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Fireball Dinghy Adventure at the Cong Galway Race

29th June 2021
Dinghies and catamarans are rafted up a the quayside at the halfway point of the Cong Galway Race at Kilbeg Pier
Dinghies and catamarans are rafted up a the quayside at the halfway point of the 2021 Cong Galway Race at Kilbeg Pier

On May 13th (not a Friday) Dun Laoghaire based Fireball sailor Frank Miller got the following WhatsApp message from Turkey - " Cong - Galway Race on Saturday 26 June. Can we do that? Pleaaasee :))". The message was from global-hopping friend and sometime crew Ismail "Iso" Inan.

The response was immediate, the famous race was also on Miller's bucket list but the logistical challenges and stories of Jurassic rocks on the route were off-putting. So, the first decision in taking on the 30 nautical mile race was to agree that shared costs would include costs of any repairs to whatever craft was used. After a little head-scratching and consideration of asking to borrow the DMYC club Wayfarer the decision was made to use Miller's Fireball. While 20 years old the boat had been continuously maintained was fully race fit while not gleamingly new. The Winder built Fireballs happily remain stiff, light and competitive well into their 20s. The modern construction is foam reinforced glass and Kevlar, stiff but also liable to damage from any contact with, for instance, the ragged rocks which litter the narrows of Lough Corrib. Conversations with friends reinforced feelings of nervousness about that section. Fellow Fireballer Alan Henry who has sailed the race three times, speaks of one year trying to beat up through the narrows between the rocks in strong headwinds, with the channel less than 30 feet wide in sections. 

While the Fireball has a very shallow draft it has a deep centreboard and rudder. Happily, the rudder is held down by a hinging Cam cleat designed to flip open if it hits an obstacle, to save the pintles and/or transom from being torn off. So, the die was cast, come hell or high water the pair were sailing the race in the Fireball, and delighted that Alan Henry was doing it also this year in his Fireball. A nudge to Miller’s regular Fireball sailing partner Ed Butler and son Ed Jnr saw the pair enter a Drascombe lugger, to be sailed with wife Mary and partner Julia respectively.

Some of the greatest challenges of this, the longest inland waters sailing race in Europe, are around the logistics before the race even starts. How to ensure your launching trolley is at the destination, assuming you ever get there. How to set the boat up safely at the start point and launch without a trolley. Wondering if your crew would even get to Ireland on time. The latter adventure included 2 weeks of hotel quarantine and, thankfully, a vaccine. Next getting your head around the trolley/trailer logistics.

The Cong-Galway Lough Corrib yacht race courseThe Cong-Galway Lough Corrib yacht race course

After several conversations with friends who had experienced the race Miller opted to drop the Fireball at the starting point, Lisloughrey Pier at Cong Co Mayo, the day before. Setting off early to get to the destination and rig and park was a good idea as the first drama of the event took place on the Athlone Bypass when one of the trailer tyres blew out. Happy Ed Butler wasn't far behind and with Ed's help and his mother of all jacks the pair got the spare onto the trailer and Miller went into Athlone to replace both tyres. Luckily the local tyre people had the right size in stock and an hour later the Fireball was en route again to Lisloughrey. The lesson learned in Athlone is that even if a tyre has excellent thread it needs to be replaced every seven years or so as the rubber perishes and hidden cracks in the wall can lead to disaster. At the pier, Miller managed to rig the boat and with plenty of padding and fenders and some rope secure it safely near the slipway while Alan Henry opted to park his afloat amongst the reeds and tied to a tree. Thence to Galway to drop the combi-trailer and collect Iso who had been detained by work and a delayed van service.

The boat was launched safely the following morning thanks to several helping hands. The scene at Lisloughrey pier was somewhat chaotic but extremely friendly. The assortment of craft was quite astonishing – traditional Gleoiteogs, Dart Catamarans, an F18 Cat, small bilge keel cruisers, Wayfarers, several 420s, Lasers and many more including a home-built craft which looked like a square canoe. While this was a race it was of the friendliest variety and the common goal was to reach the destination in one piece with body and boat intact.

The Sailing Instructions spoke of a start line and a windward mark to be rounded to port but with the North North East wind direction, this didn't appear to make a lot of sense as the destination was directly South. So it was that Miller/Inan decided to start on port at the pin, as did half the fleet. The pair managed to lead to the windward mark which in effect was a roundabout mark, and head more or less due South. This is where the fun started as the exact course in the wide expanse of Lough Corrib was hard to spot. While the Cats and particularly the F18 soon overtook the monohulls they were carving a zig-zag course downwind so it was hard to work out a precise course.

Refreshments are served at the Kilbeg stop of the Cong Galway RaceRefreshments are served at the Kilbeg stop of the Cong Galway Race

The chasing monohulls were the best guide and in particular the Fireball of Alan Henry and crew Sinead Mongan who were soon snapping at their heels. Somehow Miller/Inan managed to preserve their lead while arguing their way to and between the channel marks. Several times Henry/Mongan came within feet of overtaking especially during a near capsize from a sudden extreme gust which appeared from nowhere. Wind conditions varied especially between the islands but generally the course of part one was a run, sometimes a reach and with a small bit of beating thrown in. Typically, on the reaches and fetches the dinghies enjoyed full trapezing conditions but there were also zones of quite light winds. With Henry/Mongan close behind Miller/Inan, after a final argument about channel marks (which Iso correctly won), arrived at the halfway stage finish at Kilbeg Pier to win that leg as first monohull and also on PY handicap.

Quayside at the halfway point of the Cong Galway Race and the boats are raftedQuayside at the halfway point of the Cong Galway Race and the boats are rafted

Rafting up the sensitive Fireball between the F18 and a Laser involved padding from buoyancy aids and a couple of fenders supplied by Miller's wife and the pair's one-person support team Ena Prosser. Ashore there was a terrific welcome with refreshments and a long break to allow the slower PY and cruisers to catch up. A conversation there with sailor and entrepreneur Enda O’Coineen gave some of the background to the event. Originally an elite race for the wealthy from 1882 it went from Galway to Cong and back, over 60 nautical miles. That hugely popular sporting and social event petered out over the war years but was revived in 1972 by O’Coineen and other young sailors as a more egalitarian affair. This year’s race was limited to 40 boats due to Covid restrictions.

Cong Galway sailors take a well earned halfway break at the QuaysideCong Galway sailors take a well earned halfway break at the Quayside

After a break of about two hours ashore the teams were sent out again for the second start. If the first leg looked daunting in terms of direction the next looked scary in terms of rocks, islands and very narrow channels. The start was a fetch and with the gusts coming in from the pin end two Fireballs fought for pole position there, a battle which Henry won leaving Miller struggling to catch up with the 420s and other PY contenders before the first channel markers as the once-promising wind faded on the left side. Now started the really scary portion of the race, through narrows with fearsome rocks and minute islands scattered throughout. Alan Henry’s Fireball led the way by a good 30 boat lengths from Miller until a small innocent looking island stopped Henry, and surrounding Darts, in their tracks. The wind headed then stopped, then reversed, then reversed again back. While Miller caught up to within a few feet he too was stranded as Henry/Mongan sped away and soon had regained that 30 boat length lead. This gap looked quite secure for most of the rest of the race as the fleet wriggled between the buoyed channel. Miller’s rudder hit something mid-channel but popped up unscathed. Then on a wider section of the lower lake, the wind filled slightly from astern with the fleet on a broad reach. Miraculously Miller, sailing somewhat lower, caught a stiff patch of breeze and held onto it to pass Henry to leeward though the pair were neck and neck as they entered the river channel for the final section of the race. This sector was not for the impatient as the wind went from light to non-existent and the boats moved only by the flow of the river. Miller however edged towards the leeward bank and managed to pick up a tiny bit more breeze to slip away from Henry.

The final task was not to get caught in the lee of the large Dart sails also ghosting through this section. Finally, the finish line came into sight and the finishers were greeted by a good crowd on the banks applauding them as they approached. It was an emotional sight seeing that kind of support from the local community see the fleet through the finish, though word afterwards was that people mainly gathered to see the boats capsize to get under the Quincentennial Bridge! Once under that final obstacle sailors ashore at the Corrib Rowing and Yachting Club were treated to a socially distanced buffet, kindly sponsored by McHugh Properties.

Awaiting the prizewinners of the 2021 Cong Galway RaceAwaiting the prizewinners of the 2021 Cong Galway Race

There followed a long period while the boffins calculated the PY results. In the dinghies/cats category Rob Talbot and Rian De Bairead, sailing a 420, emerged triumphant with Miller/Inan second in their Fireball while Damien Lord in a Laser took third place. And in a final boost for Fireball morale, Ed Butlers Senior and Junior and team won the cruiser section on handicap. All in all, this was and is a remarkable event, while not for the faint-hearted it is deserving of ongoing support from the dinghy community.

The Overall Cong Galway PY winners were 420 team Rob Talbot and Rian De BairéadThe Overall Cong Galway PY winners were 420 team Rob Talbot and Rian De Bairéad

The Butler Fireball team of Ed and Ed SeniorThe Butler Fireball team of Ed and Ed Senior

For the Fireballers taking part it was a challenging lake outing and a prequel to the Fireball Worlds which come to the wider, rock-free expanse of Lough Derg in August next year.

The intrepid Fireball team of  Frank Miller and Ismail "Iso" Inan and team Butler with their Cong-Galway Race mugsThe intrepid Fireball team of Frank Miller and Ismail "Iso" Inan and team Butler with their Cong-Galway Race mugs

Results are here Team

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The Cong-Galway: Ireland’s oldest inland sailing race

The annual Cong – Galway Sailing Race is Europe’s oldest and longest inland water sailing race.

The original Cong-Galway Race started at the Royal Galway Yachting Club in Galway City and travelled to Ashford Castle in Cong before returning to Galway City, a race distance of 61.5 nautical miles.

The 2020 race is the 137th such race. 

The Cong-Galway Race was a huge social event in Galway until 1914. It never recovered after the First World War and was last held in its old format in 1931. The race was later revived in 1972. Now half the original length, the race starts at Lisloughrey pier, near Ashford Castle, and ends just past the Quincentennial Bridge in Galway City.

Cong Galway Race Winner

The winner, which will be determined based on the Portsmouth handicap scheme, will be presented with the CRYC Trophy, a treasured possession of the Corrib Rowing and Yachting Club. 

Cong Galway Race Course

The Cong to Galway Race start is from Lisloughrey Pier in Cong, Co. Mayo and is typically scheduled for 10.30 a.m. on a course through Upper and Lower Lough Corrib to the finish line at Corrib Village on the River Corrib in Galway. The race makes a stop for lunch at Kilbeg Pier, approximately half way, where timings will be taken for the restart.

Cong Galway Race Organisers

Corrib Rowing & Yachting Club, Galway Bay Sailing Club, Galway City Sailing Club and Cumainn Seoltóireacht an Spidéil.

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