The Olympic sailing dream is of competition on a sterile racing area with weak to non-existent tides, well clear of any special wind effects that a nearby coastline and an island or two might provide, while of course using a meticulously-set Committee Boat start line and a cleverly-designed course to test several points of sailing. That's the way they want it. Yet if that's their dream - their perfect ideal - then Howth Yacht Club's traditional sixteen nautical miles of Lambay Race must be Olympic sailing's stuff of nightmares.
The original Lambay Course – raced at least since 1904, and probably earlier - was simply though Howth Sound inside Ireland's Eye after a pier start from Howth Harbour, then nor' eastwards to the east point of Lambay. Officially, it's The Nose, but few remember to call it that, they just call it the East Point, as we've a Nose of Howth already, and that's quite enough to smell the coffee on any one day.
The north side of Lambay seems like the Far Side of the Moon for most sailors, even those from Howth which is only seven miles away. And as you head west to double the island, there are various impairments to ease of navigation, such as Carrickdorish Rock and Harp Ear.
These are matters of even more concentration if you're beating against a westerly. But concentrating purely on sailing along there is difficult anyway, as Lambay is a natural wonder where the abundant wildlife - some of it on surprisingly spectacular cliffs - is augmented by a troupe of wallabies (don't ask), and Ireland's only colony of black rats, a cute little fellow who nevertheless would make life difficult for your average gannet settlement.
However, the Fingal gannet seems a tougher proposition than those from elsewhere. Having established his first neighbourhood colony on the Stack at Ireland's Eye back in 1989, when that got crowded his descendants and relatives not only started spreading onto the main island itself regardless of its predators, but they set up an offshoot on a big rock close under the cliffs on the other side of Lambay six miles to the north.
That has prospered so much that they appear to have bludgeoned their way onto Lambay itself through being the Neighbours from Hell for poor little rattus rattus, who is now on the endangered species list. As for the wallabies, they can't be too pleased, as they used to top the Lambay attractions chart until these rock-star gannets came along.
Brian Maguire of Hyberno Droneworks follows the fleet.
All these interesting things are going on along the Far Side of the Moon, aka the north side of Lambay, making it difficult to think only of sailing - let alone racing tactics - in a locality notorious for its flukey winds and tricky tides. As a result, when the Lambay Race is on the agenda, the Howth sailing community is a bit thin on the community spirit, as the Single-minded Racing Purists think it's a very dodgy proposition in the first place, whereas the Broad-minded Historically-Concerned Philosophers think it's central to the very ethos of Howth sailing, an event which must be sailed in its traditional form each year as an Act of Worship .
With such contrary opinions, the Lambay Race race has sometimes been messed about over the years, with extra marks being added to make it look more like a modern course. But in the difficulties of our current situation, the 1898-founded Howth Seventeens saw an opportunity. They wanted to celebrate getting a dozen boats of their ancient 20-strong fleet finally afloat despite 2020's truncations, and the best way seemed to be a race the traditional straightforward 16-mile Lambay Course on Saturday 5th September, as the tides suited – flood going north and favourable ebb coming back - and they could do it as their own thing, without trying to make an all-comers regatta out of it.
It made for a busy day at Howth in the day's brisk westerly, as a race of the Fingal Series for cruiser-racers went off around 1000 hrs, the Howth 17s buzzed northwards towards Lambay – just able to carry their topsails – in a starting sequence beginning at 1130 hrs, and then towards 1430 hrs as the Puppeteer 22s and the Squibs were squaring up for their weekly Saturday afternoon race, didn't the Howth 17s come roaring back down the Sound again with the full ebb under them after probably the fastest Lambay Race the class has ever recorded.
Yet far from being left on their own to get on with it, in this most peculiar sailing season they'd had an escort fleet dominated by the local flotilla of dark blue Seaward 23s and 25s carrying various photographers and a film team from TG4. For the word had got out that in this bleak year, a dozen Seventeens racing round Lambay would be a sight to cheer anyone up. And it was vintage stuff throughout, with real power to the dense-air wind at times, and flashes of vivid sunlight interspersed with curiously rain-free passing clouds, one or two so black they had the look of The End of Days about them.
But for connoisseurs of Howth Seventeen sailing and the wonders of the Fingal coast, it was pure magic throughout. After an extremely fast and wet reach northward, appropriately it was the granny of them all, Howth 17 No 1 Rita (John Curley & Marcus Lynch) which was first at Lambay. But the wind flattened almost completely at the Nose such that the eight leading boat concertinaed into a straight line abreast, and first out of the traps in a private breeze which took them very close to Carrickdorish were the Massey/Toomey/Kenny syndicate in Deilginis with Keith Kenny on the helm, and Dave Mulligan with Sheila.
Thereafter, Deilginis played it very cool on the short but position-setting beat along the north coast on Lambay, not getting too far offshore where there was a boat-stopping sea running and the tides were all over the place, yet not getting too far into the alluringly smooth water inshore, where the wind might suddenly disappear completely.
They were first to reach the most northerly turn at the buoy marking Taylor's Rocks off Lambay's northwest corner, and had quite a decent gap on Sheila. But Dave Mulligan had to put in a virtuoso performance on the long reach back to Howth, as the pack were right on his tail.
As it turned out, they were having enough in-fighting to let him build his lead a bit, but there was no way he could make any dent on the gap to the flying Deilginis, which was literally racing against time as her topsail – which had been setting perfectly on port tack heading north – was all over the place on starboard tack heading south, though enough of it stayed working for her crew to claim they'd been deploying a clever topsail-scandalising trick to de-power the sailplan in the stronger gusts.
Whatever, they maintained their lead to finish in two hours 36 minutes and 14 seconds, which may well be a Howth 17 Lambay record. And as they tacked onto port to get into the harbour, lo and behold but wasn't the topsail suddenly setting perfectly again…..Sheila was just over a minute astern, then came 2020 champion Pauline (Shane O'Doherty, Ian McCormick and Michael Kenny) and Rosemary (George Curley, David Jones & David Potter, with the four leaders finishing within two minutes.
On handicap (a very import element in the continuing strength of the class) the winner was Echo (Bryan & Harriet Lynch) from Tom Houlihan's Zaida, with Sheila and Pauline re-appearing in the listings at 3rd and 4th. In a more complete season, it would be hoped that there would seldom be much overlap between scratch and handicap.
But in this weird year, the six Howth Seventeens which didn't appear in the top four under either system in the Lambay Race 2020 seemed happy to adopt the attitude of the New England whaling skipper who went clean round the world without so much as seeing a whale, let alone catching one. He said he'd had a helluva fine sail.
Howth 17 Lambay Race 2020 results (scratch)
1st Deilginis (Massey, Toomey & Kenny) 2:36:14; 2nd Sheila D.Mulligan) 2:37:18; 3rd Pauline (S.O'Doherty, I. McCormick & M Kenny) 2:37:44; 4th Rosemary (G.Curley, D.Jones & D Potter) 2:38:10.
1st Echo (B. & H. Lynch 2:25:31; 2nd Zaida (T.Houlihan) 2:26:17; 3rd Sheila 2.37:18; 4th Pauline 2:37:44.