Round Ireland race is Wicklow club's pride
Reporter David Medcalf met members of Wicklow Sailing Club as they pull out all the stops to make the Round Ireland yacht race a world class event
Wicklow Sailing Club is a small outfit - most of the time. The small WSC headquarters at the butt of the town's Old Pier is located in a cul-de-sac a stone's throw from the landmark Black Castle. The club performs heroic work each summer providing healthy exercise for scores of youngsters.
The 80 or so adult members enjoy a sociable fraternity with the added spice of a competitive programme of races. The craic is mighty out in the bay, flying over the water to complete the 'round the cans' triangle - taking in Glen Strand and Killoughter along the way.
A dinghy race on Saturday or on a Thursday normally attracts at least ten, and may as many as 15 boats.
Club commodore Denise Cummins declares cheerfully: 'Our objective is to get everyone out on the water having fun.'
But there is no escaping the fact that Wicklow SC is a minnow compared with the big fish of well-endowed clubs in Dublin or Cork. Yet every couple of years this tiny outfit becomes the focus of sailing not just in Ireland but for the world. And the biennial phenomenon which brings a host of top skippers and crews to the mouth of the Vartry will soon be happening once more.
Yes, the Volvo Round Ireland Yacht Race is due under way at 2 p.m. on Saturday, June 30.
Given the unpredictability of the weather, no one has a clue when the first of the fleet will arrive back to base after their clockwise circumnavigation of the island.
As the big day approaches, every effort is being made to ensure that everything is (ahem) shipshape and up to scratch.
The compact clubhouse has been given a lick of paint and the catering facilities have been up-graded.
Nevertheless, this remains an unlikely low-profile nerve centre for a major event in a sport that tends to attract millionaires and globetrotters.
They tell the local committee that they prefer the lack of glitz and there is no more popular spot on the yachting circuit than the clubhouse bar with its view out over the harbour.
'This is quite a strain on the club,' admits race director Hal Fitzgerald, though the strain appears to have done nothing to take the edge off the enthusiasm.
'We are up to our tonsils,' echoes commodore Cummins. 'The countdown is on.'
The event is not quite rated in the classic Sydney to Hobart bracket but it is not all that far off.
The Royal Ocean Racing Club, which oversees the sport around the globe, ranks the Volvo Round Ireland as top five.
While it is by no means the longest race, it poses a stiff technical challenge, with 18 corners to be rounded. The peculiar tides, winds and weather of the circular course present navigators with a host of tactical posers.
'It is beautifully simple,' laughs Hal mischievously. 'Leave all of Ireland and its beautiful islands to starboard.'
Try telling that to a crew caught in a gale where the Celtic Sea meets the Atlantic and the waves appear to be coming from all directions…
The more long standing local tradition in the town of Wicklow is rowing rather than sailing, with the club only established as recently as 1950.
Among those who took the initiative in that year was Kevin Desmond, who remains on board (so to speak) as a trustee, though he has not sailed much of late.
The Round Ireland race was initiated three decades later in 1980 when the late Michael Jones dared to suggest that a race all the way around Ireland was needed - and that Wicklow had just the people to run it.
It was not quite an original notion, as Ballyholme YC, based in Bangor, County Down, promoted something similar in 1975. However, the Ulster effort proved to be a one-off and besides it was a stage race with leisurely stopovers along the way.
Michael and his comrades decreed that theirs would be a non-stop event with the formula since proving to be both durable and successful.
'It was a visionary idea which has become a regular feature of the racing calendar,' says Hal Fitzgerald. 'It is 100 miles longer than the Fastnet race and a real challenge for a racing sailor, though possible to do within a week.'
All the winners since are immortalised on a roll of honour prominently displayed by the host club over the door. First on the list is a man called Brian Coad who steered 'Raasay of Melfort' to victory.
He was succeeded most recently in 2016 by a character called George David, best known from his days in charge of the mammoth General Electric corporation in the United States.
The wealthy owner of 'Rambler 88' set a record for the course of just over two days and two hours - a truly remarkable feat.
With his millions of dollars behind him, the likes of David with their multi-hulled, high-tech craft are able full advantage of favourable wind conditions. But competitive sailing, like golf, has a handicap system which means that there is still hope for the smaller boats with smaller crews.
'There has to be a handicap system because of all the different specifications involved,' says Hal, 'and it means that everyone thinks they have a chance of winning.'
The 'line honours' are awarded to the first yacht back across the line but the overall victory does not always go to the quickest, with the rules ensuing that the minnow 32-footers can also dare to dream of success.
The Volvo is a truly international contest but the Wicklow folk somehow manage to find their way on to the water.
This year, there will be particular interest in Barry Byrne who grew up in Wicklow and is no considered pretty much a professional, thanks to his role in the Naval Service. He is all set to skipper one of the entries in the race.
WSC committee stalwart Roisín Hennessy recalls that in 2014 she and five other club members were recruited by local skipper David Ryan from Kilbride.
He had four professional sailors aboard his 'Monster Project', who rubbed shoulders throughout the voyage with the six enthusiastic amateurs.
'If you finish the Round Ireland, then you have had a major achievement in your life,' says Roisín, proud to have ticked that box. 'It is on many bucket lists.
'We are flying the flag for Irish sailing because no one else runs a race like this. It's brilliant.'
The appeal of the sport can sometimes be a mystery to outsiders.
Surely no other pastime demands that participants suffer protracted sleep deprivation in cold and damp conditions for the privilege of sitting with backside hanging over a heaving ocean.
Add the difficulty of keeping down food or having a decent wash for days on end means that this is not everyone's notion of fun.
Nevertheless, it is expected that at least 60 entries will turn up for the start on June 30 - half of them Irish, with plenty of UK interest, along with boats from the Netherlands, France, Norway and the US.
Past participants have included celebrities such as Duran Duran musician Simon le Bon and RTE newshound Brian Dobson.
Last year, a total of 345 sailors participated and the number will be similar this time.
Some craft are so big that they cannot actually enter the harbour, so they call in to Dun Laoghaire along the way before the start to take on supplies of fresh water.
The only disappointment is that the James Bond yacht 'Soufriere' with its classic wooden hull, star of the 'Casino Royale' movie, has been withdrawn.
Particular interest will focus on the all-woman boat 'Pyxis' and the Arklow built 'Maybird' with Liverpudlian Darryl Hughes on the tiller.
Throughout the race, the clubhouse will be the nerve centre of the operation, monitoring the weather and the progress of the entry.
The homely bar will have the benefit of a special round-the-clock licence, granted on the basis that race finishers may arrive at any time of day or night.
But the organisers will need to keep clear heads, just in case anyone needs assistance - though there has never (touch wood) been a sinking yet.
Each boat is fitted with a GPS tracking system which means that followers will be able to keep tabs on progress either on screen at the harbour or via a telephone app.
The technology will give those waiting on dry land an insight into the tactical battle going on as competitors take wildly different lines in their efforts to make the most of capricious winds.
The strong tides around Rathlin Island off Ulster's north coast are especially notorious - but the prospect of a warm welcome back in Wicklow makes the battle worthwhile.