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Irish Sailing’s Cruising Conference was a Kaleidoscope of Information, Inspiration, Entertainment & Camaraderie

19th February 2018
Alex and Daria Blackwell – their contribution to Saturday’s Cruising Conference was outstanding. Alex and Daria Blackwell – their contribution to Saturday’s Cruising Conference was outstanding.

The day-long Irish Sailing/Cruising Association of Ireland Annual Cruising Conference, organised with energetic enthusiasm by Irish Sailing’s Gail MacAllister, deservedly attracted a full house on Saturday to the Clayton Hotel in Leopardstown in South Dublin writes W M Nixon.

A motorway-focused modern hotel may seem an unlikely setting for a gathering redolent of sailing the salty sea. So it tells us everything about the calibre and variety of the speakers and presenters, and the range of their subjects, that the audience very quickly felt that they were no longer in a window-less conference suite. Instead, they were magically transported to a maritime environment, in and around boats among fellow-minded shipmates either simply enjoying cruising, or dealing with its challenges, or indeed solving the many sometimes apparently intractable problems which come with owning and running a boat.

aleria message8Rogue Trader – with much TLC, she became a dream-fulfilling ocean voyager

There was no mistaken attempt to give the impression that real cruising is easy - that it is simply racing without the stress. On the contrary, the conference started with Claire McCluskey and Nick Russell’s inspiring story of how - virtually on a whim – they bought the hefty and decidedly tired ketch Rogue Trader – 56ft from the end of her mizzen boom to the tip of her bowsprit – restored her to full seaworthiness, and then headed off on an Atlantic cruise which has seen 10,000 nautical miles logged. Just like that……..

aleria message8Claire McCluskey and Nick Russell – a spur-of-the-moment decision became a dream of the future, and the dream came true

It was very hard work making it happen for Rogue Trader, but once she was actually under way it was mostly fun. So, for balance, the next topic was not fun at all - the pollution of our seas and coastlines, particularly by plastic. The speaker was Sinead McCoy, Coastal Communities Manager with An Taisce, and though in spreading environmental awareness in the cruising community she was largely talking to the converted, it is our duty to pass on the message, particularly as regards plastic, for it seems that some forms of it actually have a taste which is attractive if ultimately fatal for marine life.

aleria message8Evie Conway has taken on a massive wooden boat restoration job.

aleria message8Urgently in need of restoration – very little is known of the origins of Evie Conway’s 26-footer, but by the time the restoration job is completed in her parents’ garden, it is hoped the entire history will be available.

A serious tone, but with a hopeful longterm outcome, was the theme of the next topic, the restoration project being carried out on a neglected and anonymous 26ft sloop – now called Saoirse – by Evie Conway. At the moment she’s doing the work by herself, but hopes to speed up progress when the boat is moved from Cobh to her parents’ garden in Dublin. In time we’ll hope to have more precise details of the presently-unknown history of this Folkboat-like mahogany-built craft, but for now the project is powered by the extra goodwill generated in Leopardsown.

After that, we were into a presentation which could comfortably have filled the entire morning or afternoon. To describe Alex and Daria Blackwell of Clew Bay as “Atlantic veterans” is a real understatement. Their handsome Bowman 57 Aleria has crossed the Western Ocean many times in a wide variety of conditions, and Alex has taken on what many would describe as the most challenging ocean of them all several times in other vessels, so their Atlantic experience has few rivals.

aleria message8Alex and Daria Blackwell’s much-travelled Bowman 57 Aleria is based in Clew Bay

But few if any with comparable experience have tabulated their thorough research and knowledge with the dedication of Aleria’s crew. It was an extremely focused yet broad-ranging presentation about how to deal with offshore storms in crossing the Atlantic and everything – but everything – that it might throw at you.

aleria message8Daria Blackwell aboard Aleria. Even with today’s domination by electronics, it is still vital to keep proper records

aleria message8The basic findings by Aleria’s experienced crew

And though Atlantic crossing was beyond the experience or even the ambitions of many present, there was one abiding message of good sense which remained with all who heard it. When the going is getting rough to extremely rough, even if your boat is still making progress, give a thought to the benefits of heaving-to.

Proper heaving-to, that is. Not simply hauling down the sails and lying a-hull – that can be extremely uncomfortable and downright dangerous, for most modern boats lie beam on, the motion is abominable, and there’s a real chance of being completely rolled.

But properly hove-to (and it should be on starboard tack), with a scrap of headsail aback and enough mainsail, try-sail or mizzen set so that you’re lying at the proper angle to the seas, and you’ll find that life on board is transformed. The good sense of this struck a chord with the audience, with one experienced cruising man remarking that if the wind was more than Force 6 – and sometimes much less, depending on the sea state - he always hove-to at meal times.

aleria message8Heaving-to is traditionally done on starboard tack – carried out like this, in theory you then have right-of-way over every other ship except a lightship. And the corollary is that the galley should be on the port side……

There was so much thought-inducing material in the Blackwell’s presentation that it took a real mental re-set to adjust to the next item, a maritime poetry reading by Seamus Harrington. But he’s such an engaging reader with so much delight in the topic that it put everyone the mood for lunch, and when your correspondent found himself sharing a table with Daria and Alex Blackwell, Paddy Barry, Alan Leonard and John Duggan of the Irish Cruising Club, there was a possibility that an alternative mini-conference might get underway, but we returned to the conference suite and soon were back to sea, for the afternoon had much more of interest.

John Leahy and Clifford Brown of the Cruising Association of Ireland told us of their organisation’s busy plans for the season of 2018, and then Aodhan FitzGerald of the Marine Institute in Galway, a keen offshore sailor himself and the MI’s Research Vessel Manager, outlined the many problems and solutions in maintaining Ireland’s extensive Marine Weather Buoy Network.

It was a forceful reminder of the fact that Ireland is very much on Europe’s ocean frontier, and that the wave power we’re told is going to provide so much energy in future can also be a destructive force which makes the informationally-valuable buoyage network a constant maintenance challenge, but Aodhan took us clearly through the development of the system, and introduced us to the next generation of equipment.

The final speaker was a double bill, and as it was Norman Kean, Honorary Editor of the Irish Cruising Club Sailing Directions, his contributions were a reminder of just how much difference congenial cruising couples make to our sport. After all, the night before in Dun Laoghaire, we’d seen Maire Breathach be declared the latest awardee of the Irish Cruising Club’s senior trophy, the Faulkner Cup, and that was for a cruise she’d made to northeast Greenland with her husband Andrew Wilkes in their 64ft cutter Annabel J.

Then to start Saturday’s conference, we saw positive couple power demonstrated again in the achievements of Claire McCluskey and Nick Russell. Soon after that, we had the comprehensive contribution of Daria and Alex Blackwell. And here we were, rounding out the day with many insights from Norman Kean, whose wife Geraldine Hennigan is his constant shipmate and effectively co-editor of the Sailing Directions. So the old saying is true: “If you find a good crew – marry her…..”

Norman’s first contribution was on the infrastructural developments around the coast of benefit to cruising folk, and it was heart-warming to feel the sense of pride when somebody’s favourite harbour or anchorage came up on the screen with some really useful new amenity.

aleria message8Norman Kean – the man to go to if you want sound advice on marina locations. And a man with a serious message about fishing gear markers

That said, with his unrivalled experience, Norman Kean’s opinion carries real weight, and while you could sense the approval in the room as he showed the welcome new developments at North Harbour at Cape Clear in the far south of the country, equally we shared his sorrow rather than anger that so much public money had been squandered in trying to create a pontoon facility at Bunagee Pier on Donegal’s Culdaff Bay in the far north of the country. It’s a very useful passage anchorage, but without huge – as in really enormous - harbour works, there’s no way it could ever properly shelter pontoons.

Inevitably these comparisons between facilities contributed to the post-conference chat which almost inevitably led to people naming their favourite anchorage, but before we got to that safe haven, Norman has a serious topic to deal with – the marking of fishing gear as in lobster, crab and whelk pots. Salmon nets may have gone, but there seem to be more barely-marked pots around than ever, and there’s now a very determined campaign afoot to have them properly marked with a flag on a pole, with the buoy showing the name of the owner, not just a number or the name of some boat.

aleria message8Unseen fishing gear fouls a propeller – not just a day ruined, but you could be in danger, and it might ultimately prove expensive too.

You don’t have to be under power to get fouled in semi-submerged fishing gear, but it greatly increases the risk, and with propeller installations on P-brackets or sail-drive, the hazards are even further compounded. Norman and Geraldine had profound personal experience of this a couple of years ago when they were heading west under power in their 40ft Coire Uisge in the west part of Bantry Bay under the north shore. Although they gave a barely visible marker buoy a good berth, a second invisible buoy was some distance away on a semi-submerged line, and with a sickening clunk they were immobilised.

The wind and set of the seas was basically onshore, and it soon became apparent that although out of control, they were slowly dragging the now multiply-tangled set of pots towards the lee shore. So a Pan Pan call became the only option, and the Castletownbere lifeboat the ultimate solution – plus about €2,000 to put right the damage to the propellor installation.

Norman Kean – one of the most experienced and safety-conscious cruising people you could ever hope to meet – was completely frank about having to seek help. But being of a positive outlook on life, he kept a complete record of the entire experience, and now he is a leading figure in the international movement to make the marking of floating or semi-submerged fishing gear a much more effective business.

aleria message8The date is already set for next year’s conference

aleria message8

Gail MacAllister – she’ll be doing well to match the content quality of 2018’s conference

It was a thoughtful note on which to end, but then it was one very thought-provoking conference throughout. So much so, in fact, that people were in no hurry to leave, for it’s seldom enough that you’ll get such a centration of genuine cruising enthusiasts in one place with the day devoted to their favourite subject. The date and venue has been set for 2019’s conference already – it’s Saturday February 16th at Lough Ree Yacht Club near Athlone. Gail MacAllister will be doing well to match the calibre of her 2018 lineup. But for now, very well done to everyone involved in this year’s event.

aleria message8Good wishes from Aleria to send everyone safely on their way

Purchase a copy of Alex and Daria Blackwell's Cruising the Wild Atlantic Way here.

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