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Lets Use this Favourable Win to Irish Sailing's Advantage

31st August 2012
Lets Use this Favourable Win to Irish Sailing's Advantage

#irishsailing – The winds of change are never constant and sailors are trained to expect the unexpected. It's an unpredictable sport that makes any sailor cautious about forecasting future performances.

It didn't stop the Irish Sailing Association (ISA) predicting its team would win a medal in Weymouth.

Such was the expectation that nearly anything the 2012 Olympic sailing team did other than stand on the podium would have been a disappointment.

Except that, just like the winds in Weymouth, something unexpected happened when Irish debutante Annalise Murphy led her fleet for most of the event, winning the opening four races with gusto.

It was a most welcome lift that, in the weeks following the regatta, has had many positive spin-offs for Irish sailing.

That Murphy began her campaign for Rio before even coming ashore after the disappointment of the medal race said something about the depth of her ambition. In so doing, she turned around the cruelest result of fourth into an opportunity for the future, albeit four years away.

This week she was awarded the Irish Times Sportswoman of the month for July, the latest in a line of accolades for the Rathfarnham girl.

As Murphy navigated her way through ten days of the hottest competition in her life, leading the regatta for most of it, her appeal reached beyond the traditional sailing community.

"When I saw the tricolour leading the fleet, it was like Packie Bonner's save," tweeted one of her many twitter followers. "It's Katie Taylor on water," tweeted another.

"I hope more people can understand sailing now," the 22-year-old said at a homecoming event at the National Yacht Club on Monday.

The challenge for sailing now is to capitalise on Annalise's appeal. It could not come at a better time because the domestic sport is facing 'Olympic' challenges of its own.

Because, although Ireland has posted its best Olympic result in 32 years, coming just weeks after a silver medal performance at the Youth Worlds, the domestic sport is in choppy waters.

Sailing cannot grow simply by looking towards the next Olympics as this serves only to increase the pressure on the sport's small group of high-performance athletes.

Instead, it's a question of providing more choice to grow the numbers going afloat.

Sailing is unique because it offers a strong non-competitive aspect. It's a hobby or pastime which can be enjoyed by young and old, and also by families.

If sailing can increase its numbers in these categories, then it will increase its talent pool. This, in turn, means that emerging talent which wishes to pursue the Olympic path can do so.

Today the dominant culture in sailing in Ireland is a racing one but by continuing on this tack we could be missing out on up to 80% of potential participants, says Alistair Rumball, a racing sailor, but also the proprietor of the country's biggest sailing school where recreational boating has the biggest appeal.

On Wednesday the Taoiseach Enda Kenny welcomed home the Olympic team and he made the point that future sports funding would be have a schools focus so it is important sailing gets a place on the curriculum.

Yacht clubs are struggling under the burden of a shrinking racing membership. Regatta fleets are dwindling. Just 111 boats turned up for Cork Week when there were over 500 just ten years years ago.

Some of the biggest clubs - Howth, the Royal St. George and Royal Cork to name just three - are facing tough times.

In a recession there is inevitable fallout from any sport but it's acute for sailing.

The ISA takes subscriptions from 73 sailing and powerboat clubs in the country, ranging in size from the smallest clubs with only a dozen members to the largest, the Royal St. George Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire with 1,858 members.

The total number of club members affiliated to the ISA is estimated at over 21,000. In 2010, income from club member subscriptions generated €320,843 for the ISA but in 2011 this had dropped to €286,087. A further drop might be expected this year.

There are other storm clouds on the horizon too with Minister for Sport Leo Varadkar signalling a tightening of the purse strings. This week Galway announced it was not applying for a return visit of the Volvo Ocean Race.

"Currently the sport tries to turn everyone into formula one drivers when most of us are only Sunday motorists," says sailmaker Des McWilliam, a respected sailing industry voice. "The bulk of us only want to drive to the beach not round the world," says McWilliam who believes there is a massive need to embrace a new kind of recreational sailing initiative.

Murphy has captured the public imagination but there is only so much that can be expected from a young star aiming for Rio. The challenge is to broaden the appeal of the sport and so underpin its future.

A high level forum comprising of clubs, classes and sailing schools and other interested parties could develop a national sailing strategy.

Thanks to Annalise Murphy, there's a favourable wind blowing again for Irish sailing. If sailing can adopt her fighting spirit, then the sport could find itself back on the right tack.

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