Howth is the Happening Place for the Sailing Pace – Afloat


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It's a serious-looking big poster that they've had newly-displayed for the past three days on Howth Yacht Club's gable wall. But then, the prospect of Rob Dickson of Howth and Sean Waddilove of Skerries representing Ireland in the Tokyo Olympics in the 49er in three weeks time is a serious business, a serious business given an extra edge as they only finally secured their Olympic place in the Last Chance Saloon Selection Series at Lanzarote at the end of April.
In fact, it's arguable that had the Olympics not been COVID-postponed for a year, they wouldn't be there at all, as their longterm target had been Paris/Marseille Olympics 2024, and they'd only suddenly been added to the 2020 possibilities when they won the 49er U23 Worlds in September 2018, but subsequently hadn't made the grade for Tokyo under the original 2020 schedule.
Yet for two months now, their place in Enoshima has been secured, and their two home clubs in Fingal have been factoring in a total Olympic dedication in their memberships from the first heats on July 27th until the Medal Race on August 2nd, while Silver Medal defender Annalise Murphy of the National YC has her first race on July 25th, and the Medal Race is August 1st.
All over Ireland and abroad, our sailing community will be closely following a global event which - let's face it, as the reality of the Delta variant sweeps the world - is still not 100% certain. Be that as it may, the resilient Irish sailing community has come vibrantly to life as the opportunities and regulation-easings permit, and in Howth they currently are on one of those rolls of concentrated success which, for one reason or another, come visiting – and welcome visitors too - at the Peninsula club from time to time.
Let the sunshine in – the serious new poster is centre stage at Howth. Photo: W M Nixon
Thus although the big poster – developed from an image secured during the Lanzarote trials – looked sombre enough as it was being put in place, next day saw a return of the bright sunshine which may be turning the moorlands of the Hill of Howth into a tinderbox, but it more accurately reflects the current mood of Howth sailing.
Right now on Lake Garda, HYC's Rocco Wright is in the thick of it among 51 nations and nearly 300 boats in the first days of the Optimist Worlds, having progressed towards them through two big preliminary regattas on the mighty lake, in which he took Bronze in the first, and Gold in the second.
Right in the thick of it – Rocco Wright (IRL 1636) working his way through a very international fleet on Lake Garda
Before that, Eve McMahon – just one of three prodigiously accomplished McMahon sailing siblings from Howth - placed fourth overall in the ILCA/Laser U21s in Montenegro, which was then upgraded to the Silver Medal in the U19s, while on the home front the J/24 U25 Development Programme – pioneered in Howth – continued to reap rewards with Head Case – helmed by Cillian Dickson and with HYC clubmate Sam O'Byrne on the strength – winning the season-starting J/24 Southerns at Foynes in convincing style.
 Eve McMahon on her way Silver Medal in the U19s in Montenegro
But it was at the Sovereigns Cup in Kinsale at the end of June where the Howth machine moved into top gear. Perhaps it's because the two ports are so utterly different, with Kinsale being a picturesque natural port on a serenely sheltered winding river, while Howth is a totally artificial harbour on a rugged and characterful peninsula – whatever, but Howth somehow always seems to aim for the Sovereigns with a special attitude of group determination. And even with social distancing, 2021 was a vintage year, with Bob Rendell's impressive new Grand Soleil 44 Samatom winning the biggest class – the IRC Coastal Division – while Mike and Richie Evans new J/99 Snapshot – with Howth's 1996 All-Ireland Champion Helm Laura Dillon on the strength – put in a hugely impressive performance in the hyper-hot IRC 1 to win the Sovereigns Cup itself.
Neither today nor yesterday…..Howth Yacht Clubs fondness for invading Kinsale at Sovereigns Cup time goes back a long way.
Sovereigns Cup Kinsale 2021, and the successful Howth crews of Snapshot and Samatom get together.
Here it is, only the 3rd July in a season which was really only properly underway on June 7th, and Howth is already piling on the silverware in a way which is reminiscent of certain special periods in the Club's history. Not that they're resting on their laurels – this weekend they host the Optimist Leinsters, and in a week's time, it's the 1720 Championship – but nevertheless, a minute or two's pause to reflect on this almost freakish club 2021 scorecard is surely merited.
For it seems that Howth and its sailing appear to thrive on adversity, and environmental adversity in particular. When published the latest chart of the serious silting of the harbour recently, people elsewhere wondered how on earth they'd any keelboat sailing going on at all. In some places, there was practically dry land with grass growing where there should have been a clear all-tides channel.
The most recent survey of Howth Harbour shows depths continuing to deteriorate
Yet despite that, Howth Yacht Club managed a more-than-useful programme in 2020 even with the lockdown limitations. And this year after the preliminary starting signals had been given for some return towards normality from Monday June 7th, not only did five of the venerable Howth 17s make a point of having an official race at 10: 30 hrs on that Monday morning, but the following Saturday – June 12th – saw a fleet of 78 HYC-only keelboats heralding the new season in the time-honoured Lambay Race, so they're definitely sailing well underway, even if the bigger keelboats sometimes find themselves ploughing a lonely furrow getting in and out of the harbour.
Some of the 78 keelboats which raced in HYC's Lambay Race on June 12th. The larger ones may have found themselves ploughing gently through soft mud as they left the harbour. Photo: Annraoi Blaney
Now admittedly the depths shown in that new chart will only bottom out three or four times a year. But you'd think – particularly when you compare it with a splendidly deep harbour like Dun Laoghaire – that the very fact of having to worry about those depths much of the time would impinge on Howth sailors' pursuit of their sport.
Work on Howth's Middle Pier is already well underway to expand trawler berthing. Photo: W M Nixon
Not a bit of it. On the contrary, as we've seen, Howth sailing in 2021 is already on a mighty roll of success. Yet this is despite the harbour engineers already intruding on the place with their work in progress on the Middle Pier. As to the village generally, work is at last underway on the waterfront Techrete site (formerly Parsons) immediately to the west of the harbour for the construction of a handful of 8-storey apartment blocks.
Howth Harbour as it was until recently, as seen from the northeast. Work is now underway to enlarge the middle pier for trawlers with dredging, while outside the harbour immediately to the west on the north-facing waterfront (at centre of photo), work has started on building a development of apartment blocks on the former Techrete Factory site.
The future Howth Harbour? The proposal to infill the dredged spoil from within the harbour to the westward of the West Pier will create a completely new geographic and hydrographic dynamic, with a real possibility that the sand-carrying ebb tide running along the beach from the west will no longer be so distinctly re-directed as a silt-carrying offshoot into the harbour.
Thus already the insistent natter of the pile-driver blends with the liquid call of the curlew, the shrill trill of the oyster-catcher, and the demanding yapping of the herring gull far into the Howth summer nights. And beyond all that, once the much-anticipated dredging programme gets underway, it'll be like the re-building of central Dublin after 1916 on steroids, as the idea is that everything coming out of the harbour bed in several identifiable phases will in-filled to the west of the West Pier to create what we're told will in time be a new marine park, and getting it there could involve lorry-loads in their thousands unless special ways can be devised to get barges to take the spoil – after treatment – round to the new location.
The current plan for the phased dredging of Howth Harbour also indicates the stages for the creation of new land to the westward of the harbour. With the dredging area now clearly defined, alterations in the timeline and order of work might be a possibility, but either way, it will be quite a lengthy process.
For those who are wondering how the harbour came to be so silted, please don't ask. Were Howth a port in the Netherlands, the harbour would be dredged as a matter of course every five years. But once the major project which broadly gave us today's Howth Harbour was completed in 1982, that was it - the place has seen only small-scale piecemeal dredging since, and the fishing fleet and recreational boats alike have been increasingly hampered in their activities as the siltation quietly builds up such that in the Outer Harbour, a drone photo at low water reveals each boat to be reposing in its own circular mud bed.
Low water in the Outer Harbour, where 40 years of siltation have resulted in an all-enveloping layer of soft mud where each boat on a swinging mooring has gently created its own bed, normally invisible except from an aerial photo. Photo: Tom Ryan
In the circumstances, the default attitude among Howth's maritime population is quiet yet not undue pessimism, for we know that official grand schemes such as that now being contemplated - or indeed relatively standard schemes - tend to run over time and over budget, and we know that in Howth that is not necessarily an undesirable outcome.
And even when underway, such major projects can be overcome as environmental obstructions. For instance, in 1981 in the midst of the biggest harbour works programme of all, Howth Yacht Club hosted the Optimist Worlds simple by moving all operations westwards along Claremont beach to a new HQ at the Claremont Hotel.
As for Howth's own sailing performance at such times, the impetus is strong to seek success elsewhere, and thereby get away from the noise and inconvenience of harbour works at home. This happened with one major dredging project in 1966-1970, it happened again in 1979 to 1982, and though some very clever and creative minds are being applied to seeking out the least disruptive ways of implementing the current dredging proposals, the results thus obtained in 2021 suggest an increase in HYC's already healthy tendency to look outwards.
When the major scheme of 1979-1982 was nearing completion, it was found there was nothing left in the public kitty to demolish the haphazard row of ancient buildings down the West Pier, as had been planned. For long enough, they simply stayed there with many of them empty. But as Howth Yacht Club's stratospheric sporting, social, and hospitality success in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to the harbour developing its own special attraction as a destination venue, that quaint row of buildings – which you could never have planned deliberately - became such successful little restaurants that on a warm summer's evening the atmosphere and aroma is like a good Breton or Galician fishing port.
So who knows what may come of the creation of a new bit of Ireland to the west of the harbour? Admittedly if it's carried through to completion as planned, the popular over-water Aqua Restaurant at the end of the West Pier will have lost its unique sea-dominated position, something which we can't see being lightly relinquished.
But beyond that, the proposed overall shape will affect the tidal flow in a way which may reduce the future need for dredging. At the moment, when the flood comes through Howth Sound north of the East Pier lighthouse nib, it flows on clear in a west to northwest direction. Yet when the ebb starts to run eastward, there's a strong line of it starting from Baldoyle Creek and sweeping along Claremont Beach, with a significant sand-carrying offshoot being deflected into Howth Harbour.
Yet if the most northwesterly "headland" of the new bit of Ireland west of the pier is at the location shown, there'll be much less inclination for the sand-carrying ebb to be side-tracked into the harbour, and with any luck the tendency towards silting will be reduced.
But whether or not people see this new little bit of land to the west of the harbour as attractive recreational space is another matter. The fact is, when people go out for a bracing walk at a harbour, they want to be able to stride down a pier with the sea close bedside them left and right.
The new land to the west, showing clearly how it will direct the ebb tide stream further away the harbour entrance. And surely it has many more possible uses – such as Kite-Surfing Central - than just another a dull seaside mini-park and strolling area
However, that amorphous green space planned to the west of the West Pier looks altogether too vague. Its exposure to the prevailing westerlies will limit any green space and mini-park development potential, and its very location relatively out of sight and out of mind on the perimeter of the harbour suggests nefarious purposes – in fact, they might as well put up a sign saying: "This Way to the Flash Mob Rioting and Anti-Social Behaviour Zones".
Yet not so far away along Claremont and Burrow Strands, the new building or up-grading of trendy beachside houses is currently going on at such a pace it makes you think it should be re-named Dermot Bannon Boulevard. Is it unthinkable that some west-facing waterfront properties on that new bit of Ireland is an idea that is out of the question? Or how about a choice location for a kite-surfing centre…..?
Stranger things have happened. And these are strangely exciting times in Howth, both in sailing and in harbour and village development alike.
But meanwhile in the real world of current sailing achievement, as of yesterday evening (Friday), HYC’s Pat O’Neill with his J/80 Mojo has been confirmed as the Danish Open J/80 Champion in Rungsted in advance of the Worlds there next week, Eve McMahon is returning very impressive results in the Laser Radial Youth Europeans in Croatia, and Rocco Wright has got off to a cracking start in the Optimist Worlds on Lake Garda with a 1st and a 5th.
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