A building sense of expectation was the hallmark of the 2023 season for Irish Sailing’s High-Performance programme as the countdown clock towards the Paris Olympics continues apace.
In the wider picture, Los Angeles in 2028 also starts to take on form as the programme begins to fill out with more committed crews coming up the ranks.
Claimed as the most successful year to date, a string of youth results at international is indeed unprecedented for the sport in Ireland but there is also a step change taking place.
So far, two disciplines have qualified Ireland for places in Marseilles next summer: the men’s single-handed dinghy (ILCA 7 class) and the men’s skiff event (49er) with trials set for the coming Spring.
As the boats that qualified Ireland for Paris — Finn Lynch in the ILCA along with Robert Dickson and Sean Waddilove in the 49er — a natural expectation is that they will win the trials as a formality.
That may be so but the bigger goal is that each discipline would have about three crews active at senior level.
So far, there are just the incumbents with others close to securing Sport Ireland funding through its carding scheme.
Seafra Guilfoyle and Johnny Durcan missed a place in the carding scheme despite noticeably improving in the 49er class over the season but not with the consistency needed — yet.
For their part, Dickson and Waddilove had a faltering start to 2023 as illness affected both athletes and their preparations for the Sailing World Championships in August suffered.
Despite some fine results, the performance in light winds and starting-line tactics cost them qualification for Ireland at the first opportunity by one nation place.
But three months later, the pair were like a different crew at the European championships, clearly showing they had overcome both problem areas.
So a two-boat trials series is on the cards for the skiff.
For the ILCA 7, Lynch has also proved himself at the worlds where he achieved qualification and faces Howth’s Ewan McMahon who is privately campaigning for selection to Paris.
In early January, his younger sister Eve McMahon as under-21 world champion will contest the ILCA6 world championships in Argentina where she hopes to clinch a place for Ireland in her event at Paris.
As the only Irish competitor in this cycle and not even one year into her senior career, she won’t face a trials provided she qualifies in South America or, failing there at the French Olympic Week at the end of April.
But coming up fast behind these still relatively young “senior” squad members are a clutch of pathway and youth crews who are already winning championships at their level.
Their tally for 2023 counts 12 medals at various events including:
ILCA 6: Youth Boy World Champion. Rocco Wright;
ILCA 6: Youth Girl World Champion. Eve McMahon;
29er World Champions: Clementine and Nathan Van Steenberge;
29er Female Vice World Champions: Emily and Jessica Riordan;
29er Youth Boy European Champions: Ben O’Shaughnessy and Ethan Spain;
29er Youth Girl European Champions: Lucian Cullen and Alana Twomey;
ILCA 6 U21World Champion: Eve McMahon.
Crucially, the list of pathway sailors includes at least two 49erFX potential crews who might join Erin McIllwaine and Ellie Cunnane who started their senior-level campaign in 2023.
Ireland has not had a female skiff crew since the Rio 2016 Olympics when Andrea Brewster and Saskia Tidey were the only campaign though Olympic Silver medallist Annalise Murphy did commence training with Katie Tingle before switching back to her ILCA6 ahead of the Tokyo Games.
The prospect of multiple boats in each discipline, all giving one another close competition ahead of selection is becoming more likely as the next quadrennial gets under way in the Autumn of 2024.
Meanwhile, the first quarter of 2024 will be dominated by ILCA world championships in January and then the 49er worlds in March. The French Olympic week neatly leads into preparations for the Olympic regatta in nearby Marseilles where the Irish squad has had a training base for the past two years.
At least three months of on-site training will form the lead-up to the games in what is now required preparation and familiarisation for any competitive athlete that is selected for Team Ireland.