The only way to face the future is with optimism, energy and enthusiasm. That's the philosophy of Ian O'Meara and the team at Viking Marine in Dun Laoghaire, as they implement the re-shaping of a business which is noted for retaining customer loyalty while being a highly respected element in the development of Dun Laoghaire' commercial, civic and watersports life.
Their ambition is to demonstrate how a fashionably-located and very contemporary marine retail experience - allied to an advanced online marketing service and a range of quality agencies - is in the ideal position to thrive in the changes of the post-pandemic world, while also playing an important role in providing part of the solution to the long-running problem of creating a more meaningful and dynamic relationship between Dun Laoghaire town and its harbour.
Viking Marine has been in Dun Laoghaire as a chandlers and marine suppliers for some time. Yet when - in 1999 - Ian and partners Shane and Leighton Gray (grand-nephews of the highly-regarded local shipwright Skee Gray), took it over and relocated to a brand new shop in the smart Pavilion Quarter in the heart of the waterfront, the process whereby the fashionable retail section of the harbour town was moving steadily from its traditional town-centre location towards the waterfront was still at a relatively early stage.
The township's boat and yacht chandlers had often in times past been hidden up narrow side streets in quaint shops which admittedly had some of the charms of Aladdin's Cave. But it was not a retail model which suited the needs of the 21st Century, with Dun Laoghaire boat numbers increasing rapidly with the availability of the new marina.
Thus Viking Marine was ideally located to harness the spirit of the developing mood. To do this, however, it needed undivided personal attention. Originally, it was part of the Rumball family's Irish National Sailing School conglomerate. But as the INSS's waterborne activities expanded rapidly, trying to find the extra spark of a very different sort of energy to run a topline marine store was becoming a step too far. Thus Ian and Shane were exactly the right people at the right time to step in, take over the business, and provide that vital spark.
As the leading chandlery in Dun Laoghaire, Viking Marine in its new location was already a natural destination along the way for anyone making a journey to get to their boat in the harbour or marina. But underlying the Viking management's decision was their quiet confidence that the town's retail focus was moving steadily harbour-wards as prime sites along the waterfront were re-developed to provide an extensive range of up-market apartment and office blocks, interspersed with smart shops and hospitality outlets.
Each of these residential apartments was vying for a sea view, and many of them were inhabited by sailing and boating enthusiasts who expected the retail choices in their immediate neighbourhood to include a quality marine store where they could find the best of equipment for their boat, together with a comprehensive selection of quality sailing wear with the attractive alternative of a choice of good outdoor and leisurewear generally, and where – most importantly of all – they could find friendly and knowledgeable staff who shared their enthusiasm and fully understood their requirements.
To say that Ian and Shane fitted the role to perfection is something of an understatement. While their personal retail experience was strongest on the active consumer side, they were noted as being people who were clear in their own minds about their priorities. Ian's business experience was mostly in textiles while Shane had put himself through college looking after racing yachts. But the extra special factor they brought to the new challenge was a long and popular position at the heart of the Dun Laoghaire and Irish top-level sailing community – when you get advice and equipment from Viking Marine, you're getting it from a team headed by someone who really knows what he's talking about.
For Ian O'Meara had taken over the sole leadership of the Dun Laoghaire operation in 2010 when the business was re-structured, with Shane standing down from the partnership, while Leighton Gray concentrated on running the firm's workshops at Kilcoole in County Wicklow, where a parts and backup service is provided for Viking Marine's agencies, which include Topper sailing dinghies and Rigiflex Rescue Boats, while they're also main dealers for Mercury RIBs and inflatables, Waveline inflatables, and a very comprehensive range of outboard motors through the Mercury, Mariner and Suzuki ranges.
With this rationalisation of operations clarifying the emphasis on retail services in the Dun Laoghaire premises, Ian O'Meara's role is now even more clearly defined as an able and eloquent spokesman for the town's marine industry. Yet his enthusiasm for the development and positive possibilities of Dun Laoghaire's relationship with its harbour, which is being completely re-focused since management of the harbour passed to Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, is not the enthusiasm of a newcomer who has arrived fresh into the place during the past twenty years, and is filled with extravagant notions of change.
On the contrary, he is Dun Laoghaire born and bred, having grown up in Sandycove – where they still live - with his earliest memories being of childhood fishing for crabs "out the back of the house'. Yet his effervescent joy in the place is undimmed, as he and wife Jacquie are among that hardy group who take a refreshing open-sea plunge at the Forty Foot each morning to get them started into the day.
As for sailing, Ian's father Roger moved his focus between the Royal St George YC and the National as his interests shifted between racing Dragons and Glens, while Ian likewise found his early sailing needs depended on what was on offer at each club. So although he was "George" focused, his first serious steps afloat were with an Optimist in the Junior Programme pioneered at the National by Carmel Winkelmann and Paddy Kirwan.
In time he moved on to active Mirror racing with his own boat, and while there were other dinghies to be sailed, and also Sportsboat experience when the 1720s arrived, his affable nature, enthusiasm, under-lying competitiveness and natural ability in a boat meant that he soon found his niche as a sought-after crew member on cruiser-racers, with his early and wide experiences being with Barry O'Donnell and his remarkable family on the keenly-sailed Oyster 37 Sundowner, which gives a long-term symmetry to his sailing career, as Ian is now the Oyster Yachts representative for Ireland.
However, with a growing family – he and Jacquie have three now-grown-up children – there was a need for a family boat purely for cruising and pottering, and they were to solve this neatly by going into partnership in 2004 with two other families in a Harmony 38.
But the call of the racing was always there, and Ian O'Meara's sailing CV at the sharp end of local, national and international offshore racing reads like a Who's Who of the top end of the Irish scene, as his skippers have included Cormac Twomey whose First 44s7 Sarah J was at the front end of the fleet in the late 1990s with a string of successes which included Ian's first Dun Laoghaire to Dingle Race win.
He was on most of the "Gloves" programme on both sides of the Atlantic on various hyper-competitive boats with Colm Barrington. while also being with the same enlarged team on the Volvo Jeep Cherokee to set the Round Ireland Race record and overall win. He shipped with Peter Wilson on the all-conquering J/35 Jumpin' Jack Flash, while more recently he has been the man to go for if you want an all-rounder in a J/109. And as of now, he's most closely associated with Paul O'Higgins in a winning progression with the Corby 33 Rockabill V and the much-admired JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI , which was Ireland's top offshore racer in 2019 in all significant categories.
So not surprisingly Viking Marine has fitted well as a sponsor of ISORA Races. But Ian's scope has been further broadened by the addition to the firm's agencies of top international company Oyster Yachts, with recent experiences including racing with Liam Shanahan Jnr on the Oyster 625 Ruth II at the Palma Oyster Regatta. And then, as last Autumn phased into winter, he was with the FitzPatrick family aboard the elegant and successful Beneteau 50 Mermaid VI in the DBSC Turkey Shoot series.
Yet even with all this sailing, he still arrives full of vim into the Viking Marine Pavilion premises with its staff of seven on a Monday morning, fresh from the Forty Foot and brimful of ideas to take the business forward as we move from the time of lockdown into an uncertain future in which – despite all the uncertainties – the Team are excited about new possibilities as they apply modern marketing technology, further develop their social media presence, up-grade their online offer, and yet at same time retain what is best in their existing setup.
In addition to the strategically-located Dun Laoghaire retail operation, this is augmented by the growing RIB and Outboard Engine sales/service business in Kilcoole Industrial Estate in County Wicklow where fellow-founder and business partner Leighton Gray continues as a respected expert at engineering and mechanics in support of the firm's impressive agencies and dealerships.
The Lockdown provided a fast learning curve, as Viking Marine met an entire new cohort of people who wanted to escape the shoreside limitations by going afloat in sheltered location in kayaks and paddleboards – "we sold more paddleboards, kayaks and tenders in two weeks than we did in all of last year".
It has been an experience which has increased Viking Marine's enthusiasm for the potential of what a closer link - with easier access to the harbour and the sea - could do for Dun Laoghaire's general communal vitality. That enthusiasm is expressing itself in a whole new look for Viking Marine – which will be fully unveiled next week – and their appreciation for their remarkably high level of customer loyalty.
They have encouraged this by their range of starter kits, and their ability to give friendly and genuinely useful and experienced advice to young people who may not be cradle sailors, and who - in today's fast-moving and rapidly-changing world - see a user-friendly shop like Viking Marine as being their first point of contact with the strange yet wonderful world of waterborne sport and recreation.