Irish Sailing Hero - Sailor of many facets, Cathy MacAleavey

Irish Sailing Hero - Sailor of many facets, Cathy MacAleavey

Cathy MacAleavey is a sailor of many facets ... 

... most famously as an Olympic sailor in Seoul 1988. But she’s also an apprentice boat builder, Water Wag racer, World Sailing equipment committee member, and mother to Olympic silver medallist Annalise Murphy. As part of our “Sailing Heroes” series, we asked her about her wide-ranging sailing career.

How did you start sailing ?  And when ?

I started sailing when I was 16. Up until then I had been completely horse crazy.  I was born in Mexico in 1958. My father was Director of ICAO (International Civil Aviation Authority).  It was during the 1968 Olympics when my father looked after the Irish Equestrian Team where my love for horses began and also my dream of competing in an Olympic Games.  I thought I would go to the Olympics on a horse and not on a boat.  At that stage I knew nothing about sailing as none of my family were involved.  My father sadly died very young in Mexico and my mum returned to Ireland.  It was when my sister met her husband who sailed with Michael Boyd that I got my first taste of sailing. As I was a bit older than the other kids at sixteen, I got to sail a 420.  This I did for 2 weeks and then I begged my mum to buy me one.  With this we set about trying to join one of the clubs.  Back in the 1970s is was quite unusual for a girl to join a club on her own and most members came through by having parents who sailed.  The National Yacht Club accepted me as a cadet member and I have been a member since.

What type of sailing do you enjoy the most ?

It is impossible to say !  I think that is the beauty of sailing, there are so many different types.  I started by sailing 420s.  I was lucky enough to get a brilliant crew called Gavin Burnell. He actually taught me how to sail.  I think I had only been sailing about a month and we headed off to the 420 National Championships in Mountshannon, Lough Derg and we came 5th.  He just told me what to do.  If he had not sailed with me, my sailing career may have been very different. 

After this I sailed Lasers (where I met my husband Con Murphy). We sailed Lasers competitively for years with an Olympic 470 campaign thrown in. I then had a brief interlude with a Flying Fifteen, and then we then bought a Hurricane 5.9.  I loved this boat - it was fast, exciting and a pleasure to sail.  After this we had a 1720 and a Laser SB3 which we both club raced and competed internationally in.  It was during this time that the Water Wag Class lent us a boat as we had been sailing Shannon One Designs in Lough Derg.  We found that although this little boat is one of the oldest one-design classes in the world  (dating from 1887) it had good sailors who were all about our age.  We enjoyed it so much we decided to buy one in 2006.

How does sailing make you feel?

Sailing has been part of my life and my family’s life.  Both Con and I have been involved in both sailing and organising.  I was Junior Organiser in the National Yacht Club for many years and Con was Commodore.  Our daughters Claudine and Annalise were part of the Irish Sailing Performance Academy.  For the past eight years I have been working as an apprentice boatbuilder with Jimmy Furey in Roscommon.  So I suppose sailing makes me happy.

What’s been your best sailing achievement so far ? 

I can’t pick out one achievement.  From competing in the Laser at the European Championships when I was in my early 20s, representing Ireland in the Olympic Games in Seoul 1988, holding the Round Ireland Speed Record for nearly 25 years, sailing in La Corrida dos Esturarios in Hobie 20s, building my own Shannon One Design and racing it, building my latest boat ‘Mariposa’ Water Wag and bringing her to France last year, to being selected for the Equipment Committee of World Sailing which is a huge honour - it is impossible to pick.

What’s been your proudest sailing moment so far ? 

My proudest sailing moment would be Annalise’s medal in Rio in 2016.  

When you’re not sailing, what do you like doing ?

I am an artist and a weaver. I also have three large Labradors which love walking up the mountains.  The rest of the time I am still learning my boatbuilding skills.

Do you have a message you would like to give to the young sailors of Ireland or to people who might be thinking of trying sailing for the first time ?   

The beauty of sailing is that it is truly a sport for life as it evolves as you grow, which you can probably gather from my sailing career.  You will have friends for life as well.

If you are inspired by Cathy go to to find out more on how you can get out on the water.