Lough Ree Yacht Club at Ballyglass, where the spacious waters of the great Shannon lake start to narrow back to river size for the passage south through Athlone, is already well into planning for its Quarter Millennium in 2020. Founded in 1770, its history ranks it second only to the Royal Cork YC of 1720 in the global seniority stakes.
But on Saturday, when it provided the hospitable centre-of-Ireland location for the fully-booked all day Irish Sailing Annual Cruising Conference organised by Gail MacAllister, the focus was very much on the present and future of cruising. A well-chosen range of topics and speakers absorbed the attention of a sailing and boating population which may not grab the headlines in the same way as the racing brigade, but countrywide their numbers are probably greater, while participants included racers who cruise with equal enthusiasm.
Lough Ree YC Commodore Garrett Leech and Irish Sailing President Jack Roy opened the varied proceedings, their own experiences setting the tone. The Leech family is synonymous with active Shannon cruising and racing, and Garrett’s brother John is Commodore of Lough Derg YC. As for the President, while he may be best known for his many competitive participations in a variety of boats and continuing race officer duties, these days he is also spreading his cruising horizons with the fine Hallberg Rassy 46 Tangaroa.
Thus he is personally well aware that though the legislation for the Irish version of a Small Ships Register was enacted as long ago as 2014, Irish Sailing is still working on behalf of those whom it represents to get it up and running. This lack of priority given to some official interactions with the recreational boating community was echoed by one of the afternoon’s speakers, Irish Cruising Club Sailing Directions Editor Norman Kean.
He has been ICC Directions Editor since 2005, but for the last three years he has also been on the Irish Sailing Representation Group, specializing in the problems with the official attitude to the changed situation in regard to use of red or green diesel, and he brought the conference up to date on developments there which - to say the least - are slow.
However, if there was a theme to this conference on many topics, it was the positive approach to problem-solving for cruising folk, and the first presentation by Paul Scannell and Mary Healy - on how they have taken to prudent sea coastal cruising with their formerly inland waterways 41-year-old Broom 37 motor-cruiser Arthur – provided much of practical interest for sail and power enthusiasts alike.
The harsh reality of the open sea at its most aggressive was the topic of Kylie McMillan’s presentation, which stemmed from her role as a crew-member aboard the J/109 Jedi when they’d a man-overboard situation off the west coast in strong to gale northerly headwinds during the 2018 Volvo Round Ireland Race. The exemplary and speedy retrieval controlled by First Mate Kenneth Rumball of the Irish National Sailing School has deservedly been awarded the RORC’s Seamanship Trophy, and Kylie’s gripping account of the experience brought the whole event to life.
The other side of sea rescues was then explored by Keith Devaney, Technical Crew Manager of CHC Helicopters who run the five state-of-the-art Sikorsky S92s on behalf of the Irish Coastguard. Keith is responsible for all 37 technical crew (the Winchmen) in the service, and after the self-help Jedi presentation, the air-sea rescue view was an intriguingly different angle.
The morning session was completed with experienced cruiser Vera Quinlan of Kinvara on Galway Bay (she has been sailing since the age of 10) presenting an informative video on her plans to do a 15-month Atlantic circuit cruise with her family – including Lilian (11) and Ruari (9) - on their Bruce Roberts-designed Mauritius 43 Daru. As she works in the INFOMAR programme with the Marine Institute, although she’ll be taking a career break it will be with a professional flavour, surveying sea conditions and placing an oceanographic buoy along the way.
After a sociable break for an excellent lunch, the ecological conditions of our oceans was very much the theme of the first afternoon speaker, ocean racing legend Damian Foxall, who has recently been appointed Irish Sailing’s Sustainability Ambassador. His CV in completing 10 round-the-world races with its close-up experience of the increasingly polluted state of our oceans now informs his entire approach to environmental matters, and he was passionate in his determination to make all sailors aware of the roles they have to play in reversing the trend.
One longterm development which will be significant in this is increased use of electric power as the basis of marine engines. But for most boats, the contemporary reality is still the standard internal combustion engine started by battery power. Toni O’Leary of Union Chandlery is typical in that her classic Contessa 26 in Cork Harbour has the diesel engine with battery support combination. As Technical Sales Supervisor with Union Chandlery for the last 16 years specialising in the electronics, electric and marine hardware divisions, she was able to give the best advice about proper on-board battery management, still an area of mystery to many boat-owners.
Norman Kean’s contribution was naturally well spiced with his own salty wisdom as a hugely-experienced cruising man, one who moreover is never reluctant to give his clear and sound views on the vast array of nautical topics with which he is fully conversant. But after he’d outlined the problems with fuel sourcing for recreational boats on Irelands remoter coasts and the apparent official indifference to it, some of the less dedicated attendees might well have wondered if the sometimes intangible benefits of cruising outweigh its many challenges.
This question was almost immediately answered by the final speaker, Niall Hatch of Bird Watch Ireland, whose guidance through the coastal birds of Ireland and their identification was a reminder of the many rewards of cruising at its best, though he also gave forceful reminders of the hazards of plastic waste. That said, we take it for granted that the close and easy sighting of seabirds in their element is part of every cruising day, just as we’re almost blasé about the regular appearance of whales, dolphins and porpoises off coastlines of breath-taking beauty, but Niall Hatch’s presentation was an eloquent reminder of the special pleasures cruising provides.
Thus this friendly conference – which had seen every presentation followed by insightful questions from the audience - concluded on a specially pleasant note which sent everyone on the road home with their interest in cruising well refreshed. As Gail MacAllister admits, they may have tried to pack too much into the busy day. But there wasn’t one item anyone would wish to have removed. And thanks to the sponsorship of Union Chandlery and Kilrush Marina, with additional support from UK Sails Ireland, Aster Yachting, W1DA, VHF.ie-training, and the Irish National Sailing School, it was a comprehensive success, buoyed up by the unstintingly friendly and very hospitable approach of Lough Ree Yacht Club.