** Sailing Ireland’s Volunteer of the Year John Leahy
From pirates in Ethiopia; to shipwrecks in Dublin Bay; to transporting Queen Elizabeth II to Thailand, to gun-running out of Howth, the Cruising Association of Ireland’s Tuesday Night Talks – or TNT as they have become known – proved a rich vein of entertainment for landlocked sailors in 2020.
The Zoom talks were the brainchild of Dun Laoghaire man John Leahy who was honoured with the Irish Sailing Volunteer of the Year award last week for his efforts.
Indeed, more than just simply a source of entertainment, the TNTs have proved a focal point for the sailing community with the cruising club’s numbers swelling from 130 to 160 swelling despite limited activity.
“When Covid came, a lot of people thought we might as well just close down because we can’t go sailing for at least a year,” he told the Dublin Gazette.
“I felt that was just giving in. So we started these talks through March, April and May and they proved wildly popular. It was in those days of darkness when otherwise, unless you could keep the morale up, people could flag. We certainly worked on that with the members and they, in turn, came back tenfold.”
Leahy is been a central figure with the Cruising Association since its early days 20 years ago, a vibrant “virtual club” which promotes non-competitive sailing, taking on Commodore, treasurer, secretary and more duties over the years.
His involvement stems from his sense of adventure, first fed during his early years in the borough, racing Fireflies on Dublin Bay before going to school at CBC Monkstown. Aged 15, he was on the 36-foot Cu na Mara that sailed to Lisbon in 1965.
And that penchant for travel long distance saw him drop out of a Trinity medicine degree after one year to answer an ad to be a pilot with British Airways where he spent over 35 years.
It brought him around the world many times while his life on the sea has seen him traverse the Atlantic a couple of times, all the bringing him into contact with many intriguing stories and story-tellers that formed the basis for the TNTs.
“We are never short of speakers and have a very eclectic group,” he added. “One of our members is the chief astronomer in Ireland who can talk about planetary systems. I’m a yacht master instruction so can always talk about navigation and that end of things.
“We had the Palme Shipwreck and the Dublin Bay Lifeboat disaster of 1895 last week. One of our members sailed up the Red Sea with the pirates.
“He went around the world, but that was his last leg coming up the Red Sea. He’s doing another one in a few weeks’ time on the building of the Asgard, the boat that ran the guns into Howth for the rebellion.
“I’m doing one on flying the Queen to Thailand. I was the chief pilot with British Airways when I was flying commercially, before I retired. When the Queen wanted to go off to Thailand for a holiday or a Royal visit, she has to choose a plane – she doesn’t have one of her own.
“So they take the plane 10 days early, strip it out completely and rebuild it. So all the seats that she has a desk or beds, everything is put into the plane, like it was straight out of Windsor Castle from the beds to the armchairs to the settee, it’s bit like a floating palace.”
These stories and more have captivated groups via Zoom groups with the limit of 100 attendees regularly maxing out well in advance of their Tuesday night slots.
And Leahy says he has been humbled by the feedback which ultimately led to his Sailing Ireland volunteer awards.
“I was very chuffed because I knew I was up against pretty good opposition. I never gave a thought about actually winning the thing so it’s very nice. It does represent what I’ve been working on in the clubs now for probably 25 years, trying to make the clubs better places to sail.
“So, yeah, I’m very proud of that. I know the members of the club must have nominated me for it. In those dark days in March, April, May, June of last year, when we couldn’t go down to our boats, you couldn’t even see your boat let along sail the bloody thing, I think the talks really cheered people up.”
Of the other Dublin winners at the event, 17-yearold Eve McMahon of Howth won Youth Sailor of the Year for the second year in a row on the basis of her performance at the Laser European Championships in Gdansk in Poland.
This was her first senior event and she was the youngest competitor in the field by some way. Eve is now a training partner with the Irish Sailing Team and sails alongside Annalise Murphy and Aoife Hopkins.