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There’s Gold In Them Thar Hills Of Howth…

16th July 2022
The sweet smile of success. Eve McMahon afloat at The Hague after another win
The sweet smile of success. Eve McMahon afloat at The Hague after another win Credit: Sailing Energy

Time was when the Hill of Howth was the only part of Ireland above water. Admittedly that was about 600 millions years ago, and our rare old Howth rocks were down around where Australia is now located before they took off on their wanderings to fetch up in a damp corner of what became the North Atlantic. But now that - as of Thursday afternoon - Howth Yacht Club is home to two World Sailing Youth Gold Medallists, it’s time to take stock of our position. Because it seems that whatever we’ve all been doing on the formerly wandering Peninsula, some of us have been getting it very right indeed, with locally-based branches of the McMahon and Wright families setting a truly remarkable sailing pace.

Looking back over the years, for what seems like aeons we’ve become accustomed to the countdown to the final races at some major international event when all sorts of permutations have to be produced to show how an Irish helm might stay in the top ten, or even the top three. And now and again, there’s even a frisson of excitement that suggests a pattern of complex final race placings – usually frustrated - that could get our sailor a Gold Medal.

A star in the making – young Rocco Wright making an impact in the Optimists three years agoA star in the making – young Rocco Wright making an impact in the Optimists three years ago

Zen and the Art of Laser Racing….Rocco Wright, now aged 15, racing to world success in The Netherlands this weekZen and the Art of Laser Racing….Rocco Wright, now aged 15, racing to world success in The Netherlands this week Photo: Sailing Energy/World Sailing

But until now, we have never ever been in the position where an event of the status of the Youth Sailing Worlds 2022, staged at The Hague in The Netherlands through this past week, has approached the final day with one of our helms seemingly unbeatable for Gold, while another might just see the chips fall okay to get a Silver.

In fact, somewhere in the recesses of the collective Irish sailing mind, various synapses were already interacting to prepare a viable explanation as to why, in the end, even the Irish Gold failed to materialize, while the Silver was fantasy.

Eve McMahon in the lead. In times past, most Irish observers of this photo would have wondered how many of the following fleet would have rolled over the Irish leader by the finish. But in The Netherlands this week, Eve McMahon forcefully demonstrated that she knew how to get in front and – more importantly – how to stay there.Eve McMahon in the lead. In times past, most Irish observers of this photo would have wondered how many of the following fleet would have rolled over the Irish leader by the finish. But in The Netherlands this week, Eve McMahon forcefully demonstrated that she knew how to get in front and – more importantly – how to stay there. Photo: Sailing Energy/World Sailing

Then the news came through very loud and clear to Howth YC on Thursday’s otherwise extremely somnolent afternoon. Seventeen-year-old Eve McMahon had raced serenely on to get that Gold. And 15-year-old Rocco Wright had sailed a final race of Machiavellian skill to secure the Gold in his division.

Faced with information-absorption of this enormity, the fuses popped. We simply couldn’t properly grasp the full meaning of the news, partly because we were trying to keep the tabs on the successful progress of the Howth contingent in the complexity of a Cork Week which was suddenly finding itself on the fringes of an off-stage international drama concerning much yacht expenditure involving a millionaire French actor and a supposed Irish aristocrat.

You really couldn’t make that one up, and it will doubtless eventually make for a Netflix drama that will go on and on and on. But meanwhile, the sheer perfection of discovering that there will now be additional real gold to add to the very few existing seams on the ancient Hill of Howth is something to be savoured at leisure, and fully appreciated in due course.

A casual observed might think this is Rocco Wright making a great start in his familiar home waters off the Velvet Strand in Portmarnock, but in fact it’s the beach at The Hague in The Netherlands, and he’s on his way to a Gold Medal Photo: Sailing Energy/World SailingA casual observed might think this is Rocco Wright making a great start in his familiar home waters off the Velvet Strand in Portmarnock, but in fact it’s the beach at The Hague in The Netherlands, and he’s on his way to a Gold Medal Photo: Sailing Energy/World Sailing

Please God, though, that we don’t have the usual hoary old clichés about Ireland punching above our weight. After all, we have just emerged from a Wimbledon in which the women’s tennis final was played out between champions from Azerbaijan and Tunisia. Whatever their merits, neither Tunisia nor Azerbaijan would count as world powers, nor even regional powers. Indeed, until they shone at Wimbledon, the vague perception would be of two rather troubled little countries whose problems make Ireland’s various difficulties look like a cakewalk.

A peaceful start, yet fraught with deeper meaning – the two boats nearest the line are from Belgium and UkraineA peaceful start, yet fraught with deeper meaning – the two boats nearest the line are from Belgium and Ukraine Photo: Sailing Energy/World Sailing

Yet both little places produced individuals of such talent that they successfully took on the world in the high-profile setting of tennis in its Mecca. And in the end, that is what it is all about in solo sailing. It’s one hyper-talented individual at the pyramid of a strong supportive structure of coaching and training and campaigning and quiet confidence, usually – particularly in the Irish context – based on a vibrant family setup further supported by a circle of friends.

In all this, the role of the coach Vasilij Zbogar cannot be over-estimated. He’s from Slovenia – another of these smallish countries whose healthy reality is often at variance with some popular misconceptions – and in the past year he has already helped Finn Lynch re-discover his mojo, while with the two new junior Gold Medallists, there’s a mutual admiration society.

The “Coach of Coaches” – Vasilij Zbogar of Slovenia is now very beneficially intertwined with top-level Irish sailingThe “Coach of Coaches” – Vasilij Zbogar of Slovenia is now very beneficially intertwined with top-level Irish sailing

This has seen Vasilij praising, in particular, their remarkable maturity, notably involving Rocco’s calculated mind-set in that crucial final race, in which he seems to have got himself into an almost Zen-like state while physically performing in active genius style.

And for Eve McMahon, there was a particularly Irish twist with which everyone can identify. She has returned to sailing this month after taking total time out to focus on her Leaving Cert exams: “After weeks of revising and study and then doing the exams, it was fun to get back to sailing”. ILCA6 European Youth Champion at Thessaloniki on July 6th? And now World Sailing Female Youth Champion at The Hague on July 14th? We certainly have a new and stimulating definition of fun.

Making his Laser debut – class newbie Rocco Wright successfully racing the Irish Youth Nationals in Cork. Photo: Robert BatemanMaking his Laser debut – class newbie Rocco Wright successfully racing the Irish Youth Nationals in Cork. Photo: Robert Bateman

WM Nixon

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WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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