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Russian Roulette at Howth Autumn League

25th September 2019
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The unstable Autumn winds have made it difficult for the veteran Howth 17s to decide whether or not to carry their topsails in the current Beshoff Motors Autumn League at Howth. This is the quickest known method of lowering the topsail when racing, as very effectively demonstrated by the 47ft gaff cutter Lily Maid (Royal North of Ireland YC) in Clyde Fortnight 1910. However, regular use of this technique is not recommended for reasons of expense The unstable Autumn winds have made it difficult for the veteran Howth 17s to decide whether or not to carry their topsails in the current Beshoff Motors Autumn League at Howth. This is the quickest known method of lowering the topsail when racing, as very effectively demonstrated by the 47ft gaff cutter Lily Maid (Royal North of Ireland YC) in Clyde Fortnight 1910. However, regular use of this technique is not recommended for reasons of expense Photo: courtesy RNIYC

Get yourself a sponsorship partner of intriguing Russian descent, and you can hardly be surprised that an element of Russian Roulette enters the staging of your annual Autumn League writes W M Nixon. With the presence of hurricanes past and present in the Atlantic making weather prediction a matter of dealing with unknowable unknowns, deciding to pull the trigger to set a day’s racing in action could have unwelcome outcomes.

Certainly that was the feeling beforehand a week ago among the seasoned race officers at Howth Yacht Club, particularly those in charge of the smaller boats and One Design classes on Saturday in the Beshoff Motors Autumn League. The series had opened the previous weekend in idyllic racing conditions despite the hugely damaging Hurricane Dorian self-destructing somewhere out in the Atlantic towards Greenland, and the bar had been set high for good quality sailing for subsequent contests.

puppeteers windward2Puppeteer 22s in the first race at Howth on Saturday. 24 hours earlier, some weather forecasts had indicated they’d be experiencing gales at this time. Photo: Richard Kissane

But as the days counted down towards Saturday, September 21st, the decidedly erratic wanderings of Hurricane Humberto were creating prediction confusion. Humberto battered the hell out of Bermuda and then went missing for a while. How an entire hurricane – albeit a rapidly decaying one - can apparently disappear for a while is a matter of mystery. But it meant that last Friday, so many extremely pessimistic strong wind strength forecasts were being doled out for Ireland that at one stage it was was even considered cancelling the entire day’s racing for the little ’uns, with an announcement on Friday night, which would thus allow people plenty of time to make alternative arrangements for the day’s entertainment.

However, jaws were soon firmed up, sinews were tightened, and the East Coast effect was brought to mind. It’s not always beneficial – think of the East Coast damage in Hurricane Charlie in August 1986, or Storm Emma in March 2018. But on balance, while the weather can be going down the tubes in the western two-thirds of the country, on the east coast they can often slip a day’s racing in under the radar before things go haywire on the wind-strength front. And last Saturday was a classic case in point, with things blown out in Kinsale, yet in Leinster they’d marvellous sailing in a brisk but warm southeast to east breeze.

seventeens deilginis3Bad weather, where are you? The Howth 17 National Champion 2019 Deilginis decided to be conservative on Saturday, and raced without her topsail in view of the slowly but steadily increasing wind. Photo: Harry Gallagher

In Howth, it was a double get-out in the Russian Roulette, as the programme for all classes was two windward-leewards back-to-back, and it all went through in style and with sunshine most of the time. But the venerable Howth 17s had a modest turnout, for two windward-leewards isn’t quite their thing, as many of them think that just one race with plenty of reaching so that they can discuss matters other than sailing is enough for any one day, thank you very much.

seventeens topsails4Two of the Seventeens – Isobel (left_ and Gladys decided to carry topsails, but while Isobel won the first race, in the second she was fourth while the win went to the bald-headed Sheila (no 20, second right). Photo: Harry Gallagher
And they also had the problem of it being marginal topsail weather. Only two set topsails, but as the breeze sharpened through the afternoon, the majority decision proved right, for though the topsail-sporting Isobel (Turvey brothers) won the first race, she was back in fourth for the second when the bald-headed Sheila (Mulligan/Johnson) took the bullet.

Looking towards this weekend, tomorrow (Friday) looks like being a complete wind-and-rain-sodden duvet day. But at the time of writing, peninsular positivity reckons that if Friday is sufficiently horrible, Saturday might surprise everyone with another good sailing day, and with only one race scheduled with all sorts of attractively quirky courses a possibility, the traditional appeal is there for the taking.

squibs day two5Forty years after their introduction to the harbour, the Howth Squibs are undergoing one of their periodic revivals, and in good racing in the Autumn League, O’Leary (Simon Sheahan) currently leads overall, while to lee of him, a senior crew demonstrate that despite being only 19ft LOA, these really are sit-in keelboats. Photo: Harry Gallagher
Plus that, if a race can be managed on Saturday, the four-race discard kicks in, which opens things up a bit and gives an injection of life for the final three weekends. Currently among the heavies in Class 1, Pat Kelly’s J/109 Storm (Rush SC) and Paul O’Higgins’s JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI (RIYC) are neck-and-neck on 4 points apiece with the Howth J/109 Outrajeous (Richard Colwell & Johnny Murphy) third on 5, while in Class 2’s hot Half Tonners, Nigel Biggs’ Checkmate XVIII has opened out two point on Dave Cullen’s Checkmate XV, which in turn has two points in hand on the Evans brothers with The Big Picture.

In Class 3, two wins last Saturday have brought the Patterson/Darmody team on Viking into the overall lead, with Vincent Gaffney’s Laser 28 Alliance second and the Mullaney brothers in the Sigma 33 Insider third. Class 4 (whitesail) has the First 40 Tiger (Stephen Harris & Frank Hughes) in the lead from Dermot Shehan’s Humphreys 34 Toughnut, with Colm Bermingham’s Elan 333 Bite the Bullet in third, while Class 5 (whitesail) is led by Gordon Knaggs’ First 32 Jokers Wild with the evergreen Club Shamrock Demelza (Windsor & Steffi) second and the McCoy/Creegan First 38 Out and About third.

bite the bullet6Colm Bemingham’s Elan 333 Bite the Bullet is third overall in IRC 4. Photo: Brian Turvey
The One Designs saw the top-turnout Puppeteer 22s watching their National Champion 2019 Yellow Peril (Neil Murphy and Conor Costello) give something of a master-class with two wins in the back-to-back, they’re now equal first on 8 points with the two Alans - Pearson & Blay - in Trick or Treat, while Scorie Walls helmed Gold Dust towards a couple of fourths last weekend to get them into third overall.

The Howth 17s likewise have a tie at the top, with the Turveys on Isobel matching John Curley and Marcus Lynch in Rita on 7 points, while Deilginis (Massey brothers, Mikey Twomey and Keith Kenny) is back on 12.5 in third, so they’ll be looking for a good one on Saturday and a useful discard.

The Squibs are coming to life again, with the arrival of hotshot Rob Marshall from Killyleagh in Strangford Lough a wake-up call last Saturday, as he took a first and second with Slipstream. But HYC’s own Simon Sheahan stays ahead on 1,4,1 with O’Leary, second being Derek Bothwell with Tears in Heaven while third is Ronan McDonnell in Fantome.

Dan O’Grady has leapt into the lead in the J/80s with a second and first on Saturday, while the class’s senior rockstar Robert Dix had to make do with a couple of fourths, which kept him at second overall on countback, as Nobby Reilly in third matches him on points at 7.0.

No matter which forecast source you rely on, tomorrow weather is going to be plain horrible, but the hope in Howth is that it will all – gales and rain and everything - have cleared away eastward in time for another meteorological miracle on Saturday afternoon in this ongoing Russian Roulette. Whatever it brings, the Howth Seventeens hope for a breeze which clearly indicates whether it’s a topsail day or not, and stays steady, for the lowering of topsails in mid-race is not something to be undertaken lightly…

Detailed results here

Published in 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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