O’Higgins a fitting winner of Sailor of the Year award

String of victories included back to back Volvo Dun Laoghaire to Dingle wins

Rockabill V1: O’Higgins leads a group of friends who as amateur sailors take a professional approach to their sport and find their groove together, whether offshore or inshore. Photograph: David Brannigan/Inpho

Rockabill V1: O’Higgins leads a group of friends who as amateur sailors take a professional approach to their sport and find their groove together, whether offshore or inshore. Photograph: David Brannigan/Inpho

 

If a string of racing successes in 2019 was reason alone for Paul O’Higgins claiming the Sailor of the Year award last weekend, it was well deserved.

But the winner of the top prize at the ‘Virtual Irish Sailing Awards’ might well have been recognised for cracking a magic formula that is the envy of many in the sport at club level.

Representing the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Dun Laoghaire, O’Higgins was the first double-winner of the Volvo Dun Laoghaire to Dingle race on his JPK 1080 “Rockabill VI” and also showed consistent form with a series of wins throughout the year.

Class victory at the Irish Cruiser Racing Association (ICRA) national championships in June, Calves Week in August plus the Irish Sea Offshore Racing Association (ISORA) title in September earned him nomination through the Afloat magazine monthly listings.

“There’s something in sailing for everyone who takes part, regardless of age,” O’Higgins told The Irish Times this week. “But I’d never have tipped myself for this [award] before now.”

But behind the award lies a basic framework established over decades through his series of Rockabill-named boats and started by his father-in-law in Skerries.

“We’ve been together for a very long time, some since just after I started sailing in 1981,” O’Higgins said of his crew. “If you make it fun, people stick with you and make the boat go fast. We don’t have fights or rancour on board.”

The team draws its experience from other well-known cruiser-racing boats such as Cormac Twomey’s Sarah-J, Bob Stewart’s Azure and various boats under the ‘Gloves’ series with Colm Barrington.

There is also a strong Cork influence in the crew panel dating back to the National 18 fleet when Skerries had a strong class presence.

Many of the crew are well-known such as multiple Olympian Mark Mansfield and Whitbread Round the World Race veteran Kieran Tarbert.

Other regulars include Ian O’Meara, Paul Gough and Mark Pettitt while the south coast is well represented by George Radley and Mel Collins amongst others.

The large crew panel is needed for a boat that ideally sails with eight but, unlike many other boats, invariably manages to complete an intensive season thanks to having such a broad mix of committed sailors.

Professional approach

“No matter how many people are involved, there are always those who are unavailable,” says O’Higgins.

He doesn’t manage the crew directly and leaves that to John Kelly for the inshore events while his Conor co-ordinates the offshore races. On board, Pettitt fills the crew-boss role.

Keeping an eclectic mix also extends to the type of sailing and the current Rockabill VI is also well-suited to going offshore and is just as likely to enter a Round Ireland or Dun Laoghaire to Dingle lasting days at sea non-stop as a inshore series such as Dun Laoghaire Regatta or Cork Week for shorter, sharper races.

But while offshore can make you rusty and complacent without other boats nearby to compare yourself to, O’Higgins points to the uniqueness of long races calling it “other-worldliness” as a form of escapism.

From the scenery to the challenge of navigation and tactics, offshore is more of a “mixed-bag, with results for better or for worse”.

Ultimately, O’Higgins leads a group of friends who as amateur sailors take a professional approach to their sport and find their groove together, whether offshore or inshore.

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