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They did it in Galway!
by Daria Blackwell
(June 16, 2009) The 2008-9 Volvo Ocean Race began in Alicante, Spain and will finish in St. Petersburg, Russia. In between, the race has had nine stopover ports, each unique in its own way, but the overwhelming favorite seems to be Galway, Ireland. As PUMA skipper Ken Read said, ďI think I want to move to Ireland.Ē
Daria and Alex Blackwell, who spent two weeks aboard their Bowman 57 ketch Aleria in Galway Harbour as volunteers in the VOR Galway, provide this report:
Alex and I were in Galway for the Volvo Ocean Race stopover and let me tell you, there is nothing we have ever experienced that matches the excitement generated for sailing by this amazing effort. They counted on 140,000 people showing up over two weeks of planned festivities. What they got was more than 450,000 people (we donít yet have a final count), more than 10,000 children and loads of side benefits they havenít even tabulated. Now thatís the way to run a sailing event that gets non-sailors to the harbour front. Letís Do It Galway and Volvo pulled off a miracle we can all learn from.
Let me back up. In a conversation with a regional sailing publisher before the start, Alex asked if they were sending a reporter to cover the event. They said that they werenít. Alex countered that they really should as this was going to be biggest sailing event ever to hit Ireland. The publisherís answer was, ďNo way is this the biggest sailing event in Irelandís history. Itís only 7 boats. There are hundreds that come to Cork Week.Ē Thatís the kind of myopic thinking that has perhaps stifled sailing for so many years. Itís not about the boats. Itís not about the believers. Itís about how to get the masses to experience the majesty of sailing first hand. If you show enough people to the door some will walk through.
So what was the formula? It was way cool. First, three local businessmen got together to form a non-profit to create an event. They got a local entry Ė the Green Dragon Ė to share honours with China. Then they got the government to fund the festival concept as a development initiative for the West of Ireland which is relatively remote, unspoiled, and in need of tourism dollars. They topped that off with the charming venue of Galway city, an old European style harbour front. And they roped in all the locals to help out, including seemingly almost all the students of the National University of Ireland in Galway, the school districts of three counties and the sailing clubs from the entire west coast. They asked for 750 volunteers and got more than 5000 applications. Of these they took more than 1000; all of whom had to be trained in crowd management and the VOR philosophy Ė ďYour job is to make sure everyone has a good time; periodĒ.
We were lucky enough to be selected for on water marshal duty. We were to hold the line for the exclusion zone around the start for the in-port races and departure. We also were stand-ins for the VOR sailors recruited to speak with the more than 10,000 school children who came through during the two week stopover. They chose us because we are long time sailors and had crossed the North Atlantic the summer before on much the same route as the VOR took from Boston to Galway Ė except we jumped from Nova Scotia to Westport. There was not one no show among the sailors and crews, so we watched and listened, enthralled like the kids. They were all fabulous, igniting fires in the children, making them feel what itís like to be out there and making them realize that thereís a whole lot more needed to support sailing than the guys onboard. They talked about IT and physical therapy, medicine at sea, boat repair, logistics, fundraising and promotion Ė real life jobs. They lit fires in these children who had followed the race most of the way around the world learning geography, culture and environmental respect. If anyone did anything more amazing to bring children into sailing and to nature, then I am not aware of it.
All week, the kids had a chance to try sailing, to visit the VOR boats, to try out the exhibits, and to dream about their futures. How much is that worth? One child in the company of his parents was asked by his father if he was happy. His answer, in a teeny little excited voice was, ďIím very, very, very happy.Ē How much is that worth? And how much do you want to bet that this little kid is going to give sailing a shot.
Everything around the festival was free during the two weeks. There were excellent concerts during afternoons and every night. Everyone in the harbour had ringside seats. There were loads of street performers, gallery exhibits, special events all over the city stretching from the old city and harbour out to Salt Hill along a beautifully maintained promenade renamed the Green Dragon Trail. For the first time since Newport, Rhode Island and the Americaís Cup, the races were easily viewed from the land along a stretch several miles long of parkland. How perfect: non sailors and sailors alike could watch and enjoy. They also simulcast race commentary on VHF radio and local radio as well as showing them on national television. If you werenít in Galway for the event, you were missing the biggest thing to some to Ireland ever.
Greeting a crowd on the podium on the opening night, Ian Walker said, ďAll of Ireland must be here tonight.Ē About 60,000 people had stayed up all night the previous night to welcome the racers as they arrived in the wee hours. No other venue saw crowds of this magnitude. The local Irish artisanal food producers created a spread of Irish gourmet foods for the sailors here in Galway and at each previous port as they stepped off their boats. After freeze-dried for weeks, how well do you think that went over? Kenny Read got in some rounds of championship golf during the stopover and told the world he was coming back for more. Forget about Disney World, Kenny Readís coming to Ireland. How much is that worth?
Every racer, every official, every reporter said this was by far the best effort of any stopover Ė of any sailing event ever. Itís not about the boats. Itís about the dreams they inspire. The hundreds of thousands of people who came to Galway were not necessarily all sailors or boaters. Some did go out on charters. Some signed up for lessons. Most walked the harbour, imagined what it was like to race around the world without a creature comfort onboard, then strolled to other end of the dock and imagined what it would be like to go sailing on a small yacht Ė as the harbour was full of beautiful boats and loads of dreams perhaps for the first time in its history. How many dreams were spawned that might some day see reality? We wonít know but we can imagine. I remember walking docks as a kid and dreaming about crossing oceans and look at me. Now I have done it and will continue to do so to my heartís content. Thatís what dreams are made of.
Here was a harbour that has sheltered many a freighter, tanker and fisherman, with the occasional sailing vessel tying up alongside. Its glory was in former times and there were issues with the state of the harbour front in todayís times. The organizers persevered. They changed everything. Now there are new docks providing new life to a much revived historic harbour front in one of the most charming seaside villages in the world. Itís a win-win-win all around. Long may it flourish!
What can we learn from Galway? Dream big. Take baby steps to get there and surely you will. Involve as many people from all walks of life as you can. Pray for good weather. Never let the naysayers take you down. And provide a vision that every man, woman and child can relate to. Thank you, Galway. We, too, were inspired.
Photos by Daria Blackwell. Additional photos here.
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