The swings and roundabouts that are the hallmarks of the Volvo Round Ireland Race are reliably present this week as the outcome of the 705-mile race hangs in the balance on the Irish Sea.
Fleet leader Niall Dowling and the crew on Baraka Gp, a specially chartered Ker 43-footer crossed the finishing-line at Wicklow Pier yesterday afternoon, 40 minutes shy of taking four full days to complete the lap of Ireland.
As first home, they collected the flag for ‘Line Honours’ winner and quickly started the mental arithmetic needed to see whether they could win the overall trophy for the race that is decided on IRC handicap.
At one stage in the race, when the leader on the water seemed unable to shake off the pursuing pack of mostly smaller, lower handicapped boats it seemed that the overall win would fall to one of these boats, currently still at sea.
A twist of fate and some luck needed to fall the way of the Baraka Gp crew.
And then, in keeping with the Round Ireland’s reputation, the course conditions swung their way in the final stretch towards the finish.
Firstly, they managed to clear the notorious tidal gates at both Rathlin and the North Channel thanks to a fresh headwind. That breeze had been forecast to shift to the South for the approach to the finish but instead was more to the East meaning they were able to sail straight down the Irish Sea with eased sheets and at a fast pace.
In a further turn of the roundabout, those boats in pursuit found themselves almost becalmed and stemming the foul tides on the North coast while the back-markers crossed Donegal Bay in dense fog.
The upshot is that while Dowling and his crew were tucking into a late brunch in the Round Ireland room of Wicklow Sailing Club yesterday, the clock was starting to tick in their favour.
However, a slew of boats are still potential winners and the same luck that appears to have favoured Baraka Gp yesterday could yet swing back towards some of the smaller boats in need of some speed towards the finish.
Whatever the outcome, between the knife-edge overall standings, the exceptionally sunny weather plus the near gale force headwinds off the West coast, the 20thedition of the race is certain to prove memorable.
“The Volvo Round Ireland is a really, really hard race; it’s like Mount Kilimanjaro - it’s one of the biggest, one of the hardest mountains to climb,” commented Ian Moore, navigator on Baraka Gp who previously won this race in 2004.
Meanwhile, if the 48 hours of slogging upwind in confused seas on Sunday and Monday in the Round Ireland sounds tough, spare a thought for another Irish sailor that started a classic race of a different kind on Sunday.
Dubliner Gregor McGuckin is realising a lifetime ambition as he is one of 18 solo sailors recreating the original round the world race – the Golden Globe – sailed 50 years that was eventually won by Robin Knox Johnson.
Expected to take between eight and nine months to complete, each boat is of the era of the original race and modern technology is strictly limited to freeze-dried food and foul-weather gear. The boats are equipped with trackers and AIS (Automatic Identification Systems) so that race followers and other vessels can see the boats but the sailors themselves cannot.
In the event of an emergency, the sailors have sealed emergency gear including satellite phones for use – after abandoning racing.
After four days at sea, the fleet is crossing the Gallician coast off North-Western Spain with McGuckin holding a seaward position and tenth place.