My winning yacht race debut was just plain sailing

Thrown in at the deep end, reluctant crew member Siobhán Cronin feared her first yacht race would end in disaster

My winning yacht race debut was just plain sailing

“If the wind is right you can sail away, and find tranquility ...’’

SO sang Texan Christopher Cross in his 1979 hit ‘Sailing’, about finding your soul on the high seas.

Since hearing that tune, and seeing the wind blowing through Simon le Bon’s blonde locks while he ponced around a yacht in the video for ‘Rio’, I’ve fantasised about poncing around myself some day, to find out if sailing is the ‘paradise’ name-checked in both songs.

My opportunity came a few weeks ago, when the Schull Harbour Sailing Club kindly invited me to spend a day with members, as they prepared for the Calves Week of races in the pretty seaside town.

I’m not a novice: in the madness of the boom I was briefly the proud owner of a one-sixth share in a 37ft Shannon cruiser — a former rental boat that had seen better days. But I loved it.

I was chuffed one day when a young, female lock-keeper looked at our battered, but unashamed, veteran of the water and asked myself and my friend if we had anyone else helping us. “No, just us two,” I told her, to which she replied, with eyes wide open and a thumbs-up gesture: “RESPECT!” (she hadn’t seen us almost demolish her lock gate on our approach a half-hour earlier).

But sailing is a different kettle of sea-based fish. Arriving in a stunning Schull on a hot Saturday morning, I was only expecting a tour of a boat, a few quick words with the skipper, and to let them off for their day of ‘tranquil’ sailing.

“You’re in the race,” said Hilary McCarthy, who was organising my trip. This was the first I’d heard of any race, and I explained to her that my 18 months of bumping and bobbing along the Shannon were not suitable qualifications.

“Don’t worry about it,” said Hilary, whose husband, Tom, was also allocated to our boat. “You’ll be fine, they’ll be glad to have you.”

I begged to differ, given my flashbacks of the dented hulls, punctured fenders and deflated egos of my Shannon escapades. But she insisted. Along with Irish Examiner photographer, Denis Minihane, I joined the queue for the dinghy ‘taxi’, which was ferrying competitors to their boats.

We were allocated to Calves Week chairman, Tadgh Dwyer’s stylish, 30ft Huzar — appropriately named Brazen Huzie — a yacht that has a good racing track record. At least it had until now.

Along with Tadgh, Tom, myself and Denis, we were joined by Corkman John O’Regan and Meath man Eanna Timoney — both accomplished sailors.

As Tadgh brought the Brazen Huzie up to the start line, the guys explained this race was one of the regular Saturday afternoon challenges in Schull. It would take two hours and, with modest wind speeds, there wouldn’t be much drama. They would have told me that anyway, to quell my rising fear that I was going to be the thorn in the side of a normally successful crew. I had visions of tripping over a rope, tumbling headlong into the Celtic Sea, and taking the skipper and some essential equipment with me. Denis would have the whole thing captured on film it and I’d never be able to show my face in West Cork again.

I think Tadgh read my mind. He asked me if I had my phone and told me I could be the clock watcher. I began my countdown with five minutes to go. I counted down the last minute as loudly as I could, as Tadgh took the Brazen Huzie up to the line, and then a bell chimed and we were off.

As we had no rope for a spinnaker sail (those gorgeous, crescent-shaped sails at the front), we were in the white-sails class. There was a lot of pulling and dragging on sail ropes to keep up our speed, as Tom and John crisscrossed myself and Denis, carrying out skipper Tadgh’s shouted instructions. We watched over our shoulders to see who was coming up closely behind us. We copied a snazzy manoeuvre by sailing club Commodore Frank Murphy, and narrowed the gap with our closest rival. Then it got very interesting.

Tadgh’s decision to make a very tight turn at the half-way mark was viewed sceptically by the others, but his judgement was spot-on and we gained a few more seconds on Murphy. I suggested making myself more useful by providing ballast. “I don’t think you’ll make a huge difference, Siobhán,’’ Tadgh told me honestly, looking at my 5’2” frame, carrying eight-and-a-half stone. I still threw myself into the task, literally, by dangling my legs and head as much as possible over the rails, to at least feel I was of some use in our final hour.

I’d like to think this little sacrifice of mine may have made all the difference — Brazen Huzie took first place, just ahead of the Commodore himself — not a bad day’s work for my inaugural yacht race. Paradise indeed.

*Cork Dry Gin Calves Week takes place Aug 6-9 in Schull, including a race around the Fastnet Rock.

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