Volvo Round Ireland Race Reflections
At Dream or Two Sailing we like to take on some big challenges when it comes to offshore sailing and specifically racing. This year the main feature of our Sailing Programme was the Volvo Round Ireland race. Our plan was to complete it on Fortissimo (aka 40simo) our Class 40 racing yacht. We knew this would be a test for everyone involved and it certainly lived up to its billing. Now the dust has settled and we’ve all had time to reflect on the race we’re publishing our thoughts on it. These will be from the perspectives of those who were involved in the various aspects of it. In this article we’ll look at the story of the race from the perspective of our shore crew, based at the home of the race in Wicklow, Ireland.
The Shore Crew’s Perspective
When you are sat in the race office at Wicklow Sailing club, it’s easy to see the 2016 Volvo Round Ireland as a contest of contradictions. A physically and mentally challenging battle consisting of 704nm of coastal sailing, yet one where records tumble with apparent ease. Where multi-million pound ocean racing machines fly round the race course yet small boats and crews with big ambition conquer it as well. A fiercely contested and competitive race with an international field, but one that starts and finishes in one of the most vibrant, friendly and close-knit sailing clubs anywhere in the World.
Having made the journey by car, aeroplane and train from the familiarity of the Solent to an unfamiliar town on the east coast of Ireland it was very easy to spot these contradictions and why they are a core part of making this race is so special. It’s our hope that this story will allow you the reader to understand and appreciate these and in the process see why this top class race is starting to receive the world-wide acclaim it deserves.
This year there were roughly 65 boats that started out from Wicklow Sailing club on the Saturday lunchtime, hoping to make it all the way round Ireland while leaving all its islands (except Rockall) to starboard. Right from the first day they knew they would be challenged as the wind died and the fleet was left to battle its way south and then west in lighter conditions than they might have hoped for.
Yet even at this point the three Mod70s (Phaedo3, Concise10 and OmanSail) were flying on their way to a new race record, not seemingly phased by the conditions. However, by Sunday morning the rest of the fleet was left to beat its way into a veering and strengthening wind. Even passing the Fastnet rock, such an iconic place in the sailing world, was little consolation for the crews in steepening seas and with knowledge of the wild Atlantic Coast still ahead of them.
Meanwhile the Mod70s and the mighty Rambler 88 had their sights set on the coast of Northern Ireland as they fought each other and the race record. The faster boats of the rest of the fleet had hardly begun their reach up the west coast before the others were creating headlines at the finish line. In fact it was a little local knowledge applied at the right time that allowed Oman Sail, trailing the leaders for most of the race to stay offshore and avoid known wind-holes on the Wicklow coast to claim line honours as well as a new record time.
In fact, the speed of these mighty machines also served to disrupt the usual rhythm of the race organisers. Having seen the fleet off from Wicklow in spectacular style on the Saturday, the whole town usually has a few days to regain their composure before the first finishers arrive. However, this time they found themselves scrambling to welcome the MOD70s home almost before the weekend had ended. Only when Rambler 88 also found its way across the line in a new record time for a mono-hull was there time for the town to draw breath before the rest of the fleet returned.
As the shore crew you also hope to be able to do the same and to enjoy the warmth and hospitality of Wicklow while the crew are pitting themselves against the elements. This is another area where the sailing club at Wicklow should serve as an example to all race organisers. With true Irish spirit everyone at the club did everything they could to support and entertain the shore crews, from a communications base in the club house to recommendations about local pubs and even a personal introduction to Wicklow royalty. Yes, Sammy the Seal of course. At the time he was receiving more media attention from a TV news crew than the race was! But while the hospitality made the wait more comfortable there was also the serious business of the race to return keep track of.
From our base in the clubhouse we could see that at virtually the same time as the first boats were finishing, down in the South West corner of Ireland a small number of boats were able to sneak round the corner before the tide, wind and weather changed, causing another split in the fleet. By this point there had also been a number of retirees with the failure of gear and crew illness being the most commonly cited reasons reaching the race office. As those boats sought refuge in ports on the South coast the rest of the fleet headed on as the wind strengthened more and veered enough to ensure that the majority of boats and their crews continued sailing upwind on the west coast. Back in Wicklow the race organisers were focussed on ensuring that the crews and their boats were safe.
The long haul
News reached Wicklow of some respite in the conditions as the fleet reached the tip of County Mayo and headed North East, finally allowing the boats to experience some downwind sailing for the first time in the race. The good sailing wasn’t to last long though as the fleet rounded the tip of Donegal and on along the coast of Northern Ireland. This time it was wind speeds that were dropping rather than increasing that were the latest challenge.
The next major obstacle that needed to be overcome was managing the tidal gate through the North Channel, the narrows between Ireland and Scotland through which half the Irish sea squeezes with every tide. In the Sailing club in Wicklow the shore crew gained some valuable insight into this part of the course by listening to the stories of the past competitors who regularly dropped by for a drink and a chat.
What we learned was that this part of the course can either thrill or frustrate given the speed of the tide as it rushes through the narrow gap every 6 hours. The boats that meet the flood tide effectively have a travelling escalator underneath them and then have the benefit of catching a second favourable tide heading south off the coast of County Down. Those that miss the gate, especially in light winds will often need to drop anchor and wait until the flood tide can carry them onwards once more.
In this year’s race this part of the course divided the field once more. The majority of the Class 40 fleet found its way through along with some of the other faster boats. In the weakening breeze the remainder ground to a halt and then had to wait for the next tidal gate. Those that did make it through didn’t fair much better as the wind died completely and they were left drifting outside Dublin in what we know must have been a 24 frustrating hours.
Once the breeze had filled in we could see from the race trackers that the boats were taking different routes down the cost of County Wicklow. This was another topic of discussion in the sailing club with sailors keen to share stories of yesteryear about the fortunes of competitors past. Out in the fleet some were searching for more breeze out in the Irish Sea and others were keeping to a shorter inshore course. Those inshore had to deal with wind variations from the stunning mountains that line the Wicklow coast. Listening to the young sailors who regularly race in this part of the world again provided valuable insight into the right tactics; frustratingly this couldn’t be shared with the crews until they had returned.
It was at this time that a steady stream of boats were now crossing the line off the harbour wall in Wicklow. Each time the cannon sounded there was a hasty scribbling of times and then completion of paperwork with the skippers as they stopped off in the race office on their way to a hot meal and pint of Guinness in the Sailing Club. The finish line of the race is just out to sea and this gives the spectators a great view of the boats as they cross the line. With every boat that finished one eye was on the rest of the fleet, constantly calculating when it would be Fortissimo’s turn to arrive.
We had observed via the race tracker that Fortissimo had opted for the same offshore course that had been taken by other Class 40s in order to catch more of the breeze that had been building. This course meant that as the boat approached Wicklow a quick tack was all that was needed before darting across the finish line. This was then followed by a big bear away in order to return to the harbour.
Although the tide was falling there was enough time for the crew to come ashore and experience a little of the Wicklow hospitality. As a shore crew you can only know so much about what is happening onboard the boat but that changes very quickly once everyone is back ashore. In the sailing club everyone was full of stories and slowly the jigsaw puzzle that is any race was put together. On the quay at Wicklow there was also time for the Class 40 skippers to compare notes and begin to dissect race tactics. Fortissimo and Fuji had battled each other all the way round Ireland as rivals but could now their skippers and crew could chat as friends.
It was the end to a fascinating race and one during which the shore crew had thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality and learned so much about sailing in and around Ireland. As we boarded Fortissimo for a sail back up the coast to Dun Laoghaire marina we continued to compare notes with the crew and began to understand more about the race from their perspective. But that’s another story …
We’d like to thank everyone at the Wicklow Sailing Club (with extra special thanks to Valerie, Theo and Peter) for all their help, support and hospitality during this year’s Volvo Round Ireland race and we all look forward to returning! If you’d like to see how the action unfolded via the official race tracker you can find it here.
Round Ireland Gallery
A selection of our photos from the race can be viewed in our gallery.