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Historic win in Fastnet boosts Irish sailing

7th August 2007
Ger O’Rourke’s historic Fastnet race victory last week topped a season of sailing highs that strengthens Ireland’s reputation as a force in world offshore racing.

It is only the latest in a string of successful events that confirms Ireland’s suitability to manage – and win – some of the world’s finest regattas.

Next year’s Irish entry into the Volvo Ocean race takes this a stage further – at a cost of eight million Euro – when Galway becomes a stop–over port in the round the world race.

Yet in spite of being surrounded by the sea, and all this activity on Irish waters, politicians consistently turn their backs on it.

We are living on an island, with over 9,000 kilometres of coastline and a further 1,000 kilometres of navigable inland waterways but state utilisation of this great resource is poor.

At some time in the 1980s a politician with some vision decided to amalgamate all the marine functions in one department, a Department of the Marine. A figure of £30 million was set aside in the first National Development Plan for the development of marine leisure infrastructure.

The Department had begun to see that fishing communities decimated by a disastrous fisheries policy needed help.

Today, Marine leisure tourism merits a mention in the Tourism National Development Plan as it offers excellent prospects of developing tourism-related new income streams, but who has responsibility for it?

As an industry, sailing and marine leisure is experiencing a great deal of change.

In April, Dun Laoghaire marina expanded to 800 berths, the biggest in the country.

The expansion is a welcome addition but given there is a waiting list of over 209 boats to get in to the marine leisure port, it is hardly a solution to the shortage of berths in the capital and around the country.

In what is being termed a ‘crisis situation’ by industry, users are calling for government action to cut the bureaucratic red tape that surrounds foreshore development for marine leisure usage.

In the major sailing centres on Dublin Bay and Cork Harbour – representing 3,000 craft – all five marinas are full to capacity.

A single port, La Rochelle, France has the same capacity as our entire Island. There are more berths in North Wales than there are here.

Even when commercial fishing appears all washed up the sea continues to offer up more possibilities. Marine leisure shows clear potential for the national economy.

This July, Volvo Dun Laoghaire week attracted a massive fleet of 520 boats and 3,500 sailors. It was the biggest regatta ever to be sailed on the capital’s waters.

In the same month an emergency call from a junior regatta resulted in the biggest mobilisation of rescue services since the Fastnet disaster of 1979.

Among many lessons learned here was the crucial role that can be played by state agencies when things go wrong in adventure sport.

Next week Ireland stages the Dragon World Championships for the first time. Over 200 competitors from 16 nations, including Olympic gold medallists, will be based in Dun Laoghaire.

It may seem blindingly obvious, but it needs to be said - a single maritime authority that can plan and make strategic decisions relating to the sea is essential in an island nation.

Thirty years on, a break up of the Department of Marine’s responsibilities has fragmented the industry to the extent that it is unclear what role the department has in boating affairs.

Ports and harbours, together with the Marine Safety Directorate and Coast Guard, is handled by the Department of Transport, subsequently renamed Transport and Marine. Fisheries Harbours and Foreshore went to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.

Who will nurture sailing’s fledgling industry and put the correct strategies in place? Or are we back to where we started, standing on the coastline of an island nation, looking inland? Team

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Email The Author is Ireland's dedicated marine journalism team.

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