I'm not what you would call the sailing type. In fact, my impression of the sport was one that it was the preserve of the wealthy. So I travelled to Galway for the visit of the Volvo Ocean Race fleet to see what all the hullaballoo was about.
Nothing could have prepared me for the experience. We all know that Galway is as lively as anywhere in Ireland most weekends and when any of the many famous festivals are in full flow, the city parties and the atmosphere hits a higher note.
But I have never experienced anything like what I found in Galway on the Friday night before the big boats raced in Galway Bay. There were many thousands on the streets from Eyre Square, through Shop Street and all the way down to the harbour. The pubs and restaurants were overflowing with good humoured punters and there was a feeling of pride in the summer air. It felt like a cross between 'Welcoming Sam back home', the 'Return of Jack's Army' and the 'Home-coming for the Grand Slam Heros', all rolled up in one.
And uniquely everyone was a winner by just being there. The Green Dragon had arrived a week earlier in third place for the North Atlantic leg and there was a great expectation for the two Galway races the day after. It was wonderful.
After a reasonably early night in the circumstances, I had a hearty breakfast and headed off to collect my media accreditation and then to the Harbour Hotel for a briefing. The place was hive of activity and I wondered how many media were in town. It turned out that I had stumbled into the middle of many Volvo dealers and registration for Volvo Car Ireland's customer activities.
I spoke with local dealer Brian Kenny of Kenny Galway on the Tuam Road. I congratulated him on the many Volvo displays all around Galway. He and Volvo Ireland certainly left no one in any doubt that this was a Volvo show, and they did it with some class. This included at the port, where Volvo had a large and very impressive stand with a bright theme - a number of the cars on the stand looked brilliant in white.
Back to the Volvo reception were Knut Frostad, CEO of the Volvo Ocean Race gave us a full overview of the Race to date and a preview of the day’s racing ahead. I left there much more enlightened about sailing and with my appetite whetted for a sunny day on Galway Bay. And because, there was also a safety briefing where Volvo explained their sponsorship alignment with the sport and similarities with their brand in relation to 'safety' 'performance', 'style' and 'image'.
To the quayside and a large crowd had gathered for the departure of the big boats. By the time the Red Arrows treated everyone to a fantastic air display, the crowd had swelled to tens of thousand from the port out though Salthill and west to Connemara. As I headed for the Media boat, I wondered how could the big boats possibly top the Red Arrows. By the way, a little trivia - those flying geniuses get their first female pilot next year.
On board and out on wonderful Galway Bay for the first time. As we headed at a good rate of knots, it became clear to me that sail boats come in all sizes and in many shapes including the majestic if slightly unfortunately named 'Galway Hookers'. With that realisation, came the reality that as with thoroughbred horses, and expensive racing cars, boats come at many price levels and the sport can be enjoyed at very reasonable outlay.
The peace of my thoughts was broken by the sight ahead of me as we arrived close to the contenders for the Volvo Ocean Race. It wasn't the big boats but the hundreds of small ones, a true armada of ribs, speed boats dinghies, even kayaks, sailboards and wind-surfers. It was truly amazing. And I really admired the skill with which the big Ocean-going sailing boats managed to avoid colliding with so many smaller crafts.
My mind went back to Mr Frostads words about the agility of these fantastically designed and engineered vessels. I was also reminded of a recent week-long drive in a diesel engine powered Volvo XC90 SUV. It too surprised me with its agile performance. Certainly Volvo has come a long way. It retains and has gained many more safety characteristics but twenty years ago, they lacked drivability. However, ever since the 850, that has been changing year-on-year and today they can live with the best.
I digress; back to Galway Bay, and amazingly the marshal boats restored order and the course was cleared. The first race started. We were close enough to the action and it was as majestic as I'd seen on any of those great sailing films with the tall ships slicing through the water. Alas the Green Dragon missed the start and never made up the difference. It didn't get any better for the Irish Chinese entry in the second race, which had been delayed due to a lack of wind.
And so four and half hours after leaving 'Terra firma' we raced back to Galway Port, satisfied that I had not only ticked another box of things I hadn't expected to see, but also filled with a great deal of pride that Galway had successfully helped Ireland fight above our weight yet again.
After absorbing the wonderful atmosphere for a little while at the dockside, I slipped off into the crowd. On the way to my car (on that occasion, a Volvo of course ), another great ability of the Irish race brought an even bigger smile to my face - hanging from the third floor apartment window was a homemade banner ' Welcome to Galway - Green Wagon'.