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Dun Laoghaire Sees its Harbour in a New Light with the Return of the Dublin Bay 21s

31st July 2021
Home again. After an absence of 35 years - and all of 116 years after she first sailed here - the restored Dublin Bay 21 Naneen sails past Dun Laoghaire's East Pier lighthouse with a 21-gun salute
Home again. After an absence of 35 years - and all of 116 years after she first sailed here - the restored Dublin Bay 21 Naneen sails past Dun Laoghaire's East Pier lighthouse with a 21-gun salute. Credit: W M Nixon

There's something about the way that Steve Morris and his boat-building team in Kilrush are restoring the 1903-vintage Dublin Bay 21s that speaks to people with only a vague notion of the sea and sailing. The class association circled around Fionan de Barra and Hal Sisk may have made straightforward sailing accessibility a central theme of their continuing project. But the restoration work which has been done is in itself so accessible, so comprehensible and obvious to anyone with the slightest appreciation of quality workmanship, that it is inspiring in its own right.

Thus while several merging deluges of wind-flattening rain may have conspired to try and take the quiet delight out of yesterday (Friday) evening's return of the first three restored boats, it was the glowing quality of the glorious workmanship that led to flights of oratory which provided a vision for the new life of Dun Laoghaire Harbour, now that its administration has been taken over by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council.

DB 21 saviour and architect Fionan de Barra is at the heart of a highly artistic group in the National YC – NYC member Fergal MacCabe created this carpaccio of Dun Laoghaire for the cover of the highly-informative brochure abut the restoration of he classDB 21 saviour and architect Fionan de Barra is at the heart of a highly artistic group in the National YC – NYC member Fergal MacCabe created this carpaccio of Dun Laoghaire for the cover of the very informative brochure abut the restoration of the class

In a lineup of star speakers, it was Lettie McCarthy, An Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire Rathdown CC, who really brought the audience of sailors and well-wishers to life. For in talking of the effect that seeing the restored boats had made on her, she thought aloud and eloquently of how well a properly-organised boat-building school would fit into plans for revitalising the town's inner harbour waterfront.

With another speaker, you might have thought this was the offhand donation of a vague notion as a hostage to fortune. But this was a serious and considered viewpoint which gave a real edge to a gathering on the forecourt of the National Yacht Club which, until then, had been mainly thinking of a shared sense of relief that the Dublin Bay 21s were safely home, despite the best efforts of Storm Evert to assault the southeast of Ireland on Thursday night.

Nearly home. A brief flash of sunlight on Sandycove as Naneen – skippered by Hal Sisk - approaches Dun Laoghaire. For racing trim, the DB21 needs some weight forward, but they're usually confined below. Photo: W M NixonNearly home. A brief flash of sunlight on Sandycove as Naneen – skippered by Hal Sisk - approaches Dun Laoghaire. For racing trim, the DB21 needs some weight forward, but they're usually confined below. Photo: W M Nixon

Fionan de Barra and a crew of DB 21 veterans on Garavogue, built by James Kelly of Portrush in 1903. Class lore would have it that Garavogue is the only DB 21 which hasn't sunk at some stage in her long life. Photo: W M NixonFionan de Barra and a crew of DB 21 veterans on Garavogue, built by James Kelly of Portrush in 1903. Class lore would have it that Garavogue is the only DB 21 which hasn't sunk at some stage in her long life. Photo: W M Nixon

In fact, Storm Evert may well become a special meteorological Case Study some day, as he or she behaved very oddly indeed, departing eastward past the Tuskar Rock in a state of self-collapse from which the only result was seemingly solid rain and very little useful wind.

Despite that, a vigorous group of eleven Howth 17s came across the bay to salute the Return of the Prodigals, and even if some of them needed direct assistance from Race Officer Jonathan O'Rourke in the DBSC Committee Boat Mac Lir to overcome local calm in the middle of the bay, others came out of the downpour in full sailing style with topsails still set as they swept into the National's mini marina.

This was a fast-moving manoeuvre which put the fear of God into some observers, but those of us who know the Seventeens are well aware that they can usually get stopped before there's the sound of breaking glass, while if all else fails, their bowsprits can always double as a useful crumple zone.

There are at least two topsail-toting Howth 17s seen here arriving into the NYC's mini marina, in a hurry as the rain begins in earnest, yet somehow they stop in the nick of time. Note how the two masts of the DB21s beyond are carrying classically-hoisted DBSC burgees. Photo: W M NixonThere are at least two topsail-toting Howth 17s seen here arriving into the NYC's mini marina, in a hurry as the rain begins in earnest, yet somehow they stop in the nick of time. Note how the two masts of the DB21s beyond are carrying classically-hoisted DBSC burgees. Photo: W M Nixon

In the shambolic weather, there was adjudged to be no clear winner of the Seventeens' race from Howth, and thus the Island Cup which the DB21s had discovered unused in the NYC was given not to an individual boat, but to the whole class simply for being their own wonderful selves.

The Island Cup dates from 1906, but was first awarded to the DB21s in 1953 by one of their own, District Judge McLaughlin. If memory serves aright, in the almost petrol-free and rare rail service times of The Emergency, if the Judge had cases to hear in Wicklow, he would sail there in his DB21, crewed by the barristers who would be acting for the litigants, thereby reinforcing Hal Sisk's statement that the DB 21s were the world's first cruiser-racer class.

Be that as it may, for some of the not-as-young-as-they-used-to-be former DB 21 sailors who made the voyage up from Arklow, it was at times quite rugged, with Wicklow Head, as usual, doling out quite a pasting. Nevertheless, they were pleased to find old skills returning, with Paddy Boyd delighted with the discovery that although it is a long time since he last sent a burgee to the masthead in classic style, he did so with the DBSC emblem at the very first attempt – it's like re-discovering you still know how to ride a bike, says he, it never leaves you.

Estelle was the third of the first batch of restored DB21s to travel from Kilrush to Arklow. Photo: Steve Morris   Estelle was the third of the first batch of restored DB21s to travel from Kilrush to Arklow. Photo: Steve Morris

Dublin Bay 21 GeraldineThe work goes on – Estelle's place in Kirush has now been taken by Geraldine, owned for many years by the Johnston family. Photo: Steve Morris

Nevertheless, for many of us present at this determinedly and then effortlessly cheerful gathering, it was the first serious socialising after many a long locked-down month, and some of us confessed that while we may never have been overly blessed with social skills, there's a lot more to working a crowd – even one of only 200 people – than there is to riding a bike.

Thus the real meaning of the return of the DB21s - and the many stories which emerged from this party - will start to make more sense when they've had their first proper DBSC race next Tuesday evening.

As it is, we now have it as official that the Council are very positive about the notion of a Dun Laoghaire Boat Building School - even if a voice at the back of the crowd was heard wondering if an astrodome for the entire Harbour and immediate waterfront area might not be a better idea.

Dublin Bay 21 Arrival into Dublin Bay Photo Gallery By Michael Chester

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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