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Ireland’s Women On Water Are Doing Fine – It’s The Men Who Need Help

5th November 2022
That was then……Julius Price’s classic late Victorian portrayal of a female helm adorned the walls of the snooker room in many traditional yacht clubs. Courtesy RUYC
That was then……Julius Price’s classic late Victorian portrayal of a female helm adorned the walls of the snooker room in many traditional yacht clubs Credit: Courtesy RUYC

Anyone with a basic knowledge of the development of sailing in Ireland – particularly from 1890 onwards – will be aware that women sailors played an active role afloat in this country’s sailing boat sport for a long time. For how could it be otherwise in an island nation which produced the great sea queen Granuaille? Admittedly, most of the ancient organisations in sailing appeared to have a sometimes totally male dominance in their membership requirements and general administration. But nevertheless, a significant element in the more forward-thinking sectors in the sport provided women with an at least equal role, even if some of the dinosaurs on the male side liked to think that their gender – and they themselves in particular – were the all-powerful hubs of the universe.

Yet as sailing historian Hal Sisk has pointed out, in the latter half of the 19th Century, Dublin Bay was the cradle of yacht racing development. The proper codification of racing rules which eventually achieved global acceptance, and the development of one-design racing, which now seems such an obviously important part of our sport, both emanated from what was then Kingstown Harbour from the 1880s onwards.

 This is now…..Thomas Gautier’s photo of Aoife Hopkins in her Laser as she hops the Atlantic seas off Douarnenez in Brittany perfectly captures the spirit of Irish women’s sailing today. Photo: Thomas Gautier  This is now…..Thomas Gautier’s photo of Aoife Hopkins in her Laser as she hops the Atlantic seas off Douarnenez in Brittany perfectly captures the spirit of Irish women’s sailing today. Photo: Thomas Gautier 

Much of the earliest development came from the 1887-founded Dublin Bay Water Wags. They started originally with a lug-rigged spinnaker-setting double-ended 13ft open clinker-built dinghy, but in 1900 they changed to a more robust 14ft transom-sterned clinker-built boat which still sails today, with the active numbers of 2022 going through sail number 50 for the first time, with a newly-built boat for Mandy Chambers. 

Showing the flag on Lough Ree – the Dublin Bay Water Wags in their 1900 incarnation were designed by Maimie DoyleShowing the flag on Lough Ree – the Dublin Bay Water Wags in their 1900 incarnation were designed by Maimie Doyle

That this milestone number was achieved by a female owner-skipper has not been a matter of comment at all. But then this is in keeping with the class ethos, which was set by the fact that the “new” boat back in 1900 had been designed by Maimie Doyle, the yacht-designing daughter of Dun Laoghaire boat-builder James Doyle. She was prodigiously gifted, and her largest creation, the 52ft Granuaile of 1905, is still sailing in Tasmania.

But unfortunately for the spirit and energies of fresh thinking in Dublin Bay sailing, when Maimie Doyle got married early in the 1900s, she went to live in Galway. Yet for fifteen and more years from around 1890 onwards, her rudimentary “office” in the Doyle yard was the centre of wide-ranging discussions on all marine topics and many other issues of the day. For as one writer of the time remarked, she was “very sound” on the national question, and thus her discussions with some of her father’s more establishment-minded clients could often get quite lively.

The lines of the 52ft Granuaile as designed by Maimie Doyle in 1905.The lines of the 52ft Granuaile as designed by Maimie Doyle in 1905

Indeed, it was said that her impromptu weekly debates in the office with a Major Richardson were the best entertainment in town. This meant it was doubly ironic that the fervently nationalist Maimie Doyle looked after much of the paperwork involved in her father’s construction in 1903 of the Dublin Bay 25 Fodhla for the Viceroy, Lord Dudley. But business is business, and anyway as sailing historian Vincent Delany has recalled, the early 1900s were a hyper-active time for Water Wag expansion, and Maimie Doyle was keen to successfully encourage as much active female participation as possible.

That was 122 years ago, and it is an attitude which has quietly yet very definitely permeated much of Irish sailing ever since. Thus certain recent national developments in sailing regarding female participation are frankly bewildering for anyone with the slightest knowledge of the everyday history of our sport. 

The brash new magazine Yachting World in July 1894 devoted a two-page photo feature to the female sailors of the Dublin Bay Water Wag ClassThe brash new magazine Yachting World in July 1894 devoted a two-page photo feature to the female sailors of the Dublin Bay Water Wag Class Courtesy: Clare McComb

 The second page of the Yachting Word feature gives some idea of the busy state of Dublin Bay sailing at the time – the schooner winning the Cruiser race is Ross Todd’s Comas. The second page of the Yachting Word feature gives some idea of the busy state of Dublin Bay sailing at the time – the schooner winning the Cruiser race is Ross Todd’s Comas. Courtesy: Clare McComb

COSSETING IS AN INSULT TO FEMALE SAILORS

Thus It looks to us as though today’s maritime-minded women of Ireland are getting a very raw deal. They’re being treated as some sort of inferior species that can’t even think of going near a boat without the support of various well-meaning initiatives, of which the apparently well-resourced and doubtless well-meaning Women-on-Water movement is the most conspicuous.

Yet it seems to exist on the hypothesis that our sailing women, or would-be sailing women, are delicate flowers who need to be nurtured, cosseted and encouraged in every way possible in order to get them into a boat. And to add further insult, its existence suggests that those many women sailors from throughout Ireland who have already made it to the top on their own abilities over many decades are some sort of freaks.

Putting aside imagined gender requirements for a moment, this is an entirely mistaken approach for a sport like sailing as it affects everyone - male, female or transgender. For sailing can experience demanding and sometimes dangerous situations which are part of each day’s activity afloat. Thus in reaching out to encourage people to take up sailing, we have to look at it in two ways.

Even before the first version of the Water Wags arrived in 1887, all-female crew were to be found sailing with the pioneering dinghy clubs in Killiney Bay, as seen in this photo from the mid-1880s. Photo Vincent Delany courtesy Michael Geoghegan Even before the first version of the Water Wags arrived in 1887, all-female crew were to be found sailing with the pioneering dinghy clubs in Killiney Bay, as seen in this photo from the mid-1880s. Photo Vincent Delany courtesy Michael Geoghegan 

NEWCOMERS TO SAILING SHOULD BE IN A TWO-WAY PROCESS

For sure, if there’s a genuine spark there, then let’s encourage it. But we should always be aware that there’s an equal requirement that potential sailors will be people of drive and energy who will be resourceful in any challenging situation, and will also tend to wonder what they can do for sailing every bit as much as they’re curious about what sailing can do for them.

In other words, what will they bring to the party? So it’s only an extra element being added to this complex situation when a song and dance is made about gender. Sailing in Ireland in particular has long been a welcoming place for women participants, provided they are contributors as much as consumers. And although some of the older organisations with bricks-and-mortar clubhouses have had a silly fuddy-duddy attitude to the gender thing, the more enlightened and influential sailing organisations in Ireland have been notably gender blind for a very long time.

Thus it was almost embarrassing this year when the Dublin Bay Water Wags agreed to make one of their race nights a Women-on-Water occasion, as virtually every Water Wag race is a women on water event already. But they just don’t make a thing of it, as it’s perfectly normal for them.

Water Wag female sailors gather in the National YC in acknowledgement of the Women on Water initiative. Yet most of them are already experienced sailors and racers, and the photo includes (top) Annalise Murphy (Silver Medal 2016 Sailing Olympics) and Cathy Mac Aleavey (left) 470 Helm in the 1988 OlympicsWater Wag female sailors gather in the National YC in acknowledgement of the Women on Water initiative. Yet most of them are already experienced sailors and racers, and the photo includes (top) Annalise Murphy (Silver Medal 2016 Sailing Olympics) and Cathy Mac Aleavey (left) 470 Helm in the 1988 Olympics

And though in the Victorian era there was a certain primness about “lady sailors” in the Water Wags - as mildly exploited by the new magazine Yachting World in 1894 - the fact of the matter is that women helms have been winning races in the Water Wags for years, they continue to do so, and we’re obliged to multiple boat enthusiast Vincent Delany for furnishing information on this time-honoured Water Wag interaction with female sailors.

 Daphne French’s ketch Embla, awarded the Irish Cruising Club Faulkner Cup in 1939. In 1935 she and her friend Betty Parsons sailed to Australia from Dublin in the Eriksson Tall Ship Pamir, and returned via Cape Horn in another square rigger, L’Avenir. Although they were initially taken on as stewardesses, by mid-voyage they were being allowed aloft. In 1939. now owner-skipper of Embla, she voyaged with a mostly female crew to the Aland Islands in the Baltic, the home of the Eriksson fleet, where she met many former Cape Horn shipmates. Embla returned to Ireland just before the outbreak of World War II, and was very deservedly awarded the Faulkner Cup Daphne French’s ketch Embla, awarded the Irish Cruising Club Faulkner Cup in 1939. In 1935 she and her friend Betty Parsons sailed to Australia from Dublin in the Eriksson Tall Ship Pamir, and returned via Cape Horn in another square rigger, L’Avenir. Although they were initially taken on as stewardesses, by mid-voyage they were being allowed aloft. In 1939. now owner-skipper of Embla, she voyaged with a mostly female crew to the Aland Islands in the Baltic, the home of the Eriksson fleet, where she met many former Cape Horn shipmates. Embla returned to Ireland just before the outbreak of World War II, and was very deservedly awarded the Faulkner Cup

Equally, the 1929-founded Irish Cruising Club had nothing whatever in its rules about women and men being treated differently in any way in the club’s membership and in all its activities. Its increasingly prestigious premier trophy for successful voyaging, the Faulkner Cup inaugurated in 1931, was awarded to Elizabeth Crimmins of East Ferry in Cork Harbour in 1934, to Daphne French in 1939, and other women members since, a notable example being Maire Breathnath of Dungarvan, who received the Faulkner Cup for a Cape Horn cruise in 2004. And she gives as she takes - these days, she’s also Editor of the Irish Cruising Club Annual, that vital compilation of narrative and information which continues to move this key element of sailing forward.

Maire Breathnath of Dungarvan off Cape Horn in 2004Maire Breathnath of Dungarvan off Cape Horn in 2004

More recently, the proliferation of club racing with marina-accessible cruisers and the way that crew might be assembled locally at the last minute has meant, at least in my experience, that you’re racing against boats rather than helmspersons. In thirty and more active years of cruiser club racing, we might find that at the finish it so happened our boat had been well and truly beaten by a boat helmed by a woman. But it happened so often that we thought nothing of it, for what was the big deal? This was boat-for-boat stuff, and nobody expected special treatment on either side.

Knowing that people would doubt this situation, I started to make a list of the woman sailing star helms and tacticians who have given our boats a solid beating in various hard-fought races over the years. But when the list got to a dozen with many more to come, I realized this was a pointless and patronising exercise, a case of dancing against the self-pitying tune played by the Women on Water lobby.

THE BIGGER PICTURE IS PREDOMINANTLY FEMALE OLYMPIC SUCCESS

In the bigger picture, if it weren’t for female sailors, Ireland wouldn’t have been considered a serious contender in the Sailing Olympics for two decades now. And it’s a trend which is continuing. But as we have an extremely unhealthy tendency to hang all our hopes to an excessive and stressful degree on some new and emerging talent – whether male or female – I’m simply not going to mention those young stars who have done great things afloat already, and may well do much more in the year ahead.

Meanwhile, the drum-beating goes on about encouraging female sailing by every artificial initiative imaginable. At its most visible level, this has involved racing days at certain clubs where the boats must carry an all-female crew, or at least comply with a minimum proportion of women sailors aboard.

NEW MEANING FOR “DRAG RACING”

In my own home club, the phoneyness of this rings out like a raucous alarm bell. We have boats helmed by successful women sailors who are crewed by men or women or both. We have some successful male helms who would be quite lost unless they were crewed entirely by females. But the idea of achieving an arbitrarily-set gender balance in order to get your club qualified for an admittedly very tangible reward is frankly embarrassing, yet the word is that the response in one club which was rather keen to qualify resulted in an entirely new definition of “drag racing”.

Harry Heist’s classic S&S 41 Winsome looks at first glance to be traditional all-male territory……Harry Heist’s classic S&S 41 Winsome looks at first glance to be traditional all-male territory……

…..yet as soon as you see into the cockpit, you realise that the boss on the helm is Ireland’s multi-success Laura Dillon…..yet as soon as you see into the cockpit, you realise that the boss on the helm is Ireland’s multi-success Laura Dillon

It’s an absurd state of affairs. When we consider the Olympic Silver Medal success of Annalise Murphy in 2016 and her mother Cathy Mac Aleavey’s Olympic participation in 1988, and add to that the achievements of Aoife Hopkins and Eve McMahon and Laura Dillon and others, it’s difficult to avoid concluding that the Women-on-Water funding should be entirely re-allocated.

Yes indeed. It is surely time that we had a fully-resourced Men-on-Water initiative to help the members of this less competent and more sensitive gender to up their game afloat. And we can be sure they’ll get enthusiastically involved, but only if their wives or girlfriends tell them to do so.

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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