Some boats just come and go, leaving little trace in the Irish sailing community’s consciousness. But others quickly become an integral part of our enduring mental and physical furniture, and our story at the weekend about the 1966-vintage Sparkman & Stephens-designed 36ft Sarnia and her first owner John G Sisk rang many bells.
Not least is the discovery that her name means “Star of the Sea” in an ancient alternative Roman language. It has a lightness to it which compares favourably with the official Latin of “Stella Maris”, for in naming a boat Stella Maris, you saddle her with a certain duty of piety, whereas there’s a sense of freedom about “Sarnia”.
This tells us even more about John G Sisk, the man who in 1949 called his new Robert Clark-designed Dun Laoghaire-built 38ft sloop Cheerful Maid at a time when cheerfulness was not at all high on the Irish agenda.
Be that as it may, Sarnia engendered hope when she arrived newly-built from Italy in Dublin Bay in 1966, and her first major challenge, raced by George, Hal and John Junior - the next generation of Sisks – was the RORC Beaumaris to Cork Race of June 1967.
The young Frank Larkin of Limerick was part of the youthful crew, and his memories of this experience 53 years ago arrived with us bursting with life as soon as the Sarnia story was posted on Saturday. It’s further proof, were it needed, that sailing is the secret of eternal youth, for recently Frank has acquired a Laser – not the first by any means – to let him sail when he wishes on Lough Derg from the KSC base close north of Killaloe.
Recollecting sailing events of more than five decades ago, he wrote of the great memories of how Sarnia came to be in Dublin Bay, and explained that he’d been on the University College Dublin Intervarsities Team racing squad with John Sisk Jnr, and it was after he’d returned to Limerick that a call came asking him would he crew on Sarnia in their first major offshore race, the RORC Beaumaris-Cork event of June 1967, an offer which he took up with enthusiasm.
Yet it was quite a leap in the dark, as Sarnia was new, the Sisks and their young sailing friends were new too as offshore racers, and the forecast was for a real sluggeroo out of the Irish Sea, round Carnsore Point and on still to windward past the Saltees and the Coningbeg for that often seemingly endless beating to Cork, where the headlands off West Waterford and East Cork all look so similar that you feel you’re in a Groundhog Day of endless windward work.
As expected, the already legendary Denis Doyle with the handsome big 47ft white Moonduster was soon in the lead, and steadily pulling away in stately style in this race back to his home port. But the much smaller Sarnia was like a terrier to windward, while providing a very rapid tutorial in offshore racing for her young crew.
The evening and night were the second day, as the good book says, as they got to Crosshaven in the gathering dusk without another boat in sight ahead or astern. After mooring up in those pre-marina days, they were taken ashore by the club launch to what everyone still thought of as the Royal Munster YC, even if for the three months since March 1967 it had been the Royal Cork Yacht Club incorporating the Royal Munster Yacht Club.
Whatever the name, Denis and his crew from Moonduster were comfortably at dinner in the club as Sarnia’s exhausted young team came into the clubhouse “looking like drowned rats” as Frank recalls. “Denis immediately realised that we had beaten him, and brought the six of us dripping wet to the bar, and bought us a congratulatory drink. A true gentleman and a great sportsman”.
Apart from the classic Crosshaven welcome, another important part of a visiting winner’s reception was the mandatory photo for what was then The Cork Examiner, and thus we have this enduring record of Sarnia’s young crew, now well tidied up but still somewhat bemused by the extraordinary capabilities of this new boat that John G Sisk had found for them.
But the late 1960s were a time of very rapid design development, and while Sarnia was fine for the Irish Sea, in Cowes the likes of English owners like Max Aitken and Derek Boyer had now adopted Sparkman & Stephens designs with full chequebook yachting ferocity, and the resulting one-off high-spec “Terrible Twins” – Roundabout and Clarionet – were pretty well unbeatable in the Solent One Ton Class Challenges.
But in any case, having tasted one leap forward in design development, the Sisk brothers were keen to try another, and Hal, in particular, was bringing to the following of the development of new designs the same dedicated research he now devotes to yachting history (he’s the Chairman of the International Association of Yachting Historians), such that in June 1971 the brothers took delivery of the very new Finot-designed Half Tonner Alouette de Mer which - very appropriately - translates as Sea Lark.
Built in France in aluminium, she was so new that there hadn’t been time to give her a lick of paint, but in her raw state they raced her to the overall championship winner in the Irish Sea, a boat so interesting that one Sunday in July 1971 I’d made a point of sailing over to Dun Laoghaire to have a proper look at her.
This was suitably rewarding, but even more rewarding in retrospect was that James McAsey, owner of the 1894-built Peggy Bawn since 1919, was taking her out for what may have been his first sail of the season, for Mr McAsey was well stricken in years, and didn’t believe in rushing things. And it meant that by purest chance, we were witness that day at the same time to the most innovative offshore racer with which Hal Sisk was ever involved, yet we also saw the already ancient Peggy Bawn sailing three decades and more before Hal took her over and created one of the finest classically authentic yacht restorations ever seen.
The Sisk brothers subsequently went through several very fine offshore racers including the great Imp, and Frank Larkin raced on them all. But meanwhile, Sarnia was ploughing her own proud furrow, and after she’d been owned for a while by Dennis O’Sullivan of Monkstown on Cork Harbour (since noted as a Laser Grand Master-plus), she was bought by Sam Dix of Malahide in 1975 and based at Howth. There, the young Robert Dix frequently sailed her to many successes, though he does admit that participation in the hyper-light 1977 Fastnet Race with a crew of his father Sam, himself, his brother David, Richard Burrows, Jock Smith, Graham Smith, and Vincent Wallace definitely came under the “learning experience” category. But they finished nevertheless with a boat which had become part of the family, and as Robert Dix went on to win Class 1 and lead all the Admirals Cup boats in the 1981 Fastnet Race with Ken Rohan’s Regardless, it was undoubtedly a learning experience of real value.
Becoming part of the family seems to be the key to Sarnia’s seemingly effortless longevity, and in modern times it is the Creedons of the National Yacht Club – Michael Creedon father and son – who have happily taken on the custodianship. The TLC which Sarnia relishes was particularly in evidence in Dingle in 2005 when she won the Cruisers Class in the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race, for she was positively and deservedly glowing in the Berth of Honour at the entrance to Dingle Marina.
Now she is afloat again, and ready for her 55th season. Those who feel there won’t be a proper season at all until mid-August if at all, what with all the COVID-19 cancellations, would do well to close in on that little bit of copy in the August 1971 Ireland Afloat. If we could make it up as we went along way back in 1971 because the weather was better than it had been for three years (now there’s a problem), then surely we can do the same now, provided we accept that crowds ashore indoors won’t be part of the package? Here it is in close-up: