Ocean racing yachts leave feelgood factor in their wake

Mon, Jun 8, 2009, 01:00

More than 600,000 spectators were in Galway over two weeks for the Volvo race, writes LORNA SIGGINS

PERHAPS IT was all that adulation and force-feeding by Good Food Ireland, perhaps it was the thought of the royalty bill for its anthem, Mundy’s Galway Girl.

Either way, Irish-Chinese Volvo ocean race entry Green Dragon couldn’t wait to set sail again for Sweden at the weekend, sprinting off the Galway Bay start line with a commanding lead to the Fastnet Rock.

“Revelling” in a force seven northeasterly, the fleet of seven round-the-world yachts had “flown their kites” – as in setting their spinnakers – for the downwind start of the race’s eighth leg off Mutton Island and Salthill.

After a two-leg loop over four nautical miles, they were out beyond the Aran Islands and heading for south for the Blaskets.

“Can you believe that there were a few spectator boats out at midnight at the Fastnet Rock in over 25 knots of wind?” remarked Green Dragon skipper Ian Walker yesterday as the fleet reached across the Irish Sea on course for Land’s End and the English Channel. Hundreds of spectators had defied the changing weather conditions on Saturday to line the shoreline. Provisional figures suggest that the event will have attracted more than 600,000 spectators during the Galway Volvo festival fortnight.

Once again, there were more than 100 boats, ribs, even windsurfers and several currachs afloat for the farewell, with shelter from the force seven conditions provided by the Naval Service flagship, LE Eithne. A “cup final” atmosphere was how Walker described it.

Addressing the crews before their departure, President Mary McAleese said their “extraordinary skill and resilience” had “inspired all of us”. She paid tribute to the organisers, to the hundreds of volunteers and to the “people of Galway who took this ocean race to their hearts”.

The Chinese ambassador to Ireland Liu Biwei spoke of his enthusiasm for the Irish-Chinese twinning, and the fleet was blessed by Canon Maureen Ryan, Pastor Tim Cummings and Fr Dick Lyng.

Commentator Daithí Ó Sé was anxious to correct any impression that the Galway populace had turned out specially for the nocturnal fleet arrival two weeks earlier. “That was just the crowd for first Sunday morning Mass,”he quipped.

A cheerful crew of 14 local schoolchildren escorted the seven skippers to their vessels, and threatening showers held off until most of the fleet had slipped from pontoons in the docks. They left the lock gates just in time for a fly-past by the Air Corps.

“Can you believe it – the boats go, the rain comes,” one Spanish supporter of Telefonica Black exclaimed.

Even as the course was set for the “teardrop of Ireland” off west Cork, spectators were recalling that it was only weeks away from the 30th anniversary of the Fastnet yacht race which claimed 15 lives.

The 1,250 nautical mile leg to Marstrand in Sweden pursues a coastal route, with main challenges being busy shipping lanes in the English channel, tidal gates, shallows and sandbanks in the North Sea. The route involves a loop off the Hook of Holland – in deference to the Dutch entry Delta Lloyd – and first boats are expected in Sweden by the middle of this week.

“I think I want to move to Ireland,” US Puma skipper Kenny Read recorded from the boat yesterday. “It is always sunny (at least when we were there). The golf is amazing. The people couldn’t be nicer.

“You can get a pint of beer just about anywhere you turn and all we did was win races when we were there. And people wanted us to sign autographs and take photos with them all hours of the day. Hmmmm. What’s not to like about all of that?”

Delta Lloyd’s media crewman, Sander Pluijm, said: “Galway understands the Volvo Ocean Race. They took it and squeezed the best out of it. The city lived and breathed the race for two weeks in a row. . . If you asked me, all stopovers should be like this one.”

There is no guarantee that the round-world event will return to the west of Ireland, although plans are already being made to ensure it does.

Volvo Ocean Race chief executive and former round-the- world sailor Knut Frostad has said there will be fewer ports of call, a cap on competitor spending and greater emphasis on renewable energy in three years’ time.

Galway and Belfast are among more than 80 ports bidding for stopover status, and Mr Frostad said he “could not say” which if any of the bids would be successful. Bidders have to support a race entry and the organisers want to encourage larger fleets, with more young sailors and more women – it is 20 years since Ireland’s Angela Farrell crewed on the Tracy Edwards-skippered Maiden.