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Conor O'Brien’s outstanding pioneering achievement was in demonstrating that a sailing vessel as small as his own-designed 42ft Baltimore-built ketch Saoirse could complete a global circumnavigation through the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean, south of the Great Capes. The voyage’s unique and epic nature is somehow accentuated by the otherworldly neatness of its timing - Dun Laoghaire to Dun Laoghaire between June 20th 1923 and June 20th 1925.

It means that we’re plumb in the middle of its Centenary, and this has meant that nowadays, when people think of O’Brien and his gallant Saoirse, they understandably think first of the courageous and tidily-timed circumnavigation, and of little else - if anything – concerning this sometimes obtuse character.

The new version of the 1933-published Voyage & Discovery gives us a historically fascinating guide to the Ibiza of that timeThe new version of the 1933-published Voyage & Discovery gives us a historically fascinating guide to the Ibiza of that time

In entirely another area of blinkered vision, the popular modern perception of the small Balearic island of Ibiza is of Disco Central – the venue for an informal season-long annual Olympics of the up-market rave.

WHEN IBIZA WAS LITTLE KNOWN

Yet once upon a time – and it’s not so very long ago – Ibiza was known, if at all and only to a discerning few, as a relatively primitive yet unspoilt island of great charm, whose rugged landscape of just 220 square miles provided ample evidence of its long and varied history, with a relatively recent period including interaction with the piratical Barbary corsairs of North Africa.

In the challenging financial times of 1933, the cover of the 1933 edition was produced as economically as possibleIn the challenging financial times of 1933, the cover of the 1933 edition was produced as economically as possible

In the early 1930s, much of Ibiza was simply awaiting electricity rather than anticipating heavy electronic entertainment. And as for Conor O’Brien, after the success of Across Three Oceans - the book telling the story of his great voyage – and other spin-offs, he was simply thinking of a way to provide a living for himself and his new wife, the artist Kitty Clausen.

Conor O’Brien and Kitty Clausen hoisting sail on board Saoirse – and yes, he did believe in using chain for the key halyardsConor O’Brien and Kitty Clausen hoisting sail on board Saoirse – and yes, he did believe in using chain for the key halyards

They’d been contemplating for some time the idea of finding a base of sorts for Saoirse in a characterful harbour on a picturesque Mediterranean island, and Ibiza best fitted their requirements. They’d live economically on board, Kitty could paint each day, and Conor could get on with writing articles and the occasional book based on his unmatched seafaring experience. Then from time to time, they could move on if they wished to broaden the scope of their material.

The dream fulfilled – Kitty’s impression of Conor in Saoirse’s homely saloon in IbizaThe dream fulfilled – Kitty’s impression of Conor in Saoirse’s homely saloon in Ibiza

AUTUMN DEPARTURE

But it was into the Autumn of 1931 before they finally got away from Falmouth in Cornwall, sailing south into often adverse and sometimes exceptionally rough sea conditions. And it wasn’t until the first week of 1932 that they finally made the port of Ibiza itself, which made them feel doubly welcome after some unpleasant experiences in other larger ports on the way. Thus the island became central to the next book in the Conor O’Brien collection, Voyage & Discovery published in 1933, written by Conor, and extensively illustrated by Kitty.

Auxiliary power – Conor O’Brien moves Saoirse across the harbour in Ibiza using the 28ft yuloh. But after a season or two in the Mediterranean, even he was persuaded that an auxiliary engine was needed for accessing the increasingly complex and more crowded harboursAuxiliary power – Conor O’Brien moves Saoirse across the harbour in Ibiza using the 28ft yuloh. But after a season or two in the Mediterranean, even he was persuaded that an auxiliary engine was needed for accessing the increasingly complex and more crowded harbours

IBIZA’S FIRST ENGLISH-LANGUAGE TRAVEL BOOK

It would have been of interest for enthusiasts of O’Brien’s sailing stories, and for those who enjoyed his opinionated attitudes to just about everything, provided that he personally was kept at some distance while delivering them. Yet what was generally over-looked was that this was the first English-language travel book in which Ibiza played the leading role. And being a small and relatively unknown place, that’s how it continued to stay for some decades.

“Sunshine and Almond Blossom, Ibiza (1932)” by Katharine Clausen – featured on the outside back cover of the new edition, this example of Kitty Clausen’s work in colour is courtesy of Charlotte O’Brien Delamer“Sunshine and Almond Blossom, Ibiza (1932)” by Katharine Clausen – featured on the outside back cover of the new edition, this example of Kitty Clausen’s work in colour is courtesy of Charlotte O’Brien Delamer

Voyage & Discovery - while a modest success – initially had only that one 1933 edition, and then the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939 and World War II from 1939-1945 put any possible increased awareness of Ibiza and other subsequently appreciated Mediterranean islands onto the back burner.

In recent years, however, as O’Brien’s place in world voyaging’s story has become better recognized, the other aspects of his life have come into clearer focus, and his rising star has now crossed paths with the soaring if not always appealing image of modern Ibiza.

FINDING O BRIEN’S PLACE IN THE IBIZA STORY

An English academic living on the island for 20 years and more, Martin Davies has recently been ensuring – with the agreement of the O’Brien family - that the proper place in the Ibiza framework for the sailor from County Limerick is better defined with a new and more Ibiza-oriented edition of Voyage & Discovery, a process that in turn reveals that he and others who cherish the true Ibiza can show that it is still there for the discerning visitor - a complex place, a little world of its own.

In Conor and Kitty O’Brien’s time there, it was just beginning to interact more dynamically with modern life, such that they were able to record ancient ways and the traditional local dress while at the same time being present – with Saoirse putting on the full flag display – for the official opening of the new Club Nautico on the Ibiza harbour waterfront in September 1932.

Saoirse’s crew were there for the opening of Ibiza’s new Club Nautico in 1932, and found it a congenial establishment throughout their visitSaoirse’s crew were there for the opening of Ibiza’s new Club Nautico in 1932, and found it a congenial establishment throughout their visit

In order to provide more space for the Ibiza aspects, the early chapters about the outward voyage have been compressed, but sailing enthusiasts need not feel hard done by, as the outward voyage story has been included as an Appendix, and in this re-shaped new edition O’Brien is allowed full rein in the main part of the book to enthuse about the local working sailing craft.

CLASSICAL TRADITIONAL SAILING CRAFT

Some are decidedly odd with extreme lateen rigs that locals like to claim were the basis for the sails-inspired Sydney Harbour Opera House, as its architect Jorn Utzon spent some time on the island. But beyond that, O’Brien’s greatest enthusiasm was for the local trading schooners, so elegant they were yacht-like or better, with particularly attractive counters finishing in sweetly-angled oval transoms.

The local fishing boats in Ibiza in 1932 were felucca-like with their long lateen booms, and a local eccentricity was having the masts permanently canted to starboard, shown here with a classic Ibiza schooner in the backgroundThe local fishing boats in Ibiza in 1932 were felucca-like with their long lateen booms, and a local eccentricity was having the masts permanently canted to starboard, shown here with a classic Ibiza schooner in the background

As for Kitty Clausen’s charming illustrations, they are well-placed in the text to provide a smooth read, and the only regret is that nearly all are monochrome – the new paperback’s cover has just two in colour to give us a tantalising taste of what she could create.

This second edition Ibizan edition has also been given a Spanish translation as Viaije y descubrimiento by Eva Maria Rios Castillo, and as Martin Davies is an Oxford history graduate with an additional qualification in Librarianship and Information Studies, this new edition of an O’Brien story with informative footnotes brings the same rigour and depth that we found with Judith Hill’s excellent O’Brien biography In Search of Islands (Collins Press 2009), which was created with a major input from Ilen restorer Gary Mac Mahon of Limerick.

“Silks and satins, ribbons and lace” – getting dressed up to go out in 1930s Ibiza was not something to be undertaken lightly“Silks and satins, ribbons and lace” – getting dressed up to go out in 1930s Ibiza was not something to be undertaken lightly

CORSAIR LINKS

Martin Davies’ specialist Ibizan-based publishing company is Barbary Press, as he finds the island’s links to North Africa a matter of continuing fascination. Those who would find links every which way would point out that Saoirse was built in 1922 in Baltimore, which itself has more than a few links to the Barbary Corsairs, such that Sherkin Island on the west side of Baltimore Harbour was at times a proper Corsair base, and at the very least a regular re-victualling centre. And that’s before we talk of the Sack of Baltimore.

In winter, the real Ibiza emerges. The recent launching there of the new amplified editions (English & Spanish) of Conor O Brien and Katharine Clausen’s 1933-published Voyage & Discovery was undertaken by (left to right) Martin Davies of Barbary Press, noted local author Joan Cardona, and Fanny Tur, former Culture Minister for the Baleric Islands. Photo: Daniel Erasmus-EsterhazyIn winter, the real Ibiza emerges. The recent launching there of the new amplified editions (English & Spanish) of Conor O Brien and Katharine Clausen’s 1933-published Voyage & Discovery was undertaken by (left to right) Martin Davies of Barbary Press, noted local author Joan Cardona, and Fanny Tur, former Culture Minister for the Baleric Islands. Photo: Daniel Erasmus-Esterhazy

In some ways, communications in those days worked better within their limits than supposedly sophisticated modern electronics, as Martin tells us when we asked how best to get a copy of this inspired and very welcome new version of Voyage & Discovery. He writes:

To customers of the new edition of Conor O'Brien's Voyage and Discovery (Barbary Press, Ibiza, 2023)

As a local publisher on a small island, Amazon.co.uk has been my main outlet abroad for many years. Their software, however, has recently made it almost impossible to add new titles, perhaps due to the fact that my company is based in Spain. I would be very happy to provide bank and PayPal details for those interested in placing an order – please contact me first with your mailing address. Voyage and Discovery costs €17 plus €6 postage & packing (Total €23) to UK, Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. (£14.75 + £5.25 = £20), and packages usually take between one and two weeks to reach Ireland/UK. This edition is also available in Spanish (Viaje y descubrimiento) for the same price. If you wish to order more than one copy or are based outside Europe, I will be happy to provide postage rates. Thank you.

Martin Davies
Barbary Press
c/. Murcia 10, 5º 1ª
07800 Ibiza
Spain
Tel. +34 609 875 689
[email protected]

THE FINAL WORD

A deterioration in Kitty’s health and the worsening political situation in Spain meant that Saoirse returned to Cornwall in 1935. But even as the shadow of Civil War darkened across the country and its islands, a gleam of light from 1937 reveals that Conor and Kitty O’Brien and their little ship had made a modest but enduring impact.

In the island newspaper Diario de Ibiza on 8th April 1937, leading local writer Alejandro Llobet expressed the effect of this with elegance:

“He reached our shores aboard his yacht Saoirse and was immediately struck by the tranquillity of the island, the benevolence of its soil, the allure of its landscapes and the charm, fast disappearing, of its unusual peasant dress. His book Voyage and Discovery (1933), with pen drawings by the author’s wife, has a favoured place on our shelves. Should God grant us sufficient years we would translate the most interesting chapters so that we Ibicencos, who have a moral debt to settle with this globetrotter, should know and cherish an inheritance whose underlying value we rarely appreciate.” (Alejandro Llobet, Diario de Ibiza, 8 April 1937).

It may have taken 86 years for that Spanish translation of Voyage & Discovery to appear. And it has taken other hands to produce it. But the significance of Conor O Brien seems more relevant across a wider range of interests than ever before, and Martin Davies has done everyone a considerable service.

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In a week’s time, Sailing on Saturday will resume normal service with a preview on December 23rd of the up-coming Cruising Yacht Club of Australia Rolex Sydney-Hobart Race on December 26th, both generally and from an Irish angle, for we have some interesting participants with Gordon Maguire heading the charge aboard the all-conquering Caro.

But for now, acutely aware that the placing of Christmas Day on a Monday appears to have resulted in a so-called festive season marathon of potentially three undiluted weeks and more, we realise that some dyed-in-the wool sailing and cruising enthusiasts urgently need a heavy fix of maritime diversion.

So here’s a rambling peregrination through the odd world of cruising clubs and associations to provide holiday-long distraction, which if needs be can be read as you would most easily eat an elephant, in other words one bit at a time.

CRUISING’S INTERNATIONAL LINKS

There’s an easygoing yet quietly dynamic relationship between the leading cruising clubs on both sides of the Atlantic, drawing on the wealth of experience afloat and ashore gained over very many decades and even centuries by the very first clubs and their members.

These ways of doing things have emerged both from the protocols that began with the Water Club of the Harbour of Cork in 1720 with its subsequent re-branding in the 1820s to become the Royal Cork Yacht Club, and from the ambitions for direct cruising organisational development.

The fleet of the 1720-founded Water Club of the Harbour of Cork on manoeuvres in 1738. Individual or group cruising visits by these pioneering boats to West Cork and sometimes further were so frequent that they scarcely merited mention in the club records. Photo: RCYCThe fleet of the 1720-founded Water Club of the Harbour of Cork on manoeuvres in 1738. Individual or group cruising visits by these pioneering boats to West Cork and sometimes further were so frequent that they scarcely merited mention in the club records. Photo: RCYC

This first came to the top of the agenda in 1880 in London with the challenges of developing a new non-premises cruising club in London, a club whose members would share a fascination with cruising under sail and its engendering of friendship, sociability and mutual support of all kinds through flourishing in an organisation in which many of the members, while very much sailing enthusiasts, were avowedly non-racing people.

THE GROWTH OF CRUISING GROUPS

Today, with the Cruising Group within several of our sailing and yacht clubs in Ireland being the single largest sub-section of the membership, it’s difficult to visualize a time when the yachting establishment saw real sailing as only being in racing. But as it happens, it took a while to acknowledge the validity of this bedrock of our sport, and in the Irish context we realise yet again what a giant in our sailing progress was the physically diminutive Harry Donegan (1870-1940) of Cork.

Harry Donegan: his enthusiasm for sailing of all kinds and his generosity of spirit made him a great force for the good in the sport’s development in Ireland and beyondHarry Donegan: his enthusiasm for sailing of all kinds and his generosity of spirit made him a great force for the good in the sport’s development in Ireland and beyond

In Cork Harbour, the Water Club may have started as a non-racing organisation which expressed itself through fleet manoeuvres followed by hugely convivial dinners typical of the time, either on their small ships or at their shoreside focal point of the old castle on Hawlbowline Island. At these mega-feasts, indulgence was such that one of the club’s famous Rules stipulated that “no member to bring more than a bumper of wine to the dinner, except My Lords the Judges be present”.

WATER CLUB OF CORK SOON RACING

Disregarding the hint at a notoriously thirsty judiciary other than wondering how many readers might have been faced with the menu choice of “Dublin Lawyer” in a West of Ireland restaurant (see end of this blog for answer), we know from ancient newspapers of the mid-1700s that Water Club members were already challenging and wagering for races among themselves.

And by the time the club as Royal Cork was going full blast a hundred years later, racing had become so prominent that any RCYC yacht returning to the harbour from other sailing centres conspicuously flying winning flags would be given a nine gun salute as she passed the club battery. This attractive if noisy performance was charmingly resurrected by Admiral Colin Morehead in a lockdown-compliant way, when the Murphy-Fegan team on Niuelargo returned from winning the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race in 2021, as celebrated here  and here 

The Royal Cork YC’s purpose-built 1854 clubhouse at Cobh proved ideal for saluting returning winnersThe Royal Cork YC’s purpose-built 1854 clubhouse at Cobh proved ideal for saluting returning winners

SOUTHWEST IRELAND’S LONG-ESTABLISHED ROLE AS A WORLD-CLASS CRUISING AREA

In cruising back from Dingle to Cork, the crew of Nieulargo would have been sailing along a familiar coastline, as frequent vacation visits to southwest Ireland’s cruising paradise of West Cork and Kerry has been as much a part of Cork Harbour’s sailing heritage as the racing and fleet manoeuvres for one very long time. But as the racing became ever more intense in the latter half of the 1800s, with Dublin Bay leading the international charge in codifying its rules, cruising began to emerge as a distinctly separate discipline.

The keenly-raced Dublin Bay 21 Garavogue under her original rig. While the class is currently being restored by Hal Sisk and Fionan de Barra under a simpler rig, in 1904 the first Commodore of the 1929-founded Irish Cruising Club, Herbert Wright, was to start his cruising with Garavogue’s sister-ship Estelle under this rig, while he also raced Estelle with Dublin Bay SC with determination and successThe keenly-raced Dublin Bay 21 Garavogue under her original rig. While the class is currently being restored by Hal Sisk and Fionan de Barra under a simpler rig, in 1904 the first Commodore of the 1929-founded Irish Cruising Club, Herbert Wright, was to start his cruising with Garavogue’s sister-ship Estelle under this rig, while he also raced Estelle with Dublin Bay SC with determination and success

Its enthusiasts found fulfillment in the simple joy of sailing and voyaging in a competent manner, and the more complex challenge of developing and properly using seagoing boats that really could be comfortably lived aboard. At the same time, they were learning the skills of seamanship, navigation and pilotage that had previously been the often secretive province of the maritime professionals, that secrecy being the natural manifestation of a trade protection attitude.

CITY LIFE FOCUSED CRUISING CLUB DEVELOPMENT

That said, it took the rapidly increasing population of a vibrant city at some distance from the more popular sailing centres to create a specialist cruising club, and that came about in 1880 in London when a young lawyer originally from the West Midlands, Arthur Underhill, quietly but determinedly brought the Cruising Club into being.

Most of its founder membership was made up from his boyhood friends from “messing about in boats” days in suburban Wolverhampton, people who also shared his career decision to make their way in the bigger world of London. They continued their sailing, but now from South Coast havens mostly around the Solent, or sailing centres out in the Thames Estuary.

There is an Irish link to Underhill, as he was a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and did some sailing in Dublin Bay while here. Subsequently, the boat he owned for the longest length of time was the hefty vintage ketch Wulfruna, built in Waterford in 1874 and of such a size and weight that he needed some professional crew.

Cruising Club founder Arthur Underhill, a Trinity College Dublin graduate, at the helm of his 1874 Waterford-built ketch Wulfruna. While he was in complete charge as Corinthian skipper at sea, when coming into port he allowed his professional skipper to choose where Wulfruna would be anchored, for if a wrong choice was made, the professional crew would have to do the very heavy work of re-anchoringCruising Club founder Arthur Underhill, a Trinity College Dublin graduate, at the helm of his 1874 Waterford-built ketch Wulfruna. While he was in complete charge as Corinthian skipper at sea, when coming into port he allowed his professional skipper to choose where Wulfruna would be anchored, for if a wrong choice was made, the professional crew would have to do the very heavy work of re-anchoring

But he resolved the conflict between that and his Corinthian ambitions by being the skipper at sea. However, when he’d brought the boat to the chosen harbour, he allowed his professional skipper to decide exactly where they’d anchor, “as the crew would have to do all the heavy work of re-anchoring if his first choice was a mistake”.

FIRST CRUISING CHALLENGE CUP INAUGURATED IN 1895

It took about ten years for this novel Cruising Club to gain traction, but by the 1890s it was acquiring recognition, and it really became something comprehensible in the general sailing mindscape when the perpetual Challenge Cup for the log of the best Cruising Club cruise of the year was instituted in 1895.

The first awardee - for you don’t “win” a cruising cup - was Belfast doctor Howard Sinclair for his 1895 Round Ireland Cruise with the notably small cutter Brenda – originally just 23ft overall, she’d been lengthened by John Hilditch of Carrickfergus to 26ft in 1894.

FORMER RACER BECOMES FAST CRUISER

Brenda was typical of the first yacht of many a cruising beginner, as she was originally a cabin-less racing boat designed by the promising young Scottish naval architect W E Paton, and built by T. Norris in Belfast in 1886 for a J Irvine of Holywood on Belfast Lough’s south shore. She was of a reasonably healthy shape suitable for the fitting of a full deck and cruising accommodation for new owner Howard Sinclair by Hilditch in 1891, in a process they continued three years later with the length increase to create a wholesome boat.

Brenda in 1891, flying the RUYC ensign after her conversion from open racer to cruiser, but still with the straight stem as designed by W E Paton in 1886Brenda in 1891, flying the RUYC ensign after her conversion from open racer to cruiser, but still with the straight stem as designed by W E Paton in 1886

But Paton in 1886 was already busy elsewhere, as the trend in the red-hot racing centres of the Solent and Clyde was still towards ever-narrower heavily-ballasted gaff cutters setting an enormous spread of sail. So while the reasonably normal Brenda was getting ready for her first season in Belfast Lough, Paton had gone to extremes with the hyper-narrow Oona, built in the Solent for a demanding Scottish owner.

Officially, under the then widely-used Thames Measurement Rule of the Royal Thames Yacht Club, Oona was only a 5 tonner. But this seemingly small “weight” size was because of the absurdly narrow beam. In profile, she was a lot of boat. With very heavy displacement and a lead ballast keel chiming in at seven tons, she was in fact the ultimate expression of the “plank-on-edge” concept.

Whether Oona would have succeed or not in the 1886 racing is unknown, for as she was built in the south of England, Paton had to get together a crew to get this freakish craft to Scotland round Land’s End in time for the impatient owner’s new season.

Heading north in the Irish Sea, they were caught up in an easterly gale with very poor visibility. Whether or not they thought they were entering Dublin Bay, or whether they were trying to thread the needle of entering Malahide Estuary at high water is unknown, but it was on the Muldowney Bank at Malahide just north of Dublin Bay that Oona met her end.

The remains of the extreme super-heavy “plank-on-edge” cutter Oona on the beach at Malahide, Spring 1886. Underneath that slim deck are not the remains of some super-light skimming dish, but rather all that’s left of an extra-heavy “plank-on-edge” cutter which had a ballast keel of seven tons. Photo courtesy Hal SiskThe remains of the extreme super-heavy “plank-on-edge” cutter Oona on the beach at Malahide, Spring 1886. Underneath that slim deck are not the remains of some super-light skimming dish, but rather all that’s left of an extra-heavy “plank-on-edge” cutter which had a ballast keel of seven tons. Photo courtesy Hal Sisk

Either way, the morning light revealed the intact deck, though not much else, of the extreme boat on the beach inside Malahide’s Muldowney Bank, and there was no sign of the crew of five. The mystery of it all added to the tragedy. However, those who owned and appreciated successful more normal boats designed by Paton not only now had an onus on them to do extra-well afloat, but in Sinclair’s case he had decided to improve on the lost but promising young designer’s work.

SINCLAIR DESIGNS OWN BOATS, AWARDED CUP THREE TIMES IN ALL

Having shown what could be done with his own-designed improvements to a sensible Paton design with the Brenda, he became both a serial yacht designer-owner and a serial cruising trophy awardee. In 1896 and 1897 he was awarded the Challenge Trophy two further times in new boats each year, both built to Sinclair’s own design by James Kelly of Portrush, and both well able for the acclaimed cruises to Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.

In those circumstances, it would have been reasonable to expect Belfast Lough to become a hotbed of local and national cruising club development. But Sinclair faded rapidly from the scene for reasons that are really none of our business, so we’ll delve into them in all their curious detail.

HOWARD SINCLAIR’S COMPLICATED FAMILY LIFE LEADS TO EXILE

He was married to a younger sister of Beatrice Grimshaw (1870-1953), the Belfast writer who could only find the sense of freedom to write and live as she wished by settling very far away from Belfast, in Papua New Guinea. Meanwhile, her sister the first Mrs Sinclair was almost permanently ill, and when she eventually died, Howard Sinclair soon proposed marriage to her feisty younger sister, the lively Nicola.

 Howard Sinclair. Formerly a pillar of society in Belfast where his medical speciality was as a pioneer in tuberculosis treatment, his life took an unexpected turn that resulted in a special ceremony in Papua New Guinea, and lifelong “exile” in Devon in England Howard Sinclair. Formerly a pillar of society in Belfast where his medical speciality was as a pioneer in tuberculosis treatment, his life took an unexpected turn that resulted in a special ceremony in Papua New Guinea, and lifelong “exile” in Devon in England

But in the Presbyterian Belfast of which he was very much a part as an Elder of the Church, his religion forbade him to marry his deceased wife’s sister. However, on hearing of this, Beryl wrote from Papua New Guinea where she could easily arrange their marriage there in the ecumenically-minded Port Moresby, and they took up that offer. But after returning from the Pacific islands, living in Belfast was out of the question, so the newly-wed Dr & Mrs Sinclair went to live in Torquay in Devon on England’s south coast, where he remained a member of the Cruising Club until his death in 1948, but only made modest ventures afloat.

THE REMARKABLE MISS GRIMSHAW

Beatrice Grimshaw had meanwhile lived on in Papua New Guinea for 27 years, and then re-located to Australia where she died at the gallant and still independent age of 83 in 1953. She’s someone who deserves to be better known, and in 2022 Irish Cruising Club member Diana Gleadhill’s book Shadowing Miss Grimshaw was published to illustrate what a remarkable woman she was – as too is her spirited biographer.

BELFAST LOUGH’S HIGH LATITUDES CRUISING PIONEER

Back on Belfast Lough, the centrality of the place as a focal point for the greater development of cruising was further set back by the death in 1902 of Lord Dufferin, the high latitudes cruising pioneer who was Commodore of Sinclair’s now-former club, the Royal Ulster YC at Bangor. Yet in that same year the little Cruising Club in London made a mighty leap – it became the Royal Cruising Club.

This was a powerful recognition which the highly aspirational Dufferin would have rated highly, as he had put much energy into ensuring that the 1866-founded Ulster Yacht Club became the Royal Ulster YC in 1869, the year in which the Church of Ireland became disestablished to leave the way clear for Presbyterianism to be accepted as the main religion in northeast Ireland.

High latitudes cruising pioneer Lord Dufferin in his virtually self-invented role as “Admiral of Ulster”, wearing a uniform he designed himselfHigh latitudes cruising pioneer Lord Dufferin in his virtually self-invented role as “Admiral of Ulster”, wearing a uniform he designed himself

This may all seem remote from sailing. But ours is a sport which does not take place in a vacuum, and extra insight comes into any history and understanding of it in being aware of the changing socio-economic and political and religious background in which it is, in its quiet and peaceful way, trying to develop.

ERSKINE CHILDERS AND ASGARD ENTER THE SCENE

Put bluntly, you won’t get much cruising going on in times of war. Yet the two impinge, for another early member of the Cruising Club, and very active in it at the Royal Warrant’s conferral, was Erskine Childers, whose Asgard was awarded the Challenge Cup in 1913. But the awardee was Childers’ friend Gordon Shephard for his late season - very late season - delivery cruise of Asgard from Norway westward to Scotland, then down the Irish Sea to Dun Laoghaire, and then to a unplanned and hasty laying up – with much damaged gear and a broken bowsprit – with Dickie’s of Bangor in North Wales.

Erskine and Molly Childers, cruising the Baltic in the more peacful times of 1910 aboard AsgardErskine and Molly Childers, cruising the Baltic in the more peacful times of 1910 aboard Asgard

THE IMPATIENT CONOR O’BRIEN

It was unplanned as Childers was still London-based and had hoped that Shephard might get Asgard back to her home port in the Solent despite the ferocious November weather, but in the end all were glad enough to see her safely into the shed at the foot of the mountains of Snowdonia. That said, when the decision was quickly made in the Spring of 1914 to ship the guns for the Irish Volunteers from off the Belgian coast to Howth and Kilcoole on Erskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard and Conor O’Brien’s Kelpie, it meant that getting Asgard ready for sea took longer than expected, and Childers was late in making a rendezvous at Cowes with Kelpie, where the excessively punctual O’Brien had been conspicuously impatient.

Bare-footed and impatient – Conor O’Brien on Kelpie. Photo courtesy Gary Mac MahonBare-footed and impatient – Conor O’Brien on Kelpie. Photo courtesy Gary Mac Mahon

HARRY DONEGAN OF CORK AND FRANK GILLILAND OF DERRY

By this time others had been coming into the Irish cruising story, as RCC member Frank Gilliland of Derry was busily cruising and proselytising for the attractions of Donegal, and in Cork Harry Donegan was a compact Force of Nature. While a member of the Royal Cork at Cobh, his home club was the 1872-founded Royal Munster then at Monkstown, and he raced successfully with his 2.5 rater which he had also made inhabitable for cruising mostly to the southwest.

His curiosity and enthusiasm was such that he was soon compiling notes and harbour plans as sailing directions and cruising guides, but meanwhile as a canny Cork solicitor he’d enough energy and administrative savvy to be recruited by the owners of the new 1895-conceived Fife-designed 31ft Cork Harbour ODs as Class Secretary. He was never personally an owner, but it is said that at various stages he was to helm every one of them to a win.

A Fife-designed (1895) Cork Harbour One Design in full cry. Harry Donegan was the very effective secretary to the new class, but never owned one himself. However, it is said that he won races as helmsman in every one of the seven boats. Photo: Tom BarkerA Fife-designed (1895) Cork Harbour One Design in full cry. Harry Donegan was the very effective secretary to the new class, but never owned one himself. However, it is said that he won races as helmsman in every one of the seven boats. Photo: Tom Barker

DONEGAN’S USEFUL 1909 SAILING HISTORY

In 1909 he found a new outlet for his joy in sailing and his abundant spare energy - he was a lifelong teetotaller - by publishing History of Yachting in the South of Ireland 1720-1908. He was the first to admit that it was something of a cut and paste job, but that is hard work in itself, and it did much for Cork sailing confidence at a time when other centres were equalling or indeed overtaking the great South Coast harbour as a location for sailing development, while it has been a very convenient source of reference ever since.

By 1912 Harry Donegan had first aired his opinion that there should be some form of cruising club for Ireland. But as politics was another interest, and as he was the active Chairman of the Cork Branch of the post-Parnell Redmondite National Party, the increasingly turbulent times for the Home Rule movement was another Donegan pre-occupation in a rapidly developing situation.

POLITICS AND WAR DISTRACT FROM FORMATION OF AN IRISH CRUISING CLUB

This took in World War I from 1914-1918, the Easter Rising in 1916 in Dublin, the Irish War of Independence from January 1919 to July 1921, and the post-treaty Civil War from June 1922 to May 1923. In this rapidly-developing situation alliances were fluid, and by the time the remarkably localized Civil War broke out as the summer of 1922 got going, Donegan found himself in alliance with his former opponent Michael Collins in the latter’s new role as commander of the recently-created National Army of the treaty-recognising Irish Free State.

Gull at the start of the first Fastnet Race, August 1925. War dispatches carrier, first Fastnet Race contender, and cruising yacht of the moving spirit behind the foundation of the Irish Cruising Club – Harry Donegan’s famous Gull set a spread of sail that wasn’t for the faint-heartedGull at the start of the first Fastnet Race, August 1925. War dispatches carrier, first Fastnet Race contender, and cruising yacht of the moving spirit behind the foundation of the Irish Cruising Club – Harry Donegan’s famous Gull set a spread of sail that wasn’t for the faint-hearted

GULL DELIVERS MILITARY DISPATCHES

This reached a high point when Collins’s sister was shipped aboard the 1921-acquired 17-ton Donegan cutter Gull in July 1922 in Crosshaven, in order to begin the process of successfully carrying dispatches from the Free State General Emmet Dalton - who was besieging rebel strongholds in Cork city – safely towards General Collins at HQ in Dublin, while by-passing the mid-country routes where the rebels had destroyed strategic bridges.

In the midst of all this turmoil, more peaceful developments of ultimate significance for Irish cruising were taking place. In the early years of the 1900s, Glasgow was at its height of prosperity as one of the British Empire’s premier heavy engineering power-houses. But not all of its yachtsmen were billionaires with enormous sailing vessels and steamship yachts. Many ran smaller businesses or had salaried roles in the great companies, and their sailing and cruising was done in more modest boats, which each winter were laid up in small affordable boatyards dotted all around the upper Clyde, many of them best accessed by the Firth of Clyde’s impressive steamer service.

CLYDE CRUISING CLUB EMERGES

One such place was Port Bannatyne just west of Rothesay on the Isle of Bute, where like-minded spirits - who had often met while cruising the Hebrides in summer - found themselves together again through many off-season weekends while fitting out their boats on Bute. In the autumn of 1909 while heading back to the mainland at Wemyss Bay (it’s pronounced “Weems”) on the Sunday evening paddle steamer, the idea finally crystallised among some of them to form the Clyde Cruising Club.

Thanks to the large cruising population sailing from that coast, it would turn out to be a uniquely successful synthesis of association and club, and was to include passage racing with its other activities of organising Meets and producing Sailing Directions. It was to have a significant influence in Ireland which was to reach something of a height in 1938, when John B Kearney of Dublin’s marvellous own-designed and built 39ft yawl Mavis was to win CCC’s famous annual Tobermory Race with a young Rory O’Hanlon at the helm at the finish.

John Kearney’s Mavis wins the Clyde Cruising Club Tobermory Race in 1938 with the young Rory O’Hanlon (later ICC Commodore) at the helm. The CCC rules stipulated that cruising yachts in their races should tow their dinghies as normalJohn Kearney’s Mavis wins the Clyde Cruising Club Tobermory Race in 1938 with the young Rory O’Hanlon (later ICC Commodore) at the helm. The CCC rules stipulated that cruising yachts in their races should tow their dinghies as normal

Meanwhile back in Ireland much had been developing on other fronts. Conor O’Brien of Foynes and Kelpie fame, having previously put much into his bare-footed mountaineering, was now moving into almost total devotion to cruising and voyaging – still bare-footed – and he saw as a possible if unusual career as a sailing voyager and writer for which he reckoned that membership of the Royal Cruising Club would provide a useful structure and source of publicity.

To become a member, he pulled off the most unlikely combination of supporters. In 1919 he got the High Sheriff of Derry, Commander Frank Gilliland RN – whom he had met through Royal Naval Reserve service during World War I – to propose him for the RCC, while his seconder was Erskine Childers.

Childers didn’t really like O’Brien personally at all, but in 1919 he was somewhat pre-occupied by his new role as one of the very able Directors of Propaganda for the new parallel Sinn Fein Government of Ireland, operating from the Mansion House in Dublin.

CONTRASTING NATURE OF O’BRIEN’S COMBINED SUPPORT DUO

The unlikeliness of this typically O’Brien unusual combination of people became abundantly clear in June 1923. His new 42ft ketch Saoirse, constructed after Kelpie was lost on a North Channel rock on the Scottish coast in 1921, was built to O’Brien’s own design in 1922 by Tom Moynihan and his skilled team in Baltimore despite the Civil War going on in the neighbourhood, and in 1923 was preparing to go to sea. On June 20th 1923, Saoirse departed from Dun Laoghaire on her ultimately totally successful pioneering global circumnavigation south of the Great Capes.

History in the making. Saoirse gets under way in Dun Laoghaire, June 20th 1923History in the making. Saoirse gets under way in Dun Laoghaire, June 20th 1923

Yet by that time, his RCC Proposer Commander Frank Gilliland was the Aide de Camp to the first Governor of a partitioned Northern Ireland. And he had a uniform to his own design. For like Lord Dufferin some decades earlier in his largely self-invented yet official role as Admiral of Ulster, Gilliland really did very much enjoy dressing up in self-created fancy uniforms.

THE END OF ERSKINE CHILDERS

By contrast, Erskine Childers had been very much a dresser-down. But when Saoirse took her historic departure, he was no longer on the scene as he had been executed in November 1922 in Dublin by the new Free State Government – whose Treaty support he opposed - for being armed with a tiny pistol for personal protection given to him by his former friend Michael Collins.

Be that as it may, the cruel and tragic ironies of the situation were blithely put aside as the untested Saoirse proved herself on her first long passage to Madeira a hundred years ago, replicated this past summer by a 28-boat celebration-filled rally of the Irish Cruising Club in Madeira.

For so long as things went well, Conor O’Brien knew he had access to the high road for international voyaging recognition in the 1920s through his RCC membership, as the continuing adjudicator for the club’s increasingly prestigious Challenge Cup was Claud Worth (1869-1936).

CLAUD WORTH, INTERNATIONAL CRUISING’S LEADING AUTHORITY EARLY IN THE 20TH CENTURY

He may have risen no higher than being Vice Commodore of the RCC, as Arthur Underhill stayed quietly in place at the head of his beloved “little club” until his death at the age of 89 in 1939, by which time Worth had also gone. But Claud Worth was both the real powerhouse in the RCC and in the international and national development of cruising and offshore sailing, as seen in 1908 when he realised that limited membership clubs could only do so much.

Claud Worth, the kindly and conscientious man who was a major force in cruising developmentClaud Worth, the kindly and conscientious man who was a major force in cruising development

CRUISING ASSOCIATION FOUNDED

Thus when he realised the constraints on cruising expansion of a limited membership club like the RCC, he was a moving spirit in the 1908 foundation of the Cruising Association in London, and subsequently an active member. And all this despite the fact that he found the time to design his own boats down to the last detail and to a professional standard, and then went on to project-manage their timber selection and construction while continuing his busy professional life as a pioneering opthalmological surgeon who was particularly noted for his specialist medical service during World War I.

So when he awarded the Challenge Cup to O’Brien three years on the trot in 1923, ’24 and ’25 for Saoirse’s then-remarkable circumnavigation, it was the ultimate voyaging Oscar of its day. And at the same time, Worth’s approval was invoked in the foundation of the Cruising Club of America, which has been celebrating its Centenary in 2023, with Claud Worth’s support having been sought for the idea of this new CCA in 1922.

CRUISING CLUB OF AMERICA ARRIVES WITH A FLOURISH

This 2023 Centenary of the CCA has been celebrated with a mighty book of the key elements in its history, the encyclopaedic Adventurous Use of the Sea. Cleverly edited by former CCA Commodore Sheila McCurdy, who is the daughter of that legendary designer of great boats, the late Jim McCurdy, it has been engagingly written by Tim Murphy, long associated with key roles in the international magazine Cruising World, for which he continues to be an Editor-at-Large.

 Published to celebrate the Cruising Club of America’s Centenary in 2023, Adventurous Use of the Sea by Tim Murphy, edited by Sheila McCurdy and with Dorade featured on the cover, is an eloquent introduction to some of the most outstanding people in offshore sailing Published to celebrate the Cruising Club of America’s Centenary in 2023, Adventurous Use of the Sea by Tim Murphy, edited by Sheila McCurdy and with Dorade featured on the cover, is an eloquent introduction to some of the most outstanding people in offshore sailing

It is no insult to these two creators to say that I find Adventurous Use a challenging and demanding read. It’s not because of a complex structure, because it’s very well put together and reads easily if you only skate through it. But the many superstar sailors highlighted are such utterly exceptional characters of outstanding achievement that if you give the elegantly-assembled words their proper attention, you find yourself totally involved in great lives lived by exceptional people who well embody the true American spirit.

GREAT LIVES LIVED TO THE FULL AFLOAT AND ASHORE

These are great lives lived to the full and beyond, both afloat and ashore, to such an extent that we more ordinary mortals find ourselves being left in a state of vicarious exhaustion after each chapter.

It begins with the definitive story of how a young New York sailing journalist in the early 1920s got together in downtown Manhattan with like-minded spirits to discuss and argue about sailing and the possibility a cruising club in a joint called Beefsteak Johns. It all sounds like something out of a Damon Runyon story, an impression lessened in no way by the journalist being called Bill Nutting. That was nominative determinism gone mad, but his subsequent life story indicated that it was very much for real.

For the only properly paying job that William Washburn Nutting could get in boat writing in New York at the time was as Editor of a magazine called Motor Boat. Yet although he was a square peg in a round hole, his energies were such that he succeeded commercially with Motor Boat to such an extent that the proprietors went along with his idea of a competition to design a motor-boat with auxiliary sails that could carry their Editor across the Atlantic, so that he could then furnish them with on-site reports from the already-legendary Harmsworth Trophy International Powerboat races in the Solent in 1922.

It could be a still from the film of a Damon Runyon story. CCA founding Commdore William Washburn Nutting in the day job as a tough and inventive New York maritime journalist in 1921It could be a still from the film of a Damon Runyon story. CCA founding Commdore William Washburn Nutting in the day job as a tough and inventive New York maritime journalist in 1921

OCEAN SAILING CRUISER DISGUISED AS “A MOTOR SAILER”

Somehow, Nutting slipped past them the fact that the winner, the William Atkin design for the ketch that became the 45ft Typhoon, was this desired motor-boat with auxiliary sails while insead she was actually a classic American characterful gaff ketch whose sailing potential was disguised by having a deceptively low rig.

He did this smoke and mirrors so well that the publishers paid for the building of the boat, and Nutting and his Beefsteak John cronies – eccentrically experienced sailors every one - sailed across to England with just a day and a half to spare before the powerboat contest started, and he kept himself covered by transmitting back sometimes imaginative accounts of the Harmsworth Trophy races.

The plans of the William Atkin-designed 45ft Typhoon were displayed to the publishers of Motor Boat in New York as being those of a motor-boat that needed the small rig to help get their motor-boating editor across the Atlantic to provide on-the-spot coverage of the 1922 Harmsworth Trophy International Powerboat Races in the SolentThe plans of the William Atkin-designed 45ft Typhoon were displayed to the publishers of Motor Boat in New York as being those of a motor-boat that needed the small rig to help get their motor-boating editor across the Atlantic to provide on-the-spot coverage of the 1922 Harmsworth Trophy International Powerboat Races in the Solent

For his mind was elsewhere, as his real purpose in being in Cowes was to meet Claud Worth and seek his ideas and support for creating an American version of the Royal Cruising Club. In this he succeeded, with Typhoon and Worth’s Tern III rafted together, while the two very different seafaring enthusiasts got on very well indeed.

An unlikely pairing – Claud Worth (left) and Bill Nutting (right) were soon friends. Photo: CCAAn unlikely pairing – Claud Worth (left) and Bill Nutting (right) were soon friends. Photo: CCA

Then in the best Nutting style, he also got to know and befriend everybody of else of sailing significance in Cowes, including County Limerick’s own Lord Dunraven of America’s Cup unjust notoriety, the great sailmaker Tom Ratsey who, on learning of a sail wardrobe deficiency in Typhoon, donated his own trysail from his famous ever-re-developing cutter Dolly Varden, while Nutting also began a close friendship with the growing sailing legend who was the rebellious young designer Uffa Fox, though also making his number with the Governor of the Isle of Wight who conveyed formal greetings from King George V the sailor king.

HARMSWORTH TROPHY FIRST RACED IN CORK HARBOUR IN 1903

There may be people who can skillfully work a room, but William Washburn Nutting could work an entire country when he put his mind to it. Meanwhile, somewhere in the margins, the Harmsworth Trophy concluded. And we should be more interested in it, as the first one was staged in Cork Harbour from Cobh to Cork City in 1903 in a waterborne reflection of the Gordon Bennett Motor Car Racebeing held in Wicklow and Kildare in the same year because automobile racing was forbidden in England.

POWERBOAT LEGEND GAR WOOD ENTERS THE STORY

This resulted in Irish hospitality being acknowledged by the visiting cars being painted in what became known as English Racing Green. As for that first Harmsworth Trophy race in Cork Harbour in 1903, the winner was Napier 1 of the UK piloted by Campbell Muir and Dorothy Levitt, while the 1922 races in the Solent – reported in colourful style by a cheerful Bill Nutting with his real purposes for being in the Solent having been fulfilled - was won yet again by the legendary American Gar Wood.

A long way from ocean cruising under sail. Speedster Gar Wood’s champion powerboat was one focus of Bill Nutting’s attention in Cowes in 1922A long way from ocean cruising under sail. Speedster Gar Wood’s champion powerboat was one focus of Bill Nutting’s attention in Cowes in 1922

Such was Nutting’s exuberance as he prepared to sail westward from the Solent that he may well have supplied the famous telegraphic exchanges at the conclusion of the Harmsworth Trophy. An impatient New York newspaper sent a querulous “How old Gar Wood?” enquiry. It can only have been Nutting at the other end who replied: “Old Gar Wood fine, how you?”

UFFA FOX JOINS THE STRENGTH

If he did send that ’gram, his mind was immediately turned elsewhere, as Uffa Fox had accepted an invitation to sail back to New York in Typhoon with the best of the summer already well gone, and Nutting knew that making the right impression with the hugely sociable but highly opinionated young designer could only add to his own reputation if things went well.

Fox did write some insightful material about the voyage, but it was all over-shadowed by the Typhoon being almost completely rolled twice in a Gulf Stream storm in the final few hundred miles to New York. Thanks to having a significant amount of her ballast in an external lead keel thanks to shipmate Casey Baldwin (for Nutting in his hurry to build had been prepared to make do with internal ballast), she eventually brought herself upright, and her motley crew were still with her.

The unique experience (and almost the ending) of a singular lifetime. A very young Uffa Fox (centre back) with his shipmates on Typhoon in the Azores before she was almost completely rolled in a November 1922 storm in the Gulf Stream while nearing New York. Photo: CCAThe unique experience (and almost the ending) of a singular lifetime. A very young Uffa Fox (centre back) with his shipmates on Typhoon in the Azores before she was almost completely rolled in a November 1922 storm in the Gulf Stream while nearing New York. Photo: CCA

FILTHY SETTING FOR MOVES TOWARDS CREATION OF CCA

So though she got safely to New York by November, much of her interior was be-fouled by oily bilge water, and malodorous items that had fallen out of various lockers. Yet it was in this filthy setting, when she finally berthed at night in Manhattan, that Typhoon’s crew and some of the sea-minded guys from Beefsteak John’s got together to celebrate Typhoon’s safe return and make positive moves to bring the CCA into being.

Section through Typhoon during one of the knockdowns, showing how the travel of stowed bits of equipment including the charts indicated the extent of the inversion. Image: CCASection through Typhoon during one of the knockdowns, showing how the travel of stowed bits of equipment including the charts indicated the extent of the inversion. Image: CCA

But nothing ever ran totally smoothly with Bill Nutting, such that nowadays it seems to be reckoned that there may well have been two or three different birth dates for the new club with its ultimately declared aim of “making adventurous use of the sea”.

This immediately suggests they were taking a slightly different approach to that of the RCC, for back in England the stiff upper lip attitude to cruising and voyaging was that anything that hinted at “an adventure” was thought of as evidence of incompetence.

There was a further parting of the ways as boats from the newly-formed CCA made up much of the fleet in 1923 for the revival of the sporadically sailed Bermuda Race of 1906 origins, and did so with such enthusiasm that by 1926 the CCA and the Royal Bermuda Yacht Club were running the fully-established biennial Bermuda Race as a joint venture to successfully make it one of world sailing’s great offshore classics.

BILL NUTTING IS LOST AT SEA

But William Ashburn Nutting, the CAA’s founding Commodore in 1922-23, was already ploughing a different furrow. Having crossed the Atlantic twice along the middle and southern routes, he decided that 1924 required a following of the northern route westward to America pioneered by the Vikings, so he set off from Norway in the impulsively-bought Colin Archer-type (but not Archer-designed) cutter-rigged Liev Eiriksson.

In due course, after working the hospitality scene in the Shetlands, Faroes and Iceland, he and his convivial crew reached Julianehaab in Greenland, where their wide circle of much-socialised new friends included the Governor at Gothaab, A C Rasmussen. It was he who leaves us the last endearing but eventually tragic picture of William Washburn Nutting being very much Bill Nutting, an impression which makes us wonder how he ever met a single deadline in his picaresque journalistic career.

THE GREAT PROCRASTINATOR

It was already into September as Nutting and his shipmates prepared to leave Greenland, and Rasmussen’s account tells us all:

“They had originally intended to start at about nine o’clock in the morning, but their number of friends at Julianehaab was so great and the leave-taking took each one so long, that it was three o’clock in the afternoon before they were ready to leave. Loaded with souvenirs from Greenland and tokens of remembrance from all of us, the vessel put out from the bridge where the Danish colony had gathered to see them off, and the parting was as festive as it could be made under our primitive conditions. The ‘Vikings’ sang their gay songs at the parting. After it got out for some little distance, it (the Liev Eiriksson) made a curve back and they filmed us where we stood on the bridge waving. We then gave them three cheers and they set out on the voyage, which was to be their last”.

“She was an Archer type that out-Archered Colin Archer”. Bill Nutting bought Liev Eiriksson in Norway more or less on impulse in 1923“She was an Archer type that out-Archered Colin Archer”. Bill Nutting bought Liev Eiriksson in Norway more or less on impulse in 1923

The Liev Eiriksson and her crew were never seen again. The Greenland Sea can be vicious at any time, and its dangers in Autumn are exacerbated by ice in all sizes at its most mobile and menacing. Although the daylights is rapidly shortening, the few ships and the over-worked trawlers in the area will only be keeping a perfunctory lookout, and the meagre lights of a small sailing boat are barely visible at the best of times.

So although a US Navy search was instigated, it didn’t happen until November, and by that time most of the members of the new and growing Cruising Club of America accepted that they wouldn’t see their first Commodore again.

LEGENDARY NAMES IN THE MEMBERSHIP

But with the Bermuda Race to provide a focal point, and other members completing impressive cruises, the club under its second Commodore Herbert L Stone (another sailing journalist) was going from strength to strength with many legends of American and international sailing contributing to its vigorous progress. This had been reinforced in 1923 by the inauguration of the CCA Blue Water Medal “for yachtsmen of all nations” making a particularly meritorious seagoing achievement, with the first awardee in 1923 being French sailor Alain Gerbault with his solo Atlantic crossing of the Atlantic with the old-style English cutter Firecrest

As for the CCA’s own more special members, when you think of names like John Alden, Olin & Rod Stephens, Philip Rhodes, Paul Hammond, Carleton Mitchell, Irving Johnson, de Coursey Fayles, Jim McCurdy, Dick Nye, John Bostock, Stan Honey, Jean Socrates, Skip Novak and many others less well known because their achievements were in private voyaging rather than high profile racing, you soon realise that with this CCA narrative by Tim Murphy you’re reading through a powerhouse of sailing and voyaging in which the main actors are in a superleague of their own.

Many of the insights provided are refreshingly personal. For instance, everyone wonders why Olin & Rod Stephens’ all-conquering yawl Dorade of 1930 was so narrow, a feature which caused her to roll rhythmically when running in a seaway, regardless of the skills of the helmsman, and the rigour with which the spinnaker setting had been firmly bowsed down.

While her narrow hull’s profile was not so very dissimilar to the classic schooners she was racing against, Olin Stephens’ Dorade in her first Bermuda Race had the secret weapon of a hyper-efficient Bermudan rig created with his younger brother Rod. Photo: CCAWhile her narrow hull’s profile was not so very dissimilar to the classic schooners she was racing against, Olin Stephens’ Dorade in her first Bermuda Race had the secret weapon of a hyper-efficient Bermudan rig created with his younger brother Rod. Photo: CCA

Well, it seems that before finalising her lines, the young Olin – at that stage a tentative largely self-taught yacht designer – had been much taken by the sections of the elegant William Fife-designed 6 Metres from Scotland which had been brought over for the international racing for Seawanhaka Cup.

Then too, after grabbing a berth in the 1928 Bermuda Race, instead of joining the party at the finish, he spent the time swimming round in the warm waters of Bermuda and diving at each successful boat to assess the secrets of their hull shape.

Thus if you’ve wondered – as I have - just why the hull profile of Dorade and her 1935 successor Stormy Weather is that of a classic American East Coast racing schooner with the greatest depth at the heel , now you know. And as for Dorade’s narrowness, that’s because she has the hull section of a Fife 6 Metre.

But even though the beam was increased with her smoother-running successor Stormy Weather, the still rolling Dorade can give Stormy a good run for her money. But both boats in their time – and all Sparkman & Stephens designs of their golden era - benefitted enormously from the world-leading rigs that Rod Stephens put into them. He was the real hidden strength in the partnership’s success, which saw Dorade win Transatlantic races and two Fastnet races, while Stormy Weather then won the 1935 Fastnet Race.

BERMUDA RACE PARTIAL INSPIRATION FOR FASTNET CONTEST

Regardless of who was responsible for the winners of the increasingly successful Bermuda Race, it was immediately one of the inspirations towards the clarification of a notion towards the fulfillment of an idea that the Royal Cruising Club might run a 600-miles-plus race round the Fastnet Rock and back, starting from the English Channel.

The RCC very quickly made it clear that officially they wanted to have nothing to do with it, though Claud Worth said he’d sail his boat Tern out to Spain to time a finish at Santander, as he felt the suggested Fastnet course involved too many hazards, and anyway he reckoned such a race would be more attractive if it took the fleet south to a warmer climate.

The immortal Jolie Brise. This veteran winner of the first Fastnet Race is in good spirits for the Centenary Fastet Race in 2025The immortal Jolie Brise. This veteran winner of the first Fastnet Race is in good spirits for the Centenary Fastnet Race in 2025

But one of the main proponents of the idea, sometime RCC member George Martin who owned the impressive former Le Havre Pilot Cutter Jolie Brise, was single-minded in his determination that it was the Fastnet or nothing, and as he happened to be Commodore of a little known club called the Royal South-Western YC with a base in Devon, he started pushing the idea further with the RSWYC as the sponsoring club.

However, times were hard for this already small club, and although its Commodore was one of the heirs to the wealth of Martin’s Bank, his few fellow members were keen on amalgamating with the much stronger and more historic Royal Western Yacht Club in Plymouth. So when the first Fastnet Race was finally being promoted for its first staging by several including George Martin and the sailing writer James Weston Martyr who had returned from an American sojourn inspired by Bermuda Race participation, it was the Royal Western Yacht Club which was cited as the sponsoring organization.

With the Fastnet Centenary Year upon us in 12 months and two weeks’ time, it would be salutary to remember the RWYC’s orginal pivotal role in 1925, for in looking at the current Fastnet Race’s configuration with a start at Cowes and a finish in Cherbourg, the only surviving major element of the original Fastnet Race course of 1925 is now our own dear Fastnet Rock.

It is our rock, after all. Ireland’s own Fastnet Rock is the only significant element of the first Fastnet Race that is still a key part of the courseIt is our rock, after all. Ireland’s own Fastnet Rock is the only significant element of the first Fastnet Race that is still a key part of the course

But while success is an orphan, success has many fathers. The race was soon successfully set in place in August 1925 with Jolie Brise the winner from seven competitors including Gull, and immediately there was another father in line with the new Ocean Racing Club being established in Plymouth by all those present, including the ever-visionary and generously-minded Harry Donegan from Cork.

Unlike some fellow sailors in Ireland who felt that any major international race round the Fastnet should finish in an Irish port, he was both a realist and a keen sportsman, so he’d felt that the race as envisaged would provide the frequently-raced Gull with wonderful competition with real seagoing experience, and his podium place in third placed Gull for ever in international offshore racing history.

Powering along. Aboard Gull during the first Fastnet Race, when she was never out of the top three, and was leader during at least one stagePowering along. Aboard Gull during the first Fastnet Race, when she was never out of the top three, and was leader during at least one stage

Not that he’d been on the back pedal in sailing development in Ireland. During a 1922 cruise to West Cork (despite the ongoing but by now very localised Civil War), he’d met up with a like-minded skipper, Billy Mooney from Howth cruising the cleverly converted ship’s lifeboat ketch Lil. Like Donegan, Mooney was a keen club race – he was a successful Howth 17 owner-skipper – but he shared Donegan’s enthusiasm both for the notion of an Irish cruising club, and for the promotion of offshore racing once he personally had moved up to a more performance-oriented cruiser.

But they put the idea on the back burner for a while as the times were restless, people had absorbed just about as many new ideas and situations as they could, and anyway Conor O’Brien and Saoirse were in the process of carrying the torch for Irish cruising very successfully indeed.

Instead, in 1926 when the Fastnet was still in its initial yearly schedule, Harry Dinegan went back to race it again, and at the last minute heeded the entreaties to do the race from a newly-arrived young American enthusiast called Warwick Tompkins, later known to everyone as the multi-voyaging Commodore Tompkins and a CCA stalwart with his 1932-bought world-girdling former pilot schooner Wander Bird.

Five years after his Fastnet experience with Harry Donegan, “Commodore” Warwick Tompkins bought this former pilot schooner which became Wander Bird to be his world-girdling family homeFive years after his Fastnet experience with Harry Donegan, “Commodore” Warwick Tompkins bought this former pilot schooner which became Wander Bird to be his world-girdling family home

Although Gull failed to complete the race as her part of the fleet was caught in a damaging sou’easterly gale off the Irish coast, Tompkins has left us a vivid account of what it was like to race aboard Gull. And though they’d to retire into Cork Harbour, Domegan made it his business to take the young American by ferry and train to Pymouth in time for the post-Fastnet Dinner, when new Ocean racing Cub members would be signed in from among those who had completed the second Fastnet. Thanks to an entertaining and persuasive speech by Harry Donegan at the dinner, Warwick Tompkins was added to their number.

Warwick Tompkins’ recollection of being with Harry Donegan on Gull. He’s a bit unfair in describing Gull as “a plank-on-edge cutter of ancient vintage” when she was an unextreme reasonable Charles E Nicholson hull design of 1896 to provide a fast cruiser. And she was just 29 years old at the Fastnet Race 1925, though Harry Donegan did drive her so hard she spewed her bow caulking. Also, the wind Tompkins describes as Nor’easter was actually a Sou’easter. But he certainly gets the flavour of the great man, and “flying a kite” has multiple meanings.Warwick Tompkins’ recollection of being with Harry Donegan on Gull. He’s a bit unfair in describing Gull as “a plank-on-edge cutter of ancient vintage” when she was an unextreme reasonable Charles E Nicholson hull design of 1896 to provide a fast cruiser. And she was just 29 years old at the Fastnet Race 1925, though Harry Donegan did drive her so hard she spewed her bow caulking. Also, the wind Tompkins describes as Nor’easter was actually a Sou’easter. But he certainly gets the flavour of the great man, and “flying a kite” has multiple meanings.

A further direct link to the CCA was established by purest serendipity in July 1929, when the Irish Cruising Club was finally brought into being with a five boat cruise-in-company culminating in the foundation of the ICC on the balmy summer’s evening of July 13th 1929 in Glengarriff.

The perfect place to bring the new Irish Cruising Club into being – Glengarriff in West Cork at the head of Bantry BayThe perfect place to bring the new Irish Cruising Club into being – Glengarriff in West Cork at the head of Bantry Bay

Neither Harry Donegan nor Billy Mooney was personally ambitious in promoting the new club, as they wanted the leading RCC member in Dublin Bay to take on the role of Commodore. This was Herbert Wright of the RIYC who - having started his cruising with his new Ringsend-built Dublin Bay 21 Estelle in 1904 – had since moved up to the handsome 12-ton gaff cutter Espanola, which proved an admirable Commodore’s yacht while Herb Wright provided proper Commodorial gravitas allied to a nice line in acerbic wit in his elegantly-written cruising logs.

A proper serious sailing man. Herbert Wright of Dun Laoghaire became the first Irish Cruising Club Commodore in July 1929A proper serious sailing man. Herbert Wright of Dun Laoghaire became the first Irish Cruising Club Commodore in July 1929

HARRY DONEGAN’S INGENUITY

Thanks mainly to Harry Donegan’s remarkable ingenuity in bringing people together in a pleasing setting, the ICC came into being in a much more suitable way than the other cruising clubs, through this purposeful and highly entertaining Cruise-in-Company which was almost immediately blessed with the accompanying presence of a leading Cruising Club of America boat.

This was the much-loved ketch Seven Bells (Tom Cooke) which was on an Atlantic circuit cruise with a largely family crew which in time won the Blue Water Medal for 1929, bringing the beginning of a long-standing ICC relationship with that supreme trophy. For by the 21st Century, the ICC had a remarkable four Blue Water Medallists on its membership list in the form of Bill King of Oranmore in Galway, John Gore-Grimes of Howth, Paddy Barry of Dun Laoghaire and Connemara, and Jarlath Cunnane of Mayo.

Tom Cooke’s Blue Water Medal-awarded ketch Seven Bells CCA became part of the ICC founding cruise in 1929 by pure serendipity after a Transatlantic passageTom Cooke’s Blue Water Medal-awarded ketch Seven Bells CCA became part of the ICC founding cruise in 1929 by pure serendipity after a Transatlantic passage

As for links to other clubs, at the end of 2025 Conor O’Brien had received his third RCC Challenge Cup award on the completion of Saoirse’s circumnavigation in Dun Laoghaire, and in celebration of the success of his very special book on the voyage, Across Three Oceans, he crossed the path of the Ocean Racing Club with Saoirse’s sporting participation in the 1927 Fastnet Race, before which Uffa Fox had entered the picture again by taking off Saoirse’s lines in Cowes. This resulted in a precise set of lines which showed that O’Brien’s own almost-freehand original set of lines was pretty well spot-on, which suggests considerable skill on the part of Conor O’Brien and Tom Moynihan in 1922.

The ingenious increase in Saoirse’s sailplan which Conor O’Brien created with her existing main and mizzen masts for the 1927 Fastnet RaceThe ingenious increase in Saoirse’s sailplan which Conor O’Brien created with her existing main and mizzen masts for the 1927 Fastnet Race

CONOR O’BRIEN ON THE STRENGTH

One of the first acts of the new Irish Cruising Club was to make Conor O’Brien the first Honorary Member, and occasionally when he’d returned to live in the cottage of Barneen on Foynes Island, he’d go “into Ireland” to attend the club’s annual dinner. As for dining guests from other clubs, as the ICC still had passage and offshore racing as part of its activities until 1980, and it even organised Ireland’s early Admiral’s Cup teams.

So back in the 1930s, it maintained links with what had become the RORC, together with the RCC and the CCA, by having leading offshore sailor Bobby Somerset at the dinner, as he’d become the owner of Jolie Brise with which he won a Fastnet, and then when he went across the pond to do the Bermuda Race, his remarkable gaff-rigged boat showed she was no slouch against the CCA’s slick-looking Bermuda-rigged racer, but his race to Bermuda ended when a nearby schooner went on fire and he made a brilliant rescue of her crew under sail, bringing him the Blue Water Medal for 1932 and Honorary Membership of the CCA.

After the success of his round the world voyage, Conor O’Brien became the ICC’s first Honorary Member in 1929After the success of his round the world voyage, Conor O’Brien became the ICC’s first Honorary Member in 1929

Thus although world wars and other disturbances at times hampered progress, as the 20th Century drew towards its close the leading cruising clubs on both sides of the North Atlantic had developed a comfortable understanding of each other, and a readiness to function together in shared enterprises such as cruises-in-company at select venues, or joint meets to mark major anniversaries.

For Ireland and the Irish Cruising Club, this meant that in 1969-70 there had been a massive gathering from both sides of the ocean in Cork and along the coast westward to celebrate the 250th Anniversary of the Royal Cork Yacht Club and the 40th Anniversary of the Irish Cruising Club. And then in 1979, there was a big-fleet multi-club Cruise-in-Company from Cork to Glengarriff to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of the ICC.

In 1975, there had been a significant Irish presence in the Golden Jubilee Fastnet Race with Hugh Sherrard’s 1904-vintage former Clyde 30 Brynoth – for years a boat associated with the ICC, the RORC, and the RCYC – winning the Iolaire Block for the best-placed pre-1905 classic in the fleet.

The late Hugh Sherrard at the age of 75, hard-driving aboard the 1904-built Brynoth, winner of the Iolaire Block in the Golden Jubilee Fastnet Race of 1975The late Hugh Sherrard at the age of 75, hard-driving aboard the 1904-built Brynoth, winner of the Iolaire Block in the Golden Jubilee Fastnet Race of 1975

And nowadays, there is so much interaction between the clubs for exchanged information, social events and shared cruises to such places as the ICC’s Galician outpost in northwest Spain that it is wellnigh impossible to keep close track of them all. But it is made possible by a mutual level of understanding which was neatly demonstrated by current CCA Commodore Chris Otorowski, who is from the American club’s Pacific Northwest Station, well illustrating just how far the now 1,400 membership of the CCA has spread and expanded from those eccentric New York gatherings in Beefsteak John’s more than a hundred years ago.

Commodore Otorewski decided to give the ICC a special piece of silverware at the ICC’s annual dinner in Sligo in March 2023 to mark the CCA’s Centenary and the international goodwill between the cruising clubs. But then he bethought himself that as Dublin is the home of some of the very best antique silverware in the world, it made sense to buy the appropriate piece in silversmiths Weir’s of Grafton Street in Dublin when he got here on his way to Sligo.

So he and the ICC’s Vice Commodore Alan Markey made it a morning of proper retail therapy to head into Weir’s in best purposeful vacation mode, and in time emerged with a remarkably lovely Dublin silver friendship cup which drew a suitable breath-taken response of approval when it was unveiled in Sligo.

Irish silver at its best – the Friendship Cup presented by the CCA to the ICC in March 2023Irish silver at its best – the Friendship Cup presented by the CCA to the ICC in March 2023

And then Commodore Otorowski put it all firmly in place with his declaration on behalf of the CCA:

“By All Presents Known:

The Cruising Club of America and the Irish Cruising Club have a long standing and close relationship founded in their shared love of challenging the elements, cruising the world’s oceans and sharing seafaring experiences. A foundation of both clubs is the mutual respect, friendship and camaraderie of their shipmates.

In recognition of the relationship of both clubs, the “Friendship Cup” is hereby deeded, in perpetuity, to the Irish Cruising Club to be awarded annually by the ICC, in its sole discretion, to members or their spouses, who best exemplify the highest values of the ICC”

OFF TO MADEIRA

After that, it was with buoyant spirits that ICC Commodore David Beattie and Southern Rear Commodore Seamus O’Connor set to with fresh energy to bring together the Conor O’Brien Saoirse Centenary cruise to Madeira for July 3rd, which despite the very mixed weather of the summer of 2023, went very well indeed.

DUBLIN LAWYERS - THE REAL STORY

And if you’re still wondering about “Dublin Lawyer”, it’s the classic lobster in vast quantities with rich cream sauce, but with brandy instead of whiskey, as that latter variation is what only m’learned friends down from Dublin on circuit could possibly have afforded in the olden days.

Published in W M Nixon

The centenary international Irish sailing event called the ‘Saoirse Rally’ has come to a successful end on the 8th of July 2023 after a series of celebrations hosted in Funchal, Madeira by the Clube Naval de Funchal, Madeira Tourism Board and the Harbour Authority.

As Afloat reported previously, the international ‘Saoirse Rally’ is the first of several events commemorating one hundred years since Irish sailor Conor O'Brien, from Foynes on the Shannon Estuary, Co. Limerick, set off for a two-year circumnavigation of the globe aboard the Irish vessel, a 42-foot ketch called Saoirse. The Port of Funchal, Madeira, was O’Brien’s first port of call after departing from Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland on 20th June 1923. This journey, which began in 1923, took him two years to complete and covered over 40,000 miles. Conor O'Brien was the first sailor to circumnavigate the world via the 3 Great Capes in a small yacht, which was a remarkable achievement. His journey inspired other sailors, and he is still celebrated today as a pioneer in the world of sailing.

The international ‘Saoirse Rally’ organised by the Irish Cruising Club, gathered twenty-eight boats from various locations, including Ireland, Western Europe and the Atlantic Islands. Madeira hosted an international gathering of over one hundred crew members and friends warmly received in Madeira and its sister island, Porto Santo, where the boats made their landfall.

The Clube Naval de Funchal, Madeira Tourism Board and the Harbour Authority worked hard to overcome logistical challenges posed by earlier summer storms and provided a varied programme of culture and cuisine in idyllic weather conditions.

Speaking on behalf of the hosts in Funchal, local coordinator Catia Carvalho Esteves said: “I want to thank you all for your friendship and to congratulate you all at the Irish Cruising Club for organising such a great Saoirse Rally. To be able to engage so many sailing yachts for this event is something to be proud of."

The Irish Cruising Club was very grateful for the support, hard work and great hospitality the Clube Naval de Funchal, Madeira Tourism Board, and the Harbour Authority provided. Speaking upon departure, a representative from the Irish Cruising Club said:

"We were overwhelmed by the warm welcome that greeted us in Funchal and by the generosity of our hosts. They built a tented village for us, and we shared many happy moments together. Madeira itself is a revelation, a wonderland of nature, wildlife and friendly people. We would encourage everyone, especially sailors, to visit there at least once in their lifetime. The Irish Cruising Club will certainly return."

The participation of the historic Irish sailing vessel the AK Ilen was a poignant way to commemorate the great achievements of Conor O Brien. The AK Ilen was commissioned by Conor O'Brien after his return to Ireland on behalf of the Falkland Islands government. The AK Ilen served as a workboat in the Falkland Islands for some 70 years before being returned to Ireland for restoration by Hegarty’s Boatyard, Baltimore, West Cork close, to where it was first built.

The AK Ilen is now plying her trade as a sailing charity, providing development programmes to a wide range of community organisations. This community work is delivered in partnership with ‘Sailing Into Wellness’, an award-winning Irish charity and social enterprise started over six years ago, which uses the unique setting of the ocean to empower individuals to overcome challenges, increase coping mechanisms and build a positive sense of self and community.

Conor O'Brien was also an accomplished mountaineer, patriot, architect and author. In addition to his circumnavigation, O'Brien was also an accomplished writer and wrote several books on his sailing adventures. His books, such as "Across Three Oceans"- which has recently been republished by the ICC - remain popular among sailors and adventure enthusiasts and still provide relevant insights into his experiences and the challenges he faced during his voyages.

O Brien's passion for sailing, adventurous spirit, and pioneering achievements have left a lasting impact on the world of sailing, and he will always be remembered as one of Ireland's most accomplished sailors.

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A hundred years ago on this day, Conor O’Brien of Limerick’s 42ft own-designed ketch - newly-built by Tom Moynihan of Baltimore with some of the West Cork shipwright’s small but very effective hull shape improvements - was well into a long ocean voyage which eventually became the first global circumnavigation by a yacht south of the great Capes of Good Hope and Cape Horn.

While his voyage officially got under way from what he preferred to call Dunleary in Dublin Bay on June 20th 1923 - and was to be successfully completed back there on June 20th 1925 – O’Brien personally felt all his projects began and ended when he returned to his home port of Foynes in the Shannon Estuary. But in terms of the testing of a new ship and the gathering of ocean sailing experience, it’s reasonable to assert that his great circumnavigation properly began from his first port of call, Funchal in Madeira some 1,300 sea miles from Dublin Bay, which he reached on July 3rd 1923.

We’re here. And that’s our picture on the wall to prove it. Ilen’s crew in Porto Santo in the north of Madeira celebrate an 11-day voyage over the 1,300 miles from Dun Laoghaire, which they left on June 17th.We’re here. And that’s our picture on the wall to prove it. Ilen’s crew in Porto Santo in the north of Madeira celebrate an 11-day voyage over the 1,300 miles from Dun Laoghaire, which they left on June 17th.

For various reasons O’Brien and his crew stayed only three days before heading on south, and soon were into strong nor’east Trade Winds which – while sailing without a port of call through the Canary Islands – was to give Saoirse her best day’s run of the entire voyage: 185 miles on July 9th 1923. But that particular Centenary went unmarked on Sunday last, for in Funchal in Madeira life was returning to normal, after several days of celebration and much Madeiran hospitality commemorating the Centenary of O’Brien’s key visit, the commemoration involving an international rally of leading cruising clubs.

Ilen ahead of Michael Craughwell’s Trewes 20 Orchestra from Galway in Funchal HarbourIlen ahead of Michael Craughwell’s Trewes 20 Orchestra from Galway in Funchal Harbour

With Commodore David Beattie of the Irish Cruising Club as the lead officer in a fleet in which the flagship was the restored 56ft O’Brien-designed trading ketch Ilen of 1926 vintage, the crews relished the many successful celebration programme ideas put together by a special sub-committee headed by Rear Commodore Seamus O’Connor, working with responsive and imaginative Madeiran hosts. In all, the fleet was made up of 28 very varied craft of multiple sizes, coming from the ICC, the Ocean Cruising Club, the Royal Cruising Club and leading Portuguese clubs.

Organising Chairman Seamus O’Connor (left) with Peter Crowley, Louisa Blandy-Moreau of Madeira, and HE Ralph Victory, Irish Ambassador, aboard Ilen. Photo:Aoife NolanOrganising Chairman Seamus O’Connor (left) with Peter Crowley, Louisa Blandy-Moreau of Madeira, and HE Ralph Victory, Irish Ambassador, aboard Ilen. Photo:Aoife Nolan

Tradition brought to life – Ilen on parade in Funchal. Photo: Leszek WolnikTradition brought to life – Ilen on parade in Funchal. Photo: Leszek Wolnik

Galway’s finest – the crew of Michael Craughwell’s 22m ketch Orchestra. Photo: Leszek WolnikGalway’s finest – the crew of Michael Craughwell’s 22m ketch Orchestra. Photo: Leszek Wolnik

Many Irish cruising boats are now based on Iberia’s Atlantic coast, but nevertheless the net was widespread, the furthest sailing from the north being Ed Wheeler from Strangford Lough with the Contessa 35 Witchcraft, Brody Sweeney from Malahide with Wotan, and Bob Stewart from Dun Laoghaire with the notably handsome Alden 60 Tara.

Best in Show? Bob Stewart’s classically handsome Alden 60 Tara from Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Leszek WolnikBest in Show? Bob Stewart’s classically handsome Alden 60 Tara from Dun Laoghaire. Photo: Leszek Wolnik

James Cahill’s Super Maramu 54 Saol Nua home-ports in Rosmoney on Clew Bay. Photo: Leszek WolnikJames Cahill’s Super Maramu 54 Saol Nua home-ports in Rosmoney on Clew Bay. Photo: Leszek Wolnik

Ed Wheeler’s Contessa 35 Witchcraft from Strangford Lough was a front-runner for furthest-travelledEd Wheeler’s Contessa 35 Witchcraft from Strangford Lough was a front-runner for furthest-travelled

From the west there was an OCC Belgian-owned alloy Djikstra cutter normally based in the Azores, while the voyage which started furthest east was made by Tony Linehan of Dublin’s Jeanneau 40 Sea Witch from Corfu, through a Mediterranean which was at times distinctly un-Mediterranean in its weather. And while several impressive Galway boats now base themselves south in the sun, there’s no doubt they brought the spirit of the west – beloved of Conor O’Brien – to Funchal.

It was quite a match, for the Madeiran forces of hospitality were comfortably able to provide a ready welcome at a level that any Irish port would find a matter of pride. And it went right to the top, with an Education Ministry painting competition among school children involving the entire archipelago to illustrate O’Brien and his boats, for the presence of Ilen gave it all an added significance, reflected too in the presence of government members and the diplomatic corps.

Happy coincidence. The US Coastguard barque Eagle added to the sense of occasion in Funchal for the Nautical Parade. Photo: Leszek WolnikHappy coincidence. The US Coastguard barque Eagle added to the sense of occasion in Funchal for the Nautical Parade. Photo: Leszek Wolnik

The completeness of the welcome was made even more impressive by the fact that Funchal was still overcoming coastal and township damage inflicted six weeks earlier by Storm Oscar. Torrential rain had caused some land-slips, one of which had blocked the entrance to the marina. But it was dredged and ready to go as the first boats arrived, after an initial fleet assembly at Porto Santo to the north.

Most of the boats involved are accustomed to cruising on their own solitary way across sea and ocean, so for them five days of intensive socializing, celebration and commemoration is always something of a novelty, particularly in such a relatively remote location.

The ever-helpful Club Navale de Funchal staff of Antonio Cunha (Head of Operations), Carlota Duerte (Communications & Protocol) and Marco Gamelas (Director of Sailing). Photo: Aoife NolanThe ever-helpful Club Navale de Funchal staff of Antonio Cunha (Head of Operations), Carlota Duerte (Communications & Protocol) and Marco Gamelas (Director of Sailing). Photo: Aoife Nolan

Yet this “O’Brien’s First” party went so well that the Ocean Cruising Club – founded in 1954 by Humphrey Barton who did much of his early cruising in Ireland – is already thinking of something similar, but also involving the Canaries and Azores – for its 70th Anniversary next year.

Meanwhile the gallant old workhorse Ilen, now of the Sailing Into Wellness organisation, is homeward bound after her central role at the Club Navale in Funchal. Skipper for the outward passage was young Cork sailor Aodh O’Duinn with noted Derry voyager Conall Morrison as First Mate, while Conall is skipper for the return passage, with decidedly eclectic crews for both passages, and everyone on a healthy learning curve.

ICC Commodore David Beattie with Carla Carvalho Esteves of Madeira Tourism, who co-ordinated a remarkable exercise in total hospitality for a very diverse fleet. Photo: Aoife NolanICC Commodore David Beattie with Carla Carvalho Esteves of Madeira Tourism, who co-ordinated a remarkable exercise in total hospitality for a very diverse fleet. Photo: Aoife Nolan

For Ilen is a suitable introduction for the majesty of Conor O’Brien’s voyaging visions. Be warned, however, that she is just an introduction, however effectively she does it. She will only partially prepare you for the first sight of the newly re-born Saoirse, still testing the waters of West Cork. This new Saoirse, meticulousy replicated by Liam Hegarty and his team at Oldcourt for Fred Kinmonth with some sensible nods to modernity, really does have blow-your-mind star quality.

The re-born Saoirse has mind-blowing star quality. Photo: W M NixonThe re-born Saoirse has mind-blowing star quality. Photo: W M Nixon

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An international Irish sailing event called the “Saoirse Rally” organised by the Irish Cruising Club, launched from Dun Laoghaire harbour, Co. Dublin, Ireland last Saturday, 17th June 2023, to commemorate the heroic achievements one hundred years ago of legendary Irish sailor Conor O'Brien from Foynes, Co. Limerick.

Conor O'Brien was the first sailor to circumnavigate the world in a small yacht via the 3 Great Capes, a remarkable achievement and one that many contemporary sailors aspire to follow. Conor O'Brien designed and commissioned the Saoirse, a 42-foot ketch for the circumnavigation, which was built in Baltimore in West Cork in 1922. Conor O Brien’s circumnavigation commenced from Dun Laoghaire on 20th June 1923. The Port of Funchal in Madeira, Portugal, was his first port of call, where he arrived on 3rd July 1923.

Alex Delamer, a direct descendant of circumnavigator Conor O'Brien, aboard the Ilen at the Royal Irish Yacht Club immediately prior to the ketch's departure for Maderia, a 2,500 mile voyage to celebrate the Centenary of the Limerick man sailors circumnavigation of the globe in June 1923 Photo: Eugene LanganAlex Delamer, a descendant of circumnavigator Conor O'Brien, aboard the Ilen at the Royal Irish Yacht Club immediately prior to the ketch's departure for Maderia, a 2,500 mile voyage to celebrate the Centenary of the Limerick man sailors circumnavigation of the globe in June 1923 Photo: Eugene Langan

As Afloat reported previously, an international gathering of yachts voyaging from multiple locations was launched from Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland on Saturday, 17th June 2023 and are now sailing to the Madeira Islands, Portugal, arriving on the 3rd July 2023, at the capital city’s Port of Funchal to mark the centenary of Conor O Brien’s circumnavigation of the world.

Speaking during a planning meeting for the 'Saoirse Rally’ Irish Cruising Club Commodore David Beattie remarked that:

'This rally is a great example of modern Irish sailors being inspired by the adventures and achievements of innovators such as Conor O Brien a century ago. His inspiration and influence were such that sailors from Ireland have experience in every ocean, with club members enthusiastically cruising worldwide, including Arctic and Antarctic waters.’

O Brien’s restored Falkland Islands trading ketch boat the AK Ilen, is the leading vessel for the Saoirse Rally and is skippered by Conall Morrison, assisted by crews of fourteen members from the Irish Cruising Club.

Saoirse Rally in Madeira

The authorities in the capital city of Funchal, Madeira, Portugal were so captivated by the historic nature of Conor O Brien’s circumnavigation that they have committed significant resources to hosting the rally welcoming yachts from various nationalities and countries. The international “Saoirse Rally” will be hosted in a specially installed marina in the Funchal Events Basin. The “Saoirse Rally” will become a featured event in the Madeira tourist calendar. Clube Naval do Funchal (CNF) is acting as host club for the rally in Funchal supported by Madeira Ports Authority (APRAM), and the Regional Tourist Authority (DRT). Welcome events are planned, including a reception at the Events Basin, a series of tourism activities for visiting Irish sailors to experience the islands, a Regatta with members of The Cruising Club of Funchal (CNF) and a closing event on 8th July 2023.

Conor O Brien (1880-1952)

Conor O Brien (1880-1952) was a legendary Irish sailor who made significant contributions to the world of sailing. O'Brien was also an accomplished mountaineer, patriot, architect and author. O'Brien began his sailing career at a young age, and his love for the sea would eventually take him on adventures around the world. One of O'Brien's most notable achievements was his circumnavigation of the world in his boat, the Saoirse. This journey, which began in 1923, took him two years to complete and covered over 40,000 miles. Saoirse was a 42-foot ketch designed by O'Brien himself, and it was the first Irish-built boat to complete a circumnavigation under the new tricolour.

O'Brien's voyage was a major accomplishment, as it was the first circumnavigation south of the three Great Capes by a small yacht. His journey inspired other sailors, and he is still celebrated today as a pioneer in the world of sailing. In addition to his circumnavigation, O'Brien was also an accomplished writer and wrote several books on his sailing adventures.

His books, such as "Across Three Oceans" were popular among sailors and adventure enthusiasts and provided insight into his experiences and the challenges he faced during his voyages. O'Brien's passion for sailing, his adventurous spirit, and his pioneering achievements have left a lasting impact on the world of sailing, and he will always be remembered as one of Ireland's most accomplished sailors.

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A hundred years ago next Tuesday, June 20th, Conor O'Brien (1880-1952) of Foynes took his departure with some fanfare aboard his 42ft Saoirse from the harbour her skipper preferred to call Dunleary, though most of its citizens saw it as Kingstown, and headed south. Saoirse had been designed in a first-time effort by her owner-skipper, and was newly built by Tom Moynihan in the Fisheries School in Baltimore.

When she returned exactly two years later, on Saturday, June 20th 1925, Saoirse had become the first “yacht” to circumnavigate the world south of the Great Capes of Good Hope and Cape Horn, running down her easting in the mighty westerlies of the Southern Ocean through the vast wastes of sea which, until then, had been solely the province of the much more substantial vessels of government-backed explorers, naval commanders, pirates, global traders, and rapacious whalers.

WORKBOAT-STYLE YACHT

To a casual observer, Saoirse’s yacht status would have seemed questionable. This was no glittering toy for the sport of the rich. On the contrary, her archaic rig and very traditional and largely un-decorated hull was loosely based on the lines of an 1860s Arklow fishing boat, whose looks and sea-keeping qualities O'Brien had come to admire.

Saoirse. Conor O’Brien’s sail-plan for his first yacht design was essentially for offwind sailing, and the stunsails…Saoirse. Conor O’Brien’s sail-plan for his first yacht design was essentially for offwind sailing, and the stunsails…

…………were by no means ornamental, adding real speed in light winds. Photo courtesy O’Brien family…………were by no means ornamental, adding real speed in light winds. Photo courtesy O’Brien family

Yet by any commercial definition, she wasn’t a workboat, for in Irish waters, she sailed under the burgee of the 1831-founded Royal Irish Yacht Club. And abroad, her owner used the additional muscle of the 1880-founded London-based Royal Cruising Club in order to smooth the way in foreign ports and also – through its highly-regarded annual RCC Journal – to help in his need for resources-generating publicity which was also supported by articles in Irish newspapers.

ABNORMAL TIMES, WAR-TORN LOCATIONS

In the early 1920s, undertaking such a project in normal circumstances would have been something special. But the Ireland of the early 1920s was anything but normal, and the voyage of the Saoirse emerged from a time of turmoil. The new vessel - O’Brien’s first yacht design - was built shortly after the War of Independence and during the Civil War, in which her birthplace in West Cork was at the heart of one of the most active theatres of conflict.

It was a time of heightened feeling, of lifelong friendships sundered by opposing opinions and the outcomes of irreversible actions. O’Brien may have been a grandson of Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien of the 1848 rising, but his own father Edward, an extensive land-owner of Cahirmoyle near Foynes in County Limerick, had been largely inactive in politics and generally conservative in outlook for much of his life.

O’BRIEN THE GUN-RUNNER

Yet a period of living in Dublin after schooling and university in England saw the young Conor O’Brien’s opinions crystallising strongly in favour of Home Rule, and he became a fellow-gun-runner - sailing his own ketch Kelpie - with Erskine & Molly Childers with their ketch Asgard in the 1914 gun-running on behalf of the Irish Volunteers.

Erskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard of 1905-vintage as conserved by John Kearon in Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin. In all, three yachts were involved in the 1914 gun-running – Asgard, Conor O’Brien’s Kelpie, and Sir Thomas Myles’ Chotah. Photo: W M NixonErskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard of 1905-vintage as conserved by John Kearon in Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin. In all, three yachts were involved in the 1914 gun-running – Asgard, Conor O’Brien’s Kelpie, and Sir Thomas Myles’ Chotah. Photo: W M Nixon

O’Brien’s English schooling and university experience had seen mountaineering as his primary recreational interest, but regular family holidays at Derrynane in Kerry and subsequent experience afloat at Foynes had strengthened a longtime interest in sailing to such an extent that, in his Dublin period in the first dozen or so years of the 20th Century, he took the step in 1910 of selling his house in the fashionable Fitzwilliam area of the city (where he’d been a founder member of the United Arts Club in 1907) in order to buy the 1870-built 48ft Kelpie.

She was a heavily-rigged cutter, but for ease of handling, he reduced the sailplan to ketch rig, and continued to build his seagoing experience with coastal projects such as a round Ireland cruise in 1913, while formalising his knowledge of navigation through enrolment in the Royal Naval Reserve.

“ANGER MANAGEMENT” PROBLEMS

He managed this despite being a notoriously short-tempered individual who could fall out with his sometimes voluntary crews as readily as he could disagree with his naval superiors. For the fact is that in beginning the celebrations of the Centenary of Saoirse’s departure with an Irish Cruising Club/Royal Cruising Club gathering in the Royal Irish YC today hosted by RIYC Commodore Jerome Dowling and ICC Commodore David Beattie, there’ll be a tacit acknowledgement that in any society, Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien would have instantly qualified as a charter member of the Awkward Squad.

But then, amidst the experiences, general maritime knowledge and attitudes of his time, no sensible normal person would have dreamt of setting off in such a small and relatively untested boat with such huge ambitions into what was still largely the Great Unknown.

Yet there was a certain inevitability about it. Two years earlier, while returning from a sailing/mountaineering expedition to The Cuillin Mountains of Skye, O’Brien had found himself obliged to sail single-handed back to Dublin Bay in what was now his floating home, the Kelpie.

THE LOSS OF THE KELPIE

Turning slowly to windward through the North Channel at night aboard Kelpie, O’Brien took off southeastwards from the mouth of Belfast Lough, and set his alarm clock to give himself an off-watch of two hours of sleep in open water. Typically, he furiously blamed the German manufacturers of the clock for the fact that he slept through the alarm. Either way, while Kelpie may have come gently aground on rocks just south of Portpatrick on Scotland’s Galloway coast, she was doomed.

Conor O’Brien aboard Kelpie off the West Coast of Ireland in 1913. Even with her rig reduced to a ketch configuration, Kelpie was a massively heavy challenge for a single-hander. Photo: courtesy O’Brien family.Conor O’Brien aboard Kelpie off the West Coast of Ireland in 1913. Even with her rig reduced to a ketch configuration, Kelpie was a massively heavy challenge for a single-hander. Photo: courtesy O’Brien family

Any salvage of the ship as she began to break up as the tide started to fall was beyond the abilities of O'Brien on his own, and he emerged at Portpatrick out of the morning mist, rowing in the Kelpie’s little dinghy surrounded by his personal possessions, and already thinking of the next chapter in his apparently rather aimless life.

He retreated for mental convalescence to a cottage on the family-owned Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary, and soon was drawing the lines of his new dreamship. Funds were very limited, so he restricted himself to a chopped-off transom-sterned hull design just 40ft long.

Conor O’Brien’s cottage on Foynes Island, as seen through the rigging of the restored Ilen in 2018. Photo: Gary Mac MahonConor O’Brien’s cottage on Foynes Island, as seen through the rigging of the restored Ilen in 2018. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

TOM MOYNIHAN, BALTIMORE’S VERY SPECIAL BOATBUILDER

Tom Moynihan in Baltimore seems to have been one of the few people with whom he retained a comfortable working relationship, and thus when Moynihan quietly lengthened the hull with two extra feet of sawn-off counter (reputedly while O’Brien was away from being an almost-constant presence in Baltimore), Tom earned the world sailing community’s eternal gratitude, for at a stroke he gave Saoirse a rather jaunty look that the original O’Brien lines had conspicuously lacked.

There simply isn’t the space here – or perhaps anywhere – to discuss all the ramifications of Saoirse’s design. Sufficient to say that as a late-flowering architect with an enthusiasm for William Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement, in some ways O' Brien aspired to create a comfortable sea-going cottage. And it’s significant that while Erskine & Molly Childer’s Asgard – otherwise one of the finest cruising yachts of her era – had the galley located uncomfortably forward of the mainmast in the “them and us” attitude of the time, Saoirse’s galley – complete with coal-burning stove – was right aft in the position of least sea-going motion.

Saoirse’s accommodation plan clearly indicated the cooking stove beside its coal bunker located in the position of least motion well aft……….Saoirse’s accommodation plan clearly indicated the cooking stove beside its coal bunker located in the position of least motion well aft……….

…….and after Conor O’Brien’s marriage to Kitty Clausen in 1928, Saoirse’s potential for cosy comfort could be fully realised. Courtesy O’Brien family…….and after Conor O’Brien’s marriage to Kitty Clausen in 1928, Saoirse’s potential for cosy comfort could be fully realised. Courtesy O’Brien family

PIONEERING USE OF IRISH TRICOLOUR

It will have come as little surprise that he named his new vessel Saoirse to celebrate the freedom of the new Irish state. But his declaration that he would be flying its tricolour ensign when he reached a foreign port – the first Irish-registered vessel to do so – was tempered by the fact that he left what its citizens generally still thought of as Kingstown with the Royal Irish YC’s British ensign at the top of the mizzen mast.

It was a gesture of unusual diplomacy by the head-strong skipper, but he needed the goodwill of the club and its members. For although in his own mind the voyage had started from Foynes a couple of weeks earlier, where he felt all his voyages began, the Dunleary/Kingstown launching pad was essential to get the publicity machine rolling steadily along.

Saoirse departs from “Dunleary”, June 20th 1923. Although it was intended to fly an Irish tricolour ensign when entering foreign ports, in what most of its citizens still firmly regarded as Kingstown she tactfully flies the Royal Irish YC British blue ensign from the head of her mizzen mast.Saoirse departs from “Dunleary”, June 20th 1923. Although it was intended to fly an Irish tricolour ensign when entering foreign ports, in what most of its citizens still firmly regarded as Kingstown she tactfully flies the Royal Irish YC British blue ensign from the head of her mizzen mast

As it happened, the original Irish ensign on the Saoirse got no further than the first port of call at Funchal in Madeira. The newly appointed Irish Free State consul on that island – with whom O’Brien had a celebratory night of subsequently glossed-over carousal in celebration of the successful completion of both his own and Saoirse’s first ocean passage under sail - was given a present of the flag to fly outside his Consulate, as the new government in Dublin seemed in no haste to issue the trappings of what was an honorary role in such a relatively minor location.

Thus it was some time before a replacement tricolour had been prepared for Saoirse’s entering of foreign harbours – usually to the bewilderment of the port authorities – but meanwhile, the voyage progressed with the usual problems of a new vessel and her archaic rig being solved along the way.

Merrily we roll along. On her first ocean voyage - the 1,300 mile passage from Dublin Bay to Madeira - Saoirse is making excellent and comfortable progress in the Portuguese trades, and Conor O’Brien is at last conspicuously relaxed at the helm. Photo: Courtesy O’Brien family. Merrily we roll along. On her first ocean voyage - the 1,300 mile passage from Dublin Bay to Madeira - Saoirse is making excellent and comfortable progress in the Portuguese trades, and Conor O’Brien is at last conspicuously relaxed at the helm. Photo: Courtesy O’Brien family. 

A LEAP IN THE DARK

This had been an extraordinary departure in many ways. Although he had voyaged many miles offshore in his naval reserve service in the 1914-1918 World War, O’Brien had at most sailed only a couple of hundred oceanic miles. And Saoirse had sailed even fewer. Yet here he and she were, spreading various tales through various publications and conversations about the real purpose of their voyage, purposes which moved between joining mountaineering expeditions in South Africa and New Zealand to the simple ambition of circling the globe south of Good Hope and Horn.

And all this with a new boat which had experienced only the most rudimentary of shakedown cruises, with the passage round from Foynes to be positioned in Dublin Bay probably the longest.

Thus the 1,300 nautical miles of largely oceanic passage to Madeira was something of leap in the dark. But with particularly good sailing in the Portuguese Trades, Saoirse proved to be everything that O’Brien had hoped for and confidently predicted, even if he admitted to those closest to him that the prospect of it all had made him very nervous.

THE “REAL VOYAGE” BEGAN FROM MADEIRA 

The arrival in Madeira was over-celebrated, so they more or less had to move on after three days, leaving their Irish tricolour ensign behind yet being rewarded at sea with strong fair winds through the Canariea that gave Saoirse her best day’s run of the entire voyage, 185 miles.

O’Brien was confident that if he could recruit a helmsman whose talent equalled his own in understanding the little ship’s steering needs, then they could break the magic 200-mile barrier. But in his rapid turnover of crew -18 in all during the voyage – there was just one helmsman who began to show sufficient talent. And when he and O’Brien silently witnessed an absolute Mount Everest of a breaking sea building up and crashing over about a mile away in the cross seas of post-storm conditions while south of the Indian Ocean, although nothing was said, both knew that if Saoirse had been caught in up that rogue wave, she was a goner. So at the next port, that most promising of young helmsmen departed without a word.

The restored Conor O’Brien-designed Ilen will depart today from Dun Laoghaire, bound for Madeira. She is seen here during a cruise to Greenland in 2019. Photo: Gary Mac MahonThe restored Conor O’Brien-designed Ilen will depart today from Dun Laoghaire, bound for Madeira. She is seen here during a cruise to Greenland in 2019. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Meanwhile the successful arrival in Madeira had indicated that what had been thought of as a crazy idea by many back home was now being treated with proper seriousness, and as part of the celebrations a flotilla from the Irish Cruising Club, Royal Irish Yacht Club, and Royal Cruising depart from Dun Laoghaire today on a cruise-in-company to Madeira led by the restored 56ft O’Brien ketch Ilen, whose original construction in 1926 - again by Tom Moynihan in Baltimore – was inspired by O’Brien’s successful arrival in the Falklands shortly after his rounding of Cape Horn in December 1924, when the islanders felt a bigger version of Saoirse would provide them with the ideal inter-island service boat.

THE ORIGINS OF ILEN

These days, Ilen is run by the Sailing into Wellness organisation, but in 1997 her retrieval from a retired state in the Falklands in November 1997 was entirely the doing of Gary MacMahon of Limerick, who was becoming more totally involved with each and every passing day into what almost amounted an addiction to seeing that Conor O’Brien’s achievements were properly remembered.

The MacMahon Plan was that his two key boats - Saoirse of 1922, which had been supposedly lost in a hurricane in Jamaica in 1979, and Ilen, which was now back in Ireland and ripe for restoration – would both sail again, whether in a re-built or restored form.

At the time, with the 75th Anniversary of O’Brien’s departure due in 1998, others of us thought some sort of commemorating was appropriate, and at an astonishingly festive gathering in the RIYC – which Gary and many O’Brien relatives attended - a specially commissioned bust of O’Brien, hewn by sculptor Danny Osborne of Beara from the beach-scavenged vertebra of a giant blue whale that would have been of an age to have observed Saoirse sailing past, was presented to the RIYC. And for any normal people, that would have been quite enough until the Centenary came around in 2023.

The Conor O’Brien whalebone bust presented to the Royal Irish Yacht Club in 1998 to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Saoirse voyage. Sculptor Danny Osborne of Beara is best known for his statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin. The Conor O’Brien whalebone bust presented to the Royal Irish Yacht Club in 1998 to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Saoirse voyage. Sculptor Danny Osborne of Beara is best known for his statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin

ILEN RESTORED, SAOIRSE RE-BORN

But like Conor O'Brien himself, tedious normality is not the default mode with Gary Mac Mahon. He has given more than a quarter of a Century of his best efforts and energy, and ideas to ensure that Ilen has been restored to continue serving a useful purpose, while all the data has been in place to enable the authentic re-building of Saoirse to take place in Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt on the Ilen River in West Cork, where Ilen had been restored.

Thanks to the resources of Fred Kinmonth, Saoirse has been re-born, and for the first time ever, she and Ilen sailed together at last month’s Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival, with Saoirse now identifying as an icon of West Cork. And Gary Mac Mahon, his 27-year mission magnificently completed, has stood back from day-to-day involvement with either vessel.

Gary Mac Mahon at the helm of Ilen in Greenland in 2019Gary Mac Mahon at the helm of Ilen in Greenland in 2019

CENTRAL TO WORLD SAILING HISTORY

The great voyage of the Saoirse is now seen as a cornerstone of world sailing history. In 1923 she was noticed by only a few when she arrived in Madeira, but this time the Ilen – with the initial flotilla expanded to a fleet as Iberian and Mediterranean-based boats of the ICC and the RCC join the trail – will begin an official visit on July 3rd – the Centenary of O’Brien’s arrival – inaugurating a prodigious welcome and round of celebrations organised by the island’s hospitality dynamo, Catia Carvalho Esteves, and the Clube Naval de Funchal.

The projects completed or initiated through the inspiration of Gary Mac Mahon since 1997 are a little short of miraculous. Conor O’Brien is now remembered, and his achievements are appreciated. All we need to hear is that, in some hidden cupboard of the Irish Consulate in Funchal, they’ve discovered a hundred-year-old Irish tricolour.

“A jaunty little ship”. Fred Kinmonth’s new Saoirse – seen here being stern-chased by the Pilot Cutter Marian during the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival in May 2023 – had her appearance vastly improved thanks to shipwright Tom Moynihan’s insistence in 1922 that she be given an extra 2ft in overall length at the stern, with an up-lifting sweep to the sheerline. Photo: Robbie Murphy“A jaunty little ship”. Fred Kinmonth’s new Saoirse – seen here being stern-chased by the Pilot Cutter Marian during the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival in May 2023 – had her appearance vastly improved thanks to shipwright Tom Moynihan’s insistence in 1922 that she be given an extra 2ft in overall length at the stern, with an up-lifting sweep to the sheerline. Photo: Robbie Murphy

Published in W M Nixon
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Wooden boats will dominate Baltimore Harbour this weekend when the West Cork village welcomes back the annual gathering of traditional vessels.

Like many other events the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival, which had been held annually for seventeen years from 2002, came to a halt in 2019 with the wretched arrival of Covid. The organisers say that vessels are already arriving in Baltimore for the event in which there is huge interest.

Wooden boats will dominate Baltimore, West Cork this weekendWooden boats will dominate Baltimore, West Cork this weekend Photo: Simon O'Shea

“We are delighted to re-launch the traditional festival,” Mary Jordan of the organising committee told me. “And we’re going to do so with a very special commemoration marking the centenary year when the legendary Conor O’Brien sailed off to go around the world in Saoirse, the boat built for him at the Baltimore Fishery School.”

The spirit of the re-born Saoirse is captured in this February 2023 Kevin O'Farrell photo taken off Baltimore. Photo: Kevin O'FarrellThe spirit of the re-born Saoirse is captured in this February 2023 Kevin O'Farrell photo taken off Baltimore. Photo: Kevin O'Farrell

The newly-built Saoirse from Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt, Skibbereen, for Fred Kinmouth, will be seen at the festival sailing in company with the Ketch Ilen, the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships, also designed by O’Brien and restored at Hegarty’s.

Mary Jordan is my Podcast guest this week and makes a very interesting suggestion that Conor O’Brien’s circumnavigation should be used as a focal point of developing maritime training

Listen to the Podcast below.

Published in Tom MacSweeney

Anyone who doesn't respond at several emotional levels to the atmosphere in an ancient boat-building shed when a traditional wooden boat is being re-created in the time-honoured style can only be soul-dead. And when the boat in question is Conor O'Brien's 1922-built 42ft Cape Horn-pioneering ketch Saoirse, with the re-birth happening for owner Fred Kinmonth in Liam Hegarty's enchanted space in The Old Grain Store (aka The Top Shed) at Oldcourt near Baltimore, then the enchantment is total.

Inevitably, the sacred mood in the shed begins to evaporates as soon as the boat leaves her sheltered place of birth to be readied for
launching. But fortunately the entire process of building Saoirse has been recorded by West Cork photographer Kevin O'Farrell, who hung on until he could get the first photos of the 2022 Saoirse sailing for the very first time in February this year, and then he set to on completing the production of the evocative photobook of the entire process.

It's a real come-all-ye launching in the West Cork Hotel in Skibbereen at 7.0pm this Thursday, April 20th. Everyone of goodwill is welcome, and the book-launching honours are being performed by Cormac Levis, the guru and conscience of the traditional boat movement in West Cork. This will be a uniquely West Cork occasion which will offer an early opportunity to savour the spirit of what is going to be a very special and unrepeatable year for all Conor O'Brien and Saoirse enthusiasts.

 The spirit of the re-born Saoirse is captured in this February 2023 Kevin O'Farrell photo taken off Baltimore. Photo: Kevin O'Farrell The spirit of the re-born Saoirse is captured in this February 2023 Kevin O'Farrell photo taken off Baltimore. Photo: Kevin O'Farrell

Published in Conor O'Brien
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The Irish Cruising Club (ICC) gathers in County Sligo for its annual dinner this weekend, at which Commodore Dave Beattie will launch a new edition of Conor O'Brien's 'Across Three Oceans' to mark the centenary of the circumnavigation.

As Afloat reported previously, The new Irish Cruising Club/Royal Cruising Club book is the sixth edition of O’Brien’s pioneering account of his global circumnavigation south of the Great Capes with the 42ft Baltimore-built traditional gaff ketch Saoirse in 1923-1925. Compiled by Alex Blackwell and a special ICC/RCC Publications Committee, it includes extra material about O’Brien’s personal background and other after-thoughts on ocean sailing, which he added with additional analysis and further sea-going experience.

A new edition of Conor O'Brien's 'Across Three Oceans' marks the centenary of the circumnavigation and will be launched at the ICC dinner in SligoA new edition of Conor O'Brien's 'Across Three Oceans' marks the centenary of the circumnavigation and will be launched at the ICC dinner in Sligo

Fastnet Award

The ICC Dinner will also see the presentation to W M Nixon, of this parish, with the club's premier trophy for his 'exceptional achievements and for excellence in or closely related to cruising under sail'.

The Fastnet Award is a perpetual trophy that is not awarded every year, and Sligo will be the ninth occasion on which it has been presented.

Previous recipients include Paddy Barry and Jarlath Cunnane (inaugural Award, 2005), Robin Knox-Johnston, Commander Bill King, Killian Bushe and, in 2020, the Royal Cork Yacht Club.

Published in Cruising

The magnificent pioneering voyage round the world south of the Great Capes in 1923-1925 by Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) of Foynes, sailing his new-built engine-less 42ft Baltimore ketch Saoirse, was of such heroic proportions that any attempts at a re-enactment to mark the Centenary of its start this year from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th might seem faintly ridiculous, a profound ocean challenge reduced to pantomime.

Yet the latest images by noted West Cork photographer Kevin O’Farrell of the new and very precise re-build of Saoirse having her first sail in Baltimore on Tuesday of this week (Valentine’s Day, of course) and setting impressively traditional sails from Barry Hayes and his team at the UK Sailmakers loft in Crosshaven, make such a forceful impression that you could well believe that all things – real or re-enacted - are possible.

And this was very much the mood when the original Saoirse sailed out from Dublin Bay a hundred years ago. For apart from anything else, the characterful little ship, which had been designed by O’Brien himself though with some welcome modifications by Baltimore’s master shipwright Tom Moynihan, was still largely untried at sea, and had done no ocean voyaging at all.

Into the unknown…when the new Saoirse departed from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923, neither she nor her skipper had done any ocean voyaging of significance. Photo: Irish TimesInto the unknown…when the new Saoirse departed from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923, neither she nor her skipper had done any ocean voyaging of significance. Photo: Irish Times

IRISH CRUISING CLUB AGM REVEALS CENTENARY PLAN

At the time of Saoirse’s build through 1922, West Cork was a hotspot of some of its most active scenes of conflict in the Civil War. Yet while the construction job was done, there was little enough time or opportunity for sea trials, and Saoirse departed from Dun Laoghaire for “a voyage to New Zealand” largely as an act of faith. But it was an act of faith gloriously fulfilled, and as confirmed at last night’s AGM of the Irish Cruising Club in Dun Laoghaire, the 1929-founded ICC and the 1880-founded RCC – the latter having given O’Brien’s achievement international recognition while the voyage was under way - have come up with a very appropriate programme to mark the event.

O’Brien’s initial stage of the voyage in June 1923 started with a first passage from Dun Laoghaire to Madeira. It went very well indeed, with the surprisingly swift little Saoirse making such good time in the brisk Portuguese Trades that, despite calms in the later stages, she arrived off Funchal in Madeira on July 3rd. So although there’ll be a gathering of cruisers and their crews at the RIYC in Dun Laoghaire on June 17th prior to heading south, there’s no attempt at that stage to match O’Brien’s actual departure date of June 20th, as it’s felt the “Saoirse Show” was really only up and running when Madeira was reached. 

Conor O’Brien in relaxed mood at Saoirse’s helm as she proves unexpectedly fast running south in the Portuguese Trades, June 1923Conor O’Brien in relaxed mood at Saoirse’s helm as she proves unexpectedly fast running south in the Portuguese Trades, June 1923.

Thus those members who genuinely wish to show their appreciation of what O’Brien was doing will need to sail their boats to Madeira for the main event on July 3rd, and the word from ICC Commodore David Beattie last night was that 46 boats from many areas and several cruising clubs had expressed interest in being there. And O’Brien’s other famous ocean-going design, the 56ft trading ketch Ilen of 1926-vintage restored through the tireless efforts of Gary Mac Mahon of Limerick, will also be heading south as part of the fleet, with trainees and ocean-cruising enthusiasts making up her ship’s company.

The restored 56ft Trading Ketch Ilen of 1926 vintage will be sailing to Madeira as part of the Saoirse Centenary celebrations. Photo: Gary MacMahonThe restored 56ft Trading Ketch Ilen of 1926 vintage will be sailing to Madeira as part of the Saoirse Centenary celebrations. Photo: Gary MacMahon

SAOIRSE’S WEST CORK CONNECTIONS

Whether or not the new Saoirse herself is present remains to be seen, as the resources behind her re-build are being provided by Fred Kinmonth, whose family have strong West Cork connections even though he has spent his working life as a Corporate Lawyer in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, his heart is in West Cork, and his first priority is to emphasise that Saoirse was and is a West Cork boat, despite Conor O’Brien’s frequently-avowed devotion to Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary.

So with much completion work still to be done internally, after her trial sail on Tuesday the new Saoirse was re-hauled at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt on the Ilen River, and it is hoped that she will be making her fully-completed and formal debut at the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival on May 26th-28th 2023.

The Saoirse re-creation newly launched at Oldcourt, September 2022. Although the hull lines used were those taken off the original hull by Uffa Fox in 1927, they were shown to match Conor O’Brien’s own “rough” pre-build sketches of 1922 very closely. Photo: John WolfeThe Saoirse re-creation newly launched at Oldcourt, September 2022. Although the hull lines used were those taken off the original hull by Uffa Fox in 1927, they were shown to match Conor O’Brien’s own “rough” pre-build sketches of 1922 very closely. Photo: John Wolfe

The new build of the design of Saoirse herself by Liam Hegarty at Oldcourt - to very precise lines taken off by Uffa Fox, no less, in 1927 - saw her reaching the launching stage last autumn, and now the accelerated commissioning programme opens up fresh schedule possibilities. But perhaps the most meaningful option would be to have her in all her unique glory – and very much the flagship of West Cork - in Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 2025, a hundred years to the day from O’Brien’s return. His success was celebrated with such widespread enthusiasm afloat and ashore that Dublin Bay Sailing Club unprecedentedly cancelled their racing for the day (it was a Saturday) so that their fleet could welcome the great circumnavigator home.

A BOOK THAT CHANGED WITH EACH EDITION

The first edition of Across Three Oceans, O’Brien’s lively and often idiosyncratic account of the voyage, was published within a year in 1926, and it had a freshness which has convinced total Saoirse aficionados that this is the only true account of the voyage.

Yet O’Brien’s lively and decidedly opinionated mind meant that he was always seeing new ways of interpreting his first thoughts and impressions, and subsequent editions always carried so many different angles on it all that the initial impact was lessened, even if the debating points were increased.

One of sailing’s greatest books. The new Irish Cruising Club/Royal Cruising Club 6th edition of Conor O’Brien’s pioneering account of his global circumnavigation south of the Great Capes with the 42ft Baltimore-built traditional gaff ketch Saoirse in 1923-1925. Compiled by Alex Blackwell and a special ICC/RCC Publications Committee, it includes extra material about O’Brien’s personal background, and other after-thoughts on ocean sailing which he added with additional analysis and further sea-going experience. One of sailing’s greatest books. The new Irish Cruising Club/Royal Cruising Club 6th edition of Conor O’Brien’s pioneering account of his global circumnavigation south of the Great Capes with the 42ft Baltimore-built traditional gaff ketch Saoirse in 1923-1925. Compiled by Alex Blackwell and a special ICC/RCC Publications Committee, it includes extra material about O’Brien’s personal background, and other after-thoughts on ocean sailing which he added with additional analysis and further sea-going experience

But 97 years later, in the hopes of providing an accessible and user-friendly account of O’Brien’s extraordinary achievement and his own equally extraordinary background and family history, the ICC and RCC are jointly publishing a manageable paperback 6th Edition of Across Three Oceans (“manageable” means you can read it in bed), with a foreword by this columnist which tries to explain the history and character of a man who at times would have been at a loss to provide those explanations himself, or would have delighted in spinning a yarn which was at variance with reality.

Meanwhile, for those who wish to go into it all in complete detail, in 2009 Collins Press of Cork published an excellent biography of O’Brien titled In Search Of Islands, written by Judith Hill using the impressive selection of O’Brien material amassed over many years by Gary Mac Mahon. And of course O’Brien wrote other sailing-related books, the best of them in conjunction with his wife, the artist Kitty Clausen, who died tragically young, but in her prime had sketched the most impressive portrait we have of Conor O’Brien.

Kitty Clausen’s insightful portrait of her husband Conor O’BrienKitty Clausen’s insightful portrait of her husband Conor O’Brien

As for the new Saoirse, Kevin O’Farrell has meticulously photographed every aspect of her build from the beginning of the project in Liam Hegarty’s atmospheric Top Shed at Oldcourt, and his book of those evocative images of the creation of the new Saoirse will be published in May, a work of art in itself and a total immersive experience for lovers of wooden boats, connoisseurs of craftsmanship, and everyone for whom West Cork is a very special place

IRISH CRUISING CLUB AWARDS

It says much about the contemporary widespread interests of the Irish Cruising Club that the Saoirse Centenary was just one of many topics covered in a busy agenda last night, but inevitably it was prominent in everyone’s thoughts. For although the ICC was not founded until 1929 at a modest gathering of five cruising yachts at Glengarriff, one of the first acts of the new club was to make Conor O’Brien an Honorary Member, and from his retirement at his little house of Barneen on Foynes Island, he occasionally emerged to take part in the ICC’s Annual Dinner.

The Club has come through the pandemic in good heart, helped by the fact that the very able Commodore David Beattie had his period of office extended to three years from the usual two, thereby providing continuity at a time when it was sometimes difficult to tell whether boats could go cruising or not.

SMALL BOAT SUCCESS FOR CLEW BAY

Yet once there were the faintest chinks of light in the restrictions, they sailed the seas near and far. But nevertheless there’s something encouraging about the fact that the adjudication by Tom Kirby of Clonakilty for the premier award, the Faulkner Cup, which dates from 1931, has gone to Clew Bay member Duncan Sclare, who’d bought a well-used 29ft Verl 900 on the west shores of the North Sea. As soon as restriction-easing began in March, he sailed this little boat – called Quibus - home to Mayo in the seasonal fair winds of very raw easterlies, an efficient and seamanlike exercise in exemplary style which gave the Faulkner Cup a fresh perspective.

Plans of the Verl 900 – Duncan Sclare’s Quibus to this design is the smallest boat in many years to have been awarded the ICC’s premier trophy, the Falkner Cup Plans of the Verl 900 – Duncan Sclare’s Quibus to this design is the smallest boat in many years to have been awarded the ICC’s premier trophy, the Falkner Cup 

For many years now, high latitude places have feature in the top awards, and Svalbard or Spitzbergen – just as you wish – has been frequently visited in tines past, But these days that Arctic archipelago is not only too popular for its own good through being over-run by cruise liners, but it’s now considered political frontier country. So Adrian Spence and Paddy Barry with the former’s 47ft ketch El Paradiso had more than enough problems to deal with in making a worthwhile visit there, but they are awarded the Strangford Cup nevertheless.

Adrian Spence’s Vagabond 47 El Paradiso found that Svalbard is now well-wrapped in red tape, yet she still managed enough cruising to be awarded the Strangford CupAdrian Spence’s Vagabond 47 El Paradiso found that Svalbard is now well-wrapped in red tape, yet she still managed enough cruising to be awarded the Strangford Cup

The Round Ireland cruise can be a work of art in its own right if properly executed, so the contest for its special cup is always fascinating, and in 2022 it was Vice Commodore Derek White of Strangford Lough, with his Limerick-built Fastnet 34 Ballyclaire, who got it right despite the weather in the west sometimes not being right at all.

Derek & Viv White’s Fastnet 34 Ballyclaire in Derrynane during their award-winning Round Ireland cruiseDerek & Viv White’s Fastnet 34 Ballyclaire in Derrynane during their award-winning Round Ireland cruise

SAILING THE ATLANTIC IN A LOCKDOWN PROJECT

All the ICC logs have been superbly collected and presented in the professional-standard Annual by Maire Breathnach of Dungarvan. Yet despite this winter workload, her own enthusiasm for cruising and cruising boats seems greater than ever, for although she and husband Andrew Wilkes were stuck in the Canaries during the depths of the lockdown with their 64ft gaff cutter Annabel J, they kept themselves busy by taking over and restoring an abandoned Nicholson 43 called Hunza which they sailed home in due course, thereby taking the ICC’s Atlantic Trophy.

Another ICC member who has always given over and above the call of duty if John Clementson of Strangford Lough, whose ability as a tech whizz landed him with the job of moving the Club into the Internet age, which he did so capably that his work has been recognised with the John B Kearney Cup for Services to Sailing.

The ICC now has a host of trophies covering every possibility of activity and achievement afloat, but one which those in the know look out for is the Fingal Cup for the log which the Adjudicator most enjoyed. No-one will argue with Tom Kirby’s choice here, as it goes to Andy and Paddy McCarter of Lough Swilly, whose Starlight 35 Gwili 3 suddenly seemed very far away in her longterm Canary Islands base.

Andy and Paddy have both been Free Bus Pass holders for a while, but nothing daunted, they decided to bring Gwili 3 home to Ireland themselves, with both boat and crew requiring specialist attention at times. In due course, they did it, and produced an enjoyable account of it all while they were at it, in the best ICC style in a club which is itself now beginning to think about its Centenary.

Published in W M Nixon
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About The Middle Sea Race

The Rolex Middle Sea Race is a highly rated offshore classic, often mentioned in the same breath as the Rolex Fastnet, The Rolex Sydney–Hobart and Newport-Bermuda as a 'must do' race. The Royal Malta Yacht Club and the Royal Ocean Racing Club co-founded the race in 1968 and 2007 was the 28th Edition. Save for a break between 1984 and 1995 the event has been run annually attracting 25–30 yachts. In recent years, the number of entries has rissen sharply to 68 boats thanks to a new Organising Committee who managed to bring Rolex on board as title sponsor for the Middle Sea Race.

The race is a true challenge to skippers and crews who have to be at their very best to cope with the often changeable and demanding conditions. Equally, the race is blessed with unsurpassed scenery with its course, taking competitors close to a number of islands, which form marks of the course. Ted Turner described the MSR as "the most beautiful race course in the world".

Apart from Turner, famous competitors have included Eric Tabarly, Cino Ricci, Herbert von Karajan, Jim Dolan, Sir Chay Blyth and Sir Francis Chichester (fresh from his round the world adventure). High profile boats from the world's top designers take part, most in pursuit of line honours and the record – competing yachts include the extreme Open 60s, Riviera di Rimini and Shining; the maxis, Mistress Quickly, Zephyrus IV and Sagamore; and the pocket rockets such as the 41-foot J-125 Strait Dealer and the DK46, Fidessa Fastwave.

In 2006, Mike Sanderson and Seb Josse on board ABN Amro, winner of the Volvo Ocean Race, the super Maxis; Alfa Romeo and Maximus and the 2006 Rolex Middle Sea Race overall winner, Hasso Platner on board his MaxZ86, Morning Glory.

George David on board Rambler (ex-Alfa Romeo) managed a new course record in 2007 and in 2008, Thierry Bouchard on Spirit of Ad Hoc won the Rolex Middle Sea Race on board a Beneteau 40.7

The largest number of entries was 78 established in 2008.

Middle Sea Race History

IN THE BEGINNING

The Middle Sea Race was conceived as the result of sporting rivalry between great friends, Paul and John Ripard and an Englishman residing in Malta called Jimmy White, all members of the Royal Malta Yacht Club. In the early fifties, it was mainly British servicemen stationed in Malta who competitively raced. Even the boats had a military connection, since they were old German training boats captured by the British during the war. At the time, the RMYC only had a few Maltese members, amongst who were Paul and John Ripard.

So it was in the early sixties that Paul and Jimmy, together with a mutual friend, Alan Green (later to become the Race Director of the Royal Ocean Racing Club), set out to map a course designed to offer an exciting race in different conditions to those prevailing in Maltese coastal waters. They also decided the course would be slightly longer than the RORC's longest race, the Fastnet. The resulting course is the same as used today.

Ted Turner, CEO of Turner Communications (CNN) has written that the Middle Sea Race "must be the most beautiful race course in the world. What other event has an active volcano as a mark of the course?"

In all of its editions since it was first run in 1968 – won by Paul Ripard's brother John, the Rolex Middle Sea Race has attracted many prestigious names in yachting. Some of these have gone on to greater things in life and have actually left their imprint on the world at large. Amongst these one finds the late Raul Gardini who won line honours in 1979 on Rumegal, and who spearheaded the 1992 Italian Challenge for the America's Cup with Moro di Venezia.

Another former line honours winner (1971) who has passed away since was Frenchman Eric Tabarly winner of round the world and transatlantic races on Penduik. Before his death, he was in Malta again for the novel Around Europe Open UAP Race involving monohulls, catamarans and trimarans. The guest list for the Middle Sea Race has included VIP's of the likes of Sir Francis Chichester, who in 1966 was the first man to sail around the world single-handedly, making only one stop.

The list of top yachting names includes many Italians. It is, after all a premier race around their largest island. These include Navy Admiral Tino Straulino, Olympic gold medallist in the star class and Cino Ricci, well known yachting TV commentator. And it is also an Italian who in 1999 finally beat the course record set by Mistress Quickly in 1978. Top racing skipper Andrea Scarabelli beat it so resoundingly, he knocked off over six hours from the time that had stood unbeaten for 20 years.

World famous round the world race winners with a Middle Sea Race connection include yachting journalist Sir Robin Knox-Johnston and Les Williams, both from the UK.

The Maxi Class has long had a long and loving relationship with the Middle Sea Race. Right from the early days personalities such as Germany's Herbert Von Karajan, famous orchestra conductor and artistic director of the Berliner Philarmoniker, competing with his maxi Helisara IV. Later came Marvin Greene Jr, CEO of Reeves Communications Corporation and owner of the well known Nirvana (line honours in 1982) and Jim Dolan, CEO of Cablevision, whose Sagamore was back in 1999 to try and emulate the line honours she won in 1997.

THE COURSE RECORD

The course record was held by the San Francisco based, Robert McNeil on board his Maxi Turbo Sled Zephyrus IV when in 2000, he smashed the Course record which now stands at 64 hrs 49 mins 57 secs. Zephyrus IV is a Rechiel-Pugh design. In recent years, various maxis such as Alfa Romeo, Nokia, Maximus and Morning Glory have all tried to break this course record, but the wind Gods have never played along. Even the VOR winner, ABN AMro tried, but all failed in 2006.

However, George David came along on board Rambler in 2007 and demolished the course record established by Zephyrus IV in 2000. This now stands at 1 day, 23 hours, 55 minutes and 3 seconds.

At A Glance - Middle Sea Race 2024

First held: 1968

Organising Authority: Royal Malta Yacht Club

Start

The 45th Rolex Middle Sea Race will start on Saturday, 19 October 2024.

Grand Harbour, Valletta: seven separate starts, at 10-minute intervals, from 11:00 CEST Saturday, 21 October 2024

Start Line: between the Saluting Battery, Upper Barrakka Gardens (Valletta) and Fort St Angelo (Birgu)

Various vantage points all around the Grand Harbour, high up on the bastions or at water level. Harbour access for spectator boats is restricted during the period of the start.

Course

Set in the heart of the Mediterranean and is considered one of the most beautiful in the world. It starts and finishes in Malta, passes two active volcanoes and takes in the deep azure waters surrounding Sicily, and the Aeolian and Egadi Islands, as well as lonelier outposts of Pantelleria and Lampedusa, both closer to the African continent than Europe.

Length: 606 nautical miles (1,122km)

Outright Race Record: 33h 29m 28s, Argo, United States, Jason Carroll

Monohull Race Record: 40h 17m 50s, Comanche, Cayman Is, Mitch Booth

Main Trophies

Rolex Middle Sea Race Trophy – overall race winner under IRC Time Correction

Boccale de Mediterraneo – winner of ORC category

RLR Trophy – winner of monohull line honours

Captain Morgan Trophy – winner of multihull division on corrected time (MOCRA)

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