Olympic Sailor Mark Lyttle Pays Tribute to Laser Legend Bill O’Hara

The following is from the Afloat website.

2018 Laser Grand Master World Champion and 1996 Olympian Mark Lyttle reflects on a lifetime sailing against his old rival and great friend Bill O’Hara, who was awarded an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List 2021.

I first recall Bill at the 1978 Pimm’s Irish Lasers Nationals at Lough Ree Yacht Club (actually sailed from Hodson Bay and yes, they did sponsor the Irish Laser class) but it wasn’t on the race course. As a 15-year-old sailing what we now call a Standard rig as that’s all there was, I was nowhere near the front of the fleet especially as a hurricane passed through during the regatta. But I do remember Bill was the centre of social activities ashore as a young university student.

Over the next couple of seasons, Bill emerged as one of the top Lasers sailors along with Gordon Maguire (turned professional skipper), Dave Cummins (twice all Ireland champion) and Colin Galavan. Following a fifth place in the light air Kinsale Nationals (1979) and the curtailed (with another gale) Dun Laoghaire Nationals (1981), Bill took the Irish titles in Ballyholme (1981 where I recall driving to the event in a Renault 5 with three Lasers) and Galway Bay (1982 with Australian and NZL visitors following us home after our extensive continental European tours).

But I remember the 1982 season as my first Laser Europeans, in Athens, where I stayed with Bill and Simon Brien (Dragon Edinburgh Cup winner from Royal North of Ireland YC) and was supported and encouraged all the way by Bill – a true mentor figure.

Bill sailed a brilliant regatta, coming second overall behind the even more brilliant Peter Vilby, a result that has never been beaten by an Irish Laser (Standard) sailor. Consistent with many other Laser sailors across the world in that era, Bill had to realise his Olympic dreams away from Lasers, in his case in the single-hander Finn class.

I recall stories of him campaigning the Finn with Terry Nielsen (1982 Laser World Champion and eventual Bronze Medal winner) in 1983 in North America in the build-up to the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

Like many Olympic campaigners he returned for the Laser Worlds in Gulfport, Mississippi in October 1983 along with Frank Glynn, Con Murphy (better known now as Annalise’s dad), John Simms and me. Most of us Irish stayed with nuns in a convent nearby but that is not what we most remember of the regatta. It was a no discard 14 race series in which Bill was doing brilliantly until a protest by the Jury for his boom allegedly hitting a NZL boat on his outside at the gybe mark. Both were disqualified and Bill ended the regatta knowing he would have been World Champion but for that.

It is often said that Juries stopped protesting boat on boat incidents because of that.

Bill went on to race at the Olympics and recorded a 4th, 10th, 9th and 8th in the first four of seven races and finished 13th overall in a very competitive fleet with sailing legends Russell Coutts and John Bertrand winning Gold and Silver. But Bill affirmed his status as role model and great supporter of Irish dinghy sailing by returning from the glories of the Olympics to race in the Irish Laser Nationals at the end of that summer.

Of course, he was the man we all strived to beat at that event and subsequent seasons in the Laser (he didn’t win that one but did win the Irish title three times in the nineties). I remember many great battles around the race course with Bill often ahead at the windward mark with his superior upwind speed and me trying to overtake him by the leeward mark with my superior downwind speed. Bill continued to combine his Laser and Finn sailing through the 1988 Games in Seoul, where he was joined by Peter Kennedy, the 1986 Irish Laser Champion, as David Wilkin’s Flying Dutchman crew.

Many of us were envious of that given the limited opportunities to access Olympic sailing in those days but that changed with the introduction of the Laser in the 1996 Olympics. Although Bill started off as a competitor in the search for the single Irish place in Atlanta, he still provided advice and encouragement to me all the way. That is the thing about Bill, a fearsome competitor afloat but a true friend ashore. Nothing supports that more than in the 1994 Irish Laser Nationals when going into the deciding last race where I had a slender lead over Gary McCarthy, I had broken my tiller extension and Bill offered me his with the words “this title needs to be earned not won by default” – sorry Gary. Bill went to the 1996 Games as a coach and provided me with vital advice and encouragement throughout the Games.

Although our interaction has been more social than on the race course in recent years, I look back and say he has been a true motivator and influencer on my sailing journey but more importantly a true friend, which like many friendships based on so many years of shared experiences and the ups and downs of competition, will remain despite the passing of time. Bill is a man who knows loyalty and integrity and I am proud to be his friend. Well done, Bill on your OBE.