Ryan’s great Round Ireland adventure

David Ryan is more accustomed to ploughing the land than sailing around the coast, but the farmer plans to compete in — and win — the Round Ireland Yacht Race.

David Ryan is a man of the land, but today he answers the call of the sea.

Ryan has operated a dry stock and tillage farm outside of Wicklow Town for the best part of 30 years, ever since he moved to the area from Kildare. For the majority of that time, the Irish Sea has been little more than an unknown grey mass four miles distant. A recreation area for his three kids on a fine summer’s day, maybe, but little more.

At 2pm today, 35 craft will assemble just outside Wicklow Harbour to contest the 34th running of the Round Ireland Yacht Race. Most eyes will be on the Volvo 70 ‘Monster Project’, a 70ft state-of-the-art vessel designed for a tilt at the Round the World Yacht Race. The Volvo 70 is the Concorde of the seas, in that it is built for speed — if not comfort — and they just don’t make them like that anymore.

Ryan is its skipper.

It is, by his own admission, an extraordinary turn of events for a man who has helmed nothing larger than the tiny 10ft ‘Ruffin’ he owns and which has sat idle in the harbour all summer thanks to the litany of boxes he has had to tick in order to get this most unlikely of operations launched. Ryan, it seem, will be leaning on his management skills, rather than any sea-faring expertise.

“I’m going to make this happen,” he says. “That’s it.”

Ryan has handpicked the crew. Some are experienced ocean hands, others are of a more callow vintage, three of them earning their place on board courtesy of a competition run in association with the Irish Cruiser Racing Association’s ‘Come Sailing Day’ last month. The most important person on board will be Andy Budgen, you would imagine, a man who is something of a legend in British sailing circles.

An accomplished sailor in his own right, Budgen has coached a hugely successful Team GB in recent Olympiads and ‘Monster Project’ is his baby. The vessel is in constant demand as a charter and is just back from a stint in the Caribbean, but Ryan worked his charm and secured the super yacht for the Round Ireland gig.

“This boat was produced in 2007 for the Round the World,” Ryan explains, the wonderment on his face growing with each and every word. “Only eight boats do that race. There are very few of those in existence anymore because they are clapped out, or whatever. The Russians ran out of money in 2008 so it only went halfway around the world so it is in reasonably good shape.

“We had a guy called Mark Mills, who is a naval architect and who learned to sail here in Wicklow, draw up a list of boats that would be suitable for this challenge and he inspected some boats in America or wherever was necessary. So we came up with a list of 12 boats, but I always wanted this boat myself. The Volvo 70 is no longer being made.

“It is on the edge of design, in terms of it being so fast for a sailing boat, but it is not particularly strong. For the next (Round the World) race they have gone for a Volvo 65, but the boat is two tonnes heavier. It will be stronger and there will be less problems with it. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go on a Volvo 70 because the new one doesn’t have the speed this one has.”

As a farmer, Ryan knows what it is to pray for the right weather and he has been hoping for the ideal sort of winds that would allow him not just to claim line honours in this race — first place to you and me — but to create a new time record to boot. It’s no pie in the sky dream, given the vessel he has commandeered and yet even getting to the starting line has been an incredible achievement in itself.

Financing the thing has been its own endurance test and, though he hoped to have that box ticked last February, he will go to post with something of a “hole” still to be filled. A TV documentary detailing his story to be broadcast on television in the autumn may go some way to doing that if the plan to sell the story abroad catches on, but there’s been much, much more to consider.

It took two weeks just to organise the food, everything weighed to the nth degree. There is no cooker, no fridge, not even a microwave. Just two jet boilers, lots of pasta, rice and Bolognese sauce. The crew will sleep in rotation, stacked feet forward like cordwood, in the understanding that it would be better to break a leg than a head.

“Somebody else’s ass will be your air bag,” Ryan chuckled. They will lie in bunks wedged against a carbon fibre hull with no insulation. It is not fully waterproof so sea water will seep in as they try to catch some sleep and ear plugs will be a necessity as the noise of the boat slapping against those Atlantic waves at 30 knots will be like a jack-hammer at full tilt.

How, you may ask, does Ryan find himself here?

It started about 10 years ago when his son Peter began to gravitate towards the Wicklow Sailing Club with his mates. Pretty soon, his other lad Paul followed suit and, before daddy knew it, he was a family member and being lured into the life. “Would you be interested in going out on a boat?” That was when the bug first bit. It was 2007.

Like so many before and since, the water captivated him.

“There are very few things nicer than on a Thursday evening or a Saturday afternoon and going out to see your children enjoying themselves on the water,” he said earlier this month as he sat in the local sailing club’s bar.

“It’s absolutely fantastic. You are spending quality time and teaching them skills and they are making new friends. It’s all good.”

Paul, a kid with a competitive streak that you just can’t teach and a talent that could have been honed into something special, drifted away to Gaelic games. Peter stayed at it and, in 2010, a last-minute berth opened up on a local entrant for that year’s Round Ireland gig. David and his wife Teresa had a big decision to make in a small amount of time. Peter was just 16. Off you go, they said.

Dad was the official starter that year. Has been the last three times. It was when he fired his gun (it’s okay, he’s a farmer, so it’s licensed) to set the 2012 event on its way that he made the decision; the next time that gun went off, he promised himself, someone else would be pulling the trigger. He would be out there on the water. So, here he is.

The Round Ireland Yacht Race he describes as the “most unsold race in the world”. Around 10,000 people will congregate on Wicklow Town over the three-day Sailfest. One-fifth will make for the Black Castle above the harbour to take in the starter’s gun. It’s a big deal round those parts, though the majority of punters will be from the immediate area.

Others are yet to catch on.

Major sponsors backed the event in the past, but there is none on board at the minute. The organisers in Wicklow Sailing Club speak excitedly of building the event, though, and the larger harbour at Dún Laoghaire’s Royal Irish Yacht Club has been utilised this year to help with the logistical side of things.

The potential is obvious.

The course is a smorgasbord of challenges that any offshore sailor would embrace. A flowing southerly tide takes you out of the harbour and through the Irish Sea but then comes the turn around Carnsore Point at the southeastern tip of Wexford and from there it is out into the wilds of the Atlantic Ocean. Peter Shearer, Commodore of Wicklow Sailing Club, takes up the route.

“Your trade winds tend to be from the southwest so if you get that standard wind, you will be flying up the west coast, which is a real challenge because the sailors set a huge sail called the spinnaker and they can go on a real sleigh ride up that coast. Then you come up to Donegal and towards the calmer waters again, but in doing that, you hit very strong tides.”

There are six tidal gates all told. Hit any one of them the wrong way, and you could be blown off course for hours. It’s all about decisions. Do you sail over by Scotland and come down by the Isle of Man or do you hug the coast of Northern Ireland? By the end, 700 or so miles and roughly four days will have elapsed. There is no half-time break. No second leg. It’s hardly surprising, then, that sailors have been known to sleep for more than 24 hours once they make dry land again.

It is all run under the auspices of the Royal Ocean Yacht Club which also oversees the more celebrated Fastnet Race from the Isle of Wight to Plymouth via Fastnet Rock, as well as the Middle Sea event in Malta. Half of the entrants leaving Wicklow Harbour today will hail from abroad: England, Wales, the Isle of Man and France. The Dutch have been strong supporters in the past.

Few, if any, will have a tale quite like Ryan’s. It is, unfortunately, one tinged with sadness. It is over two years now since his nephew Shane Grogan was assaulted in Tuam on his way home after a night out with girlfriend. The unprovoked attack left the young man with what is termed an acquired brain injury. Currently in a nursing home in Galway, Grogan’s family have been raising funds to pay for a treatment regime which would improve his cognitive function and build a facility at the family home where he can be cared for 24/7 by his own.

Headway Ireland say that there is a two-to-five year period after a brain injury before the full extent of any recovery can be known, so Grogan is at the early stages of that spectrum. The 24-year old was a keen triathlete and competed for charities before the incident in 2012 and his uncle will be looking to do his bit by raising funds through his own competitive adventure around the island.

“The Shane thing has brought a sadness to my family,” he explains, the smile falling from his face for the first time. “My wife goes down every two or three weekends to help out. She has been trained in some of these therapies, so the family is doing some of this stuff with him the whole time. So, it’s in the back of my mind. There is a huge excitement in the back of my mind, don’t get me wrong, but you’d like to give a 24-year old every chance.”

Ryan travelled to Southampton last Saturday to pick up Monster Project and test her out in the waters between Ireland and the UK. The week prior to that was spent “doing the silage” and he breaks off from talk about the race at one point to answer the phone, in case there were cattle loose on the road.

“I’ve a lot going on,” he laughs again. “Do you get that?” You could only wish him well.

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved


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