Northabout - Jarlath Cunnane showed 'grand spirit of adventure’

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The Cruising Club of America awarded its first Blue Water Medal in 1923, to French sailor Alain Gerbault, who single-handed the 34-foot cutter Firecrest across the Atlantic non-stop in 100 days.

The Cruising Club of America awarded its first Blue Water Medal in 1923, to French sailor Alain Gerbault, who single-handed the 34-foot cutter Firecrest across the Atlantic non-stop in 100 days. Since then the medal — given annually to an individual or couple for meritorious seamanship and adventure — has been presented to such sailing luminaries as Sir Francis Chichester, Sir Alec Rose and Bernard Moitessier.

Read the other stories in this package: Northabout - Building a polar passagemaker   Northabout Passage

At the club’s annual awards dinner last January in New York, Irish sailor and retired construction manager Jarlath Cunnane received the prestigious medal for his role as skipper and boatbuilder for the first westward polar circumnavigation, dubbed Northabout. Cunnane was chosen from a final list of a half-dozen other sailors.

“The selection of Jarlath Cunnane for the Blue Water Medal, we believed, was almost a perfect fit for the award,” says Robert Van Blaircom, chairman of the club’s awards committee. “It was a fine amateur effort, particularly since Jarlath had built the boat with his own hands in his workshop. Other than some minor donations of equipment, there was virtually no sponsorship of the voyage. In some ways, the complete trip was almost impromptu.”

Over four years Cunnane and a crew of fellow Irishmen sailed a 49-foot aluminum cutter, also known as Northabout, from Ireland and through the Northwest Passage and then back through the Northeast Passage. They also spent the two seasons between the main voyages exploring the Inside Passage. Cunnane’s sense of adventure impressed Van Blaircom and the other committee members.

“At the end of the Northwest Passage segment there was no plan to go on across the top of Russia,” he says. “But after [a couple seasons] cruising in Alaska and British Columbia, he and his crew apparently just couldn’t resist the urge to attempt the next leg and complete the circumpolar navigation. We thought that showed a grand spirit of adventure.”

“We were extremely pleased to present Mr. Cunnane with the 2005 Blue Water Medal,” says CCA commodore Ned Rowland. “We get recommendations for winners from all over the world, and this seemed to be the most remarkable. To do a polar circumnavigation really is quite unique.”

For more information about the Cruising Club of America and the Blue Water Medal go to www.cruisingclub.org.