From here. . . to there
EILEEN BATTERSBYponders Charles II and The Wind in the Willows
ROYALTY STOICALLY AGREE that one finds leisure demanding. Aside from all those exhausting wardrobe changes, there are the skills to be learned: standing up straight, playing polo, shooting and smiling.
Charles II (1630-1685) spent several years in exile after his father, Charles I, was beheaded in 1649. While Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Commonwealth ruled Britain, the slain monarch’s son searched for an additional hobby to complement his commitment to sex. He discovered yachting while living in the Netherlands. The Dutch navy had introduced light, fast, sailing vessels for pursuing pirates. Charles became interested in these “jaghts” and returned to England in 1660 aboard one. The merry monarch commissioned 24 yachts and soon the aristocracy as well as the court were enjoying sailing races.
Yachting became an official sport in 1851 and was included in the programme for the revival of the Olympics. But bad weather – do excuse my uncontrollable laughter – forced the organisers at the first modern Games in Athens in 1896 to cancel the sailing and rowing events.
Robert Erskine Childers (1870-1922), whose son would later become Ireland’s fourth president, had already published a bestselling thriller, The Riddle of the Sands (1903), when he was asked to select his wedding present. A fine yachtsman, Childers knew what he wanted. His future bride, Mary Alden Osgood (Molly), was the daughter of a wealthy Boston surgeon who was happy to buy the couple a yacht. Childers knew what he wanted. In 1904, he approached Colin Archer, a renowned Norwegian marine architect and master shipwright whose Larvik yard near Oslo was a place of pilgrimage for serious yachtsmen. Within a year, Childers collected his dream boat, the sleek ketch, Asgard, or “home of the Gods” in Norse.
Childers and his wife enjoyed sailing her on ambitious Baltic cruises.
Then history intervened. Childers became involved in Irish nationalist politics and in July 1914 sailed into Howth carrying German guns for the Irish Volunteers. He then joined the British navy and was decorated. Opposed to the treaty, he fought on the republican side in the Civil War and was executed by the Free State government.
Childers’ widow sold Asgard six years later and the boat was to spend long periods in dry dock before finally being recognised as a national symbol. She became Ireland’s first training vessel.
As the word “yachting” was considered elitist, the sport was renamed “sailing” for the 1996 Olympics.
What’s in a name? Having begun life in 1973 as the Whitbread Round the World Race and taking place eight times under that title, the Volvo Ocean Race was born in 2005 when the Swedish car manufacturer stepped in as the event’s new sponsor. The exciting closing stages of the 2011-2012 series were decided earlier this week, with Groupama crowned the overall winner.
With amphibious conditions prevailing in Ireland we could perhaps learn to embrace incessant rain by heeding Ratty’s immortal words, uttered with dreamily compelling conviction in The Wind in the Willows (1908): “There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats. ” Squelch.