: W M Nixon

Thus in 2012 after very many thousands of miles in several other boats, Dickie and I were together again on Ainmara's Centenary Cruise to Scotland's Western Isles, with a special Centenary Feast at the Rodel Inn on Harris in the midst of the most enjoyable cruise to the Outer Hebrides we'd ever had.

There was much to reminisce about, and if the vaguely remembered Spanish Flu of 1919 did come into the conversation, it would have only been in the context of having shaped Billy Doherty's life-view such that he brought Ainmara into our lives in a big way, resulting in our being in Rodel in these very special circumstances half a century later.

Of course, had the Spanish Flu been mentioned at all, it would have been dismissed as something which would never happen again in the face of the efficiency of modern medicine. Yet it has happened again, albeit in a different form of disease. But if we go around feeling sorry for ourselves and making comparisons with 1918-1921, we really are drivelling on in un-merited self-pity.

That said, even in normal non-pandemic peacetime a hundred years ago, life expectancy estimates were maybe only half of what they are now, and deaths at every age were much more common. But now with smaller families and every extra passing year of personal existence ever more valued, each individual life becomes precious, such that amongst many, general timidity is the default setting.

But if we don't straighten our thinking, we'll see thousands swept away in a completely new form of pandemic. They'll be gone in a wave of complete and utter boredom and inactivity. Thus all power to the Irish sailing community, for during the past 14 months they've made the very best of every sailing opportunity available while maintaining reasonable regard for the regulations, and the result is that we face into the beginning of the semi-season on 7th June with our sport in good heart.

This is how it was, In Real Time – the new Sun Fast 3300 Cinnamon Girl gets ready for her splash at MGM Boats in early March, 2020. Photo: W M Nixon   This is how it was, In Real Time – the new Sun Fast 3300 Cinnamon Girl gets ready for her splash at MGM Boats in early March, 2020. Photo: W M Nixon  

These thoughts are provoked by the realisation that the next Sailing on Saturday will be the first "real" one since March 7th 2020. In those very different times, a few days earlier I'd been present at the un-wrapping of the new Sunfast 3300 Cinnamon Girl for Cian McCarthy of Kinsale at MGM Boats in Dun Laoghaire.

As ever in March, the general conversation was how to get more young people into sailing, with the theme being that the sailing community should be more friendly and accessible. But my argument in that last real SailSat was that sailing is first and foremost a vehicle sport, and if they could get more really sexy boats like the Sunfast 3300 out on the water, then the young folk would follow.

That was all for real. But only a week later, and we were into fantasy land. The plague from China was rampant, and on Wednesday, March 11th, the planned reception at the Royal Irish Yacht Club for the SSE Renewables Round Ireland Race (scheduled for Wicklow SC on June 20th) was cancelled. Nothing daunted, we produced an account of a convivial virtual party for the Sailing on Saturday of March 14th, and it has been like that ever since, with us realizing that IRL isn't just a set of national identity lettering you have on your sails, it also means In Real Life, and it's something with which our connections have at times been very tenuous – occasionally to the point of non-existence - ever since.

You could say that we've been off the wall now and again, except that at times it was doubtful if there was a wall to be off in the first place. But now if we don't have walls, at least there's the semblance of an emerging programme, and unless things go exceptionally haywire on the general health front, in a week's time we'll be considering the riders and runners for the National Yacht Club's 280-mile Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race on Wednesday, June 9th.

Oh for sure, we ran a runners 'n' riders piece for the pop-up Fastnet 450 Race on August 22nd 2020, and our conservative reckoning that the Murphy family's Grand Soleil 40 Nieulargo from Cork was the best bet would have produced a modest if real return. But many of us now find something almost dreamlike in recollections of the Fastnet 450 – did it really happen at all?

Did it really happen? Nieulargo finishing to win the Fastnet 450 in the entrance to Cork Harbour. Photo: Nigel Young/North Sails   Did it really happen? Nieulargo finishing to win the Fastnet 450 in the entrance to Cork Harbour. Photo: Nigel Young/North Sails  

Thus there's something more tangible about the 1993-founded Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race - it's a regular rather than a pop-up event, and it's an ideal major happening to get the season going, for within the Pandemic limits which are likely to continue in some form for some time, the fact that the restrictions need to be imposed in only two ports makes it much more straightforward, as it can draw on experience gained with the Fastnet 450.

By contrast, this weekend in Scotland the much-confined Scottish Series is kept within the upper Firth of Clyde instead of across those generous waters north of Arran leading into Lower Loch Fyne off Tarbert, and the pre-series Special Instructions for 2021 which obtained for a while were a forceful reminder of just how free and easy the sailing game had been in the old days, as they read:

  • All shoreside and social activity has been cancelled
  • The volunteer engagement program has been cancelled
  • There will be no physical race office or notice boards, these will be virtual
  • There will be no physical jury or appeals hearings in person, these will be virtual
  • The venue has been changed to the Clyde Estuary
  • Fleets will be split into three groups spread out from the Cumbraes to Helensburgh
  • There will be no prizegiving ceremonies, shoreside briefings or vendor events
  • There will be two handed classes recognising the fact crews may need to operate with restricted numbers
  • Prizes won will be delivered after the event
  • The event will be reduced to three days
  • The top tier price bracket has been removed in recognition that the larger boats may need to run with lower crew numbers
  • Entry rates will be discounted below that of the 2019 prices
  • General entry will open on the 2nd April 2021 and close on the 14th May 2021 with an additional late entry admin fee applied from 1st May 2021

That was the way it was. Things have now eased a bit in Scotland, but nevertheless "light-hearted" is still not the mood of the moment. By comparison, the organisation of a straightforward passage race from one Irish port to another is surely a much more manageable business, and in Dun Laoghaire thanks to the Training Races, the sight of boats gathering is no longer quite the shock it was. IRL is emerging from the mists of pandemic.

Maybe next year…..? Tarbert on Loch Fyne during a normal Scottish SeriesMaybe next year…..? Tarbert on Loch Fyne during a normal Scottish Series

Published in W M Nixon
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