Saturday 7 December 2019

Obituaries: Ireland sailing race legend Joe English

Sailor and skipper brought Ireland to the top table of round-the-world ­racing

Joe and April English at Crosshaven
Joe and April English at Crosshaven

Martin McCarthy

Joe English, one of Ireland's greatest sailing legends, has died at the early age of 58 after a long illness.

He was the leader of the first wave of Irish sailors to make it into the professional ranks as the sport turned from an amateur's hobby into a full-time profession for the few that were good enough and determined enough.

As a result, he became an icon among the Irish sailing fraternity - especially in Cork where he learnt his love of the sport and retained a lifelong membership of the Royal Cork Yacht Club in Crosshaven.

Joe began his sailing as a child in Cork harbour and with the support of his parents, Eamonn and Mary, he was able to take part in junior sailing events all over Ireland. In time he began winning sailing championships - most notably he won the IYA Junior Helmsman championship with his lifelong friend Neil Kenefick in 1974. He represented Ireland at the ISAF Youth World Sailing Championships in Langs, Scotland in 1975 and proved to be a talented and tough competitor.

When North Sails opened a loft in Kinsale in 1976, he joined them and learnt a great deal about the rapidly developing professional sailing world. His older brother, Eddie, also went on to become a successful international sailor.

He joined the Admiral's Cup yacht Big Apple, owned by Hugh Coveney, Clayton Love and Raymond Fielding in 1977 and was on board Denis Doyle's Moonduster for the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race.

In the 1980s Joe began competing successfully in the ultra long distance sailing events so that when the visionary Dermot Desmond bravely decided Ireland could compete at the very top level of world sailing, Joe English was his natural choice as skipper. Joe skippered the Ron Holland-designed and Dublin-built NCB Ireland - the 82ft yacht built for the 1989 Whitbread Round the World Race - the greatest sailing race on the planet at the time.

Joe did well to steer NCB Ireland to the finish of the immensely tough, 33,000-mile race having encountered and survived mountainous seas and hurricane-force winds during their nine months at sea.

For the following decade he was at the forefront of global long-distance racing and was an excellent ambassador for Irish sailing at the highest level.

In the early 2000s he felt that memory loss was impacting his abilities and he had to retire from professional sailing in 2006.

He was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in November 2007 at 51 years of age.

Shortly after, his sailing friends set up the Joe English Trust to help care for him in his final years. The trustees were Richard Burrows, Tom Roche, Neil Kenefick, John Crotty, and John Bertrand. His wife, April, and their children became a beacon to all as they helped Joe through the illness and supported the fight to find better ways to treat and manage the condition. They met President Higgins last year to highlight the cause. Joe participated in an RTE Prime Time documentary in association with the Alzheimer's Society. He was extremely open about his condition and highlighted the devastating impact Alzheimer's has on sufferers and their families.

After years of dedicated care, Joe passed away peacefully at St Finbarr's Hospital, Douglas Rd, Cork.

He is survived by his wife April, daughter Aoife, sons Robbie and Conor, and brothers Eddie, Denis, and Jean-Paul.

Sunday Independent

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