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The Lambay Race: Howth Sailing Club, 1921

Howth Sailing Club was founded in 1895, and its premier one-design class, the Howth Seventeens designed by club Commodore Herbert Boyd, was established in 1898. In 1899, a trophy was put up by Henry Stokes for the new class to race the 17 miles from Howth northward round the island of Lambay and return, passing westward of the smaller island of Ireland’s Eye both out and back, and leaving Lambay to port. But with a slowly evolving club programme, the first race round Lambay wasn’t staged until 1904. Since then, however, it has become the highlight of Howth’s annual season, includes all classes, and is raced in June.

This account of the race of 1921 appeared in the Yearbook of the Humber Yawl Club. A Yorkshire-based organization, it was a focus for enthusiasts who sailed the yawl-rigged cruising canoes of the type made famous by John MacGregor in the Victorian era. The club’s members were also supporters of the Yorkshire-based  designer Albert Strange (1855-1917), whose speciality was able gaff  yawl-rigged cruising yachts with canoe sterns, though he did also design sea-going craft of other types such as the hefty transom-sterned 47ft gaff cutter Tally Ho (1910), which won the stormy Fastnet Race of  1927. The Humber Yawl Club had members in Ireland, and two of the keenest were the Walshe brothers of the Royal Irish YC in Dun Laoghaire (then Kingstown), who were also members of Howth Sailing Club. Pat Walshe was so taken with the canoe yawl concept that in 1901 he had the promising young Dublin boatbuilder and designer John B Kearney. then aged only 21. design and build him a 16ft clinker canoe yawl, the ‘Satanella’, which over several summers he shipped to the Continent to cruise the rivers of France, Germany and the Low Countries in the glowing days of peace before the Great War.

He kept ‘Satanella’ for many years (she is now stored in the Ulster Folk & Transport Museum in County Down), but he also bought the little Albert Strange yawl ‘Sheila’ from the marine artist Robert E Groves, from whom in 1922 he then bought the larger ‘Sheila II’. Walshe remained an Albert Strange supporter, as his last yacht was the designer’s 7-ton counter-sterned yawl ‘Venture’. He was also much involved with the Irish Cruising Club (founded 1929), which he served as Honorary Secretary. But down the years the memory of this charming man is best evoked by this account he wrote for the Humber Yawl Club Yearbook of the 1921 Lambay Race, which he raced single-handed with ‘Sheila 1’.  In Ireland at the time, the War of Independence was drawing to a close (the truce was to be signed on 11 July 1921), thus Howth SC weren’t permitted to fire guns, and used a foghorn to signal the start.       

Lambay Race, 1921
No-one with an ounce of sea sense would call ‘Sheila I’ a racer. She is a cruiser with a full cruising outfit, and as such I do not know of any boat of her size for which I would willingly exchange her. In ordinary circumstances, racing does not make a strong appeal to me. But occasionally I feel its thrill, and especially when the course does not involve rounding a series of marks more than once. For this reason the annual race promoted by the Howth Sailing Club ‘Round Lambay’ has always held a fascination for me, but from various causes I have been unable to compete until the present year. The handicap entrants this year were of various types and sizes, and from several clubs:-
1. ‘Maureen’, cutter, Dublin Bay 21 (Sydney Orr) — scratch.
2. ‘Ainmara’, 9 tons, yawl, (J.B.Kearney), a fine full-bodied cruiser with excellent accommodation, designed and built by her owner — time allowed 2 minutes.
3. ‘Eithne’, 5 tons, sloop, (Sir W.H. Boyd), likewise designed and built by her owner — 11 minutes.
4. ‘Gretta’, 6.5 tons (S.T.Robinson), a sister-ship of Mr Strange’s ‘Cherub III’— 14 minutes.
5. ‘Marguerite’, 4 tons sloop (W.C.Tomlinson) similar to ‘Eithne’ — 16 minutes.
6. ‘Sheila’, 4 tons canoe-yawl (P.T.Walshe) — 20 minutes.
The handicaps were settled just prior to the start, and the corrected times made the handicapper immensely proud of himself.

I had crossed over from Kingstown to Howth on the morning of the race before a strong southwest wind, and though I did not set the mainsail, ‘Sheila’ tramped across in one and a half hours from mooring to anchorage. The weather conditions before the hour fixed for the start (2.30 pm) were such that a postponement was decided upon, especially as Lona III had just come in double reefed and reported that she had experienced heavy weather on the way from Skerries. At 3pm however there was a lull, and the preparatory horn was blown as the fleet streamed out of the harbour. In this ‘interesting’ island, we are not permitted to fire guns for yacht races. ‘Ainmara’ and ‘Gretta’ swaggered about with full lower sail, and ‘Marguerite’ had perforce to set whole mainsail (a new one) or spoil it by reefing. ‘Maureen’ and ‘Eithne’ had tucked in two reefs, and on ‘Sheila’ I had rolled up the equivalent of a reef and a half.

At the start, ‘Ainmara’ was nicely placed and she went off with a clear lead of ‘Gretta’, with ‘Sheila’ overlapping the latter. The other boats had miscalculated the strength of the flood tide, and being carried over had to return and recross. As I was single-handed in ‘Sheila’, I was doubtful of the wisdom of doing the full course, but her good start, and the apparent improvement in the weather, decided me to go on. Ireland’s Eye was quickly left on the starboard hand and we were now running almost dead before the wind for the Eastern point of Lambay. ‘Sheila’ is not fitted with runners, but her after shrouds come well aft, and it is not possible to square away the mainboom when running. This drawback (from a racing point of view) and the fact that, single-handed, I could not set the spinnaker, soon left ‘Sheila’ as whipper-in, but the conditions of this run were such that positions in the race mattered nothing, and the sheer delight of sailing overshadowed everything else. 

As we left the shelter of the land the short seas became longer and steeper, and the breaking tops were blown ahead in spindrift. A glorious sun in a blue sky across which clouds raced lit up the sails of the yachts ahead, and I saw that though their spinnakers were steadying them somewhat, they were rolling wing-and-wing to an exhilarating degree. Sheila’s sharp stern here justified itself, and only occasionally was it necessary to pull hard on the tiller. A glance astern showed me an even more enthralling sight. A string of seven 17-Footers, who started five minutes after the cruisers and were also bound ‘Round Lambay’, were silhouetted in the sun’s path, rising and shooting from crest to crest, and the manner in which they sank between the seas until nothing but the bellying sails were visible and then rose, bows out, on the following sea and shot ahead in a smother of foam, was a sight to gladden the heart of any man.

Lambay was near now, and we encountered a curious cross sea composed of Southerly roll, the Southwest chop, and the backwash from Lambay itself. For the moment I had my hands full to keep ‘Sheila’ on her course, but an occasional glance at the leading 17-Footers showed me they were now almost running under, and after the race one of the owners was to tell me that his boat frequently ran the foredeck under, but that the coaming of his cockpit was admirably designed to shoot off the intruding water. Shortly afterwards we were under the lee of Lambay, and in the smooth water preparations were made for hardening in all sheets in view of the close haul round the north end. One by one Sheila’s opponents disappeared round the N.E. corner of Lambay, and the manner in which they were flattened as they came on the wind gave me cause for earnest thought. At last Sheila’s turn came, and working furiously I got in the sheets as she luffed up. Promptly Sheila sat on her side, and I wriggled up on deck to study her behaviour. The sun had gone behind some black-looking clouds, and the sea had taken on a sullen leaden hue, relieved only by the breaking seas. Nursing her along in the heavy puffs, I found she was lying closer than any of the leading yachts, and I concluded that for the moment I must be favoured with a freer wind. Rounding the N.W. corner of Lambay we commenced to feel the full force of wind and sea, and though the wind was steadier when clear of the high land, Sheila’s angle of heel was too great for effective windward work. 

A decision had to be made at once as to whether I should heave her to, and roll up some more mainsail, or keep her going and shake her through the heaviest puffs. I decided on the latter, and though her list looked rather frightful, no water came over the cockpit coaming, and only an occasional squirt found its way through the hole in the coaming through which the jib sheet led. That matter settled, I was free to look round once more, and I saw that ‘Ainmara’ and ‘Maureen’ had fetched close over to Rush Harbour, and that ‘Gretta’ and ‘Marguerite’ were not far apart. ‘Ainmara’ and ‘Maureen’ crossed ‘Sheila’ a quarter mile to windward, but when I met ‘Gretta’ later I thought for a time I would clear her. This surprised me very much as she is bigger in every way than ‘Sheila’, but I concluded that with whole mainsail, ‘Gretta’ was sagging to leeward to a greater degree than ‘Sheila’. After a few minutes I saw that I could not clear ‘Gretta’, and as she had right of way, being on starboard tack, I spun ‘Sheila’ round to clear her lee bow, and settled down to test the ‘sagging’ theory. It proved correct, and I was relieved to find in a few minutes that ‘Gretta’ was content to go through my lee, which she did in no uncertain way.

At this time the 17-Footers were down to leeward on starboard tack, but I saw it would mean very tight pinching to weather Ireland’s Eye — even in Sheila’s position. Another board on port tack seemed the obvious thing to do, especially as every hundred yards on port tack meant smoother water and consequently greater speed. Round ‘Sheila’ came, and now the question was: ‘How about ‘Marguerite’?’ She also, I saw, was standing in on port tack and I knew that the famous Jack Wellington, who was on board her, would not do so unless he thought it would pay. We hammered through the spiteful little chop, spray flying half way up our mainsails and stinging our faces, and then ‘Marguerite’ came about. A careful look ar her told me that Sheila had caught her up, but that she would weather us without difficulty. As we approached her I saw the clew of her jib split up, and she was shaken up, while Jack jumped on deck to lower the sail.  ‘Sheila’ was now alone, and I put her about for the long leg to the finish. The wind eased off somewhat, and I considered the advisability of hauling the jib a-weather and unrolling some mainsail. Down to leeward some of the 17-Footers were shaking out one of their two reefs, and ‘Eithne’ was setting whole mainsail. I thought, however, that single-handed I would lose more ground in the process than I could make up subsequently, so I kept ‘Sheila’ going. Another burst of sunshine enlivened the scene, to be followed by a rain squall, during which the wind freed us a point or two. This was bad for ‘Sheila’ as it meant that the leeward boats might now weather Ireland’s Eye without breaking tack, and that Sheila’s last board on port tack was thrown away. Far away ‘Ainmara’ could be seen well listed and ramping along towards the finish, ‘Maureen’ with her two reefs being quite unable to hold her. Judging Ainmara’s lead, I came to the conclusion that she was safe for first prize, but that it would be a fairly close handicap finish. 

The question was whether ‘Sheila’ could save her time from ‘Gretta’ and ‘Eithne’. I thought she would, especially as both these boats were well down to leeward. 0n we raced, and I tried to take Ainmara’s time as she finished, but a rain squall blotted her out. When this burst cleared away, ‘Gretta’ and ‘Eithne’ were observed racing for the line, and as they had pinched to weather of Ireland’s Eye, I gave up hope of leading them home. In a last hard puff, ‘Gretta’ beat ‘Eithne’, and ‘Sheila’ followed across the line. As we entered the harbour we were told that ‘Ainmara’ had won by one and a half minutes from ‘Sheila’, ‘Gretta’ being placed third. Thus all three yawls had scored. The honours of the day lay clearly with the 17-Footers, however, as three of them finished before ‘Gretta’, ‘Eithne’ and ‘Sheila’, notwithstanding their later start. The 17-Footers are, however, mere shells and their crews were akin to drowned rats, whereas we were quite dry inside our ‘oilies’. The only casualty on ‘Sheila’ was a beautiful racing flag, showing a gold star on a royal blue ground, which Mrs Huntley (wife of Humber Yawl Club Flag Officer) had made and presented to the ship in commemoration of her visit to Ireland in 1911. It had suffered from a gradual but accelerating process of disintegration, and at the finishing line, as a ragged, waggling set of streamers, it bore no resemblance to its former resplendent self.

from the Yearbook of the Humber Yawl Club