Displaying items by tag: W M Nixon
#dbsclaser - Powers that be (and Winkie Nixon!) please take note! Dun Laoghaire Harbour again served up great DBSC dinghy racing last night that would have been simply impossible either (i) Outside, given very light wind and strong tide or (ii) With a new 435 metre pier stuck in the middle of the race course, occupied or not writes Sean Craig. Like the Water Wags on a Wednesday, junior racing on a Friday, Sunday Frostbiting all winter and as with a myriad of other racing, recreational and learn to sail activities, we may see our activities decimated, scaled back and pushed outside where the risk/safety factor rises exponentially. Worth considering is that out of six DBSC Tuesday night races so far in 2015, FIVE have had to take place inside the harbour. Indeed we could have had two more inside on a windy May 12 but for the Cruise Liner shuttle service which, in fact, knocked off business an hour before our start !
The racing round-up is perhaps secondary after that but what a great little race DBSC laid on. A season's best fifteen Lasers joined a great dinghy turnout. It would have been seventeen but (no names here!) one took a wrong turn and went outside the Harbour and another young hotshot overdid his road bike training and also missed the start ! Nice to see 4 Radials out. Off a pin biased line ex 420 ace Adam Hyland nailed the start, the first beat and led for the whole first lap. Gary O'Hare was up to second after a great run. On the second beat, Sean Craig and Luke Murphy broke away and held the top two places on a dicey downwind run to the finish. Mark Coakley was always there or thereabouts and claimed third ahead of the Cahill brothers.
We are delighted to support the Royal Alfred Yacht Club "Bloomsday" Regatta this Saturday June 13. RAYC have kindly added 4.7s to the ticket and we have 2 races, first gun 1130, good après in the RSTGYC after. Online entry and now also sailing Instructions here DBSC Tuesdays resume actual Bloomsday June 16!
#fastnet race – This year's 90th anniversary edition of the mighty Fastnet Race on August 16th will see a record fleet including two of the world's very newest maxis – Jim & Kristy Hinze Clark's 100ft Comanche and George David's exceptionally quick 88ft Rambler 88 - lining up against the likes of Mike Slade's veteran 100ft Leopard, which took line honours in 2007 and 2009.
In addition to the demands of racing, they're taking on a challenge of rugged sailing which George David knows only too well, as his Rambler 100 capsized at the Fastnet Rock itself in 2011's race after losing her canting ballast keel.
Whether with canting keels or using more orthodox methods of stability provision, the astonishingly varied 350-plus international fleet will be celebrating a great course and a major event which is now central to the panorama of world sailing. It is difficult to imagine the global sailing programme without the Fastnet Race in its biennial position of major importance. Yet getting it up and running in 1925 was a dogged struggle, worked through amidst fierce controversy.
And in contrast with today's large and totally international fleet, the "founding flotilla" was just seven boats, while the nearest it could claim to having an international element was through the presence of the 43ft cutter Gull from Cork. In unveiling Gull's distinctive contribution to the establishment of the Fastnet Race, W M Nixon begins by introducing us to an American description of Gull and her skipper. This colourful piece first appeared in a sailing magazine after the second Fastnet Race of 1926, and then achieved immortality by being included in Alfred F Loomis's seminal book Ocean Racing, first published 1936.
"The Gull was a plank-on-edge cutter of ancient vintage. She had a tremendous jackyard topsail, a terrific tiller, and a pack of wild Irishmen aboard her, who flogged the life out of her. As I recall, we were either first or second around the Fastnet. Shortly thereafter the mainsail started letting go and water came up over the floorboards because we'd spewed all our bow caulking. The glass dropped .80 inches in forty-five minutes, and on that came a regular Bristol Channel howler. In thick weather we groped for Baltimore, and when we got within what we estimated to be two miles and could not pick up the light, we reluctantly gave up the heroic idea of beaching the Gull there, caulking her, and still finishing. (Yes, that's the sort of skipper and crew it was!)
We hauled up for Cork Harbour, close-hauled under tri-sail and storm jib with the wind coming down now from about Sou'east, and that delightful Irish coast altogether too close under our lee. The seas were breaching clean over the old packet, and the spitfire jib – though we didn't know it – was pulling the runner eyebolt right out of the counter. We passed the Stag Rocks and they weren't more than two hundred yards to leeward; on the darkest, wildest sort of night they were plainly visible and audible, great and terrifying founts of spray just to leeward. This was possibly the closest escape I've ever had at sea, and one of the few times my life has actually been in danger.
It was certainly no exaggeration to describe her as being steered with a "terrific tiller" - Harry Donegan on the helm.
Well, the old bucket held together until we put her on the mud at Crosshaven in the morning. All hands had pumped, bailed and cursed – I didn't hear any praying – all night long, and everything aboard was soaked.
While the mess was drying out in the sunlight this final morning I found my bedraggled, red-eyed, but still spunky little skipper fiddling around on deck with what to me looked suspiciously like a boy's toy. I asked him what he was doing, and his answer, s'helpmegawd, was,
"I'm flying a kite."
He went on to explain that he had meant to test out a theory that an aerial could best be carried by a kite when at sea, and so he had brought along a box-kite which had been forgotten until we started heaving the gear on deck. Discovering it at this late date, his intellectual curiosity remained strong enough to overcome the anxiety, desperate work and weariness of a rotten hard race and near-foundering.
His name is Henry P F Donegan, a solicitor of Cork, and he is one of the world's best."
Thus we have Harry Donegan and his beloved Gull, vividly remembered for all time in international sailing history. The piece may have several inaccuracies and any amount of poetic licence. But there's no doubting how it captures the spirit of a man who, with maybe just two or three others - if others there were at all – was present at both the founding of the Royal Ocean Racing Club in Plymouth at a dinner in the Royal Western Yacht Club on August 23rd 1925 after the finish of the first Fastnet Race, and at the founding of the Irish Cruising Club at a dinner in Glengarriff on July 13th 1929 after a Cruise-in-Company in West Cork. On both occasions, he had sailed there aboard Gull.
This particular account of a "rotten hard race and near-foundering" is about the second Fastnet Race of 1926, which was the first to start from Cowes. The first and decidedly controversial Fastnet Race of 1925 had only been able to secure a start from the Royal Victoria Yacht Club at Ryde, which sent the fleet out of the Solent eastabout.
The colourful yarn about the 1926 race was written by the American Warwick Tomkins, who had done a pierhead jump aboard the Irish boat at almost the last minute, and his impressions of Gull were perhaps slightly skewed. For sure, she certainly did have a "terrific tiller". Yet as she was built in 1896, she was only thirty years old at the time, which was scarcely "ancient vintage". As for being "plank-on-edge", that almost amounts to defamation - she had a beam of slightly over 10ft on an overall length of 44ft, which made her decidedly beefy by comparison with the true plank-on-edge lead-mines of the 1870s and 1880s.
In fact, Gull was a classy performance cruiser built by Camper & Nicholson at Gosport, and designed by a rising star in the family firm, Charles E Nicholson, who was twenty-eight when she was launched. But she set such an enormous spread of canvas that her shroud base had been widened by the use of channels, an archaic system which may have heightened her apparent antiquity for American eyes.
However, the "tremendous jackyard topsail" was if anything an understatement. The luff of this extraordinary sail was something like 50% longer than the luff of the mainsail. The idea of carrying - let alone sending aloft - this vast acreage of sail with its two long and heavy yards in open ocean seemed an appalling notion to conservatives who had doubted the wisdom of an "ocean race" from the very beginning.
And in truth it still seems an appalling notion to us today, with our roller furling sails and all conveniences. For us, Gull seems the epitome of labour-intensive danger-laden sailing, and in the fleet of just seven which raced in the first Fastnet, she was the only one which had any claims to be "yacht-like" – all the rest were variants on no-nonsense sailing working boats, with the eventual winner Jolie Brise being a 1913-built sailing pilot cutter which had worked out of Le Havre.
The winner of the first Fastnet Race was the former pilot cutter Jolie Brise, seen here at the fastnet while celebrating her Centenary at the Glandore Classics Regatta 2013. Photo: Brian Carlin
Failure is an orphan but success has many father, and with the 90th Anniversary Fastnet Race coming up in August with its record entry, the analyses are becoming ever more detailed in allocating the true credit for this first "Corinthian ocean race" in European waters.
In doing so, we are immediately into the problems of defining just what is meant by an "ocean race". After all, one of the earliest - if not the first - offshore distance races anywhere was from Dublin Bay to Cork Harbour, and it was sailed as long ago as 1860, the winner by a whisker being the amateur skipper Henry O'Bryen sailing the 39-ton cutter Sybil.
Then, in the final decades of the 19th Century, there were two or three Tranatlantic races – true ocean races - for enormous yachts sailed by professionals. But even though one started and another finished at Cork Harbour, they weren't seen as something to which Corinthian sailors could relate. In fact, one of the first relatively regularly-staged and truly oceanic races with amateur input was from California across the Pacific to Hawaii, inaugurated in 1906, but somehow the Transpac didn't receive the attention it deserved, possibly because it was sailed on warm water between places a long way from the true ocean – the Atlantic.
There, much more attention focused on the first Bermuda Race from New York, also in 1906, despite it having only three entries. But that had grown to twelve by 1907, yet it had fallen back to just two in 1910. The First World War intervened, then there wee two low-key revivals in 1921 and '22, but eventually in 1923 there was a serious move to revive the Bermuda Race, and the newly-formed Cruising Club of America took it under its wing. There were 22 entries, and since 1924 the 635-mile Bermuda Race has been an established biennial ocean classic.
However, in the higher latitudes and colder water of Western Europe, the yachting establishment centred around the Solent was very wary of such things. The attitude was that racers shouldn't go on the ocean, while boats fit to go on the colder parts of the ocean were incapable of meaningful racing.
But some disagreed. George Martin (1881-1945), a leading younger member of the Royal Cruising Club since 1905, was in favour of fast sailing, though it was just one of his many boat-centred interests. His family had founded Martin's Bank, while he had been awarded the RCC's premier trophy, the Challenge Cup, two years running in 1907 and 1908. These had been for intrepid ventures with a 35-ton 1903-built gaff cutter called Chance, one from his home waters in south Devon to Gibraltar and return, the other a circuit of Denmark from the same starting point, with Norwegian, Swedish and German ports being visited en route.
Lt Cdr George Martin OBE (1881-1945), founding Commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club and winner of the first Fastnet Race
Both cruises were made in fairly determined style, and Martin – a well-liked and gangling sort of man 6ft 7ins in height - had something of a reputation as a skipper who liked to push his boats to best performance. But when, eleven years later and shortly after he'd served in the RNR with distinction throughout the Great War, he began to make noises in favour of the RCC staging an "ocean race", he was rebuffed.
Things get a bit murky at this stage, as we can only go on the official club minutes, which often give a sanitized version of events. But what we do know is that in 1919 George Martin was put forward for Rear Commodore of the RCC by two very distinguished members, the maritime writer E Keble Chatterton and the already well-known cruising man George Muhlhauser, who soon afterwards was to make was to make a global circumnavigation with the 37-ton yawl Amaryllis for which he, like Martin in 1907 and 1908, was to be awarded the Challenge Cup in 1921 and 1922 (followed incidentally by Conor O'Brien with Saoirse in 1923, 24 & 25, but that's another story altogether).
Meanwhile in 1919, the possibility of the revolutionary George Martin with his wild notions of ocean racing becoming part of the RCC hierarchy seems to have caused considerable fluttering in the dovecotes of the serious cruising establishment, and Donald Cree – who had been Honorary Secretary of the RCC since 1908 but was under temporary replacement by his father Charles while he saw out his wartime service - stood against George Martin.
Despite the distinction of his proposers, Martin was roundly defeated by 129 votes to 49. The anti-ocean-racing mood of the club was clear. And as the RCC History (published for the club's Centenary in 1980) puts it: "Only a year later, and after a great deal of exertion on his part to become Rear Commodore, Cree resigned the office and again became Honorary Secretary. He was to be Honorary Secretary for the next 43 years, until 1964; in all he held the post for 52 years."
George Martin being a decent and well-liked man, he went on to do what he saw as the decent thing if he wished to persist in promoting ocean racing - he resigned from the Royal Cruising Club in 1921. However, he was Commodore of a Devon-based yacht club, the Royal South Western in Plymouth which was in process of amalgamating with the more senior Royal Western Yacht Club in the same port, of which in due course he became Commodore. This gave him some organisational muscle for further promotion of ocean racing.
By 1923 he had replaced the hefty Chance with a flying machine, the former Le Havre pilot cutter Jolie Brise. Built in 1913 and one of the last significant sailing pilot cutters built anywhere, her retirement from active work had been hastened by the accelerated technical advances in steam-driven seagoing vessels during the Great War. By 1917, Jolie Brise was redundant at Le Havre, and until George Martin took her over in 1923, her fate was uncertain as she had been of only limited use as a fishing boat.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man, cometh the boat. George Martin with the Jolie Brise needed a race of more than 600 miles from the Solent across the Western Approaches and back to Plymouth simply to express themselves. But despite his huge size, Martin was by nature diffident, and the most direct promotion for an ocean race in British waters came from a new direction entirely.
Enter offshore sailing enthusiast Joseph Weston Martyr (1885-1966), a former officer of the British army in the worst of the World War I trenches. He had worked post war in New York as a ship broker, but then took to maritime writing as a fulltime career while staying in America. In 1922, 1923 and 1924 he sailed in the Bermuda Race, the third time being aboard the schooner Northern Light. Although an error by the navigator meant they were totally last by the time they found the finish line, his enthusiasm was fired up, and he started bombarding British yachting magazines with ideas for an event of similar length on their side of the Atlantic.
Weston Martyr, whose journalistic enthusiasm for ocean racing encouraged the movement towards establishing the Fastnet Race. He is equally well remembered for his classic of sailing literature The Southseaman – the Life Story of a Schooner (1926), a partially fictionalised yarn built around his experiences with the schooner Northern Light.
Both Yachting Monthly through its editor, and Yachting World through its publisher, got involved in the growing interest, so when cruising's most respected authority, Claud Worth the Vice Commodore of the Royal Cruising, felt obliged to comment, he did so in the pages of The Field. Worth had been upset by George Martin's resignation from the RCC, and a small part of him inclined to ocean racing, for he was no slouch in getting performance out of his own boats. But he was concerned that in the heat of competition, even the most sensible amateur seamen would drive their boats too hard downwind, and he wrote:
"At the risk of making an unpopular suggestion, I venture to express a doubt which arises in my mind – are our latitudes suitable for a public ocean race?......a public race might well include some owners whose keenness is greater than their experience. If the weather should be bad, so long as there is a headwind they would probably come to no harm, for a good boat and sound gear will generally stand as much driving as the crew can put up with. But when running before anything approaching a gale of wind in a big sea in open water, conditions are very deceptive......".
Yet by early 1925 the momentum towards a race round the Fastnet seemed almost unstoppable, so as a final input to the debate, Worth suggested that if an ocean race was indeed going to be held, then it should be a true ocean event clear of the hazards of skirting any coastline, taking the fleet from the south coast of England to northwest Spain. He even offered to sail out to La Coruna or Vigo to time the boats in at the finish.
However, a small private Ocean Race Committee had been formed by George Martin, Weston Martyr recently back from America, and Malden Heckstall-Smith, the Editor of Yachting Monthly, and the course was set from the Solent to the Fastnet and thence to the finish at Plymouth. The Morning Post of 7th March 1925 announced that "the Ocean Race shall be.....sailed under the flag of the Royal Western Yacht Club". Four entries were in before the month was out, and at one stage around July1st the list of potential competitors ran to fourteen boats, including an American yawl which promised to bring an international flavour.
But in the end, on August 15th just seven started, and Harry Donegan's Gull from Cork was the nearest thing to international involvement, though she was scarcely thought of as such, as the British yachting establishment at the time would have reckoned that the Irish Fee State was only a temporary aberration.
As to whether there was any prior friendship between Harry Donegan and George Martin to encourage Gull's participation, at the moment we can only guess. George Martin had family connections in Ireland, and at one stage he was reportedly a member of the Royal St George Yacht Club. And like many other RCC members, he seems to have been familiar with the coast of southwest Ireland, and the selection of the Fastnet as the key turning mark in the new ocean race was his choice.
But although Harry Donegan was producing his own chartlets and sailing directions for the best anchorages in Ireland's southwest, and he also regularly cruised to southwest England, letters exchanged after the first Fastnet Race suggest that he and George Martin had never met before it. It was simply Harry Donegan's readiness for a good sailing challenge which drew him in.
And when the first Fastnet Race finally got under way, he was very likely the only skipper who had actually raced round the rock before. Schull Regatta had been in being since 1884, and though most sailors in Cork Harbour thought of the "ocean race" as being the annual jaunt round to Kinsale at the height of the summer, the more intrepid such as Harry Donegan had been known to race to Schull via the Fastnet.
So who was he, this Cork solicitor whose support for George Martin and Weston Maryr in their notion of a long offshore race round the Fastnet helped to launch it into a progression which has led to this year's mega-event 90 years down the line?
Henry P F Donegan (1870-1940), who gave his total support for the Fastnet Race from its inception in 1925.
Henry P F Donegan (1870-1940) was in his way quite a force in sailing, and in the life of Cork and Ireland. A small man of notable energy sharpened by being a teetotaler, he was playing a key role in Cork Harbour sailing from an early age. When the plans for the new Cork Harbour One Designs were being discussed with William Fife in 1895-96, Donegan was secretary to the owners' group, and though he never owned a CHOD himself, he was renowned as a helmsman in the class, and as an amateur painter he also recorded their earliest appearances.
Cork Harbour One Design as painted by Harry Donegan. Although never an owner in the class, he was secretary to the class association at its foundation in 1896, and was noted as a very able CHOD helmsman.
But cruising and offshore sailing were his greatest passion, and he made some coastal ventures in very small craft. By 1912 he had produced pioneering harbour and anchorage plans for the magic places of West Cork, and this early interest in sailing directions was part of his enthusiasm for the notion of an Irish Cruising Club, though it was 1929 before he and a friend met while cruising West Cork, Billy Mooney of Howth, were finally able to bring the ICC into being.
Back in 1920 meanwhile, the Cork Harbour cruiser fleet had acquired a handsome addition, the 18-ton Nicholson cutter Gull, bought in the southwest of England. For some reason, whoever brought her to Cork had to sell her the following year, and thus in 1921, Harry Donegan acquired his dreamship, the sailing love of his life.
These were difficult times in Ireland, with the country emerging from the War of Independence only to be plunged into the Civil War of 1922, fought over the acceptance or rejection of the Treaty which had ended the War of Independence. Initially, the anti-treaty forces had control of Cork, but as the summer of 1922 progressed, the Government's pro-treaty forces under the command of Emmett Dalton gradually closed in to free the southern capital.
Communications between Dalton and his commander Michael Collins in Dublin were becoming increasingly difficult as roads, railways and telegraph lines between the two cities were disrupted by anti-treaty guerilla groups. A system had been worked out whereby communications between Dalton and Collins were carried personally by Collins' feisty sister, Mary Collins-Powell. But when all the usual means of getting her to Dublin with the vital dispatches were finally gone, Harry Donegan – who had been the leader of the pro-Home Rule Redmondite Party in Cork though not himself an active politician - offered to sail Collins' sister aboard Gull to Rosslare Harbour, where the east coast railway was firmly under government control all the way to Dublin.
Michael Collins, Commander-in-Chief of the Government Forces after Independence. As the Civil War built to its climax in West Cork in 1922, Harry Donegan carried despatches aboard Gull from the Government forces in Cork for Michael Collins at HQ in Dublin, as rebel guerillas had cut off all other lines of communication.
For this venture in early August 1922, he assembled a crew of several professional talents. Harry Donegan was a solicitor, his first mate was Dr Gerald Ahern the local doctor, and in their sailing and any spiritual needs, they were helped by the third crewman, Father Donal Murphy O'Connor.
Easterly winds hampered their progress towards Rosslare, but fortunately Government-controlled Waterford offered taxi communication with Rosslare, so they peeled off into port and soon Mary Collins-Powell and the dispatches were in Dublin and Gull cruised back to Crosshaven. With the situation clarified for the general staff in Dublin, plans could be finalized for the freeing of Cork, and Emmett Dalton and his men soon had the job done.
Which was just as well for our three heroes on the Gull. While the city may have been coming rapidly under Government control, close to the south the countryside was still full of anti-treaty units. It was Civil War in all its horror of brother against brother, friend against friend. When the crew of Gull came ashore in Crosshaven after their successful little voyage, they were promptly captured by a local anti-treaty group, and imprisoned for some days in a shed.
But up in Cork, Emmett Dalton and his fellow commanders were going about their business with such efficiency that in Crosshaven the solicitor, doctor and priest - sailors all - were soon released unharmed. Peace returned to Cork Harbour. But as the main theatre of the Civil War moved ever more remorselessly towards its bloody denouement in West Cork, Michael Collins felt he could no longer be up in Dublin, remote from events in his home county.
Despite everyone else advising against it, he came to Cork to be with his men. He spent his final night in the Imperial Hotel in Cork, and with that city already showing signs of its civilized normality, who knows but he may have had time to meet up with Harry Donegan, for everyone in Cork knew everyone else, then as now.
Next day, the Commander-in-Chief headed west on his tour of inspection, and by evening General Collins was dead, killed during a spirited exchange of fire in which he personally got involved following an ambush by men who would have been his comrades-in-arms during the War of Independence.
The Civil War was already being won by the pro-Treaty forces, but the death of Collins undoubtedly speeded its ruthless conclusion, which included the government execution in November of Erskine Childers, another noted sailing man who had become embroiled in the Troubles. By 1923, Ireland was very determinedly getting back to normality.
In its own way, sailing made its contribution. In Dublin, self-taught yacht designer John B Kearney started construction on his masterpiece, the 38ft yawl Mavis. From Foynes on the Shannon Estuary, Conor O'Brien departed in his 42ft ketch Saoirse – newly-built to his own design in Baltimore, West Cork - to sail to Dun Laoghaire to begin what was to become his epic pioneering voyage, round the world in two years south of the great Capes.
And in Crosshaven, Harry Donegan kitted out the Gull to make a long cruise to the west coast of France which so clearly demonstrated the yacht's speedy sea-keeping ability that when, towards the end of 1924, the notion was first being aired of the new 630 mile ocean race from the Solent out to the Fastnet Rock, then back to a finish at Plymouth, he was soon keen to get involved and - unlike some others - he maintained his enthusiasm and was there for the starting gun.
Gull at the start of the first Fastnet Race, August 15th 1925
With the seven boats in the first Fastnet Race in 1925 having to beat eastwards out of the Solent from the start at Ryde, it was Gull (right) with her large sail area which soon showed ahead after making a good start. She was to lead for the first third of the 630 mile race.
In fact, Gull had the best of a fairly leisurely start off Ryde heading east out of the Solent on August 15th 1925. The Donegan cutter had much the most modern hull in the entire Fastnet flotilla, and with her huge if demanding rig, she was fastest in anything up to Force 4.
Thus she led by a good margin going outwards past the Scillies, but with sailing power soon lessened through broken topsail halyards, the succeeding stages weren't so happy, and the bigger Jolie Brise was first to the Fastnet with time in hand on the Irish boat. Heading back towards Plymouth in a freshening south'wester with the lee rail under, Harry Donegan updated his log on August 20th:
"The cabin swing-table is doing its level best to assassinate me. I have been struck in the chest and chin, while the weighty box beneath is making frantic efforts to amputate one or both of my legs"
A slight navigational error brought Gull in close north of Land's End in poor visibility, and by the time she'd made good this mistake in strong onshore winds, Jolie Brise – which was allowing her 9 hours on handicap – was well into Plymouth as the winner, while second went to the Royal Engineer's determinedly-sailed 38ft gaff cutter Fulmar, with Gull third.
Gull making knots in the open ocean, headed for Plymouth from the Fastnet on August 20th 1925. Up-dating his log, Harry Donegan wrote: "the cabin swing-table is doing its best to assassinate me...."
Those accustomed to more recent Fastnet Races and the carnival atmosphere in the huge fleet at the finish will be intrigued by the picture Harry Donegan conveyed in the Autumn of 1925, responding to a letter from Weston Martyr, about the atmosphere which prevailed in that tiny first Fastnet flotilla as they lay to their anchors in Plymouth:
Cork, 12th November 1925
"I was exceedingly glad to get your breezy letter which was redolent of the salt sea, and may I say here that if my crew favourably impressed you, you in turn made a very lasting impression upon us all, short though our opportunities were for sizing each other up. I must say, further, that we were all appreciative of the excellent type of sportsmen that now go to constitute the Ocean Racing Club.
Take, for instance, these boys in the Fulmar. Under ordinary circumstances we, as traditional Irishmen, should have been in their wool after the finish, yet we all fell around each other's necks with the true spirit of comradeship and made merry on both ships.
Martin, needless to say, shines out as a most excellent type. We were particularly pally with the crew of Jolie Brise later, and doubtless had North Star and Banba moored near Drake's Island, we would all have fraternized in the same way.
I have raced a good deal and know the petty little feelings that sometimes prevail after the finish of an ordinary race. If one's boat has done excellently up to a point, and has then been pipped by horrible ill-luck, sometimes there is not a superabundance of joy.
Contrast that with the congenial assembly in Plymouth, and do you not share with me the impression that the Ocean Race has merits beyond the most optimistic hopes of the originators, in that it brings out the best in us and creates a feeling of good fellowship amongst the competitors that no other class of racing is calculated to do so thoroughly and effectively."
With the race successfully launched, the new Ocean Racing Club at its first formal meeting in October 1925 considered ways changing the course to make it of greater interest to yachts based outside the Solent-Plymouth nexus, but Harry Donegan was having none of it, and in writing to Weston Martyr he did much to ensure that the classic Fastnet Race was kept in place:
"I do not see how the Committee are ever going to change the course, that is if they want to stick to the 600 miles, and I confess I cannot at all see how they can ever improve on it. There is ocean sailing enough to satisfy a glutton, a freedom from sand banks, and only good honest rocks to think about."
Nevertheless we have to remember that back in the late 1920s and early 30s, it took real determination to keep it going at all, first as an annual event, and then after 1931 as biennial. Certainly there were those for whom, having done the first race of 1925, doing it again was of no interest. But Harry Donegan was one of those who considered participation in the 1926 race was essential, even if he was now 56 years old and no longer in the best of health.
The fact that he willingly took Warwick Tompkins aboard as a last-minute addition to the crew also suggests that he may have had difficulty in assembling a full ship's complement back home. And the race was now acquiring further contentious issues. There were those who still said it shouldn't happen at all, but others were so enthusiastic that boats were being purpose built for the Fastnet Race. A wealthy Scot, Norman Baxendale, had commissioned William Fife to design and build a Bermudan rigged cutter which would exactly fit the Ocean Racing Club's new upper limits of LOA70ft, and LWL50ft.
This was Hallowe'en, which was such a mighty leap forward in the concept of what constituted an ocean racer that most of the old salts considered her plain unsporting. We know Hallowe'en so very well now, for after an adventurous life on both sides of the Atlantic, she has been restored and is currently owned by an Irish syndicate who from time to time base her at the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire, though perhaps from respect for her history, the home port inscribed on her elegant counter is Cork.
The 70ft Fife cutter Hallowe'en, which set a course record for the Fastnet Race in 1926 which stood for 13 years, and was only bested by an 88-footer. Hallowe'en is seen here at the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire, and is owned by a syndicate of RIYC members. Photo: W M Nixon
But back in 1926, with a fleet of eight boats racing the second Fastnet, Hallowe'en was so much on her own that despite some strong winds as she came in past the Lizard heading for the finish, she experienced little of the southeast gale which created mayhem out at the rock, with some boats hove to for a day and more, and Gull – which had been doing rather well, third on the water at the rock – eventually making her dramatic exit towards Cork Harbour in the intense little local low which blasted the smaller boats.
Hallowe'en established a course record which stood until 1939, by which time even larger boats were allowed to compete, and her time was bested by the Kriegsmarine's 88ft Gruber yawl Nordwind, whose German naval crew did not endear themselves to the organisers by their exuberant use of full uniform and Hitler salutes at the prize-giving. In fact, it wasn't until Ted Turner's 12 Metre American Eagle zapped round in style in 1971 that the Hallowe'en course record was beaten by a boat of comparable size.
So back in 1926 she was sensational, yet in simply designing to the upper limits, William Fife took no other account of the developing RORC measurement rule, and Hallowe'en had a rating so stratospheric that she finished third on corrected time, the winner being the 20-ton yawl Ilex, sailed by those very determined Royal Engineers.
As for Harry Donegan and Gull, that was their last Fastnet participation, but they were regular contenders in other events., particularly the RORC Falmouth-Clyde races during the 1930s when the skipper's son Young Harry was becoming involved, and of course the skipper himself was involved with huge and infectious enthusiasm for the Irish Cruising Club from its formation in 1929. In the end, passage races to West Cork and cruising that incomparable area became his fulfilling pleasure, and he'd a final magnificent sail from Schull back to Crosshaven before his death in 1940, aged 70.
His son Young Harry took up the reins, and in 1946 he sold Gull to England, and replaced her with the much racier Fife-designed Sybil from within the Cork Harbour fleet. 1947 was to be the first full year with the new boat, and he took her round to Dublin Bay for the Dun Laoghaire to Clyde Race, but tragically he was drowned when the dinghy filled in a near gale in Dun Laoghaire Harbour while returning aboard from the pre-race briefing. Like his father, Young Harry was a teetotaler, but in his tireless efforts to save his shipmates, he became exhausted and was the only one of Sybil's crew lost in this accident which reverberated sadly through Irish sailing for decades.
The two yachts which brought triumph and tragedy to the Donegan dynasty – Gull and Sibyl off the Cobh waterfront during the 1930s. Photo courtesy Royal Cork YC
Young Harry's eldest son Jim then became head of the clan although still only a schoolboy, but over the years he showed the family's zest for offshore racing and successfully competed in many major events in a variety of craft. And in the best family traditions, he was also busy behind the scenes becoming a founding Commodore of the South Coast Offshore Racing Association, and then a co-founder (with Fintan Cairns) of the Irish Cruiser Racing Association in 2002.
We are now five generations down the Donegan line from the great Harry P F Donegan himself, and the current most visible carrier of the torch is his great-great-grandson Jamie Donegan, who is the very highly regarded bow-man aboard Anthony O'Leary's new boat, the red Ker 40 Antix, where the Donegan contribution to winning the recent British IRC Championship was particularly noted.
As for his extraordinary great-great-grandfather, he was the man whose crisp opinion on the attractions of the Fastnet course may well have been the key to its lasting appeal. And with every passing year, his very special and innovative contribution to Irish and international sailing and the development of offshore racing and proper cruising is more fully appreciated
Harry Donegan was rightly and fondly remembered by many, not least his former shipmate Warwick Tompkins. After Gull's enforced retirement from the 1926 Fastnet Race, the skipper worked out that if they caught that night's Cork-Fishguard ferry and had a bit of luck with train timetables in south Wales and southwest England, he might just be able to get Tomkins to Plymouth in time for the Fastnet Dinner in the Royal Western.
They made it by the skin of their teeth. And at the dinner, Harry Donegan made such an impassioned little speech about the contribution his new friend had made to the saving of the Gull that his fellow members of the Ocean Racing Club waived their normal insistence on completion of the Fastnet Race as being the requirement for membership of their club. Warwick Tompkins was elected to the ORC, soon to be the RORC, with acclamation.
Doing that Donegan thing....Jamie Donegan, great-great-grandson of Harry Donegan, busy at his work as bowman aboard Anthony O'Leary's Antix. Photo: Rick Tomlinson
#boatswithcharacter – With the hope that boat numbers will start to increase again as we emerge from recession, categorisation resumes its central place in our thinking about the different types of craft we sail. Yet for a while, when the economy was at its nadir, you could classify your boat in almost any way you liked so long as you at least went out sailing, and kept fleet numbers at some sort of viable level.
But with things now on the move once more, some folk reckon they can afford to become a little more pernickety. For instance, the word is that the Old Gaffers Association may be going to insist that its racing awards can only be won by properly gaff-rigged boats. Yet when they were celebrating their Golden Jubilee in 2013 when the times were very thin indeed, some venerable but Bermudan-rigged craft were allowed to have a meaningful role. And if this was queried by some pedant, the official response was that they were actually setting gaff mainsails which just happened to be three-sided, and this was only as a temporary measure in response to the straitened times......
Quite so. But W M Nixon reckons that in the end, regardless of a boat's alleged type, it is character that is the final arbiter of quality both in the boats and their owners. In an exploration of this, he takes us on a virtual voyage from the Isle of Man to Achill Island, taking in some varied boat festivals on the way.
With boats as with people, it's character that counts. There are those of us who'd reckon there's more character in a battle-scarred all-plastic Cookson 50 than in a contemporary all-wood clinical re-creation of the design style of a previous era for what is known as "The Spirit of Classics" division. Though even here, the boats can begin to get some interesting character if they manage to get roughed about a bit - too much perfection is not good for the soul.
So give us a rough diamond any day, and in unusual boats, as with their owners, the waters around Ireland and nearby places have an abundance of them. One real diamond geezer is Joe Pennington from Ramsey in the Isle of Man. It always makes things that bit more right with the world when Joe comes into port with his workmanlike Manx longliner Master Frank, for Master Frank looks right, and is right – this is classic traditional, gold standard.
So it's ironic that although Joe is one of the Isle of Man's great sailing ambassadors, he's actually from north Lancashire. But he ended up working in the island as a carpenter, and failed to get off. The island, that is...As for his carpentry skills, they were up-graded to shipwright level, but he kept going as a carpenter as there was plenty of work around houses, while at same time restoring the Albert Strange yawl Emerald for his own use.
As he was based in Ramsey in the north of the island, he was very aware that it was the home port of the the last surviving Manx longliner, Master Frank built in 1895, the rapidly deteriorating example of an almost extinct species mouldering away in that very tidal harbour. People had realized the old boat's importance so much that the Manx government had been persuaded to buy her. But as with the Asgard in Ireland in the 1960s, the government may have bought her, but then they hadn't a clue what to do with her.
So one fine day, so the story goes, Joe in his working overalls marched into the Manx parliament, the House of Keys in Douglas, and berated the members for their neglect of this priceless example of the island's maritime heritage. They were flummoxed. So when he then offered to take on full responsibility for the Master Frank if they'd sell her to him with all rights for just one pound, they agreed, as enough was known about what he'd done with the Emerald to convince the assembly that this was their one last and best chance.
Restoring the Master Frank was in effect a re-build, and we have to remember that Joe was working fulltime in his day job as a carpenter. Yet he set himself a work schedule which gives you some idea of his depth of character. Many of us know Joe as a gregarious party animal. And as his appearance is something of a mixture between a gypsy king and the dangerous younger brother of a Roman Emperor, he certainly looks the part. But in order to bring the Master Frank back to life, he took the lonely route of coming home each evening after a day's work, having his tea, and then heading out that night for what was in effect another full day's work, but this time on the boat.
Most of us know Joe Pennington as a gregarious party animal, as seen here in the Peel S & CrC in the Isle of Man with Dickie Gomes of Ainmara and Stu Spence of Madcap.....Photo: W M Nixon
....but there's a serious and determined side to him, and he was just the man to save the very special Master Frank from extinction. Photo: W M Nixon
Night after night, week after week, the project went on, and when Master Frank was re-born, it was utterly worth the effort. Though she's only 36ft in overall hull length, she has the spirit of a much larger vessel, and her character is such that when she turns up at some assembly of classic and traditional craft, the event is a success even if only half a dozen other boats are taking part.
Just how much we'll see of her in Ireland this summer is in the lap of the Gods, as Joe likes to do a lot of cruising with his beloved boat, and Brittany calls. Master Frank is comfortable at sea, though like many workboats her actual hull freeboard is quite low – it's only the high bulwarks which seem to give her plenty of clearance.
Even in this light breeze off Peel in the Isle of Man, the restored Master Frank shows her class. Photo: W M Nixon
Thus it's normal to have some water on deck when the going starts to get brisk, and this is a characteristic also seen on the famous former pilot cuter Jolie Brise. The noted photographer Brian Carlin captured this to perfection when Jolie Brise went out to the Fastnet Rock during the Glandore Classics in 2013, which happened to be the old pilot cutter's Centenary. She went round in style, but there was no lack of water on deck, and we are reminded of the designer Jack Laurent Giles' comments. After crewing offshore on Jolie Brise when he was still a trainee naval architect, his assertion was that in anything over Force 3 on Jolie Brise, you needed to wear your seaboots, but presumably you were otherwise perfectly comfortable until Force 8 or thereabouts.
Low freeboard and heavy displacement mean water on deck, but the famous Jolie Brise is otherwise comfortable as she rounds the Fastet to celebrate her Centenary in 2013. Photo: Brian Carlin
But while workboats like Jolie Brise and Master Frank needed low hull freeboard with high bulwarks to help them fulfill their allotted tasks, the hookers of Galway Bay were primarily people and cargo carriers, thus they have ample freeboard and are notably dry on deck. But as with the old longliner and the old pilot cutter, at crucial times in their histories the Galway Hookers have needed some determined characters working on their behalf to survive in any shape or form, and while their fleet numbers are now well up, there have been times when they seemed on the brink of extinction.
This was particularly the case in the 1960s. These days we know Dennis Aylmer of Dun Laoghaire as an ever-young senior sailor who relishes his time aboard his neat Cornish Crabber Mona. But the reality is that, more than most, Dennis has earned the right to relax with his "plastic fantastic". For in 1964 and 1965, having toured Connemara as a decidedly impecunious and very young man on his bicycle and then on a tiny motorbike searching for an authentic Galway hooker, he bought the big Morning Star at Tierna on Gorumna Island, and somehow found the resources to have her restored to basic seaworthiness, and then he brought her back to Dun Laoghaire.
Traditional boat veteran Dennis Aylmer racing his very manageable Cornish Crabber Mona. Photo: Dave Owens
Though there were those who helped the young Aylmer in keeping the Morning Star going, in truth Dun Laoghaire in the 1960s was not a sympathetic environment for rough old gaff-rigged wooden craft. The Dublin Bay 21s had recently converted to Bermudan rig, and fibreglass was in the ascendant, with what amounted to the nucleus of a class of van de Stadt designed 36ft Excaliburs, which had a minimum of timber anywhere in their makeup.
And as work took her owner away for long periods, Morning Star's survival depended on the kindness of others. But somehow she stayed together one way or another until Johnny Healion took her over and gave her a mighty restoration for 1976 which, even on the shores of Galway Bay, was acknowledged as the initiative which led to a reversal in the decline of the old boats.
At one stage there was quite a fleet of restored Galway Hookers of all sizes in the Dublin area and along Ireland's East Coast, and they used to put in their most spectacular appearances at the Portaferry Traditional Boat Regatta in late June (this year's is 26th to 28th June 2015).
But two developments have seen the Galway Hookers' centre of gravity move very positively back to the west. The proliferation of marinas along the east coast is not bowsprit-friendly – old gaffers need a lot of pontoon length and ample manoeuvring space. And the M4 and the M6 have arrived. With Dublin coastal traffic being what it is, thanks to the motorway across Ireland to Galway, tradboat enthusiasts can get to gaffer Nirvanas like Kinvara almost as quickly as they can get to Dun Laoghaire or Howth, and they're more surely among kindred spirits when they get out west.
So although the most sacred gathering of the Galway Hookers is off Connemara at St MacDara's Island on the Saint's day, July 16th, the fleet of traditional boats around Galway Bay is really only up to full power with Cruinniu na mBad at Kinvara, which this year is August 14th to 16th.
The way that Kinvara's natural harbour is shaped, with the hospitable village and its quays at the head of a narrowing inlet which runs north and south to conveniently facilitate boats racing in the prevailing westerlies, means that this is one of the few places where sailing can comfortably become a spectator sport, and the badoiri revel in the close quarters challenges which Kinvara offers.
Close quarters Galway Hooker racing at its most visible – it can only be Kinvara.
However, the place becomes so crowded on the festival weekend that you might like to get your required ration of traditional boats elsewhere. But the problem is that while the sailors just want to get on with sailing among other like-minded souls on ancient craft, the organisers are usually in the numbers game, and they want to pack the pierheads and fill the vantage points with avid spectators.
It's all a long way from the long hours of solitary work which have gone into the maintenance of old boats, for which it's said the three essentials are a friend with a low-loader, a hayshed out the back of the house, and a very tolerant wife. Yet those are only the most basic requirements. When you see a gathering of traditional and classic boats in all their finery, what you're seeing is the coming together of people of real character who have had a dream, and they've stayed with it.
And if you're there at the local sea festival time, it will give you added insight into the neighbourhood. You'd be busy every summer weekend if you went with every sort of classic boat assembly, whether sailed, rowed or paddled, but if we just stick with the sailing, we find that there's a pattern which can indeed take us from the Isle of Man to Achill, and many places north and south of them as well.
They start early at Baltimore in West Cork, which could reasonably claim to be the headquarters of diversity in traditional craft, and this is celebrated from May 22nd to 24th this year with the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival.
West Cork types will be much in evidence at the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival from May 22nd to 24th. This is a classic mackerel yawl with a lobster yawl
Then the Dublin area is busy at the end of May and early June, with the DBOGA Riverfest from Poolbeg from May 30th to June 1st, while six days later, the long-established Lambay Race at Howth on June 6th now has a significant classic input with the 117-year-old jackyard topsail-setting Howth Seventeens being joined by both Old Gaffers and Classics.
Inevitably, choices have to be made as the season gains momentum, and the final weekend of June sees both the Portaferry gathering as already mentioned, and the Cobh Traditional Boat Festival on Cork Harbour from June 26th to 28th, with "traditional" naturally taken to include the 1895-vintage Fife-designed Cork Harbour One Designs.
The CHODs will also be starring in this year's main event, the Glandore Classics from July 18th to 24th. This shows every sign of being the biggest Glandore Classic Regatta ever, as the fleet will include a substantial number of Old Gaffers in the early stages of an OGA three week cruise-in-company from Kinsale to West Kerry, while the sailing will be something of a Fife Festival, as the CHODs will be sharing the same racing waters as the visiting Fife ODs from North Wales.
Cork Harbour One Design and Heard 28 Tir na nOg (Sean Walsh) managing to avoid each other at the Glandore Classic Regatta 2013.
Fife OD from the Menai Straits racing at Glandore Classics. Thanks to their wide side-decks, they can sail at an angle of heel unimaginable in most small keelboats, and some helmsmen reckon that the immersed lee deck provides useful lateral resistance
A notable feature of the North Wales Fifes is their wide side decks, which enable these pretty boats to heel a long way without taking water into the cockpit. In fact, it's said that some Fife helmsmen from the squally home waters of the Menai Straits reckon that if they heel their boat enough, the lee deck becomes a sort of secondary keel, and provides significant lateral resistance to enable them to continue to make to windward at an angle of heel which would have any other boat either sinking, or completely out of control, or just sliding sideways out of the picture altogether.......
Make of that what you will, but as we move on round the coast we find that currach racing becomes the dominant passion until the home waters of the Galway Hookers are reached, with the single exception of the one shining star, the Shannon Hooker Sally O'Keeffe at Kilrush, community-built at Querrin on the Loop Head Peninsula, and as sweet a little cutter as you'll see anywhere. Then on north, and we're into Galway Bay with each little port well filled with its quota of bad mor, leath bhad, gleiteog and pucaun.
The sweetest thing in the west – the Shannon Hooker Sally O'Keeffe of Querrin on the Loop Head Peninsula
But what, you might well say, was all this about Achill Island? Well, there is a distinct species of local vessel in Achill Sound known as the Achill yawl which, with a single-sail lug rig which is almost a lateen, has a distant relationship to the classic Galway Bay pucaun.
But they have their own way of doing things in Achill Sound. At the peak of the boom years, every pub along the Sound, and local men who had done well in business abroad, between them supported a substantial fleet of Achill yawls which were raced in high summer and early Autumn with a ferocity which was astonishing even to sailmaker Des McWilliam of Crosshaven.
Heaven knows but Des has had enough experience of ferocious racing at all levels of the sport in all sorts of places. But when he went to far Mayo with a new set of threads for a keen Achill yawl owner, naturally as a diligent sailmaker he went afloat for a trial race, and came away suitably chastened by it all.
"We're just big pussy cats in Cork Harbour by comparison with Achill Sound" he reported. "In Achill racing" said he, "they take no prisoners". Yet even the hard men of Achill Sound had to ease back on their enthusiasms when the construction industry fell off a cliff. But just last September, crossing Achill Bridge, I spotted a bit of launching activity. It looks as though Achill yawl racing is showing signs of life again. But it won't be for the faint-hearted.
Achill yawls come in several shapes, and the most successful is not necessarily the fastest-looking. Photo: W M Nixon
#boatbuilders – In the good old days of bespoke boat-building, regular visits to the boatyard by the prospective owners were a sociable part of the process, regarded as normal and mutually instructive. And as most boats were built in waterfront premises beside slipways, or at the very least on a quayside, the first immersion was much more than just an informal splash from a convenient travel-hoist or a crane. On the contrary, it was the Launching Ceremony, a carefully choreographed festive event complete with the breaking of a bottle and sometimes even including the proper blessing of the new boat.
But nowadays, while such events can to some extent be staged, inevitably they have a certain artificiality. With transportation vehicles and roads improved out of all recognition, most production boats are now being built in factories at some distance from the sea - waterfront property is much too valuable to be used for basic industrial purposes.
As for seeing "your" boat being factory-built, you have to be up towards the top of the product range to be allowed that, and even then you mustn't bother the builders by talking to them. So the "launching" is simply a practical task carried out by professional marina staff with a minimum of fuss, for it has always been the case that when you just want to get on with a launching in a businesslike way, the last person you need around the place is the fretful owner.
Thus today's marine industry aspires to be the waterfront version of the car trade. Smooth, clean and impressive premises. Ready-to-go immaculate vehicles. And no hint at all of the need to get deep down and dirty in the building and maintenance of boats. But not every sailing and boat enthusiast is content with accepting such production-line techniques. W M Nixon takes a look at some of Ireland's invisible boat builders who cater for those owners who are different, and sometimes are doing it entirely for themselves. He also reveals the revolutionary Clontarf Contrivance, a Boon for Boatbuilders in classic style.
There are two Gods in the pantheon of Ireland's invisible boat-builders. One is Jimmy Furey, who creates exquisite classic clinker-built beauties to order in his tiny workshop in County Roscommon near the west shore of Lough Ree. And the other is Roy Dickson, who is incapable of sailing any boat without thinking of some way he'd like to improve it, and was a pioneer of the DIY dinghy-building movement in Ireland a very long time ago.
They're the Gods of our pantheon as both are now well into their eighties, and their influence has spread far beyond the shores of Ireland despite the fact that both are unassuming men who like nothing better than quietly getting on with the job.
But while Jimmy Furey is part of a long and distinguished Shannon tradition in that his innate talents emerged from working with his boat-builder brother Paddy, and are in turn being passed on to other master craftsmen such as Dougal MacMahon of Belmont on the western stretches of the Grand Canal, Roy Dickson is a complete one-off who is an inspiration to many, but you couldn't really say that there is a Roy Dickson School of Boat Re-Configuration.
Jimmy Furey quietly in action in his remote workshop in County Roscommon on the west shore of Lough Ree. Photo: Cathy McAleavey
The detail is a joy to behold. One of the transom knees in a Jimmy Furey Water Wag. Photo: Cathy McAleavey
The joy of Jimmy Furey's work is in the detail, so it's no surprise to learn that he turns his hand from time to time to being an award-winning model maker. But the beauty of his boats, whether they be Shannon One Designs or Water Wags, is of such a high order that you could say they're of international classic model boat standard while happening to be full size boats which can give a good account of themselves on the race course.
There is only so much work that any one man, however talented, can do, so it's encouraging to know that Dougal MacMahon is following the Furey way, his most recent job being restoration work with new planks and gunwhale, and re-installation of the centreplate casing, in Ian & Judith Malcolm's hundred-year-old Dublin Bay Water Wag in order for the boat to be fit to take part in next month's massive migration of the Wags to the big Morbihan festival in south Brittany. There, they will link up for the first time with the new French-built Water Wag, the product of Skol ar Mor which has been bought by Adam Winkelmann of Dun Laoghaire.
Dougal MacMahon of Belmont in County Offaly at the midway stage of this month's project to put a hundred-year-old Water Wag back into full health. Photo: Ian Malcolm
Having been looking at the new work on the Malcolms' Centenarian Barbara yesterday morning, rest assured that the Levinge/Furey style and quality is being upheld by Dougal MacMahon. Any good clinker-built racing boat will have a certain suppleness – indeed, it's said that one of the skinny Shannon One Designs will turn round and look at you when being driven to the utmost in a hard breeze. But with the Barbara, suppleness had deteriorated into sogginess. Yet less than two weeks of very concentrated work down in Belmont, with Dougal MacMahon as the master craftsman and Ian Malcolm as the gofer, has transformed the boat - there's new life in Barbara.
These days, Roy Dickson of Sutton is the doyen of boat building and modification through the use of modern materials. But as a recent celebratory lunch organized by his many shipmates past and present in Howth YC reminded us, in his astonishingly long career he did his duty and more by wood before bringing in various modern exotics. In fact, he started around 1950 with a Snipe called Bambi sailing out of the now defunct Kilbarrack SC on the north shore of Dublin Bay, whose demise began with its sailing waters inside the Bull Island being divided and made prone to silting by the construction of the fixed causeway across to the middle of the island.
Until that happened, KSC had a wonderful sheltered sailing area towards high water, as they'd a huge saltwater lake all the way to the Wooden Bridge. So they could get sailing even when conditions in Dublin Bay ruled out sailing at Sutton Dinghy Club itself. But soon enough, the young Roy Dickson had himself moved to Sutton, where he was Commodore in 1954, and he'd changed boats, building himself two Jack Holt-designed 16ft Yachting World Hornets – complete with International Canoe-style sliding seats for the crew - between 1954 and 1959, and racing them with success.
But as the best racing in Sutton was in the IDRA 14s, he built himself one of them in 1960, and then in 1961 he and Bunny Conn were in the forefront of the introduction of the Enterprise class, so that was his next command.
However, it wasn't until 1963 that all the Dickson stars came into alignment – the Fireball appeared. He was in there from the start – his first Fireball was No 38 – and with the class's flexible measurement system, the Dickson imperative for innovation had free range. And what he did was noticed by others. It's said that in his dozen or so years with the Fireballs, if some mod he made to his boat of the day proved beneficial, it would be done on every boat in Ireland within a week, and on every competitive boat in the world within a month.
As for Roy's sailing, he was competitive right up to world level, doing an early Fireball worlds in America with success with a youthful David Lovegrove, now President of the Irish Sailing Association, on the wire, with another Worlds in the Lebanon – God be with the days when you'd think of having a world sailing championship there – seeing one Bob Fisher as Roy's wireman.
Eventually, the Dickson campaigning moved into offshore racing with a succession of boats which, when combined with the possibilities provided by a variety of measurement rules, provided the artist with an enormous canvas to work with, and he was busy for decades. Most recently he has been best known for his stellar campaigns with the Corby 40 Cracklin Rosie and the Corby 36 Rosie, but we have to remember that by the time the boats left Roy's ownership, they were hugely different from the plans presented by John Corby.
The Corby 36 Rosie was the last boat to be campaigned offshore by Roy Dickson in a remarkable career which has included several Fastnets and Round Ireland races in addition to success in Cork, on the Irish Sea, and in the Clyde. He now races the Corby 25 Rosie in club events. Photo: Brian Mathews
Each winter, the boats would be trailed back to a special spot beside Roy's house, and unless you were in constant attendance you'd no idea of just how much tweaking and surgery was taking place. He brings his brilliant engineer's brain to the challenges of boat performance enhancement, and many are the specialists who experienced that special thrill of anticipation when they got a Monday morning phone call from Roy which simply opened with the statement: "I've got an idea".
For as sure as God made little apples, an utterly fascinating project would follow, and even if it involved hours of brutal hard work by volunteers – such as the shifting of the weight configuration in the keel-bulb on Cracklin Rosie – well, Roy is the kind of leader who inspires people to loyal service way over and above the call of duty.
These days at age 83, Roy's sailing wings are slightly trimmed as he campaigns his Corby 25 Rosie in club events, but the mark he made in sailing inevitably makes you wonder if there's any modern equivalent to the innovations of Roy Dickson in his prime, and your only conclusion can be that the modern version would have to be a marine industry professional. And at the sharp end of Irish sailing development, there's no doubt that Chris Allen of Bray is the man to go to if you want thinking and work way outside the normal box.
Yet though he works with completely state-of-the-art composites, Chris is in the finest tradition of the invisible boat-builder. Bray may be a seaside town, but his workshop is well away from the harbour, in fact it's alongside a rather pleasant little residential development in the heart of Bray beside the River Dargle. But the workshop itself is a decidedly basic and utilitarian sort of place where the space is shared with a car restorer, and as the car-fixer works with a giant oven while Chris works with a small one in order to achieve the temperatures their composites require to cure, the fact that the shed was freezing – and that on a sunny April day – was neither here nor there.
Graeme Grant and Chris Allen, the hidden boat-builders of Bray. Photo: W M Nixon
Chris's current project – on which he's working with Graeme Grant, Irish boat–building's favourite Scotsman – is building the very latest in the International Moths, complete with foils and a proven speed potential for normally competent dinghy sailors of thirty knots, while the sky's the limit speed-wise if you're a true ace.
They've the tiny hulls and decks ready to go, but are being held up on completion by the late arrival of special components from various manufacturers. Meanwhile, they're busy with refining ever further the moulding of the struts which support the whole crazy caboodle of trampoline and rig and daggerplate and rudder and foil control, which means they're utterly absorbed in the sort of time-consuming task which would give any formal company financial controller the heeby jeebies.
The carbon hull of a Chris Allen Moth is exceptionally light........Photo: W M Nixon
.....and we mean REALLY light. Photo: W M Nixon
Chris Allen with moulds for the ultra-light struts for the International Moth. Photo: W M Nixon
But then Chris Allen's career path is scarcely along orthodox lines. He started his sailing on Lough Muckno in northeast Monaghan where his father – Dun Laoghaire sailor Hugh Allen, who had crewed with Alf Delany in the two-handed Swallow Class in the 1948 Olympics – had been posted as the Bank Manager in Castleblaney. Hugh Allen wasn't going to let the little dark hills of Monaghan end his sailing, so he built a Mirror and founded the White Island Sailing Club to race on the local lake, as he rightly reckoned that a Lough Muckno Yacht Club wouldn't quite do the business.
Subsequently he was posted to Moville in Donegal, and by this time he'd moved up to GP 14s, so we could argue that the current pre-eminence of Moville in Irish GP 14 racing goes right back to a former Olympic sailor being in the town. And it goes further than that, as the Allens' GP 14 was subsequently sold to a rising star in Dundalk sailing, one Pat Murphy......
Meanwhile, like many another young fellow, Chris Allen gave up sailing for ten years from the age of 18. He was into the music business, which isn't a sports-friendly way of life. But by the age of 28, sailing had hauled him back in again by way of Bray Sailing Club, and he was soon bring technical expertise to boats. Somehow or other, he ended up in New Zealand, and while his musical abilities were useful, his primary occupation was working with the innovative boatbuilder Cookson's, whose many successful creations have included Ireland's 2007 Fastnet Race winner Chieftain (Ger O'Rourke), a canting keel Farr 50.
For high tech boatbuilders, a spell working with Cookson's is the equivalent of a Harvard MBA for anyone who wants to rise in the corporate executive officer ladder. But back in Ireland, the corporate world is slightly more developed than the marine industry, and in hoping to use his skills honed in New Zealand, Chris Allen found he was building the hugely successful Velvet Glove for Colm Barrington in a shed in Enniskerry, and then when he came to build the arguably even more successful Ker 32 Voodoo Chile for Eamonn Crosbie, he'd found his current hidden premises in Bray.
The glassfibre Mermaid Dolly (right) was a lovely piece of work by Chris Allen, but in the end the class decided to stay with timber construction.
His enthusiasm remains undimmed, as too does his readiness to express firmly-held opinions on boat-building of all kinds. But his skill in his specialist area is unrivalled, and he can be as versatile as any boatbuilder. Thus he was the man to go to in the days when the SB3 – then in its first incarnation as the SB20 – was experiencing a certain amount of teething problems. But equally, when Roger Bannon wanted to experiment with a GRP version of the Mermaid, he quite rightly reckoned that Chris Allen was the man to go to, and the result was one of the sweetest clinker GRP boats you'll ever see, even if the class in its wisdom decided eventually to stick doggedly with wood.
As we were in Bray, there'd been a hope of going on to see the two new Bray Droleens as they near completion, but in this case the invisible boat-building remained utterly invisible. The project is currently on hold while the workshop undergoes a renovation project, and the pair of little boats are temporarily in store in a shed whose key-keeper happened to be in the other end of County Wicklow. But nevertheless it's good to know that Anthony Finnegan and his team have continued the fine work started by the late Frank de Groot, and congratulations to Jim Horgan of Furbo on the south Galway coast, whose re-creation of a Droleen was recently awarded one of the Classic Boat Trophies in London.
Jim Horgan sailing his award-winning Bray Droleen in Connemara
It was far from the world of classic boats that the next item on our North Wicklow agenda lay, as we were working on the ancient Chinese principle that seeing something once is worth hearing about it a hundred times, and we were determined to see for ourselves if the new multi-functional maritime clubhouse really is being built beside the re-developed harbour and marina in Greystones.
So, having been immersed for the morning in the hidden marine industry, that afternoon we had the modern marine industry in its most visible form. For although the new clubhouse is as yet barely above ground, it is definitely being built. And nearby at the marina, James Kirwan and the team in BJ Marine were in hospitable form on a perfect sunny day with a steady stream of seriously interested visitors coming to see fully finished yachts in showroom condition. It was like a different planet, and we much enjoyed a conducted tour of a spanking new Oceanis 38 which has been prepared and laid out for a Dun Laoghaire owner who is quite clear in his own mind that he only intends to use the boat for day-sailing and hospitality purposes.
The way we live now.....James Kirwan of BJ Marine with a new ready-to-go Oceanis 38 in Greystones Marina. Photo: W M Nixon
Believe me, with the sun shining down and James Kirwan enthusing about the success of the new BJ Marine linkup to the Snowdonia Riviera on Tremadoc Bay with their latest office in Pwllheli in North Wales, you could be very easily seduced into availing of all the ready accessibility of today's front-line marine industry if you just happen to have the magic ingredient of enough money. But for most of us still spluttering our way out of the deluge which was the recession, it's a matter of making do as best we can.
And for others, the shiny new boats are not the way to go at all. On the contrary, they want to experience traditional hands-on lovingly crafted boat-building for personal fulfillment as much as having a boat at the end of it, and out the back of Clontarf Yacht & Boat Club there's a kind of Men's Shed operation convened by Ronan Melling which has been building a classic IDRA 14 for quite some time now, but the results show that they're willing to learn, and nothing is too much trouble to achieve perfection.
And now the tricky bit.....a spot of concentrated thinking under way last November as the Clontarf team grapple with the challenge of steaming and installing the frames in their new IDRA 14. Photo: W M Nixon
It's also the very essence of the invisible boat-building spirit, as they're only in action on specific nights for work spells of set duration. But on a first visit last November when you could already see that the planking work was of the highest quality, they'd got to the crucial stage of putting in the first steamed frame, which with all the hassle of keeping a steamer up to heat, is quite a step for an amateur team.
But they persevered despite having problems with several types of steam boxes, and then somebody had the wonderful idea for the Clontarf Contrivance. Somehow they made the leap from thinking how steaming a frame is a matter of keeping up pressure to the notion that a bicycle tyre is also a matter of keeping up pressure. The inner tube from a bicycle tyre, with a bit of another inner tube added for the required length, will neatly accommodate the complete frame for an IDRA 14. All you need to do is put the steam into it under the optimum amount of pressure. It has worked, for as the most recent photos show, the task so tentatively begun last November is now complete with as neat a framing jib as you could hope for.
As neat a job as you could wish. The new IDRA 14 with the frames in place.
The secret weapon. We all know what a bicyle inner tube looks like, but have you ever thought of it as the Clontarf Contrivance for steaming frames for clinker-built boats?
The spirit of doing it for yourself is if anything even stronger along Ireland's western seaboard, and back in SailSat for the 29th March 2014 we featured – among many other boats – the Atkins schooner which the great Jarlath Cunnane was building for himself in Mayo in anticipation of the eventual sale of his Arctic Circle-girdling Northabout.
Well, Northabout has now been sold and will be going to the Antarctic as an expedition boat, but meanwhile last Autumn I grabbed a quick photo of the new schooner finally out of the building shed (which for once actually is a waterside shed), and we look forward to seeing her afloat and in action.
Shaping up nicely. Jarlath Cunnnane's new alloy-built schooner. Photo: W M Nixon
Far to the south along the Atlantic seaboard, and up the winding Ilen River above Baltimore you'll find Oldcourt and the Old Corn Store where the restoration of the Conor O'Brien ketch Ilen is moving steadily along. But as the Ilen project is ultimately Limerick based, the fine premises in Limerick where Gary MacMahon and his team built both the traditional gandelows and the CityOne dinghies provides an excellent workshop for building the more detailed parts of Ilen, and this week Gary circulated a photo of the deckhouse which will go above the engine room, and very well it looks too.
Ilen's new engine room deckhouse, workshop-built in Limerick. Photo: Gary MacMahon
For in winter, there is nothing more conducive to getting jobs completed than having adequate resources and a clean and comfortable workshop where you've a bit of space to go about the project, which so often is not the case for Ireland's hidden boat-builders.
But they do things differently in other places. Back in SailSat of February 7th this year, we ran a piece which included news about a restoration project which is under way with a specialist company in Palma in Mallorca, giving new life to the 37ft Fife-designed Belfast Lough One Design Tern of 1897 vintage. We published a photo of Tern as she was in July 2014, striped off and ready for the work. On Thursday, I received two photos of Tern being launched on Wednesday after nine months work. Just to show what has been achieved, we start with that photo of Tern in July 2014. Further comment is superfluous.
Tern as she was in July 2014.
Tern as she was last Wednesday, test launching in Palma.
Work of the ultimate quality. Tern's new bronze deck fittings are probably worth more than the boat herself was when she was built to a fairly basic specification by John Hilditch of Carrickfergus in 1897.
#iris – It has been said that keeping a boat-owning partnership intact is much more difficult than maintaining a marriage in a healthy state. Thus for most of us with the boat-owning vocation, sole ownership is the only way to go. But for others, in order to defray costs, increase boat size, and maybe leave more personal time free to pursue other interests, the ambitions can best be realised through one of a wide variety of partnerships and syndicates.
These can go through an extensive range, starting at one extreme with what amounts to time-sharing, with the large number of owners meeting (if they meet at all) only once a year for a sort of Annual General Meeting. Other possible setups can mutate through various arrangements where there is considerable overlap between the boat uses by the different owners, right through to the other extreme of total partnership where all owners sail together as often as is possible.
In some cases, the additional social glue of special shared interests is needed to give the partnership that essential extra vitality. There's nothing new in this. W M Nixon takes a look back a hundred years and more to a boat-owning group whose shared interest in art kept a 60ft ketch on a regular cruising programme around Dublin Bay and the nearby coastlines.
The 60ft gaff ketch Iris had a chequered career. She started life at the peak of the Victorian era in the 19th Century as a naval pinnace serving Dublin Bay, and she was presumably driven by steam. At the time, Dun Laoghaire – then known as Kingstown – was becoming the height of fashion as a naval port of call in the summer, made even more so by its convenient access to the centres of power in Dublin, and its strategically useful direct rail connection – pierhead to pierhead – to the main Royal Navy base in Ireland at Cobh on Cork Harbour.
However, as Kingstown had initially been planned solely as a harbour of refuge – an asylum harbor - for ships in distress in onshore gales, with the actual spur to its construction (starting in 1817) being the wrecking of a British troopship with huge loss of life at Seapoint on the south shore of Dublin Bay, the plans had included no provision for convenient alongside berthing for ships.
Indeed, you get the impression that the original underlying thinking was that there should be as little social contact as possible between ships sheltering in the new harbour and any inhabitants of its nearby undeveloped shore. But the rapid if somewhat chaotic growth of the makings of a new harbourside town, plus the advent of more rapid access from Dublin with the coming of the railway in 1834, soon meant that the top brass expected to be able to get off and on their ships in the harbour in style and comfort, and their Lordships of the Admiralty did not stint in providing large pinnaces for them to do so. When these pinnaces were replaced in due course by even more luxurious vessels, those shrewd amateur sailors who could visualise the older boats' potential as re-cycled government surplus found themselves looking at a bargain.
The Iris was originally built with lifeboat-style construction of double-diagonal hardwood planking, which was quite advanced technology for the time. For the can-do boatbuilders of the late 19th Century, converting such totally purpose-built craft into some sort of a yacht was all part of a day's work. Another similarly-built if smaller and different-shaped vessel, Erskine Childers' Vixen on which the Dulcibella of The Riddle of the Sands fame was based, was formerly an RNLI lifeboat with the standard lifeboat canoe stern. She was made more yacht-like by the addition of a staging aft to compensate for the absence of deck space just where you most need it, while underneath this new permanent staging, additional supporting planking was faired into the hull and – hey presto – you've a yacht-like counter stern.
Vixen also had a massive centre-plate complete with its huge casing, and carried more than three tons of internal iron ballast, all of which left little enough space for living aboard during the long and often rough cruise through the Friesian Islands which provided much of the on-the-ground material – and we can mean that in every sense – on which The Riddle was based.
Erskine Childers' Vixen (on which "Dulcibella of The Riddle" was based) in one of his last seasons of ownership in 1899. At first glance, she looks like a typical old-style cruising cutter of her era. But somewhere in there is a classic canoe-sterned RNLI lifeboat hull to which an afterdeck on a counter stern have been fitted as an add-on.
That cruise was in 1897, and shortly after it was completed, Childers went off to serve in the Boer War. This experience left him with doubts about the validity of the British Imperial mission, but equally left him in no doubt that on active service, there were no medals for enduring unnecessary discomfort. So by the time The Riddle of the Sands was published in 1903, Vixen was sold and he'd become a partner in a much more comfortable cruising boat, the yawl Sunbeam, which in turn was followed in 1905 by his very comfortable dreamship Asgard
Meanwhile, with the Iris a fifteen or so years earlier in Dublin, the conversion to a comfortable sailing cruiser was a more straightforward affair, as she'd a more versatile hull shape with a broad stern in the first place, and her new owner was one George Prescott, an innovator bordering on genius. He was an optical and scientific instrument maker, an electrical engineer and inventor, and a state-of-the-art clockmaker.
Man of many parts – the polymath George Prescott. Organising the Graphic Cruising Club and running its club-ship Iris was only one of his many interests. He led a long and extraordinarily interesting and varied life, and was nearly a hundred years old at the time of his death in 1942. Courtesy Cormac Lowth
But that was only one part of his life, for he had many friends among Dublin artists, particularly those interested in maritime topics, and he soon found himself to be the secretary of the Graphic Cruisers Club for sailing painters and sketchers, with the Iris becoming the base of their waterborne creative and scientific expeditions on the coast of the greater Dublin area.
She was ideal for this. She'd been converted for sailing with an orthodox gaff ketch rig, while her roomy hull was internally re-configured to have a galley with a large stove right aft, a huge saloon immediately forward of the galley to be both the clubroom and dining room, and sleeping quarters port and starboard in pilot cutter style forward of that.
Quite a transformation for a former steam-powered naval pinnace. The 60ft ketch Irish in her heyday as the club ship of the Graphic Cruisers Club in the 1890s. She is at her home anchorage off Ringsend, while across the Liffey a couple of Ringsend trawlers are lying in the roadstead known as Halpin's Pool, where the Alexandra Basin is now located. Photo courtesy Cormac Lowth
Accommodation profile of the Iris in her days as the floating HQ of the Graphic Cruisers Club – this sketch by Alexander William first appeared in The Yachtsman magazine in 1894.
Hull section of the Iris at the saloon, showing the bilge keels which enabled her to dry out comfortably in some some little-known tidal anchorages in the Greater Dublin area.
But underneath the hull, the temptation had been resisted to add a deep keel, and instead the Iris was fitted with substantial bilge keels at the same depth as the shallow keel itself, such that in all she drew only about 3ft 6ins, and would comfortably dry out in a snug berth anywhere that her artistic crew felt they might find subjects worthy of their attention.
Thus she might overnight serenely on the beach at Ireland's Eye or far up the estuary at Rogerstown, and if the Graphic Cruisers Club attention was turned towards County Wicklow, she could comfortably take the ground in Bray or in other little ports inaccessible to orthodox cruising yachts. Yet the claim was that despite the odd arrangements beneath the waterline, she handled remarkably well on all points of sailing, and certainly as she no longer had any sort of engine, she must have sailed neatly enough to get out of some of the confined berths into which her eccentric crew enjoyed putting her.
The Iris in gentle cruising mode off Ireland's Eye as the moon rises – this was sketched by Alexander Williams for The Yachtsman in 1894.
George Prescott seems to have been happy to claim that Iris was a club-owned yacht, but in truth most of his shipmates were impecunious artists of varying talent, so it was his generosity and understated business ability which would have kept the partnership together.
However, it really did seem to function as a partnership, for after the Iris project had been up and running for nearly a decade, he turned his attention in 1896 to building an unusual house on the waterfront on the Pigeonhouse Road in Ringsend, which he happily acknowledged to be the clubhouse of the Graphic Cruisers Club even if he lived in it himself.
Called Sandefjord for some reason which is still unexplained, it looked not unlike a smaller sister of the Coastguard Station next door, complete with a lookout tower. And it's distinctly nautical within, as much of the interior includes fine panelling which came from the wrecked Finnish sailing ship Palme, with the stairs being provided by the old ship's main companionway.
The house called Sandefjord near Poolbeg Y & BC as it is in 2015. When built by George Prescott in 1896, it faced across the Pigeonhouse Road directly onto the waterfront, and overlooked the summer anchorage of the Iris. Photo: W M Nixon
The design style of the Graphic Cruisers Club shore HQ at Sandefjord reflected the lookout tower of the old Coastguard Station next door. Photo: W M Nixon
The house has been restored to become a family home in recent years, and it really is an extraordinary piece of work to come upon on the slip road down to Poolbeg Yacht & Boat Club. Meanwhile, interest in the doings of the Graphic Cruisers Club has been restored by the formidable research talents and tenacity of Cormac Lowth, who single-handedly does more work in uncovering unjustly ignored aspects of Dublin Bay's maritime life in all its variety than you'd get from an entire university department.
I first came across a reference to the Graphic Cruisers Club years ago in an article in an 1894 issue of The Yachtsman magazine, written by Alexander Williams (1846-1930), who was probably the club's most accomplished marine artist. But that was then, this is now, and it has taken Cormac Lowth's dedication in recent times to get the extraordinary setup around George Prescott and Alexander Williams and their friends and shipmates into the proper context.
Alexander Williams RHA was the best-known artist in the Graphic Cruisers Club. A taxidermist of international repute, he was also a noted ornithologist, and his interest in maritime subjects was matched by his enthusiasm for landscape. He was one of the first artists to "discover" Achill Island in the west of Ireland, and in time he created a remarkable garden there in a three years project in which he personally worked shoulder-to-shoulder with the build team.
A classic Alexander Williams portrayal of the trawlers of Ringsend with other shipping in the Liffey. Thanks to research by Cormac Lowth, we are now aware of how the style of the Ringsend sailing trawlers came about through links, between 1818 and the 1914 outbreak of Great War, with the pioneering fishing port of Brixham in Devon, which was the most technologically advanced fishing port in Europe in the mid 1800s. Courtesy Cormac Lowth
They were larger than life, every last one of them, and Prescott and Williams in particular were renaissance men who could turn their hand to any number of creative projects at a time when life around Dublin was fairly buzzing for those with the energy and interest to enjoy it.
And there were links to other aspects of Dublin waterfront life which have a further resonance. Back in January, I'd to give one of the supper talks at the National YC in Dun Laoghaire, and on this occasion the topic was John B Kearney (1879-1967), the Ringsend-born yacht designer and boatbuilder who was the club's Rear Commodore for the last 21 years of his life.
You need some sort of special little link to bring these talks to life, but fortunately I remembered that there's a fine big Alexander Williams painting of sailing trawlers at Ringsend in the NYC's dining room. I didn't know its date as we headed round the bay on the night of the talk, but we struck gold. It was dated 1890.
The Brixham style in Ringsend was best exemplified by the largest trawler built in the Dublin port, the St Patrick (right) of 53 tons built in 1887 in the Murphy family's boatyard beside the mouth of the River Dodder. The Murphy family also owned and operated the St Patrick in her fishing, and when John Kearney built his renowned yachts, the earliest (and best) of them were built in a corner of Murphy's Boatyard - the Ainmara in 1912, the Mavis in 1925, and the Sonia in 1929. Photo courtesy Cormac Lowth
Williams was so fond of the Ringsend scene that he lived there for a while in Thorncastle Street where John B Kearney was born, and of course the painter subsequently sailed regularly from the old port in the Iris, and would have over-nighted at Sandefjord too. He is in fact the definitive Ringsend maritime artist, and the picture in the NYC expresses this. And as it includes some of the Ringsend waterfront, we could say that it also includes John B Kearney, for in 1890 the precocious eleven-year-old Ringsend schoolboy was in the boatyards as much as possible, as he had already stated in his quietly stubborn way that his ultimate ambition was to be a yacht designer.
Not a boatbuilder or a shipwright or a harbour engineer, which is nevertheless what he was until he retired in 1944. But upon his leaving the day job - in which he'd been highly respected - he then devoted all his energies to what he had been doing all his life in his spare time. And with his death aged 88 in 1967, his gravestone in Glasnevin cemetery said it all: John Breslin Kearney (formerly of Dublin Port & Docks Board) Yacht Designer.
And if you wonder how on earth we have come to a consideration of John Kearney's memorial stone in an article which purports to be about the social glues which keep boat partnerships in good order, believe me when you get involved with the boys of the Graphic Cruisers Club you never know where it's all going to end.
We've already discovered that in later life Alexander Williams devoted much energy to his garden in Achill while at the same time continuing to be an active member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin. As for George Prescott, he too broadened his already extensive interests, and in his eighties he was much into amateur opera production, even being so deeply involved as to paint the stage scenery himself.
Dublin too was expanding, so he accepted that a move eastward was needed if he was going to be able to continue to commune directly with his beloved sea. So he left Sandefjord, and the final decades of his wonderful life were spent at his new home at The Hermitage on Merrion Strand. Needless to say, Alexander Williams provided him with a painting of The Hermitage which captured the then unspoilt nature of a place you'd scarcely recognize today.
The Hermitage on Merrion Strand, George Prescott's last home as portrayed by Alexander Williams. Courtesy Cormac Lowth
#tallships – Rugged sailing in romantic tall ships; the camaraderie of the sea; character development. It's an inspiring combination which has gripped maritime nations for more than a century as sail has given way to more utilitarian sources of power. First there was steam. Then steam in turn was superseded by diesel and even nuclear power. And with each stage, there has been a remorseless drive towards reducing manning levels.
So what on earth is there now to occupy people who, in a former era, might have found a meaningful role in life as crew on board a sailing ship? For with each new development in shipping, we realise ever more clearly that large sailing ships were one of the most labour-intensive objects ever created.
However, we don't need to look to the sea to find areas of human activity where technological development has made human input redundant, and large sectors of the population largely purposeless. It's the general social malaise of our time. So for many years, the majority of maritime countries have found some sort of solution by an artificial return to the labour-intensive demands of sailing ships.
But in an increasingly complex world with ever more sources of distraction and entertainment, does the established model of sail training still work as well as it once did? W M Nixon meets a man who thinks we need a new vision for best using the sea and sailing ships to meet the needs of modern society's complex demands.
Tall Ships and Sail Training........They're evocative terms for most of us. Yet the buzzwords of one generation can surprisingly quickly become the uncool cliches of the next. That said, "Tall Ships" has stood the test of time. It's arguably sacred, with a special inviolable place in the maritime psyche.
So when we see a plump little motor-sailer bustling past with some scraps of cloth set to present an image of harnessing the wind's timeless power, we may be moved to an ironic quoting of Robert Bridges: "Whither, O splendid ship......" But somehow, citing Masefield's "a tall ship and a star to steer her by" would seem to be beyond the bounds of even the worst possible taste.
There's a simple purity about "Tall Ships". It works at every level. Google it, and you'll find the academics claim that it became official with its use by John Masefield in 1902 and Joseph Conrad in 1903, though Henry David Thoreau used it much earlier in 1849. But Conrad being the benchmark of most things maritime in academia, 1903 seems to be set in stone.
We all know what is meant by a true Tall Ship, but as these rig profiles indicate, the proliferation of sail training programmes has led to an all-inclusive approach
Yet at the vernacular level, it has been there much longer than any of them. There's a bit of maritime meteorological lore which our academics would probably dismiss as vulgar doggerel, but I've found it still moves me. When far at sea, with the underlying swell increasingly in evidence and the weather conditions which it describes clearly developing overhead, inevitably you'd remember this little couplet:
"Mackerel sky and mare's tails,
Make Tall Ships carry low sails".
It's not Yeats. But when you're on a formerly blue sea now turning grey and far from anywhere in a 25-footer, it's a little thought which can still make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. And it's that mention of "Tall Ships" which gives it the added resonance. So things stand well with the phrase "Tall Ships". But what's the word on the continuing viability of "Sail Training"?
"I'm fed up with the constant use of the term "Sail Training". It's bandied about so much it has become meaningless. And always talking about "Sail Training" limits the scope of what we're trying to do. If we could find some useful phrase to replace "Sail Training", but something which is also more visionary than the very pedestrian "Youth Development" which is sometimes replacing it, then maybe we could go a long way to capture the imagination both of our potential supporters, and of the young people we hope will want to come aboard the ship".
The speaker is Neil O'Hagan, busy Executive Director of the Atlantic Youth Trust, which is actively developing ways and means of building a 40 metre sailing ship which will serve all Ireland in a wide variety of functions. And as he has immersed himself in this challenging project when he is clearly a very able person who could name his price in many roles in high-paying large corporations, it behoves us to pay attention.
We have been skirting the AYT and its project several times here recently. But as we gradually emerge from the recession and see what is still standing, for some reason with every passing week we find it ever more disturbing that the Irish Sail Training Brigantine 84ft Asgard II was lost nearly seven years ago by foundering, and the Northern Ireland Ocean Youth Trust's 60ft ketch Lord Rank was lost after striking a rock five years ago.
Far from being swept under the carpet, it's a double whammy which has to be faced and dealt with as 2015 rolls on with the biggest Tall Ships assembly ever seen in Ireland coming to Belfast, and not an Irish Tall Ship worthy of the name to represent us.
The popular image of Tall Ships is a crowded port with a fun-filled crowd...............
.....yet for many old salts, the true image is the lone ship at sea, going about her business. This photo of a four-masted barque was taken from a small cruising boat in the 1930s
But an ideas-laden shooting of the breeze with O'Hagan soon shows that we're going to have to learn to think a long way out of the box before we begin to meet the demanding expectations of this man and his board of trustees and directors, and the much-anticipated presence of the Tall Ships in Belfast is only a trigger to help activate a much more complex vision. Neil O'Hagan hopes not only to be instrumental in the creation of a new Irish sailing ship, but he also hopes to change the way in which we perceive such a vessel, and our expectations of the way she will be used.
In our initial blog on this back on January 17th, we thought we were making a tellingly adverse point in suggesting that the barquentine Spirit of New Zealand - which the AYT reckons will provide the best model for the development of their project – is not so much a sail training tall ship as we know it, but rather, with her large complement of 40 "trainees", she's more of a floating schoolship which happens to set sails.
Far from being blown out of the water by this "damning" criticism which I and others had voiced, O'Hagan was delighted that we'd lit upon this aspect of the plan. "Old-fashioned sail training has had its day" he says. "When education authorities and social service bodies and welfare funds and philanthropic organisations are looking for some way to provide interesting, satisfying and ultimately long-term-beneficial experiences for young people of all backgrounds and varying states of mental health including the very happily normal, they expect a much broader curriculum than is provided by the traditional sail training model".
"And come to that, so do the young people themselves. If sailing is genuinely their great leisure interest, they'll be into it already at a personal level among like-minded friends. But if they're more typical young people of today, they'll have a wide range of interests, and during the ten day cruises which we hope to make the backbone of the new ship's programme, the sailing will only be part of it."
Away from the day job - Neil O'Hagan helming a Dragon
Its not that O'Hagan is anti-sailing. Far from it – he has been seen in the thick of things in the midst of the International Dragon Class in recent years. But a good liberal education with time in the Smurfit Business School in UCD and extensive family links all along Ireland's eastern seaboard north and south, plus direct business experience in both Dublin and Belfast, give him a breadth of vision to provide the AYT with a real sense of purpose.
The Atlantic Youth Trust has been quietly building itself since it emerged from a representative workshop researching the building of a sailing ship for Ireland, held in Dublin Port in the Spring of 2011. From that, a Steering Group of Lord Glentoran and Dr Gerald O'Hare from the north, and Enda O'Coineen and David Beattie from the south – all of whom had worked together before on other north-south youth sailing projects – was set up, and they commissioned a professional consultancy group – CHL Consulting of Dun Laoghaire – to work with them in producing a Vision & Business Plan, which eventually ran to 96 detailed pages.
The Chairman Lord Glentoran (Gold Medallist at the 1965 Winter Olympics) at the AGM of the Atlantic Youth Trust with Executive Director Neil O'Hagan (left), Sean Lemass and Director Enda O'Coineen (right)
In due course, the Atlantic Youth Trust emerged with Olympic Gold Medal veteran Lord Glentoran as Chairman. And with Neil O'Hagan as Executive Director, the show was on the road with the detailed worldwide investigation of 25 successful educational schemes involving sailing ships - note we've dropped that "sail training" tag already. And in New Zealand they found something that was really new, something that fell in with their view that the double loss of the Asgard II and the Lord Rank provided an opportunity for a truly fresh look what a national sailing ship might be and do.
It's an extraordinary place, New Zealand - particularly from a maritime point of view. Far from seeing their isolation as a drawback, they use it as an advantage for fresh thinking. And they don't cling to time-hallowed ways brought over from "the old country". On the contrary, being in a new country is seen almost as an imperative for trying new ways and ideas, hence they're at the sharp end of top events like the America's Cup.
And as they were far from the fleets of established tall ships in Europe and America, with the Spirit of New Zealand they had to develop new ways of using a vessel which would spend much of her time cruising their own extensive and very varied coastline on her own, distant from the Tall Ship sailfests which are such a feature of the programme in the more compact and crowded parts of the world.
Spirit of New Zealand is barquentine-rigged
Thus by geographic necessity. New Zealand is ahead of the curve in developing ways of contemporary validity in the use of large sailing ships. We all hear of what a marvellous party the Tall Ships will activate in Belfast, just as they've done before in Dublin, Cork and Waterford. But hold hard just a moment. Isn't sail training aimed at young people mostly between the ages of 15 and 25? Surely their central involvement in vast open air quayside parties - with the inevitable underage alcohol intake possibilities – is totally at variance with the healthy idealism of the concept?
For sure, the organisers of modern Tall Ships Festivals go to enormous effort to ensure that they're genuinely family-friendly events. But the ancient traditions of sailors in port can be difficult to escape. So when you've a proposed programme which is essentially based on recruitment through continuing contact with secondary schools and similar age cohorts – as is the case with the Atlantic Youth Trust project – then it becomes increasingly desirable to have a ship which is large enough to be self-sufficient, with a viable way of onboard life built around large shared areas, such that the traditional waterfront-oriented harbour visits will no longer be such an important part of the cruise programme.
Splendid isolation. Spirit of New Zealand in an anchorage remote even by New Zealand standards
Packing them in....as she carries a crew of 40 trainees, and with space required for extensive communal areas, Spirit of New Zealand's bunks are efficiently planned
Of course the new vessel will take part in Tall Ships Races and Tall Ships Festivals, and of course she'll make the occasional ambassadorial visit, both along the Irish coast and abroad. But with the underlying philosophy of the ship being largely self-sufficient of shoreside distractions other than when they're environmentalist and educational ventures, sometimes with an expeditionary element, then the more gregarious aspects of her yearly routine will be kept well in perspective, and everyone will be the better for it.
As it's essentially a cross-border venture, equal funding from the two governments – each of which it is hoped will put up 30% of the capital expenditure - is anticipated, and with a fresh tranche of Peace Process money on the horizon, the resources are gradually building as people get used to the idea. There has also been much technical background research, and leading naval architects Dykstra of The Netherlands are on the case with an impressive scenario, for as Trustee and Director David Beattie has put it, this one isn't going to be cobbled together, it's going to be a "best in class project".
As the planned use of the vessel is essentially civilian, she will be Ireland's sailing ship without being the national sailing ship. There's more than a slight difference to the Asgard situation. In many other countries, the most impressive tall ships are part of the naval service, but in Ireland we have a Naval Service sailing vessel already, she is the ketch Creidne which was the national sail training vessel between the decommissioning of the first Asgard in 1974 and the commissioning of Asgard II in 1981. In recent years, she has had a major refit and is now actively sailed, but as Ireland's Naval Service is so essentially Cork-based, the Creidne is very much part of the scene in Cork Harbour and the Naval Base at Haulbowline.
The Naval Service have Creidne for sail training purposes for their own personnel. Photo: Bob Bateman
In fact, although the Atlantic Youth Trust does have a Cork element to it, and advisers include several leading figures in the Cork marine industry, the reality is that it is first and foremost a cross-border enterprise between offices in Dublin and Belfast.
This means that Cork – which is the true capital of maritime development in Ireland, and I mean that in all seriousness – is an associate port to the Atlantic Youth Trust project, rather than a central pillar of it. But I don't think the people of Cork would wish to have it any other way. When I was in the southern capital for the fund-raiser for the new National 18 class development a month or so ago, Class President Dom Long kicked off proceedings by explaining how it was the Corkonian sense of independence which had inspired the mighty leap in National 18 design. He did this by showing a map which neatly illustrated the Cork sailor's view of Ireland.
The Cork sailor's view of Ireland
It says everything. But I don't think the Atlantic Youth Trust should lose any sleep over the fact that they might be seen as being on a Dublin-Belfast axis from which Cork is as usual going its own sweet way. 'Twas ever thus. And anyway, in the end the Corkmen will probably provide many of the officers for the proposed new vessel to which we wish, on this fine Easter Saturday morning, the very fairest of fair winds.
You can see any number of reasons why this unique class, celebrating its 80th birthday in just three years time, is in a league of its own. A three-man boat with one of the crew on a trapeze, its crewing set–up requires a level of sociability which is further emphasised ashore, where their après sailing is the stuff of legend.
At all the centres where it is sailed, and at places upon which the National 18s have descended for a championship, we know they've left behind a formidable reputation for determined but good humoured conviviality, combined with great sportsmanship.
Yet while it is easy to understand the class's popularity among its adherents when you see them in high spirits as a group, there's no getting away from the fact that in today's dinghy terms, 18ft is a lot of boat. The mood of the National 18s may often seem light-hearted. But keeping one of these boats in prime condition and well crewed is not something for the casually-interested.
It requires real commitment, yet that is something which National 18 sailors seem to have in spades. And now the class has taken on a new lease of life with the development of a fresh take on the National 18 parameters by legendary designer Phil Morrison. But rather than being launched as a commercial venture, the new boat is being developed from within class resources, which has involved several imaginative fund-raising ventures. W M Nixon found himself being drawn into one of them.
It's official, The Cork Harbour National 18 Class are brilliantly capable of running a booze-up in a distillery. And just to make it even more challenging for their supportive members and many friends, they ran this particular fund-raiser for the new Phil Morrison boat in the Jameson Distillery in Midleton in East Cork on the first Saturday night of Lent.
Of course, like all Ireland on St Patrick's Day three weeks later, they got a special dispensation for the partying to continue unhindered by thoughts of Lenten piety. There was plenty of time for that next morning. But meanwhile, right there in the heritage and high tech splendour of the Midleton facility where tradition and new science are dynamically allied, the National 18 crews went at it good-oh, and the class's Development Fund was greatly enhanced.
In fact, I'm told the financial targets were comfortably exceeded, but as Class President Dom Long and the ever-energetic Tom Dwyer didn't tell us the targets in the first place, we'll happily take their word for it. All I know is that it was one helluva night, and only the National 18s could have done it.
Let's party! Colman Garvey's vintage National 18 welcomes guests to the Midleton Distillery for yet another event in a series of fund-raisers which have supported the development of the new boat from within class resources. Photo: W M Nixon
It's a class which – thanks to being a restricted design rather than a hidebound one-design – is able to wallow happily in its history as it thrusts towards new designs which keep up the spirits of its established sharpest sailors, while also encourage the vital new blood.
So how did it all come about? Well, thanks to a prodigious book written by Brian Wolfe of the boat's history, published in 2013 to mark the class's 75th Anniversary, we get some idea of the inevitable complexity of the story. The class started in 1938 in the Thames Estuary where there'd been several local one design or restricted "large dinghy" classes around the 18ft mark and soon – under a National Class imprimatur from the Yacht Racing Association – it spread to several other centres.
Needless to say, World War II from 1939 to 1945 brought any further growth and most sailing activity to a halt, but by 1947 things were looking up again, and in the straitened post war circumstances, the National 18 found its niche. Back in 1938, Yachting World magazine had sponsored a design to the class's rules by Uffa Fox, and that became the clinker-built Uffa Ace, which continued to be the backbone of the class for many years after the war.
It was Whitstable in the far east of Kent which produced most of the initial impetus for the class, and local builders Anderson, Rigden & Perkins made a speciality of it. In fact, ARP-built Uffa Aces were soon virtually the definitive National 18. Yet ironically we cannot confirm at the moment if the oldest National 18 still sailing – Richard Stirrup's 1938-vintage Tinkerbelle which races with the classics divison at Bosham SC on Chichester Harbour – is an ARP boat.
It's ironic because Tinkerbelle's first home port was Howth. It wasn't until I was writing the history of Howth YC for its Centenary twenty years ago that awareness surfaced that there'd been the nucleus of a National 18 class in Howth in 1938.
There were just three boats – John Masser's Wendy number 14, Tinkerbelle number 15, and Fergus O'Kelly & Pat Byrne's Setanta, number 16.
Tinkerbelle (15) being sailed by Aideen Stokes in 1939, with John Masser's Nat 18 Wendy (later Colleen II) astern, and the Corbett family's Essex OD Cinders abeam.
Tinkerbelle as she is today, the oldest National 18 still sailing. Her home port is Bosham on Chichester Harbour. Photo courtesy Richard Stirrup
Tinkerbelle seems to have been owned by a syndicate in which the Stokes family was much involved, though in the class history her earliest owner is listed as Bobby Mooney, son of the renowned Billy Mooney of Aideen fame. However, around Howth, Tinkerbelle was best remembered for being raced with considerable panache by a non-owner, Norman Wilkinson.
But when Norman returned from war service in 1946 determined to sail just as much as humanly possible, he found that the National 18s had faded away, and the only way he could get regular racing was by buying the 1898-built Howth 17 Leila, which he duly raced with frequent success right up to the end of his long life in 1998, by which time Leila was a hundred.
It's intriguing to think that, with one or two twists of fate in Howth, Norman Wilkinson might have been renowned as a star of the National 18s taking on the likes of class legends such as Somers Payne and Charlie Dwyer of Cork, where the class – having started with just two ARP boats in1939 - held fire for a while, but got going big time in the late 1940s and early '50s with several builders all round Cork Harbour creating them in local workshops.
That was one of the attractions of the National 18s. They were big enough to appeal to people who didn't fancy skittish little dinghies, yet they were small enough to be constructed by artisan boatbuilders who could produce lovely boats. But the owners – having laid out what were considerable sums of money at a time when Ireland seemed to be in a state of permanent economic depression – were disinclined to go the final stage of having the boats properly measured and registered with the class. This caused increasing problems, ultimately solved by a high level of diplomacy as the National 18s' popularity grew, and the opportunities arose for the Cork boats to go across the water to race in big-fleet competitions.
At one stage, class numbers were so healthy at many centres that in Britain they had Northern and Southern Championships, reflecting the primitive state of road movement of boats. Dinghy road trailers – particularly for hefty big 18-footers – were still in their infancy, so all sorts of ingenious methods were used to get boats to distant events, with a Whitstable boat on at least one occasion getting to Cork as deck cargo aboard a Coast Lines vessel on its regular route which took in Rochester in Kent and eventually Cork among several ports.
The National 18s in their classic prime, with immaculately vanished clinker-built hulls, and setting lovingly-cared-for cotton sails. Here, Crosshaven's greatest National 18 sailor Somers Payne (Melody, 206) is being pursued by Alan Wolfe in Stardust 63), while up ahead Charlie Dwyer with Mystic (208) is doing a horizon job, with the legendary Leo Flanagan of Skerries lying second at the helm of Fingal. The photo was taken during a Dinghy Week at Baltimore, and it is memories like this which inspired Brian Wolfe (son of Stardust's owner-skipper) to undertake the mammoth task of collating and writing the class's history.
In Ireland, centres which saw interest in the National 18s included Dunmore East, Clontarf and Portrush, but as Dun Laoghaire was committed to the 17ft Mermaid, the only place on the East Coast with really significant National 18s numbers was Skerries, where the incredible Leo Flanagan set the pace driving his Jensen Interceptor ashore, and racing his no-expenses-spared ARP-built National 18 Fingal afloat in somewhat erratic style.
Leo was a ferocious party animal, and when the Skerries and Crosshaven National 18s united in going to the big class championship at Barry in South Wales in the mid 1950s, Leo was very disappointed to discover that, just as the party was really getting going, the club barman had every intention of closing at closing time. The very idea....Leo solved the problem by buying the entire bar for cash on the spot.
As far as Leo was concerned, sailing was for parties, so when he heard of the highly-organised Irish Olympic campaign towards the 1960 Olympics in Rome, he got himself to Rome, as Olympic sailing promised Olympian parties. To his distress, he was ordered out of the Olympic Village by the Irish squad, who wanted no distractions. But to their distress, the bould Leo then turned up next morning for the first day's racing, officially accredited and highly visible in his new role – he had become manager of the Singapore team.
It seems that in a harbourside bar the night before, he'd met the helmsman of the Singapore Olympic Dragon (as it happened, the only Dragon in Singapore), who was racing in the Olympics as a personal venture. As the biggest rubber concessionaire in Malaya, he could well afford to do so. But this meant he was also Team Manager, and when Leo met him, the Singapore skipper was much upset, because with his sailing duties and need to get a good night's sleep before each day's racing, he was simply unable to take up all the official invitations which any Olympic Team Manager received.
He felt he was badly offending his hosts, and completely failing the Singapore sailing community So Leo, out of sheer kindness, agreed to be the Singapore Olympic Sailing Team Manager, giving selflessly of his time, energy and great wit in the front line at all the best and most fashionable parties throughout the 1960 Olympic Regatta.
All of which has little enough direct connection with the story of the National 18s, but it gives you some idea of the style of the people who have been involved in a long tale which will soon have been going on for eighty years. Yet beyond the parties and the many scrapes they got into, there was also much serious sailing and boat development going on, for although the Uffa Ace was the most numerous design in the growing fleet, anyone could have a go provided they fitted within the class rules.
But by the mid-1960s, it was clear that the traditional concept of a clinker-built National 18 was losing its appeal, and in 1968 the Class Association asked Ian Proctor to design a National 18 to be built as a smooth-hulled fibreglass series-produced boat, with bare hulls to be available for owners who wished to finish the boats themselves.
However, being mindful of keeping existing wooden boats competitive, the new boats were built much heavier than their glassfibre construction really required. Yet they looked good, and the first one Genevieve (266) was delivered to class stalwart Murray Vines, who sailed with the Tamesis Club on the Thames. There, the river may have been pretty, but it was so narrow that when the Tamesis people secured a major championship, they took their entire race management team down to the coast to attractive sea venues where the National 18s could do their thing with style and space.
That said, it was far from style and space they were reared. Murray Vines' son Jeremy – who is proud owner of the very first production version of the Phil Morrison Odyssey design which the class has been developing for the past two years – recalls his own earliest experience of championship competition with the National 18s in 1949 aged 11. He and his brother crewed for their father in 18/51 in a championship on the Medway in Kent, and they lived afloat on the boat, for in those days many National 18s lay to moorings.
Perhaps as a reward, the father built the two young Vines brothers their own International Cadet Dinghy the following winter. But Jeremy has remained loyal to the National 18 class to the point of being the pioneering owner for the new version of the design despite being at a certain age which you can work out yourself from that data given for the Medway in 1949. That said, he has given himself more space for his sailing as he has moved his base from Tamesis to Lymington, and in addition to the National 18, he cruises and races the Dufour 34 Pickle, a sister-ship of Neil Hegarty's award-winning Shelduck which featured in this column a week ago.
That the new wave of glassfibre 18s was not going to outclass the existing boats was forcefully demonstrated in 1970, when the class held its first combined all-British & Irish Championship in Cowes, after twenty years of separate Northern and Southern events. Despite the new glassfibre boats, the classics from Cork Harbour – where they'd been in the midst of celebrating the Quarter Millennium of the Royal Cork YC - were dominant, with Somers Payne right on top of his form sailing Melody (206) to win going away, notching only 1.5 points to second-placed clubmate Dougie Deane on 14.
Cork Harbour boats took the first six places in a crack fleet of thirty-one of all the best from every top National 18 centre, and the spirit of it all was best captured by the Thames Challenge Cup for a family crew going to Royal Cork's Dwyer family – Charlie and his sons Michael and a very young Tom – who placed sixth in Mystic.
The furthest flung fleet is at Findhorn in northeast Scotland, but the huge distance involved doesn't stop Royal Findhorn YC boats competing with the rest of the class. This is top RFYC helm Stuart Urquhart's Howlin Gael racing in the Solent, and every so often the class – including those from Cork – make the long trek to Finhorn for an annual championship.
However, in terms of championship success the movement towards overall victory by glassfibre boats had begun, and 1977 saw the last championship win by a wooden boat, with Mike Kneale's Maid Mary (183) from the Port St Mary fleet in the Isle of Man. This was a hotbed of National18 racing for a couple of decades, and after Mike had completely renovated the 23-year-old formerly only so-so Maid Mary, he clinched the 1977 title at Findhorn in northeast Scotland "just before you get to Norway", as I was told in Midleton last month. There, the Royal Findhorn YC is a byword for warm hospitality ashore and hot sport afloat, but despite a strong challenge by a formidable Cork contingent, the Manxmen won out.
But having done his duty by the classic wooden boats, for 1979 Mike Kneale and his team took a different tack – they commissioned a new National 18 design from ace ideas man Jonathan Hudson, which they composite-built around Airex foam whose use other Manx DIY boat builders such as Nick Keig had been deploying for long-distance multi-hulls.
The Airex boat....Mike Kneale's innovative Woodstock on trials off Port St Mary in the Isle of Man in 1979.
Woodstock from the Isle of Man sails back into Crosshaven in 1979 with all the look of a boat which has just won the championship.
Despite – or maybe because of – her composite materials, the new boat was called Woodstock. And as Brian Wolfe's history of the class recalls, when she appeared for the well-supported 1979 championship in Crosshaven, "there was much debate", not un-related to the fact that Mike and his crew of Rick Tomlinson and Ross Thomas swept the board, taking the championship for Mike's fourth time in a clean sweep with the top boat from the home Cork Harbour fleet being Albert Muckley's Eastern Promise (323) in second overall for East Ferry SC.
So where was Somers Payne? Well, after dominating the national championship leaderboards since 1958 with the wooden Melody, in 1979 Somers was making his first foray into campaigning a glassfibre boat, and while he may have been third, the writing was on the wall, and the class was moving to class.
And there was new life at Royal Cork. The Royal Cork YC's National 18s were having one of their periodic re-births, and while Woodstock may have won the title, her designer reckoned it was only by extra skill that they stayed ahead of a new wave of young talents whose helming skills had been honed in events like the Admiral's Cup and many national and international championships in all sorts of boats. Their zest for international competition was buoyed up by the knowledge that, back home in Crosser, they had ready-to-go racing in the National 18s which was not only great sport, but somehow much more fun than sailing in other boats.
This continued level of enthusiasm at all ages meant that when the National 18 pace showed any signs of slackening, the Cork Harbour division could be relied on to get things up and moving again. Thus when the changeover to glassfibre had become complete at the front of the fleet, with many other owners happy to race their vintage boats in a classics division, some of the Corkmen questioned why new glasfibre boats were still being built overweight in order not to out-perform boats which now saw themselves as a different part of the class in any case.
The National 18 fleet in Cork Harbour was mustering serious numbers with the lighter GRP boats from O'Sullivan's of Tralee. Photo: Bob Bateman
So the Crosshaven people got the moulds from England, and encouraged the moving of them to O'Sullivan's Marine in Tralee (incidentlally just about as far west on land as you can get from Whitstable in Kent), where they were used to build a whole new wave of lighter boats which became the National 18 class as most of us have known it until this year. Now, the new moves into the Phil Morrison boat are providing a fresh direction for a class which nevertheless takes careful steps to ensure that older boats have their place in the sun with a chance of realistic racing against similar craft.
Although Jeremy Vines of Tamesis and Lymington is the owner of the first of the new boats (she's number 401, and is called Hurricane in honour of the very first National 18 built by Anderson, Rigden and perkins in Whitstable in 1938), he is untinting in his praise for the energy and vision of the Cork harbour division of the class in having the idea and then promoting the new Phil Morrison boat, and he makes a particular point of applauding the very tangible support which has been given to the project by the Royal Cork Yacht Club.
Into the blue.....Hurricane (number 406) is unveiled a fortnight ago at the Dinghy Show.
It's almost unfair, in such a community-based grass roots project, to single out anyone for special praise, but I got the feeling that folk like Colin Chapman, Dom Long and Tom Dwyer have been right there in the thick of it from the beginning.
The prototype having been tested and approved every which way, the moulds were made and the first dark blue hull emerged early in the New Year in one of the workshops which Rob White runs at White Formula Boats at Brightlingsea in Essex. So having been built at Tralee on the shores of the Atlantic for more than a decade, National 18 production is now back on the shores of the North Sea, but the spirit of the class at every location, regardless of where it might be, seems keener than ever.
The first of the new boats - of which sixteen have now been ordered – was Jeremy Vines' Hurricane, number 406, which was unveiled at the recent Dinghy Show in London. For a new generation which has been raised on the Phil Morrison-designed RS 200, this latest variant on the continuing National 18 story will speak volumes, and with eloquence. But it says everything about the spirit of this exceptional class that she rings a bell with seasoned National 18 sailors too.
The gang's all here. The new boat celebrated at the Dinghy Show with a group including many of those actively involved in its development, notably Colin Chapman, Tom Dwyer, Dom Long and Jeremy Vines.
The movers and shakers are (left to right) Tom Dwyer of the Cork Harbour National 18s, designer Phil Morrison, Cork Harbour Class President Dom Long, Jeremy Vines (owner of the first boat to the new Morrison design), and Rob White of White Formula Boats
#americascup – The 35th America's Cup series will be staged in Bermuda in 2017, and already the first team – Ben Ainslie Racing – is starting to settle into its base in the islands at the beginning of a developing process which, it is hoped by locals, will contribute significantly and sustainably to an economy which is by no means as prosperous as the popular image of Bermuda would suggest.
Yet past experience of being involved with the America's Cup circus suggests that while there are definitely immediate and highly visible benefits, they're ephemeral and are more than offset by a hidden but very definite downside. And the pace of the event at its peak is at such a level that almost immediately afterwards there's a sense of anti-climax and recrimination which can poison a sailing centre's atmosphere for years. W M Nixon considers how sailing's most stellar event affected Irish sailing, looks at a more recent continuation of this story, and then takes up the tale of an old boat whose class's health suffered collateral damage from America's Cup fallout.
It was while tracing the story of Tern, a 37ft William Fife-designed Belfast Lough One Design built by John Hilditch of Carrickfergus in 1897, that we stumbled into what is arguably an example of the America's Cup having a seriously damaging effect on local sailing.
Somehow or other, Tern has survived, and is currently being restored to international standards in Palma, Mallorca. But it was when a couple involved with her restoration came to Ireland shortly after Christmas to spend some time researching her history that we had to face the fact that while Belfast Lough's involvement with the America's Cup is seen as a glamorous and still-celebrated era, as far as everyday sailing is concerned it did little but harm.
The context is intriguing. Belfast in 1897 was the Mumbai of its day. From a population of around 80,000 in 1850, by 1910 its unprecedented expansion through massive industrial innovation and development, built largely around ship-building and linen manufacturing, had seen numbers soar towards 300,000. The city was a byword for pollution, over-crowding, and ill health, but equally it was noted as a place where anyone with energy and an innovative manufacturing idea was expected to have made their fortune within ten years, and around three or four years to start reaching towards wealth was seen as a not unreasonable aim.
In such a frenetic and ambitious atmosphere, sailing on Belfast Lough developed apace, and it developed ambitiously and competitively for all that the lough, while providing splendid sailing water, lacked any really good natural anchorages. New boats and new boat types appeared with bewildering rapidity, and a sort of one design keelboat concept was being accepted by the early 1890s in order to make good racing accessible to keen young men at a reasonable price. There may have been much underlying wealth about, but spending it on extravagances like large and expensive yachts was frowned upon.
By 1896 a young whiskey distiller called James Craig (he later became Lord Craigavon) was promoting the idea of a strict One Design keelboat around 23ft LOA, and about 16ft LWL, designed by the great William Fife in Scotland, but built on the lough by John Hilditch at his Carrickfergus boatyard. As the pioneer of the concept in the locality, Craig called the new class the Belfast Lough No. 1 OD, but the first boat to the design, his own Fugitive, was barely finished before the One Design keelboat ideal was taken up with enthusiasm by another group which decided they wanted something to the same concept, but much larger.
These new boats, the first of which were rapidly built in time for the 1897 season, were almost exactly enlarged versions of Fugitive, but were all of 37ft overall and 25ft waterline. In a case of Might is Right, the bigger boats now became the Belfast Lough Number Ones, while Fugitive and her sisters were demoted to Number 2, and by the early 1900s they'd slipped still further to become the Number 3s when yet another class appeared, this time around 31ft LOA.
There were enough of the new 37ft Number Ones afloat to make a real impact on Clyde Fortnight in 1898, and as they were well able to sail across Channel to do so, they were arguably the world's first offshore one design. The previous year, some had visited Dublin Bay, where they so impressed the locals that they were the inspiration for the Dublin Bay 25s, to the same lines but built to a higher specification and with lead ballast keels, rather than the Belfast Lough boats' cast iron keels.
Whimbrel on the Clyde in 1898. They'd the potential to be the world's first offshore one design, but offshore racing hadn't yet been invented. Whimbrel is currently undergoing restoration in Bordeaux. Photo courtesy Gordon Finlay/RUYC
By the middle of the 1898 season, the Belfast Lough One Designs were in all their glory, and our header photo from that season shows a class which surely promised at least a decade of great racing. Yet their peak years barely stretched beyond the turn of the century, and within five years they scarcely existed as a class. Well before the Great War broke out in 1914, they were starting to spread near and far in a scattering which was to continue post war and in most cases ended up in their eventual demise. But remarkably, two have survived and both are undergoing restoration, Whimbrel Number 8 in Bordeaux and Tern, number 7, in Mallorca.
Patricia O'Connell and Alan Renwick live in Palma where he is a master craftsman with Ocean Refits while she – a former Honorary Secretary of a Georgian preservation society in Dublin – has undertaken the tracing of Tern's story, as Tern's restoration is Alan's current project. They arrived in Dublin in the dying days of 2014, and by the time they headed back to Palma well into January, they'd spent time in Cork and Northern Ireland following the old boat's elusive trail, and had also called in Howth to see Ian Malcolm's Howth 17 Aura, which was built in Hilditch's yard within a year of the construction of Tern.
Still going strong. The 1898 Hilditch-built Howth 17 Aura off Carrickfergus Castle for her Centenary, April 1998. With her sister-ships, she then sailed the 90 miles home to Howth. Like Tern, she is number 7 – and like Tern, there's an element of confusion with sail number 2. Photo: David Jones
The original five Carrickfergus-built Howth 17s still sail together as part of a thriving class of twenty Howth 17s. But the impressive class of eight Belfast Lough One Designs from the same era have been remembered for more than a hundred years only as photos on the walls of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club. What went wrong?
The America's Cup – that's what went wrong. In the early years of sailing's premier trophy, there was remarkable Irish involvement. After the schooner America won it with a race round the Isle of Wight in 1851, it took a while to establish a format for races to try and wrest it back from the New York Yacht Club in contests in America. During the 1870s, there were three challenges – two from Britain and one from Canada. Then in the 1880s there were three from Britain and one from Canada, the final one from Britain in 1886 being through the Royal Northern YC of Scotland, but that was because the owner's wife was Scottish – the husband was Lt William Henn whose family home was on the north shore of the Shannon Estuary.
But while the Henn family's hefty cutter Galatea was another unsuccessful challenger, at least she was seen in the waters of the Shannon Estuary. Yet although the first two challenges in the 1890s were by racing machines owned by a yachtsman whose ancestral pile was also on Shannonside, neither boat was seen anywhere near Adare Manor, the home of Lord Dunraven on the south side of the Shannon Estuary, whose two campaigns in 1893 and 1895 were unsuccessful and increasingly acrimonious.
With the passage of time, it becomes increasingly clear that Dunraven got a decidedly raw deal. But in the feverish atmosphere of rapid economic expansion in the 1890s, the world was more interested in pushing ahead with new projects rather than putting right old wrongs. Someone who saw the developing publicity and business potential in the America's Cup was Thomas Lipton, the Scottish-born grocery magnate whose American empire was thriving with a combination of his sheer love of hard work, and gift for publicity.
Lipton had noted the extraordinary level of public interest in Lt & Mrs Henn's "family" challenge in 1886 – they'd actually lived on board the Galatea at he time. But much more importantly, he'd noted the international crisis which arose from the Dunraven affair, and cannily realized that anyone who could smooth the waters with a good-tempered America's Cup challenge would attract acres of favourable coverage, regardless of the actual result.
That said, as a highly competitive individual, there's no doubting he was keen to win. But even though all five of his yachts called Shamrock making his America's Cup challenges between 1899 and 1930 were unsuccessful, with some being much more closely fought than others, he remained resolutely good humoured throughout, and expansion of his retail empire continued unabated. But what's less widely known is that while the America's Cup Shamrocks were numbered I to V, there was a sixth Shamrock, an un-numbered 23 Metre, which raced as his private yacht. It's said that when she didn't perform as well as she should have, the old man could be very grumpy indeed.
But that's all in the future. Here we are in the latter half of the 1890s, and on Belfast Lough this wonderful new class of 37-footers is spreading its wings, thriving on the fact that although the owners lived all round the lough and were members of one yacht club, the Royal Ulster YC founded 1866 and given the "Royal" in 1869, they could feel at home wherever their boats happened to be, as the RUYC had no clubhouse. This was a true sailing club, fixed only to good sailing water, and with the Belfast Lough Number Ones they could sail it well.
It was too good to last. Thomas Lipton was a man in a hurry. He knew that he needed a yacht club of international standing through which to make his first America's Cup challenge. But as he was of humble birth and very much in trade instead of benefitting from inherited wealth, there were few yacht clubs open to him. However, his parents had come from Monaghan, not only in Ireland but particularly in Ulster. In the can-do atmosphere of Belfast in the 1890s, it was indicated that the Royal Ulster might be receptive to his interest. He was soon a member, and plans were roaring ahead for an 1899 Challenge with Shamrock I.
But the RUYC had taken a cuckoo into its nest, or rather its virtual nest. It emerged that a virtual nest was not enough for the aspirations of a serious America's Cup challenger, he needed a real nest. Lipton was soon insisting that his America's Cup challenge, now irreversibly under way, would required the RUYC to have a proper clubhouse impressively sited above the waters of Belfast Lough where it was assumed he would very soon be the defender in the America's Cup.
The new RUYC clubhouse was completed at the behest of Thomas Lipton in 1899 after just 18 months work.
And he got his way. An impressive arts and crafts tower-topped clubhouse design was drawn up by James Craig's brother, the architect Vincent Craig, and the new RUYC clubhouse was opened in April 1899, having been built in 18 months flat. Well – not quite flat. They were in such a hurry for completion that there wasn't the time to entirely level the hillside site on the Bangor waterfront where the new clubhouse was built, and even today the ground floor is on two or three different levels.
That said, it's an impressive building to have been put up in such a short time, and somehow they achieved a sort of instant antiquity with it – today it seems much older than its 116 years, and it has always been thus.
But antique or otherwise, it doesn't seem to have been desired by all the members. There were 150 of them, yet only 30 contributed directly to the cost of the new clubhouse. And others took their sailing elsewhere. We live in hope of finding letters or a sailing diary from this period which will tell us what was really going on, for official club committee papers only cover what was on the agenda and recorded in the minutes. Thus even if there was an almighty row going on about the very fact of the somewhat cavalier building of this new clubhouse, at the time it would have been something known to everyone, and talked about by everyone, yet not written down simply because everyone knew of it, and it didn't happen to be directly pertinent to the business of the day. And anyway, once the clubhouse was in being, that was that – the best thing was to get on with living with it.
Yet the fact is that a distinct division arose in sailing along the south coast of Belfast Lough. The conspicuous Royal Ulster YC in Bangor became the public face of yachting in the area. But further up the lough at Cultra beside a roadstead anchorage, what had been a modest canoe club developed in 1899 into an amalgamation of the Ulster Sailing Club with the Cultra Yacht Club to become the North of Ireland Yacht Club, and by 1902 – by which time Lipton had already unsuccessfully challenged twice for the America's Cup through RUYC – the new place at Cultra had become the RNIYC, with a modest clubhouse aimed exclusively at serving its members' sailing needs rather than following grandiose ideas of international yachting campaigns for plutocrats who were only very seldom about the place, if at all.
Inevitably some of the best sailing men in the north were involved with this move to Cultra where many had always anchored their boats in any case, and others had followed. Whether or not the active membership of the RUYC was seriously depleted we can only guess. But the fact is that the relatively small membership of a provincial yacht club had somehow to find, within its membership, the essential people with the necessary talent and experience to provide the back up committee and officer services for Lipton's America's Cup Challenges, with the next one coming along as soon as 1903.
America's Cup design development 1851 to 1930. The Challenge Committee of the RUYC may have come on the scene 48 years after the era of the schooner America, but they still had to cope with the challenges posed by the design development from boats like Reliance in 1903 to the J Class Rainbow in the 1930s.
The drain on RUYC personnel resources was heavy in an era when time-consuming Transatlantic voyages by ship were required for the challenger's committee to meet with the committee of the defending New York Yacht Club. Something just had to give, and it seems to have been the level of personal sailing within RUYC, and particularly with the Number One Class.
The new RNIYC setup at Cultra was establishing its own modest new 22ft OD class, the Linton Hope-designed Fairy Class (also built by Hilditch), so they may well have seen the much larger Number Ones as simply too large, and tainted by the new vulgarity of the RUYC. Whatever the reason, the Belfast Lough Number One Class was a brilliant flame which burned only briefly as a class, even though the boats survived individually with most of them becoming fast cruisers.
But as for the America's Cup, it continued on its melodramatic way, with skulduggery par for the course. After 1903's unsuccessful challenge, when Shamrock III found herself ill-matched against the hyper-giant Reliance, the RUYC committee may have returned home to recuperate and gather strength for Lipton's next campaign. But he was scheming other ideas, and it has been only relatively recently discovered that, unbeknownst to RUYC, he was in preliminary negotiations with the Royal Irish YC on Dublin Bay to organise his fourth challenge.
Lipton and the RUYC thought they'd an impressive boat with the Fife-designed Shamrock III in 1903, but this is what they came up against in America – mega-boat Reliance
From a purely commercial point of view, you can understand his thinking. The formerly despised Irish community in the US was expanding rapidly in numbers and prosperity by 1904. Coming in with a challenge through the Royal Irish Yacht Club would hit more market targets than the narrower appeal of a Royal Ulster challenge. It was crude but shrewd business thinking. But fortunately for goodwill in the sailing community, nothing came of it. Challenge 4 through RUYC was slated for 1914, but with the Great War breaking out it was held off - with the radical and very promising Shamrock IV designed by Charles E Nicholson stored in the US – until 1920, with Shamrock IV defeated by the narrowest margin. And then in 1930 came the last challenge, the first with the J Class, but again there was defeat, this time for Shamrock V.
And thus 1930 saw the end of the Royal Ulster YC's tumultuous three decades affair with the Holy Grail of sailing. Since then, other clubs have had their collective finger burnt by the America's Cup. But it usually promises more than it gives. Most recently, sailing has been bluntly reminded of its limited appeal as a spectator sport, even when packaged as America's Cup Plus. The 34th series in San Francisco may have provided some of the most exciting racing ever seen in the event's 164 year history. It made great television for aficionados. And it may have attracted 150,000 shoreside spectators over the length of the series. But let's get it into perspective. San Francisco's Number One tourist attraction is Alcatraz. This island with its former prison fortress linked to the likes of Al Capone and other adornments of American society attracts around a million visitors a year. No matter which way you slice the numbers, that's quite a few more than the America's Cup, it doesn't cost nearly as much, and it's much less trouble to run.
Which goes some way to explain why those of us who live for this crazy old vehicle sport of ours retreat into the happy dreamworld of old boats and their winding journeys through life, often to a wonderful re-birth. And the story of Tern is a classic of its kind. From Belfast Lough she headed some time or other to Cork, we don't quite know when, but we do know she was converted to a yawl for greater ease of handling in 1914. And she was certainly in Cork in the 1920s and 1930s owned seemingly by a loose syndicate, as different owners appear at different times depending on what event she is being entered for, and in 1929 she was one of five yachts taking part in the Irish Cruising Club's Founding Cruise-in-Company to Glengarriff, owned by Capt P F Kelly.
Happy days. Aboard Tern in cruising style, complete with enormous dinghy on the starboard deck, on her way to the founding of the ICC in Glengarriff in 1929 with Captain Kelly and Dr Dan Donovan enjoying the sail
Tern in Falmouth, July 1990. Rot had long since set in within her long and elegant Fife counter, so it had simply been chopped off. Photo: W M Nixon
Tern being overcome by the heat in Andraitx in Mallorca, October 2012. Photo: Patricia Nixon
Yet by 1947 according to Lloyds Register she was in Dun Laoghaire, owned by two members of the National Yacht Club, C E Hogg and M Healy. And then she turns up in Falmouth Harbour in the 1970s and stays there for some time, but she was restored to being a cutter, not with full rig but her mizzen had to be done away with, as there was rot in her long elegant Fife counter, so it was simply chopped off to become like a Laurent Giles stern.
It was then in a little yard in a hidden creek off Falmouth Harbour that she had her first major restoration, and with that she went to the Mediterranean. But by the Autumn of 2012 she was seen in Andraitx looking a bit sorry for herself, and very much for sale. And there she was bought and taken into the specialist yard in Palma, and at the end of December 2014 Patricia O'Connell and Alan Renwick turned up in Ireland and began a pilgrimage.
Alan Renwick and Ian Malcolm aboard the latter's Aura in Howth, December 30th 2014. Aura had Tern have just one year age difference, but the same builder. Photo: W M Nixon
This took them to Howth to see the Hilditch-built Aura (like Tern, she's number 7, and like Tern, at one time her mainsail was mixed up with a number 2). Then it was down to Crosshaven to meet Royal Cork archivist Dermot Burns, who was a fund of information and original material abut Tern's twenty-plus years on Cork Harbour. Then on north to Belfast Lough for a large gathering in the Royal Ulster, a party built around the Charley family, one of whose ancestors owned Tern in 1910, and also brought in folk like noted northern sailing historian Michael Clarke of Lough Erne, and Fife yachts historian Ian McAllister who now lives in Carrickfergus. So you can well imagine that information and ideas overload was a constant risk. But Patricia and Alan survived, they got back to Palma in one piece, the work on Tern resumed, and the Tale of Tern goes on.
There's a Fife hull in there somewhere. Tern in the restoration shed in Palma
#rshyr – Ireland's fascination with the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race moved onto a new plane in 1991, when a three-boat Irish team team of all the talents had a runaway win in the Southern Cross Series which culminated with the 628-mile race to Hobart. The three skipper/helmsmen who led the squad to this famous victory twenty-three years ago were Harold Cudmore, Joe English and Gordon Maguire, all on top of their game.
These days, the incomparable Harold Cudmore is still a sailing legend, though mostly renowned now for his exceptional ability to get maximum performance out of large classics such as the 19 Metre Mariquita, sailing mainly in European waters.
But sadly, Joe English passed away just eight weeks ago in November in Cork, much mourned by many friends worldwide. Yet for Gordon Maguire, the experience of sailing at the top level in Australia was life-changing. He took to Australia in a big way, and Australia took to him as he built a professional sailing career. And he's still at it in the offshore racing game as keenly as ever, with 19 Sydney-Hobarts now logged, including two overall wins.
He raced the challenging course of this 70th 2014 edition as sailing master of the Carkeek 60 Ichi Ban, a boat which is still only 15 months old, having made a promising though not stellar debut in 2013's race. Also making a determined challenge was the First 40 Breakthrough with a strong Irish element in the crew led by Barry Hurley, fresh from the class win and second overall in October's Rolex Midde Sea Race.
And high profile Irish interest was also to be found aboard the Botin 65 Caro, the record breaker in the 2013 ARC Transatlantic Race. She's a very advanced German-built "racer/cruiser" aboard which Ian Moore - originally of Carrickfergus but longtime Solent-side resident - was sailing as navigator.
W M Nixon casts an eye back over the 2014 race, whose prize-giving took place in Hobart yesterday, and then concludes by taking us back to 1991, when Ireland moved top of the league in the Offshore Racing World Team Championship on the same occasion some 23 years ago.
It has to have been the most keenly-anticipated debut in recent world sailing at the top level. At last we'd get to see how Comanche could go in serious sailing. When the 70th 628-mile Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race started on Friday December 26th at 0200 hours our time, 1300 hrs local time in Sydney Harbour, this was for real. There may have been 117 boats of all shapes and sizes from 33ft to 100ft in the fleet. But all eyes were on the limit-pushing 100ft Comanche, skippered by the great Kenny Read. The world wanted to see how she would show what she could do when the chips were down, when the racing was straight line stuff, and when some serious offshore battling was in prospect instead of the inshore-hopping mini-test which had been seen in the Solas Big Boat Challenge in Sydney Harbour on December 9th.
In that, the well-tested Wild Oats XI, skippered by Mark Richards, had sailed a canny race to take the line honours win from the other hundred footers. But the majestic Comanche, owned by Jim Clark and his Australian wife Kristy Hinze Clark, had shown enough bursts of speed potential to raise the temperature as the start of the big one itself approached.
And in a brisk southerly at the start, Comanche didn't disappoint. She just zapped away from Wild Oats to lead by a clear 30 seconds and notch a record time at the first turning mark to take the fleet out of Sydney Harbour, and that dream debut was what made the instant headlines on the beginning of the 628–mile slog to Hobart.
The moment of glory – the mighty Comanche roaring down Sydney Hobart at the start to log a record time to the first turning mark. Photo: Rolex/Daniel Forster
No two ways about it – Comanche is clear ahead of Wild Oats XI approaching the first mark. Photo: Rolex/Daniel Forster
But out at sea, with winds strengths varying but mostly from the south for the first day or so, different stories begin to emerge. A grand sunny southerly sailing breeze may provide lovely sailing and pure spectacle in Sydney Harbour. But get out into the Tasman Sea to head south for Hobart, and you find that the wayward south-going current – always a crucial factor in the early stages of the race to Hobart – can be going great guns and making mischief as a weather-going stream, kicking up a steep sea which can be boat-breaking when that last ounce of performance is being squeezed out.
And as previewed here on December 20th, up among the hundred-footers they've been pushing the envelope and then some in boat development and modification. In new boat terms, the mighty and notably beamy Comanche has gone about as far as they can go for now. But with the likes of the former Lahana reappearing as Rio 100 with a complete new rear half, and Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin 100 simply cutting away the hull for replacement with a complete new body unit while retaining the proven deck and rig, we're sailing right on the edge in terms of what the weird mixtures of new and old build can combine for combat when the seas are steep.
Comanche's wide beam gives added power when there's plenty of breeze......Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi
....but the narrow Wild Oats XI can be as slippery as an eel when the head seas get awkward, and when the wind eased she got through Comanche and into an extraordinary 40 mile lead on the water. Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi
Not all boats revelled in the bone-shaking conditions of the first hundred miles of beating. Perpetual Loyal (foreground) had to pull out with hull damage possibly caused by an object in the water, but the irrepressible Syd Fischer's Ragamuffin 100 (beyond), with a completely new hull, continued going strong to the finish and was third in line honours Photo: Rolex/Carlo Borlenghi
But this glorious element of larger-than-life characters with boats that are off-the-wall is now an integral part of the RSHYR, which manages to attract an enormous amount of attention thanks to its placing in the midst of the dead of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, while in Australia much attention focuses on what is in effect an entire and familiar maritime community racing annually for the overall handicap prize.
Yet though the course is simple, it's deceptively so. Just because it's mainly a straight line from one harbour to another doesn't mean there aren't a zillion factors in play. And as the race gets so much attention, few offshore events of this length are so minutely analysed, and the first 24 hours provided a veritable laboratory for seeing the ways different boats behave in different wind and sea states with the breeze on the nose.
Thus Wild Oats XI has always had a formidable reputation for wiggling her exceptionally narrow hull to windward in awkward seas for all the world like a giant eel, and the early beating saw her doing that very thing, hanging in there neck and neck with Comanche. Despite her beamier hull, Comanche rates slightly lower than Wild Oats. But if a lull with its leftover sea arrived, her greater volume would become a liability to performance, whereas if the breeze got back to full strength, and particularly if it freed the two leaders, then Comanche would be firmly back in business.
But it was not be. Crossing the Bass Strait with Wild Oats right beside them, Comanche's crew saw their navigator Stan Honey emerge on deck and approach Kenny Read with a thoughtful expression on his face, and an ominous little slip of paper in his hand. It was the latest weather print-out, and it wasn't happy reading for a big wide boat that needs power in the breeze. Before expected brisk winds from the north set in, they'd to get through the lighter winds of an unexpectedly large and developing ridge.
Almost while they were still digesting this bit of bad news, Wild Oats started to cope much better with the lumpy leftover sea, and wriggled ahead of Comanche in her classic style. And the further she got ahead, the sooner she got into increasingly favourable wind pressure. As Read put it after the finish: "For twelve hours, conditions were perfect for Wild Oats, and they played a brilliant hand brilliantly".
Amazingly, the old Australian silver arrow opened out a clear lead of an incredible forty miles before conditions started to suit Comanche enough to start nibbling at this remarkable new margin. And fair play to the Read crew, at the finish they'd made such a comeback that Wild Oats was only something like 49 minutes ahead. But even with the new American boat's slightly lower rating, she was beaten on handicap too, and in the final rankings Wild Oats showed up as having line honours overall and a commendable 5th on IRC in Division 0 - and we shouldn't forget she won the overall handicap honours back in 2012 anyway.
But for 2014's race, for a while it looked as if it might be the Cookson 50s again for the overall win. But although last year's Tattersall's Cup winner, the Cookson 50 Victoire, at first took the Division 0 win with her sister-ship Pretty Fly III second, they were so close that when Pretty Fly got 13 minutes redress for an incident with the Ker 46 Patrice in mid-race, it reversed their placings.
It all came good in the end....after being initially placed second in Division 0, the ten-year-old Cookson 50 Pretty Fly III got 13 minutes of redress for an adverse incident during the race, and that bumped her up to the Division 0 win.
Either way, it was still Cookson 50s imprinted all over the sharp end of Division 0. But they were slipping in the overall rankings, where it was boats in the 40-45ft range which were settling into the best combination of timing and conditions to take the Tattersall's.
And plumb in the middle of them was the First 40 Breakthrough, with her strong Dublin Bay Sailing Club input from the Irish team led by Barry Hurley. Fortunes wax and wane with astonishing volatility as the Hobart race progresses, but gradually a pattern emerges. So though at one stage Breakthrough was showing up only around 30th overall, equally she'd a best show of third.
And all around her on the water were similarly-sized and similarly-rated boats with their race-hardened crews knowing that with every mile sailed and every weather forecast now fallen favourably into place, things were looking better and better for this group to provide the overall winner.
It was a very race-hardened crew which came out on top. It was way back in 1993 that Roger Hickman got his first Sydney Hobart Race overall win in an eight year old Farr 43 which was still called Wild Oats, as original owner Bob Oatley hadn't yet reclaimed the name for ever bigger Grand Prix racers. When he did start to go down that road, the 1985 Wild Oats became Wild Rose, but "Hicko" still owns her. And by the time the Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race 2014 started, he was doing it for the 38th time. He went into it as current Australian Offshore Champion, now he has won the big one on top of all that. Some man, some boat.
The slightly higher-rated Breakthrough was pacing with Wild Oats for much of the race, but as Barry Hurley's report for Afloat.ie told us with brutal honesty, somewhere some time they got off the pace. If you didn't know already of Barry's remarkable achievements - which include a class win in the single-handed Transatlantic Race and the more recent Middle Sea Race success – you would warm to the man anyway for the frankness of his initial analysis of why Breakthrough slipped from being a contender to 12th overall and – more painfully – down to 7th in their class of IRC Division 3.
He promises us more detailed thoughts on it in a few weeks time, something which will be of real value to everyone who races offshore, for the race to Hobart is a superb performance laboratory. And maybe we can also hope in due course for further thoughts from someone on whether or not Matt Allen's Carkeek 60 Ichi Ban, skippered by Gordon Maguire with Adrienne Cahalan as navigator, has what it takes to be a killer.
It's easy for us here in Ireland to look at screens of photos and figures and reckon that Ichi Ban is just a little bit too plump for her own good. But Maguire has twice been key to a Sydney-Hobart overall win, the most recent being in 2011 with Stephen Ainsworth's Loki. And Cahalan's record of success as a navigator/tactician is almost without parallel. Yet though Ichi Ban's 2014 Hobart race score of 8th in line honours and fourth in IRC Division 0 is a thoroughly competent result, it just lacks that little bit of stardust.
Ichi Ban finding her way through the waves on her way to Hobart. If that's not a spare tyre around her midriff, then what is it?
Despite being a "racer/cruiser", the Botin 65 Caro – navigated by Ian Moore – pipped Ichi Ban for third in class.
With the next Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race just over eleven months down the line, let's hope we're proven utterly wrong within the year on the Ichi Ban question. But the whole matter is pointed up by the fact that the boat which pipped in ahead of her in the IRC Div 0 placings in third place behind the two Cookson 50s was the Botin 65 Caro, with our own own Ian Moore navigating on this 65 footer which likes to emphasize her dual role as a racer-cruiser.
Now there really is food for thought. But in this first weekend of this wonderful new year of 2015, let's remember some of the events of December 1991 as recorded in excited detail in the Afloat magazine of Feb/March 1992.
On the cover is Meath-born John Storey's Sydney-based Farr 44 Atara, around which the Irish Southern Cross team of 1991 was built, as Harold Cudmore was aboard, and he brought out John Mulcahy from Kinsale and John Murphy from Crosshaven.
The small boat of the team was Tony Dunne's Davidson 36 Extension – the owner claimed Irishness through the Irish granny rule, but the matter was put beyond any doubt by Joe English being on board with Dan O'Grady and Conor O'Neill. And then for the third boat they'd Warren John's Davidson 40 Beyond Thunderdome, whose owner was happy to be Irish if they'd let him, and to put the matter beyond doubt his vessel was over-run by Howth men in the form of Gordon Maguire, Kieran Jameson, and Roger Cagney, with Dun Laoghaire's Mike O'Donnell allowed on board too, provided he behaved himself.
In the Southern Cross Series of 1991, the Davidson 40 Beyond Thunderdome was raced for Ireland by Gordon Maguire and Kieran Jameson. Thunderdome was top of the points table when she was knocked out with a dismasting in the final inshore race, and was unable to race to Hobart.
It was an accident-prone series, with Beyond Thunderdome dismasted in a tacking collision with one of the Australian boats with just three days to go to the start of the Hobart Race. There simply wasn't time to get a replacement mast, let alone tune it, but at the last minute the jury decided the Australian boat was at fault, and allowed Beyond Thunderdome average points not only for that race in which she'd been dismasted, but also for the Hobart Race which hadn't even yet been sailed.
In a final marvellous twist to the story, as Thunderdome couldn't race to Hobart, Gordon Maguire was drafted aboard Atara to add helming strength for the big one. Atara had only been a so-so performer until the big race. But Cudmore and Maguire – that really was the dream team. And it gave the dream result. Atara won the 1991 Sydney-Hobart race overall by a margin of one minute and 50 seconds. It was one of the closest results ever, but it was a close shave in the right direction for Ireland. The Irish party in Hobart to welcome 1992 was epic. And Gordon Maguire's sailing career was set on a stellar course.
Our magazine edition of February/March 1992 cover-featured John Storey's Farr 44 Atara, overall winner of the 1991 Sydney-Hobart race with the dream team of Harold Cudmore and Gordon Maguire on board to give Ireland the win in the Southern Cross Series.
#seascapes – The maritime community in Ireland is a mystery to the vast majority of the rest of the population. Admittedly anyone Irish will sing enthusiastically about how good it is to be entirely surrounded by water. But for most folk among a people who like to think that they're basically rural even if the reality is they're increasingly urban, the sea is seen as no more than a useful barrier, while the coast is only briefly a fun place at the very height of a good summer.
The sea and the coastal interface are not seen as an exciting world in itself, a unique environment which deserves to be explored, enjoyed and utilised in practical and often beneficial ways. On the contrary, the popular view of the plain people of Ireland is that the less they know about the sea, the better. And the unspoken corollary of this is that anyone who seeks to go to sea for recreation is at best a bit odd, maybe even a misfit ashore, while those who work on the sea only do so because they couldn't get a job on land.
Here at Afloat.ie, in its various manifestations over the past 52 years, we've been trying to spread mutual understanding and useful information among the many and varied strands of those who go afloat for sport and recreation in Ireland and beyond. We know this is largely a matter of preaching to the converted. But we also try to do our bit to welcome those who may be newcomers to the world of boats, while remaining keenly aware of the drawbacks of over-selling our sport, our hobby – our obsession, if you wish.
Sailing and boating in Ireland can be rugged enough. Thus the sport in all its forms can only expand in a sustainable way if it attracts people who will themselves bring something positive to the party, for interacting usefully with boats is not a passive affair. And there has been a certain level of success. Over the years, while there was an understandable blip in boating numbers during the recent recession, the graph has been reasonably healthy when it's remembered that rival sport and entertainment attractions are proliferating all the time, while the increasing availability of holidays afloat in sunnier climates makes the promotion of boating activity within Ireland more problematic.
Fifty-two years ago, beginning a process of regular communication among Ireland's recreational boating community was quite a challenge. But it was a very straightforward project compared with inaugurating a regularly weekly broadcast maritime programme for all listeners on national radio in a country notably averse to the sea. Yet it all began 25 years ago, and it's still going strong.
So how do you celebrate 25 years of a niche radio programme, a little Irish maritime magazine of the air? It would be too much to expect a documentary on primetime television. And even an extra-long gala edition on the national radio airwaves at peak listening times might well be counter-productive. So it seems the answer is that the best way to celebrate 25 years of Seascapes on RTE Radio 1 is to publish a book well-filled with some of the key broadcasts with which it has been associated. And as those now-printed broadcasts include a maritime-themed series of the prestigious Thomas Davis Lectures, you mark the anniversary by sending out those as broadcasts again in their own right twelve years after their first transmission.
It may all sound almost devious, a matter of managing to slip the Seascapes celebrations in under the RTE management radar. But those of us who have been banging the maritime development drums for a very long time are well aware that, though the tide is definitely turning, there's still a huge underlying resistance to anything to do with the sea and boats, and it takes an element of cunning to get the message across such that, in time, the people are themselves singing from the same hymn sheet, and thinking it was all their idea in the first place.
But the founder of Seascapes 25 years ago, RTE's Cork reporter Tom MacSweeney, makes your average terrier look like a tired old dog. A sailing and maritime enthusiast himself even though his family had been from a non-maritime background, he had as a child in Cork been inspired by his grandfather's great respect for seafarers, and the vital task they performed in keeping Ireland connected with the rest of the world. He could see the sea all about us, and Cork is the most maritime of cities. So he just kept nagging RTE until they gave him a quarter of an hour once a week back in 1989 to put on a maritime programme for an island nation. And though it has been shifted around in the schedules, it is now a solid half hour every Friday night at 10.30pm, a worthy fulfilment of RTE's public service remit - you really do get a sense of Seascape's nationwide listening community, while podcasts make it more accessible than ever.
The sheer volume of material from all round Ireland's coasts, from our lakes and rivers, and from Irish seafarers abroad, is simply monumental, a treasure trove. So in producing the book (it's published by Liffey Press at €20 with all royalties going to the Lifeboat Service), they'd to wield a fierce scalpel. And though it includes the complete set of Thomas Davis lectures from twelve years ago, it's still of manageable size (in other words, you can read it in bed), while giving a good overview and flavour of the kind of material Seascapes broadcasts, and what we might call the house style.
In Tom MacSweeney's days of producing and presenting it from 1989 until he retired from RTE in January 2010, it has to be agreed that very occasionally the nagging which got Seascapes its slot in the first place sometimes spilled over onto the airwaves in the programme itself. Okay, we all know that Ireland is not as sea-minded as it might be. But things are slowly improving in this, and they might improve more quickly if the maritime movement relied more on the path of gentle encouragement and inspiring example rather than constantly reiterating the tedious refrain of "the government should do this, the government should do that....."
From time to time, I have to confess I thought the worst possible thing was to get the government involved at all, having seen what the official encouragement and enforcement of the Irish language had achieved since the establishment of the state. There'd be occasions when you'd think the best way to turn the Irish into a nation of doughty sailors would be to declare seafaring illegal. The people would have taken to boats in their droves....But nevertheless the tide is slowly but definitely turning, and in today's less frenetic atmosphere of businesslike maritime promotion and development, we're becoming more comfortable in our relationship with the sea.
Man of the sea. Rear Admiral Mark Mellett DSM on exercises with the Naval Service off the Cork coast.
So it was entirely appropriate that, in the launching of the Seascape's compendium Sailing By, the main speaker in both the Cork Harbour Commissioners' building on the Friday night (November 28th), and in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire on Monday, was Rear Admiral Mark Mellett DSM, our most distinguished navy man, who has risen to the august heights of Deputy Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces.
If you requested Central Casting to provide an Irish Admiral who conveys the expected air of competence with the necessary gravitas and presence, while still having that essential Irish twinkle, then they'd send you Mark Mellett. We'd most of us heard of his steady rise through the senior ranks, but for many of us in the National Maritime Museum on a damp December night, it was the first experience of seeing Admiral Mellett in a professional and public capacity. For people from a very wide range of interests and activities in the maritime sphere, it was very encouraging – we feel we now have a spokesman who can ably represent us at every level, however formal or high powered, while at the same time retaining the human touch.
Top people at the launching of the Seascapes book Sailing By are (left to right) Cllr Marie Baker (Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council), Rear Admiral Mark Mellett DSM (Deputy Chief of Staff , Defence Forces), Marcus Connaughton of Seascapes, and Richard McCormick, President of the National Maritime Museum. Admiral Mellett is being presented with the book The Atlantic Coast of Ireland, as he already has his own copy of Sailing By – he wrote the foreword.
His enthusiasm is palpable, and he provided a foreword for the book which speaks from the heart, yet provides a practical and businesslike outlook. In fact, that was the flavour of the evening in the National Maritime Museum, as it was hosted by Richard McCormick, the recently elected President of the National Maritime Museum, and the speakers included the Cathaoirleach of Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, Cllr. Marie Baker, and Tom McGuire, head of RTE Radio 1, who knows better than anyone just what has been needed to keep Seascapes on the airwaves for 25 years.
Most of all it has of course been the sheer dogged determination of Tom MacSweeney working on his own as producer and presenter in RTE's Cork studio, followed by his successor Marcus Connaughton, who came in as producer when the Thomas Davis Lectures were added to an already almost impossibly demanding schedule in 2002, and stayed on to become presenter eight years later.
They're two very different people. Tom is so involved and enthusiastic that occasionally his own personality, opinions and attitudes cloud the issue. He's a complex man with many interests, not least of them being a national Vice President of the St Vincent de Paul Society. But as regular visitors to Afloat.ie will know, he continues to broadcast his own maritime programmes through community radio, and he's a much-sought-after speaker on sea matters. Recently, he gave a sold-out talk - How Stands Our Island Nation? - to the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Association in the Poolbeg Y&BC, and while he had the usual serious message, it was leavened by his sharp wit, with the laugh of the evening being provided by his reading of the pained official letter from an Irish Lights Manager complaining about the sheer incompetence and slovenly carelessness of Brendan Behan when he was employed as a painter renovating the St John's Point lighthouse in County Down.
That said, it was a telling lesson in the importance or otherwise of maritime affairs in Ireland's national and cultural life in times past, that the story of a noted playwright making a complete hames of painting a lighthouse was something you knew would register more readily with a general audience than anything of more direct nautical interest, and it is an awareness of the need to reach out gently to the general public which sets the tone of Marcus Connaughton's presentation of Seascapes.
He arrived in the job first as producer, and then as producer/presenter, with no personal baggage in maritime matters. His background was in music production and public relations, and a couple of years ago he brought seventeen years of research and writing to a successful conclusion with the defining biography of Rory Gallagher. But gradually he has become absorbed in and intrigued by the world of boats and the sea. As one of the speakers on Monday night put it, one of the most quietly impressive peformances you'll see is Marcus – who is by no means a small man – sidling into the crowd at some maritime gathering, armed with microphone and recorder, ready and willing to give a voice to the voiceless.
Man at work – Marcus Connaughton records the memories of Alan Martin and Jimmy Carthy of the Dublin Dockworkers Preservation Society
Tim Magennis (left) President of the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Association, with Marcus Connaughton. Once upon a time, they were work colleagues in the PR Department of Bord Failte
The book launch begins to become a party – Con Murphy of the National YC (left) and Brian Craig of the Royal St George YC getting their copies of Sailing By signed by Marcus Connaughton in the National Maritime Museum. Photo: W M Nixon
The changeover to a new presenter was fairly gradual, but very marked in one thing – he changed the signature tune. When Seascapes started in 1989, they simply borrowed the music which precedes the BBC Shipping Forecast, Ronald Binge's "Sailing By".
"Sailing By" in almost any form is the sound of syrup being poured over sugar lumps, but some folk loved it, so the change to the brisk tone of Simon Mayer's The Reel Thing wasn't universally popular, even if welcomed by those of us trying to cut down on the sucrose.
Yet it's surely an appropriate 25th anniversary sweetener that the published compendium of Seascapes stories is titled Sailing By, and the cover is a fine photo of the renowned pilot cutter Jolie Brise sailing by the Fastnet Rock. It was taken by Brian Carlin of Tralee, who subsequently went on to be the award-winning photographer aboard the Volvo 65 Team Vestas, which unfortunately managed to do some excessive impactive navigation off Mauritius during the Volvo World race last weekend. It was certainly not the photographer's fault, but it heightened the sense of an Irish maritime community worldwide that at Monday night's gathering, Marcus was able to tell us that not only was Brian all right, but that in contacting his father to say so, he requested that the message be passed on to Seascapes as soon as possible.
One of award-winning photographer Brian Carlin's studies of Jolie Brise sailing by the Fastnet Rock. Photo: Brian Carlin
The top moment – it's 2005, and the Seascapes team are on board Asgard II as she leads the Dunbrody of New Ross, and the Jeanie Johnston of Tralee, in the Parade of Sail at the Tall Ships visit to Waterford. Photo: Dave Osborne
As for Marcus's own special recollections of his years with Seascapes, we allowed him six and he ranked them: (1) Being on Asgard II in Waterford with the Tall Ships in 2005, (2) at sea off Hook Head with Martin Colfer amidst enormous schools of lively dolphins, (3) in Galway during both Volvo visits, (4) being far up his beloved Munster Blackwater beyond Ballinatray at the top of the tide, (5) celebrating 25 years of the Killybegs Fishermen's Association at a monster party in the great Donegal port, and (6) being in the renovated National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire when it was re-opened by President Michael D Higgins.
Presidential thoughts of the sea and seafaring in Ireland – Seascapes interviews President Higgins after he has re-opened the restored National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Margaret Brown
Seascapes was of course broadcast as usual last night at 10.30pm, and Marcus Connaughton will be signing copies of Sailing By in Waterstones in Cork this afternoon from 2.0pm to 5.0pm. The first of the six Thomas Davis lectures from 20012 – Paddy Barry's lyrical account of sailing round Ireland – will be broadcast on Friday December 19th, and they'll continue weekly until the final one on February 6th, which is my own item about why most people in Ireland think sailing enthusiasts are so odd. As mentioned at the Glandore Summer School in July, I've changed my mind about some aspects of that, and I'll probably have changed it yet again when Marcus provides me with the space for further thoughts on the matter on Seascapes some time after February 6th.
But meanwhile, happy birthday to Seascapes – you provide a wonderful example of genuine public service broadcasting.