I started out on the old briny in 1977, 35 years ago this year. In that time, I went from being an enthusiastic amateur to being a professional Yachtmaster Instructor. Along the way, there were many adventures on the sea and especially there were several people who had a profound effect on my development as a sailor.
In 1977, I was working in the Bank of Ireland Computer Centre at Cabinteely, Co Dublin. I had booked 2 weeks holidays on the staff roster but hadn’t a clue what to do with the time. Chatting on a tea break, one of my colleagues suggested I try Glenans, an Irish-French sail training organisation with 2 bases in Co Cork. I called into their office to get a brochure and was immediately tempted by their adventurous offering. I called my brother, Simon, and asked if he was interested and sure enough, he said he was game to give it a try.
We spent 2 weeks on Bere Island, in Bantry Bay off the coast of West Cork and to this day, I haven’t enjoyed a holiday as much. We had a reasonable amount of wind all the time with a good mix of sunshine and only a few showers to spoil it all. While the sailing was good, the craic was mighty. Living in mixed-sex dormitory style accommodation, we had what can only be described as the perfect mix – we were c.80 persons, roughly half Irish and half French and again 50:50 male:female, with ages ranging from teens to 60’s. After a hard days sailing, and apres food, we all landed up to Dessies (O Sullivan) pub where the Irish and French drank and sang in competition with each other into the early hours for 2 weeks solid. I needed a week to recover after that wonderful experience. I am forever grateful to my colleague, Mick Mc Loughlin, for opening the door to a complete new and exciting world for me.
I took another 3 Glenans courses over the next 5 or 6 years and was keen to spread my wings further. After doing a 10 day stint on the Asgard II (Ireland’s Sail Training Ship) under the legendary Captain Eric Healy in the mid-80’s, I joined Wicklow Sailing Club. Here I had the good fortune to hook up with a fellow member who was in need of a crew and we forged a sailing friendship that survives to this day. The skipper in question was Dr Willie Fearon who owned a Prout 36 Catamaran called Spelian and we spent 5 or 6 summer holidays cruising up and down both sides of the Irish Sea. Possessing sails, an engine, VHF radio, some charts, a cooker and not much else, we managed to safely explore North Wales, Isle of Man, Northern Ireland and the Irish coast as far as Kinsale. We had our fair share of adventures and long days with no wind and minimal fuel. I was the sailor and organiser of crew (mainly my family and friends) while Willie looked after provisioning, navigation and the troublesome smelly outboard engine – a very agreeable working partnership. It ended when I decided it was time to buy my own boat.
In 1990, I finally managed, with financial help from 2 of my brothers, to realise my dream of being a boat owner. We bought a little gem, a Galion 22 called Irena, and launched her in Wicklow. Not wanting to be too cocky, I decided to get some formal training and signed up for a Coastal Skipper course with Ulster Cruising School out of Carrickfregus, near Belfast. This was at a time when the Troubles were still a major problem in Northern Ireland and my heart sank when I discovered my fellow trainees were all from the Protestant side on board. The RYA Yachtmaster Instructor on board was English and female and managed to put us all at ease straight away. Her name was Sally Livsey Davies and she delivered a momentuous week of training that has stayed with me to this day. I came home from Carrickfergus with a bag full of new skills and a VHF certificate.
I was now ready to play a responsible role as skipper on Irena and proceeded to take our little pocket battleship on sailing adventures for the next 5 years. In 1995, I had reached my 40th year and decided that I needed to do something other than Banking for the rest of my life. I traded in Irena for a 30 foot cruising boat, Merry Bee, an Achilles 9m yacht. My next plan was to get my Yachtmaster ticket and was examined by my old skipper, Captain Eric Healy, who passed me with flying colours on Meg of Howth along with Gerry Moran and Derek Kelly. My ambitions were now turning towards Sail Training and I decided to take a formal course of training for Yachtmaster Instructor with the Solent School of Yachting, in Southampton. Having never taught anyone anything to do with sailing, I was very nervous on discovering my 4 fellow trainees were all currently working in Sailing Schools. Our instructor, Mike Dymond, an ex RN submariner, took us all uner his wing and taught us (that’s me really) a whole new range of sailing skills and teaching techniques. Indeed, my 40th year was a busy one, but I still had one major hurdle to cross.
In 1996, I decided to finally give it a go and I applied to the RYA to be assessed as a Yachtmaster Instructor. This is a very tough process and they deliberately maintain a maximum 50% pass rate ratio in any one year. I arrived to Plas Menai in North Wales with 2 other hopefuls to be assessed over 5 days by John Goode, a veritable legend in RYA circles. I can safely say, I have not endured as tough an ordeal before or since and I was both physically and mentally exhausted when we stepped off the boat. He referred me to come back a few weeks later, once I had ironed out a few issues and in late September 1996, I became the proud possessor of an RYA Yachtmaster Instructor Certificate.
I duly applied for a career break from the Bank and set up South East Cruising School, which has traded from 1997 to 2011, when the Irish Department of Transport Regulations finally put paid to my dream. Now in 2012, I have been lucky to get some work with other schools – my protogee, Jim Grey in Canary Sail gave me a week in January and recently, Ronan O Sioochru of Irish Offshore Sailing School has been generous in providing me with several training slots.
2012 is also notable for a set of happy coincidences relating to most of my sailing mentors. Firstly, Mick Mc Loughlin who started it all for me, helped me out by doing some inspection work on a delivery yacht I was taking from Kinsale – I had limited contact with him over the years. To add to that, my crew for the delivery was none other than Willie Fearon and he came with me as far as Brighton, our first time sailing together since 1989. To top all of that, I went to the Solent to do my 5 year YM Instructor update, a 2 day formality, where I had the good fortune to be reunited with my 2 early RYA mentors, Mike Dymond and Sally Livsey Davies. It certainly is a small world at times.
God only knows what the future will hold for me, but the valuable sailing lessons I learned over the years from my various mentors and my own experiences have made me sure of one thing – SAILING is in my blood and whatever comes next, I’ll be hoping to be bobbing on the waves somewhere. There is a world of lands, islands, oceans, ports and anchorages waiting to be explored – fair winds and a safe passage will get me to some of them.