'A loveable-hateable class of a yoke'
Lola Leech’s boat, a Shannon One Design that is now 90, was her teammate when she became the first woman to sail in Ireland’s longest inland race
SHE WORE HER school gabardine over her báinín jumper and tennis shoes, which got soaked. When Lola Leech became the first woman to sail in the longest inland race on these islands, she had no buoyancy in her boat and no lifejacket on her back.
“And neither did anyone else,” she says of the crews on the fleet of SODs, or Shannon One Designs, in the 1953 race. As for sustenance during the 90km route upriver, “Well, I had a few bars of chocolate in my pocket . . .”
This year’s event, which takes place today, has attracted Olympians and world champions. Leech says the best viewpoint for the race is at Athlone lock at about noon.
She was 19 years old when she first took on the challenge, and had been sailing for more than five years at that stage. Growing up by the Shannon, she had taken to the single-sail craft, which she had seen on the water. She knew her father had one in the shed.
“He had got it in place of a bad debt for £3 10s from a man who was emigrating to Canada and who had used it latterly to store potatoes,” she says. “So he took it out, around 1948, and taught me how to sail. I had to wear trousers made by a dressmaker, as you couldn’t buy them off the shelf back then.”
As the longest inland artery on these islands, the Shannon has many indigenous craft, such as the gandelow estuary fishing boat and the turf cot – both now the focus of a revival in boatbuilding skills. The SOD is the oldest dinghy class in the world after the clinker-built Water Wags; the wags marked their 125th anniversary this month in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin.
The craft owes its origins to post-war discussions between the dinghy sailors of Lough Ree and Lough Derg. Lough Ree YC, where Leech was to become the first female commodore, was founded in 1770. That makes it the second-oldest yacht club in the world after Royal Cork, in Crosshaven.
“Being a garrison town, Athlone had a fair share of military who were involved in sailing, along with wealthy landowners living around the lake,” she says.
Designer Morgan Giles came up with an 18ft model, and a trial boat was commissioned from boatbuilder Water Levinge. By 1922, about nine of the craft had been built at a cost of £37 each; four times the average price of a lake boat.
Soon it was the focus of week-long regattas, which each of the lake clubs hosted back to back. Quidnunc, alias the Irish Times diarist Seamus Kelly, became a fan of what he described as a “tender, tricky, fast, loveable-hateable class of a yoke”, sailed by a “bunch of people who have inherited the addiction over four or five generations”.
The long-distance race began for practical reasons in 1953, to save on road transport between the regattas. For the first few years the course was upriver, between Derg and Ree, which meant coping with currents in addition to navigating bridges.
The 90km over two days involved up to 1,000 tacks. It was exhausting, Leech says. “I remember how at Clonmacnoise the wind dropped and we had to take out paddles, and then we went aground at one point and I mutinied, refusing to get out of the boat.”
She was one of two crew. “At Banagher, the midway point, someone dropped a bottle of gin off the bridge to us. I was told to try it out . . . Anything would have tasted good at that stage. But we won that race, and the next boat was actually within five minutes of us, which was quite extraordinary.”
She won her second race in her own boat, SOD33, which is 90 years old this year. “It was a shortened course, as we ran out of wind. There were no safety boats with us at all, and a lake boat with a six horsepower engine would take a while to get to you, so the boats tended to help each other out if anyone capsized.”
Her son John says that even now, with the best of gear and lifejackets and safety Ribs, the race is an arduous affair, with as many challenges onshore because of the number of hostelries en route. “You are sitting on a three-and-a-half inch gunwale with only a toestrap, and a 140 square foot gunter-rigged sail, and you need good teamwork to keep control,” he says.
As Guy Venables of Classic Boat magazine noted last year, those without the right muscles can find themselves with “gunwale butt”.
There are now three generations of SOD sailors in the Leech family, and such is the boat’s attraction that the former Olympian Cathy McAleavey, whose daughter Anne-Lise Murphy is competing in London this year, has been constructing her own craft with the Roscommon boatbuilder Jimmy Furey. It is due to be launched any week now.