Bonfires and bubbly as race winners rock Galway docks


DISTANT TWINKLES in the darkness.

An optical illusion.

An interplanetary landing off Salthill . . .

As the crew of Naval Service ship LE Niamh watched the spiralling lights in Galway Bay early yesterday morning, some of the officers were lost for words.

The ship’s search beams were set on the Volvo Ocean Race finish line between a committee boat and a large white buoy west of Mutton island, when the first port masthead light approached.

It was just after 1.35am. Flash lights from cameras and phones lit up the mainsail.

“Try the Morse lamp!” directed Lieut Cdr Paddy Harkin, and within seconds, Spanish/New Zealand entry Camper was caught in the beam.

Only minutes separated the first four in the six-boat fleet, as it swept up the northern shoreline in light south-southeasterly winds.

There to greet them off Barna was a motley flotilla of yachts, ribs and currachs, most of whom gleefully ignored Garda and Naval Service attempts to maintain a 150m-wide exclusion zone.

Bonfires had been lit on Bun Gabhla and Dún Dubhcathair on Inis Mór, and strobes flickered like will o’ the wisps over the harbour.

Camper, final leg leader from Lorient, was just over a mile ahead of Groupama close to the finish, with Kerryman Damian Foxall still about to celebrate his first overall Volvo race win.

US entry Puma Mar Mostro lay close astern in third, finishing at 1.55am local time. A dejected Team Telefónica, which had such high hopes in the early stages of the 39,000 nautical mile passage, was a mere four minutes and 33 seconds behind.

“Watch your ears!” Lieut Cdr Harkin warned his crew above the bridge, as he sounded the ship’s horn over the water. There were loud roars, the rattle and hum of sails being lowered, and Groupama skipper Franck Cammas, who has just completed his first Volvo, punctured the night air with his fist.

Last time a French team entered the Volvo Ocean Race, it was with a boat skippered by the late Eric Tabarly in 1993-94. It has not won the event since 1986.

Two ribs (rigid inflatable boats) from the LE Niamh provided the escort through the lock gates, which had been opened three hours before high tide by harbourmaster Capt Brian Sheridan.

Ian Walker’s Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing and Team Sanya were still several hours south.

Sea Scouts formed a parade of honour for the crews coming ashore, where champagne flowed and a high-decibel Volvo Ocean Race stage compere hadn’t quite gauged the temperature.

“I don’t know what I’m roaring at,” laughed one Roscommon student, there for the night with friends. Alcohol had been banned from the docks area, but glass and cans littered the waterfront as the patience of gardaí, security, Civil Defence and voluntary marshals was put to the test.

US skipper Ken Read, who had been besotted with the port last time on Puma, roused the crowd – “you can’t cheer for shit, Galway!” he said, and Galway got its own back. Those with stamina stayed on for the last two competitors, and were repaid when Abu Dhabi crew member Adil Khalid appeared.

The Galway race finish involves an in-port race on Saturday, but the organisers describe Groupama’s 24-point clear margin as an “unassailable lead”.

Relentless rain dampened spirits yesterday, but by late evening the cloud cleared and President Michael D Higgins took to the stage.

Welcoming the skippers, crews and their families before the Saw Doctors rocked the docks, Mr Higgins spoke of “a connection between Galway and the ocean that is as old as time itself”.

The crew’s journey through four oceans and five continents was one of “challenges, strenuous demands, difficult and worrying moments”.

“And times, I am sure, when crews were tested to the limit and maybe even, for a moment, felt like giving up,” he said.

“However, you did not . . you kept on pushing yourselves . . . until that end line was in sight.”