In the aftermath of Ireland’s three Silver medals from the Rio 2016 Olympics, West Cork’s influence appears to be extending beyond the shores of the River Ilen and the O’Donovan brothers’ success.
A little further west, Schull lies ideally placed off Roaring Water Bay and arguably one of the most perfect training grounds for sailing anywhere in Europe.
The town is so well-known amongst the current and emerging crop of young Olympians that it is rapidly being regarded as the “spiritual home of Irish performance sailing”, and is the chosen venue for training camps and regattas.
But Schull isn’t just selected for it’s pretty streetscape or beautiful scenery.
In fact, sailing has been bred amongst young sailors stemming from an initiative started almost 30 years ago with the annual Fastnet International Schools Regatta that attracted entries from around Ireland and further afield.
From the regatta, the sport was adopted into the curriculum of the Schull Community College which as now evolved into a sister organisation, the Fastnet Marine & Outdoor Education Centre.
Aside from being the model that many other coastal communities might hope to emulate, Schull’s influence has extended nationally in terms of planning for the next steps in the high-performance end of sailing.
The concept of “From Pier to Podium” seeks to answer one of the most regular and also misunderstood aspects of sailing — funding.
Although a widespread misconception of the sport is that it is vastly expensive at every level — from beginner onwards — the huge cost of campaigning to podium level at Olympic and world championship level is certainly beyond the reach of most sailors and sailing families.
Even Annalise Murphy’s Silver medal didn’t arrive because of any firmly placed silver spoon and if not for sponsorship support and Sport Ireland’s Carding Scheme, her result and those of the other sailors showing potential wouldn’t be anywhere close to what was seen at Rio.
What is now underway is a scheme to identify young sailors demonstrating potential at existing club and national schemes that are modestly affordable but currently blocked from advancement due to lack of personal funds needed to campaign internationally on a regular basis.
“Someone standing on the end of a pier looking out to sea and saying ‘I’d love to do what Annalise is doing but I’ve no money so what’s the point?’” explained David Harte of the FMOEC.
“We now have a foundation that will nurture kids who have got the talent through the stepping-stones from being very good sailors to where they can be carded.”
Competing to Olympic level shares similar demands with other sports — fitness, diet, coaching, travel and accommodation costs mount up considerably. As an equipment-based sport, transportation costs and sail programmes are additional features that add to the bills.
The Irish Sailing Foundation is an offshoot of the Irish Sailing Association’s Olympic Steering Group with strong influences from Schull. Led by Colm Barrington, Jack Gleeson is executive director of the newly formed group and is charged with seeking philanthropic support for the high performance pathway of the ISA.
“If we want to get the chance for medals then we have to open up the boundaries so that our other good sailors can get the chance to do what the others such as Annalise and the Ryan and Matt have done,” said Harte.
“If you take a boat, travel across Europe, buy new sails for a regatta... now you’re into elite level and the ordinary Joe Soap can’t afford it.”
Harte cites the example of regular Irish sailors on normal day-to-day incomes who trail their boats to championships around Ireland quite happily and have real talent but can’t ever contemplate moving to the next level. “90% of them won’t be able to afford to go off and do an Olympic campaign.”
Meanwhile, Schull played host to a fleet of 33 RS dinghies last weekend that saw Bob Espey and Tiffany Brien secure the 2016 National Championships in the RS400 fleet while Neil Spain and Shane Hughes won the RS200 class.
The West Cork sailing venue will also be host to the ISA All-Ireland Junior Sailing Championships on September 24 and 25 at to be sailed in FMOEC TR 4.2 class two-person dinghies.
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