Meet the people behind Cork Week sailing regatta

Barlo Plastics leads Pyewacket over the start line on the Coastal Race.


When Cork Week was revamped 30 years ago, it became one of the biggest events in the sailing calendar, attracting celebrities like Roy Disney to Crosshaven. Maria Rolston meets the people behind it.

FROM its small beginnings in the 1970s, with fewer than 50 yachts taking to the sea, the biennial Cork Week sailing regatta has gone from boom to almost bust and back again in the last 30 years.

There were 700 boats participating at its peak and members of the Disney family even sailed across the Atlantic to compete in the prestigious international regatta on more than one occasion.

Founded by the Crosshaven based Royal Cork Yacht Club — the oldest sailing club in the world, (it celebrates its 300th anniversary in 2020) — the event had become the “must do” regatta internationally by the 90s, attracting return celebrity competitors like the late Roy E Disney. 

He famously sailed his 70ft yacht from San Diego, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to compete at Cork Week in 1992.

However, sustaining the event hasn’t always been plain sailing. 

Donal McClement — a co-founder of Cork Week and yachtsman who has successfully competed at the highest international level (including surviving and winning his class in the tragic 1979 Fastnet Race which saw 18 people lose their lives when a storm rose at sea) — recalls the event’s history.

Donal McClement: ‘What has always made Cork Week appealing to competitors is that we design courses for the sailors that are unusual and challenging. We have a different type of race course every day.’
Donal McClement: ‘What has always made Cork Week appealing to competitors is that we design courses for the sailors that are unusual and challenging. We have a different type of race course every day.’

“When Cork Week first took place in 1978, less than 50 boats competed, but by the early 80s, boats were getting lighter and faster and professional sailors were coming on board and taking over the boats,” said Donal.

“They were the rock stars of sailboat racing and the owners, who were putting a lot of money into their yachts and crews, were finding that they couldn’t compete on a level with one another and people started objecting to the professionals because they weren’t enjoying the competition.”

Responding to the situation, Donal and three fellow Royal Cork Yacht Club members — John McWilliam, Grattan Roberts and Joxer O’Brien — came up with the idea of limiting the number of professional sailors on each boat in order to balance the competition.

“We decided to categorise sailors according to whether they were professional or amateur and modern Cork Week was launched under these new rules in 1986. 

It was hugely successful and our standardisation rule became the basis of what is now the international standard for crew classification.”

In 1986, the revamped Cork Week saw 90 boats participating in what was, by all accounts, an enormously successful regatta. 

These numbers increased to 110 entries in 1988 and more than doubled to 250 in 1990 when Ford came on board as sponsors. 

What made Cork Week so attractive to international competitors was the way the regatta was run, the quality of the sailing waters, the innovative racecourse designs and and the on-shore craic and entertainment, says Donal.

“The event exploded in the 90s and it became the must do regatta internationally. Virtually every boat owner in the world wanted to come to Cork Week because it was a very well run regatta that was run for the benefit of the competitors.

“Cork Harbour, being the second largest natural harbour in the world, also has some of the world’s finest sailing waters, with good open space, low tides and fair conditions. 

And what has always made Cork Week appealing to competitors is that we design courses for the sailors that are unusual and challenging. 

We have a different type of race course every day and we also invented new types of racecourse, like the windward/leeward - where you sail directly upwind and then directly down wind - and that particular course has now become the norm for Olympic sailing competitions and everything else.

Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, is one of the international figures to have taken part in Cork Week.
Roy Disney, nephew of Walt Disney, is one of the international figures to have taken part in Cork Week.

“These innovations attracted worldwide interest and a high standard of entries and by 1992, we learned that Roy Disney was coming to Cork Week, and that was very exciting for us.”

Roy E Disney was a vice president and shareholder of the Walt Disney Company, which his father Roy O Disney co-founded with his brother, Walt.

Disney had Irish ancestry and had bought and renovated Coolmain Castle near Bandon in the 80s. 

He was introduced to the Royal Cork Yacht Club by the Crosshaven based late politician and yachtsman, Hugh Coveney, father of Minister Simon Coveney, and subsequently became a member of the club and a return Cork Week competitor.

“We had relaxed the restrictions for professionals on bigger boats by 1992 and Disney, who turned out to be just a lovely ordinary guy, brought his high spec Santa Cruz 70 all the way to Cork from San Diego and flew in a crew, which included several Olympic medalists, to race.

“It must have cost him half a million dollars for that one week but he simply had a fantastic time. 

"He won a couple of races and I stayed with him throughout the week to show him around on and off the water and he was hugely enthusiastic about the whole event.

“He came back again in 2000, and in 2004 he had a freighter call in to Bermuda after the Bermuda Newport Race, to lift his Max Z 86 racing boat and transport it to here to compete in Cork Week. That was the prestige of the event.”

Entries had peaked in 1998 with almost 700 yachts competing, after which numbers were capped at 500 to prevent the regatta from becoming too big. 

International crews kept entering in their hundreds, however, and Donal says Cork Week was at the pinnacle of international sailboat racing in 2006, before the recession.

Gavin Deane says offering entertainment and linking with the community has helped to sustain success.
Gavin Deane says offering entertainment and linking with the community has helped to sustain success.

“We probably had the best fleet ever, in terms of quality, in 2006. It was the best big boat racing class assembled anywhere in Europe and we had all the top names in sailing competing.

“Entries had dropped down to less than 100 by 2012, but we’re back up to almost 120 boats this year and we’re planning to have a good regatta.”

Innovation, inclusivity, and the drive of a dedicated committee are what’s helped Cork Week survive the stormy seas of multiple recessions, says Donal, who remains instrumental in the racing side of the event. 

This year’s regatta, sponsored by Volvo, will see the event’s first European Championship race take place, a move instigated by Cork Week chair, Kieran O’Connell, which has helped attract a high standard of entries.

And in an effort to get people, who might otherwise be unlikely to compete at Cork Week, out racing, the regatta will host the inaugural Irish Sailing Association (ISA) Try Sailing Challenge. 

This will see novice sailors participating in the ISA Try Sailing programmes at sailing clubs around the country, competing over inshore courses .

Cork Week is not just for sailors and general manager of the Royal Cork Yacht Club, Gavin Deane, says offering almost non-stop entertainment throughout the week and linking the event with the community has been key to sustaining success. 

“Cork Week has always had a reputation for the social side of things and its onshore entertainment. 

"It brings a lot of people to Crosshaven and the village really comes to life during the regatta but in the past, the entertainment has very much centred at the yacht club, which turns into a tented entertainment village for the week.

“Now we’re integrating everything into the village. We holding a family fun day in Crosshaven with events for all age groups and tastes on the Saturday [today] to kick start the regatta week.

“We’ve got live music on the programme from 4.30pm every day, with acts like the Colin McClean Latin Trio and the Papa Zitas Mowtown Band and we’re holding events in other venues around Crosshaven like Camden Fort Meagher which is also a good vantage point for viewing the races.

“The week wraps up with the Frank and Walters performing on the Friday night, followed by a fireworks display in the harbour which should be quite spectacular. 

"We want people to know that Cork Week and sailing are open to everyone and we’d like to encourage as many people as possible to experience the joys of getting out on the water.” 


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