Howth 17s 125th Anniversary Race is neatly choreographed 8th May 2023

Article by W M Nixon from Afloat magazine 

In April 1898 the little gaff sloop Rita came sailing into Howth Harbour, the first of the five new inaugural Howth 17s built by John Hilditch of Carrickfergus on Belfast Lough to reach their home port.

The 90-mile open-water voyage from her birthplace was undertaken by owner Noel Guinness, who had decided with four other serious enthusiasts in what was then Howth Sailing Club that they needed a new One-Design boat which was more robust than the lightly-built Half Raters they’d been using until then.

They asked their Commodore Herbert Boyd – already an amateur yacht designer of proven talent – to create an able little boat “that would last well, and be safe”, and the Boyd-designed Howth 17 (she’s 17ft waterline and 22ft 6 ins LOA) has since done that and more.

Howth 17 RIta ahead May 2023

As intended by Divine Providence”. The Howth 17 Rita – winner of the class’s first race in May 1898 – nicely ahead in perfect sailing conditions, on her way to a repeat performance 125 years later in May 2023 

Photo Credit: Judith Malcolm

Howth 17's Rita and Aura May 1898

Rita and Aura sailing together in Howth in May 1898.

Photo Credit: W N Stokes

Howth 17's Rita and Aura 2023

Rita and Aura at South Rowan Buoy off Howth, Saturday May 6th 2023.

Photo Credit: David O’Shea

Some of Rita’s sister-ships took longer to make the passage, with overnight stops in a few cases, but by late April, the little fleet was gathered, and the first race was scheduled for April 30th. But bad weather prevented this, so they finally had their maiden race on May 4th 1898, with Rita winning.


In those days with just five boats, identity was by hull colour, but sail numbers were introduced as new boats joined the class from 1900 onwards, and Rita became Number 1.

However, when the 75th Year Race was held in 1972, there was scant acknowledgement of historical precedent. For although the winner was one of the five original Hilditch boats, it was Norman Wilkinson’s Leila, No 3, and he continued this cavalier disregard for historical proprieties by also winning the Centenary Race in 1998.

Noel Guinness helming Rita in 1898

The “First of the First” – Noel Guinness (left) helming Rita in 1898.

Photo Credit: W N Stokes

Class Captain is “Cat-Herder in Chief”

However, the 125th Anniversary this year has been brought under way in proper history-respecting style under the direction of Class Captain David O’Shea – aka “The Cat-Herder-in-Chief to the High Kings of Ireland”.

Not only did the Centenary Race scheduled for May 4th have to be postponed by bad weather until last Saturday – May 6th – but the winner was that same Rita which won the first race in 1898, now owned by Marcus Lynch and John Curley, with Jim Cotter and Susan O’Mara as crew.

Rita sailed a brilliant first leg against the tide to emerge at the north end of The Sound at Howth with a clear lead, followed by Roddy Cooper’s Leila and Ian Malcolm’s Aura.


Howth 17 racing

Photo Credit: Judith Malcolm

Howth 17 Isobel

The Topsy Turvey boat? In the race for “The Others”, Conor and Brian Turvey’s 1988-built Isobel was second for much of the course, but snatched the lead from Peter Courtney’s Oona nearing the finish.

Photo Credit: David O’Shea


The fleet on Saturday was divided in two, with the five Originals going first and “The Others” sailing the same course, but with a five minute gap between the starts. Conditions off Howth for a day sponsored by Acadia, the financial risk management specialists, were wellnigh ideal, with sunshine blocked only occasionally by the cloud cap on the Hill of Howth.

A strong Spring ebb in the Sound sharpened the early-season attempts at a southeasterly summer breeze to create perfect jackyard topsail-setting conditions, and truly open competition in racing conditions.


Sublimal Effects of History

Yet so powerful were the possibly subliminal effects of history that anyone relying on the performance showings of 2022 to make predictions for this first very special race of 2023 would have been well off target.

 The 2022 “National Champion”, the 1907-built Rosemary that is now owned by David Jones, David Potter and Mary Curley following the much-lamented passing of the nonagenarian co-owner George Curley, was only an also-ran.

And as for 2022’s Boat of the Year, Davy Nixon’s 1988-built Erica, it seems that it was her turn to Take One For The Team. For if there was a tactical or other error to be made at any stage of this Quasquicentennial Race, then Erica embraced it with enthusiasm.


But despite the general absence of 2022 form, very much present was the Ghost of Races Past. Race Officer Paddy Cronin – a former Seventeen owner of many successful years of competition – set them a running start from the East Pier, as the weather-going ebb made it a controllable situation.

But from the off it looked as though the hand of history was on Rita’s helm, and though Michael Dufy’s Hera was getting into the frame towards the finish, the first race for the original five boats, the Quasquicentennial Race itself, was won by Rita exactly as Divine Providence had intended.

Topsy Turvey

As for The Others, for most of the race Peter Courtney sailing Oona was holding the lead, as is right and proper for the member of a family that has been involved with the class since 1907. But nearing the finish things went topsy-Turvey, as you might say but we wouldn’t, with the 1988-built Isobel (Conor & Brian Turvey) slicing into a last-minute lead.

hint of approaching summer

Hint of approaching summer? Some of the fleet racing in “The Others” division, with build dates ranging from 1907 to 2021.

Photo Credit: David O’Shea

Isobel winning crew

West Cork Raid

They’ll be settling into regular club racing on Tuesday evening and next Saturday, and the next major is the Lambay Race on Saturday, June 3rd, following which there’s the 21st Century equivalent of the Sack of Baltimore from June 24th to July 1st, when this ancient class celebrates its 125th birthday with a week of racing among the ports and inlets and islands of West Cork. You can hardly say we haven’t warned you.

Supreme Champions the crew of Rita

Supreme Champions: the crew of Rita with the Class Captain are (left to right) Jim Cotter, Susan O’Mara, Marcus Lynch and John Curley plus David O’Shea.

Photo Credit: Brian Turvey

Winning boat owners with event sponsor

Winning owners with the event sponsor are (left to right) John Curley and Marcus Lynch of Rita, Conor Turvey of Isobel, Donal Gallagher of sponsor Acadia, and Brian Turvey of Isobel. 

Photo Credit: David O’Shea

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