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Sailing's Developing Trends in Ireland Are Difficult to Clarify in Rapidly Accelerating Late-Season Programme

11th September 2021
Frank Whelan's J/122 from Greystones SC had had a fine season, winning Calves Week in August, and then following it in September with a clean sweep and the overall win in the ICRA Nats. The J/122 – first produced in 2008 – is no longer built, yet Kaya is frontline competitive with the owner-skipper supported by crew-leader Patrick Barnwell, and with Mark Mansfield as tactician for the ICRA Nats
Frank Whelan's J/122 from Greystones SC had had a fine season, winning Calves Week in August, and then following it in September with a clean sweep and the overall win in the ICRA Nats. The J/122 – first produced in 2008 – is no longer built, yet Kaya is frontline competitive with the owner-skipper supported by crew-leader Patrick Barnwell, and with Mark Mansfield as tactician for the ICRA Nats Credit: Afloat

You might say it's unnatural. Normally at this time of year, we'll be talking of the evenings and the season closing in together to facilitate a gently easing pace. But last weekend in Cork, they seemed to have so many things going on at once it was sometimes difficult to tell where one began and another ended. Meanwhile, in Dublin, it was equally hectic with the ICRA Nats building to a climax at Dun Laoghaire with the National YC, while across Dublin Bay on the Howth peninsula, it was a flurry of activity at both Howth and Sutton.

Yet this weekend, if anything the Dublin events lineup is even more tightly packed. This morning the ISORA Pwllheli-Dun Laoghaire Race gets underway to reinforce the sense of gradually returning normality, even though the pandemic limitations have meant it's only the second cross-channel race of the 2021 season.

On the Howth peninsula meanwhile, today and tomorrow see the Sutton Dinghy Club GP14 Autumn Open and Youth Championship, while across the hill (newly inhabited by Old Irish Goats from Mayo) at Howth Harbour, the first race of the annual six weekends Beshoff Motors Autumn League comes into action, with the entry of 90-plus showing an encouraging increase of interest from other clubs along the Fingal coast as far north as Skerries.

The almost nonexistent entry input from the south side of Dublin Bay reflects the fact that the line of the Liffey and the Dublin Port shipping lane bisecting the bay constitute the Great Divide. The only southside entrant is Flor O'Driscoll's J/24 Hard on Port, and as a Corkman originally (Cobh to be precise), the great Flor would probably be indignant at being described as a Southsider, as he competes under the Bray Sailing Club colours, which puts him into an entirely different ethnic group.

Veteran skipper Flor O'Driscoll's vintage J/24 Hard on Port (Bray Sailing Club) is returning to Howth today for the first race of the six weekend Beshoff Motors Autumn League. Photo: AfloatVeteran skipper Flor O'Driscoll's vintage J/24 Hard on Port (Bray Sailing Club) is returning to Howth today for the first race of the six weekend Beshoff Motors Autumn League. Photo: Afloat.ie

You'd think today's action was enough for Howth, but tomorrow they've both their annual Junior Regatta and the visit by the three newly-restored Dublin Bay 21s which have been busy this week, as they raced on Thursday evening in the NYC's traditional end-of-season with Hal Sisk at the helm of Estelle winning, and last night they were manifesting their presence at the Royal Irish YC's 190th Anniversary Pursuit Race.

All this is going on while in both the Royal Cork YC in Crosshaven and HYC in Howth, the thoughts of those who think beyond the local horizon are with their teams in the New York Yacht Club Invitational Inter-Club Event being raced from this morning at Newport, Rhode Island in the red-hot Mark Mills-designed Melges ILC 37s, which constitutes a mighty challenge in themselves for newcomers to the event.

This hot ticket is not for the faint-hearted. The NYCC Invitational raced in Mark Mills-designed ILC 37s is notoriously competitive. In this photo, Royal Cork helmed by Anthony O'Leary is sail number 3, in prime positionThis hot ticket is not for the faint-hearted. The NYCC Invitational raced in Mark Mills-designed ILC 37s is notoriously competitive. In this photo, Royal Cork helmed by Anthony O'Leary is sail number 3, in prime position

For the Royal Cork team, with an impressive lineup of O'Learys, this is the seventh stab at the challenge. And in last year's first staging in the ILC 37s, they got the Bronze against 20 other clubs, so they start this morning as one of the favourites. But for the Howth squad led by Darren Wright, as they start for the first time in this decidedly stratospheric event, it already seems quite an achievement to have got there and passed all the tests, including a rigorous crew weigh-in.

With so much going on it takes an effort to think back even five days to the final overall results for the ICRA Nats, but as ever they provide something of a statistician and trend analyst's dream, for as one critical observer of the developing Irish sailing scene has trenchantly observed: NO CLASS WAS WON BY A BOAT STILL IN PRODUCTION.

Equally relevant is the other inescapable conclusion: ONLY TWO CLASSES WERE WON BY A BOAT REGISTERED AS SAILING FROM ONE OF IRELAND'S SIX FRONT LINE CLUBS.

And all for the honour of Rush Sailing Club…..Keeping a vintage J/109 in race-winning trim is not something to be undertaken lightly. Towards the end of Autumn each year, the Kelly's family's J/109 Storm disappears into their big shed in Lusk in the heart of Fingal. She reappears each Spring, immaculate after much family, crew and community effort. Photo: Afloat.ieAnd all for the honour of Rush Sailing Club…..Keeping a vintage J/109 in race-winning trim is not something to be undertaken lightly. Towards the end of Autumn each year, the Kelly's family's J/109 Storm disappears into their big shed in Lusk in the heart of Fingal. She reappears each Spring, immaculate after much family, crew and community effort. Photo: Afloat.ie

The habit of continually up-dating an older boat to keep her competitive under IRC is a quintessentially Irish thing, and our long history of sailing means that our concept of "old" in boats is different from the rest of the world. And the fact that we're discovering that quality fibreglass construction seems to have an almost unlimited lifespan only adds to the possibilities for successful ageing in the Irish fleet.

But against that, a significant cohort of Irish sailors have an increasing appreciation of innovation in boat design and equipment. And the reality that maintenance, and major boat up-grade project costs, are rocketing at our limited waterfront boat service facilities means that simply renewing one's boat every three years is an increasingly attractive proposition, particularly among those working in the huge IT and Research complexes in Dublin and Cork where continuous up-dating is as natural as breathing.

The trouble is that the manufacturers who rely on this increasing trend in favour of planned obsolescence don't always get it right. Years ago, the J/35 must have been seen eventually as a complete pain in the neck by the directors of J Boats, as the damned thing just kept on winning despite the alternative attraction of new temptations which the company kept bringing to the marketplace.

Lets hear it for Wexford! The Quarter Tonner Snoopy brought the ICRA Class 3 Honours home to Courtown Sailing Club. Photo: AfloatLets hear it for Wexford! The Quarter Tonner Snoopy brought the ICRA Class 3 Honours home to Courtown Sailing Club. Photo: Afloat.ie

Over at Beneteau, they must have come to think of the endlessly successful First 40.7 as a millstone around their neck in trying to progress the company. But meanwhile back in the world of J/Boats, I'll never forget seeing the Tyrrell family of Arklow's very new J/109 Aquelina emerge at the head of the fleet in the Lambay Race of 2004, and thinking that there would be a boat of ideal size, type and provenance to become a hugely successful new One Design cruiser-racer class for Dublin Bay and its immediate area.

It took some years for it to happen, but then the class took off in Dublin Bay, and in a week's time, the Royal Irish YC will be hosting the annual J/109 Championship to give us a take on the class's health in the post-pandemic circumstances. However, the ICRA Championship meanwhile was much as expected, with the Kelly family's J/109 Storm winning the 24-strong Class 1 (biggest in the fleet) from sister-ship White Mischief (Goodbody family).

It was a totally typical regatta outcome in many ways, as Storm now clearly sails as a Rush SC boat, reflecting the growing muscle power in the sailing world of clubs on the Fingal coast, while White Mischief is "old establishment" with the RIYC.

The overall list of topliners under IRC says it more clearly:

ICRA Nats 2021

  • Class 0 (and overall champion) Kaya (J/122, Frank Whelan, Greystones SC)
  • Class 1 Storm (J/109, Kelly family, Rush SC)
  • Class 2 Checkmate XVIII (Classic Half Tonner, Nigel Biggs, Howth YC)
  • Class 3 Snoopy (Classic Quarter Tonner, Joanne Hall & Martin Mahon, Courtown Harbour SC).
  • Class 4 (non-spinnaker) Gung-Ho (Super Seal F/K, Grainne & Sean O'Shea, RIYC).

With seventeen clubs in all represented in the ICRA Nats fleet, the assumed overall success of the Big Six clubs was inevitably going to provide added motivation for those who were enabling their own small home or childhood clubs to punch above their weight. It can only be healthy for little clubs to be putting one over on the biggies from time to time, and it certainly happens on the south coast with Baltimore SC sometimes functioning as an "alternative" Royal Cork YC, while it was quite a thing at the ICRA event, as another conspicuous contender was Shaun Douglas's First 40.7 Game Changer from Belfast Lough, which lists Cockle Island Boat Club as the home base.

Shaun Douglas's First 40.7 Game Changer is clearly home-ported at CIBC – where's that? Photo: Afloat.ieShaun Douglas's First 40.7 Game Changer is clearly home-ported at CIBC – where's that? Photo: Afloat.ie

Cockle Island is the rocky islet protecting the shoal natural harbour at Groomsport on the south shore of Belfast Lough, and the reality is that Game Changer can only get within convenient distance of the clubhouse (it's an attractive conversion of the old Lifeboat House) at high water. But it was CIBC's encouragement of the youthful Shaun Douglas which set him on his successful sailing path, and this is remembered every time Game Changer goes racing.

Groomsport on the south shore of Belfast Lough is home to Cockle Island Boat Club. Cockle Island is the rocky islet sheltering the harbour, but as it is shoal, CIBC's best-known boat Game Changer can only visit at High WaterGroomsport on the south shore of Belfast Lough is home to Cockle Island Boat Club. Cockle Island is the rocky islet sheltering the harbour, but as it is shoal, CIBC's best-known boat Game Changer can only visit at High Water

Yet typically of the Irish fleet, the First 40.7 Game Changer is of a notably successful marque (nearly 700 built) of which the last one was produced more than five years ago, while that other favourite the J/109 has also been taken out of production. Certainly, they can now offer a very attractive proposition for anyone game to take on an end-of-season bargain with all its maintenance challenges, but as our world resumes its fast-moving mode, there's an increasing line of thought whose proponents reckon that everyday working life already provides enough in the way of hassle, and when they go sailing they want to do so in a new and immediately competitive boat which represented the latest design thinking and comes adorned with warranties which immediately make any concerns somebody else's problem.

Of course, they cost an immediate fortune. But suddenly the money seems to be there, and when you've a useful boat available to a design created by a genius of global repute who happens to have his design studio in a remote and beautiful valley in the Wicklow Hills, what's not to like?

Thus although there's still quite a bit of sailing to be done before 2021 is finally out of the way, the advent of a new Irish class of Mark Mills-designed Cape 31s in 2022 is already top of the agenda.

The Cape 31 can get a move on when given the chance. Photo: Rick TomlinsonThe Cape 31 can get a move on when given the chance. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

Published in W M Nixon, ICRA
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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