The retirement at the end of this month of eighty–five-year–old Donal O’Sullivan, Dublin Bay Sailing Club’s (DBSC) Honorary Secretary, after 27 years, is a significant moment in the history of one of Europe’s oldest and biggest yacht racing clubs.
In 1968, when Donal lent his next-door neighbour a hand to pull a new 17-foot sailing dinghy up a driveway, he can’t really have imagined what the next 50 or so years might have in store for him.
It was his then neighbour, Olympic helmsman Johnny Hooper, in Deansgrange in South Co Dublin who needed a hand with a new 505 that set Donal’s mind racing about getting afloat himself.
Back then, small boat sailing was in its heyday in Dun Laoghaire with massive dinghy fleets and queues to get down the slipways for club racing.
It was Lemass, the club Commodore of the time, who proposed Donal for membership of the National, his waterfront club to this day.
It was from this base, in his early 30s — an age that would be regarded as a late starter these days — that Donal set out in a variety of small craft from the East Pier.
He sailed on another Dragon, too, with Dalkey sailor Brendan Ebrill before owning or part-owning a series of dinghies and small keelboats including Water Wags, an Enterprise, Fireball and Ruffian, and he still sails a Shipman.
It was this immersion in so many classes and with so many different sailors that led Donal to the lifelong conviction that dinghy sailing is the only true introduction to sailing.
“To understand how the forces work on a sailing boat, then the dinghy is essential to the feel of things”, he says.
Donal, a polyglot, uses the German word ‘fingerspitzengefühl’ to best describe the finest ‘seat of the pants’ Dublin Bay sailors who have this superb boat handling, gleaned from many hours of dinghy sailing.
Not only did Donal’s keen observation skills give him a lifelong love afloat, but his administrative talents ashore were also quickly identified by his skipper — and ESB work colleague — Brendan Ebrill as being very useful in the intricacies of the organisation of the sport of sailing on the capital's waters.
Brendan, who served as Donal’s predecessor as DBSC Honorary Secretary, was proved right and Donal served on the club’s protest committee at the suggestion of another of his DBSC skippers, Fireballer John Donnelly.
Donal served two terms on the General Committee over a 10-year period that marked the start of a 40-year administrative relationship with DBSC.
As part of his committee work, he became the driving force behind the club’s centenary in 1984. Donal recognised the significance of the anniversary and how much it could be worth to the club. Under Commodore Michael O’Rahilly, they produced a week of waterfront celebrations that greatly lifted the club's profile.
As part of this work, Donal brought his publishing skills to the fore to compile a 126-page book, Dublin Bay A Century of Sailing, that to this day remains the authoritative work on the club’s sailing history.
It was obvious, then, when Brendan retired as Hon Sec in 1991, who the ideal candidate to replace him was.
In taking on the role, Donal set about applying the administrative rigour he had used in his professional career, and this contributed to the safe stewardship of the club at a time that saw huge growth in yacht racing in Dublin throughout the 1990s.
Always with an eye on the future but with a deep regard of the club's rich history, Donal has been the keeper of the DBSC flame in both good times and in bad. In rough seas recently, when the recession impacted on sailing throughout Ireland, Donal has been a steady hand on the DBSC tiller. Founded in the same year as the GAA, in his unflappable style, Donal would often ben be called on to calm matters down at committee meetings with the observation that DBSC had already 'survived two World Wars and countless recessions'.
Without a clubhouse and physical waterfront presence, DBSC can be easily overlooked, yet with a fleet of nearly 300, this is one of Europe’s biggest yacht clubs.
It is the biggest recreational user of the Dublin Bay’s waters, and a sight to behold every Thursday and Saturday for Dubliners who walk the city shores and see Dun Laoghaire as a suburb of sails.
Donal’s community spirit has earned him the respect of all the bay’s stakeholders from harbourmasters at Dun Laoghaire and Dublin Port, to club commodores, regatta organisers and local civic authorities. His view that Dubliners enjoy the privilege of such a splendid bay and the fact DBSC is welcoming to all who have the club's objectives at heart and who pay a modest subscription has endeared him and DBSC to the community at large.
Over the years, Donal has had to fight the corner for sailing against so many different threats to the Dublin Bay race tracks that are set across the country's busiest shipping lanes.
But whenever he is called on to defend sailing’s rights on DBSC’s behalf, whether it’s cruise liners, oil rigs or harbour headaches, it has always been articulated in a clear, genuine and meaningful way — and it is one of the reasons Dublin sailors continue to enjoy such unfettered access to their city’s waters.
Every summer, DBSC goes about its business — quietly, efficiently and without fanfare — staging weekly racing for what is effectively a fleet the size of Cork Week. It is the work of many hands, but it has, until this month, all been coordinated by one man from the same home office in Deansgrange where the dream of going sailing was born over 50 years ago.
On November 26th, the club's agm bears witness to a changing of the DBSC Guard when Donal officially steps down. Interestingly, it is the outgoing Commodore Chris Moore who will fill his shoes. Moore, over a nine-year period, has also served as rear and vice commodore. The agm will elect a new Commodore Jonathan Nicholson, Vice Commodore Ann Kirwan and a new Rear Commodore Eddie Totterdell. Before that, however, it will be a busy wind-down for Donal with DBSC's annual gala prizegiving next week on November 16