Cork Harbour sailing has lost one of its most colourful characters with the death of Kevin O'Regan in Mallorca at the age of 89. His joy in boats and sailing remained undimmed, and he was all of 87 years old when he finally came ashore a couple of years ago, after spending his retirement years living aboard the distinctive ten metre Macwester ketch Bloody Mary, which he co-owned with longtime friend John Mansworth of Cobh, and shared with his pet parrot Snowy. Kevin, Snowy and Bloody Mary were a feature and a fixture of the Club de Mar in Palma, but when John Mansworth and other old shipmates came out to join them, Bloody Mary cruised throughout the Balearics.
Kevin's sailing skills had been honed in the Fife-designed Cork Harbour One Designs (founded 1896), in which his family involvement was unrivalled – his father the great Paddy O'Regan bought Cygnet, CHOD Number 5, in 1912, and it was sixty years later in 1972 that Kevin finally sold her.
But even after he and John Mansworth had bought Bloody Mary out in Mallorca, Kevin still returned home to Cork Harbour at least every other summer, and he was to be seen at the helm of Cygnet again, even though she was now – in the ownership of Barry Crockett who based her at East Ferry – converted to an attractive cruiser with a coachroof complete with doghouse, and Bermuda rig.
Nevertheless, in his final years Kevin derived satisfaction from knowing that Cygnet had returned to the original gaff rig which he knew and handled so ably, and she is now well on the way to a complete restoration in Crosshaven. But then, he came from a background in which skill in sailing in all sorts of boats came naturally to boys and young men growing up on the shores of Cork Harbour, and boats of all types were of interest to him.
The O'Regan family businesses included a shipping company and a ships chandlers in Cobh which prospered greatly during the peak years of the big Atlantic liners using Cobh as a transit port. But as this trade diminished, the business had to be re-configured to incorporate a general hardware store. Yet eventually this too went into decline which eventually proved terminal, and Kevin finished his working life in one of the big department stores in Cork.
The Cork Harbour One Design Cygnet was owned by the O'Regan family for 60 years. Photo courtesy RCYC
"Master Kevin" showing early style as a very youthful helm aboard Cygnet off the famous Cobh waterfront. Photo courtesy RCYC
However, in his youth when the O'Regans were in the forefront of the local business community, he was known around Cobh as Master Kevin, a nickname bestowed by his mother. That name persisted in his home town, but in the larger Cork Harbour sailing world and beyond, he somehow became known as Houdini. There have been so many explanations as to the precise reason for this that we'd appreciate knowing the real one.
Certainly he had a strong interest in the theatre and showbusiness generally, and was a leading light in amateur dramatics and musicals in the busy Cork scene – his last stage appearance, most appropriately, was as the Wizard in the Wizard of Oz in the Cork Opera House.
He revelled in the parties generated in sailing and in the amateur theatrical world, and he had boat friendships which went back to the 1940s and even beyond. Amongst those in Cobh with whom he grew up and shared the sea were George Radley, Eamonn English, Henry Hennessy, Pat Cagney and the slightly younger Clayton Love Jnr who - despite his youth - was something of a pace-setter even then.
Like father like son. Paddy O'Regan steering Cygnet with the fleet nicely tucked in astern.......Photo courtesy Eddie English
....and the young Kevin on the tiller. Photo courtesy Eddie English
Trophy winners with Cygnet in the 1947 Ocean Race from Cork to Kinsale are (left to right) Henry Hennessy, Clayton Love Jnr, Kevin O'Regan, Eamonn English, and Pat Cagney. Photo courtesy RCYC
When George Radley and some of the group set the bar high by making a cruise to Dublin Bay in 1943 despite the limitations imposed by World War II, the following year the then-15-year-old Clayton Love Jnr did another Cork Harbour to Dublin Bay cruise, this time with his father's 35ft gaff cutter Tertia, crewed by Kevin O'Regan, Henry Hennessy and Eamonn English.
By the late 1940s, Kevin was well established as one of the younger helms in the CHODs, and a memorable photo taken in Kinsale in 1947 shows the Cygnet crew in comradely form after winning the trophy for the famous annual "Ocean Race" from Cork Harbour to Kinsale. However, the shift in focus in Cork sailing from the Cobh-Monkstown axis to the Royal Munster YC at Crosshaven was becoming ever more apparent, and though as a youthful pressure group within the old Royal Cork at Cobh, the Cygnet team were vigorous in the early 1950s in trying to maintain Cobh's place as a significant sailing centre, the writing was on the wall.
It was to be one of their own, Clayton Love Jnr, who led the movement which led to the amalgamation of the Royal Cork with the Royal Munster in time for the celebration of the RCYC's Quarter Millennium at Crosshaven in 1969-70. By this time, Crosshaven had long been in the premier place in Cork Harbour sailing, and in Irish and international sailing too.
"Get yourself out of that one, Houdini!". In CHOD racing at Crosshaven in the 1950s, although Cygnet (No. 5) seems to have right of way through being on starboard, for his own reasons Kevin O'Regan is throwing a tack. Photo courtesy RCYC
Still at it. Kevin O'Regan in typically outrageous headgear, racing Cygnet in Barry Crockett's ownership at Cobh during one of his summertime returns to Cork Harbour. Photo: Robert Bateman
And Kevin O'Regan had long since shown he was as handy at racing a CHOD out of Crosshaven as he was from Cobh or Monkstown. But he was a realist about the effects of the passing of the years, and readily accepted that his enjoyment of boats and sailing would be greatly and pleasantly prolonged by moving the centre of his world to Palma, and shifting his allegiance to a robust fibreglass cruising ketch. Thus his final years were very much to his own taste, and he was so well set in his daily routine that visitors from home, whether sailing or by air, knew exactly when and where to find Kevin along the Palma waterfront.
This was turned to good use when Crosshaven sailor Dan Cross was offered shelves of maritime books to be taken from a little house in Cork city occupied by Tim Leonard, who had formerly sailed aboard Cobh grandee Aylmer Hall's 12 Metre Flica. But first he had to work out how a book about the famous crew-less sailing ship Mary Celeste, inscribed by author Charles Fay to Dr Frank O'Regan – Kevin's brother - came to be in the collection.
Mary Celeste had been brought to port in Gibraltar by a crew put aboard in the open Atlantic in 1872 by the barquentine Dei Gratia. Subsequently, the Dei Gratia was owned by Thomas Murray (Queenstown) Ltd., the shipping company in which Paddy O'Regan was Managing Director. So when the Mary Celeste book was being researched, Frank O'Regan had helped the author with details of the Dei Gratia. But after Frank had sadly died in a car crash in Kenya in 1951, his brother Kevin – who'd gone to Nairobi to sort his estate - failed to find this particularly cherished book in the small collection, and he'd very much been expecting to find it and bring it safely home.
The Dei Gratia entering Cork Harbour past Roches Point in 1902.
Fast forward many years, and Dan Cross finds he is looking at the book in the house in Cork city. Knowing the way books travel around, he worked out that Frank had lent it to Aylmer Hall, whose maritime books had in time all gone to Tim Leonard, who in turn now found he'd run out of space, and had offered them to Dan Cross.
Dan in turn knew exactly what he'd to do, as he was planning to be in Palma early in that summer of 2008. So one fine morning at the Club de Mar he simply sauntered up to Kevin O'Regan's regular table, and offered him the book out of the blue. The usual unprintable response exploded out of the great man. But the upshot was that in the fullness of time when a bit of proper summer warmth had arrived, there was a ceremonial and properly theatrical visit to the Royal Cork in Crosshaven in the very best Kevin O'Regan style, with the carefully choreographed placing of the extra special Mary Celeste book for safe keeping with RCYC Honorary Archivist Dermot Burns in the club library. A bit of entertainment with a sense of history and an inevitable personal sadness – that is the way Kevin O'Regan is remembered in Cork sailing. WMN
Shipmates: Snowy and Kevin aboard Bloody Mary in Palma. Photo: Eddie English