Menu
Allianz and Afloat - Supporting Irish Boating

Ireland's sailing, boating & maritime magazine

The Duke of Edinburgh's Links to Irish Sailing Were Many & Varied

13th April 2021
Bloodhound racing in Cowes Week, Duke of Edinburgh on helm. In theory she was the Royal Yacht, in reality she was the People's Boat
Bloodhound racing in Cowes Week, Duke of Edinburgh on helm. In theory she was the Royal Yacht, in reality she was the People's Boat  

When the Duke of Edinburgh died aged 99 on Friday, it took a while before the hundreds of public appreciations of his remarkable life began to mention the fact that sailing played a very important role in it. Yet although non-active in the sport for his last dozen or so years, he had continued to take a fatherly interest in both its general administration and the many technical developments, while retaining several honorary positions in leading sailing bodies.

For those for whom sailing is the be-all and end-all of life, this initial unawareness of the Duke's commitment to our sport in his prime may have seemed incomprehensible and even hurtful. But for longterm observers of sailing's significance in a world now dominated by highly visible athletic celebrities and instantly observable arena sports, sailing's nature as a hidden niche – allied to its complexity and the fact that the boats are often invisibly distant – means that it is often the first interest to be overlooked in any overview of the life of a distinguished figure.

Thus some time ago a respected international journal of public and business affairs published a supposedly comprehensive profile and life timeline of the American tycoon Ted Turner. Yet while it made much of his key involvement with CNN and other ventures which include being one of Americas largest land-owners in addition to counting Jane Fonda among his wives, at no stage did it mention that he'd an interest in sailing which had extended to winning several world championships while on his way to complete victory in both the America's Cup and the storm-tossed Fastnet Race of 1979.

With the Duke of Edinburgh, there's much more to his sailing involvement than the fact that, between 1947 and 1997, he took part in all but two of the Cowes Weeks sailed in that fifty year period. His love of sailing had been confirmed by his years at Gordonstoun and the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth, and in 1948 the members of the Island Sailing Club had given the International Dragon Class boat Bluebottle to the Queen and the Duke as a wedding present.

The Duke racing Bluebottle in Cowes Week, which he attended 48 timesThe Duke racing Bluebottle in Cowes Week, which he attended 48 times 

By 1949 the Duke in his turn had presented the Edinburgh Cup to the Dragon Class for what was in effect the annual British & Irish Championship, and the first Irish winner came in 1953, when Billy Mooney of Dun Laoghaire and his crew sailed A F Buckley's Ashaka north to Belfast Lough to race the Edinburgh Cup at the Royal North of Ireland YC at Cultra, and sailed back to Dun Laoghaire complete with the Cup wrapped up in an Aran jersey under Ashaka's foredeck.

In those days some quite extended sea passages were regarded as normal in getting Dragons to distant regattas – for instance, in 1957 Reggie Walsh of Dun Laoghaire sailed his boat Alpha II round Land's End and up-Channel to Torquay to race the Edinburgh Cup, returning to Ireland in weather so stormy that at one stage Alpha II found herself riding out a storm in the lee of the exposed island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.

Ashaka – first Irish winner in 1953 of the Edinburgh CupAshaka – first Irish winner in 1953 of the Edinburgh Cup

Bluebottle likewise had to work for her living. Far from being the Duke's pet boat only for his personal use at Cowes, each year she was expected to attend as many major Dragon events as possible under the command of the Royal Sailing Master, who was recruited from among Naval officers who had shown genuine sailing and race-winning ability – not always as straightforward a selection process as it sounds, and it was far from being a pampered post in those day when proper highway-use road trailers were still a rarity.

1951 was the Festival of Britain with regattas all round the coast and after Clyde Week, Bluebottle – skippered for that season by Surgeon Commander Ross Coles, the son of offshore racing guru Adlard Coles – had to get herself immediately across the North Channel for the Belfast Lough Festival Regatta Week.

The Royal Dragon was doing the British regattas in company with the famous Norwegian Dragon Spadilje, owned and campaigned with the most enormous success by an eccentric millionaire called Corneliussen. Thus it was that early on a calm Monday morning at the beginning of July 1951, anyone looking seaward from Ballyholme Bay experienced the unlikely sight of the Royal Dragon Bluebottle tootling into the mirror-like bay with her Seagull outboard buzzing away, and Spadilje under tow.

It was scarcely a royal arrival, but Willie Moran - the Monaghan-born steward at the Royal Ulster YC - was rustled up to provide a huge breakfast, and the visitors rewarded their hosts by winning just about everything in the Dragons during the Week, while Corneliessen stuck with his promise of always enjoying the wine of the country – whatsoever country it might be – by putting away at least one bottle of Bushmills whiskey every day.

Bluebottle's owners didn't directly figure in a Belfast Lough regatta until ten years later, when the then still-relatively-new and extremely impressive and innovative Royal Yacht Britannia – designed with major input from the Duke – anchored off Bangor in August 1961 for a special Royal Ulster regatta.

HMY Britannia's design – into which the Duke made a major input – was a statement of elegance in an era before ships carried excessive top hamperHMY Britannia's design – into which the Duke made a major input – was a statement of elegance in an era before ships carried excessive top hamper

By this time the people of Cowes had presented the Royal couple with the Flying Fifteen Coweslip – designed by one of their own, Uffa Fox - and as Coweslip was of a size that could comfortably be carried aboard Britannia, she was brought along and lowered into Belfast Lough for a race against the Northern Ireland F/F fleet.

Coweslip when new, at speed under her original cotton sails. She is now in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth.   Coweslip when new, at speed under her original cotton sails. She is now in the National Maritime Museum in Falmouth

Then as now they were based mainly in Strangford Lough, and the men from the lough to the south clearly hadn't been read the script, for they not only kept the Royal visitor from winning, but they even kept him off the podium, as the winner was Raymond Gilmore from Kircubbin sailing Goosander, and Coweslip was back in fourth.

9th August 1961, and Flying Fifteen winner Raymond Gilmore of Kircubbin receives his trophy at RUYC from the Royal couple9th August 1961, and Flying Fifteen winner Raymond Gilmore of Kircubbin receives his trophy at RUYC from the Royal couple

But just four years later, Irish sailing was to have a much more dynamic interaction with the Royal sailing scene thanks to the family's acquisition of Bloodhound, the 1936-vintage Charles E Nicholson designed 63ft yawl Bloodhound, which actually had immediate Irish connections as she'd originally been built for Isaac "Ikey" Bell, an American millionaire sportsman who'd settled in Tipperary in order to maximise his opportunities for riding to hounds, and had taken up offshore racing as a summer pastime.

Bloodhound was bought by the Royal family in 1962 to become a performance cruiser which would occasionally race, with a summer programme which provided the owners with a cruising holiday in some interesting place – preferably in northern Europe – with the schedule being designed in such as way that worthwhile interludes were available for yacht club crews to use the boat in a well-planned and extremely busy annual schedule.

It was an imaginative concept typical of the Duke of Edinburgh's thinking, and very soon it received an interesting test with a cruise to West Cork in 1965. There's no need here to detail the political delicacies inherent in such a project in 1965, sufficient to say that Bloodhound was brought to Crosshaven, and what was then the Royal Munster Yacht Club, more or less under the radar by her Sailing Master Commander Merryn Fairbairn RN, and a crew from all over Ireland was brought aboard by Clayton Love Jnr, including such noted characters as Barry Bramwell from the north, and Irish sailing's national jester, Leo Flanagan from Skerries.

Bloodhound berthed at the RNVR's HMS Caroline in Belfast, September 1966. Photo: W M NixonBloodhound berthed at the RNVR's HMS Caroline in Belfast, September 1966. Photo: W M Nixon

Thanks to the creative personnel selection, it all went very well with Bloodhound already gone from anchorages by the time some locals might have decided they should object to such a visit, while for those who were in favour, it created great interest and goodwill.

And it was highly educational for Merryn Fairburn, as he knew little of Ireland other than from a navigational point of view when he first arrived. But a week in Leo Flanagan's entertaining but erudite company had turned him into something of an Irish Republican by the time Bloodhound sailed safely away.

This made for an interesting situation a year later when, for the first time, Bloodhound was sailed by a Royal Ulster YC crew. By the time she appeared in early September berthed in the heart of Belfast alongside the ex-Great War battle-cruiser HMS Caroline – in those days the local RNVR HQ – she'd covered a couple of thousand miles since departing the Solent at the beginning of the season after being overall winner in the RORC's Lyme Bay Race, taking in the Baltic with a cruise for the Royal owners in Norway before crossing the North Sea and putting in time in the Hebrides, following which a Clyde Cruising Club crew brought her to Belfast.

Strangford Village was first port of call for Bloodhound when bound south from Belfast. Photo: W M Nixon   Strangford Village was first port of call for Bloodhound when bound south from Belfast. Photo: W M Nixon  

Despite the fact that much of the season had been spent in agreeable Scandinavian constitutional monarchies, this appeared to have done nothing to dent the skipper's Leo Flanagan-induced views about Ireland being right and properly a republic. So when we arrived on board as the RUYC crew, Merryn said he didn't know how he'd manage with a bunch of Orangemen. But we'd have to do our best, said he, as we'd drawn the challenge of getting Bloodhound all the way round Land's End to the Solent in a short week with a bit of cruising thrown in, and the weather was clearly slipping into an Autumnal deterioration.

Sheets slightly eased, good progress southwards down the Irish Sea, Dick Brown on helm with Jim McCready and Michael McKee, Francis Drake (back of head) on right, all a bit thoughtful as we've to get round Land's End before a sou'west gale arrives. Photo: W M NixonSheets slightly eased, good progress southwards down the Irish Sea, Dick Brown on helm with Jim McCready and Michael McKee, Francis Drake (back of head) on right, all a bit thoughtful as we've to get round Land's End before a sou'west gale arrives. Photo: W M Nixon

A thoroughbred – fast but wet. Photo: W M NixonA thoroughbred – fast but wet. Photo: W M Nixon

The permanent crew were the skipper Merryn, the bos'un Francis Drake (a direct descendant, apparently), and Peter Anstey, who was an absolutely ace cook when the Orangemen hadn't led him astray into a paralyzing hangover. As for the Orangemen, there wasn't actually a member of any LOL among the lot of us, but we were happy enough to let Merryn call us that if it was the required password to get sailing on this on this gorgeous thoroughbred classic yacht, our crew – lightly led by Michael McKee - being Dickie Brown, Jim Boyd, Davy Kensett, Jim McCready and me.

There are only three of us still on the planet, for 1966 is a long time ago, but for years if any of us met up we'd only to mention one memory of the Bloodhound jaunt for a cascade of crazy gorgeous recollections to emerge, all courtesy of the original imaginative thinking of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Racing against the weather – open water, harnesses on, and sheets just cracked as we make knots for Land's End Photo: W M NixonRacing against the weather – open water, harnesses on, and sheets just cracked as we make knots for Land's End Photo: W M Nixon

It wasn't smooth sailing by any means, but once we'd passed the Lizard in the dark in quite fierce conditions with seriously big breakers sweeping the boat from one end to the other, we were back into late summer weather with a beer-tasting cruise of south Cornwall and Devon at places like Helford and Fowey.

Bloodhound taking on fresh water in Fowey. Photo: W M Nixon   Bloodhound taking on fresh water in Fowey. Photo: W M Nixon

However, early in the season, a plank had been started during a cross-channel passage when she fell off a wave in a Force 10, and the weeping from that wasn't getting any less. And when we were roaring along under spinnaker for the final leg from Start Point into the Solent, there started to be ominous clunkings from the rudder. So we'd to shorten sail and alter our course south of the Isle of Wight to keep plenty of space in hand, and make arrangements for the boat to be lifted the first thing next morning at Camper & Nicholson's in Gosport.

"We've earned this…." Pub-crawling along the Devon coast. Photo: M Nixon   "We've earned this…." Pub-crawling along the Devon coast. Photo: M Nixon  

The big boat was actually being hauled as were enjoying Peter's breakfast, and we emerged ready for the day to find that doing anything involved descending an extremely long ladder. But we'd still a day in hand, and Dickie Brown had planned to lead us on a special expedition to the Isle of Wight to meet his great friends, boatbuilders Bob & Wally Clark who'd built his legendary Black Soo.

Somehow it seemed absolutely logical to return via the midnight ferry from Ryde to spend our last night aboard Bloodhound, even if she was teetering on top of the slipway at the end of a very long ladder. In fact, it seemed so normal that before we went across to the island, Charles Blake the C & N General Manager came up the ladder, and over a coffee in the by-now familiar saloon, told us that as a very special favour, we'd be allowed to use the C&N Directors' heads and washroom in the main office block.

"That'll be a right come-down" chipped in Francis the Bo'sun. "The Directors' Heads indeed? Don't you know that for the past week, my very good friends have been using only Royal heads?"

Our penthouse suite in Gosport, where access to the C&N Directors' Washroom was a real come-down. Photo: W.M.NixonOur penthouse suite in Gosport, where access to the C&N Directors' Washroom was a real come-down. Photo: W.M.Nixon

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

Email The Author

William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

We've got a favour to ask

More people are reading Afloat.ie than ever thanks to the power of the internet but we're in stormy seas because advertising revenues across the media are falling fast. Unlike many news sites, we haven’t put up a paywall because we want to keep our marine journalism open.

Afloat.ie is Ireland's only full–time marine journalism team and it takes time, money and hard work to produce our content.

So you can see why we need to ask for your help.

If everyone chipped in, we can enhance our coverage and our future would be more secure. You can help us through a small donation. Thank you.

Direct Donation to Afloat button

Featured Sailing School

INSS sidebutton

Featured Clubs

dbsc mainbutton
Howth Yacht Club
Kinsale Yacht Club
National Yacht Club
Royal Cork Yacht Club
Royal Irish Yacht club
Royal Saint George Yacht Club

Featured Brokers

leinster sidebutton

Featured Associations

ICRA
isora sidebutton

Featured Webcams

Featured Events 2021

vdlr21 sidebutton

Featured Sailmakers

northsails sidebutton
uksails sidebutton
quantum sidebutton
watson sidebutton

Featured Chandleries

CHMarine Afloat logo
osm sidebutton
https://afloat.ie/resources/marine-industry-news/viking-marine

Featured Marinas

dlmarina sidebutton

Featured Blogs

W M Nixon - Sailing on Saturday
podcast sidebutton
mansfield sidebutton
BSB sidebutton
wavelengths sidebutton
 

Please show your support for Afloat by donating