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Where Are We Headed With Ireland’s Racing For “Boats-with-a-Lid”?

19th November 2022
Inshore heading offshore – ISORA 2022 Champion Mojito (Vicky Cox & Peter Dunlop, PSC) powering into clear air at the start of a Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race, with Round Ireland winner Cavatina (Ian Hickey, RCYC) close abeam
Inshore heading offshore – ISORA 2022 Champion Mojito (Vicky Cox & Peter Dunlop, PSC) powering into clear air at the start of a Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race, with Round Ireland winner Cavatina (Ian Hickey, RCYC) close abeam Credit: Afloat.ie/David O’Brien

Is most “ocean racing” today really oceanic? Does “offshore racing” really involve going truly offshore? Are boats touted as being “cruiser-racers” ever really used for genuine cruising? And are sailing enthusiasts who like to think of themselves as being devoted adherents of some - or indeed all - of the above, surely tending to over-egg the cake more than somewhat, in order to cut a bit of a dash and enhance a reputation for seagoing toughness when they get together to socialise with other sailing enthusiasts?

It’s an effect which is accentuated when such dedicated matelots are meeting within earshot of civilians at mid-week. And it’s much more prevalent in England or Scotland or France, where many sailors live at some considerable distance from their boats, whereas in Ireland, we’d tend to regard such a situation as plain silly.

Be that as it may, in the profoundly English rural depths of the Cotswolds, there are so many weekend sailors living in the area that they felt such a need for mid-week get-togethers that they formed the Chipping Norton Yacht Club. It would meet at least once a week (and may still do so) in some totally non-nautical pub (the Pug & Ferret perhaps) in order to talk boats, and the members tended to wear their sailing clothes – or outfits, or whatever you want to call our unmistakably salty gear – at these gatherings, and chat with increasing volume about the past weekend’s experiences, and the excitements to come.

Far from the sea in the Cotswolds, clear definitions of “offshore” and “ocean” come with added significance Photo: Saffron Blaze/WikimediaFar from the sea in the Cotswolds, clear definitions of “offshore” and “ocean” come with added significance Photo: Saffron Blaze/Wikimedia

Thus any non-sailing country-living typically straw-chewing hedge fund manager or venture capitalist doing a spot of ear-wigging nearby would be increasingly impressed by the frequent use of the word “rawk”, particularly once he or she had cottoned on to the fact that it meant RORC. For its use implied that the weather–beaten speaker had just returned from a weekend’s rugged participation in some major event staged from the South Coast by the Royal Ocean Racing Club.

THE AURA OF GREAT OCEAN SAILING LEGENDS

Yes indeed, the use of “ocean” implies regularly taking on the risk-laden deep sea challenges faced by Slocum and O’Brien and Chichester and Knox-Johnston and Tabarly on a daily basis. Whereas the reality has been a cross-channel summertime sprint to northern France, and no greater risk than some allergic reaction to an over-indulgence in fruits de mer and calvados.

Don’t get me wrong. The Royal Ocean Racing Club does indeed stage some genuinely trans-oceanic events in its busy calendar. But the use of “Ocean” in the blanket title of a distinguished organisation which will begin celebrating its Centenary in just 26 months time tends to muddy the waters as to our meaning for various terms in defining non-inshore racing.

SIT-REPS FROM ISORA AND ICRA

Last weekend’s publication of what we might interpret as Situation Papers, from both the Irish Cruiser-Racer Association and the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association, underlined the increasingly blurred borders, and the fact that the racing of boats with a lid – “truck racing” as dinghy sailors call it until they get involved – is going through one of its inevitable upheavals, as people’s changing commitments and societal and family expectations interact dynamically with a complex sport which is always quietly changing in itself.

Peter Ryan of Dun Laoghaire, Chairman of ISORA, at the helm on Mojito during the 2013 Fastnet RacePeter Ryan of Dun Laoghaire, Chairman of ISORA, at the helm on Mojito during the 2013 Fastnet Race

Thus names and categories which might have been completely appropriate fifty or even twenty years ago have become almost misleading in recreational sailing today, and inevitably produce an adverse reaction in those traditionalists who take the basis of their definitions from the great days of commercial sail, when “ocean-going” and “offshore” and “coasting” had clear legal meaning, and straightforward significance.

COMPLYING WITH THE DEFINITIONS OF THE DAYS OF SAIL

Consequently, when Dublin Bay’s Corinthian-emphasising Royal Alfred Yacht Club ran one of its regular races from Dun Laoghaire to Holyhead in the late 1800s, it would be described as a Cross-Channel Match. No casual use of “offshore” or “ocean” there. But that said, when the ultra-pioneering 1860 race from Dublin Bay to Cork Harbour was staged, it was promoted and reported as “The Ocean Race”, a name which has such a zing to it that years later, the annual Cork Harbour to Kinsale Race for cruisers and Cork Harbour One Designs on the August Bank Holiday Weekend became known as “The Ocean Race”.

The start of a Royal Alfred YC cross-channel “match race” from Dublin Bay to Holyhead in 1888.The start of a Royal Alfred YC cross-channel “match race” from Dublin Bay to Holyhead in 1888

Cork Harbour ODs dominate the start of the “Ocean Race” from Cork to Kinsale in the 1940s – the two cruisers are Michael Sullivan’s Marchwood Maid (left) and possibly Denis Doyle’s ex-6 Metre Vaara. Photo: RCYCCork Harbour ODs dominate the start of the “Ocean Race” from Cork to Kinsale in the 1940s – the two cruisers are Michael Sullivan’s Marchwood Maid (left) and possibly Denis Doyle’s ex-6 Metre Vaara. Photo: RCYC

So in the midst of these confusing angles and interpretations, let us grasp what is tangible. The ICRA report of its many prize-winners – topped by Mike & Richie Evans with their J/99 Snapshot – reveals that 109 boats were eligible for the title. And those of us who raced with ISORA in its first defining decade in the 1970s will recall that in its peak years its annual championship – based on a minimum of seven genuinely offshore races – was contested by 107 boats.

ISORA boats in Howth in 1978 at the end of the James C Eadie Cup Race from Abersoch were (left to right) a North Sea 31 designed by Holman & Pye, a Sadler 25, the J/24 Pathfinder (Philip Watson), the S&s 40 Dai Mouse III (David Hague, now Sunstone), the McGruer yawl Frenesi, and the High Tension 36 Force Tension, skippered by Johnny Morris and line honours winner of the first Round Ireland race in 1980. Photo: W M NixonISORA boats in Howth in 1978 at the end of the James C Eadie Cup Race from Abersoch were (left to right) a North Sea 31 designed by Holman & Pye, a Sadler 25, the J/24 Pathfinder (Philip Watson), the S&s 40 Dai Mouse III (David Hague, now Sunstone), the McGruer yawl Frenesi, and the High Tension 36 Force Tension, skippered by Johnny Morris and line honours winner of the first Round Ireland race in 1980. Photo: W M Nixon

Thus ICRA is now – and has been for several years – accommodating the sport of a fleet of boats comparable to ISORA at its height. Yet when ICRA was first mooted in 2002 by Fintan Cairns of Dun Laoghaire and the late Jim Donegan of Cork in a meeting at the notably ecumenical location of the Granville Hotel in Waterford, there were many – this writer included – who felt that an association of potentially offshore sailing boats based entirely around a land-mass would be unhelpful for the development of a sport in which the enthusiastic use of definably offshore waters was surely essential.

But the ICRA promoters made the point that inshore cruiser-racing - right up to regatta level - was the fastest-growing area of interest in Irish sailing. And its adherents – particularly those who had no wish to go far offshore and most particularly had no wish to spend nights racing at sea – were a very significant sector of the sport, a sector which urgently needed meaningful representation in a dedicated national Ireland-oriented organization, rather than solely by some sea area-based setup.

With ICRA, you certainly do get to race round the Fastnet, but it’s at Calves Week out of Schull. In winning form aboard 2022 ICRA Boat of the Year Snapshot, it’s Des Flood on the trim, Richie Evans on the tiller, and Mike Evans reading the runes.With ICRA, you certainly do get to race round the Fastnet, but it’s at Calves Week out of Schull. In winning form aboard 2022 ICRA Boat of the Year Snapshot, it’s Des Flood on the trim, Richie Evans on the tiller, and Mike Evans reading the runes. 

TWO CORRECT YET OPPOSING POINTS OF VIEW

Both points of view were right. ICRA has become such a central part of the Irish sailing scene that it is difficult to imagine the contemporary world afloat without it, with its enthusiastic committee playing a key role in giving day-racing cruiser-racer sailors - with their prestigious annual regatta-style National Championship and season-long series for the “Boat of the Year” - a major role in the bigger picture.

And the growth of ICRA in turn has accelerated the decline in numbers of those prepared to dedicate themselves to the traditional offshore pattern of an extended weekend – sometimes a very extended weekend - with its time-consuming deliveries and crew-location logistics challenges, and all in order to race just one classic offshore race.

But ISORA itself is continually mutating in order to accommodate new trends in its members’ enthusiasms. Last weekend’s convivial prize-giving and celebration in the National Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire of its Golden Jubilee may have saluted memories of great Irish Sea offshore races of times past, and the special flavour of competitive nights at sea. Yet a straw poll indicated a preference for more coastal races, with the double implication that no nights are going to be spent at sea, and the race will end comfortably back at the home port.

And though the deservedly-lauded overall champion, the J/109 Mojito (Vicky Cox & Peter Dunlop, Pwllheli SC) has achieved honours in serious offshore events as various as the Fastnet Race, the Round Ireland, and the Dun Laoghaire-Dingle, she is equally at home at the front of the fleet in a regatta in Tremadog Bay.

This blurring of roles is further emphasized – in what was a very good year for J Boats – by the J/99 Snapshot’s taking of the ICRA “Boat of the Year” title in the same year as she won the “Best Irish” with a very close second in her first major offshore event, the Round Ireland.

Snapshot gliding to a seemingly effortless overall class win in the Beshoff Motors Autumn League 2022 at Howth, one of the many successes which contributed to her becoming ICRA “Boat of the Year”.Snapshot gliding to a seemingly effortless overall class win in the Beshoff Motors Autumn League 2022 at Howth, one of the many successes which contributed to her becoming ICRA “Boat of the Year”.

Until then, Snapshot had seemed the regatta boat par excellence. And though Richie Evans had sailed a couple of Round Irelands, his co-owning brother Mike hadn’t done any. Their approach to the challenge of the big one seemed to be to regard the round Ireland as a string of full-on day races with some brief but intensive June night contests in between. It certainly worked. Their impressive closing in on the winner’s lead in the last dozen miles, leaving all other opposition in their wake, was sailed with the dedication and energy of a crew who might have stepped fresh on board only that morning.

YOUNG TURKS AND SENIOR SAILORS HAVE DIFFERENT PRIORITIES

With this blurring of distinctions between long-established categories, we find other divides emerging, and some seem to relate to age and professionalism. The more senior sailors enjoy a one-race-per-day event, with an attractive coastal element. They tend to think that the excitement of just one heart-rate-accelerating start sequence in each daily programme is quite enough to be going along with, and they reckon a coastal course, with its scenery and the chance of some cunning work with tides, is what cruiser-racing should be all about.

But the Young Turks and the Pros want longer races to be kept away from coastal influences, and they’d happily charge into at least two starts every day, and more if it can be arranged. As for the senior sailors’ lack of enthusiasm for one damned windward-leeward course after another, it’s something the Young Turks and the Pros don’t understand at all – they’re gladiators when all is said and done, they can’t get enough of confrontation and very direct competition.

Classic offshore racing – a cross channel ISORA race gets under way from Dublin Bay. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O’BrienClassic offshore racing – a cross channel ISORA race gets under way from Dublin Bay. Photo: Afloat.ie/David O’Brien

And then of course there are still those who think that the only authentic competitive use of a cruiser-racer is a straightforward passage race from one port to another, with your proper social duties fulfilled at start and finish. It may be more time-consuming in the long run, but it has an attractive simplicity in planning and purpose.

FACING UP TO 2023

In looking at the diversity of all this with its new interpretations, it’s fascinating to see how the different organisations are facing up to the season of 2023. ICRA will not hold its annual conference under Commodore Dave Cullen until the 4th March next year, but that’s perfectly reasonable as it has been known for a long time that the ICRA Nationals 2023 will be staged at Howth from 1st to 3rd September 2023, and other events contributing to the “Boat of the Year” award are date-dependent on the clubs and organisations running them.

But ISORA with its cross-channel membership faces a much greater diary challenge, and the preliminary draft of the 2023 programme was in circulation before the Golden Jubilee party. No matter how you look at it, it’s quite a complicated document, and it’s interesting to note that there’s the likelihood of a northern element being involved once more through the Royal Ulster Yacht Club. 

The ISORA Draft Programme for 2023 reflects the demands made on a cross-channel organisationThe ISORA Draft Programme for 2023 reflects the demands made on a cross-channel organisation

Back in the hugely ambitious first season of 1972, Chairman Dickie Richardson was heading an ISORA organisation whose events took in venues all the way from Scotland to Dunmore East, using both sides of the North Channel, the Irish Sea, and St George’s Channel in addition to the Isle of Man.

Despite the many events available, as the season drew to a close, northern skipper Dickie Brown with his own-built 35ft Ruffian may have been topping the Class 1 points table, but he was still one race short of the necessary seven with no more events scheduled for the North Channel. So he brought Ruffian to Holyhead to race the southern section’s final event, from Holyhead round Rockabill to Dun Laoghaire, and I was press-ganged to join in Holyhead to make up numbers in a motley crew for this final overnight dash.

Northern star – John Minnis’s A35 Final Call II (RUYC) racing to he class win in the Wave regatta at Howth at the beginning of June. Photo: Annraoi BlaneyNorthern star – John Minnis’s A35 Final Call II (RUYC) racing to he class win in the Wave regatta at Howth at the beginning of June. Photo: Annraoi Blaney

The foredeck was being run by two legends of northern sailing, Victor Fusco and Colin Gleadhill – who were both well into their 50s, but well on top of the job nevertheless. This was just as well, as the first leg was a screaming spinnaker reach in a sou’wester, conditions in which Ruffian was unbeatable - if you could only hold onto her. But when you couldn’t as a long squall arrived, it was up to our seniors to snap the spinnaker in and then set it again as soon as possible, which they did very well, and so much better than most men half their age that when we arrived in Dun Laoghaire, the only boat ahead of us was Paddy Donegan’s lovely little 36ft Robb yawl Casquet from Skerries winning Class 3, but then her division had sailed direct, and didn’t have to make the long haul up to Rockabill and back.

Other Class I boats began to arrive in with the Class 2 winner, Bill Cuffe-Smith’s Mark 2 Arpege Leemara from Howth, successfully among them. But nobody challenged Ruffian’s lead and she took the race and the overall title, as did Leemara in Class 2 and Casquet in that race in Class 3, so we were quite the little Winner’s Enclosure that cold morning rafted against the East Pier in Dun Laoghaire.

Winners in Dun Laoghaire at the end of 1972’s first ISORA season were (left to right) Leemara (Bill Cuffe-Smith, Howth YC), Ruffian (Dick & Billy Brown, Royal Ulster YC), and Casquet (Paddy Donegan, Skerries SC). Photo: W M NixonWinners in Dun Laoghaire at the end of 1972’s first ISORA season were (left to right) Leemara (Bill Cuffe-Smith, Howth YC), Ruffian (Dick & Billy Brown, Royal Ulster YC), and Casquet (Paddy Donegan, Skerries SC). Photo: W M Nixon

Thus while ICRA and ISORA have to keep moving the goal posts in order to accommodate the changing patterns of “offshore” and “cruiser-racing”, it’s good to know that ISORA now also looks north again, where John Minnis’s A35 Final Call II is the Ruffian de nos jours. Offshore and cruiser racing formats may be changing, but the sport and the spirit and the camaraderie are as vibrant as ever.

Published in W M Nixon, Offshore, ICRA, ISORA
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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