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Fred Espey 1934-2018

11th October 2018
Involved to the end. The late Fred Espey in his eighties, fulfilling his longtime role as President and Chairman of the Sandycove Bathers Association. In addition to his many sailing roles, he was a lifelong swimmer at the Forty Foot, and an experienced diver Involved to the end. The late Fred Espey in his eighties, fulfilling his longtime role as President and Chairman of the Sandycove Bathers Association. In addition to his many sailing roles, he was a lifelong swimmer at the Forty Foot, and an experienced diver Photo: courtesy SBA

Fred Espey of Dun Laoghaire, who has died aged 85, was best-known in sailing as Commodore of the Royal Irish Yacht Club from 2001 to 2004, the culmination of many years of service to the club in a variety of roles. Yet while his quiet-spoken charm and ready hospitality enabled him to fulfil the demanding role of Commodore with the complete support of his wife Eileen, these official duties only temporarily obscured the fact he was very much a man of the Dun Laoghaire waterfront, enjoying the company of others who, like himself, were proficient in the ways of boats and their equipment, and in the skills of the sea.

Although the family home of his boyhood was in Dublin where Ringsend is verging into Ballsbridge and he went to school in St Andrew’s, he lived for the summers spent in Dun Laoghaire with relatives whose house was next door to the legendary “gentleman boatbuilder” Skee Gray. In Skee’s workshop, young Fred was soon acquiring boatbuilding skills which he continued to practice for much of his long life.

The first boat he owned was the Water Wag Phyllis, his ownership being possible as she was bought in a near-derelict state. With Skee Gray’s training, he was able to make her good as new. Then in the early 1960s he turned his attention to the very neglected 17-footer Rosemary which Buddy Thompson – who was noted for sailing bare-footed in a bowler hat and with his toenails painted red for regattas – had not sailed for many years.

It took some time to extract Rosemary from her eccentric owner, but then a winter of work in the Coal Harbour Boatyard by Fred and some friends brought her back to pristine condition in what was effectively a re-build, and he was so fond of his little keelboat that he kept her even when all the other Seventeens had long since ceased to be DBSC 17s, having crossed Dublin Bay to return to being Howth 17s.

Rosemary sailing2The 17-Footer Rosemary, originally built in 1907 by James Kelly of Portrush, which Fred Espey personally re-built in the early 1960s. It was his second re-build – he’d already completed a successful project on a Water Wag. And it wasn’t until 1971 that Rosemary – the last 17-footer in Dun Laoghaire – was finally sold by him across Dublin Bay to join her sisters in Howth. Photo courtesy Howth 17-Footer Assoc.

Finally, in 1971 he sold Rosemary to Howthmen George Curley and Davy Jones, who still own her. But back in Dun Laoghaire which was now his home, Fred Espey had been making preparations for married life with Eileen McNulty by ensuring that, three weeks before the wedding, he acquired the little gaff cutter Jem, which he moored off the Royal Irish YC. He liked the reassurance of having his own boat, particularly in the face of impending domesticity, but in truth he was so able in a boat that he could get sailing in a variety of craft any time he liked, and for some time he had been a regular crewman aboard Punctilio, the last Dublin Bay 25 to be based in Dun Laoghaire. To balance that, his first excursion into Bermudan-rigged ownership was with several years of DBSC racing with the wooden International Dragon Ariadne.

dublin bay 25 racing3The Dublin Bay 25s – established 1898 – in their racing prime. Among Fred Espey’s many sailing experiences was a regular crewing position aboard W B Stephen’s Punctilio, the last DB 25 to be based in Dublin Bay. Photo courtesy DBSC

He enjoyed being in the sea as much as being on it, and for many decades he was a daily swimmer at the Forty Foot - at the time of his death, he was President and Chairman of the 1890-established Sandycove Bathers Association, and had been for many years. But being Fred Espey, he carried this interest in swimming a stage further by developing proficiency in diving, so much so that it was he who discovered the giant anchor on the seabed of Dun Laoghaire Harbour which was lifted by Paddy Murphy, boatman at the RIYC, and is now on permanent display at the National Maritime Museum.

His professional career was in the marketing of animal feeds, a job which meant that outside work, he returned to boats and the sea with even more enthusiasm. He always seemed to have several boat-related projects on the go at one time, and in 1964 when Paul Campbell’s lovely Arthur Robb-designed yawl Verve was under construction with Tyrrell’s of Arklow to be the special boat for the yard’s centenary that year, it was Fred Espey who was asked to be Owner’s Representative throughout the building.

Verve YawlThe classic Arthur Robb yawl Verve in Autumn sunshine in Dublin Bay. In 1964, Fred Espey was Owner’s Representative during the building of Verve to become the Centenary Boat at Tyrrell’s of Arklow

Then when the much-travelled Verve was completed and cruising extensively, Fred’s quietly reassuring presence, the epitome of able seamanship, was always welcome on board, and he was elected a member of the Irish Cruising Club in 1978. Aboard Verve, another regular crewmember was James Osborne, and when Paul Campbell finally relinquished Verve, he left her to the Espey/Osborne partnership which throve happily for many years and then expanded with extra members such as Michael Boyd to take on the handsome Bowman 46 Hibernia, whose cruises included a Transatlantic passage with Fred Espey in command.

The breadth of his knowledge of boats and how they function was further demonstrated when Dublin Bay SC decided to take a pioneering step in acquiring a catamaran for their Committee Boat. This in time became Mac Lir, and one of the prime movers in the project, Fintan Cairns, recalls that a first port of call for advice was an informative and detailed conversation with his friend Fred Espey.

mac lir5When Dublin Bay SC decided to develop the then-revolutionary concept of a catamaran Committee Boat, one of the first people they turned to for technical advice on the boat which eventually became Mac Lir was Fred Espey. Photo courtesy DBSC
He retired from the animal feeds business while still young enough to develop his interest in diving into an underwater contracts business, but as ever there were unexpected spinoffs. One day in checking moorings in Dun Laoghaire Harbour, he discovered the long-sunken hull of a 19ft Squib keelboat. Nobody was interested in claiming it, so in his spare time, he renovated it completely and then assembled a rig from the remains of a broken Dragon mast.

It says everything about Fred Espey’s continuing joy in sailing that if a free day happened to come long, he’d sail this rescued boat single-handed if needs be, but if a shipmate such as Peter Fleming were available, they’d pop down the coast to Bray for a spot of lunch in the Harbour Bar and sail back up again, marvelling anew that there was such a magnificent coastline right on the doorstep of the city.

But he was by no means a stay-at-home sailor, and when clubmates Bob and Barbara Stewart bought the extremely elegant Alden 54 Tara, they ensured that Fred Espey was on board as often as possible and frequently for very long voyages, for the sea and sailing really were in his blood.

fred espey canal6A man absorbed in his work. Fred Espey steering Hibernia into a lock chamber in the Caledonian Canal. Photo: Peter Fleming

It was a passion which he has passed down the generations, as his eldest son David is one of the leading figures in the Classic Yachts movement, both in Dublin Bay and internationally. He and his siblings Alan and Helen have also seen the loss of their mother Eileen two-and-a-half years ago. Our heartfelt condolences are with them at this sad time and with Fred Espey’s ten grandchildren and his recently-arrived great-grandson James.

In his quiet yet determined way, Fred Espey was a very special one-off, and he will be much missed by his many friends in the sailing community.


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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Royal Irish Yacht Club - Frequently Asked Questions

The Royal Irish Yacht Club is situated in a central location in Dun Laoghaire Harbour with excellent access and visiting sailors can be sure of a special welcome. The clubhouse is located in the prime middle ground of the harbour in front of the town marina and it is Dun Laoghaire's oldest yacht club. 

What's a brief history of the Royal Irish Yacht Club?

The yacht club was founded in 1831, with the Marquess of Anglesey, who commanded the cavalry at the Battle of Waterloo being its first Commodore. 

John Skipton Mulvany designed the clubhouse, which still retains a number of original architectural features since being opened in 1851.

It was granted an ensign by the Admiralty of a white ensign with the Coat of Arms of the Kingdom of Ireland beneath the Union Jack in canton.

Many prominent names feature among the past members of the Club. The first Duke of Wellington was elected in 1833, followed by other illustrious men including the eccentric Admiral Sir Charles Napier, Sir Dominic Corrigan the distinguished physician, Sir Thomas Lipton, novelist, George A. Birmingham, yachtsman and author, Conor O'Brien, and famous naval historian and author, Patrick O Brian. 

In the club's constitution, it was unique among yacht clubs in that it required yacht owners to provide the club's commodore with information about the coast and any deep-sea fisheries they encountered on all of their voyages.

In 1846, the club was granted permission to use the Royal prefix by Queen Victoria. The club built a new clubhouse in 1851. Despite the Republic of Ireland breaking away from the United Kingdom, the Royal Irish Yacht Club elected to retain its Royal title.

In 1848, a yachting trophy called "Her Majesty's Plate" was established by Queen Victoria to be contested at Kingstown where the Royal Irish Yacht Club is based. The Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland at the time, George Villiers, 4th Earl of Clarendon suggested it should be contested by the Royal Irish Yacht Club and the Royal St. George Yacht Club in an annual regatta, a suggestion that was approved by both clubs with the Royal St. George hosting the first competitive regatta.

The RIYC celebrated its 185th Anniversary in 2016 with the staging of several special events in addition to being well represented afloat, both nationally and internationally. It was the year the club was also awarded Irish Yacht Club of the Year as Afloat's W M Nixon details here.

The building is now a listed structure and retains to this day all its original architectural features combined with state of the art facilities for sailors both ashore and afloat.

What is the Royal Irish Yacht Club's emblem?

The Club's emblem shows a harp with the figure of Nice, the Greek winged goddess of victory, surmounted by a crown. This emblem has remained unchanged since the foundation of the Club; a symbol of continuity and respect for the history and tradition of the Royal Irish Yacht Club.

What is the Royal Irish Yacht Club's ensign?

The RIYC's original white ensign was granted by Royal Warrant in 1831. Though the Royal Irish Yacht Club later changed the ensign to remove the St George's Cross and replace the Union Jack with the tricolour of the Republic of Ireland, the original ensign may still be used by British members of the Royal Irish Yacht Club

Who is the Commodore of the Royal Irish Yacht Club?

The current Commodore is Joe Costello and the Vice-Commodore is Pat Shannon.

The RIYC Flag Officers are: 

Who is the Chief Executive of the Royal Irish Yacht Club? 

Padraig McCarthy is the RIYC CEO.  Tel  01 280 9452 extn 7 email: [email protected]

What reciprocal club arrangements does the Royal Irish Yacht Club have?  

As one of Ireland's leading club's, the Royal Irish Yacht Club has significant reciprocal arrangements with yacht clubs across Ireland and the UK, Europe, USA and Canada and the rest of the World. If you are visiting from another Club, please have with a letter of introduction from your Club or introduce yourself to the Club Secretary or to a member of management staff, who will show you the Club's facilities.

What car parking does the Royal Irish Yacht Club have at its Dun Laoghaire clubhouse?

The RIYC has car parking outside of its clubhouse for the use of its members. Paid public car parking is available next door to the club at the marina car park. There is also paid parking on offer within the harbour area at the Coatl Harbour (a 5-minute walk) and at an underground car park adjacent to the Royal St. George Yacht Club (a 3-minute walk). Look for parking signs. Clamping is in operation in the harbour area.

What facilities does the Royal Irish Yacht Clubhouse offer? 

The Royal Irish Yacht Club offers a relaxed, warm and welcoming atmosphere in one of the best situated and appointed clubhouses in these islands. Its prestige in yachting circles is high and its annual regatta remains one of the most attractive events in the sailing calendar. It offers both casual and formal dining with an extensive wine list and full bar facilities. The Club caters for parties, informal events, educational seminars, themed dinners and all occasions. The RIYC has a number of venues within the Club each of which provides a different ambience to match particular needs.

What are the Royal Irish Yacht Club's Boathouse facilities?

The RIYC boathouse team run the launch service to the club's swinging moorings, provide lifting for dry-sailed boats, lift and scrub boats, as well as maintaining the fabric of the deck, pontoon infrastructure, and swinging moorings. They also maintain the club crane, the only such mobile crane of the Dun Laoghaire Yacht Clubs.

What facilities are offered for junior sailing at the Royal Irish Yacht Club?

One of the missions of the Royal Irish Yacht Club is to promote sailing as a passion for life by encouraging children and young adults to learn how to sail through its summer courses and class-specific training throughout the year. 

RIYC has an active junior section. Its summer sailing courses are very popular and the club regularly has over 50 children attending courses in any week. The aim is for those children to develop lifelong friendships through sailing with other children in the club, and across the other clubs in the bay.
Many RIYC children go on to compete for the club at regional and national championships and some have gone on to represent Ireland at international competitions and the Olympic Regatta itself.
In supporting its young sailors and the wider sailing community, the RIYC regularly hosts junior sailing events including national and regional championships in classes such as the Optmist, Feva and 29er.
Competition is not everything though and as the club website states:  "Many of our junior sailors have gone on the become sailing instructors and enjoy teaching both in Ireland and abroad.  Ultimately, we take most pleasure from the number of junior sailors who become adult sailors and enjoy a lifetime of sailing with the club". 

At A Glance – Royal Irish Yacht Regatta 2020 Dates

RIYC Regatta 2020: Saturday 27 June

RIYC Junior Regatta 2020: Wednesday 29 July

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