Image of the sport here needs makeover

Fri, Jul 27, 2001, 01:00

Anyone listening to Anne-Marie Hourihan's excerpt from her book She Moves Through the Boom on RTE Radio last week could easily be forgiven for finding confirmation of the popular image of sailing as elitist and irrelevant. Her commentary focused on Dun Laoghaire clubs in particular, but clearly the suspicion must be that the author has spent little time afloat - if at all.

Of course, on their own her observations are simply a passing, and perhaps overly glib, commentary on the traditional image of sailing in Ireland. In another way, it typifies the mainstream media's approach to sailing, which fails to dig beneath the popular misconceptions.

The references to religious persuasions and various personal inclinations are hardly relevant; but the inaccuracy in stating that mid-week racing is all but dead due to office-workers remaining traffic-locked in the city-centre should be challenged.

Dublin Bay Sailing Club runs the largest racing operation in Europe, and while numbers have not exploded with "the boom", anyone who sails from one of the four established clubs can testify to the hundreds of participants on any mid-week evening, all clamouring to make the most of the daylight before autumn draws in.

Curiously, Hourihan refers to the popular sailing suppers serving hamburgers while failing to note that such fare flies in the face of the traditional snobby image of these clubs.

Sadly, she also misses the point completely of the enormously successful junior programmes that have not only introduced young people to the sea, but have also provided useful holiday occupations at a time when young people are being bombarded with messages suggesting less wholesome activities.

Of course, elements within the media and elsewhere will cite such junior courses as being typical of the elitist establishments that these clubs must be.

More responsible commentators might dig slightly deeper to discover that more children are introduced to sailing by Alistair and Arthur Rumball from their Coal Harbour base through their Irish National Sailing School than all the local clubs combined. Some 5,000 children from all walks of life enjoy this annually, and that doesn't count other community based programmes.

Here, youngsters go afloat in a safe and instructive environment just as those from the clubs and other sailing centres around the coast do.

Once on a boat, most discover that the old adage of the sea being the great leveller applies - sooner or later. The gifts of independence, survival, team-work and plain social fun follow regardless of what boat is sailed.

But Hourihan is content to use an apparently off-the-cuff remark from a club employee that junior training is "the most expensive baby-sitting service in the world" as the basis for fact. It would seem more like value for money, judging by the thousands of parents who year after year send their children afloat. A five-day course for a child can be as little as £125.

However, there can be no smoke without fire, and the twin challenges of providing access to the water and changing "old-Ireland" attitudes remain the biggest obstacles to the development of the sport in Ireland.

To go sailing, money helps but is not essential. Too many owners and partnered boats are crying out for committed crew that only need sea-boots, oilskins and a life-jacket to enjoy the sport for it to be said that sailing is closed.

Meanwhile, testimony to an effort made nearly 40 years ago to develop the sport in Britain can be witnessed at Howth from next week.

Up to 150 Mirror dinghy crews gather to decide their annual World Championship title, with entries expected from Ireland, Britain, Netherlands, Australia, South Africa and Sweden.

The concept of the Mirror dates to 1964 when the newspaper of the same name adopted the design to prove that sailing could be accessible to the ordinary person.

Originally intended as a "go-anywhere" home-build boat, the Mirror coincided with the explosion of sailing in bigger boats thanks to the advent of GRP, a product of second World War technological advances.

The Mirror could be sailed or rowed by families on lakes, rivers or at sea, towed or racked by a car, stored at home or in a dinghy park. A small outboard engine could be added as well.

Anyone walking by major sailing venues in this country can easily identify the Mirror with its red-sails and squared bow-section. In recent times, a hi-tech configuration has resulted in first-rate racing.

National champion Marty Maloney from the Royal Cork YC heads the Irish contingent, drawn from a fleet of 500 boats nationwide.

Other favourites for the Datalex sponsored event include Dave Gebhard (UK), the current European & British Champion, Siera Jacobs (South Africa) - fifth at the 1999 Worlds.