It says everything about the legendary allure of the 1976 Ron Holland 40-footer Imp that we only have to run a headline saying Imp is coming home for most sailors in Ireland to have some idea of what it’s all about writes W M Nixon
And it tells us more about the boat’s association with us all that we should talk about her “coming home” when much of her star status was achieved under the first ownership of Dave Allen of San Francisco, while the boat was actually built in Florida in by the designer’s then brother-in-law Gary Carlin.
The 1970s were the very special time for Ron Holland designs, created in the Strand Farmhouse in Currabinny across from the Royal Cork Yacht Club, and then in more spacious premises in Kinsale. His boats won the Quarter Ton World Cup and the Half Ton World Cup, and were always in the frame in the One Ton Cup, while in the Admirals Cup series at its peak there were more Holland boats than those from any other designer.
But with the International Offshore Rule dominating boat shapes, in the mid-’70s the hulls were becoming rather extreme, with narrow pintail sterns. Imp was one of the boats which began the move away from this increasingly unhealthy form, with a wider stern at the owner’s insistence to improve her offwind performance. Yet to Ron Holland’s satisfaction, not only was she significantly faster offwind than comparable boats of the pintail type, but he and his design team had hit on a hull form which was still providing a prodigious upwind performance.
In fact Imp – which had been built as light and austere as possible around an alloy tubing framework – was a star turn on every point of sailing, and when she came to Europe in 1977, she won the Fastnet Race overall, which was one extraordinary feather in Ron Holland’s cap, as his Nicholson 33 design Golden Delicious had been overall winner in an admittedly flukey race in 1975.
But Imp’s 1977 win of the big one against a fleet of 284 boats was straight up brilliance, and the boat with her startling green stripe livery became probably the best-known racing yacht in the world. She was back for the 1979 Fastnet, but in that storm-battered event, while she did finish well up the rankings, it was Ted Turner who won overall with ferocious hard-driving of his S&S 63 Tenacious.
However, Imp stayed on in Europe, and very soon she was Irish-owned. She was a wonderfully well-mannered yet potent boat to race. But there were no excuses for not doing well with this proven machine, while she offered only very Spartan accommodation for anyone who had a notion for a spot of family cruising as well.
Thus Irish ownerships of Imp tended to be relatively brief, and involved such noted Dun Laoghaire names as the Sisk brothers and Michael O’Leary (the sailing one, not the airline guy). They continued to ratchet up success, and by 1987 she was in the ownership of Roy Dickson of Howth who – ten years after Imp’s successful Fastnet debut – showed there was still life in the old girl by winning the Philip Whitehead Cup in the 1987 Fastnet.
After that, she was sold to Carrickfergus owner Roy Hamilton and was notching appearances in other venues, but before long she was headed south again to the ownership of George Radley Jnr of Cobh, who won the 2000 Round Ireland race with her, and very nearly won the 2002 Round Ireland as well, only to have victory snatched away by fellow Cork Harbour sailor Eric Lisson with Cavatina in the final hours.
Imp continues in George Radley’s ownership, but she has been away from Ireland for quite some time now, with a Transatlantic passage and more recently a sojourn in eastern England seeing about having the major refit she so rightly deserves.
But now, with keel removed and mast piled on deck, she has been seen on a low loader headed back from England for Ireland, and a major refit at George’s own private boatyard beside his house on the north shore of Great Island in Cork Harbour. The word is that she will be in pristine condition for the Royal Cork YC’s Tricentenary highlights in 2020. With Imp very much present in her restored glory, this will be turbo-charged sailing history brought vividly to life and then some.