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Joe Woodward Was The Essence of Cork And Its Sailing

9th April 2022
Joe Woodward in 2004 with the William Van der Hagen 1738 painting of the Water Club sailing in Cork Harbour, which made for one of his most historic auctions.
Joe Woodward in 2004 with the William Van der Hagen 1738 painting of the Water Club sailing in Cork Harbour, which made for one of his most historic auctions. Credit: Photo: Denis Scannell courtesy Joseph Woodward & Sons

Joe Woodward of Cork, who has died aged 90, was the very personification of the spirit of Cork city and harbour as a place where the good things in life are there to be enjoyed, and enjoyed in style. This was to be achieved both ashore in pleasant surroundings and good company, and also afloat as frequently as possible, whether racing or cruising aboard an interesting sailing boat, on day sailing or well-planned longer ventures.

The Woodward name was already prominent in the city’s commercial and social life when the family company of fine art auctioneers, property agents and antique dealers was founded in 1883, making it now the city’s longest-established family firm of auctioneers. And Joe himself – the fourth generation in running the business - probably coined the firm’s mantra of “We’re not the best because we’re the oldest. We’re the oldest because we’re the best”. But even if he didn’t, he had the wit and sparkle to know a good thing when he saw it, and very quickly make it his own.

At a family level, he was the complete incarnation of the way in which the leading Cork professional, commercial and sailing families are all inter-related in an extraordinary matrix which makes it very perilous for an outsider to provide any comment – nautical or otherwise - about an absent third party, as you invariably find you’re making those possibly barbed remarks to a cousin or a niece or an uncle or whatever, and it will be all over town before the day is out. 

FAMILY, WORK AND SAILING INTER-MINGLE

Joe’s sister Mary was married in a lifelong love-match to the legendary Denis Doyle – they were Cork sailing’s own international power couple long before the expression “power couple” had been coined elsewhere – and this meant that Joe was also related to the Donegans of Fastnet Race-founding fame, and to many other Munster sailing clans.

But despite the exalted commercial and nautical background in such a strong family environment, Joe was very comfortably his own man, with all the confidence of elegant good looks allied to an athletic yet slim build – he never carried an ounce of excess weight – and a ready wit in the best sardonic Cork style.

His earliest sailing under his own command was with a 14ft clinker-built gunter-rigged dinghy called Ripple for a few years around 1950, when he sailed from the up-harbour Cork Boat Club. But he quickly was drawn into the growing National 18 fleet in the then Royal Munster Yacht Club at Crosshaven, racing a boat called Fenella. With what one longtime friend has called “Joe’s flashes of brilliance, when he was unbeatable”, Fenella was one of three National 18s rated as scratch in the large fleet, the handicapper ranking Joe’s helming skills with an Eighteen as being equal to Somers Payne and Charlie Dwyer.

The National 18s of Cork in their first 1950s incarnation – the class handicapper ranked Joe Woodward as a scratch sailor in the class, on a par with Somers Payne and Charlie Dwyer. Photo courtesy RCYCThe National 18s of Cork in their first 1950s incarnation – the class handicapper ranked Joe Woodward as a scratch sailor in the class, on a par with Somers Payne and Charlie Dwyer. Photo courtesy RCYC\

And in one particular area of performance, he was in a league of his own. In his early days with Ripple at the Boat Club, other young sailors were very impressed by the fact that “he seemed to have no problem in pulling girls to crew”, such that in more recent times the term babe magnet might well have applied.

This happy talent continued to manifest itself at Crosshaven thanks to the National 18s’ three person crewing requirement, which meant that a relatively inexperienced third hand could be accommodated by a skilled skipper accustomed to juggling in all its forms.

THE ORIGINS OF DOTIE PET

All those bewitched females had the one term of endearment for Joe, so much so that those who raced against him used it as his nickname behind his back. Or at least they assumed it was behind his back, until some of the keener Cork dinghy sailors started to move to 505s in the late 1950s, and Joe showed them he was completely aware of the nickname situation by calling his new 505 Dotie Pet.

Life was hectic afloat and ashore, as for a while - in addition to his thriving professional and social life - he continued to have both a National 18 and a 505, and then in 1960 he allowed another string to be added to his bow. He stepped up to the plate to compete for the place as Ireland’s Olympic Finn representative in Rome, but was narrowly beaten in the trials by his old friend and regular sailing rival Somers Payne, who had already sailed as Ireland’s Finn helm in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.

However, as 1964 approached, boat choice had to become more focused, as Cork Harbour had been selected as the venue for the 1964 International 505 Worlds, and it was abundantly evident that this was going to require a new level of seriousness.

Entry list for 1964 505 Worlds at CorkEntry list for 1964 505 Worlds at Cork

So Joe reduced his personal flotilla to one boat, a new 505 retaining the name Dotie Pet, and he and crewman John McCarthy put in some serious training. Naturally this approach by the “playboy sailor” caused some mirth in Crosshaven, but in a then-unprecedented international fleet of 96 boats, he put everyone firmly in their place by leading for much of the first race.

Joe Woodward’s Dotie Pet leads the 96-strong feet in the first race of the International 505 Worlds at Cork, August 1964Joe Woodward’s Dotie Pet leads the 96-strong feet in the first race of the International 505 Worlds at Cork, August 1964

This may have made Dotie Pet a marked boat for the rest of the championship, but it means that 68 years later, with Cork scheduled once again to host the 505 Worlds in 2022, all that anyone can remember from 1964 is that Joe Woodward had one of his flashes of almost supernatural sailing brilliance, yet the actual overall winner is long since forgotten.

Thereafter, as the Royal Munster through amalgamation became his home club of the Royal Cork YC in 1967, he was always a force to be reckoned with in 505 sailing locally, nationally and internationally. Nevertheless his debonair persona around boats was just one side of a balanced personality, on which the other was a very effective dedication to business – he was a founder member of the Irish Auctioneers and Valuers Institute (now the Irish Society of Chartered Surveyors), he was the man to go to for the sale of properties at the top end of the market in Cork, and his twice-yearly live and international telephone auctions devoted to Irish and English silver – particularly silverware with Cork Republican connections - acquired special renown to enhance his reputation as “The Magician With The Gavel” 

FAMILY LIFE 

Meanwhile on the personal front he had married Mary Halpin and they became a stylish couple with a growing family of son Tom (who was to succeed him as the fifth generation of Woodwards to head the family firm) and daughters Janet and Laura, all of whom contributed to an impressive total of seven grandchildren.

But that was some way down the line. Meanwhile, with Mary sharing his interest in boats but inclined to keelboats rather than racing dinghies, Joe made another of his many shrewd purchasing decisions by acquiring the classic Laurent Giles-designed 40ft Salterns Salar Moshulu III.

The robust 40ft Laurent Giles-designed Salterns Salar proved a very sensible choice for Joe & Mary Woodward’s cruising programmeThe robust 40ft Laurent Giles-designed Salterns Salar proved a very sensible choice for Joe & Mary Woodward’s cruising programme

The Salar is sometimes described as a motor-sailer, but is actually a powerful sailing boat which happens to have an amidships deck shelter which almost amounts to a wheelhouse. Her attraction is further augmented by the fact that the designers did not try to cram as much in the way of coachroofs and accommodation into her as might be possible, and thus she has roomy decks, and there’s plenty of personal space down below.

GOOD TIMES IN GALICIA

This all suited Joe and Mary very well, as he always preferred to sail on his own boat in the time-honoured Cork style, and in as much comfort as possible now that he had moved on from flat-out racing. And for Mary, Moshulu was a welcoming home from home as they cruised southwest Ireland and then increasingly devoted their time to basing the boat and themselves in northwest Spain, where the climate, the Galician way of life, and the local food was very much to their taste – Joe would later claim that in Galicia he ate only fish, to which he attributed his lifelong vigour.

Home from home – for years, Joe & Mary Woodward with Moshulu III had Baiona’s Monte Real Yacht Club as their Galician base.Home from home – for years, Joe & Mary Woodward with Moshulu III had Baiona’s Monte Real Yacht Club as their Galician base.

Inevitably they became such a regular feature of sailing in the area that they were part of the local club scene, particularly in Baiona near Vigo where Joe and Mary and the Monte Real Club de Yates were so comfortable with each other that he became the club’s Honorary Ambassador in Ireland, where he’d become an Irish Cruising Club member in 1990.

CRUISING’S GOOD NEWS MAN

From time to time Moshulu III was back in Irish waters, most notably in July 1996, when there was a combined Cruise-in-Company of all the senior international cruising clubs in West Cork.

With such a large and diverse fleet, some means of management co-ordination was required, and with his renowned semi-theatrical auctioneering skills, Joe took on the task of a morning news broadcast to the fleet from Moshulu. With his fearless wit and capacity for acquiring gossip at each night-time shore gathering, it was immediately required listening to start each day, even if some female participants of a certain age had mixed feelings about the entire fleet knowing that it happened to be their birthday.

 The Woodwards’ Salar Class Moshulu III in Baltimore during the 1996 Cruise-in-Company, with king-size fenders available to indicate a welcome to raft up. The Woodwards’ Salar Class Moshulu III in Baltimore during the 1996 Cruise-in-Company, with king-size fenders available to indicate a welcome to raft up.

As to his professional life, while his ability to delegate meant that he could take properly useful long periods of leave, he stayed actively interested in the family firm to the end, and was still chairman at the time of his death, such that, thanks to occasionally working in the business during school holidays, he could look back on eight decades of service to Woodwards.

IMPRESSIVE DEALS

His most spectacular deals continued to impress Cork. He put together the property package which enabled the creation of the hugely successful Hayfield Manor Hotel complex, designed by fellow sailor and architect Roddy Hyde to be a restful oasis in the heart of the university district and very much part of the city, and yet at the same time notably complete of itself.

The Oasis in Cork City – Joe Woodward started the process whereby disparate old properties were parcelled and transformed to become the haven which is Hayfield Manor Hotel in the heart of Cork’s university district.The Oasis in Cork City – Joe Woodward started the process whereby disparate old properties were parcelled and transformed to become the haven which is Hayfield Manor Hotel in the heart of Cork’s university district.

And then in 2004 he unveiled his most spectacular coup, the discovery of the Willem Van der Hagen 1738 painting of Cork Harbour with the fleet of the 1720-founded Water Club of the Harbour of Cork very much in evidence as they sailed down-harbour in their renowned flotilla formation.

While it lacks the technical detail and accuracy of the Royal Cork Yacht Club’s own two notable Peter Monamy paintings from the same period showing the fleet on manoeuvres, the Van der Hagen – despite some eccentricities – acquired immediate popularity through the fact that it located the Water Club very specifically in Cork Harbour, and thereby gave an immediate sense of personal connection to the pioneering club activities of 280 years earlier.

It has enormous charm, and thus the public auction on Wednesday 11th February 2004, with Joe on top form, attracted special interest. This was well justified, as it was sold into a private collection for €360,000, at that time a record for work of this type.

The placing of seven yachts of the Water Club in midst of the fleet heading seawards in this 1738 Van der Hagen painting of Cork Harbour gives it significant extra value.The placing of seven yachts of the Water Club in midst of the fleet heading seawards in this 1738 Van der Hagen painting of Cork Harbour gives it significant extra value.

It was just the kind of buzz which saw Joe at his best, and maintained his interest right to the end. In his later years, he became a widower with the loss of Mary, but equally his old adversary on the water, Somers Payne, had passed away leaving the Woodwards’ dear friend Eithne a widow, so she and Joe shared their new single lives.

In the best Cork style, there was no lack of the family banter which is familiar to any Cork sailing family. Joe’s 90th birthday in January of this year was a festive multi-generational affair, with special music and frequent laughter. And during it, the Woodward grandchildren cheerfully referred to Eithne Payne as “the woman whose husband prevented our grand-daddy from becoming an Olympic sailor”.

That’s the way it was in Joe Woodward’s world. He was a very special person, a real life-enhancer. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family and many friends and numerous shipmates. May he rest in peace.

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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