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The Weight of Sailing History in Ireland Hangs on the Golden Thread of the Helmsman's Championship

2nd October 2021
The Helmsman's Championship of October 1970 at Crosshaven rounded out the Quarter Millennial Celebrations of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, and the six finalists were (left to right) Michael O'Rahilly (Dun Laoghaire), the late Somers Payne (Crosshaven), Harold Cudmore Jnr (Crosshaven), Owen Delany (Dun Laoghaire), Maurice Butler (Ballyholme) and the winner, Robert Dix of Malahide – at 17 in 1970, still the youngest-ever winner
The Helmsman's Championship of October 1970 at Crosshaven rounded out the Quarter Millennial Celebrations of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, and the six finalists were (left to right) Michael O'Rahilly (Dun Laoghaire), the late Somers Payne (Crosshaven), Harold Cudmore Jnr (Crosshaven), Owen Delany (Dun Laoghaire), Maurice Butler (Ballyholme) and the winner, Robert Dix of Malahide – at 17 in 1970, still the youngest-ever winner Credit: IY & MB

We've been waiting a year to use this header photo which – owing to a certain confusion in the filing of thousands of photographic negs and images – has had to be scanned from the November 1970 issue of Irish Yachting & Motorboating, the direct predecessor of Afloat Magazine and Afloat.ie.

But while there's still a certain contemporary feel to the energising group photo of half a century and more ago, the cover of that evidently ancient periodical does indeed speak of a distant past, of a summer's evening at Skerries when the Herons were still in the ascendant as the favoured junior class, and life moved at a more sensible pace in the quaint delusion that we were moving into an even more relaxed era to be known as The Leisure Age.

In a sense we have. Except that it turns out that 21st Century Leisure is extremely hard work, lived at such a ferocious pace that we very quickly forget the details of what we've just done as we shape ourselves for the next exhausting bit of relaxing sport. And thus something like a straightforward record and overview of what actually happened rapidly fades from the collective memory on the mistaken assumption that someone must be keeping an enduring tab on it all, a clear case of everyone's business being no one's business.

The way we were, more than half a century ago on a summer's evening in SkerriesThe way we were, more than half a century ago on a summer's evening in Skerries

Thus you'd be surprised by how often organisers have to refer to the inscriptions on a silver trophy to verify the names of who previously won it, and when. In such circumstances, having one core event which provides a simple recorded backbone of the progress of our sport has obvious appeal, even if sailing is a non-mechanical vehicle sport involving boats of many different types, and the inherent contradictions of expecting sailors to give of their best in boats they don't usually sail would be utterly blatant, were it not for the fact that in a surprising number of years, the eventual winner is not the representative of the class in which the Championship of the Champions is being sailed.

The Champion of our Sailing Champions, sailing's All-Ireland? Our sailing community first ran with the idea 74 years ago. And while other countries have since come up with their own versions with varying levels of success which have sometimes reduced annually until fading away, we've simply kept the Helmsman's Championship – as it was called at its inauguration in 1947 – on the road in one form or another. And now with, a Junior Championship traditionally held a week in advance, it's as much an established a part of our lives as……well, as Christmas.

Clayton Love Jnr of Cork, Helmsman's Champion in 1955 and 1960. He was instrumental in transforming the Irish Dinghy Racing Association into the Irish Yachting Association, and in 1966-67 he brought about the unification of the Royal Munster YC and the Royal Cork YC in time for the Royal Cork's Quarter Millennium Celebrations in 1969-1970.Clayton Love Jnr of Cork, Helmsman's Champion in 1955 and 1960. He was instrumental in transforming the Irish Dinghy Racing Association into the Irish Yachting Association, and in 1966-67 he brought about the unification of the Royal Munster YC and the Royal Cork YC in time for the Royal Cork's Quarter Millennium Celebrations in 1969-1970.

But while Christmas has gone through many mutations to reach its current over-the-top version, the All-Ireland Helmsman's Championship - in both its Senior and Junior versions – is a very focused affair of intense interest among those who have qualified to take part and those who organise it, yet it has never become the spectator-attracting spectacle some might expect.

Admittedly, were the resources available to cover it with the sort of technological wizardry that the likes of Stan Honey and others have developed for the international mega-events, there'd be greater interest at the time. But that wouldn't result in spectators being out on the water as September turns into October and suddenly there's a real nip in the air, for all you'd need is access to a functioning screen and somewhere warm to sit.

Ted Crosbie of Cork was Helmsmans Champion in 1950. Photo: Robert Bateman   Ted Crosbie of Cork was Helmsmans Champion in 1950. Photo: Robert Bateman   

Either way, it is very important to the Irish sailing community to know that each year, the All-Ireland Sailing Championship takes place. So much so that coming into last year, in pre-pandemic times, it had been assumed for years by everyone - in a bit of remarkable subconscious groupthink- that it would be the concluding event of the Tricentenary Celebrations of the Royal Cork at Crosshaven, just as fifty years earlier it had concluded the Quarter Millennial celebrations.

Boats of all the leading classes have been used, and in 1982 Dave Cummins of Sutton, crewed by Gordon Maguire and Mossie Shanahan, was winner in the Shannon One Designs racing at Dromineer. Photo: W M NixonBoats of all the leading classes have been used, and in 1982 Dave Cummins of Sutton, crewed by Gordon Maguire and Mossie Shanahan, was winner in the Shannon One Designs racing at Dromineer. Photo: W M Nixon

This weekend, one pandemic-induced year's hiatus further down the line, we pick up the pieces in order to keep the golden thread intact while being acutely aware that after an exceptionally clement September, the first weekend of October is indicating wind patterns which may be volatile and then some. We can only hope, and meanwhile Afloat.ie has been looking at the runners and riders here

To date, there has only been one female winner, and this was Laura Dillon of Howth in 1996.   To date, there has only been one female winner, and this was Laura Dillon of Howth in 1996.  

But in this year of all years, it behoves us to remember those who have gone before, right back to 1947 when Douglas Heard, founding president of the shape-shifting Irish Dinghy Racing Association in 1946, presented the nascent association with a large silver salver for a Champion of Champions in 1947, and to his embarrassment was the first winner, racing in the new IDRA 14s.

Since then, other names have come to the fore at various stages of their successful sailing careers, other boat types have been used, and many different locations have hosted an event which arguably works because the Irish sailing community is notably cohesive, and it - and the island around which it sails - appear to be of precisely the size which best accommodates a somewhat eccentric contest of this nature.

The winner in 2014 at Howth was Cork's Anthony O'Leary racing a J/80 and crewed by Dylan Gannon and Dan O'Grady. Photo: Johnny WormaldThe winner in 2014 at Howth was Cork's Anthony O'Leary racing a J/80 and crewed by Dylan Gannon and Dan O'Grady. Photo: Johnny Wormald

In 2015 Anthony O'Leary retained the title, racing J/80s again, but this time in Dublin Bay at the National YC. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'BrienIn 2015 Anthony O'Leary retained the title, racing J/80s again, but this time in Dublin Bay at the National YC. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O'Brien

Inevitably you remember some wins better than others, and I thought 2014's last-ditch victory by Anthony O'Leary racing J/80s at Howth was something very special, for that was the year he carried the Commodore's Cup team to victory largely on his own shoulders, and it was remarkable that at season's end he still found something in reserve to win out in a contest of such a very different type.

Others will have their own favourite wins to contemplate in this long litany of outstanding sailors. It's a record of sailing achievement which reverberates down the ages. And when the winner holds the salver aloft, for a few seconds, the world really does stand still as we contemplate the wonder of Irish sailing.

All Ireland Sailing Winners 1947-2019

Year

Senior Winner

Junior Winner

Junior First Girl

2019

2018

Michael O’Connor

Peter Kennedy

Chris Bateman

Atlee Kohl

Alana Coakley

2017

Fionn Lyden

Micheal O’Suilleabhain

Leah Rickard

2016

Alex Barry

Johnny Durcan

Kate Lyttle

2015 

Anthony O'Leary 

Peter McCann 

Clare Gorman

2014

Anthony O'Leary

Harry Durkan

Gemma McDowell

2013

Ben Duncan

Séafra Guilfoyle

Megan Parker

2012

Peter O'Leary

Fionn Lyden

Aisling Keller

2011

George Kenefick

   

2010

Nicholas O'Leary

Philip Doran

Sophie Murphy

2009

Nicholas O'Leary

Matthew O'Dowd

Diana Kissane

2008

Nicholas O'Leary

Philip Doran

Tiffany Brien

2007

Stefan Hyde

Chris Penney

Annalise Murphy

2006

Peter O'Leary

George Kenefick

Rachel Guy

2005

David Crosbie

Fionn Jenkinson

Lisa Tate

2004

Tom Fitzpatrick

Katie Tingle

 

2003

Neil Hegarty

Erica Tate & Lorraine Stallard

 

2002

Conor Walsh

Robert Collins & Kenny Keogh

 

2001

Feargal Kinsella

Peter Bayly & Niall Cowman

 

2000

Gerald Owens

Peter O'Leary

 

1999

Mark Mansfield

Nicholas O'Leary

 

1998

Tom Fitzpatrick

Gerald Owens

 

1997

Tom Fitzpatrick

Neil Spain

 

1996

Laura Dillon

Gerald Owens

 

1995

Ruan O'Tiarnaigh

Laura Dillon

 

1994

Tom Fitzpatrick

Evan Dolan

 

1993

Sean Craig

Evan Dolan

 

1992

John Ross Murphy

Tom Fitzpatrick

 

1991

Mark Lyttle

Tom Fitzpatrick

 

1990

Mark Mansfield

Robert Eason

 

1989

Marshall King

Conal Casey

 

1988

John Murtagh

J McWilliam

 

1987

Mark Lyttle

Dan O'Grady

 

1986

Mark Lyttle

T McWilliam

 

1985

Paul Rowan

Nicky Timon

 

1984

Paul Rowan

Niall Alexander

 

1983

Brian Craig

Niall Alexander

 

1982

David Cummins

Michael Stavely

 

1981

David Cummins

Mark Lyttle

 

1980

T W Whisker

Justin Maguire

 

1979

Chris Arrowsmith

Justin Maguire

 

1978

Wiclif McCready

John Gilmore

 

1977

Wiclif McCready

Mark O'Hare

 

1976

Adrian Bell

Bryan Maguire

 

1975

David Gay

Joseph English

 

1974

Peter Duffy

Alan McFarlane

 

1973

Owen Delany

David McFarlane

 

1972

Harold Cudmore

Robert Bleakney

 

1971

Adrian Bell

   

1970

Robert Dix

   

1969

Maurice R Butler

   

1968

Vincent Delany

   

1967

T C M Morris

   

1966

John F Russell

   

1965

James Nixon

   

1964

J K O'Reilly

   

1963

Owen Delany

   

1962

G M Sargent

   

1961

M C Walsh

   

1960

J Clayton Love Jnr

   

1959

J O McCleary

   

1958

J K O'Reilly

   

1957

J Somers Payne

   

1956

J Somers Payne

   

1955

J Clayton Love Jnr

   

1954

Neville D Maguire

   

1953

Johnny Hooper

   

1952

Neville D Maguire

   

1951

Richard Uren

   

1950

Ted Crosbie

   

1949

Richard Uren

   

1948

John Wearing

   

1947

R Douglas Heard

   

When time stands still – 2018 winner Peter Kennedy of Strangford Lough YC and his crewman Stephen Kane hold their trophies aloft after winning in SB20s at Lough Ree YC.When time stands still – 2018 winner Peter Kennedy of Strangford Lough YC and his crewman Stephen Kane hold their trophies aloft after winning in SB20s at Lough Ree YC. Photo: ISA

Published in W M Nixon, All Irelands
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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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