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Howth Seventeens Crank into Action for National Championship in 123rd Year This Weekend

5th August 2020
If we were to title this photo “Traditional west of Ireland gaff rigger sails past Macdara’s Island off the shores of Connemara”, even in Ireland quite a few people would buy it as the truth. But the rugged little gannet-laden island of Ireland’s Eye off Howth really does looks as if it belongs somewhere in the far west of County Galway. And the thought that they still sail boats of this antique appearance in such a setting within ten miles of the centre of a modern capital city is also clearly absurd….Yet this is the Howth 17 Sheila ( Dave Mulligan) in Howth Sound in training for this weekend’s National Championship, and it’s all happening on the Irish Sea within ten miles of Dublin city centre If we were to title this photo “Traditional west of Ireland gaff rigger sails past Macdara’s Island off the shores of Connemara”, even in Ireland quite a few people would buy it as the truth. But the rugged little gannet-laden island of Ireland’s Eye off Howth really does looks as if it belongs somewhere in the far west of County Galway. And the thought that they still sail boats of this antique appearance in such a setting within ten miles of the centre of a modern capital city is also clearly absurd….Yet this is the Howth 17 Sheila ( Dave Mulligan) in Howth Sound in training for this weekend’s National Championship, and it’s all happening on the Irish Sea within ten miles of Dublin city centre

The Howth 17s have been racing in their “little piece of Connemara that’s somehow in Leinster” for 122 years. And when some years ago they decided to make their annual championship into something special, they re-titled it the Howth 17 Worlds. But within the powers-that-be - where a certain lack of light-heartedness is the default mode - it was decreed that they mustn’t do that again. So the following year the Howth 17 Galactic Championship was staged….

Thus for some years now a sort of truce seems have existed over the class’s determination to call its annual major the National Championship, and 2020's comes up this weekend, with the 1907-built Deilginis (Massey, Toomey & Kenny partnership) defending the title.

Howth 17 Deilginis (Massey, Toomey & Kenny partnership)The defending champions. The syndicate on Deilginis ensure maximum speed through total concentration, and the use of liquid adjustable ballast when needed

And for those who would claim to find some oddity in a one-harbour class having a Nationals, the Seventeen sailors will magisterially point out that not all the participating crews live in the village.

On the contrary, some of them reputedly come from the bandit country on the other side of the Hill of Howth at Sutton, while there are even a few from nearby Ireland in the trackless wilds to the west beyond the peninsula’s isthmus frontier. And unbelievably, the class’s racing is so good that it draws in one or two aliens from south of the Liffey.

With the word from the west in Connacht being something along the lines that all those who would normally go to Mallorca have descended on Roundstone, the shy creatures who sail Seventeens have put all thoughts of the crowded Atlantic seaboard out of their heads, and they’re focusing on racing in home waters which suddenly seem the most exotic in Ireland.

HYC Ian Byrne with a Howth 17 It goes with the territory….while Howth YC Commodores are permitted to sail in other boat types, they’re expected to have more than a passing acquaintance with the soul of the club through the Howth 17s. Current Commodore Ian Byrne, though best-known as the owner of the Sunfast 32 Sunburn, solves the problem through part-ownership of the Seventeen footer Gladys, which he regularly races and is seen here shining with the Commodore at her launching

Admittedly in current circumstances not all the boats have yet been put afloat, but they’ll muster a dozen or so for the big one, with a user-friendly programme of a first race in Friday night (August 7th), then it’s hard going on Saturday with four races scheduled, while Sunday morning is kept in reserve in case there’s any slippage. But the tradition is that it’s done and dusted by Saturday night, upon which everyone springs to the mainbrace, and great is the splicing thereof (within socially-distant compliance, of course).

Orla was built in 2018 in France using a boatbuilding school scheme. Owned by Ian Malcolm, she is currently raced by Gerry ComerfordOrla was built in 2018 in France using a boatbuilding school scheme. Owned by Ian Malcolm, she is currently raced by Gerry Comerford as he works on completing his own new Howth 17 in his personal Men’s Shed beside his house.

While Deilginis has been showing her traditional speed, Gerry Comerford in the Ian Malcolm-owned new boat Orla has had a much-celebrated win, while Ian Malcolm himself has found new speed in his 1898-built Aura.

The word is it’s all down to a change of topside colour. During what seemed like many decades (it was actually forty years), Ian perfected an attractive pale cream finish for his topsides, and black anti-fouling below. For those who asked, the answer was that this was the colour scheme of a pint of Guinness.

Yet everyone knows that the essence of Guinness is that it should be a slow procedure, and there were definitely times when Aura’s performance reflected this.

But last year, with things a bit hectic at launching time, Aura’s owner grabbed the nearest tin of topside enamel in his rather wonderful worshop/boatshed, and Aura emerged with topsides of a sort of orange colour, and it was immediately obvious she was faster.

Howth 17 Aura The secret ingredient. It’s reckoned Aura’s new speed in 2020 is due to a change of livery to this “go-fast blue” after forty years of “slow-is-best” Guinness colours.

So this year she has a new colour yet again, a rather stylish shade which has already been dubbed “go fast blue” by the rest of the class, as Aura has been in the frame many times, quite often with the bullet, in this truncated season.

Whether go-fast-blue works in a National Championship remains to be seen. But when you’ve managed to transpose a real sense of Connemara to Howth for the hollyers - rather than drag yourself there through thickening crowds - then all things are possible.

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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Howth 17 information

The oldest one-design keelboat racing class in the world is still competing today to its original 1897 design exclusively at Howth Yacht club.

Howth 17 FAQs

The Howth 17 is a type of keelboat. It is a 3-man single-design keelboat designed to race in the waters off Howth and Dublin Bay.

The Howth Seventeen is just 22ft 6ins in hull length.

The Howth 17 class is raced and maintained by the Association members preserving the unique heritage of the boats. Association Members maintain the vibrancy of the Class by racing and cruising together as a class and also encourage new participants to the Class in order to maintain succession. This philosophy is taken account of and explained when the boats are sold.

The boat is the oldest one-design keelboat racing class in the world and it is still racing today to its original design exclusively at Howth Yacht club. It has important historical and heritage value keep alive by a vibrant class of members who race and cruise the boats.

Although 21 boats are in existence, a full fleet rarely sails buy turnouts for the annual championships are regularly in the high teens.

The plans of the Howth 17 were originally drawn by Walter Herbert Boyd in 1897 for Howth Sailing Club. The boat was launched in Ireland in 1898.

They were originally built by John Hilditch at Carrickfergus, County Down. Initially, five boats were constructed by him and sailed the 90-mile passage to Howth in the spring of 1898. The latest Number 21 was built in France in 2017.

The Howth 17s were designed to combat local conditions in Howth that many of the keel-less boats of that era such as the 'Half-Rater' would have found difficult.

The original fleet of five, Rita, Leila, Silver Moon, Aura and Hera, was increased in 1900 with the addition of Pauline, Zaida and Anita. By 1913 the class had increased to fourteen boats. The extra nine were commissioned by Dublin Bay Sailing Club for racing from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) - Echo, Sylvia, Mimosa, Deilginis, Rosemary, Gladys, Bobolink, Eileen and Nautilus. Gradually the boats found their way to Howth from various places, including the Solent and by the latter part of the 20th century they were all based there. The class, however, was reduced to 15 due to mishaps and storm damage for a few short years but in May 1988 Isobel and Erica were launched at Howth Yacht Club, the boats having been built in a shed at Howth Castle - the first of the class actually built in Howth.

The basic wooden Howth 17 specification was for a stem and keel of oak and elm, deadwood and frames of oak, planking of yellow pine above the waterline and red pine below, a shelf of pitch pine and a topstrake of teak, larch deck-beams and yellow pine planking and Baltic spruce spars with a keel of lead. Other than the inclusion of teak, the boats were designed to be built of materials which at that time were readily available. However today yellow pine and pitch pine are scarce, their properties of endurance and longevity much appreciated and very much in evidence on the original five boats.

 

It is always a busy 60-race season of regular midweek evening and Saturday afternoon contests plus regattas and the Howth Autumn League.

In 2017, a new Howth 17 Orla, No 21, was built for Ian Malcolm. The construction of Orla began in September 2016 at Skol ar Mor, the boat-building school run by American Mike Newmeyer and his dedicated team of instructor-craftsmen at Mesquer in southern Brittany. In 2018, Storm Emma wrought extensive destruction through the seven Howth Seventeens stored in their much-damaged shed on Howth’s East Pier at the beginning of March 2018, it was feared that several of the boats – which since 1898 have been the very heart of Howth sailing – would be written off. But in the end only one – David O’Connell’s Anita built in 1900 by James Clancy of Dun Laoghaire – was assessed as needing a complete re-build. Anita was rebuilt by Paul Robert and his team at Les Ateliers de l’Enfer in Douarnenez in Brittany in 2019 and Brought home to Howth.

The Howth 17 has a gaff rig.

The total sail area is 305 sq ft (28.3 m2).

©Afloat 2020

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