Crowds gather as regatta pushes the boat out


HOW MANY 10-year-olds does it take to row a quarter-tonne wooden boat through the sea? Four, and a very loud cox, was the answer from the skiff races at the Wicklow Regatta yesterday.

Crowds of up to 3,000 watched 63 crews of children and adults race in 11 divisions using a centuries-old boat design.

“This is our 133rd year, it’s one of the oldest racing festivals in Ireland,” said Wicklow Rowing Club president Kit Dunne. “The boats are made from silver spruce and are all handmade.”

Powering between smaller pleasure craft, the skiffs look workmanlike and sturdy. Once the most commonly seen boat in Irish harbours, they were used by “hobblers” to race out to ships for the piloting fee. A monument on Dún Laoghaire pier to three hobblers who drowned in 1934 is a reminder of that history.

Boats can cost up to €20,000 to make so fundraising is a key part of this family-orientated sport.

In spite of threatening clouds, the harbour slowly filled during the day.

Dolores Fox from Dún Laoghaire comes every year to sell hot dogs. “My father had a stall here for years so we come down now in his memory. Sales are bad today compared to other years – I’d say it’s the recession,” she said, “but as long as it stays dry, it’ll be a good day.”

Seniors raced in a 2.7km (two-mile) circuit while the under-12s struggled out for 700m (0.4 miles). Children row in the same boats as adults but do not use the 16ft oars. Nine-year-old Zoe Doyle from St Patrick’s Rowing Club in Dublin said: “I like the racing part. It’s hard work but we have kids’ oars so we can do it.”

Paula Murphy, this year’s regatta queen, raced in the junior ladies competition.

“I’m rowing today, and then presenting the trophies in the evening,” she said before the race.” If we win, I’ll have to present myself with a cup.”

But it didn’t all go her way as Arklow took that trophy.

By the time the senior races lined up, the crowd was three- deep on the narrow pier, making viewing almost as difficult as rowing. Smarter families picnicked along the harbour wall.

Tommy Smyth was there with his family. “We live in the town but this is the only day we come to the harbour. This is the only rowing we see, it’s great.”

Other boat owners joined the festival in the evening when a priest and minister from local churches braved the waters in a lifeboat for a blessing ceremony.

Rower Gabriel Murphy from St Patrick’s said: “The blessing is very important to us. The lifeboat is our saviour really.”

The races are the highlight of a two-week festival. Earlier at the weekend Special Olympian Aisling Beacom swam in the 2km (1.24-mile) open-sea swim, coming second. The men’s race was won by a local, Ross O’Toole.