Pathway system continues to reward Ireland’s underage sailors

Irish Olympic crews for Rio demonstrate benefits of refined youth scheme

With just two weeks remaining to the opening ceremony for the Rio Olympic Games, pathway events for Tokyo 2024 and beyond and getting underway in Irish waters where large numbers of Irish and international sailors have gathered.

On Dublin Bay, the Royal St George YC and Dún Laoghaire Harbour are hosting the KBC Laser Radial World Championships for 350 boats from 48 nations.

In Bangor, Belfast Lough will be the venue for the Rooster Topper World Championships hosted by Ballyholme YC where up to 250 boats from 10 countries are competing including 28 from China alone.

Critically for future Irish hopes, Ireland will have 85 young sailors competing in Bangor while a further 46 Irish single-handers will be racing on Dublin Bay.

Both events fit into the pathway format that sees emerging talent nurtured throughout teenage years and into the senior fleets that comprise the actual Olympic disciplines that will race in Rio.

The types of boats reflect the sailors’ age and size. In the Toppers, a smaller 4.2 rig is presented as an alternative to the Optimist dinghy that the youngest sailors start in as early as age eight and progress through to early teenage. The Topper 5.3 is the main class and is a stepping stone through to the Laser classes.

In Dún Laoghaire next week, the Laser Radial is used by male and female sailors with youth world titles for both as well as a men’s world title. After youth level, the men usually progress to the larger Olympic Standard rig as used at the Olympics while women continue in the Laser Radial at senior level and the games.

Other pathway classes include the International 420 dinghy that is currently sailing it’s World Championships in Italy where four Irish crews have made their respective Gold fleet standards this week.

Every Irish boat at the Olympic Games this year will have an former ISA Academy sailor on board that followed the pathway format which was started by Bill O’Hara in 2004 in 420’s and Lasers.

Rory Fitzpatrick took over in 2006 becoming the Youth & Development Manager for the ISA as well as an Olympic coach, most notably for Annalise Murphy, Ireland's best performing Olympic sailor in three decades.

Over the past decade, the programme has evolved from 14 sailors to over 80 and comprises junior squads for under-15’s leading to the academy for under-18’s then into development level up to age 22 and senior levels if not before.

Former academy sailor Finn Lynch, the youngest ever Irish helm that will compete in this year’s games, will also be the youngest on his starting line in the men’s single-handed event at age 20.

Fitzpatrick highlights the importance of the national that help develop critical building blocks, most importantly that of enjoying the experience in a good environment.

“Fitness, diet and logistics are important but less so at the early stages but there is an awareness there,” he says. “When coming to the academy at age 15 to 19 there will be two gym sessions and two cardio sessions per week outside of actual sailing as well as contact with a nutrionist.”

Fitzpatrick also points to the role played by coach David Harte over the years in Schull who develops string fundamentals in all sailors there. It's a popular venue with the sailors, and Fitzpatrick agrees has become a sort of "spiritual home" for many athletes.

“In my opinion it’s the best training venue in Europe,” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s got every sort of sea state there and that sort of versatility is very rare.”

David Branigan

David Branigan

David Branigan is a contributor on sailing to The Irish Times