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Race report: ‘Maybird’, Round Ireland Race, 2018

In this post, skipper Darryl Hughes reports on the achievements of ‘Maybird’ in the 2018 Volvo Round Ireland Race: she is the oldest boat to complete the race in its history, the only gaffer to finish and took the longest time to complete the course in 2018.

‘Maybird’ has wintered in Crosshaven, County Cork since successfully completing the Rolex Fastnet Race in 2011. Given her Irish roots: she was built by an Irishman, for an Irish owner, in an Irish boatyard, it was inevitable that the Volvo Round Ireland Race (VRIR) would beckon. Her retirement in the 2016 race only served to increase the resolve of  the crew to complete the race in 2018. The VRIR has a rhumb-line distance of 708 miles, some 30 miles longer than the Rolex Fastnet Race. The first race,  in 1980, is now held bi-annually and is organized jointly by Wicklow Sailing Club and the Royal Ocean Racing Club (RORC).  The course is a clockwise circuit of Ireland starting and finishing at Wicklow on the east coast leaving “Ireland and her islands to starboard with the exception of Rockall which is left to port”. Prevailing winds blow from the SW requiring much windward sailing to the Fastnet Rock rewarded by a broad reach along the spectacular west coast. Tides are a major factor from the entrance to Lough Swilly in the north clockwise around to Rathlin Island and southwards to Tuskar Rock in the south east. Currently about fourty to fifty boats take part. The fastest boats complete the race between 3 and 5 days in “normal” conditions. As ‘Maybird’ was built by Jack Tyrrell in Arklow, County Wicklow in 1937 it was appropriate that half of the 8 crew were members of Arklow Sailing Club. Another crew member sailed on ‘Asgard II’, the former Irish sail training vessel built by Jack Tyrrell. The crew formed two watches: Tyrrell and Asgard. Watch durations were four hours with dog-watches added in each day for variety. It was predominantly a Celtic crew: six Irish, one Welsh and one Irish-American. Flahavan’s porridge oats (Waterford) , Barry’s tea (Kinsale), bara brith (Betws-y-Coed) and peanut butter and jam (guess who!) were the most popular items on the victuals list!

Our mission was to sail ‘Maybird’ as well as we could around the course ensuring that we crossed the finish line. Lt Col WCW Hawkes DSO, ‘Maybird’s first owner, we felt sure would have relished sailing in the race had it existed in his lifetime. Born in Passage, Cork in 1872, Hawkes was a career soldier in the Indian Army retiring in 1921. He learnt to sail as a boy on Cork harbour, was a serial boat owner and a founder member of the Irish Cruising Club. Jack Tyrrell also, we felt sure, would have been keen to have one of his boats in the race given his building of Francis Chichester’s ‘Gypsy Moth III’ and his membership of RORC. Fred Shepherd, ‘Maybird’s designer, although mainly known as a designer of cruising yachts also designed Lexia, the first British boat home in the 1931 Fastnet Race. So, we reckoned Fred would be up for it aswell! With the spirits of  Messrs Hawkes, Shepherd and Tyrrell looking down on us we made for the start line. The weather forecasts were not in our favour. Ireland like the UK was experiencing lashings of high pressure in June 2018. The wind was forecast to have lots of north in it at the start of the race which favoured us. However, once a cold front passed through, which would generate more wind, thereby helping the faster boats up the west coast, the forecast for us was very light northerlies/variable winds as we tackled the west coast. We had provisioned for 7 days at sea but on the basis of the latest forecast put more victuals and water aboard for potentially another 3 days. While the “proper” race boats were removing their heavy weather sails to reduce weight we were piling more victuals and water aboard.

The first 24 hours of the race saw us becalmed off Ballycotton Bay in Cork. We had run some 120 miles and made good progress. The faster boats were 70 miles ahead approaching the Fastnet LH. The wind when it re-appeared still had lots of north in it  so at the end of Day 2 we were abeam of the Bull west of the Mizzen passing the iconic Fastnet LH at 0700hrs that morning. The cold front passed through giving decent wind to the majority of the fleet now tacking up the west coast.  Day 3, 4 and 5 were our toughest days as the wind subsided into light and variable northerlies and we struggled to get ‘Maybird’s 15 tonnes moving through the water in the direction we wanted to go. After numerous becalmings at the end of Day 5 we were stationary again, this time abeam of the Eeragh LH on the west of Inishmore, the largest of the Aran Isles. We referred to these becalmings as Samuel Beckett moments recalling the Irish playwright’s words “I must go on. I can’t go on. I will go on”. In addition to Beckett’s stoicism the other thing that kept spirits up was that Slyne Head, regarded as the half way mark was just 30 miles away and once rounded it was shorter to keep going than to turn around to get back to Wicklow! On Day 6 spirits rose on the good ship ‘Maybird’ for two reasons. One, we had rounded Slyne Head and two, the light and variable northerly wind now backed west and increased a knot or two, which meant that for the first time in 4 days we could point towards where we wanted to go and the wind strength improved. The end of Day 6 found us some 10 miles west of Inishbofin. Day 7 saw us ticking off: Achill Head, Black Rock LH, the Inishkea Islands, Eagle Island and Erris Head and shaping a course across Donegal Bay bound for Tory Island. At the end of Day 7 our position was some 18 miles SW of Aranmore Island. Spirits rose further aboard as the wind had more south in it so we could fly the asymmetric from the end of the bowsprit and also fly the fifty year old mizzen staysail.

We reckoned Messrs Hawkes, Shepherd and Tyrrell were able to pull a few strings with the god Aeolus as when we approached Tory Island on Day 8 the wind acquired more north in it. The northerly wind kicked in as we passed the western LH on Tory which meant we could shape a course directly for the Tor Rocks, Ireland’s most northerly point abeam of Inishtrahull Island. The wind died later that day as we reached the tidal waters abeam of the Lough Foyle entrance. The combination of a foul tide and no wind resulted in our penultimate Beckett moment east of Culdaff Bay. Day 8 ended with the good ship ‘Maybird’ just 10 miles west of Rathlin Island’s western LH- the “upside down lighthouse,” becalmed in fog with visibility around 50 metres. This was our final Beckett moment. Day 9 witnessed Messrs Hawkes, Shepherd and Tyrrell still working the oracle with Aeolus persuading him to add a dash of east to the northerly wind. This appeared on cue as we rounded Rathlin Island in time to catch the famous tidal escalator south. As Maybird passed Altacarry Head LH on the east of Rathlin her SOG was 9 knots. This increased to 12 knots in the run between Fair Head and Torr Head. Maybird was sailing like the proverbial  “dose of salts passing through a cormorant” to quote Wallace Clark. A south going tide and a NE wind produced flat seas in the North Channel which found us abeam of Burial Island just a few miles north of Portavogie by the end of Day 9.

With the finish just 115 miles away the crew’s spirits were not dashed at all when we ran out of water on Day 10. The wind remained in the NE and we made excellent progress off Dundalk Bay. That evening resulted in many gybes in order to navigate around a 40 vessel strong fishing fleet. By the following dawn we had left Rockabill and Lambay islands to starboard and had to stem a foul tide abeam of Howth and the Bailey LH as we entered Dublin Bay. We were not sure if the Kish LH was a mark of the course as it is a man made structure and not one of Ireland’s natural islands so decided to leave it to starboard, to be sure, to be sure. We crossed back to the Wicklow shore at the East Kish Bank port hand mark on a full tide  so we had a generous 4.5 metres of water under the keel. We had maintained our watch system with the rigour of one of  the Royal Navy’s Masters at Arms but with the finish just three hours  away it fell apart as all crew members engaged in trying to get the last ounce of speed out of ‘Maybird’ even goose-winging the jib and the staysail at one stage.

We crossed the finish line just after midday on Day 10 having taken 9 days, 22 hours and 35 minutes to complete the course. The winning boat finished in just under 4 days and the bulk of the J109 fleet finished between 5 and 6 days. We had thought that as we were the last boat to finish we would have to take our own time and might get a wave from someone walking his dog on Wicklow pier if we were lucky. How wrong we were. As we approached the pier we were amazed to see over 100 people applauding as we crossed the line. Wicklow Sailing Club (WSC) committee welcomed us ashore, took our lines, organized berthing and cooked us breakfast in their club! Roisin Hennessy, the Vice Commodore of WSC and Chair of the VRIR committee joined us aboard with champagne as soon as we came alongside having first ascertained that we did indeed finish with the 8 crew that we had started with! Pat the Post recorded ‘Maybird’ for posterity, as the first gaff rigged boat to complete the VRIR, on the pier wall. We raised a glass to Messrs Hawkes, Shepherd and Tyrrell in the sailing club bar that afternoon and thanked them for designing and building Maybird back in 1937 and for the strings they pulled with Aeolus after Day 5 to get us back to Wicklow.

Darryl Hughes, Dublin Bay member of the OGA