Three women on a wave
Minke whales and icebergs the size of Howth Head aren’t enough to stop some people taking to the sea. MARY RUSSELLmeets three remarkable women sailors to find out what drives them back to the ocean
‘You want somone who manages with, but not by, consensus
For Pat Barker, the moment came during her 6am watch. “We were sailing up towards Greenland. It was cold but bright. Suddenly we came on a pod of minke whales – about 250 of them – stretching away as far as the eye could see. We watched them for about half an hour. It was magical,” she says.
The Greenland voyage, made during the summer months, took her up among the icebergs. “Some are as big as Howth Head,” she says, “not anything you would want to collide with.”
It had started off disastrously when, leaving harbour, a jubilee clip connecting the pipe to the header tank came away and human effluent gushed out all over her. “Up to your oxters in s*** is one way of putting it, and it’s not at all funny even now,” she says in the quiet of the Library Bar in Dublin’s Central Hotel.
Fresh from a meeting and wearing a smart suit, she currently lectures on an ethics course at Dublin City University. It’s a far cry from life on board a 32-foot cruiser where you had to hot bed between watches and where meals came frozen and prepacked.
What is it that draws her to the sea?
“My zodiac sign is cancer and we cancerians tend to gravitate towards water. When I was five, I started learning to sail out of Clontarf. Myself and my brother would go out with anyone who would take us.”
An experienced sailor she has also sailed around the Antarctic – she has clear ideas on what makes a good skipper. “You want someone capable of making a decision and who manages with, but not by, consensus. And to crew, you need to be able to get on with people even when they’re kicking you out of your berth to go on a 3am watch.
‘Being on a boat was the one place where men and women could be equal’
The best thing about a long passage is that when you see something coming, you can get out of the way. You move with the weather so it’s never a threat.
Clodagh Cullen should know: last summer she sailed into Kinsale from Trinidad via Antigua and the Azores on a 38-foot yacht. “It took a month to get ready,” she says. “I had three foolscap pages of data about the work that had to be done. We carried 35 litres of fresh water for making tea and cooking but we washed the dishes and ourselves with salt water.”
Leaving Trinidad, the engine died. Does she know about marine engines, I ask. “I do now,” she replies.
As skipper, she had to pick her crew carefully. “You look for agility and ability, people who won’t be afraid when the weather picks up. People who can trust the power of the boat.” She flew her own crew out from Ireland to join her. The boat is her cottage. Below, books and a few cushions convey a comforting sense of home which is what she wants. “If you get things right below, it’ll be fine on deck.”
She started sailing 20 years ago, in her 20s, when her brother-in-law took her out. Then she joined Dublin’s historic Poolbeg Yacht Club and started to win her races which is when she knew she had to have her own boat. I realised that being on a boat was the one place where men and women could be equal. What about superior male strength? She shrugs. “You use the power of the winch.”
The 22-day passage from Antigua to Azores was the most magical experience. Once they had got to latitude 35, the wind was perfect. There were long days of reading and occasional chat. The three main events in the day, she says, were meal times. The watches were three hours on and six off.
Now, back on land, still racing with Poolbeg Yacht Club – she’s thinking of sailing solo. That needs forward planning. “You have to have everything in the cockpit. You can’t be running below the whole time.” She doesn’t know yet where she’ll go, just that she’ll be going alone.
FIRST IRISH ALL-FEMALE CREW IN THE ROUND IRELAND YACHT RACE
‘At the end of the day, it’s toughness that counts’
When her boys were small she used to put them in a dinghy, sail from Howth to Ireland’s Eye, fry up some sausages and sail home again. Did they know, I wonder, that their mother had made sailing history? In 1988, Gerry Eickholt, then Moran, crewed for Romaine Cagney on the Round Ireland Yacht Race – the first Irish all-female crew to do so. Four years later she skippered her own all-female boat and came 13th out of 60. She first got into a boat when her 15-year-old brother took her, aged four, around Lambay Island and back again. “We were all water babies,” she says, “getting our sailing badges like the scouts and when the weather was bad, the instructor taught us how to play poker.”
By the time she was 20, she was totally locked into racing and people started asking her to co-helm. Sailing, for her, is a form of meditation. “You’re quiet, watching for squalls coming and the wind changing the whole time.” She has done all the tough stuff. Once, when her ponytail became entangled in the runners, one of the (male) crew shouted: “Cut the f***ing thing off”.
Is gender still an issue, I ask. “Well, men tend to shout more while women tend to be kinder to each other, but that’s a generalisation. At the end of the day, it’s toughness that counts. Sailing off the Donegal coast in a storm, with the danger of getting caught in a trawler’s steel nets, there’s no faking it then.”
Has physical strength ever been an issue for her? “Never. There’s no need. Winches are all hydraulic.”
Now, she and her 14-year-old son sometimes sail out of Howth. “We just mooch along looking at the wind or the guillemots, happy as pigs in s***.”
WANT TO SET SAIL?
IRELAND IS awash with sailing schools and clubs. Find one near you at the Irish Sailing Association (ISA) website, sailing.ie.
Make sure the courses offered meet ISA or Royal Yachting Association (RYA) requirements.
Courses are usually of one week’s duration or possibly two weekends and cost between €500 and €700.
Alternatively, join a club which also offers courses. You can then put your name on its “crew wanted” list either on a notice board or on the club’s website.
You’ll need boots and/or deck shoes, foul-weather gear and a buoyancy aid. Some of these come cheaper at the end of the sailing season.