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Displaying items by tag: Fastnet Race

In August 2007, a lone Irish boat swept quickly towards the finish of the Fastnet Race at Plymouth. Groups of larger craft had finished ahead of her, and soon a rush of other boats would follow in her wake. But when Ger O’Rourke of Limerick brought his Cookson 50 Chieftain across the line, he and his crew had the stage to themselves writes W M Nixon

They felt they’d done quite well, but wouldn’t know for sure until hundreds of other boats had been timed in. However, as the hours ticked away, Chieftain’s crew closed in on an overall win which had been achieved despite losing their main electronics before getting past the Lizard on the rough outward passage, and despite having been on the Waiting List rather than the limited-numbers Official Entry List until only a few days before the race actually started.

Chieftain’s owner Ger O’Rourke seemed to thrive on such uncertainty, and as his proposed crew included the formidable talents of the legendary Jochem Visser, he knew that once the Chieftain entry was given the nod, they’d very quickly have a full complement to take on the race.

Other entries - dutifully made many months in advance - fell away as start time approached. A heavy weather forecast may have played a role in this. But it didn’t faze Chieftain’s owner, as his programme that year had already included taking second overall in the rugged New York to Hamburg race, and he knew his canting-keel Farr-designed boat was more truly race-ready than most of the fleet. Getting officially acceptance into the fold, when it came, just seemed part of a larger plan.

chieftain at finish3In the last of the evening sun, Chieftain approaches the finish line Plymouth with Ger O’Rourke on the hel

Chieftain finish plymouth4They’ve done it. Chieftain wins the Rolex Fastnet Race 2007. The lack of anything approaching a crew uniform is testament to the fact that she was accepted as an entry only after more than forty boats had dropped out beforehand

In a stormy race, many boats pulled out, but in the weather pattern which developed, Chieftain was exactly the right size and type of boat to do best. And she’d the crew to enable her to do this, despite having to rely for much of the race on tiny hand-held GPS devices and increasingly wet paper charts.

After the finish, Chieftain’s motley crew could see the growing inevitability of the final result. But the owner refused to go up the town to buy himself a crisp new white shirt for the prize-giving until he’d been shown a document confirming that he was indeed the undisputed overall winner.

Sometime it seems as though it happened only yesterday. But sometimes it seems a very, very long time ago, as Ireland has been through a ferocious economic mincing machine since then. Either way, the reality is that the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017, which starts tomorrow from Cowes in a sequence beginning at 1100 hrs for a record entry list of 384 boats, will mark the Tenth Anniversary of Ireland’s greatest win in an event which is a pillar of world sailing. And it’s an event in which Irish boats have been involved since it was first sailed in 1925 with just seven starters. Our gallant representative, Harry Donegan from Cork with the 17-ton gaff cutter Gull, placed third overall.

Today, the increasing internationalism of sailing – and offshore and ocean racing in particular - is evident throughout the fleet, so much so that it’s almost the norm to have a crew with some mixing of nationalities. Thus in taking a preview, it’s increasingly difficult to say which entry is or isn’t Irish, regardless of simply taking it from the national flag indicated beside the name on the RORC’s entry list.

On top of that, with an entry of 384 boats and entries not officially finalized until the Race Office has the complete crew list with the essential personal information, you can readily visualize how things have been in and around the organisers’ office these past few days.

After one of the roughest Cowes Weeks in years comes to a close today, the Rolex Fastnet Race is expected to start tomorrow in moderate conditions with the hugely impressive sight of the enormous fleet sweeping westward out of the Solent through the Needles Channel, and facing the prospect of a beat down Channel to Land’s End.

Fair weather sailors had been hoping that the ridge from the Azores High might build northeastwards to give summer sailing for the 605-mile race. But we’re in unstable meteorological conditions with the restless Jetstream dictating weather and wind changes, and not all of these can be closely predicted.

rambler 88 racing5If it turns out to be a big boat race, with her unrivalled trio of line honours and IRC wins in three recent RORC races, George David’s Rambler 88 has to be a favourite

Majority opinion has it that it will be a big boat race, as the nor’westers will remain fresh to strong – or even more – until Wednesday, when another little ridge might ease things back for the smaller craft. If it is a big boat race, then in IRC Overall the smart money will be on George David’s Rambler 88. She has been re-writing the form book these past two years, as she took line honours and the overall win in IRC in the Volvo Round Ireland Race last year, and this year she has repeated the remarkable double in both the RORC’s Cowes-St Malo Race and the RORC’s Channel Race.

Certainly it will be interesting to see how she does against the newest 100ft super-maxi, the Ludde Ingvall-skippered CQS from Australia, which was shipped to Europe with the Fastnet Race as her main priority. But in her brief time in the northern hemisphere so far, things haven’t gone her way. She went out to do the Round the Island Sprint on Wednesday with the other biggies when they’d gale fore winds around the south end of the isle of Wight, and while CQS had sail trouble and didn’t excel, the seven brand new Volvo 65s had a magnificent race, with Mapfre (skipper Xabi Fernandez) winning, and the first three breaking the Round the Island Mono-hull Record.

mapfre round island6The completely new strictly one-design Volvo 65 Mapfre (skipper Xabi Fernandez) on her way to winning the Round Isle of Wight sprint on Wednesday, and creating a new record while she was at it.

There was almost an Irish interest in this as our own Olympic Silver Medallist Annalise Murphy was being lined up for a crew test for the all-women panel on Dee Caffari’s Volvo 65
Turn The Tide On Plastic, but unfortunately an injury in the recent International Moth Worlds (in which she was top woman) has side-lined her for a while, but she may be aboard post-Fastnet.

Also up among the biggies, Irish interest will be intense for the foiling IMOCA 60 Hugo Boss, where new Afloat.ie “Sailor of the Month” Nin O’Leary is teaming up as joint skipper with seasoned campaigner Alex Thompson. O’Leary has sailed on Hugo Boss before, but the Fastnet is a case of going in at the deep end, as their main rivals at the big boat end of a two-part 69-strong two-handed division will be the legendary Jeanne-Pierre Dick and three-times Figaro winner Yann Elies in the foiling IMOCA 60 St Michel-Virbac.

hugo boss7Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it a manta ray….? Hugo Boss will be raced by Alex Thompson and Nin O’Leary

stmichel virbac8Jeanne-Piere Dick’s StMichel-Virbac is likely to be Hugo Boss’s closest opponent

The Fastnet fleet is like an awesome mountain range - it’s easy enough to discern the major peaks, but it’s only as you descend into the smaller mountains and the foothills that you feel some sense of identity and fellow-feeling with what’s around you, and for true aficionados, the IRC corrected time winners in class and overall is the real Rolex Fastnet Race.

Thus the main topic this year is can the French make it three in a row. And even better, can the incredible JPK marque from Lorient make it three in a row?

Back in 2013, the unthinkable happened. The overall winner was the French JPK 10.10 Night and Day, raced in the Two-Handed division by father-and-son crew Pascal and Alexis Loison. For those of us who can just about rub along with family on a boat, and prefer to be fully crewed, it took some time to get used to the idea of Night and Day’s superb win.

Then by 2015, JPK’s new design, the JPK 10.80, was starting to make waves, and went on to win the Rolex Fastnet Race overall in the form of veteran Gery Trentesaux’s Courrier du Leon. Just to show it was no flash in the pan, a sister-ship – also skippered by Trentesaux – won her class in the next Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race, and now in 2017 Paul O’Higgins’ JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI has won the Volvo Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race overall in June while in July another sister-ship, Yes! skippered by Nin O’Leary, won the big-fleet Round the Island by an unusually wide margin.

Courrier du Leon9The JPK 10.80 Courrier du Leon (Gery Trentesaux) winning the Rolex Fastnet Race 2015

So these are still the boats to beat. But as we’ve learned in Irish offshore racing, a well-sailed J/109 can sometimes get the better of them, so although she’s not strictly Irish, we reckon that the J/109 Mojito (Peter Dunlop & Vicky Cox from Pwllheli) is Honorary Irish, and she’s very much in the lineup for tomorrow’s start, as is the Irish National Sailing School’s J/109 Jedi skippered by Kenneth Rumball, which is in both the Open Division and in the racing for the Roger Justice Trophy for sailing schools.

This is hotly contested with more than 30 offshore sailing and racing schools involved, and in 2015 it was won by Irish Offshore Sailing of Dun Laoghaire with Ronan O Siochru skippering the Sunfast 37 Desert Star. IOS is back this year with Desert Star, and while a fine camaraderie had built up among her crew, the rules for participation as a sailing school means you have to carry a significant proportion of first timers, thus two of Desert Star’s crew from 2015, Louise Gray and Jacques Diedricks, have transferred to another non-school Dun Laoghaire-based Fastnet contender, Brendan Couglan’s Sunfast 37 Windshift.

boyd and osiochru10At the prize-giving in Plymouth, RORC Commodore Michael Boyd presents Ronan O Siochru with the Roger Justice Trophy for the best-placed sailing school entry in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2015. Boyd himself had won the Gull Salver for the top-placed Irish boat.
Irish Offshore Sailing and Irish International Sailing School have of course competed against each other before, in last year’s Volvo Round Ireland, when INSS did best winning the schools division and placing tenth overall. But that was in the Reflex 38 Lynx. The more recently-acquired J/109 gives a new perspective, but here too the rules about having a certain proportion of trainees in your crew have affected personnel selection, and Kenneth Rumball has been unable to take his right-hand man from the 2016 Round Ireland win, Luke Malcolm, who has transferred to Paul Egan’s Dun Laoghaire-based First 35 Platinum Blonde to gain his Fastnet spurs.

jedi leading11The Irish National Sailing School’s J/109 Jedi ahead of the pack in the ISORA Lyver Trophy Race, part of the buildup in the training towards the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017

Some additions and insights into the eleven Irish Fastnet entries listed in Afloat.ie are intriguing. For instance, Alan Hannon’s Reichel Pugh 45 Katsu was a very attractive participant in the 2016 Volvo Round Ireland Race, and a closer look at the RORC’s list shows her as skippered by Richie Fearon of Lough Swilly Yacht Club, who navigated the overall winner Tanit in the 2014 Round Ireland, and has formidable international connections which could see Katsu racing with a stellar crew.

Of similar size but with a rating of only 1.096 compared to Katsu’s stratospheric 1.240, the First 44.7 Lisa is skippered by our own Michael Boyd, Commodore RORC. Not only is he defending Irish champion in the Fastnet as he won the Gull Salver with Quokka in 2015, but this year he has been doing mighty well, winning overall in the RORC’s Morgan Cup Race in June.

Another sensibly-rated boat to watch is Harry Heijst’s veteran Winsome, an alloy early version of the Swan 41, built 1972. Though Winsome is proudly Dutch (sail number is NED 118), she’s something of a star in the Solent, and is different from the slightly later GRP Swan 41 with a cockpit/bridge-deck arrangement which many owners of standard Swans of a certain size and vintage would dearly like to emulate, as it greatly improves the boat’s cockpit ergonomics and companionway access. If this is what you want, lads, get out the chainsaw……

winsome laura12Laura Dillon helming the vintage Swan 41 Winsome at the current Cowes Week. Although Winsome’s alloy hull is similar to a Swan 41, her cockpit/companionway/cabintop arrangement is a considerable improvement

The competitive Winsome’s hull has stayed exactly the same, which means she retains all the rating advantages of her age, and clocks in at just 0.990. This makes her very competitive indeed, particularly in a breeze, but only if you have the right person on the wheel. And for some years now that right person has been Howth ex-Pat sailing star Laura Dillon, a former Helmsmans Champion who is now London-based and the extremely effective regular driver on Winsome when she’s not away on some other sailing campaign.

Winsome has been making hay in this windy Cowes Week, and at the time of writing was leading her class well clear, and only rivalled for Boat of the Week in all classes by another veteran yacht with strong Fingal connections, the superbly tuned and sailed 1939-vintage Whooper of Giovanni Belgrano at the top of Class 6. In another life, Whooper used to be the Star of Skerries, owned by Christy and Joe Fox and based at Skerries in North Fingal.

But while Whooper isn’t down to do the Fastnet Race as her owner is probably doing it in his day job as a top professional, Winsome most definitely is. And with the forecast of early brisk breezes and lots of beating, she might be one to watch if she can stay ahead of the lightening breezes which may occur later next week.

silver shamrock13They may not make sterns like that any more, but after 41 years the 1976 Half Ton World Champion Silver Shamrock is still going strong, and she’s the smallest boat entered in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017

Another one to watch, this time for old sake’s sake, is the smallest boat in the fleet, Stuart Greenfield’s 30ft Silver Shamrock. This is the Ron Holland-designed boat with which Harry Cudmore won the Half Ton Worlds in Trieste in 1976. That’s all of forty-one years ago now, yet little Silver Shamrock is still going strong, and with the Half Ton Classics coming up at Kinsale in a dozen days’ time, we can salute Silver Shamrock and feel a sense of identity with her.

This isn’t a feeling aroused by contemplating the biggest boat which has ever raced in the Fastnet, this year’s monster, the 115ft Nikata. An absurdly large vessel. At race’s end, you’d only know a quarter of the crew. And even she’ll be eclipsed if the 130ft trimaran Spindrift 2 – currently not listed as an entry – somehow manifests herself on Sunday heading down Solent. Will there be room for the two of them?

yacht nikita14The crew will just have to wear name tags…..the 115ft Nikita is the largest mono-hull in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017

Published in W M Nixon
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#FastnetRace - What does it take to win the Rolex Fastnet Race? That’s the question Yachting World posed to four former podium finishers in what’s arguably the world’s greatest offshore challenge.

For 2015 winner Gery Trentesaux, the key is keeping the yacht light — and manual routeing to stay on top of conditions.

For smaller crews, such as Pascal Loison and son’s winning two-handed partnership from 2013, it means having to “think carefully about how you sail the boat”.

Mixed ability teams work together more effectively, and achieve better results, according to Fastnet charter specialists — and podium regulars — Sailing Logic.

Meanwhile, for professional tactician Adrian Stead, a winner in 2009 and 2011, it’s all about doing the work well before the starting line.

“I think any well sailed, well prepared, well optimised boat has always got a chance of winning the Fastnet Race,” he says. “It’s about doing your preparation and not giving things away.”

Their advice might prove very useful for the 11 Irish entries confirmed thus far for the latest running of the Fastnet Race two weeks from tomorrow.

Published in Fastnet
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A potent line–up of Irish offshore performers will be lining up for the record breaking Fastnet Race entry – the world's largest offshore race that starts in less than three weeks time.

The 605nm race was full in under five minutes, creating another record. Up to 400 boats will be on the RYS startline in Cowes on Sunday 6th August.

Among the eleven Irish entries, among 28 participating countries, is a former Middle Sea Race class winner and some top ISORA performers. There's also two sailing school entries from Dun Laoghaire and two West Coast entries, one from Foynes Yacht Club on the Shannon Estuary and another from Westport in County Mayo.

Wakey Wakey ISORA j109 2033Roger Smith's J109 Wakey Wakey, a regular ISORA racer, is Fastnet Race bound. Photo: Afloat.ie

Although listed as an entrant in the sell–out race, this year's Howth Yacht Club Ostar TransAtlantic winner is not competing. Conor Fogerty's Bam is still in America after Transatlantic success and won't be doing the Fastnet but it appears RORC have been slow to delete the entry. 

Fogerty told Afloat.ie 'I'm hoping to do the Caribbean 600 instead, as the logistics make more sense'.

paddy dermot croninIn 2015, Malahide's Dermot and Paddy Cronin come ashore in Malta after winning the double-handed division of the Middle Sea race. Encore is entered for this year's Fastnet Photo: Barry Hurley

Kenneth Rumball will steer his Irish National Sailing School J109, Jedi. The top performer in the ISORA series, who was second in the offshore class of Dun Laoghaire Regatta, will be racing with a number of students who have been building up their offshore miles this season with a number of fixtures including the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race.

big dealFrom Foynes to the Fastnet – Sole Shannon Estuary entry Big Deal races double–handed. Photo: Afloat.ie

Another sailing school entry is the Irish Offshore Sailing School's Desert Star. Skipper Ronan O'Siochru shot to offshore success in the 2015 Fastnet Race when he stepped on to the podium in class.

Joan Mulloy sailingWestrport's Joan Mulloy will be sailing double handed in a Cowes Registered Figaro entry

Mayo woman Joan Mulloy will be skippering the Cowes–registered Figaro 2 - 'The Offshore Academy 21'. Her co-skipper is Cathal Clarke and they will be racing double–handed in the IRC 2 class.

Originally from Westport, Co. Mayo Mulloy is currently living in Cowes having spent the last two years working with the UK's Offshore Academy. She has been the 'preparateur' for the British entries in La Solitaire Le Figaro race in France. Mulloy plans a solo sailing campaign of her own with an entry in the 2018 La Solitaire Le Figaro race and longer term ambitions for the Vendee Globe in 2020.

This weekend she skippers 'The Offshore Academy 21' in the RORC Channel Race as part of the Fastnet qualifying process.

The full list of Irish entries taking part is below

Irish in the Fastnet

IRL 8407 Encore 3 C Dermot Cronin First 40.7 Malahide IE
IRL 733 Thalia 3 C Grant Kinsman Sigma 400 2.33 Dublin IE
IRL 3516 Platinum Blonde 3 C Paul Egan First 35 Carbon Dublin 4 IE
IRL 8088 Jedi 3 C Kenneth Rumball J/109 Dublin IE
IRL 37737 Windshift 4 C Louise Gray Sunfast 37 Co. Monaghan IE
IRL 1397 Desert Star Irish Offshore Sailing 4 C Irish Offshore Sailing Ronan O'Siochru Sun Fast 37 Dun Laoghaire IE
IRL 3492 Big Deal 4 C Conor Dillon Dehler 34 Top-nova Listowel IE
IRL 45 Katsu 1 C Alan Hannon Rp 45 Downings IE
GBR 5909 Wakey Wakey 3 C Roger Smith J/109 Dublin IE
NED 8824 Trilogic M Hugo Karlsson-Smythe Multi 50 Tallaght IE

Fight to be first home

While the Judel-Vrolijk 115 Nikata will be the largest yacht competing among the 350 or so yachts starting on Sunday 6 August, the battle for line honours glory looks set to be between two titans of the grand prix racing world.

CQS IngvallLudde Ingvall still holds the double record set 22 years ago in the Rolex Fastnet Race, taking both line honours and handicap victory. He's back this year with the 100ft DSS foiling CQS © Andrea Francolini

Finnish Whitbread Round the World Race legend Ludde Ingvall returns having previously put in one of the most exceptional performances in the 92 year history of the Royal Ocean Racing Club's flagship event.

Firstly in 1985, the same year Simon le Bon's Drum famously capsized, Ingvall raced on the Whitbread maxi Atlantic Privateer when it won her class. But the race which has gone down in history was a decade later, when he skippered Nicorette, the former 1989-90 Whitbread Round the World Race maxi Charles Jourdan but much modified, to line honours, finishing a massive 24 hours ahead of the next boat. But significantly that year Nicorette not only claimed line honours but victory on handicap as well.

"We won it on CHS, we won it on IMS and we got line honours," Ingvall recalls proudly. "We walked away with 16 trophies, which was amazing. I still remember the speech at the prize giving where they said 'the Vikings have been here before and now they have come back to steal our silver!'" That race, 22 years ago, was the last occasion someone won the Rolex Fastnet Race line honours and handicap 'double'.

This time Sydney-based Ingvall is back with another weapon, and again one which is heavily modified. CQS was originally built in 2004 as the 90ft canting keel Simonis Voogd-design Nicorette aboard which Ingvall claimed line honours in that year's Rolex Sydney Hobart. During 2016, this boat underwent major surgery extending her to 100ft by fitting a new bow. Small wings were added at deck level to widen her shroud base to accept a larger, more powerful rig and she was also fitted with retracting lateral Dynamic Stability Systems foils to provide lift to leeward.

Since competing in the Rolex Sydney Hobart race, CQS has arrived in Europe and, weekend before last, set a new course record in Sweden's AF Offshore Race (Round Gotland), breaking the existing record which Ingvall had established on his previous Nicorette.

However Ingvall warns that he and the crew, that includes sponsor Sir Michael Hintze and Kiwi sailing legends Chris Dickson and Rodney Keenan, are still green when it comes to the new beast. "We are taking steps forward all the time, but everything still feels quite new and we really haven't had enough time with a regular crew." A week and a half's training with her race crew before the Rolex Fastnet Race will help rectify this.

CQS will face stiff competition from American George David's Juan Kouyoumdjian-designed Rambler 88. She may have a shorter waterline but in her long career racing Jim Clark's 100ft Comanche, this has seemed to have made little difference: In the 2015 Rolex Fastnet Race, Rambler 88 crossed the finish line just four and a half minutes behind Comanche.

According to tactician Brad Butterworth, their fight with CQS is likely to come down to the weather. "If there is any breeze it will make a big difference as to who wins across the line. If there are any powered up situations then Rambler will do pretty well, but if it is light airs running or even upwind, it will be a struggle. The modern maxis like Comanche and Rambler have huge wetted surface so when they are not heeled you are carrying a lot of viscous drag around with you."

Like Ingvall, Butterworth is a veteran of countless Fastnet Races dating back to 1987 when he skippered the top-ranked Admiral's Cup boat Propaganda in that year's victorious New Zealand team. Two years later he claimed line honours on Peter Blake's all-conquering maxi ketch Steinlager II. He says Rambler 88 has changed little from her 2015 configuration other than some sail development and a weight loss program. "That is why we're hoping for a bit of breeze."

Ingvall agrees with Butterworth's assessment of their relative form going into the Rolex Fastnet Race: "Rambler is a bloody good boat with top guys and they have been sailing the boat for a long time whereas we are still learning about what we've got. CQS is very long and skinny, while Rambler is very wide and her hull stability gives her a huge advantage. We are still learning about the DSS foil which improves our stability. When it is a matter of stability and power they will be hard to beat, whereas if it is about light airs and finesse, then I think we will be pretty good because we are so narrow and low resistance in the water. It will be fun to race each other."

Published in Fastnet
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#FastnetRace - With the days ticking down till the 2017 Rolex Fastnet Race, Ocean Safety has published its free Fastnet Safety Checklist to ensure your yacht is ready for the rigours of the challenging seas around Fastnet Rock.

One of the most important items for the race for the race undoubtedly the liferaft, which will need a service before setting out from Cowes on Sunday, 6 August.

Ireland's CH Marine is a leading supplier of liferafts and services, hires and sells rafts. Both for leisure and commercial vessels.

Published in Fastnet

#VOR - The Rolex Fastnet Race has been named among the mandatory qualifiers ahead of the start of the 2017-18 Volvo Ocean Race.

The famed run from the Isle of Wight to Fastnet Rock in West Cork joins the new Lisbon-Alicante prologue — and a provisional transatlantic challenge over the summer — in the pre-race series that will serve as the first fight for dominance among the now eight-strong fleet.

‘Leg Zero’, as organisers have dubbed the new qualifier, comprises the traditional Fastnet Race route with an additional course from Plymouth to Lisbon.

Many VOR teams have used the Fastnet Race in their preparations – Team SCA and Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing being the most recent, in the 2013 race — but never before has it been a mandatory qualifier.

“I’ve done a few Fastnet Races, some were windy and some were light,” said Charles Caudrelier, skipper of Dongfeng Race Team in the 2014-15 VOR.

“It’s a nice course, very fun and interesting to sail around the coast, with the effect of the currents. It’s a good test and a very dynamic race, with interesting weather.”

According to race operations director — and VOR veteran — Richard Mason, the Fastnet Race “is on the bucket list of every ocean racer in the world.

“It’s famous for being very tricky and coastal. You can have no wind, you can have enormous amounts of breeze, and vicious seas, out near Fastnet Rock, it’s navigationally and tactically challenging, you don’t get much sleep.

“It’s the perfect race – an amazing thing to be a part of.”

Published in Volvo Ocean Race

How would you like to undertake an intense course of guaranteed Irish offshore racing training? Start as an absolute beginner on a strange boat in April next year. Dedicate yourself to it. Then by the end of June, the boat – aboard which you’re now very much an active and involved part of the sailing team – will have won a podium place in her class in the Round Ireland Race 2016.

Or even further into the realms of fantasy, how about starting your offshore sailing learning experience at a similar early season time in 2017, but aimed at the Fastnet Race? Or perhaps you’ll be continuing to build on 2016’s experience and successes. Either way, by the evening of Friday August 18th 2017 you and your shipmates are in the prize ceremony throng at Plymouth. And you’re absolutely bedazzled by the fact that you’ve won your class in the Rolex Fastnet Race 2017. Sounds good…? W M Nixon takes up the story.

When something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. And the scenario outlined above was still very much in the realms of fantasy eighteen months ago. Yet at Easter 2014, Irish Offshore Sailing started a course of intensive training for beginners aboard their two Jeanneau Sunfast 37s towards competition in the Round Ireland Race 2014 in June. And by the end of it, the better-placed of their two boats was very much in the frame.

Then for this year, they spread their wings still further, and once again started early in the season with the makings of a crew many of whom were complete beginners, but all were highly motivated towards doing the Fastnet Race, and doing well in it. They not only saw it through to the end, they were brilliantly successful and have a mighty trophy to prove it.

In theory, Irish sailors aiming for this scenario have it made. They have the advantage of the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race in late June as a convenient Fastnet Race qualifier. So to say that this trainee crew’s programme was “time-efficient” is under-stating it. The Dun Laoghaire-Dingle takes a long weekend, other intensive training could be put in at night and at weekends, and the Rolex Fastnet Race is done and dusted in a week.

So it’s about eight days off in all, nine at most. Thus for any crewmember who wished or could, there was still time and entitlement available for those in jobs to take an ordinary holiday before the bubbles had fully settled. Yet although our wannabe Round Irelanders and Fastneteers may have this wonderful training ground and courses of international repute right on their doorstep, getting involved from scratch has not always been easy.

irish offshore sailing round Ireland2New boys on the block. The Irish Offshore Sailing School’s boats race ready and raring to go before the start of the Round Ireland Race, Wicklow June 2014. Photo: W M NixonIrish offshore sailing 4

Sister-ships. The Irish Offshore Sailing School duo make their debut in the Round Ireland race 2014.

The enduring strength of the club structure in Ireland means that learning to sail here is not necessarily a straightforward process. A child from a club-oriented sailing family will be reassuringly guided into the club-administered ISA training programme. But while there is an increasing effort to provide club courses which are also attractive to adult beginners, the reality is that as the age increases and the complexity of the sailing being undertaken develops, the options for outsiders become increasingly limited unless they can attach themselves as crew on a boat already in the club system.

In the south of England, where there’s a large and affluent population providing a ready market, the situation is very different. Commercial sailing schools play a key role in meeting basic demand, and most such schools do reasonably well. But in the more specialised world of schools providing boats and sailing courses which take crews offshore and right up to the top grades of qualification with events like the Rolex Fastnet Race as the ultimate objective, a thriving industry-within-an-industry has developed.

Former pupils stay with their offshore schools for extended periods - in effect in permanent post-grad mode - as their offshore sailing schools, having provided them with training, now also provide them with a ready-made camaraderie, an instant virtual club environment.

So successful has this become that in the Rolex Fastnet Race last month, there were 32 offshore school yachts taking part. In other words, more than 10% of the 309-strong IRC fleet. So significant is this development that the sailing schools have their own Fastnet Race prize, the Roger Justice Trophy. Yet despite the fact that the bigger UK offshore sailing schools are highly resourced with relatively new race-proven boats, the winner of the Roger Justice Trophy in 2015 was Irish Offshore Sailing’s Sunfast 37 Desert Star, a veteran which has been used for sail training for a dozen years and more.Ronan O Siochru4A highly dedicated sailor and teacher – Ronan O Siochru has successfully transferred his inherited teaching skills to sailing. Photo: W M Nixon

Desert Star was also second overall of all the Irish entries in the Fastnet, so her skipper Ronan O Siochru was most deservedly the Afloat.ie Sailor of the Month (Offshore) for August. Those who know Ronan O’Siochru and what he does will have known just how thoroughly this recognition – and the Fastnet Race trophy – was earned. But although the rest of the sailing community in the greater Dublin Bay area will be aware of the activities of the two Irish Offshore Sailing sister-ships as they go about their training programme – often at anti-social hours of the night, and often in adverse weather – the achievements of Ronan O’Siochru and his team should be a banner of hope for all Irish sailing.

Ronan O’Siochru (32) is from Cork, but he’s from a non-sailing family in Bishopstown. However, one of the keys to his current success in his chosen area of sailing is that he’s from a long line of teachers. At least three generations of them, teaching away. But somehow he got the boat and sailing bug in Kinsale before he was even into his teens. When asked how he got himself to Kinsale from Bishopstown to pursue this developing passion, he admits there were times when it could be a very long hitch-hike for a little boy in the rain.

Yet gradually he built up contacts in Kinsale sailing, and his ready enthusiasm to learn and to crew soon saw him often afloat in an increasing variety of boats. The urge to own his own boat became a priority, and he set himself at it with typical dedication, working in a vegetable shop at £3 an hour (this was in pre-Euro days) until he’d the £600 to buy a Flying Fifteen of a certain age.

For most young Irish sailors, that would have been the beginning of a lifelong interest of boat ownership with self-maintained craft sailed within a local club context. But the young O’Siochru had visions of greater things. He realized that having an internationally-recognised Yachtmaster (Offshore) Certificate was a passport to interesting sailing jobs worldwide, so he set himself on this course and in time found himself within the orbit of the legendary Bob Salmon, veteran of more than fifty Transatlantic Crossings, and a proponent of mini-Transat racing.

When the young O Siochru – now 21 – asked Salmon what would be the best way forward to a Mini Transat Campaign, the suggestion was he should buy a little boat and sail her to Iceland single-handed as a charity fund-raiser for starters, and then they’d see what could be built on that.

The result was the smallest 21-footer you’ve ever seen caught out in a vicious Atlantic storm west of the Outer Hebrides, and a young Corkman getting to know the crew of the Barra lifeboat very well indeed, but for all the wrong reasons.

So it was back to the grindstone of working away as a Yachtmaster and a Yachtmaster Instructor in whatever positions became available. With his strong inheritance of the teaching gene, his proven ability to recover from setbacks, and his precious gift of being able to convey a love of sailing for its own sake to those he was teaching, Ronan O Siochru was leading a very busy and fulfilling existence, but “peripatetic and undomesticated” would only begin to describe his way of life.

However, during his ventures under sail he met a girl in Gibraltar, and it was time to change tack. She was from Birmingham, she was called Salome (she really was and is), they got married, and the move towards having his own boats in his own sailing school in Ireland became a priority.

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She tamed him……Ronan O Siochru and his wife Salome in Dun Laoghaire Marina. Photo: W M NixonSalome Ronan Siochru Louise Gray Peter Beamish6

Some of the IOS team (left to right) are Salome & Ronan O Siochru, Louise Gray who raced in the Fastnet, and Peter Beamish who is one of the school’s instructors as well as being its business mentor. Photo: W M Nixon

He’d been diligently saving everything he could from instructing and yachtmastering, so when in the winter of 2009-2010 he heard that Port Solent were selling off a raft of 2002-built Jeanneau Sunfast 37s, they bought one as the basis of a fleet, and Ronan and Salome sailed the new boat home to Ireland in January 2010.

It was a crazy time to be starting any sort of business with the recession gripping Ireland, but the reckoning was that if they could survive the bad times then they’d thrive in the good. Not that anything was easy. Ireland’s Department of the Marine makes it very difficult to get a boat certified – it can cost around €25,000 per boat in extra equipment to achieve this – while the Irish Sailing Association is so club-oriented that the new Irish Offshore Sailing School found it much more satisfactory to deal with the RYA for guidance.

They set up shop in Dun Laoghaire Marina, for much as Ronan’s first love is sailing the Cork coast, he’d no doubt that the relative size and concentration of the population of Dublin, with its high proportion of affluent and energetic young professionals, made a Dublin Bay location essential for such a tightly-focused business.

Now that success has been achieved, it all looks like a smooth progression, but heaven knows there were times it was anything but. However, the sheer enthusiasm of Ronan O Siochru and his crews began to interest other sailors in Dun Laoghaire Marina, and top skipper Peter Beamish, recently retired from an international career in management in American conglomerates, was interested both with a view to acquiring a few certificates himself, and also maybe in becoming an instructor too. He is now part of the team, and finds his extensive business management experience has additionally brought him aboard as mentor and financial advisor.

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Are we really supposed to race against all those boats? The first sight of the Fastnet’s gathering starting line fleet was a bit of a culture shock for Desert Star’s crew. Photo: Louise Gray

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Mixing it with the big boys. The Maxi 72 Momo - top big boat in the final results – and the hundred footer Leopard (extreme right) come sweeping through past Desert Star in the Needles Channel. Photo: Louise Gray

Somehow they not only hung in, they expanded, and when the demise of Glenans Ireland made a Baltimore-based Sunfast 37 called Sherkin available for sale, they added this sister-ship to their lineup, and the sunny start to the Round Ireland Race 2014 with the two IOS boats setting off with the rest of the fleet underlined the fact that here indeed was a very significant new force to be reckoned with in Irish sailing.

It has been onwards and upwards ever since. The crew for the Fastnet campaign with Desert Star from April through to late August reflected both the way in which Dublin has drawn in young professionals from near and far, and also the fact that Ronan O Siochru and his school were already receiving marked respect for what they do even before the Fastnet win set them in lights.

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Finally clear of the crowd in the Solent – Desert Star settling down nicely with the Needles at the west point of the Isle of Wight astern, and room ahead to work the bays out of the worst of the tide.

Thus people from elsewhere were and are prepared to commit to travel to Dun Laoghaire for each part of the programme afloat, the final lineup when the Fastnet Race started on August 16th being Ronan O Siochru (Cork) skipper, Kristian Aderman (Sweden) first mate, Dr Rupert Barry (Dublin), Symeon Charalabides (ex-Greece, living Dublin), Dave Garforth (ex-UK, living Cork), Louise Gray (Monaghan, living Dublin), Dr Sam Lamont (Belfast), and David McDonnell (Cork).

It was a tricky Fastnet for every boat, and if the weather chips didn’t fall the right way for your boat size and rating, then it was more a matter of how you did against comparable boats. In this, Desert Star did very well indeed, while her performance against other sailing school boats was champion stuff.

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Sunrise on the threshold of the Atlantic. The Isles of Scilly are finally astern, and Desert Star is starting to feel the breeze which will carry her out to the Fastnet

In the early stages, they made every effort to minimize the effects of adverse tide, playing the big bays of England’s south coast in classic Cork style such that when they got to the Lizard the company they were keeping showed they were doing more than okay. Then outward bound towards the Rock getting through that demanding gap between the big Seven Stones Separation Zone and the Isles of Scilly, they managed to find their way through the shortest route southwest of the zone and north of the islands, then when they came round the Fastnet with the new breeze settled in, the going was good as they got there before it was totally on the nose, while the company all around them was even more encouraging.Irish offshore sailing 11

The most famous racing mark in the world, and Desert Star laying it nicely to round the Fastnet Rock. Photo: Louise Gray

There was rain on the way to the finish at Plymouth, but it brought a fair wind, and every inch of the way Desert Star was improving on her overall position. They arrived in to find the countdown already under way towards the mighty prize-giving, and for a while the overloaded results computer had them even better placed than expected, but it due course it got itself sorted out and Desert Star was confirmed as winner of the Roger Justice Trophy.

Our concluding three photos say it all. We caught up with Ronan this week in Dun Laoghaire, he was back to the grindstone running a five day Yachtmaster course. Except that he doesn’t think it’s a grindstone – he thinks it’s a wonderful thing to be able to do. He’s grateful to be able to do it, and is an inspirational teacher. We’ll be returning to Ronan O Siochru and the Irish Offshore Sailing School in the near future when his season is finally winding down a bit, and he has been able to catch up on sleep. Meanwhile, those of us who had been concerned for the future of Irish sailing generally can sleep a little easier thank to his efforts and idealism.

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Still can’t quite believe it - the skipper and his trophy in Plymouth, Friday August 21st 2015.Irish offshore sailing 13

Shipmates and celebrating. Desert Star’s Fastnet-winning crew are (left to right) Symeon Charalabides, Sam Lamont, Louise Gray, Kristian Aderman, Ronan O Siochru, Rupert Barry, and David Garforth. Photo: David McDonnellIrish offshore sailing 14

It’s official! Total crew lineup are (left to right) David McDonnell, David Garforth, Rupert Barry, Symeon Charalabides, Ronan O Siochru, Kristian Aderman, Louise Gray and Sam Lamont. Photo: Rolex/RORC

Published in W M Nixon

#commodorescup –  The two managers behind both of Ireland's Commodore's Cup victories have 'stepped down' from the job, an executive meeting of the Irish Cruiser Racer Association (ICRA) heard last month. A successor for both Barry Rose of Royal Cork YC and Fintan Cairns of the Royal Irish YC is being sought by the cruiser–racer body to defend the international title next season on the Solent. The midlands meeting heard ICRA's shore management performed 'a very important role as a focal point and coordinator for the whole team process' .

It was imperative, according to the meeting, chaired by Howth YC's Nobby Reilly, that ICRA would continue to perform that role in the future. The Portlaoise gathering of April 20th also heard of the necessity to start the process of 'achieving team or team selection' to challenge in 2016. The quest for team sponsorship also needs to be underway.

Separately, Royal Cork's Commodore's Cup team captain Anthony O'Leary has told Afloat.ie of his 'fervent hope'  to be involved with the 2016 defence of the Cup that he has won twice. However, his Ker 39, Antix has been sold to Sweden and this year O'Leary and his Antix crew are campaigning offshore in the renamed Ker 40, Catapult. They take in RORC's Myth Of Malham this week before June's Dun Laoghaire to Dingle race. They're both warm–up races for the season's big one in August, the sell–out Fastnet race.

The 2016 Commodore's Cup changes will see the reintroduction of a small boat for the team competition next year it  has also been announced. The Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC) has agreed to a number of changes that they say will have 'a positive impact' on the number of teams taking part in the event held at Cowes, Isle of Wight between 23 and 30 July 2016.

The first is the requirement of every team to have a small boat with a rating between 1.000 and 1.049. 'Many teams in the last event believed that it was hard to be competitive without having three boats that were close to the top of the allowable rating band, as was the case of last year's winning Irish team,' said RORC CEO, Eddie Warden Owen.

As the Irish Times Sailing Column reports, lowering the rating band to 1.000 will make it easier for J109s to enter, to include boats like the JPK10.10, A35 and the new Sunfast 3200, and reduce the cost of competing.

Read also: How Ireland won the Commodore's Cup and Anthony O'Leary, Sailor of the Year

Published in ICRA

#d2d – The canting-keel Cookson 50 Lee Overlay Partners skippered by Dun Laoghaire's Adrian Lee is the latest high profile entry into this June's Dun Laoghaire to Dingle race. The Royal St. George yacht is a proven offshore winner, taking the inaugural 2009 RORC Caribbean 600 race and overall victory (as Chieftain) in the 2007 Fastnet Race.

Most recently, in 2013, the globe trotting 50–footer set a course record of 2 days 53 minutes and 40 seconds and the overall win in the 360– mile race from Dubai to Muscat in Oman. In what is looking like a potent line-up for the 12th edition of the National Yacht Club race, this Dun Laoghaire entry joins the Commodore's Cup winning Ker 40, Catapult skippered by Anthony O'Leary of Cork, Afloat's 2014 Sailor of the Year. 

Published in Dun Laoghaire Dingle
#rorcsrbi – For twelve days, Ireland's sailing and maritime community followed with bated breath while the fortunes of Liam Coyne and Brian Flahive with the First 36.7 Lula Belle waxed and waned in the storm-tossed 1802-mile RORC Sevenstar Round Britain & Ireland Race. Last Saturday, they triumphed, winning the two-handed division and two RORC classes in this exceptionally gruelling marathon. W M Nixon delves into the human story behind the headlines of success.

It used to be said that Irish seamanship was the skilled and stylish extrication of the vessel from an adverse and potentially disastrous situation in which she and her crew shouldn't have been next nor near in the first place.

While we may have moved on a bit from that state of affairs with a less devil-may-care approach to seafaring, there's no escaping the fact that this morning we can now look back at two remarkable Irish victories in topline international offshore events in recent years in which both crews overcame major setbacks and situations, rising above very adverse circumstances which could well have deterred sailors from other cultures where the philosophy is not underpinned by the attitude: "Ah sure lads, things aren't good. Not good at all. But let's just give it a lash and see how we go".

It was seven years ago when a full entry list of 300-plus boats was slugging westward down the English Channel in the first stages of the Rolex Fastnet Race 2007. Already, the start had been postponed 24 hours to allow one severe gale to go through. But in an event still dominated by the spectre of the 15 fatalities in the storm-battered 1979 race, most crews were hyper-nervous about another gale prospect, and by the time the bulk of the fleet was in the western English Channel, many succumbed to the allure of handy ports to lee such as Plymouth, and in those early days of the race something like 48% of the fleet retired.

But aboard Ger O'Rourke's Cookson 50 Chieftain out of Kilrush on the Shannon Estuary, they were well into their stride. That year, the boat had already completed the New York to Hamburg Transatlantic Race, placing second overall. But owing to her Limerick owner's quirk of never confirming the boat's entry for the next major event until the current one is finished, they found themelves only on the waiting list for that year's already well-filled Fastnet Race entry quota.

Chieftain was 46th on that list. Yet while those who had made an early entry fell by the wayside, steadily this last-minute Irish star rose up the rankings. With three days to go, Chieftain got the nod. They went at the racing after the delayed start as though this had been a specific campaign planned and carefully executed over many months with a full crew panel, instead of a last-minute rush where crew numbers were made up by a couple of pier-head jumpers who proved worth their weight in gold.

Yet then, as the new strong winds descended on the fleet as the group in which Chieftain was already doing mighty well was approaching the Lizard Point, the troubles started, with gear failing and boats pulling out left and right. But the Irish boat was only getting into her stride. A canting-keeler, she could be set up to power to windward in a style unmatched by bigger craft around her. Approaching the point itself in poor visibility to shape up for the fast passage out to the Fastnet Rock with even faster sailing, things looked good. And then the entire electronics system aboard went down, and stayed down.

Here they were, not even a third of the way into a race which promised to be rough and tough the whole way, but a race in which they would at least have been expecting know their speed, performance and position down to the most minute detail. Instead, they were in an instant reduced to relying on a couple of tiny very basic hand-held GPS sets, and paper charts.

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Ger O'Rourke's Chieftain sweeps in to the finish at Plymouth to win the 2007 Rolex Fastnet Race overall

Those paper charts were little better than pulp by the end of a very wet race in an inevitably extremely wet but searingly fast boat. But they did get to the end, and with style too. They won overall and by a handsome margin. It was the first-ever Irish total victory in the Grand National of Ocean Racing. The owner-skipper had to go up the town to buy himself a clean shirt for the prize-giving in the Plymouth Guildhall.

Yet when Ger O'Rourke's Chieftain swept into Plymouth and that triumph just over seven years ago, the boat was in much better racing shape than Liam Coyne's First 36.7 Lula Belle when he and Brian Flahive completed the final few miles back into Cowes around midday last Saturday to finish the 1802-mile Sevenstar Round Britain & Ireland Race.

Lula Belle had many gear and equipment problems after an extreme event where the natural pre-start nervousness had been heightened by a reversal by the Race Management of the originally clockwise course as the 10th August start day approached. It would have been folly to send the fleet westward into storm force westerlies in restricted waters. Eastward was the only sensible way to go.

Then the arrival of the remains of Hurricane Bertha – which seemed to be finding new vigour – led to new tensions with the start being postponed from midday Sunday to 0900 Monday. It was disastrous from a general publicity point of view. But it would have been irresponsible to send a fleet of boats – some of them mega-fast big multihulls – hurtling towards the ship-crowded narrows of the Dover Straits beyond the limits of control in a Force 11-plus from astern.

Even when they did race away, it was with a Force 8 plus from the west, with the Irish crew recording 42.5 knots of wind aboard Lula Belle (and from astern at that), before they lost all their instruments from the masthead on the first night out. For a double-handed crew, that was a very major blow. Two-handers are allowed to use their auto-pilot, and if all the wind indicators are functioning in proper co-ordination with it, then the boat can sail herself along a specific setting on the wind. It's as good having at least one extra hand – and a skilled and tireless helmsman at that - on board.

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Lula Belle on her way out of the Solent with 1800 miles to race and everything still intact. Photo: Rick Tomlinson

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There it was – gone. After the first night at sea, Lula Belle's masthead was bereft of everything except an often defective Windex. Photo: W M Nixon

Fortunately the auto-pilot itself was still working on its own, and they became well experienced in setting the boat on course and then trimming the sails to it in a continuous process which worked well except when the seas were so rough and irregular that they had to hand steer in any case, albeit with the apparent wind indicated only by the sole survivor of the masthead units, the little standard Windex. But it must have been damaged when everything else was swept away, as from time to time it jammed. When that happened, the only wind indicators available to the two men were the Sevenstars battleflag on the backstay, the tell-tales on the sails, or a moistened finger held aloft, as neither were smokers.

Despite this, they made their way north through the North Sea and all round Scotland and its outlying islands and right down the western seaboard of Ireland as far as the Blaskets before things went even more pear-shaped. In fact, the wheels came off.

Their ship's batteries had been showing increasing reluctance to hold power, essential for the continuing use of the autohelm and the most basic need for lighting and any still-usable electronic equipment including the chart plotter. But thanks to a trusty engine battery, they could start the motor to bring the ship's batteries back up to short-lived strength. Yet while approaching the Blaskets, the engine refused to start, and nothing they could do would coax it back to life. Inevitably they lost power, and for the final 495 miles of the race – the equivalent of 78% of a Fastnet Race - the boat was sailed and navigated entirely manually, with the required navigation lights provided by modified helmet lamps.

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The chart plotter shows only too clearly where power was lost completely just north of the Blaskets. Photo: W M Nixon

Yet they finished well last Saturday, around noon on August 23rd after twelve days racing. They won the two-handed division overall, they won Classes IV & V, and they placed sixth overall in a combined fleet in which big boats with a strong element of professional crewing dominated. So who are Liam Coyne and Brian Flahive, and what about Lula Belle, the heroine of the tale?

Afloat.ie caught up with them on Thursday morning in Dun Laoghaire marina, where they'd got home an hour or so before dawn to grab a quick sleep of a few precious hours before awakening to more sunshine than they'd experienced for a long time, as the Round Britain & Ireland was raced across an astonishingly sunless sea. As for the 450-mile passage home to Dublin Bay, it had been achieved through mostly miserable weather and an enforced and brief stop in Plymouth to try to get a final solution to the continuing electric problems, which had defeated the finest minds in Cowes.

But such hassle fades when the return home is completed, and the Lula Belle crew were in great form. They complement each other. Brian Flahive is from Wicklow and he's a studious, thoughtful type. He turned 31 just three days after the win, making it his best birthday ever, and a fitting highlight in a sailing CV which continues to develop, and began with local sailing and training courses with Wicklow Sailing Club after his sister Carol had acquired a Mirror dinghy.

Since then, Carol's seagoing has taken a slightly unexpected turn as she found her vocation in the lifeboat service, and that is now her main interest afloat - she is a helm on the Wicklow lifeboat. But her younger brother Brian was soon hooked on pure sailing, and from the Mirror he soon went on the 420s where his enthusiasm was noted by local keelboat owners, who in turn recruited him aboard, and soon he was noted by those assembling offshore racing crews too.

When you've talent, enthusiasm and time available, the word soon gets about in the limited recruiting pool available to Ireland's offshore racing folk. Soon, young Flahive was spreading his wings with his home port's biennial Round Ireland race, and participation in Irish Sea Offshore Racing. He proved adept at and interested in two-handed sailing in particular, and soon got to know another relative newcomer to the Irish Sea offshore racing scene, Liam Coyne.

Liam Coyne is 47, and something of a force of nature. There's a mischievous twinkle to his eye, but there's a very serious side to him too, even if – as when he admits he's extremely competitive – it's done in the best of humour. He's from Swinford in County Mayo, where any knowledge of boating might relate to the big lake of Lough Conn nearby. But as he left Mayo for the USA just as he was turning 20, his passionate sailing involvement has been entirely generated during his more recent life in Dublin.

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There's a mischievous twinkle, but Liam Coyne makes no secret of his competitive nature. Photo: W M Nixon

Back in the 1980s, well before Australia took off as the destination of choice for energetic and ambitious young Irish people, America was still the Land of Dreams. Coyne's teacher of English in Mayo was so sure of this that one of his courses was built entirely around the USA's immigration examination. He did a good job, young Coyne made the break, and he started to fulfill his ambition of getting to all the American states by spending time – sometimes quite a lot of it – in 26 of the States of the Union. Eventually with a winter approaching, he found the building site he was quietly working on in Boston was due to close completely for the colder months. But he managed to swing a job selling Firestone tyres (sorry, "tires") from the local agent's shops. It was a union created in heaven. Liam Coyne and tyres – the bigger the better – were made for each other.

He prospered in the tyre business in Boston and enjoyed his work, but there was always the call of home and a girl from Swinford who had qualified as a teacher. So he came back to Ireland in 1998, set up in the tyre business in Leinster, married the girl and settled down in south Dublin to raise a family.

Came the boom years, and the tyre business prospered mightily. Liam Coyne Tyres had five depots and employed 48 people. He was mighty busy, but seeking relaxation. So on the October Bank Holiday Monday in 2005, he and his wife went to the Used Boat Show at Malahide Marina and by the time they left, Alan Corr of BJ Marine had sold them a handy little Beneteau First 211, their first boat.

His knowledge of boats and sailing was rudimentary to non-existent. His maiden voyage, the short hop of 12 miles from Malahide to his recently-joined new base at Poolbeg Y& BC in Dublin port, took all of 14 hours as the tyro skipper battled with the peculiarities of tide and headwinds, happily ignoring the potential of the little outboard engine on the transom even though, as Alan Corr cheerfully told him later, it could have pushed the boat all the way to Arklow in half the time.

But he was enchanted by this strange new world, and the camaraderie of the sailing community as expressed in Poolbeg. He made a tentative foray into the club's Wednesday night racing, and was even more strongly hooked. But even though those Wednesday club races in the inner reaches of Dublin Bay were such fun that from time to time he still returns to race with his old clubmates at Poolbeg, he knew that his ambitions would dictate a move into a larger boat, and the bigger world of Dublin Bay sailing. So when the next Dublin Boat Show came along, he went to it and ended up buying a Bavaria 30 from Paddy Boyd, who was marketing Bavarias in the interval between being Secretary General of the Irish Sailing Association, and Executive Director of Sail Canada.

Paddy Boyd wised him up to the Dun Laoghaire sailing scene, and which club he might find the most congenial while being suited to his ambitions. For Liam Coyne was discovering offshore racing, and particularly the annual programme of the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association. He liked everything about ISORA, the friendships, the willingness to help and encourage newcomers, and the pleasant sense of a mildly international flavour between the English, Welsh and Irish contingents.

One of his fondest memories is of taking his Bavaria 30 across to North Wales for the annual Pwllheli-Howth race which traditionally rounds out the season, and is often blessed with Indian summer weather. As he headed away from Dublin Bay, he suddenly realised it was the first time he had ever left Ireland under his own command. All previous exits had been on scheduled ships or planes. It was a very special moment.

Yet while he treasures the memory of such special moments, it wouldn't be Liam Coyne if he wasn't moving on. He'd relocated his base of operations to the bigger scene of the National Yacht Club and Dun Laoghaire, and developed his taste for double-handed offshore racing and its link to a group whose only common denominator seemed to be that many of them shared an enthusiasm for racing vintage Fireballs in Dun Laoghaire harbour in the winter.

But in the summer, keelboat offshore racing with just two on board was increasingly their main line, and he was soon on terms of friendship with the likes of Brian Flahive, Barry Hurley and others, while the double-handed class in events like the Dun Laoghaire-Dingle, the Round Ireland, and the Fastnet itself were coming up on the radar.

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The newly-acquired First 36.7 which became Lula Belle greatly broadened the scope of Liam Coyne's offshore racing. Photo: W M Nixon

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The First 36.7 is of a useful size to be a very pleasant family cruiser, but Lula Belle has been a multi-purpose boat since Liam Coyne bought her, with the emphasis on double-handed offshore racing, and the longer the course, the better. Photo: W M Nixon

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Lula Belle's layout - the accommodation of a cruiser/racer with extras installed for serious offshore racing, but for proper cruising they'd also be required. Photo: W M Nixon

Having made his mark offshore partnered with Brian Flahive on the Bavaria, he very quickly moved up to the almost-new First 36.7 Baily, bought from Tom Fitzpatrick of Howth. His name of Lula Belle for the boat was inspired by a recently-deceased aunt who had invariably addressed all of his sisters as "Lula Belle" when requesting something like a cup of tea. It's certainly a distinctive name, and it was beginning to feature regularly in short-handed and fully-crewed offshore racing reports when Ireland fell off the economic cliff around 2007.

The tyre business was hit particularly hard, for they're items whose replacement people can try to avoid by shifting used tyres around on and between vehicles to get the last piece of tread usable. But fortunately, one of his key contracts was in the heavy industrial area, where they use tyres so big your everyday motorist has no notion of them, yet legal safety working requirements dictate their regular replacement.

Despite this, at one stage his fine workforce of 48 had become effectively just two, while three of the five depots were closed. "I can tell you" he says, "there were times when we were glad enough the wife had kept her teaching job". And they were raising a family, eventually with three kids with a much-loved holiday home at Enniscrone in southwest Sligo. Then too he had this 36ft racing boat too. Yet all his fine assets and the value of the family home in Dublin had effectively been slashed by at least 50% and often more.

But somehow he kept going, and he even continued to race offshore. By this time one of the leading figures in the Irish short-handed sailing scene, Barry Hurley, had moved to Malta, and when he was recruiting crew for a friend with a Grand Soleil 40 for the annual 620-miles Middle Sea Race from Valetta in late October, he filled four berths with able-bodied crew from Dublin including Barry Flahive and Liam Coyne.

That race brought something of another epiphany to match that moment of pure joy at realizing he was skippering his own boat out of Irish waters for the first time. They'd come through the Straits of Messina eastward of Sicily, and next turn of the course was the volcanic island of Stromboli. It was a blissfully warm summer's night, and Liam was at the helm in just shorts and shirt, enjoying the sail and revelling in the race.

Stormboli was gently erupting just enough to show it was there, and ideal to be a mark of the course. "I'll tell you," says Liam, "it was a very long way indeed from your usual October night in Swinford". The magic of the moment reinforced his ambition to see his business through the recession and out the other side, which he has now achieved with busy depots in Navan and Dublin, and staff back above the twenty mark. Yet oddly enough, it also reinforced a shared ambition with Brian Flahive to do the four-yearly Seven Stars Round Britain & Ireland Race, when conditions up in the northern seas off Shetland and across towards the Faroes can often make an October night in Swinford seem like the balmy Mediterranean by comparison.

But the idea just wouldn't go away, and they put down their names for the 2014 race. With the economy coming out of intensive care and two good managers running his two depots and the three kids though the very young stage, Liam Coyne felt he could take off the time for this major challenge. But even so it was done without any form of shore management support, and in fact he managed to mix it with some family cruising – to which the boat is surprisingly well suited – by taking his young son Billy (10) and daughter Katie (8) along with him for a leisurely delivery to Cowes by way of many of the choice and picturesque ports along the south coast of England, where his wife and the youngest child joined the party to see them off.

That was in the last of the summer. By the time the starting date was upon them, it was as if a giant and malevolent switch had been activated. The weather was horrible, and even when Bertha had finally grumbled along on her way, it was anticipated that the rush of bitterly cold north winds she'd drag down from the Arctic in her wake would be every bit as unpleasant.

Then came the complete reversal of the course, and the postponement of the start. For a crew who were being their own shore managers and technical support team, it added a last minute mountain of research work on the shape the weather might be when they finally got away, and all the mental strains of waiting overnight for the start. As the lowest-rated boat in the entire fleet, they may have had the consolation of knowing that if they finished with just one boat behind them then they wouldn't be last on corrected time. But by being the low-rater, they would probably finish so long after everyone else that any general celebration would be long over.

That said, when a double-handed team have already successfully bonded, they're better at withstanding the strain of an enforced wait for a delayed start than a larger crew. I can remember only too well when the RORC Cowes to Cork race of 1974 was postponed for ten hours by the then RORC Secretary Mary Pera. A Force 10 sou'wester was making the Needles Channel a complete maelstrom on the spring ebb, but it was forecast soon to ease, so we were to be sent off on the evening ebb.

To get through the wait, it seemed best to stay well away from the boat and have a quiet day if at all possible. But aboard the 47-footer on which I was sailing, there were action men who decided it was time for a party lunch. So although I slunk away alone up the back streets of Cowes (Kensington-on-Sea it was not), and found a little café where the owners were persuaded to provide lunch of boiled potatoes and steamed fish instead of the usual nausea-inducing fish'n'chips, back on the waterfront others meanwhile had different ideas. A massive former rugby international in our crew decided the best way to pass the time was a champagne reception in one of the Cowes clubs followed by a bibulous lunch, and he persuaded several shipmates to join him, though they were circumspect in their consumption while he went at it as though it would be the last festive lunch in his life.

When we finally got racing the wind had indeed eased, though things were still rough enough in the Needles Channel, where we slammed into a head sea with such vigour that the Brookes & Gatehouse speedo impellor – normally a particularly stiff-to-move bit of equipment – was shot into its hull housing so totally we assumed it had broken entirely. It took a few seconds to realize what had happened, and it worked again happily enough once it had been pushed back into working position with the usual robust heave.

However, our mighty rugby forward was not so happy. He was not a happy budgie at all. The news is that, though you may be battering along noisily but successfully with endless bangs and squeaks and groans of one sort or another, when an international rugby forward of classic size gets massively seasick, a new dimension enters the sound and vibration scene - it's as if the entire boat is shuddering from end to end.

But enough of that. In Cowes on the morning of Monday August 11th 2014, it was still blowing old boots from the west , but they tore away downwind like there was no tomorrow. And for some, as far as racing was concerned, there wasn't. Any tomorrow, that is. There were several overnight retrials that set out to be temporary but became permanent. Aboard Lula Belle, however, they were still going strong, but after recording that gust from astern of 42.5 knots (which meant it was pushing 50), the masthead broccoli decided it had had enough, and made its exit.

Some time long before the race, Liam had decided he'd ensure the minimum use of power by having a LED tricolour masthead light, and a technician had been sent aloft to fit it. But that first night, it took off on its own, but taking much else with it, and leaving a beautifully clean masthead, but damn all information for those down below other than a Windex with an increasing tendency to jam.

And already the sails were suffering, for although their gybes were hectic enough, they didn't have to worry about check-stays or runners. But the downside of that was the well-raked spreaders, which helped support the mast in the absence of any aft support rigging other than the standing backstay. The inevitably prominent upper spreader-ends were chafing holes in the mainsail which, despite repairs, were enormous by the finish.

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Speed at sea – Brian Flahive on the wheel as Lula Belle puts in the kind of sailing which knocked off 200 miles a day. Photo: Liam Coyne

But they blasted on, roaring on a reach up through the North Sea with Lula Belle doing mighty well, as the more extreme boats such as their closest rival, the Figaro II Rare, weren't quite getting the conditions to enable them to fly, whereas old Lula Belle was knocking off 200 miles in every 24 and saving her time very nicely.

North of the English/Scottish border, the strong winds drew ahead. The forecast, however, was for westerlies, so some boats in front laid markedly to the westward looking for them. But Coyne and Flahive sailed a canny race. What they knew of the weather maps suggested very slow-moving and messy weather systems with lots of wind. And from ahead. They reckoned the prospect of westerlies was just too good to be true. And they were right. On the entire leg up to Muckle Flugga, the most northerly turn, they never strayed more than five or six miles from the rhumb line, and thus they sailed the absolute minimum distance, albeit in very anti-social conditions, to get to the big turn.

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The sunless sea, with Lula Belle getting past Muckle Flugga on Shetland, the northerly turning point of the RB & I Race, and the sky promising plenty of wind Photo: Liam Coyne

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The win move. Although Lula Belle had taken a conservative route northward, once they'd rounded Muckle Flugga they took a flyer to try to get on the favoured side of a slow-moving yet very intense low. The plan succeeded, but they'd to go almost halfway to the Faroes for it to work. Photo: W M Nixon

By this time the faster boats had got back into a substantial lead, but here the situation suited the Irish duo. Those in front went battering and tacking into a fierce sou'wester, trying to get nearer the next turn at St Kilda. But the Irish boat's cunning scheme was to slug directly westward once they'd rounded Muckle Flugga, and not tack until they'd some real prospect of being in the harsh northerlies which they knew to be somewhere out beyond the very slow-moving low pressure area.

Thus they ended up midway between the Shetlands and Orkney to the southeast, and the Faroes to the northwest. As Liam Coyne drily puts it: "When you take a flyer like this and it works, it isn't a flyer any more – on the contrary, it's the only way". What they didn't know was that the boats trying to batter their way past the Outer Hebrides and down towards St Kilda had taken such a pasting that their immediate rival Rare had made a pit stop to rest up in the Shetlands, and others dropped out "for a while" only to find it had become a matter of retiring from the race.

But Lula Belle, having cast the dice to go west, had no option but to keep going, as she was nearly 50 miles west of the Rhumb Line, and more a day's fast sailing from any shelter. By this time, the Scottish forecasters had up-graded their gale warnings to severe storm Force 10. But thanks to their pluck in going west, Coyne and Flahive were up towards the northwest corner of the low, whereas the opposition were down in the southeast quadrant where the winds are usually significantly stronger.

Nevertheless at the change of the watch they shortened sail to the three-reefed main and the storm jib, even though the wind had fallen right away. Brian went off watch and then returned on deck after some sleep to find Liam had become becalmed, and had been so for some time. The centre of the low was passing straight over them. Now it was only a matter of time before the new wind came out of the north.

When it did it was nasty and cold, and the sea became diabolically rough and confused. But it was a fair wind, and they made on as best they could through the short northern night to close in on St Kilda. It was sunrise when they went past that lonely sentinel, and for once there was briefly sunshine to prove it, but it was watery bad weather sunshine as they settled in for the long haul to Ireland.

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A great fair wind at last, but it was so very very cold despite some sunshine. Photo: Liam Coyne

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Early morning as they pass St Kilda, with Lula Belle well placed in the race and her closest but higher-rated rivals astern. Photo: Iiam Coyne

By this stage the boat was very much their home, and they were both in good spirits. Despite the expectation of being in race mode for at least ten days and probably much more, they hadn't anything too much in the way of special easy-made instant food. When asked who had organized their stores and how they had been procured, Liam responded: "I just went to Tesco before the race, and filled her up. It's very easy when you've only two. I've had to do the stores for the boat with a crew of eight, and it's a pain in the neck".

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Getting an omelette just right is tricky at the best of times, yet this masterpiece was created aboard Lula Belle off the coast of Donegal in 30 knots of wind. Photo: Liam Coyne

As for living aboard, they used the two aft cabins for sleeping, with hot bunking dictated by which was the weather side. In cruising mode, the First 36.7 is a very comfortable boat, but in racing things tend to get put behind the lee-cloth on the weather settee berth in the saloon, for the fact is the boat is designed to be raced with a crew of 7 or 8, and she tends to be a bit tender without six bodies on the weather rail.

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Post-return temporary disorder in Lula Belle's saloon on her arrival back in Dun Laoghaire after sailing nearly 3000 miles in all since she'd last been in her home port. Though Brian (left) and Liam used the aft cabins for the short off-watch periods of sleep, the lee cloths on the settee berths were kept up to provide ready stowage for loose gear, preferably on the weather side. Photo: W M Nixon

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Having the toilet on the fore-and-aft axis is very convenient at sea. And having an "extra-easy-cleaned" compartment is a real boon for hygienc. As for the funnel and hose, that's essential in a men-only boat in racing mode. Photo: W M Nixon

To my mind, one of the best things about the accommodation is the heads (toilet if you prefer). Some folk might think the compartment is too compact, but the loo is aligned fore and aft, so there simply isn't the room to fall about when using it. With the fore and aft alignment, security and comfort is guaranteed at those special private moments. It should be a law of yacht design that any boat which is going to be taken further than half a mile offshore is designed with a fore and aft loo.

Such thoughts would not have been forefront in the minds of Lula Belle's crew as they set the A3 spinnaker for the long run to Black Rock off the Mayo coast. Inexplicably, and as evidence of their stretched shoreside management support arrangements, they'd failed to bring along a new Code Zero spinnaker from sailmaker Des McWilliam. They'd gone for it despite it putting three extra notches on their rating, but it was nowhere to be found. After the race, it was discovered among a pile of 20 sails in Liam's Dublin office. But out in the lonely ocean southwest of St Kilda, it wasn't there when it was needed.

Yet it was soon needed even more. The smaller sail that was put up simply disintegrated after a brief period of use. It was inexplicable, but reasons weren't important just then, they were now down to just two spinnakers, and a very long way to go downwind to the finish.

So they nervously got out the A4, and soon it was up and drawing and Lula Belle was back in business, sailing fast for Ireland. Liam went below for a much-needed kip, and a sudden squall over-powered the boat. By the time he got back on deck she'd broached completely and the sail was shredded. They were down to just one spinnaker, and one in very dodgy condition at that. To add to their joys, in a crash gybe the mainsheet carriage disintegrated and they'd "ball bearings, it seemed like hundreds of them, all over the place...."

So there they'd been, passing St Kilda and knowing that, despite the lack of sailing instruments, they couldn't have done the leg from Shetland any better, and more importantly knowing from Yellowbrick that Rare was now well astern. Yet here they were now, only a few hours on the way, and they were down to one spinnaker and a jury-rigged mainsheet arrangement and a long way to go and the weather starting to suit Rare. Could it get any worse?

It did. Approaching the Blaskets, as usual the ship's batteries were draining with unreasonable speed. But the engine, when called upon, was dead. Dead as a dodo. It turned over but just wouldn't start. They knew that in very short order they'd be even further cut off from the outside world than they were already, with no chart plotter and without even the comfort of Yellowbrick to tell them how they stood in relation to the opposition. No autohelm whatever, either. And they'd 495 miles still to sail.

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Moment of truth. The chart plotter's power dies just north of the Blaskets, the most westerly point of the 1802-mile course. Photo: W M Nixon

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Getting on with it. Just south of the Blaskets, Brian goes aloft to try and clear the constantly-jamming Windex. Photo: W M Nixon

So they picked themeselves up, dusted themselves off, and started all over again. Brian went aloft to the waving masthead to free the Windex, which was in its jamming mood. Then progress was good heading down towards the Isle of Scilly. But even so, midway across, alone at the helm and steering and steering and steering, Liam admits to a very low moment.

They were now almost midway between Cowes and Dun Laoghaire, So he thought to himself: Why not just turn to port and head for home? Head for that comfortable NG34 berth in Dun Laoghaire marina, instead of struggling on with sails which were bound to shred even further, and leave them eventually straggling across the line completely dog last and with everything to fix, and then they'd have to turn round and plug into the early Autumn gales all the way back round Land's End to Dun Laoghaire?

And what then? he thought. Well, then in four years times we'll have to do the damned thing all over again. All, all, over again. So we'll just finish the bloody thing now, and get the T-Shirt, and that will be that regardless of how far we're placed behind everyone else, and good riddance to it all.

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Welcome back. Knowing of Lula Belle's engine-less plight, the Cowes harbourmaster made sure they were brought into their Berth of Honour in style. Photo: Liam Coyne

So they stuck at it, they nursed the boat through the shipping separation zones at the Scillies without the spinnaker up because they knew the multiple gybing would destroy it, then as Rare didn't get past them until this stage, they knew that after such a long race she'd need to be 22 hours ahead at the finish and that was surely impossible. They were very much in with a shout of being better than last, so they nursed that mangled old spinnaker right up the English Channel (Mother Flahive's emergency sewing machine had done some marvellous repairs), and maybe the spreader ends were now showing out through the mainsail again, but what the hell, they got in round St Catherine's point and shaped their way back into the eastern Solent and on up to Cowes, and didn't Rare's crew and various bigwigs come out to tow them into port and confirm to them that they had indeed been there, they'd seen it, they'd done it, they'd won it., and now they could get the T-shirt.

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Been there, seen it, done it, won it, got the T-shirt.....Liam Coyne back at the bar of the National YC five days after winning the two-handed division and two RORC classes in the 1802-mile Seven Stars Round Britain & Ireland Race 2014, and with his boat Lula Belle safely returned to her home port of Dun Laoghaire. Photo: W M Nixon

Published in W M Nixon

#VOR - Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing are making their return in the next Volvo Ocean Race after a distinguished debut showing in 2012, with new racing director Neal McDonald at the helm.

But the Ian Walker-skippered squad are already training hard with more than a year to go - and the recent Fastnet Race served as the first proper test of their skills.

The video above details the crew's experiences racing across the Celtic Sea from Cowes to Fastnet Rock and back - and their engaging tussle with fellow VOR squad Team SCA, whose finish time just edges them ahead.

Speaking of Team SCA, the all-female team's skipper Liz Wardley shared her own thoughts during the challenging non-stop Fastnet round trip:


The VOR website has links to similar video diaries from crewmates Sophie Ciszek, Sam Davies, Carloijn Brouwer and Annie Lush.

In other recent VOR news, Swiss luxury watch manufacturer IWC Schaffhausen has signed a new deal as the race’s official timekeeper for 2014-15 – and will once again sponsor the prestigious IWC Schaffhausen 24-hour Speed Record Challenge.

And the new one design VOR 65 may make its first appearance on the water as a finished vessel as early as tomorrow (23 September) after a detailed seven-month build with key components produced in various parts of the world.

Published in Volvo Ocean Race
Page 5 of 7

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