As boats rigged for the first day of the joint Fireball and 420 National Championships at WHSC Dunmore East a weather system was approaching faster than most forecasts predicted. At a briefing with race officer Michael Conway the Fireball and 420 classes learned of the rapidly accelerating conditions offshore and all agreed that the best opportunity was to attempt one, or maximum two, windward leeward races while conditions allowed. Outside the immediate harbour sailors were greeted with winds averaging about sixteen knots but with well disturbed seas. After a short postponement racing got underway. It was the very lumpy waves which provided most of the challenges. Upwind it was a case of keeping the boats driving through the waves, downwind it was a case of not sending the bow under the waves. For the first beat the boats which went left towards the estuary which came out ahead. Straight out of the blocks it was clear that one of the main contests would be between Ed Óg Butler, sailing with Sean Collins, and Noel Butler, sailing with regular crew Stephen Oram. Around the course the two sailed in close company with Butler Óg edging ahead from fairly early on. Others near the front end included the Thompson brothers Daniel and Harry, Josh Porter and Cara McDowell, Ethel Bateman with her brother Chris crewing, Frank Miller with Ed Butler Snr, and Niall McGrotty with Neil Cramer.
On days like these there is a big premium on the set-up and bear-away around the windward mark and spreader. Thus, the top teams increased their leads through smooth turns and very fast hoists. There were noisy inter-crew communications downwind to prevent boats going down under big waves. Another consideration was the angle downwind and the timing of the gybe over to the leeward gate, with gusts and big waves foremost on the mind. Ultimately Ed Óg Butler & Sean Collins took the win with a good lead. Noel Butler & Stephen Oram took a short break after round two when they thought they had finished but resumed when they realised it was a three-round race. They recovered to third with the Thompsons taking second place. Fifteen-year-old Ethel Bateman, with brother Chris on the wire, took fourth position – a fantastic achievement in those conditions in the relatively older class loan boat.
As boats went through the finish line winds were increasing and they were signalled to return ashore. After derigging and showering the word was that the increasing wind now had a name – Storm Betty. An advisory went out on the event app for boats to lower masts for what was expected to be a very stormy evening. Most Fireballers took other precautions dragging boats into the lee of tall sheds, tying them down to shores and bollards and in at least one case removing trolley wheels to lower the profile for the approaching winds. Despite all the precautions during the night there were indeed full storm conditions and two Fireball capsizes on the quayside. Only a few yards away two trawlers sank in the harbour. Overnight the race team signalled a postponement for Saturday racing to assess conditions and to nobody’s surprise by 10.30am Saturday a decision was made to cancel sailboat racing for the day. But racing wasn’t over for everyone and a group of sailors headed off to go go-cart racing instead while others body-surfed at Ladies Cove nearby. Saturday evening saw a great social gathering at the club barbeque organised by a dedicated team of WHSC club volunteers.
Sunday saw conditions not entirely dissimilar to Friday which led to a side conference by race officials and the rescue team. While the fleets rigged in anticipation the race officer went afloat to check out the wind and sea state. In time the thumb went up and sailors collected their tallies and launched. While winds may have been a tad stronger and the waves were still dramatic the wave pattern was slightly more benign over most of the course with longer rolling fetches. It was those waves which provided most of the drama during the three Olympic Course races which ensued. The wind was in the order of sixteen knots gusting into the low and mid-twenties and while the wave pattern was generally smoother there were much bigger unpredictable waves on the left side of the course, especially around the gybe mark area. In all three starts there was a modest pin bias leading some of the main contenders to fight for that end of the line. The Thompson brothers went one further and tried a port start but the door closed at least once leading to a dipping in one race and an OCS in another. In race two of the event Ed Óg Butler & Sean Collins continued as they started and took the gun but Noel Butler & Stephen Oram appeared more settled and were a close second. The latter pair went on to win the next two races, with Butler Óg capsizing in one race and suffering a ripped mainsail clew in another, the latter misfortune unusual in a relatively new mainsail. The Thompsons also had their misfortunes with a capsize in one race and a retirement in the last race with a broken spreader, most likely a result of damage inflicted during a capsize on the hard during Storm Betty. Josh Porter & Cara McDowell were sailing extremely consistently despite being one of the lighter combinations but their plans came unstuck along with their deck strut fitting. Niall McGrotty & Neil Cramer were sailing steadily and remained upright to have a third place almost in the bag but were knocked out by a gust on the approach to the finish. Frank Miller & Ed Butler were looking good in the conditions and at one point leading a race but a capsize on the gybe took them out. So, to some extent these Nationals amounted to a war of attrition in the face of really exciting but challenging conditions. Inevitably however the cream rose to the top and Butler & Oram took the win through consistency with Butler Óg & Sean Collins second. Arguably though team Butler/Oram weren’t the real stars of the day. The performance of Ethel Bateman with her brother Chris crewing was astonishing. The pair revelled in the conditions and their results – 4, (6), 4, 2 – catapulted the fifteen-year-old helm and brother Chris out of the silver fleet and into third place overall.
In the silver fleet new entrants Niall MacAllister and son Oisin took third place during their first competitive outing in their newly acquired boat. Second silver went to Jack McNaughton & Damian Dion while David Evans & Mike Murphy took the top silver trophy. So, despite the rude interruptions of Storm Betty this was an extremely successful Nationals. Eighteen Fireballs, many crewed by young teams, and a similar number of 420s joining forces to race in warm weather, big breezes, and huge seas – the kind of outstanding conditions that Dunmore East can provide. The next major Fireball event is the Europeans in Slovenia in mid-September with four Irish boats planning to make the trek. While theoretically the Fireball summer calendar is now complete the class are looking for a suitable venue for one last hurrah, possibly in October, before frostbite season kicks in.