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Jennifer Guinness 1937–2016

25th January 2016
Shipmates together after a good job well done – at the conclusion of the successful Round Ireland Record Challenge of May 1986 are (left to right) Jennifer Guinness, Robin Knox-Johnston, John Guinnness, Dermot Mangan and Josh Hall.

Jennifer Guinness was one of the most accomplished Irish amateur sailors of her generation. Her death at the age of 78, after a gallant battle with cancer, brings to an end an extraordinary life in which she was sometimes unwillingly in the full glare of public attention, yet she was never happier than with a few friends and family in an informal and private setting, whether at home or on a boat.

She was of a very maritime family - her father Colonel J B Hollwey was a leading figure in Dublin Bay sailing and also a noted pioneer in shipping, with his company Bell Lines being in the forefront of the international development of containerisation. Many of her earliest memories were of sailing from childhood, and she became experienced in every aspect of the sport, whether as helm or crew, inshore and offshore, racing and cruising.

With marriage to merchant banker John Guinness of Howth, she moved across Dublin Bay to live on the Baily and sail from Howth Harbour, and their shared love of sailing found fulfillment in the Folkboat Sharavoge, the McGruer 43ft yawl Sule Skerry, and then their final boat together - the Hood 50 ketch Deerhound. While she was a very supportive consort for John in his roles as Commodore of Howth Yacht Club and then Commodore of the Irish Cruising Club, for Jenny Guinness the real point of it all was to go sailing as much as possible, whether it was racing at every opportunity in a variety of boats – she was a noted helm in the International Dragon Class - or cruising extensively, with their range of places visited in detail taking in Spain to the south and the far reaches of Scandinavia to the north, all cruised in notably well-planned and competent ventures.

Her competitive instincts were also taken offshore – in 1975 she was a member of the Irish Admirals Cup team as crew on board Clayton Love Jnr’s Swan 44 Assiduous, and in 1986 she was a crewmember on Robin Knox-Johnston’s 60ft catamaran British Airways in a successful challenge for the Round Ireland Record.

She and John also occasionally raced Deerhound offshore, though the big ketch was essentially a cruising boat. But this didn’t restrain them from hard-driving of the ship, and a classic memory of Jenny Guinness is of a stormy cross-channel race from Howth to Holyhead in 1977. As was usual when the boat was racing, she was on the helm, but it was the crew’s decision to set the mizzen staysail.

In a fierce squall, the entire mizzen mast setup, complete with billowing staysail, collapsed around her. Yet not only was she miraculously unscathed, but she blithely continued steering, helming on from amidst the ruins of the rig while crisply telling her husband and the rest of the crew that as they had decided to put up the extra sail, it was their job to tidy up the resulting mess - she meanwhile had some serious sailing to do, as the wind was by now hitting gale force, they’d a race to finish, and the mainmast was still standing and working well. Having started the race as a ketch, Deerhound finished it as a sloop.

It’s a cold wet night in May 1986, but the big catamaran is on track to a new Round Ireland Record, the helmsman has the boat going sweetly, and in the tiny cabin Jenny Guinnness decides that the watch below need a little whiskey as a warmer, and Josh Hall and Robin Knox-Johnston agree. Photo: W M Nixon

For most of their life together, she and John lived in the characterful old family home of Ceanchor House overlooking Dublin Bay and the Wicklow Hills – it was a centre of informal and generous hospitality on an often international scale, frequently and boisterously filled with sailing friends from near and far. They were also raising a family, and while there had been extreme challenges such as her kidnapping in 1986, underneath her sometimes shy exterior she was one very tough person, and she emerged successfully, and if anything stronger than ever, from experiences which would have defeated a lesser individual.

Her most devastating test came in 1988, when John was tragically killed in a mountain-walking accident in Snowdonia. The gallantry of her response to this personal disaster was inspirational. In time, she was back afloat, and moved on from Deerhound to two boats which were very definitely an expression of Jenny Guinness’s view of sailing, as they were formidable performance cruisers, both called Alakush - the first a very speedy Humphreys-designed Sovereign 400, the second a handsome Sabre 426.

Sailing these fine boats, she continued her stylish progress across the sea in racing and cruising, supported by family and a loyal group of friends who relished the challenge of sailing with a determined skipper whose exceptional ability at the helm was well matched by her creative skill in the galley. Her zest in the sport was restricted only by the onset of arthritis in her latter years, which she found exasperating, but battled in typically doughty style.

She faced the final challenge of terminal cancer with the same gallantry. She was determined to see Christmas 2015 despite medical expectations to the contrary, and she did it in style for a “truly magical” Christmas in the midst of a large party of extended family and close friends, most of them shipmates too. This well-lived life has now come to an end, and our heartfelt condolences go to Jennifer Guinness’s husband Alex Booth, her family and her many friends.


Published in News Update Team

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