In public perception terms, sailing had never been higher on the scale of national interest in Ireland than it was in August 2016 when Annalise Murphy’s Olympic Silver Medal victory had an entire nation and its widespread diaspora on the edge of their seats as the final seconds were sailed out in the Medals Race at Rio writes W M Nixon.
But popular attention is a very fickle thing which has now turned to other matters. And with Annalise Murphy since being garlanded with well-earned major national awards under just about every category you could think of, there wasn’t undue concern that the biggest non-surprise for a long time – her elevation to become the Volvo Sailor of the Year 2016 – would simply be taken for granted, and as such, would be regarded as non-news by mainstream media.
So whether it was a mature acceptance of this reality by sailing’s organizers, or whether or not it was just pure serendipity, is neither here nor there. But the fact is that holding the awards ceremony on the last Friday night of January in Dublin may have been the sentence of death of terms of popular news coverage. But for the true faithful of the sailing community from every last corner of Ireland, it was the perfect opportunity for an extraordinarily diverse crowd of people to gather and celebrate their sport in all its forms, and hail their heroes.
Of course the ultimate spotlights were on our supreme award winner Annalise Murphy, and the Youth Sailor of the Year Ewan MacMahon. But with other youth awards, training centre awards, and the very elastically-interpreted Afloat.ie “Sailor of the Month” awards with 27 winners coming into focus, that same spotlight shone brightly if briefly on remarkable achievements in every part of Ireland and abroad, all of them contributing to the fabulous tapestry which is Ireland’s world of boats.
Normally the world of boats and sailing is well aware that it is a minority sport. But on Friday night, it wasn’t a case of it briefly becoming a majority sport. It was the only sport. The camaraderie was palpable. The shared enthusiasm was energising. And the way that people from near and far instantly connected was heartening to behold.
For me, it was summed up by one brief but eloquent encounter. I was talking with Ted Crosbie, who was Admiral of the Royal Cork in 1984-86, and long before that he was the All Ireland Helmsmans Champion, racing in IDRA 14s in 1950. He was there to see his grand-daughter Sophie receive proper recognition for her achievements in Topper racing. As we chatted, Peter Ryan of the National YC hove into view with his shipmate Stephen Tudor of Pwllheli in North Wales, whose overall victory in the ISORA Championship 2016 with his J/109 made him Afloat.ie “Sailor of the Month” for September.
The fact that a top Welsh skipper should win an Irish Sailor of the Month award says all that needs to be said about the creative flexibility of the Afloat system. But equally, here were two top sailors from very different places and backgrounds and generations instantly hitting it off in their shared joy in our sport. The divine spark was undoubtedly present. It was that kind of night.