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Howth 17: World's Oldest One Design Keelboats Stage Closing Race of 121st Season

28th October 2021
Newest boat in the oldest class – the 2017-built Orla (Mark FitzGibbon & Donal Gallagher) shows ahead at the South Rowan Buoy in the three-way sail-off for the Howth 17s' Studdart Cup on Bank Holiday Monday
Newest boat in the oldest class – the 2017-built Orla (Mark FitzGibbon & Donal Gallagher) shows ahead at the South Rowan Buoy in the three-way sail-off for the Howth 17s' Studdart Cup on Bank Holiday Monday Credit: Brian Turvey

The vintage Howth 17 Class have registered Annual General Meetings every year since 1898. But although 124 summers have passed since their first season of 1898 - which thereby counts as Year One and not Year Zero - they can look back on only 121 seasons, as the Great War of 1914-18 got in the way of sailing in the latter half of 1915, and throughout the summers of 1916, '17, and '18.

Nevertheless, 121 seasons of sailing boats to a design that first raced on Wednesday, May 4th 1898 is probably world-beating, particularly as the five original boats are still part of a class that now numbers twenty. But it's not a thing the people involved get into a pother about, as they're too busy getting on with racing.

Classic yacht purists are sometimes a bit snooty about the significance the Seventeen folk (a motley crew if ever there was one) attach to their racing. But in a normal year, they get between fifty and sixty races fitted in, and it's the sport that is the all-powerful glue holding the class together.

With an attitude like this prevailing, the class's most ancient trophies aren't seen as the Holy Grail - they're much more important than that. And few prizes match the Studdart Cup, presented at the beginning of it all by Johnny Studdart, who represented the more convivial side of the otherwise rather austere 1895-founded Howth Sailing Club, as Johnny sailed the hospitable and perfectly-named little cruising yawl Sunshine, which was already old when the Seventeens came into existence.

The notably convivial Johnny Studdart in the 1890s at the helm of his little cruising yawl Sunshine, which was already a very old boat when the Howth 17s came into existence in 1898. Photo courtesy HYCThe notably convivial Johnny Studdart in the 1890s at the helm of his little cruising yawl Sunshine, which was already a very old boat when the Howth 17s came into existence in 1898. Photo courtesy HYC

But her owner was young in spirit, and he presented the new class with the Studdart Cup with the idea of encouraging season-long involvement, as the boats eligible for it are the winners of the three main evening and Saturday series held each season. If a boat happens to have won two of these series, she automatically wins the Studdart. But the continuing health of the class is indicated by the fact that as often as not there's a three-way sail-off for Old Johnny's cup.

Or more accurately, Old Johnny's Idea. The original Studdart Cup was liberated at dead of night from the Howth home of a several-times-winner very many years ago, doubtless by some idealistic peninsular Robin Hood. But the ideal it represented was so central to the class's history that it was soon replaced, so now they compete for this Unholy Grail with every bit as much enthusiasm.

However, with 2021's peculiar pandemic-distorted season, the final official race of the Howth 17's programme was completed with the last race of the Beshoff Motors Autumn League on October 16th, yet the 2021 Studdart Cup contest between Rita (No 1, John Curley & Marcus Lynch), Aura (No 7, Ian Malcolm) and Orla (No 21, Mark FitzGibbon & Donal Gallagher) was still un-sailed.

Three-way duel. Despite a 119-year age difference in the three boats involved, the 2021 Studdart Cup contest between (left to right) Orla, Rita and Aura lived up to the trophy's reputation for close racing. Photo: Brian TurveyThree-way duel. Despite a 119-year age difference in the three boats involved, the 2021 Studdart Cup contest between (left to right) Orla, Rita and Aura lived up to the trophy's reputation for close racing. Photo: Brian Turvey

This had added significance as there's a 119-year age-gap between the first two "originals" and Orla, which was built in 2017 under Ian Malcolm's guidance at Mike Newmeyer's Skol ar Mor in southern Brittany. It was a lineup symbolic of the spirit of the class, so in the end the scope provided by the breezy Bank Holiday Weekend was utilised to the full, with all crews on weekend alert, and the brisk but very sailable sunny sou'wester of Monday morning finally provided a fast contest from a pier start.

Donal Gallagher at the helm of Orla was in the lead at the South Rowan Buoy and was still there – though only just – as they rounded the Spit for the seriously uphill stuff. Though topsails were definitely a no-go, spinnakers were deployed whenever possible. But although the two partners in Orla only acquired her as recently as the Spring of this year when they were so chuffed they had a piper lead the boat to the crane on launching day, they defied their newbie standing, and held the lead with Rita helmed by Marcus Lynch in second closely ahead of Aura.

It was a high and bright note on which to end the season. But now the very old, the old, and the not-so-old boats of this unique class are rapidly going from the harbour, headed for their many and various winter quarters ashore and the TLC which keeps this remarkable show on the road.

A great way to end their first season: Donal Gallagher and Mark FitzGibbon bring Orla to the finish line to win the 2021 Studdart Cup against the distinctive background of Ireland's Eye. Photo: Brian TurveyA great way to end their first season: Donal Gallagher and Mark FitzGibbon bring Orla to the finish line to win the 2021 Studdart Cup against the distinctive background of Ireland's Eye. Photo: Brian Turvey

Published in Howth 17, Howth YC
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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