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John Morris 1933-2021

9th November 2021
A Jac de Ridder-designed High Tension 36 to the One Ton Rule. The late Johnny Morris took line honours in the first Round Ireland Race in 1980, racing sister-ship Force Tension
A Jac de Ridder-designed High Tension 36 to the One Ton Rule. The late Johnny Morris took line honours in the first Round Ireland Race in 1980, racing sister-ship Force Tension.

At first light on Saturday 5th July 1980 off Wicklow, Johnny Morris of Pwllheli - who has died aged 88 - secured himself a permanent place in the story of offshore racing. In command of Force Tension, a One Tonner to the High Tension 36 design by Jac de Ridder, he became the first skipper to complete a non-stop Round Ireland Race, taking line honours in Wicklow SC’s inaugural event in five days 15 hours and two minutes.

He thereby placed himself two hours and 10 minutes on the water ahead of Dave Fitzgerald’s 40ft Partizan from Galway. However, when all the fleet was in, Brian Coad’s Rival 34 Raasay of Melfort (Waterford Harbour SC) was declared the overall handicap winner under WSC’s special Round Ireland Rating system, while Jim Poole’s Ron Holland Half Tonner Feanor (National YC) won under the RORC system, the IOR.

But there at the top of the listings as the clearcut line honours winner was - and always will be - Force Tension (A J Vernon, South Caernarvon YC, sailed by J.S.Morris). With the biennial Round Ireland Race now more than four decades old and well established as a pillar event of the European offshore season, it’s an achievement of steadily increasing significance. Yet it tells us much about the dedicated enthusiasm of Johnny Morris to sailing, and to life generally, that it was just one of many milestones in a very fully-lived existence.

Pre-start manoeuvres at the first Round Ireland Race 1980 off Wicklow, with Line Honours winner Force Tension on left, and handicap winner Raasay on right. Photo: W M NixonPre-start manoeuvres at the first Round Ireland Race 1980 off Wicklow, with Line Honours winner Force Tension on left, and handicap winner Raasay on right. Photo: W M Nixon

His sailing started at Abersoch in Dragons and 30 Square Metres. But soon after the family had acquired the attractive 34ft Holman-designed cruiser-racer Grenade for regular participation in the developing programme of the newly-formed ISORA - which had emerged from the Northwest Offshore Association - Johnny started to go his own way. He did this with the acquisition in 1972 of the new Sparkman & Stephens-designed She Wolf, a She 31 of a very attractive marque which became well-represented and successful in the Irish Sea programme.

Having proven he’d a winner in his ISORA racing, Johnny took She Wolf to the English Channel and repeated his success in season-long RORC Class V racing. This provided an introduction to the wider RORC programme, and in 1976 he was very much in contention in the RORC Round Britain and Ireland Race with Tiderace, the competition including Denis Doyle’s 47ft S&S design Moonduster – the “Blue Moonduster”.

Pocket rocket…..Johnny Morris’s very successful She Wolf was a Sparkman & Stephens-designed mini-classicPocket rocket…..Johnny Morris’s very successful She Wolf was a Sparkman & Stephens-designed mini-classic

Yet his first love as a sailing location was Cardigan Bay, and in 1977 it became home with his establishment of Firmhelm Ltd at Pwllheli Boatyard. Among his early contracts to put the yard on a sound footing was the completion from a bare hull of the boat which became Force Tension for Tony Vernon who - a couple of years later – loaned the boat to Johnny for “this new-fangled Round Ireland Race”, thereby doubling the Morris achievement as he took the honours racing a boat he’d built himself.

It was only one success in an extraordinary life of dedication to the sport and the boats involved in it. He’d spend the week in hands-on management in Firmhelm, and then he’d go off and spend the weekend in ISORA racing, often in command and always in a key role, and usually aboard a boat in which he’d made a significant constructional or tuning input, craft such as Autonomy, Greased Lightning, Teambuilder, Jackhammer, Korimako, and Glider.

Pwlheli with Snowdonia beyond. John Morris’s development of the Firmhelm Boatyard here from 1977 onwards was important for the harbour’s growth.Pwlheli with Snowdonia beyond. John Morris’s development of the Firmhelm Boatyard here from 1977 onwards was important for the harbour’s growth.

As to the administration of ISORA, his input was typically practical. For many years he served on the committee, but in addition, he was longtime Trophy Secretary. It’s a key job, for as any sailing secretary well knows, as one busy season rapidly succeeds another, it sometimes happens that the inscription on some historic piece of silverware is the only record of the outcome of an increasingly remote race.

With all these areas of involvement in and around boats and racing, you might well think that Johnny Morris had his plate well filled, but he was also hugely enthusiastic about horses, and a demon on the ski slopes. And though in his latter years he’d retired from racing, his passion for being afloat and involved continued with the acquisition of the very comfortable cruising catamaran Sirena, which as often as not was to be found on duty as Committee Boat or Pin End Boat at many of the national and international events hosted by Pwllheli SC and Plas Heli.

Always afloat whenever possible – the late Johnny Morris glimpsed aboard his comfortable cruising catamaran SirenaAlways afloat whenever possible – the late Johnny Morris glimpsed aboard his comfortable cruising catamaran Sirena

Johnny Morris added a new dimension to “enthusiasm and zest for life”. He may have gone from among us, but his wide circle of friends and family around the Irish Sea and beyond are much heartened by the memory of all that he achieved, and the way that he did it. 

WMN

Published in ISORA, Round Ireland
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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