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Famous Wooden Boat 'Saoirse' Maybe Re-Born At Baltimore Sailing Festival

23rd May 2015
saoirse
Can she be born again? There has never been anything quite like her, neither before nor since. Conor O'Brien's world-girdling Saoirse, seen here shortly after the start of the 1927 Fastnet Race, when the fleet went eastabout out of the Solent. In its original form, Saoirse's rig was an easily-managed gaff ketch. But for this one venture at offshore racing, while using the same masts, O'Brien made her into a sort of mini-brigantine with the mizzen making her almost like a schooner, as its area had been greatly increased by using a lug sail. Photo courtesy Gary MacMahon
Famous Wooden Boat 'Saoirse' Maybe Re-Born At Baltimore Sailing Festival

#woodenboats – In the annals of Irish seafaring, whether professional or amateur, only a very few can match the achievement of Conor O'Brien (1880-1952). Between 1923 and 1925, this multi-talented sailor from Foynes on the Shannon Estuary circled the world south of the Great Capes in the 42ft ketch Saoirse which he'd designed himself with the help of Tom Moynihan of the Baltimore Fisheries School Boatyard.

It was there that this unique vessel was built in 1922-23 as Ireland in general – and West Cork in particular – recovered from a short but brutal Civil War. The very fact that Saoirse was built in Baltimore, followed by the successful completion of her great voyage, became part of the slow post-war healing process. So as the 2015 Traditional and Classic Boat Season gets under way this weekend with the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival, W M Nixon voices the hope that Saoirse – which had been feared totally lost since 1979 – may be re-born.

They're hardy sailors in West Cork. That lotus-land of easygoing cruising may seem a gentle place in high summer, yet down there they've felt the recent summer-delaying cold spell as sharply as anywhere else. But despite the unfavourable conditions, as usual in this last full weekend of May we'll see the Baltimore Woodenboat & Seafood Festival swing into action. And although wooden boats need reasonably good springtime weather almost as an essential for the annual refit, there'll be a colourful turnout of character vessels large and small.

But the talk of the town will not be about a boat which is showing her style off the busy Baltimore waterfront today. Indeed, not only will this very special boat not be there, but it's a moot point as to whether she still exists. Put another way: Does enough of Saoirse still exists to allow a re-creation of this wonderful little ship to be properly classified as a re-build?

The voyage of the Saoirse in 1923-1925 only gains further lustre and wonder with the passage of time. It was an achievement of greatness, yet of beautiful simplicity. It was a uniquely pioneering venture made by an Irish skipper in an Irish designed-and-built vessel, and it was the first major voyage by an Irish ship of any size flying the Tricolour ensign of the new-born nation.

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Saoirse under her original ketch rig in the 1950s, but with a boom fitted to the mainsail. Conor O'Brien had a loose-footed mainsail, and as evidenced here, the sail would have set much better but would have needed more attention in handling. (From a photo by Eric Hiscock)

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In dry dock during the 1950s, Saoirse's "cod's head & mackerel tail" hull shape is clearly seen. Yet in the Great Southern Ocean on her voyage round the world south of the Great Capes, this bluff little 42ft ketch regularly logged 180 miles a day in comfort.

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The wreck of the Saoirse in Jamaica, 1979.

Thus when the news in 1979 of Saoirse's destruction in a hurricane in Jamaica was confirmed, if anything it added to the legend. But it also meant that the only other boat created by the same team in the same place – the 56ft trading ketch Ilen (1926) – acquired added significance. But she was a long way away, still working the stormy seas around the Falkland Island, for which she'd been built after the islanders had been so impressed by the capabilities of the Saoirse, when she called there after rounding Cape Horn from the west, that they ordered a bigger sister-ship to become the inter-island workboat .

Yet thanks to a totally single-minded approach by Gary MacMahon of Limerick, Ilen was brought back to Ireland in 1998. And though it has taken quite a while for the various ideas to become reality, she is now well on the way to what has become a very public restoration with Liam Hegarty at Oldcourt Boatyard near Baltimore, while the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick has become part of the fabric of Shannonside life, building not only the deckhouses and spars for Ilen herself, but an interesting selection of smaller boats ranging from traditional Shannon gandelows to the new CityOne sailing dinghies.

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A man who just doesn't give up. Gary MacMahon of the Ilen School in Limerick. Photo: W M Nixon

By any standards, all these projects would be remarkable achievements in themselves. But in addition to his day job running one of Limerick's leading design studios, Gary MacMahon has for twenty years and more been quietly accumulating every bit of documentation of all sorts there is to be found relating to Saoirse.

It's an absolute treasure hoard of old photographs, certificates, plans, artefacts and other materials. And through this collecting, he has become well acquainted with Anthony Bolton who was Saoirse's last owner. Bolton had the misfortune of seeing his beloved boat destroyed by a hurricane in Jamaica before rescue attempts could save her after she'd dragged her anchor and gone ashore.

But though Saoirse was broken up by the battering of the hurricane, substantial pieces of her remained on the sea bed, and two sea-worn iron hanging knees – lovingly fitted by the Baltimore shipwrights 93 years ago – have recently been confirmed as definite relics of the wonderful little ship.

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The hull lines of Saoirse as taken off by Uffa Fox in Cowes in 1927 before the start of that year's Fastnet Race (from which she retired, as endless windward work was not what she was designed for). Thanks to documentation of this quality, it will be possible to re-build Saoirse with precision. But in fact it has emerged that, such was the skill of Tom Moynihan and his boatbuilders in Baltimore in 1922-23, Saoirse as built very accurately followed the original lines drawn by O'Brien and Moynihan.

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Saoirse's hull sections as recorded by Uffa Fox in 1927.

More importantly, though, the word is that much of the keel may still be intact. So just as he somehow got himself to the Falkland Islands to buy Ilen back in 1997, Gary MacMahon will shortly be going on the much easier journey to Jamaica for some real on-the-spot research as to just how much of Saoirse survives.

These days, it need only be a very small piece of the original to count as a re-build. But the spirit of the Ilen School is such that even if they find nothing at all in Jamaica, the notion of re-creating Saoirse is gaining so much traction, with that great shipwright Liam Hegarty among those totally taken with the idea of seeing Conor O'Brien's characterful little masterpiece sail again, that already the idea has acquired its own momentum.

But there'll be time enough when winter comes around again to give proper attention to the full range of Saoirse material which Gary MacMahon has amassed in order to ensure an authentic re-build. Meanwhile, this weekend may be seeing the new classic and traditional boat season kick into action in Baltimore, but already things are well under way in France, with last week's huge gathering in the Morbihan on the Biscay Coast, to which seven Dublin Bay Waterwags travelled, and eight returned.

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The wonders of the Morbihan. A very small part of the fleet at the Sailing Week eight days ago, with four of the Dublin Bay Water Wags at mid left. Photo: Courtesy Judith Malcolm

Like all the great French classic and tradboat festivals, the Morbihan event (it's full title is La Semaine de la Voile du Golfe de Morbihan, that's Morbihan Sailing Week in simple English) was mind-bending in terms of numbers, with 1200 boats of all shapes and sizes taking part. But the scale and layout of the Morbihan is such that it could well cope. The extensive inlet has six main ports, so the fleet was divided into six sub-groups of around 200 boats each. Everyone mingled out on the water during the day, then each night of the week-long festival saw your group going to a new port.

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Two little Water Wags a long way from home – Ian & Judith Malcolm in the hundred year old Barbara (left) and Guy and Jackie Kilroy in Swift (right) in the midst of "sundry boats" in the Morbihan eight days ago. Photo courtesy Judith Malcolm

It worked, and it worked so well that the Irish flotilla of one Shannon One Design (Reggie Goodbody) and seven Water Wags not only had themselves a fine old time, but in a reversal of the usual story where our people return from distant places short of a boat or two, they came back with eight Wags, as Adam Winkelmann was united with his new boat. It was built in France as a boat-building academy exercise with a finish so exquisite that it was on exhibition in a marquee, but he was allowed to bring it home with him to Dublin Bay.

Far to the southwest in Baltimore, today we'll see a complex programme, as several traditional rowing craft (including a 23ft traditional Shannon cot or brochaun, the latest creation of Limerick's Ilen School built by a team headed by Tony Daly) were due to launch last night to berth at the pontoon in Skibbereen beside the West Cork Hotel. Today at 11am they start a rowing race all the way down the Ilen to Baltimore. Fortunately, the tide is ebbing.....

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The new 23ft Shannon cot or brochaun is the latest creation of the Ilen School in Limerick. The cot's usual task was to head upriver from Limerick to fish, but today this boat will be rowed down the River Ilen from Sibbereen to the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival.

The rest of the day will see sailing and rowing races off Baltimore with a prize-giving dinner tonight in Baltimore Sailing Club presided over by Tom MacSweeney of this parish, then tomorrow (Sunday), as the one day Seafood Festival gets into full swing, there's perhaps the most interesting event of all afloat. This is the Pilot Race, in which the sailing boats put out to sea, and then turn and approach the harbour to be met by racing gigs each of which has to put a pilot on board one of the sailing craft which then race back into the harbour – it all makes for mighty sport.

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Bowsprits at the ready, and the island ferry coming into port – it can only be Baltimore at Woodenboat Festival time

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If you can identify even half of the boat types here, then you should be in Baltimore this weekend.

If your heart is with classic and traditional sailing boats, you can get an abundance of them by being in Baltimore this weekend, and then by being along Dublin's Liffey for the Riverfest in a week's time for the Bank Holiday weekend. It's a three day event (May 30th to June 1st) based on Poolbeg Y & BC, with the Old Gaffer's Leinster Trophy Race in Dublin Bay on Saturday, and then two days above the bridge for all sorts of city festivities and boat parades through to Monday evening.

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The 117-year-old Howth 17s will be returning to the Dublin Riverfest in a week's time. Photo: W M Nixon

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The famous waterborne ballet of the Dublin Port tugs Shackleton and Beaufort will be a main event in the Dublin Riverfest over the Bank Holiday Weekend of May 31st-June1st. Photo: W M Nixon

Following that, on Saturday 6th June out in Howth, the Classic Lambay Race is being provided within the annual Round Lambay Regatta (it dates back to 1904), with the Old Gaffers and Traditional boats joining the 117-year-old Howth Seventeens for a direct circuit from a pier start out to Lambay, round it and back again direct, with no fancy special mark rounding in between.

Defending champion in the Classic Lambay is OGA International President Sean Walsh of Dun Laoghaire with his cutter Tir na nOg, and extra interest is added this year as the fleet will include Dickie Gomes' 1912-vintage 36ft yawl Ainmara, built in Ringsend but now a longtime resident of Strangford Lough. There's a certain edge to Ainmara's involvement, as she was overall winner of the cruiser division in the 1921 Lambay Race when still owned and sailed by her designer-builder John B Kearney. But if you think this remarkable historic link will cause her opponents to give her an easy time of it, you're much mistaken.

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The 103-year old Ainmara – seen here on her home waters of Strangford Lough with the Mourne Mountains in the distance – will be returning to the Lambay Classic at Howth on June 6th 2015, which she last won in 1921. Photo: Pete Adams

Sean Walsh is having a busy year of it, as his duties as OGA President take him hither and yon, while Tir na nOg will be flagship for the OGA Cruise-in-Company which will follow the big one of 2015, the Glandore Classics Regatta from July 18th to 24th.

But for this weekend, he's in his home waters of Dublin Bay on a venture which means a lot to him, the OGA Youth Sailing Project at Poolbeg under the direction of Liam Begley. It's for youngsters who might not otherwise get a chance to sail. They're taken out to learn the ropes aboard two fine gaff cutters, the Clondalkin Community group's majestic Galway Bay hooker Naomh Cronan, and the OGA President's own Tir na nOg.

When we remember that many folk head from Dublin towards Cork to go sailing, it's intriguing that in this case the young people have come the other way, as they're a group from Mayfield Community School which has eternal fame through being the old school of Roy Keane.

The tyro sailors from Mayfield – there's nine of them, all in the 15-16 age group - have already become boat-acquainted through the Meitheal Mara Community Boatyard in Cork city. But the outing to Dublin puts a different spin on it all, as the first stage is devoted literally to teaching them the ropes, then after the sailing programme is completed out in the bay, the shift in skills is demonstrated by command of the two gaff cutters being given over to the Mayfield crews, who then have to sail them back to port.

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OGA President Sean Walsh (top right) with Junior Gaffers from Mayfield Community School in Cork aboard Tir na nOg in Poolbeg in Dublin. Photo: John Galloway

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Junior Gaffers from Cork and Senior Gaffers from Dublin aboard the Naomh Cronan Photo: John Galloway

In all, it's an entertaining balance between an outing to Dublin, a chance to learn in a fun environment, and a real opportunity to demonstrate that practical skills have been well and truly acquired. And before somebody is driven to send in a rude comment after seeing these two photos of last year's Youth Sailing Project course, I hasten to assure you that when they do go sailing, everyone wears a lifejacket.

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3 comments

  • Comment Link U. Harig 8th May 2016 posted by U. Harig

    Its always sad to hear how many of these well know boats ended up in grief. I was aboard Saoirse at a River bend Marine in Ft Lauderdale . I thought it was in the early 80' but I worked there for many years so it certainly was earlier. One thing that always my mind was the massive main deck beams (If I remember right one had a crack in it) and construction. At the time many old boats were being patched up to participate in the smuggling of certain contraband. I remember TzuHang was in the yard once before being taken on one of those adventures. I hear she was sunk some were do to neglect. I wish you all the best in reconstructing her, its not often people can actually see what a real cruising vessel was like before cruising became a game of the rich and fiberglass cookie cutter boats.

  • Comment Link Liz Downes 13th February 2016 posted by Liz Downes

    Would love to hear any recent news of this. Saoirse was very well known to my family from the 1950s, I sailed on her many times in Cornwall. Her then owner Eric Ruck became a friend, in fact even more than that for my sister who married him in 1966. Saoirse was their pride and joy, she was far more than "just a boat" to them. It broke their hearts when ill-health forced them to sell. Even more heart-breaking was news of how she had come to grief in the West Indies a few years later - I had never seen the photo of that event before, and I kind of wished I hadn't now. Too sad an end for such a great little ship. Incidentally my mother who grew up in the village of St Mawes in Cornwall remembered seeing Conor O'Brien when he turned up in the summer, with his red hair and beard and bare feet! I'm guessing this would have been in the post world-war 1 period and the 1920s.

  • Comment Link Ronan Gregory 24th May 2015 posted by Ronan Gregory

    To whom it may concern,
    Love the article on the Saoirse,currently living in Jamaica and would love to offer my assistance in the search. I'm a qualified diver,unfortunately Scuba not very popular in Jamaica but I'm eventually getting positive leads and should be able to get a team of divers together.

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