Monday, August 23, 2010

We're notty snotty yachties

Susan Daly finds out that it's easy to join the wet set in Howth as they gear up for one of the most prestigious events in the world's sailing calendar.

Saturday August 21 2010

Something big is coming to the salubrious harbour of Howth this week. Huge roadside signs welcome the Etchells World Championships 2010 at every few kilometres on the approach to the north Dublin village. The sailing event, which starts this weekend, is one of the most prestigious on the racing calendar and attracts the world's top sailors.

The only way to get to Howth Yacht Club without being shouted at by one of its bold, bright blue billboards is, ironically, to arrive by water.

It's clear there's something afoot in the newly expanded boat yard. Marine staff in high-vis jackets scurry between a line of gleaming white fibreglass hulls, propped up delicately on cushioned rests. One man is buffing a patch of hull to perfection with an electric polisher. These are the 30ft Etchells, racing machines so precious that they spend more time in dry dock than in the water.

Some have been shipped in containers from as far as Australia. "To take these boats around the world, it ain't cheap," says Graham Smith of Howth Yacht Club.

"There are a fair few who do this who are independently wealthy. Some sail for sailing-industry sponsors, who might even employ them because they have sailing skills and then can showcase the company's equipment at such an event."

If this was horseracing, this regatta would be the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe -- it boasts some of the world's fastest racing boats. But unlike the Parisian horse race, its location changes annually and this year intense lobbying by the Howth Yacht Club brought it to Ireland for the very first time. Another difference is that the prestige of winning it isn't matched by a whopping cash prize. The winners get a perpetual trophy and are obviously attractive to future sponsors but it's not really about the money.

"It's the Corinthian ideal," says a sailing insider. "Some of these guys have full-time jobs and no longer sail professionally. They do it to say they competed in one of the world's toughest races."

Whatever has happened to the 'wet set', to the gentle clinking of Pimms on the deck of one's yacht and dining at the Commodore's table?

"Oh there is still the salmon-coloured pants brigade around if you want that kind of yacht-club experience. You can get your Essex blazer, with your gold yacht-club buttons on it," says one club member, "but you're on the wrong side of the bay for that." He winks in a southerly direction.

Graham Smith mentions a few Irish clubs where swag-and-tails d├ęcor and shirt and ties after 7pm still reign. "There is that element in sailing for sure," he says. "My wife and I were in Monaco last year and I had to have my photo taken outside the Monaco Yacht Club. I walked over that threshold very gingerly, I can tell you. That's on a different social level altogether."

Howth chairman Berchmans Gannon never wears a tie unless he happens to come straight to the club from work. "You can always find people who don't agree with a dressed-down code. But they'd be the same people who would invite you to dinner in their house and expect you to wear a monkey suit."

Nonetheless, the local Chamber of Commerce is banking on the descent of landlubbers attracted by the perceived glamour of the Worlds, as the sailing fraternity calls it. They are organising a 'Howth is Magic' festival in tandem with next week's race schedule. Local high-end restaurants and hostelries are expecting to do serious business.

"We would expect some of the visiting sailors and their supporters to head for the very nice restaurants like King Sitric's and Aqua," says Smith.

While Howth Yacht Club is now housed in a utilitarian 1980s building with nautical-themed balcony overlooking the boat yard, Aqua has taken up residence in the original 1895 stone-fronted clubhouse over on the west pier. A floor-to-ceiling glazed extension allows punters to take in the sunset over Ireland's Eye and Lambay Island while keeping one eye on their dinner in the restaurant's new lobster tank.

Directly across the car park from Howth YC is Ivan's Oyster Bar and Grill House where diners can plump for fresh halibut for €28 per 200g, or retire to the oyster bar for half-a-dozen Clarinbridges for €12.50.

"We are anticipating being busier," says an Ivan's employee. "whenever there is a sailing event, it tends to make things busier anyway. People like to sit at the tables outside with their fruits de mer and champagne or glass of Guinness."

Smith adds: "It's not all competitive sailing. Some boats here might never leave the marina. Their owners might like to sit on them on a Sunday and have their glass of wine and invite their friends on."

The more fairweather fans might include the 'racer chasers', a breed of young women who apparently love sailors as much as they do sailing. "SWAGs," one young yacht club member dubs them in a hopeful voice.

Howth will be bracing itself for a sea of 'Dubes' (Dubarry deck shoes), Helly Hanson rainjackets, Musto khaki trousers and -- dead giveaway of the aspirational yacht hanger-on -- Hunter boots. Designer Jimmy Choo recently collaborated with Hunter to produce a pair of €300 waterproof boots.

"It wouldn't be as bad as the football WAGs," says Laura Dillon, one of about three women helming one of the 44 Etchells in the coming World Championships. "But spectators and supporters are always welcome."

There is more than a general air of welcome in the sailing set these days. Howth Yacht Club this year dropped its hefty joining fee -- membership of what is the largest yacht club in the country is now around €800.

"That's lower than most golf clubs," says Gannon. "We did see a rise in membership but it was because the publicity made people realise they could be a member. We had people come and say, 'I thought you had to know someone to get in'."

Gannon himself is not from a sailing family. "My kids introduced me to it. They were doing lessons with their classmates and my wife said to the club that they should do adult lessons and we both did them."

Former Olympic sailor Dan O'Grady is the top qualifier for the Etchells and one of 12 Irish helmsmen in the 44 competing next week. "There is a presumption that you have to be second or third generation but my parents didn't sail," he says. "My brother did a bit and I kept it up."

Laura Dillon says it's not necessary to be rich to set sail. "Typically it does cost money to own a boat but those owners are always looking for crew and there's a huge opportunity to get sailing that way. I typically sail on a 40ft boat every Wednesday night that needs 10 to 12 people to crew it."

James O'Callaghan, performance director of the Irish Sailing Association's Olympic Programme, points out that the ISA and the Sports Council have put a lot of money into national training programmes for children. "You have hundreds of children in these sailing summer camps," he says. "And for coastal areas, they're just like GAA camps. We have people on our top squads now whose parents never sailed. It's not elitist."

Sailing might well win over the general public if O'Callaghan's charges carry on as they have been and bring home an Olympic medal. Last week, Irish youngster Peter O'Leary beat 10 former Olympic medalists in the highly competitive Star keelboat class at the Weymouth London 2012 venue.

Dan O'Grady and his two crew, Paul and Andy, took me out in his zippy Etchell for a friendly club race. It is exhilarating, it's hard work -- and it's about as far from sipping G&Ts in a deck lounger as you're likely to get.

O'Grady noticeably wore a very battered pair of soft runners to sail in.

"If I was trendy, I'd send off to England for the Hunters," he laughs. He does not own a pair of salmon-coloured pants.


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