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What Now for Irish Olympic Sailing?

24th August 2021
In her Olympic campaign for Paris 2024, Howth Yacht Club's Eve McMahon (17) won the Laser Radial (ILCA 6) Youth World Championships in July.
In her Olympic campaign for Paris 2024, Howth Yacht Club's youth sailor Eve McMahon (17) won the Laser Radial (ILCA 6) Youth World Championships in July

It's almost a month since the last sailing race of the Tokyo Olympics. In most sports, the end of each Olympic Quad (in this case a Quinq) is the traditional time for reflection on the previous campaign and consideration of the one (or more) ahead. It is also, traditionally, a time of changing personnel, both ashore and afloat. 

Deep thought is given by sports National Governing Bodies to current and future resources, both human and otherwise. This time around, the changes to the Olympic Sailing programme must be taken into the mix. During the Tokyo competition itself, Irish team management was acknowledging the need for a full debrief in order to"strengthen processes" in "every aspect of its preparations".

A key factor in the consideration is that, typically, not many of the Olympic Classes, have ever developed fleets with meaningful depth in Ireland, or, for that matter, in the UK. Think, Flying Dutchman, Soling, Star, Tempest, Europe, even 470. Except for the ILCA (Laser) fleets, aspiring Olympians in Ireland have to travel to get the competitive experience necessary to advance along the Olympic pathway.

Sailing talent

This raises the question of how to identify the talent worthy of support if they are not currently sailing the boat that they might aspire to.

The (hopefully temporary) rejection of an Offshore event in Paris in favour of kites, means that only three of the ten Olympic disciplines have Irish sailors anywhere on the world ranking lists.

As regular Afloat readers will know, Ireland targeted qualification in four Olympic classes for Tokyo but despite full-on campaigns ended up qualifying in only two.

While Annalise Murphy uses well-earned downtime to contemplate the future, Ireland's pool of sailors with proven talent is perhaps limited to Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove in the 49er, Aisling Keller, Aoife Hopkins and Eve McMahon in the ILCA 6, and perhaps Finn Lynch in the ILCA7. Of course, there could be, and probably are, many others out there, but which of these would make it to the start line in Marseille in under three years time?

Annalise Murphy – well-earned downtime to contemplate the future Photo: Sailing EnergyAnnalise Murphy – well-earned downtime to contemplate the future Photo: Sailing Energy

Parsi prospects  - Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove in the 49er Photo: Sailing EnergyParis prospects - Rob Dickson and Sean Waddilove in the 49er Photo: Sailing Energy

Another uncertainty is the investment Sport Ireland are prepared to put into Irish High-Performance Sailing over the next three years.

No medal race finish

On average, just over €750,000 was granted to Irish Sailing every year since 2017. Will Sport Ireland be prepared to cough up the same, given the fairly meagre return of two classes qualified with results in the mid-teens and no medal race result?

Paris 2024

And how are we preparing for beyond Paris? Observers of this month's Laser 4.7 Youth Worlds on Dublin Bay pointed in frustration to the nationally supported squads of European sailors, where the Dutch, Italian, Spanish and Greek fleets seemed particularly well-organised and featured many sailors in the gold fleet. By contrast, the largest country by fleet numbers, Ireland, could only manage to get four out of 35 boys into the gold fleet and two of the 35 girls. If this is a pointer to future Olympic results, then Ireland will struggle to qualify.

Bold decisions

Irish Sailing should and probably will use the post-Olympic period to study clinically the quad just passed, apply the lessons learned to the next cycle, but perhaps most of all, consider a longer-term approach to developing talent considering ways to balance the investment in current and future talent. It may be time for bold decisions that may favour a bigger input of resources into youth sailing that may not pay off until Los Angeles 2028 or Brisbane 2032.

Afloat.ie Team

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Irish Olympic Sailing Team

Ireland has a proud representation in sailing at the Olympics dating back to 1948. Today there is a modern governing structure surrounding the selection of sailors the Olympic Regatta

Irish Olympic Sailing FAQs

Ireland’s representation in sailing at the Olympics dates back to 1948, when a team consisting of Jimmy Mooney (Firefly), Alf Delany and Hugh Allen (Swallow) competed in that year’s Summer Games in London (sailing off Torquay). Except for the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, Ireland has sent at least one sailor to every Summer Games since then.

  • 1948 – London (Torquay) — Firefly: Jimmy Mooney; Swallow: Alf Delany, Hugh Allen
  • 1952 – Helsinki — Finn: Alf Delany * 1956 – Melbourne — Finn: J Somers Payne
  • 1960 – Rome — Flying Dutchman: Johnny Hooper, Peter Gray; Dragon: Jimmy Mooney, David Ryder, Robin Benson; Finn: J Somers Payne
  • 1964 – Tokyo — Dragon: Eddie Kelliher, Harry Maguire, Rob Dalton; Finn: Johnny Hooper 
  • 1972 – Munich (Kiel) — Tempest: David Wilkins, Sean Whitaker; Dragon: Robin Hennessy, Harry Byrne, Owen Delany; Finn: Kevin McLaverty; Flying Dutchman: Harold Cudmore, Richard O’Shea
  • 1976 – Montreal (Kingston) — 470: Robert Dix, Peter Dix; Flying Dutchman: Barry O’Neill, Jamie Wilkinson; Tempest: David Wilkins, Derek Jago
  • 1980 – Moscow (Tallinn) — Flying Dutchman: David Wilkins, Jamie Wilkinson (Silver medalists) * 1984 – Los Angeles — Finn: Bill O’Hara
  • 1988 – Seoul (Pusan) — Finn: Bill O’Hara; Flying Dutchman: David Wilkins, Peter Kennedy; 470 (Women): Cathy MacAleavy, Aisling Byrne
  • 1992 – Barcelona — Europe: Denise Lyttle; Flying Dutchman: David Wilkins, Peter Kennedy; Star: Mark Mansfield, Tom McWilliam
  • 1996 – Atlanta (Savannah) — Laser: Mark Lyttle; Europe: Aisling Bowman (Byrne); Finn: John Driscoll; Star: Mark Mansfield, David Burrows; 470 (Women): Denise Lyttle, Louise Cole; Soling: Marshall King, Dan O’Grady, Garrett Connolly
  • 2000 – Sydney — Europe: Maria Coleman; Finn: David Burrows; Star: Mark Mansfield, David O'Brien
  • 2004 – Athens — Europe: Maria Coleman; Finn: David Burrows; Star: Mark Mansfield, Killian Collins; 49er: Tom Fitzpatrick, Fraser Brown; 470: Gerald Owens, Ross Killian; Laser: Rory Fitzpatrick
  • 2008 – Beijing (Qingdao) — Star: Peter O’Leary, Stephen Milne; Finn: Tim Goodbody; Laser Radial: Ciara Peelo; 470: Gerald Owens, Phil Lawton
  • 2012 – London (Weymouth) — Star: Peter O’Leary, David Burrows; 49er: Ryan Seaton, Matt McGovern; Laser Radial: Annalise Murphy; Laser: James Espey; 470: Gerald Owens, Scott Flanigan
  • 2016 – Rio — Laser Radial (Women): Annalise Murphy (Silver medalist); 49er: Ryan Seaton, Matt McGovern; 49erFX: Andrea Brewster, Saskia Tidey; Laser: Finn Lynch; Paralympic Sonar: John Twomey, Ian Costello & Austin O’Carroll

Ireland has won two Olympics medals in sailing events, both silver: David Wilkins, Jamie Wilkinson in the Flying Dutchman at Moscow 1980, and Annalise Murphy in the Laser Radial at Rio 2016.

The current team, as of December 2020, consists of Laser sailors Finn Lynch, Liam Glynn and Ewan McMahon, 49er pairs Ryan Seaton and Seafra Guilfoyle, and Sean Waddilove and Robert Dickson, as well as Laser Radial sailors Annalise Murphy and Aoife Hopkins.

Irish Sailing is the National Governing Body for sailing in Ireland.

Irish Sailing’s Performance division is responsible for selecting and nurturing Olympic contenders as part of its Performance Pathway.

The Performance Pathway is Irish Sailing’s Olympic talent pipeline. The Performance Pathway counts over 70 sailors from 11 years up in its programme.The Performance Pathway is made up of Junior, Youth, Academy, Development and Olympic squads. It provides young, talented and ambitious Irish sailors with opportunities to move up through the ranks from an early age. With up to 100 young athletes training with the Irish Sailing Performance Pathway, every aspect of their performance is planned and closely monitored while strong relationships are simultaneously built with the sailors and their families

Rory Fitzpatrick is the head coach of Irish Sailing Performance. He is a graduate of University College Dublin and was an Athens 2004 Olympian in the Laser class.

The Performance Director of Irish Sailing is James O’Callaghan. Since 2006 James has been responsible for the development and delivery of athlete-focused, coach-led, performance-measured programmes across the Irish Sailing Performance Pathway. A Business & Economics graduate of Trinity College Dublin, he is a Level 3 Qualified Coach and Level 2 Coach Tutor. He has coached at five Olympic Games and numerous European and World Championship events across multiple Olympic classes. He is also a member of the Irish Sailing Foundation board.

Annalise Murphy is by far and away the biggest Irish sailing star. Her fourth in London 2012 when she came so agonisingly close to a bronze medal followed by her superb silver medal performance four years later at Rio won the hearts of Ireland. Murphy is aiming to go one better in Tokyo 2021. 

Under head coach Rory Fitzpatrick, the coaching staff consists of Laser Radial Academy coach Sean Evans, Olympic Laser coach Vasilij Zbogar and 49er team coach Matt McGovern.

The Irish Government provides funding to Irish Sailing. These funds are exclusively for the benefit of the Performance Pathway. However, this falls short of the amount required to fund the Performance Pathway in order to allow Ireland compete at the highest level. As a result the Performance Pathway programme currently receives around €850,000 per annum from Sport Ireland and €150,000 from sponsorship. A further €2 million per annum is needed to have a major impact at the highest level. The Irish Sailing Foundation was established to bridge the financial gap through securing philanthropic donations, corporate giving and sponsorship.

The vision of the Irish Sailing Foundation is to generate the required financial resources for Ireland to scale-up and execute its world-class sailing programme. Irish Sailing works tirelessly to promote sailing in Ireland and abroad and has been successful in securing funding of 1 million euro from Sport Ireland. However, to compete on a par with other nations, a further €2 million is required annually to realise the ambitions of our talented sailors. For this reason, the Irish Sailing Foundation was formed to seek philanthropic donations. Led by a Board of Directors and Head of Development Kathryn Grace, the foundation lads a campaign to bridge the financial gap to provide the Performance Pathway with the funds necessary to increase coaching hours, upgrade equipment and provide world class sport science support to a greater number of high-potential Irish sailors.

The Senior and Academy teams of the Performance Pathway are supported with the provision of a coach, vehicle, coach boat and boats. Even with this level of subsidy there is still a large financial burden on individual families due to travel costs, entry fees and accommodation. There are often compromises made on the amount of days a coach can be hired for and on many occasions it is necessary to opt out of major competitions outside Europe due to cost. Money raised by the Irish Sailing Foundation will go towards increased quality coaching time, world-class equipment, and subsiding entry fees and travel-related costs. It also goes towards broadening the base of talented sailors that can consider campaigning by removing financial hurdles, and the Performance HQ in Dublin to increase efficiency and reduce logistical issues.

The ethos of the Performance Pathway is progression. At each stage international performance benchmarks are utilised to ensure the sailors are meeting expectations set. The size of a sailor will generally dictate which boat they sail. The classes selected on the pathway have been identified as the best feeder classes for progression. Currently the Irish Sailing Performance Pathway consists of the following groups: * Pathway (U15) Optimist and Topper * Youth Academy (U19) Laser 4.7, Laser Radial and 420 * Development Academy (U23) Laser, Laser Radial, 49er, 49erFX * Team IRL (direct-funded athletes) Laser, Laser Radial, 49er, 49erFX

The Irish Sailing performance director produces a detailed annual budget for the programme which is presented to Sport Ireland, Irish Sailing and the Foundation for detailed discussion and analysis of the programme, where each item of expenditure is reviewed and approved. Each year, the performance director drafts a Performance Plan and Budget designed to meet the objectives of Irish Performance Sailing based on an annual review of the Pathway Programmes from Junior to Olympic level. The plan is then presented to the Olympic Steering Group (OSG) where it is independently assessed and the budget is agreed. The OSG closely monitors the delivery of the plan ensuring it meets the agreed strategy, is within budget and in line with operational plans. The performance director communicates on an ongoing basis with the OSG throughout the year, reporting formally on a quarterly basis.

Due to the specialised nature of Performance Sport, Irish Sailing established an expert sub-committee which is referred to as the Olympic Steering Group (OSG). The OSG is chaired by Patrick Coveney and its objective is centred around winning Olympic medals so it oversees the delivery of the Irish Sailing’s Performance plan.

At Junior level (U15) sailors learn not only to be a sailor but also an athlete. They develop the discipline required to keep a training log while undertaking fitness programmes, attending coaching sessions and travelling to competitions. During the winter Regional Squads take place and then in spring the National Squads are selected for Summer Competitions. As sailors move into Youth level (U19) there is an exhaustive selection matrix used when considering a sailor for entry into the Performance Academy. Completion of club training programmes, attendance at the performance seminars, physical suitability and also progress at Junior and Youth competitions are assessed and reviewed. Once invited in to the Performance Academy, sailors are given a six-month trial before a final decision is made on their selection. Sailors in the Academy are very closely monitored and engage in a very well planned out sailing, training and competition programme. There are also defined international benchmarks which these sailors are required to meet by a certain age. Biannual reviews are conducted transparently with the sailors so they know exactly where they are performing well and they are made aware of where they may need to improve before the next review.

©Afloat 2020

Paris 2024 Olympic Sailing Competition

Where is the Paris 2024 Olympic Sailing Competition being held?

The sailing event will be held in the remote coastal resort of Marseille, over 700 km from the main Olympic Games venue in Paris.

What are the Olympic sailing classes for Paris 2024 Olympic Sailing Regatta?

A mixed two-person offshore keelboat will join kiteboarding, windsurfing, multihulls, singlehanded and doublehanded dinghies and skiffs.

Three of the 10 events to be contested in Tokyo in 2021 will be replaced for the following Olympics in a drive for gender equity in the sport.

The new medal events to be introduced are a mixed one-person dinghy, a team event where men and women compete in separate gender-specific boats, a mixed two-person dinghy and mixed kitesurfing - making a first appearance for kitesurfing at the Games after it was adopted and then dropped for Rio 2016.

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