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Ireland's Northwest With Its Uniquely Ancient Trophy Has Played a Pivotal Role in Sailing's Story

14th August 2021
The Lads with the Ladies Cup. The Bicentenary of Sligo YC's Ladies Cup – the world's oldest perpetual sailing trophy - was celebrated with it being the award for the J/24 Nationals 2021 last weekend, and the winning boat Headcase – the defending champion – is an all-Ireland project, with (left to right) Cillian Dickson (Lough Ree YC & Howth YC), Sam O'Byrne (Howth YC) Louis Mulloy (Mayo SC) with the famous Cup, Marcus Ryan, and Ryan Glynn
The Lads with the Ladies Cup. The Bicentenary of Sligo YC's Ladies Cup – the world's oldest perpetual sailing trophy - was celebrated with it being the award for the J/24 Nationals 2021 last weekend, and the winning boat Headcase – the defending champion – is an all-Ireland project, with (left to right) Cillian Dickson (Lough Ree YC & Howth YC), Sam O'Byrne (Howth YC) Louis Mulloy (Mayo SC) with the famous Cup, Marcus Ryan, and Ryan Glynn

The Irish weather is no respecter of history, and sailing history in particular. Apart from the fact that it regularly appears to break meteorological records with an insouciant disregard for their significance and the patient effort that our ancestors put into noting such things in the first place, the mere fact that a date of unique importance is approaching is no guarantee whatsoever of good sailing conditions. On the contrary, the more trouble a hosting club or class association go to in preparing for a major event, the more certain we can be that the Weather Gods will rain mightily on their parade, with winds of destructive power.

So marked is this tendency – particularly in 2021, when we already don't have to seek our troubles – that there must be sailing club Honorary Sailing Secretaries who have felt tempted to pin an announcement on their public notice board to the effect that: "Absolutely Nothing Is Happening at This Club This Weekend", while secretly going ahead with planning races for all classes.

It might fool the Mysterious Might of Meteorology on one or two occasions, and in an era when every sporting happening afloat and ashore is built on a basis of desperately-sought publicity, it will probably prove a runaway winner in gathering attention.

But such sagacious hindsight is of little use to a national event last weekend which deserved to have perfect sailing conditions and much attention, but ended up with all the three days planned racing crammed into the Friday. That got a result of sorts, but Saturday and Sunday saw gales of such power that the competitors – who had come from many parts of Ireland – were glad enough to get home without their boats and towing vehicles being blown clean off the road.

Where it all started 200 years ago – Lough Gill immediately inland of Sligo town was the scene for the first races for the Ladies Cup.Where it all started 200 years ago – Lough Gill immediately inland of Sligo town was the scene for the first races for the Ladies Cup.

2021 is the Bicentenary of Sligo Yacht Club, which started its sailing in 1821 with races on the sheltered and microclimate-blessed waters of Lough Gill inland of the seaport town. To encourage their men in this worthy and character-building activity, the womenfolk of Sligo immediately got together to present the Ladies Cup "for the encouragement of fast sailing boats on Lough Gill". That Deed of Gift may well have had a double intention, for apart from encouraging manly sport afloat, the gradual elimination of slow boats would mean there'd be no excuse for some matelots returning home late, smelling of strong drink and the truth not in them. Even so, the hopes of achieving that in all cases were probably just about zero.

The main hazard for the SYC Ladies Cup in its 200 years of existence is that people have tended to look after it too well, with one valuer in 1891 commenting: "The original weight was 69.5 troy ounces, from repeated cleaning it now weighs only 68 ounces, but it is in excellent condition".The main hazard for the SYC Ladies Cup in its 200 years of existence is that people have tended to look after it too well, with one valuer in 1891 commenting: "The original weight was 69.5 troy ounces, from repeated cleaning it now weighs only 68 ounces, but it is in excellent condition".

Such innovation was part of the developing sailing scene in the northwest, and nearby in Fermanagh - where the myriad waters of Lough Erne are so all-pervasive that having a boat/yacht was often the best way to get about - by 1818 they were racing, and by 1820, and possibly earlier, Lough Erne Yacht Club was established primarily to organise yacht racing, the world's first sailing club with that specific purpose.

But whereas in the greater Lough Erne area they weren't above selling off historic silver yacht racing trophies after a bad harvest, in Sligo there seems to have been a greater reverence for such things, or for the Ladies Cup at least, and it has survived. This makes it the world's oldest continually-competed-for sailing trophy. Age-comparable bits of silverware in the Royal Cork were challenge cups for just one race – the oldest is from 1829 – and they thus remain in the trophy cupboard, while some more ancient trophies in the Royal Thames are likewise one-offs, and anyway the word is they're replicas of lost prizes.

Yet the Ladies' Cup is a true perpetual trophy, it just keeps sailing along, even if it took a few years for them to cop on that its usefulness to the sailing world would be improved by inscribing the names of each year's winner, although the first is believed to have been Owen Wynn (1755-1841) of Hazelwood, the big house of Lough Gill.

Despite the convenience to the leading local land-owner and first citizen of being able to keep his race-winning boat at the bottom of the garden, Lough Gill in high summer could be oppressively hot and heavy, and in time the Club re-focused its activity on the sea at Rosses Point, where the anchorage in the widening mouth of the Garavogue River is briskly tide-rode, but the healthy fresh sea air is served up in king-size portions.

Sligo Yacht Club at Rosses Point, with the distinctive Ben Bulben beyondSligo Yacht Club at Rosses Point, with the distinctive Ben Bulben beyond

Admittedly their continuing use at Rosses Point of the Ladies Cup implies a certain cavalier disregard for its original specification in the Deed of Gift, which was clearcut for racing on Lough Gill. And certainly from time to time - being the northwest of Ireland - the winds are appropriately robust, so much so that on occasion there's an impulse to return from Rosses Point to the comparative peace of Lough Gill.

Such thoughts must have surfaced with added strength last weekend, when they hoped to celebrate the Bicentenary of the SYC Ladies Cup properly by making it the premier trophy for the 2021 J/24 Nationals. For the J/24 is popular in Sligo, and the entry list for these special nationals covered such an extensive range of clubs that they merit listing, the lineup including Royal Cork YC, Sligo YC, Carlingford SC, Mullaghmore SC, National YC, Greystones SC, Foynes YC, Wicklow SC, Lough Erne YC, Howth YC, Western YC, Bray SC, Tralee Bay SC, Mayo SC, and Lough Ree YC.

Sailing at Rosses Point as it can be. Sligo YC is hosting the Mirror Nationals from August 20-22nd.Sailing at Rosses Point as it can be. Sligo YC is hosting the Mirror Nationals from August 20-22nd.

So not only was the stage set, but the props for the historic drama were right on target, as the original conditions for the award of the Ladies Cup was that it be restricted to boats not more than 26ft and 3ins long. Thanks to the limiting size of the Johnson brothers' parents' garage in which the first J/24 was created in 1976, everything was compliant for making the Bicentenary Award of the Ladies Cup harmonious with history. So all that was needed was a bit of co-operation from the weather, but just to be on the safe side they made it a three-day event, with the 24-strong fleet assembled by Thursday night, and a full day's racing scheduled for Friday, August 6th.

Atlantic horizon for J/24s off Rosses Point on the FridayAtlantic horizon for J/24s off Rosses Point on the Friday

We're grateful to Oisin Brennan for this insider's view of an event that may merit Veterans Medals in due course:

Friday 6th of August: 

With a heavy forecast looming, the competition was always under threat but all competing boats made it out to begin racing. Four races were planned with the wind steady around 15 knots and gusting 16 but continually dying off as the day went on. By the time the first race was underway the wind had dropped down to a much more manageable 8-10 knots gusting closer to 12. 

The first race began with the usual chaos at the start line but no recalls. 2019 National Champions Headcase started the defence of their title well with a first with Tadgh O'Loinsigh's Janx Spirit from Tralee Bay Sailing Club in second and JP McCaldin's Il Ricco from Lough Erne Yacht Club finishing in third. The second race introduced the first recalls of the event with Jobs for the Buoys and Jevan being called back. Again Headcase took the race with Il Ricco in second and Stouche claiming third. With the wind dropping again, Stouche were one of a few boats hoping for an increase to climb further up the podium. A general recall split the fleet with some boats benefitting and others missing out on impressive starts. Even with what they considered less favourable conditions, Stouche continued their run of improving results and finished second overall once again behind Headcase. Il Ricco followed up third matching their result from the first race. The final race started with no recalls and promised to be a perfect ending to a great day of racing but huge wind shifts saw the final upwind leg become a tight reach. Headcase were not put off by this shift and finished out with four bullets. Just for the fun of it, Sligo Yacht Club finished with their best result of the competition in second, with Hard on Port from Bray taking a third place finish.

Nervy start, restless sky – the one day of racing had to cover a host of requirements.Nervy start, restless sky – the one day of racing had to cover a host of requirements.

Saturday 7th of August:

The day began with a two hour postponement and a general acceptance that it would be followed by a further delay. As expected there were two more official delays eventually culminating in a cancellation for the day. There was clear frustration in the fleet with a number of boats relying on the discard to improve their result. There wasn't long to be disappointed, however, with the much-anticipated dinner later that night - it was a memorable occasion, and a fantastic night was had by all.

Sunday 8th of August:

Cancellation for the day was quickly called on the Sunday with the expected heavy forecast. With no discard, results remained the same from Friday with Headcase winning both the Ladies Cup and the 2021 J24 National Championship. Il Ricco finished second and Jana following up in third.

SYC Commodore Ken Draper (right) with the U25 Champions from Howth YC who were racing Kilcullen, they are (left to right) Philip McDowell, William Lacey, David Johnston, Sam Crawford and Jack McMahon.SYC Commodore Ken Draper (right) with the U25 Champions from Howth YC who were racing Kilcullen, they are (left to right) Philip McDowell, William Lacey, David Johnston, Sam Crawford and Jack McMahon.

Seven under 25 teams were entered in this year's National Championships with six taking part, each funded by the Irish Cruiser Racing Association (ICRA) development programme. Kilcullen, helmed by David Johnston from Howth Yacht Club, are the J24 U25 National Champions, Jasper 2 from Foynes Yacht Club were second and Just a Minute from Greystones Sailing Club in third. Kilcullen also finished top of Silver Fleet.

Darkside, helmed by twenty-year-old Oisín Brennan of Sligo Yacht Club, sailing with a crew of family and friends ranging in age from fifteen to sixty-seven and all new to competitive sailing, finished first in the Bronze Fleet.

First in the Westerly Fleet was Conor Haughton's Jade from Wicklow Sailing Club.

Full results available here

GP 14 NATIONALS AT LOUGH ERNE

Despite a few notable absentees, there are 40 entries for this weekend's GP14 Nationals at Lough ErneDespite a few notable absentees, there are 40 entries for this weekend's GP14 Nationals at Lough Erne

This weekend, the focus in the history-laden northwest has switched to Lough Erne YC and the GP14 Nationals, the combination of another historic class with another historic club. In a cruel twist of fate, the problem might just be a lack of wind, but it's looking quite hopeful for some decent sailing nevertheless.

Published in W M Nixon
WM Nixon

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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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