'White sails' to figure at cruisers meeting


Sailing Column: Tomorrow sees the annual gathering of the Irish Cruiser Racing Association in Cork which will review the largest group within the sport in this country.

More than 600 boats and upwards of 10,000 competitors are involved.

Issues such as hindrances to developing cruiser racing, handicapping classes and a better definition of "white sails" participants will be debated tomorrow morning.

The variety of boat sizes and the critical differences between production boats and customised "one-offs" in competition will be hotly contested.

Handicapping will be one of the main topics. The IRC system has grown in the last decade from its humble following in Britain, France and Ireland. Australia and, most recently, the United States have growing fleets and though intended for club level sailing, cruiser racing has achieved widespread acceptance among the biggest maxi racing classes that often feature fully professional crews.

So the subject of professionals in the sport will be another theme though surprisingly, it is not necessarily the actual payment of sailors for their time that is proving most contentious.

The influence of professionals participating at the highest levels of competition, even in so-called amateur classes, has had a knock-on effect. From sail wardrobes to boat maintenance, a seemingly endless work list places huge strains on time.

These challenges become amplified when "one-off" racing boats are designed and built, in turn demanding higher skills and possibly specialist or professional crews.

Thus while the front end of the national fleet is peppered with highly-organised crews, the majority of participants compete in production boats leading to not unreasonable frustration when the high-tech racing boats scoop the top prizes.

Meanwhile, the fastest growing group involves those racing at a non-technical level. Previously referred to as "gentleman's class" or "non-spinnaker", the "white sails" boats compete with minimal investment in advanced sails or even super-fit crews.

But is there a risk that crews frustrated with the domination of the custom boats will migrate to the white sails fleets?

While ICRA's Denis Kiely acknowledges that an issue exists, losing racing crews is not an immediate prospect. "The vast majority of boats that compete in white sail are those that would never usually expect to race," he says, though there are exceptions. "There are racers that occasionally step down into the white sail fleet, perhaps at this time of the year nobody would expect to race at all."

The meeting tomorrow at the Clarion Hotel will also confirm the ICRA Yacht of the Year. Ger O'Rourke's Chieftain, the 2006 winner, has already picked up the Royal Ocean Racing Club's overall award.

However, at issue is whether the award should go for achievements in home waters and if so, Conor and Denis Phelan's Jump Juice is in the running after wins at the National Championships, the Scottish Series and the Dun Laoghaire Regatta, among others.