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Irish sailor Tom Dolan is among the 18 duos breathing a collective sigh of relief today in Concarneau, France after Sunday’s start of the Transat en Double race to Saint Barthélemy has been postponed because of severe weather forecasted for the Bay of Biscay during the first part of the coming week.

Winds were expected to be over 50 knots off the notorious Cape Finisterre on the northwest corner of Spain, accompanied by big, five-metre confused seas.

Race director Francis Le Goff has chosen to be extra prudent as this is the first Transatlantic race yet for the 10.85m semi foiling Beneteau Figaro 3. On top of that there are three low pressure systems rolling in one after the other.

“The saying in this part of France is L’orage sur mer, trente jours à terre which literally means ‘storms at sea 30 days on land’ but it is really when there are this type of storms at sea, with the lows coming up from the south and the Iberian peninsula, they tend to follow one after the other.” the Smurfit Kappa backed sailor explains.

“Right now we just have to chill out, keep following the evolution of the weather and keep super rested. I don’t think we will be going anywhere before the middle of the week as it looks at the moment.” Dolan adds, “And I am in the very lucky position of having this race starting from my home port and so I can wait things out in the comfort of my own home.”

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Next weekend Irish racer Tom Dolan and current Irish Sailor of the Year will line up at the start of the 3,890 nautical miles Transat En Double Concarneau - Saint-Barthelemy harbouring realistic hopes of finishing on the podium, possibly even winning the two-handed race across the Atlantic which has attracted 21 starters. Dolan sails the Atlantic representing sponsors Smurfit Kappa and Kingspan partnering with his very experienced French co-skipper Gildas Mahé who has twice finished on the podium on this race.

A long time friend and the training partner with whom he put in many hours on the water last Autumn and early Winter, Dolan and Mahé prepped and tuned in search of the small speed gains which the duo hope will make a key difference on this year’s two pinnacle events, this imminent Transat en Double and September’s La Solitaire du Figaro.

"Dolan is quietly pleased that he was asked by 45-year-old Mahé to join him"

While the pair share the same approach and have complementary skills, Dolan is quietly pleased that he was asked by 45-year-old Mahé to join him, in itself a very strong validation of the Irish sailor’s established status among the top Figaro sailors.

The race is in effect the 15th edition of an event previously known as the AG2R Transat and follows a course from Brittany to Saint Barthélemy in the Caribbean. Cancelled last year because of the pandemic this will be the first Transatlantic race for the new Figaro Beneteau 3. Mahé has two podium finishes to his credit, second in 2016 with Nicolas Lunven and third in 2018 with Nico Troussel and he was runner-up on the 2019 La Solitaire du Figaro.

“It is an honour to be asked by Gildas but we have been good friends for a few years now. Last season, we worked a lot together and shared logistics, accommodation at races, a preparateur and pooled transport resources. So we then worked together last year after the season and so it is logical we sail together and we get on well, but it is still nice to be asked!” explains the usual skipper of Smurfit Kappa and Kingspan who joins Mahé on Breizh Cola for the occasion.

"I have certainly come up in the world after La Solitaire.” Jokes Dolan who finished fifth overall on the 2020 La Solitaire, “And now we have put an Irishman in charge of food, we have loads of crisps and cola, we will be just fine!” “Seriously it is great to learn from Gildas, he is a natural long time competitor who came up through the ranks of the Optimist, 420 and 470 and so he is great at starting and the boat on boat stuff which has been my weakness because I did not do that as a youngster. But I know I can sail the boat fast, we both can, but I am better in the ‘geekery’, the technical performance data collection and analysis, knowing the boat. He was good in the Figaro 2 but this boat is a little more like a Mini 650 when it comes to crossing the Atlantic and I went across twice in the Mini. So we have a good mix of experience.” Dolan outlines.

The 35-year-old who grew up on a farm in County Meath, Ireland and moved to France in 2009 is cautiously optimistic about their prospects on this race. Physically and mentally he has put the early-season ankle injury behind him, despite missing a few weeks sailing rehabbing the injury.

“It is all good, I missed out a little but I am glad we did so much last Autumn because we have done the miles and are fresh now which is important going into a Transat like this.”

“We could do OK. What is nice is that I can finally look around the top of the fleet and know I have beaten everyone at least once and I think with Gildas we are a good team. I’ve known him as a friend for six or seven years so we are buddies, we are pretty solid.”

Dolan concludes, “ We share similar values, concerns about the health of the oceans and the climate. We are both comfortable downwind and the boat really is super well prepared. We have worked hard to have the sail shapes and designs, evaluating and choosing our best options. Between us, we count many Transatlantics, we know the game is going to be wide open and we have to make sure we finish before we can think about winning.”

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County Meath solo sailor Tom Dolan is confident he will be fighting fit for the double-handed Transat en Doible Concarneau to Saint Barthelem which starts May 9th. This is despite an ankle injury sustained by Dolan in the Season Opening Solo Maître Coq at the weekend.

As Afloat reported earlier, the Irish Sailor of the Year sustained the ankle injury midway through the 340 nautical miles long offshore race curtailed Dolan’s chances of a top 10 overall finish in the first solo race of the French Figaro season.

At the Ile de Ré, the southernmost turning point of the course, the skipper of Smurfit Kappa was comfortably racing among a strong breakaway group of ten leading the 29 strong fleet, when he overbalanced while stepping back into the cockpit of his Figaro Beneteau 3 and landed heavily, hurting his ankle and injuring his hand.

At first, in the light airs he tried to carry on but as the wind and seas built with the arrival of a front, the pain was scarcely bearable and it became obvious to Dolan that he had no alternative but to retire into Lorient. A medical examination has subsequently confirmed his ankle is badly sprained with some nerve damage. He has been told to rest his leg for three weeks to one month.

“It is just one of these things. I had had a problem with the tack line and had been up to the bow to fix it and I just stepped awkwardly back into the cockpit. I hurt my left hand and right foot. It is a lesson to be more careful in the future. I’ll lose a little bit of training time before the Transatlantic Concarneau Saint Barths but I am staying positive. I had sailed well in the opening races and was up with the top group when it happened so I am not despondent.” Dolan reported today (Monday) after finally being reunited with his phone which was left (according to the race rules) in Les Sables d’Olonne, the start and finish port.

“Initially I was determined to go on and finish but as the wind and seas built up it was apparent how immobile I was and it was clearly dangerous to go on.” He recalled, “I will be so much more careful in the future.”

Having finished seventh and 13th in the two inshore races last Monday and Tuesday, Dolan had started the offshore race in ninth place. Even counting the ‘RTD’ (retired) from the offshore race he still finished 18th, still his best result in the season opener yet.

“Look I am pretty happy nonetheless. I was good all round and was with the breakaway group and was going well. Overall I have good speed. I am still not very quick under gennaker and so that is a work in progress, I am not slow but neither am I the fastest. Meantime I have two or three weeks of physiotherapy to get on with and will be taking it carefully.” Tom Dolan concluded today.

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Tom Dolan had a disappointing retiral in the weekend's first on offshore race of the season that saw only 18 or 29 of the Solo Maitre Coq fleet finish the course in the Bay of Quiberon.

Dolan, who fell in the cockpit of his Figaro 3 and twisted both his ankle and wrist while in fourth place early in the race, admits to nearly giving up off La Rochelle as the pain was so bad in his ankle. See Facebook vid below.

Irish Sailor of the Year, Dolan, who was pitching to finish in the top 10 of the offshore which has a coefficient of three towards the overall 2021 standings was ninth overall after the first two inshore races of the regatta.

The concern now is that the County Meath sailor will be fit in time for the double-handed transatlantic race, from Concarneau, France to St. Barts starting on Sunday, 9th May in which he is teamed up with Gildas Mahé.

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The annual Solo Maître CoQ, the traditional curtain-raiser for the Figaro season, has never gone very well for the Irish racer Tom Dolan but the skipper of Smurfit Kappa has this time made a strong start to the early season Vendée based race series and after the two inshore races lies in ninth place in the 29 strong fleet of Figaro Beneteau 3s.

On Monday and Tuesday’s inshore courses which were raced in tactical conditions between Les Sables d'Olonne, Bourgenay and Brem-sur-Mer, Dolan was seventh on Monday and 13th on Tuesday. After the lay-day Wednesday, the fleet takes on a 340 miles coastal offshore course out of Les Sables d’Olonne between the islands of Belle-Ile, Ile de Ré and the Ile de Yeu.

“I'm pretty happy with these first two days of racing. Although it was complicated, the weather worked out as I thought it would and it was quite clear to me. I knew exactly what I wanted to do and it all happened pretty much as I had expected.” Said Tom Dolan today in Les Sables d’Olonne, “In the end, I made the right sail choices at the right time went the right way and actually did some great manoeuvres which was gratifying after all the boat-for-boat training we did recently.”

And while he was pleased with the first race’s opening seventh place, he was nearly as happy to have kept his head on the second race and recovered after a bad start.

“ I had a catastrophic start and that put my mental game to the sword but I managed to stay calm and follow my initial game plan without blowing up, ” explains the skipper of Smurfit Kappa. “Coming away with the 13th, in the end, was not too bad.”

Taking full advantage of the lay day to prep and rest before the first long race of the season, Dolan previews the course: “It’s going to be full-on and complex. On the first section, it might be a bit of swings and roundabouts with light winds and currents. By the Birvideaux light (at the Bay of Quiberon) it should be a bit tougher with strong wind and seas before becoming again very random near the end of the course depending on how the timings are. I think the elastic band will extend and compress a whole bunch of times. So you have to be right on it, in the group from the start to finish, and with your eyes open and not miss a thing, especially over the first few miles on the Ile de Ré side. The positive thing is that this range of conditions and course will allow us to validate a whole lot of things, " concludes the Irish sailor who is pitching to finish in the Top 10 of the offshore which has a coefficient of 3 towards the overall standings.

The offshore starts 1300hrs Thursday and should usually finish lunchtime Saturday.

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Tom Dolan finished seventh and just seven minutes and five seconds behind Alan Roberts, the winner of the first inshore race of the 2021 Solo Maitre Coq.

Dolan is racing in the foiling Figaro Beneteau 3 class of 29 entries. Conditions for the first race at Port Olona, Les Sables d'Olonne were unstable with variations in force and direction.

The National Yacht Club said afterwards that he managed to stick to his strategy and 'to be in the right place at the right time'. 

The Solo Maître CoQ, the first event of the five that form the French Elite Offshore Racing Championship. starts with short, inshore races Monday and Tuesday, a lay day Wednesday before a 340 nautical miles offshore race from Thursday to Saturday.

“The goal this week is to dust off the cobwebs and validate what we have been doing. The main pinnacles are the Transat Concarneau Saint Barths in May and La Solitaire du Figaro August-September, so, although I want a good result here – as much because this has been a bit of a ‘black cat event (ed note, in France the black cat is seen as unlucky) – it is not a dealbreaker,” Dolan asserts.

“I feel like I have had a good balance through the winter and spring and am really ready to go racing now. I have done the work I wanted to do and in training I have been going well so I am quite confident, but, hey let’s wait and see!”

Racing continues this morning with a second inshore race starting at 11am.

Check out his pre-race vid below

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It is with a mix of hard-earned confidence and early season nerves that Irish solo sailor Tom Dolan starts his 2021 racing season on Monday in Les Sables d’Olonne. France on the annual Solo Maître CoQ race series.

Since finishing sixth overall on Smurfit Kappa on the French Elite Offshore Championship in 2020, Dolan has worked hard and smart through the back end of last season and the early spring to try and ensure he has taken all the necessary steps to improve further on last year’s successes.

After the race season closed he worked late into the Autumn speed testing and two boat tuning with French ace Gildas Mahé and a small group from Technique Voile sails. Together they effectively deconstructed many of the ideas that were prevailing in the Figaro Beneteau 3 class and revalidated them for themselves, notably looking at flatter sail profiles so developing equal or more power but with less drag.

More recently Dolan has sailed long hours on the water working with his Lorient Grand Large training group especially on perfecting super smooth and effective boat-on-boat work, manoeuvres starts and mark roundings – the short inshore courses have often been his weakness.

At the same time he has been doing what a lot of what he calls ‘geekery’, in essence work on the computer – collecting and crunching data from all kinds of past Figaro Beneteau 3 racing and training - to further refine the ‘polars’ for his Smurfit Kappa, that is the computer-generated target speeds and angles for optimum performance.

“I am definitely ready to go now. I have never felt so ready at the start of a season and I feel like I have got the balance of working hard and resting just right.” Dolan smiled on arrival in Les Sables d’Olonne where the Vendée Globe started in November and finished between late January and March 5th. He added,

“I did a lot of training at the back end of last season and that was good because not only was it valuable you know that is banked for this season and I start this season knowing that we did that and have complete confidence in our set up but have now been able to work on the weaknesses, starts and short, intense inshore races, so that I really feel like I have made a lot of progress since the end of last season, and have not had to put the boat in the water too early. So I feel fresh, super motivated, confident in what we have done and learned, but nervous!”

The Solo Maître CoQ, the first event of the five that form the French Elite Offshore Racing Championship. starts with short, inshore races Monday and Tuesday, a lay day Wednesday before a 340 nautical miles offshore race from Thursday to Saturday.

“The goal this week is to dust off the cobwebs and validate what we have been doing. The main pinnacles are the Transat Concarneau Saint Barths in May and La Solitaire du Figaro August-September, so, although I want a good result here – as much because this has been a bit of a ‘black cat event (ed note, in France the black cat is seen as unlucky) – it is not a dealbreaker,” Dolan asserts,

“I feel like I have had a good balance through the winter and spring and am really ready to go racing now. I have done the work I wanted to do and in training I have been going well so I am quite confident, but, hey let’s wait and see!”


Solo Maître CoQ, Programme

Monday, March 22, 9h00 Skippers briefing
11h00 Start of the 1st race

Tuesday 23 March 9h00 Skippers briefing
11h00 Start of the 2nd race

Wednesday, March 24 Day OFF

Thursday, March 25 9h00 Skippers briefing
13h00 Start of the offshore race

Saturday, March 27 Finish of the offshore race

Sunday, March 28 Prizegiving at 11:30 a.m.

Published in Tom Dolan

Ireland's Sailor of the Year Tom Dolan gets his first test of the 2021 season this week when he races in the Solo Maitre Coq Regatta in the Figaro Beneteau 3 foilers.

For two days, the Dolan among a fleet of 29 face each other on inshore courses in the bay of Les Sables d'Olonne with the big race of next week on Thursday, routing the skippers around the islands of Re, Yeu and Belle-ile.

Known in France, where he is based, as L’Irlandais Volant (the flying Irishman), Dolan put his Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa back into the water in February and began his first training sessions from Lorient, ahead of this week's first races of 2021.

Over the last week, the Lorient training group made a round trip from Lorient to Concarneau.

The Solo Maitre Coq is taking place behind closed doors. No visitors are allowed on the Vendee Globe pontoon.

Dolan lifted the Irish Sailor of the Year award in February, now in its 25th year, the top award is presented by Afloat magazine and recognises not just his 2020 La Solitaire success but his sixth place overall in the French Elite Offshore Racing Championship.

Solo Maitre Coq 2021 Provisional programme

Friday, March 19
9h: Deadline for the arrival of the skippers and their boat at the Port Olona race pontoon - Tonnage checks.

Monday, March 22
9:30 am: Departure from the pontoon and up the channel.
11 am: Departure off the first leg.

Tuesday, 23 March
9:30 am: Departure from the pontoon and up the channel.
11am: Departure off the second round.
7 p.m .: Official evening - Dinner.

Thursday, March 25
11am: Departure from the pontoon and up the channel.
1 p.m .: Start of the big race.

Saturday, March 27
Arrival of the offshore race.

Sunday, March 28
11:30 am: Prize giving.

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Ireland’s leading solo offshore racer Tom Dolan was recognised for his exceptional 2020 season, during which he finished in an unprecedented fifth place in La Solitaire du Figaro, when he was named Irish Sailor of the Year. The award, now in its 25th year,  is presented by Afloat magazine and recognises not just his La Solitaire success but his sixth place overall in the French Elite Offshore Racing Championship. Known in France, where he is based, as L’Irlandais Volant (the flying Irishman), County Meath’s Dolan is delighted with the recognition and admits it comes at the time when he is looking to ensure he prepares for 2021 in the best possible way to ensure that this season can be even better.

The Irish Sailor of the Year 2020 was profiled by WM Nixon at the weekend here.

Tom Dolan's 2021 season

The 2021 season should include three double handed races – including the first double-handed race across the Atlantic in the Beneteau Figaro 3– and three solo races including each year’s pinnacle solo event, September’s La Solitaire du Figaro.

After his consistent 2020 Dolan has every reason to be confident for 2021 but the skipper of Smurfit Kappa is keeping very cool and not getting ahead of himself, well aware how hard it is to return a regular string of results on the Figaro Bénéteau circuit, when the level of competition so high and so evenly matched in the strict one design class. And so it is a very determined but low-key, humble Dolan who put his Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa back into the water last Thursday ready to begin his first training sessions from Lorient, ahead of his first races, next month from Les Sables d'Olonne with the Solo Maître CoQ. After a very focused autumn, increasing the intensity of the two-boat training and testing sessions with the very experienced Gildas Mahé, Tom Dolan has seen design improvements to the boat's sail inventory made along with with the specialists from the Technique Voile team led by Frédéric Duthil. He took a short winter break before starting back to boatwork on his Figaro Bénéteau 3, "I did a lot of work on the keel which was slightly damaged at the very start of last year's season. I also carried out a complete check-up of the boat and then I did some work on the watertightness of the deck fittings, particularly in view of the double-handed Transat between Concarneau and Saint Barths scheduled for next May. I even went so far as to polish my mast, which is really looking for the small gains but for sure – up top – mentally it all helps you feel like you are attending to the little details.”

Back in Training

“My first training sessions are scheduled next week and will mainly be two-up as the 2021 calendar includes three double-handed events: the Transat between Concarneau and Saint-Barth (from May 9 to 28) but also the Tour de Bretagne (from July 3 to 11) and the Fastnet Race (from August 8 to 14), which I hope to take part in with a female crew looking ahead to selection for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games," explains Tom, who is stepping up his challenge to represent Ireland on the Olympic stage. The Solitaire du Figaro is Dolan’s main objective this year. "The Solo Maître CoQ (from 22nd to 28th March) then the Solo Guy Cotten (from 20th to 28th July) will be two interesting races for me as good preparation for the season’s high point which is La Solitaire running from 24th August to 27th September.

Tom Dolan racing around the Fastnet Rock in the 2020 Figaro RaceTom Dolan racing around the Fastnet Rock in the 2020 Figaro Race

The programme promises to be good but busy all the way through the coming months. “It will be important that I pace myself perfectly, especially because the Transatlantic will inevitably take a lot out of us. And you need to have energy and focus all the way through the season as I experienced in 2018 when I did the AG2R - as it was then -in the Figaro 2.” With three more years of experience and a certain level of confidence underpinning his approach to 2021, Dolan says he definitely feels better equipped to manage himself and his programme to ensure he arrives at the start of La Solitaire in peak form. "After my fifth place last year obviously the target is always to do better. But I am realistic enough to know that will be even harder to achieve. And so the goal is to get right back into the mindset, to recover that mode and drive on from there, seeking to further highlight his reputation as an established, consistent sailor on the circuit. And if, by any chance, an opportunity presented itself to compete on the Transat Jacques Vabre in November in another class then Dolan would love to explore any options that come his way, always looking to make progress.

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The Figaro Solo was arguably the peak in sailing competition – both inshore and offshore – in Europe during 2020. In a truncated and contorted season, somehow the crème de la creme of international solo sailing were guided into a contest which – in late August and early September - complied with pandemic regulations, and yet provided out-and-out competition of the highest order, in which a final placing in the top half of the fleet was an achievement of world standard.

The level which has been reached at the sharp end of Figaro 3 racing had already been very forcefully demonstrated back in July, when a first testing of the offshore racing waters in France with the Drheam Cup – for a fleet of hundred-plus boats from Cherbourg on the north coast round to La Trinite in South Brittany – saw first place on the water and under every handicap system being taken by rising Figaro star Sam Goodchild from Falmouth racing solo.

Tom Dolan racing hard. The cockpit of a Figaro 3 is Spaghetti Junction on a permanent basis. It would take at least five sailors of average ability to handle the lines which a Figaro sailor controls soloTom Dolan racing hard. The cockpit of a Figaro 3 is Spaghetti Junction on a permanent basis. It would take at least five sailors of average ability to handle the lines which a Figaro sailor controls solo……….Photo: Thomas Deregnieaux

…..and as well as sail handling solo, he's on his own in deciding whether or not he'll cross clear ahead on port tack…..and as well as sail handling solo, he's on his own in deciding whether or not he'll cross clear ahead on port tack. Photo: Thomas Dregnieaux.

It was a very eloquent demonstration of the level being reached by the stars of the Figaro, as Goodchild comfortably beat some very hot fully-crewed larger boats. But he also beat some Figaro boats being sailed two-handed, including Tom Dolan's Smurfit Kappa, which he was racing to second overall in the Two-handed Division with longtime shipmate Francois Jambou.

Despite Goodchild's outstanding performance, in the bigger picture it was an encouraging result for Dolan, as he'd had a frustrating year in 2019 – his first with the new foiling Figaro 3 – after he'd made a solid start in the class in the last year of the Figaro 2s in 2018.

But even with that frustration of 2019, his sponsors in Smurfit Kappa had seen his promise fulfilled in earlier years. They were in for the long haul. They knew that Tom Dolan had what it takes. And everyone's faith and patience was rewarded in 2020 with a stellar performance when the Figaro Solo racing may well have been at its highest pitch ever.

The Figaro Solo 2020 presented exceptional challenges for single-handed sailorsThe Figaro Solo 2020 presented exceptional challenges for single-handed sailors

For though some former Figaro top scorers may have re-directed themselves into the approaching Vendee Globe in November, so many other events had been pandemic-cancelled that the carefully-planned Figaro circus between lockdowns soon became the only show in town, attracting many superstars.

And when it got going, it soon became clear that while Tom's problem in 2019 had frequently been a matter of "going fast, but in the wrong direction", in 2020 he was "going even faster, and this time in the right direction at the right time".

Tom Dolan rounding the Fastnet well-placed in 2020's Figaro SoloTom Dolan rounding the Fastnet well-placed in 2020's Figaro Solo

A thorough psychological analysis and personal re-programming in the Autumn of 2019 was proving of enormous benefit, and in watching the race unfold on the Tracker, it was fascinating to see that even when Tom and his usual pace-makers had got themselves into a less than ideal situation, it seemed to take only a couple of quick tacks or an hour or so in a slightly different offwind direction for them to be right back in the hunt.

So L'Irlandais Volant – The Flying Irishman – was back in town and then some, and though his final placing of fifth overall in a fleet of 34 may at the finish in St Nazaire may not have put him in the medal list, it very certainly gave him the VIVI Trophy – donated by Marcus & Megan Hutchinson – for the best-placed non-French skipper - in fact, he was the best-placed since 1997.

Tom with his trophies in St NazaireTom with his trophies in St Nazaire

To put it further into perspective, the overall winner by just ten minutes was Armel Le Cleac'h, taking his third Figaro overall win while looking forward to the Vendee Globe in November. He was anticipating the VG not because he was taking part, but in sitting it out he was keeping an eye on his 74-day record from the 2016-2017 Vendee Globe, as eight of the latest-generation IMOCA 60 foilers were in the thirty-plus fleet.

The reckoning was they might complete in 70 days. But it became a matter of Around the World in Eighty Days. So Le Cleach's record will stand for at least eight years, and in adding a third Figaro victory during the lead-up to all this, Le Cleac'h was firmly establishing himself as currently the worlds most accomplished solo offshore racer.

Thus the fact that, at various stages during the Figaro Solo 2020, Tom Dolan found himself looking astern to keep the tabs on Le Cleac'h's Banque Populaire X indicates that the Meathman was undoubtedly playing Senior Hurling offshore. And in the final tally, he was securely ahead of the likes of Phil Sharp, pre-race favourite Sam Goodchild, and - perhaps most importantly of all - Erwan le Draoulec, who had so convincingly beaten him in the MiniTransat of 2017, thereby giving Dolan an impressive line-up of bested stars which adds considerable lustre to a career which, at Thursday Night's Annual Irish Sailing Awards, received yet more deserved recognition.

Yet in chatting to him in a phone call to Concarneau yesterday morning, Sailing on Saturday found we were talking with a sailing superstar who is still a droll Meathman who delights in sharing his joy in fulfilling his childhood dream of becoming an offshore sailor.

The shaping of a champion – a young Tom Dolan in his early days in France at a pre-race briefing……….The shaping of a champion – a young Tom Dolan in his early days in France at a pre-race briefing……….

….and at an early Mini-Transat briefing……. ….and at an early Mini-Transat briefing……. 

…..and Tom Dolan as he is today, in thoughtful mood before the start of the Figaro Solo 2020…..and Tom Dolan as he is today, in thoughtful mood before the start of the Figaro Solo 2020

So how did a farm-boy from a 48-acre property deep in North Meath beyond the Boyne in one of those places which is much more easily found if you've been there before, how on earth did he come to this ambition? For it was so off-the-wall in his little primary school that when his class were asked what they wanted to do in life, Tom's answer was so sure and certain that the teacher said: "Go sit beside Jimmy over there. He wants to be an astronaut".

But apparently, although life rotated around the farm which had been in the family for several generations, Tom's father Jim had spent some time working in the south of England in and around Portsmouth, where a friend had taken him sailing a couple of times. And then eventually back on the farm where Tom was the only child of Jim's second wife Ann (he has two older half sisters, one in New York and the other in Portsmouth), if there was a pirate film on television, Jim delighted in explaining the sailing details of the ships involved to Tom.

Where it all started – Lough Ramor in high summerWhere it all started – Lough Ramor in high summer

Thus sailing was gently but steadily climbing up the agenda, and one day Jim spotted a little sailing dinghy – maybe a Mirror or its newer less successful version the Miracle - for sale very reasonably priced in Buy & Sell magazine just up the road at Lough Key in Roscommon. It was soon bought with missing ropes substituted where necessary with binder twine, and by the following weekend they were sailing it on nearby Lough Ramor, with Tom's interest in sailing further reinforced at an increasingly difficult time as his father was ill.

He writes of it now:

"That's a fond memory I have of one of my first times on the water. It's one of the last memories I have of my father too.

I was a young lad starting secondary school. I was rudderless. I'd no clue what I wanted to do in the future. I ended up going to UCD for a year to study Agricultural Science, just because farming is what my Dad did. I dropped out and was on the dole then. I was completely lost.

Sailing gave me a whole new life of meaning and purpose.

A friend of mine saw a course in Coláiste Dhúlagh in Coolock in North Dublin called Outdoor Event Management, where you'd learn about kayaking and sailing and things like that. I talked my way into the course, and I loved it. I felt like I'd found my calling.

As a part of the course, you were offered the chance to go to the Glenans Sailing Centre (now defunct in Ireland) in Baltimore in West Cork. I went down there, and it was the best experience I'd ever had. They were happy with me because they sent me to their branch in France, the biggest sailing school in Europe. That's when I really discovered offshore racing".

By 2010 his life was rotating around sailing in Brittany in the greater Glenans circle, but at home, things weren't looking good. His father died on June 5th 2011 – ten years ago this summer, and sharply remembered through being side-by-side with D-Day. Thus the still-bewildered rising sailing star who ticked all the boxes – for Tom Dolan was a good learner, a good sailing teacher, and a star performer in boats too – was faced with the big decision.

If he was to fulfil his dream, as her only child he'd to leave his widowed mother on the farm. But maybe sensing this would happen, his father had always said: "You only live once, make the best of it".

So Tom returned to Concarneau and France. And when probate was finally given on his father's complex estate in 2016 with the farm being kept in the family, Tom remembered the paternal advice, and took his own inheritance and invested in a new Pogo 3 MiniTransat boat, for he'd already achieved success with a borrowed and decidedly worn Pogo 2, and felt that the only way forward was to "bet the farm" with this newly-inherited and modest resource, and go for a boat that would have him in with a chance, even if initially it was the most basic of unfinished boats which required many months of his own work to bring it up to standard and the right levels of finish.

But working hard at all hours was now second nature to him, as there was always something needing doing around boats in Concarneau to help him turn a bob or two, and he and Francois Jambeau additionally ran a successful coaching academy afloat.

The breakthrough boat – Tom in 2016 with the new Pogo 3 which he'd bought in the most basic form through an inheritance from his father.The breakthrough boat – Tom in 2016 with the new Pogo 3 which he'd bought in the most basic form through an inheritance from his father

But time was slipping by, he was 28 by 2016, and he felt if he didn't make the breakthrough soon he'd miss any opportunity of getting into the major league. However, with the new boat nearing completion, things were starting to improve on the vital corporate sponsorship front, with developing links with a global Irish company which had a strong presence in France. This linkup was developed through an old friend whom he'd met during his Glenans days in Baltimore, and he writes:

"I stayed in contact with Gerry Jones, who would become an important mentor and friend, who had been on the board of directors back at Glenans in Cork. He said, 'I'm good at finding money. You're good at sailing. I'll teach you, if you teach me and we'll work something out'. So, he arranged for me to do a presentation in Dublin with Smurfit Kappa.

I arrived all suited up and waffled on to the guy for about 40 minutes. In the end, he looked at me and said, 'I was on a boat once. I was very sick.'. But he believed in me. And that was the start of my financial sponsorship.

An excellent start. With the first sponsorship deal secured with Smurfit Kappa in 2016, Tom was soon showing what he could do in the Mini Transat ClassAn excellent start. With the first sponsorship deal secured with Smurfit Kappa in 2016, Tom was soon showing what he could do in the Mini Transat Class

Early days in the Smurfit sponsorship, when Tom Dolan Sailing was still something of a cottage industry in Concarneau. Early days in the Smurfit sponsorship, when Tom Dolan Sailing was still something of a cottage industry in Concarneau

Smurfit Kappa has been an amazing organisation to work with; I have been so lucky to work with them. They have many demands for sponsorship and chose me. Their trust, confidence and sponsorship has been key to my progress over the last three years,"

It says everything about the status of Smurfit Kappa that while they have a very distinctive and widely-recognised name, it doesn't say a thing about what they do, yet it's generally known that they're an Irish-headquartered global leader in the cardboard and packaging industry, and for several years they've become pace-setters in making their industry more eco-friendly.

Thus this strong sailing sponsorship, which began to develop at least four years ago, has proven a magically successful match-up, with everyone's stars in alignment last Thursday when the news spread in the morning that Smurfit Kappa CEO Tony Smurfit had announced an exceptionally successful trading year with good prospects worldwide, and then in the evening their own cherished international offshore racing skipper was announced as Ireland's "Sailor of the Year" in the 25th year of the contest, making him the Silver Jubilee Sailing King.

Jack Roy was an enthusiastic supporter of Tom Dolan during his Presidency of Irish Sailing, and he is seen herewith Tom in La Rochelle for the start of the 2017 Mini Transat Jack Roy was an enthusiastic supporter of Tom Dolan during his Presidency of Irish Sailing, and he is seen herewith Tom in La Rochelle for the start of the 2017 MiniTransat

It has been a tough journey getting here. The 2017 Minitransat went well. Even if Erwan le Draoulec remained persistently in the lead, it looked as though Tom was going to be fourth overall, but in strong winds in the last night approaching the finish, his little boat was caught up in a giant version of that breaker which recently caused Annelise Murphy to achieve her first ever backward-flip in the Laser at Lanzarote, and in Tom's case - nearing St Lucia in December 2017 - his boat was pitch-poled in the complete somersault.

It gave him a record which can never be matched. It was the first time a MiniTransat had pitch-poled without breaking her mast. That said, there was plenty of sorting out to do before Tom could resume full racing, but he still managed to finish sixth, albeit in a distinctly subdued frame of mind.

By any standards, the rig of a MiniTransat 650 Pogo 3 is exceptionally tall, making it a miracle that Tom Dolan survived a pitch-pole while running hard in the Atlantic without losing the mastBy any standards, the rig of a MiniTransat 650 Pogo 3 is exceptionally tall, making it a miracle that Tom Dolan survived a pitch-pole while running hard in the Atlantic without losing the mast.

By the following year, his sponsorship from Smurfit Kappa had been transferred to a second-hand Figaro 2 for a first season in the Big Boys Game, and it went well, but 2019 – the Golden Jubilee Figaro Solo Race, and Kinsale a prominent stopover port – was nightmare stuff. Fortunately, when his mother came down from Meath to experience the culture shock of being in the Figaro circus in all its glory in Kinsale, it was still early in the series, and hope was in the air. But it was finding hope at the end which showed that Tom Dolan and his sponsors were of the right stuff, and in 2020 their faith in themselves and each other has been rewarded in spades.

"So this is what you do?" Tom with his mother Ann in Kinsale, May 2019"So this is what you do?" Tom with his mother Ann in Kinsale, May 2019

For most of the time, Tom has also drawn on the strength of the reassuring presence of his significant other, Karen Charles Boiteux, and theirs was a cheery household yesterday morning as Tom made plans to continue with today's launching of his Figaro 3 Smurfit Kappa despite Concarneau having more than its fair share of snow.

Like all thorougbreds, Smurfit Kappa has her official name and a pet name, for across the transom in discreet lettering it says Cailin Rua III CC – Red Haired Girl 3 of Concarneau, in honour of the first "Red Haired Girl" which he sailed with his father on Lough Ramor, and the second, which was the Pogo 3 raced in the Mini-Transat.

Tom finishing at St Nazaire to take fifth overall and the VIVI Cup in the Figaro Solo 2020. And Cailin Rua sails on…….Tom finishing at St Nazaire to take fifth overall and the VIVI Cup in the Figaro Solo 2020. And Cailn Rua sails on…….

For although his life may now be centred on Concarneau and the uniquely successful French offshore racing scene, he keeps closely in touch with his past and with home and with longtime friends such as Gerry Jones. But equally, he lives in the present and thinks much about the future, which for someone in his position has almost infinite possibilities, and for 2021 will be built around the Figaro Solo 2021. With continuing pandemic, the dates won't be announced until March, but until then with the new-look Fastnet Race finishing in Cherbourg in August, the Beneteau Figaro 3s have been offered their own class within the Fastnet Race, though they've to register interest by March 1st.

Not so very far down the line, there's the likelihood of a two-handed female/male crewed offshore class in the 2024 Paris Olympics, with the sailing in the Mediterranean, and Tom Dolan is definitely interested in sailing in that for Ireland. Either way, Tom has shown he's well able for it all when sailing has to be compressed into intensive elite bubbles to cope with the requirements of pandemic.

It's good for Ireland to know that, in the 25th round of this award, the Sailor of the Year has emerged as a man of exceptional natural talents in a boat, a man whose sheer ability and determination has brought him upwards despite a sometimes rather discouraging system. We salute Tom Dolan, Sailor of the Year.

The 2020 Afloat Sailor of the Year sails on to success. The continuing sponsorship with Smurfit Kappa has been a shared learning experience which has developed into an environmentally aware campaign The 2020 Sailor of the Year sails on to success. The continuing sponsorship with Smurfit Kappa has been a shared learning experience which has developed into an environmentally aware campaign

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