Moynalty man living life on the ocean wave
From farming the land of Moynalty to riding the ocean waves, it has been some journey for the recently crowned Irish Sailor of the Year Tom Dolan.
Life in north Meath is about as far from the high seas any aspiring sailor can get, but the close proximity to Lough Ramor and Dolan's father's love of sailing drew the young Meath man to a sport not regarded as native to the Royal county.
Solo sailor Dolan was named Afloat Irish Sailor of the Year for 2020 in recognition of his fifth overall and best ever Irish result in last year's La Solitaire du Figaro Race, amid another landmark 12 months for inspiring performances in Irish sailing against all the odds thrown up in the pandemic.
Dolan won the September Sailor of the Month award and was announced as the overall winner at the Irish Sailing Awards that was celebrated online due to Covid-19, holding off the challenge of 26 individual sailors and pairings who have excelled in their respective disciplines, be it offshore, dinghy, cruising, windsurfing or sailing administration.
The Figaro Solo was the peak in sailing competition – both inshore and offshore – in Europe during 2020.
In a truncated and contorted season, somehow the crème de la crème of international solo sailing were guided into a contest which – in late August and early September - complied with pandemic regulations, and yet provided out-and-out competition of the highest order, in which a final placing in the top half of the fleet was an achievement of world standard.
Even when he had been down the numbers in the early stages of one of the early legs of the four-stage 2,000 mile Figaro race in September, Dolan and his boat were soon eating their way up through the fleet in any situation which demanded difficult tactical decisions.
His fifth overall at the finish – the highest-placed non-French sailor and winner of the Vivi Cup – had him right among the international elite in one of 2020's few major events.
Known in French racing circles as L'Irlandais Volant – The Flying Irishman – Dolan's final placing of fifth overall in a fleet of 34 secured the Vivi Cup for the best-placed non-French skipper - in fact, he was the best-placed since 1997.
The 33-year-old who has lived in Concarneau, Brittany since 2009 came into the gruelling four-stage race aiming to get into the top half of the fleet and to underline his potential to Irish sailing administrators considering the selection process for the 2024 Olympic Mixed Double Offshore category which comes in for the Paris games.
Having worked hard on his mental approach in the early season, Dolan made an excellent start by leading the 624 miles first stage across the Celtic Sea before Fastnet Rock.
He lost four places on the approach to the light and more on the long run and reach to the finish, but the 10th place finish was a foundation to build on. He followed up with a solid 11th in the second stage and his career-best seventh on the last stage ensured he was fifth going into the last leg which could not be sailed.
Dolan's journey from a farmer's son to leading Irish sailor began on the waves of Lough Ramor on a dinghy bought from Buy & Sell magazine.
Dolan's father, Jim, once worked in Portsmouth in the south of England where a friend had taken him sailing on a few occasions and then eventually back on the farm, where Tom was the only child of Jim's second wife Ann (he has two older half sisters, one in New York and the other in Portsmouth). If there was a pirate film on television, Jim delighted in explaining the sailing details of the ships involved to Tom.
From hours spent on Lough Ramor Tom has fond memories of his father, who was ill at the time.
"That's a fond memory I have of one of my first times on the water. It's one of the last memories I have of my father too," recalled Tom.
"I was a young lad starting secondary school. I was rudderless. I'd no clue what I wanted to do in the future. I ended up going to UCD for a year to study Agricultural Science, just because farming is what my Dad did. I dropped out and was on the dole then. I was completely lost.
"Sailing gave me a whole new life of meaning and purpose.
"A friend of mine saw a course in Coláiste Dhúlagh in Coolock in north Dublin called Outdoor Event Management, where you'd learn about kayaking and sailing and things like that. I talked my way into the course, and I loved it. I felt like I'd found my calling.
"As a part of the course, you were offered the chance to go to the Glenans Sailing Centre (now defunct in Ireland) in Baltimore in West Cork. I went down there, and it was the best experience I'd ever had. They were happy with me because they sent me to their branch in France, the biggest sailing school in Europe. That's when I really discovered offshore racing." said the Meath man.
In 2010 Tom Dolan was sailing the seas around Brittany, but on 5th June 2011 his father dies leaving him with a huge decision for such a young man.
If he was to fulfil his dream he had to leave his widowed mother on the farm, following the mantra of his father "You only live once, make the best of it".
So Tom returned to Concarneau and France. And when probate was finally given on his father's complex estate in 2016 with the farm being kept in the family, Tom remembered the paternal advice, and took his own inheritance and invested in a new Pogo 3 MiniTransat boat.
He had already achieved success with a borrowed Pogo 2, and felt that the only way forward was to "bet the farm" with this newly-inherited and modest resource, and go for a boat that would have him in with a chance.
Tom earned a living working on boats in Concarneau and along with his friend Francois Jambeau they ran a successful coaching academy, but the pressure was on to make a breakthrough in competitive sailing and in 2016 he linked up with Smurfit Kappa and with his new Pogo 3 now up to standard Tom was up and running.
In 2017 Tom was going well in Minitransat before his boat was caught in a giant breaker near St Lucia and was pitch-poled into a complete somersault, but miraculously survived with breaking its mast.By the following year, he transferred to a second-hand Figaro 2 for a first season in the Big Boys Game, and it went well, but 2019 – the Golden Jubilee Figaro Solo Race, and Kinsale a prominent stopover port – was nightmare stuff, but Tom bounced back to enjoy a remarkable 2020.
Like all thoroughbreds, Tom's Smurfit Kappa has her official name and a pet name, for across the transom in discreet lettering it says Cailin Rua III CC – Red Haired Girl 3 of Concarneau, in honour of the first "Red Haired Girl" which he sailed with his father on Lough Ramor, and the second, which was the Pogo 3 raced in the Mini-Transat.
For although his life may now be centred on Concarneau and the uniquely successful French offshore racing scene, he keeps closely in touch with his past and with home and with longtime friends such as Gerry Jones.
“Before this Covid I used to get home six or seven times a year and my aim is to return home and settle there again, but that is a while off yet,” said Tom.
“I used to play a bit of underage football with Moynalty, but I was too slow. I do miss home, I miss the pubs and the craic and my friends, but those days will come again,” he concluded.
Equally, Tom lives in the present and thinks much about the future, which for someone in his position has almost infinite possibilities, and 2021 will be built around the Figaro Solo. Not so very far down the line, there's the likelihood of a two-handed female/male crewed offshore class in the 2024 Paris Olympics, with the sailing in the Mediterranean, and Tom is definitely interested in sailing in that for Ireland.