A hidden gem and a perfect fit for this island nation. That’s how the Volvo Round Ireland Race can be summed up by veterans and newcomers alike.
Far from the popular image of blazered ‘yachtie-types’ lolling aimlessly around the marina, this is a tough challenge involving few creature-comforts and plenty of rigour for the best part of a week at sea.
But the upsides are worth it and even if only one boat can win, judging by the celebrations in Wicklow Sailing Club at the end of previous races, just completing the course is considered a huge achievement.
When the 2018 race starts on Saturday 30th June at 2 pm in Wicklow, the traditional send-off from family and race fans is part of a festival that the crews soon leave behind on their sprint southwards.
Traditionally, this is the easiest stage of the race, racing along Ireland’s more sheltered eastern seaboard.
Which is not to say that it is a problem-free run: notorious sandbanks, pot-markers and shipping must all be negotiated while still keeping the fastest boat speed.
Of course, the largest boats will get away quickly, especially those with hired-in professional crews. But these are usually the ones chasing line honours, the unofficial victory for being first boat home and the majority of crews fall squarely into the amateur category.
And while the fast boats in the lead are often some of the most expensive, high-tech yachts available, again the bulk of the fleet hail from more modest backgrounds and are no less seaworthy.
In fact, as this race is decided on handicap corrected time, the overall winner is often one of the slower, older boats such as Ian Hickey’s Cavatina from Cork that was built in 1978 and has won the race twice in recent years.
Hickey will be quite at home when the race passes the south coast but as this region is far more exposed if the wind conditions are any way fresh, some of the boats can be expected to drop-out at this point either from gear failure or crew fatigue – or both.
In fact, most boats that reach the south-western corner of Ireland and the Skelligs are so far into the race that any problems have been ironed-out as the halfway stage beckons.
At that point, continuing on is much the same as turning for home.
Plus, one of the race highlights is the ride up the Atlantic seaboard, passing some spectacular scenery and sometimes with the added bonus of fresh to strong south-westerly winds that give sleigh-rides to the competing boats as the speed northwards towards Malin Head.
From there, conditions usually ease off but then there’s the challenge of tidal gates and getting through when the wind is light or face the prospect of anchoring to avoid being swept backwards.
From the north coast, the race is a countdown to the finishing-line back at Wicklow and avoiding getting becalmed in light winds often decides the outcome of the race.
But win or lose, completing the lap of Ireland is like no other event in sailing and is even becoming a bucket-list challenge for many people discovering the sport through the many sailing schools that take part.
“It’s like doing your first marathon, it’s the holy grail of sailing in Ireland,” said Brian Mathews, a merchant shipping master mariner and eleven times race veteran that includes two overall wins.
“Most other races don’t end up at the place that you start,” he said, listing off the Fastnet Race, Sydney to Hobart and Newport to Bermuda. “What makes it special is that it’s a tour of your own country with spectacular scenery from start to finish.”
And the key to successfully completing the course?
“Go right and keep turning right until you finish,” he joked, understating the navigation challenge of the 705-mile race.