Round-world visitors blown away as Galway puts on a gale-force greeting


VOLVO OCEAN RACE: “IS THE whole town here? Did anybody stay in bed in Galway tonight?” The words of Ian Walker, British skipper of the Irish-Chinese Volvo Ocean Race entry Green Dragon shortly after 4am yesterday, responding to a 10,000-strong dockside welcome.

“What are you going to do when we win the race?” Walker asked a delirious crowd.

His bewildered but beaming crewmates, including three Irishmen, Damien Foxall, Justin Slattery and Ian Moore, had fought hard and harder to secure a third place in the transatlantic leg of the 37,000-mile contest.

Arriving off an unlit Mutton island lighthouse just before dawn, only minutes and three nautical miles separated the US-backed Puma from Green Dragon and Spain’s Telefonica Blue. Leader, Swedish Ericsson 4 had swept in on a broad reach several hours before.

Dutch-Irish Delta Lloyd, which began as a late low-budget round-world yacht by Limerick sailor and Fastnet winner Ger O’Rourke, took fifth place, with Telefonica Black in its wake.

By the time the last Volvo 70, Ericsson 3, had docked around 7am, spectators on and off water were marvelling at how a mere five hours could separate the fleet after 2,500 miles.

Italian media crewman on Telefonica Blue, Gabriele Olivo, was in a state of mild shock. After days of deprivation and isolation, he had never seen such gay abandon on and off water, with several hundred boats in the bay between the Aran islands and the Claddagh.

“Our last very late night arrival on this race was into Singapore, and there was only one spectator boat,” the 31-year-old Italian recalled.

“Here . . . well, Galway is definitely more crazy”.

It had begun in the early hours yesterday, when chill westerly winds did not deter almost every seaworthy hull from being launched off piers and slipways from Clare to Connemara.

Shortly before 2am, Ericsson 4 emerged from Inis Oírr. Its Brazilian skipper, Olympic medallist Torben Grael, navigated the congested waterway as fireworks illuminated the city.

The exhausted crew had some problems lowering the mainsail.

At one point a rigid inflatable delivered aboard what looked to be a bag of hurley sticks. For a jammed halyard? “For the flying beer cans at the dock gates,” one race rib driver quipped.

If the visitors were blown away by the boisterous reception offshore, the ecstatic welcome on land left them lost for words. It was approaching high tide and the dock gates were open as they cruised into a port transformed temporarily into a cross between La Rochelle and the biggest nightclub in the west.

An emerald-green arc of fire from Nimmo’s Pier marked Green Dragon’s approach, eliciting applause from the crew. Fenders thrown on board by its supporting rib included something resembling a human – it was the harbourmaster, Capt Brian Sheridan, who took the helm through the narrow channel.

The heaving throng on the pontoons caused some small alarm. Green Dragon’s shore manager, Dubliner Johnny Smullen, had one of the most difficult tasks of the night, ensuring the boat was berthed and that no one ended up in the drink. Smullen was a crew member of Ireland’s last round-the-world race entry, NCB Ireland, which arrived home almost two decades ago.

Skipper Walker – soul charged with iron filings – embraced his wife, Lisa, and two daughters Zoe (7) and Emilia (5). Emilia bounced on his shoulders on stage to the tune of Mundy’s Galway Girl. Wexfordman Justin Slattery, clearly moved and wearing the strain of several oceans, couldn’t let go of his 19-month-old daughter Molly. Kerryman Damien Foxall retreated to embrace wife Suzy-Ann and son Oisín (2). Media crewman and cook Guo Chuan, thousands of miles from family, didn’t feel too homesick. Back in late January, he had been greeted like “Beckham” in his native Qingdao, China’s stopover port.

The fast downwind conditions in the north Atlantic had provided some of the most exhilarating racing, with fog, lobsters pots, whales and ice to dodge, and had produced challenging moments for Chuan’s culinary skills.

But when Ian Walker dived into a fillet steak burger provided by Good Food Ireland, Chuan wasn’t taking it personally. “I think after eight months, I can cook,” he said.

Festival highlights

- Nightly music in the dockside race village, including Oleku, Sharon Shannon, The Hothouse Flowers and The Coronas.

- Zikomo Galway talk on the making of Galway Bay by Prof Mike Williams, NUI Galway, Cairnes lecture theatre, 6pm tonight.

- Galway Bay Sailing Club junior parade of sail, weather permitting, off Salthill from 3.30pm on Friday, May 29th, and daily wind and kitesurfing demonstrations.

- Volvo fleet in-port racing on Saturday, May 30th, and Red Arrows display, with a peaceful protest by Galway Alliance Against War.

- Creative West art trail, including Brian Bourke, Jay Murphy and Derval Troy in the city museum, Ceadogán Rugs and Tripod III in the Galway Radisson SAS Hotel, Making Waves in the Kenny Gallery, Seán Ó Flaithearta,Tony O’Malley and artists at Norman Villa, Salthill.

- Charity events include Cope Galway Chinese Whisper challenge, at 2pm on June 1st, in Salthill, and Galway Rape Crisis Centre row-athon.

- Bus Éireann is offering €5 return fares on 16 routes to and from Galway city and county until the June 6th fleet departure.