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With the hull of the 56ft 1926-built Conor O’Brien ketch Ilen now restored and painted in the building shed in Oldcourt near Baltimore, attention shifts increasingly to the long list of detail work that is needed to complete the project writes W M Nixon.

Much of this is ideally suited to the facilities available in the Ilen Boat Building School in Limerick, where director Gary MacMahon and his team have assembled a group of all the talents for teaching and learning. These days, the evocative aromas and sounds of traditional ship-building and its associated tasks permeate both the school in the city, and the building shed beside the Ilen River.

ilen sept2In the Old Cornstore on the River Ilen near Baltimore, Matt Dirr works towards a perfect fit for the classic chainplates (above and below). Photos: Kevin O’Farrellilen sept3
Conor O’Brien’s global circumnavigation in the 42ft ketch Saoirse in 1923-25 inspired the Falkland Islanders to ask for a larger sister-ship to the same concept for their inter-island communications vessel, and the resulting Ilen was able - among other things - to transfer up to 200 sheep on the inter-island channels.

ilen sept4In Limerick, James Madigan shapes a new Douglas Fir cathead Photo: Gary MacMahon

With her larger size, she also enabled O’Brien and master shipwright Tom Moynihan of Baltimore to give more space to the steering gear. As O’Brien later admitted, they’d tried to pack so much into Saoirse’s compact 42ft hull that her steering wheel was awkwardly placed for long spells at the helm, so in Ilen they made a point of installing a more substantial arrangement which can now be seen re-created in Limerick.

In both the school in the city and the Old Cornstore in Oldcourt, it’s an immersive maritime experience of being transported back in time to the 1920s and far beyond.

ilen sept5Four angles on the re-created steering gear Photo; Gary McMahon
ilen sept6Molly MacMahon with the new steering wheel. In his subsequent books about seagoing gear and equipment, Conor O’Brien stipulated that the ideal size for a steering wheel is 42 inches. This is a “thin” 42 inches – as big as can be fitted. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Published in Historic Boats

These days, it’s reckoned that chainplates – those vital fittings that attach a sailing boat’s standing rigging to her hull – should be wellnigh invisible writes W M Nixon. Indeed, when you look at some of the latest products of the French marine industry such as Paul O’Higgins’ 2017 Dun Laoghaire-Dingle Race winner, the JPK 10.80 Rockabill VI, the chainplates looks to be so small that you wonder if there isn’t some large hidden structure within to carry the real load.

rockabill chainplates2Modern chainplates – as seen here on Paul O’Higgins’ JPK 10 80 Rockabill VI – tend to be minimalist. Photo Afloat.ie

But modern boat-building in carbon and composites has become so clever and weight-conscious that everything in a new boat is doing at least three things at once. Innovative designers find ways of carrying the loads on sections which also serve as part of the accommodation layout, while hiding the fundamental nature of the real work being done.

chainplate collection3The total Ilen collection, traditionally galvanized. They may look identical, but they’re not. Photo: Gary MacMahon

ilen mizzen4They started with the two starboard mizzen chainplates – and it took most of a day before they reckoned they were on the right track. Photo: Gary MacMahon

However, when the 56ft ketch Ilen was being built by Tom Moynihan and his shipwrights in Baltimore back in 1926, the function of the simple wrought steel chainplates was to transfer the load as visibly as possible over a significant section of the hull, with the chainplates uncompromisingly attached externally to minimise the chance of leaks.

Yacht builders naturally inclined to have their chainplates fitted internally, as that looked so much neater. But Ilen was of a traditional no-nonsense concept, and far from making the chainplates something to be invisible, the blacksmith of Baltimore crafted them to be simple and highly visible works of art.

ilen main5Ilen serenely in waiting as her starboard mainmast chainplates are fitted. Photo: Michael Boyd

ilen main6It may look peaceful in the Old Cornstore, but you have only one chance to get this job right. Photo: Michael Boyd
Yet their seeming simplicity is itself a blind. The chainplates come up over timber channels which guide their load-carrying section clear – though only just – of the bulwarks. It all has to be worked to a very fine tolerance, as Liam Hegarty and his team discovered in recent days in the Old Cornstore at Oldcourt where Ilen’s restoration is shaping up, and the new chainplates – made this time round by specialist Colin Frake – have been fitted in a painstaking process.

Definitely not a job to be rushed. You get only one chance of marrying the chainplates, channels and hull to perfection.

chainplates main7Still work in progress. The channels may need a bit of further shaping before that lower curve is properly supported. Photo: James Madigan
chainplates main8Once they’re finally fitted, the condition of the new chainplates can be regularly assessed. Note how the line of the upper part carries the rigging just clear of the bulwarks. Photo: James Madigan

Published in Historic Boats

When the restoration project on the 1926-built 56ft Conor O’Brien/Tom Moynihan Falkland Islands Trading Ketch got under way at two locations – Liam Hegarty’s boat-building shed in the former Cornstore at Oldcourt near Baltimore, and the Ilen Boat-building School premises in Limerick – it was expected that final jobs such as making up the rigging and creating the sails would be contracted out to specialists writes W M Nixon.

But while the plan is still in place to have the sails made in traditional style by specialist sailmakers, Gary MacMahon and his team in the Ilen Boat-building School came to the realisation that they’d made so many international contacts over the years while the restoration has been under way that, if they could just get the right people’s schedules to harmonise, then they could learn how to make up the rigging in their own workshops as part of the broader training programme.

conor obrien2Conor O’Brien in 1926, when he delivered Ilen to the Falklands. He had received the order for the new ketch as a result of his visit to the Falkland Islands during his round the world voyage with the 42ft ketch Saoirse in 1923-25

As a result, the Ilen Boat-building School became a hive of activity over the Bank Holiday Weekend and beyond, for that was the only time when noted heavy rigging experts Trevor Ross, who is originally from New Zealand, and Captain Piers Alvarez, master of the 45-metre barque-rigged tall ship Kaskelot, were both available to make their voluntary instructional contributions to the project.

trevor ross3Trevor Ross with a new eye splice in the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Ilen restored4The re-creation of Ilen’s rig, as developed by Trevor Ross with the late Theo Rye

Trevor Ross was professionally at sea for ten years, during which time he became fascinated with traditional rigging techniques. Though he now works ashore, his interest in traditional rigging and sail training is greater than ever - so much so that he worked with the late Theo Rye in finalizing the design of Ilen’s rig to match the original from Conor O’Brien’s day, while ensuring that it is practical in modern terms both for requirements of efficiency and safety.

kaskelot at sea5Captain Piers Alvarez’s current command is the 45-metre barque Kaskelot

Piers Alvarez grew up in English cider country near the broad River Severn, but his personal horizons were far beyond apple growing. When he was 15, the captain of the famous square rigger Soren Larsen came to live in the village, which gave Piers’ father the opportunity to sign on his restless son as an Able Seaman at least for the duration of the school holidays, but the boy became hooked on the sea.

More than thirty years later, the love of seafaring and traditional ships is undimmed. Although Piers’ maritime career has also taken in tugs, superyachts and ice-classed research vessels, his current role in command of the Kaskelot perfectly chimes with his most passionate interests, and he has been fascinated by the entire Ilen project from an early stage.

So when the possibility arose of spending time in Limerick working along with his old shipmate Trevor Ross on the rigging for Ilen as a training project for the Ilen School’s intake, he readily gave up a week of his leave to teach the Ilen’s build team and future crew everything he knows, while moving a key part of the Ilen plan along the path of progress.

piers and elan6Piers Alvarez and trainee Elan Broadly busy with their work in Limerick

james piers elan7Ilen School Instructor James Madigan (left) with Piers Alvarez and Elan Broadly, immersed in their learning work while everyone else is on holiday. Photo: Gary MacMahon

liam james elan piers8Team work. (Left to right) Liam O’Donoghue, James Madigan, and Elan Broadly on a steep learning curve with Piers Alvarez. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Modern amateur sailors, accustomed to today’s rigging where a terminal can be fitted in a seemingly-simple machine with the press of a button, can scarcely imagine the patient effort and skill which goes into making an eye splice in wire rigging which is of such a weight that, to most of us, it looks more like working with steel hawsers.

This is hard graft, but very rewarding in the result, and the satisfaction found in the effort expended. Much of it is done entirely by hand, but now and again that lethal multiple tool, the angle-grinder, will speed up a finishing job.

tension tool9Some of the tools used in setting up traditional rigging are of very ancient origin…………….Photo: Gary MacMahon

piers angle grinder10….but inevitably an angle grinder will be used at some stage, and Piers Alvarez is ace with it. Photo: Gary MacMahon

When finished, the neatly parcelled eye-spliced shrouds will fit the re-shaped mast like a glove, while at the other end, the shrouds will be tensioned by traditional lanyards through dead-eyes which have been made in Limerick from tough greenheart timber. It’s a long way from a drum of raw steel wire and a still squared hounds area to be progressed into something which will function on the massive mast in smooth partnership, providing Ilen with her sailing power. And in Limerick over the holiday week, it provided an unusually satisfying way to learn something new and useful.

rigging work drawing11With the simplest of work drawings, an experienced rigger can turn a piece of hefty steel wire into a serviceable piece of rigging. Photo: Gary MacMahon

hawser roll12The thick steel wire in its raw state is a daunting sight. Photo: Gary MacMahon

dead eyes13The lower ends of the shrouds will be attached to the chainplates by lanyards rove through deadeyes made from greenheart, seen here at an early stage of the shaping process in Limerick. Photo: Gary MacMahon

dead eyes14“Series production” of dead-eyes. Photo: Gary MacMahon

dead eyes15 Dead-eyes at the final stage of their creation. All that remains to be done is to shape grooves to allow a fair downward lead for the lanyards. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Published in Historic Boats

There are those who think that attributing characteristics of sentient life to the appearance of a boat is quaint to the point of serious irritation writes W M Nixon. So those opposed to such hyper-anthropomorphism may as well look elsewhere from here on in.

The fact is, fans of the historic 56ft ketch Ilen currently being restored in the Cornstore building at Oldcourt Boatyard near Baltimore reckon that she’s smiling to herself in the new paint job she’s been acquiring in recent days, and they won’t hear it of it being explained in any other way.

Certainly when we look back to those early days of the restoration rather longer ago than most of us care to remember, and the way that every job completed revealed that two more needed to be done, it is surely a matter for a quiet smile of satisfaction that this stage has at last been reached. So maybe it’s time for us all to cheer up just a little bit and see the brighter side of life as personified in this new colour scheme.

ilen paint job2A little bit done, a lot more to do…..shipwright Liam Hegarty (left) and Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Boatbuilding School at an early stage of the restoration, when the outlook was grim

Published in Historic Boats

The mood in the Corn Store at Oldcourt Boayard near Baltimore where the Conor O’Brien ketch Ilen is being restored may still be distinctly ghost-like writes W M Nixon. The old place would make a good setting for some tales of the otherworld even with clear air. But with the mist of busy spray-painting tingeing the scene, Ilen is emerging from her bare-wood state in a spectral climate where all things are possible.

And all things include the revelation of the final colour scheme chosen by Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Boatbuilding School. We’re told the 1927-built 57-footer will have blue-grey topsides, while the covering board and capping rail will be very soft grey, and the bulwarks will be white.

It has to be admitted it looks rather attractive. Subtle certainly. Yet I’m sure a majority in the Ilen/Afloat.ie poll voted for darkish green. I know I did, with the stipulation that she be given a classic white boot-top.

ilen colour2Ghost ship will sail again. Officially, Ilen is blue-grey hull, covering board and capping rail very soft grey, with bulwarks white. Photo: Gary MacMahon

In conversation with the great voyager/mountaineer Paddy Barry last night, originally on another topic, it seemed he too had voted for the dark green. So much so, in fact, that it led to a discussion of the origins of the colour English Racing Green in international motor racing. The answer is: think Counties Wicklow and Kildare, and Gordon Bennett. But that’s by the way. Meanwhile, the news on Ilen is she’s a class of blue-grey. We’d better get used to it.

Published in Historic Boats

When Gary MacMahon of Limerick brought the 57ft Conor O’Brien ketch Ilen back from the Falkland Islands in 1998, the 1927-built former inter-island trading and passenger transport vessel was in danger of becoming a ghost ship writes W M Nixon.

Since then, the long road of fund-raising and planning for this significant vessel’s useful future has taken time, but in due course a full restoration/rebuild was undertaken by Liam Hegarty and his master-shipwrights at Oldcourt. This most appropriately is on the Ilen River, just above Baltimore where Ilen was built to designs by Tom Moynihan and Conor O’Brien.

Work has progressed, and in recent days Ilen has entered an intensive painting stage to make best use of the dry atmospheric conditions of this unusually warm and sunny weather, which is some consolation for those of us who think the current meteorological phase is just too bright and hot altogether.

ilen ghost ship2A-haunting we will go…..Ilen’s current paint state in Oldcourt’s Corn Store would make provide an ideal setting for a touch of the Bram Stoker’s. Photo: Gary MacMahon

The application of the primer has resulted in her emerging in real ghost ship mode. What with the mist of from the painting work in Ilen’s current home in the Old Corn Store, and the overall blanking effect, the result is decidedly spooky.

But very soon the Ilen as she is going to be in her finished form will begin to emerge. Whether or not she will follow the people’s choice as revealed by the Afloat.ie Ilen Colour Poll on March 8th 2017 remains to be seen. Personally I would have inclined to the dark green if it could be complemented with a classic white boot-top. All will be revealed very soon. But for now, Ilen really is haunting Oldcourt Boatyard.

ilen ghost ship3A sailing ship reduced to her absolute basics by no more than the application of a coat of primer paint. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Published in Historic Boats

The annual Baltimore Wooden boat Festival this weekend (full dates are Friday 26th to Sunday 28th May) provides the perfect setting for a remarkable range of craft of all shapes, sizes and rigs writes W M Nixon. It brings with it all sorts of celebrations and activities afloat and ashore to match an occasionally – indeed, frequently – eccentric gathering of traditional and wooden boat fans.

Scroll down this story to read the full programme below.

In fact, there’s noting quite like it on sea or land anywhere in Ireland, as it’s a heady mixture of craft of types sometimes half as ancient as time itself, testing themselves afloat and against each other, with all of it including the inter-boat banter which is so much part of the sport.

Best of all, the meteorological portents are good - it looks as though it is going to happen in what might well be a weekend of better than reasonably good summer weather, so we can expect the hospitable sea-minded West Cork port to be totally en fete afloat and ashore.

They’ll be coming from all over Ireland and beyond, and a significant presence will be the Ilen Boat Building School from Limerick. Not only is their 57ft ketch Ilen nearing restoration near Baltimore at Oldcourt, but they will be bringing a collection of craft built by trainees in the school, where they also built the deckhouses and spars for the Ilen.

A focus of close attention will be one of the smallest boats of all, the 10ft Valentine Punt, which is assembled from a laser-cut kit based on marine plywood. The basic design used is a 10ft dinghy built in the 1920s in Passage West on Cork Harbour for John Valentine Sisk, and it his grandson, maritime historian Hal Sisk, who vividly remembers what a special pleasure it was to row this elegant yet practical little boat.

Ilen punt2The new Valentine Punt built by Elan Broadley in the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick is remarkable for its lightness. Photo Gary MacMahon

Thus he got the idea of making building kits available, using edge-glued (with epoxy) plywood “planks” to emulate the original’s traditional clinker construction, thereby providing a boat which is lighter yet more durable with much less maintenance.

When Hal heard the Ilen people were looking for a dinghy to act as tender for their vessel, he donated one of the kits to the school. And this newest Valentine Punt, which will debut in Baltimore at the weekend, has been built in the Limerick school by Elan Broadley from Donegal.

Ilen punt2With edge-glued “clinker” construction, the new Valentine Punt is easily maintained – unlike a traditional clinker boat as the bilges can be cleaned in seconds. Photo: Gary MacMahon

He had no experience of boatbuilding when he started, yet with patience he has learned as he worked, under instruction when needed. It may have taken 500 hours in all for him to complete the job, but the result is a lovely little boat. Among those there to celebrate with her proud builder at Baltimore this weekend will be his mother down from Donegal, and Hal Sisk, who learned to row in the original boat more than sixty years ago.

So in Baltimore this weekend, the mood in the sunshine will be of nostalgia and anticipation. Soon, the Ilen will launch. And once she is in full commission, the focus will turn to building a re-creation of Conor O’Brien’s famous world-girdling 40ft ketch Saoirse, originally built in Baltimore 95 years ago. Her re-birth comfortably in advance of her Centenary in 2022 is a very worthy target.

baltimore woodenboat2Ilen on her first commissioning day at Baltimore in 1927

Published in Historic Boats

The Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival 2017 from Friday 26th to Sunday 28th May will feature a remarkable selection of old, restored and new craft - traditional and classic alike - all reflecting the many aspects of the arts and crafts of the boatwright and shipwright writes W M Nixon.

The hospitable setting is highly appropriate, as there are more skilled boatbuilders beavering away in hidden workshops in West Cork than in any other comparable part of Ireland. And a few miles upriver from Baltimore on the River Ilen (which in due course brings you to the Olympic Medal-winning Skibbereen Rowing Club), you’ll find the boatyards of Oldcourt, where among other projects, Liam Hegarty and his craftsmen are bringing the restoration of the 1927-built ketch Ilen of Conor O’Brien fame to completion.

It’s the Ilen which provides a link to a notable debut at Baltimore by a new small boat in three weeks’ time. With both his world-girdling 40ft Saoirse of 1923, and the 57ft trading ketch Ilen which he delivered to her satisfied customers in the Falkland Islands, O’Brien felt that a robust and stable 10ft dinghy – or punt as he would have called it – provided all that he needed in the way of a ship’s tender.

ilen build2Progress continues on the restoration of Ilen. All the deckhouses - built in the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick – have now been installed in the ship herself at Oldcourt near Baltimore. Photo Gary MacMahon

He wasn’t alone in this view. At the same time in 1926 on Cork Harbour, John Valentine Sisk, owner of the substantial motor-launch Culleann, ordered a new 10ft punt for use as Culleann’s tender from noted Passage West boatbuilder Pierce Power. Cullean already had a 10ft punt, but it was considered too unstable. So Pierce Power faced the considerable challenge of creating a boat only 10ft long with firm midships sections for stability, yet with bow and stern artfully shaped to retain her predecessor’s ease of rowing.

He succeeded brilliantly, so much so that the Sisk family kept the punt after Cullean had moved on. Before John Valentine Sisk’s death in 1957, his three grandsons George, Hal and John had learned to row in this very special little boat. Then with his son John G Sisk now moved to Dublin, the Valentine Punt followed to be the tender to his Dun Laoghaire-based yachts Marian Maid, Stern and Sarnia until 1970.

She then went to a son-in-law Schull, and eventually was bought by fishermen on Long Island, where her yacht-style varnish was painted over, and finally tarred. She was reckoned past her working days when Hal Sisk found this fondly-remembered boat of his childhood and youth on the island, and had her restored. In time, she became part of the collection in the National Maritime Museum in Dun Laoghaire as representative of a type once found at every yacht and fishing harbour on Ireland’s south coast, and many other ports and anchorages elsewhere.

valentine wooden punt3The Valentine Punt with the aft thwart removed to show the carefully-calculated shape of the transom – when afloat, it will offer minimum drag while helping when necessary with the hull form’s inherent stability.
However, it was the ease of rowing the Valentine Punt which was the fondest memory, so the late Michael Tyrrell of Arklow took off her lines for Hal Sisk with a re-creation in mind. But it was reckoned that real benefit would be conferred if the lines could be used, yet instead of the inevitably heavy traditional clinker construction with ribs (timbers), much lighter construction could be achieved by building instead with glued clinker ply.

Alec Jordan in Scotland is an acknowledged expert in creating laser cut marine ply kits, which are then built into a boat with the “lands” of the lapstrake planks now bonded and sealed with impervious gap-filling epoxy resin. The result of this project was an elegant hyper-light and easily-rowed yet stable 10ft punt which has been the ideal tender for Hal Sisk’s classic cutter Peggy Bawn and his innovative motor-cruiser Molly Bawn.

The Valentine Punt is a concept which could have many uses, and when the notion of having one as the tender to the restored Ilen came up, the Ilen Boatbuilding School director Gary MacMahon in Limerick leapt at the chance, as the school is always enthusiastic about testing new methods of wooden boatbuilding to broaden its syllabus.

valentine punt4Elan Broadley at work on his special creation, the latest Valentine punt developed from a proven design which is now 91 years old. Photo: Gary MacMahon

This latest model of the Valentine Punt has been built in the school by Elan Broadley, a trainee boatbuilder from Donegal, and he and his attractive creation will be making their debut in Baltimore during the Wooden Boat Festival, with a bit of a party involving all the main players, and his mum down from Donegal. After that, the little boat won’t have far to go to be united with her mother ship, the Ilen herself, preparing for launching at Oldcourt.

Published in Historic Boats

The new Larch hull of the ketch Ilen nearing completion in West Cork has had its first coat of primer, only after much plugging, filling and sanding. Preparation, as all painters know, is the difference between a good job and a not so good one.

In a few weeks it will be time to follow the undercoat with a good finish or topcoat. And apart form the many paint types one has to choose from, comes the additional aesthetic choice - which hull colours might the good ship Ilen ultimately carry.

A wide hull colour selection process has been narrowed down to two distinct options - Green and Grey. Let us know what you think in the poll below:

Ilen GreyGrey (above) or Green (below) for Ilen's hull? Vote in our poll below

Ilen Green

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Published in Historic Boats

There is really no reasonable comparison between Ireland’s eastern and western seaboards writes W M Nixon. The east coast is quite densely populated, and while it has some areas of impressive scenery, in general it lacks the majestic inlets and islands which make sailing the Atlantic seaboard such a joy. That said, there’s no getting away from the fact that, taken overall, the east coast leads in economic activity, and at the very least there’s no doubting it has much less rain.

But when the rain in the west clears to reveal the coastline in all its glory, the extra precipitation seems a small price to pay for such visual natural abundance. And then too, while there are fewer people, they’re all so much larger than life, and bursting with innovative and entertaining ideas, that you’re inclined to think one western person is worth a dozen easterners.

However, those of us living and doing most of our sailing on the humdrum old east coast have one inescapable and total advantage over those in the west. When our east coast life gets too stressed and samey, we can escape for a while to the big country, fresh air and crazy attitudes of the west.

If you live in the west, you simply can’t genuinely experience this moment of release. But on the east coast, if life gets tedious, all that is necessary is head west for a day or two. The moment you cross the River Shannon, the spirits lift, and as you crest the watershed between the Shannon and Galway Bay, the big generous country of the west is rising on the horizon, and all is much better with the world.

In the west, too, they operate on a different time scale. And they do it in a different time zone. Until the railways of the 19th Century made some national co-ordination of time essential, local time meant that the recognised noon was later the further west you moved. As is only natural, Galway was twenty minutes later than Dublin. It was only with the exigencies of the Great War in 1916 that an Official Act was passed making uniform time-keeping a legal requirement. Oddly enough, no-one seems to have discussed what effect this draconian measure might have had in provoking the outbreak of the Easter Rising in 1916. Be that as it may, all we know for now is that in Galway, they still operate on a local time zone which is at least twenty minutes later than everyone else’s time, and is probably nearer half an hour.

Galway hooker connemara 2Galway hookers racing hard off the Connemara coast. This is the popular image of sailing in the west, but while vivid and true, the complete story of western sailing is much broader. Photo Paul Harris

This became apparent last week when I wheeled into the car park at Galway Bay Sailing Club to give a performance of the current illustrated warblefest, which is about Ireland’s unique relationship with gaff rig and how it has emerged that Irish sailors led the switchover to Bermudan. The details of that will have to wait for another blog, but on this particular night, the immediate concern – with less than a quarter of an hour to go to the advertised start time – was that there just one other car in the car park, and that was Vice Commodore John Murphy, who was there a minute earlier to open the place up for the night.

“Oh Jaysus, Nixon” thought I, “you’ve bombed tonight, there’s not going to be a soul here.” But there wasn’t a moment to brood on the prospect of a showbiz flop, for I was with Pierce Purcell the mover and shaker of the west, and he wanted to show me the almost-finished refurb job they’ve been doing on the ground floor setup in the clubhouse, where they’ve managed to greatly enlarge the floor-space and rationalise its use for a state-of-the art changing room and multiple-use room and boat and equipment store setup.

You know the feeling you get when you’re looking at a job which is going very well indeed. It’s heartening. The re-furb in GBSC is precisely that. It’s being overseen by members Pat and Emer Irwin - he’s the Project Manager and she’s the Architect – and is being done with exemplary efficiency, on time and within a budget of only €160,000, which is the best value in building work I’ve ever seen anywhere.

Galway Bay Sailing Club 3Galway Bay SC is nearing the completion of a clever refurbishment project which is within time, within budget, and excellent value. Photo Pierce Purcell

We emerged much encouraged from seeing all this to be further cheered by the fact the club was warming up with its famous big stove in the middle of the bar getting into its stride, and the place filling up with people from near and far. For of course I’d temporarily forgotten that Galway’s in a different time zone and it wouldn’t be until around 8.30pm that we’d have some idea of the real turnout, and how effective it might be for the yellow welly collection. This is an idea imported from Poolbeg Y & BC which provides the most painless way of raising funds for the lifeboats. You just provide one yellow RNLI seaboot and request the audience to see how many €5 notes they can get into it. Usually it concludes with some worthwhile figure inevitably ending in either zero or five, but Galway being Galway, the night concluded with the boot yielded up a sum ending with six euro and eight cents……

The show became something we all had to go through with, just in order to justify being there, so it went ahead and finally got to its meandering conclusion. Then the lights went up to reveal even more people had arrived. Pierce Purcell had certainly done his stuff in the phonecall chivvying department, for despite all your modern means of instant total-cover communication, the personal phone call seems to be more important than ever, and the photo below gives some indication of the coverage he achieved, while also hinting at the conviviality of an evening in which a shared love of boats and sailing and a good club atmosphere completely obliterated any feeling of it still being winter outside.

west coast sailors 4Western gathering. In Galway Bay SC are (back row, left to right) Simon McGibney (Commodore ICRA & ISA Board Member), John Leech (Commodore, Lough Derg YC), Afloat.ie’s W M Nixon, Adrian McConnell (Royal Western YC, Kilrush), Peter Fernie (Rear Commodore Irish Cruising Club) and Richard Glynn (Commodore, Royal Western of Ireland YC). Front row left to right Elaine O’Mahony, (outgoing Hon Sec Foynes YC, 2016 Volvo ISA Training Centre of the Year), Cormac McDonnacha (Chairman, WIORA Week), and Gary Allen, outgoing Commodore GBSC. Photo: Pierce Purcell

It was good to talk again with Barry Martin of Galway who made such an impact as bo’sun on the Asgard II many years ago that he found himself being recruited into the same role for both the much larger Britsh sail training schooners Winston Churchill and Malcolm Millar, a job in which he was so successful that he ended his sail training career as a senior officer on the Churchill.

There too were Jim Grealish and Barry Heskin, against whom we used to race inshore and offshore in the days when we each had boats around the 35ft size, boats of very different type yet rating notably similar, so if the Morrisssey-Grealish-Heskin squad appeared on the starting line with Joggernaut, aboard Witchcraft of Howth we knew we were into a boat-for-boat battle in which no quarter would be given, yet everyone would be the best of friends afterwards.

But if there was ample opportunity in GBSC for memories of good times past, equally there was plenty of discussion of the here and now, and it was fascinating to meet up with Dan Mill who runs the busy boatyard in the industrial estate beside Galway Docks. Dan’s story is such that we’ll be developing it into a complete blog in due course, sufficient to say at the moment that his links to Ireland are extraordinarily complex, for although he was born in England, at the age of three his parents together with another family set off to sail to New Zealand from Lymington in the then-bermudan-rigged 43ft Tyrrell ketch Maybird, and Maybird of course is now back in Ireland fully restored as a gaff ketch, and well-known in the ownership of Darryl Hughes.

Maybird Bermudan ketch 5Maybird as a Bermudan ketch. It was under this rig that Dan Mill sailed on her from England to New Zealand while still a child

As for young Dan, growing up in New Zealand he naturally moved into boat-building in what is probably the best boat-building school in the world, the New Zealand marine industry. But then Mna na hEireann took a hand in his life-path.

It would be difficult to overestimate the influence that the charms of the Women of Ireland have had on the development of a small yet top-level boat-building industry in this country. But there’s something about marine craftsmen and Irish women which gets them together and entices the craftsmen to settle in Ireland despite the fact that, let’s face it, anyone trying to produce such top quality work here is ploughing a lonely furrow a long way from the great centres of the specialist industry, such as the Solent district, parts of the Baltic, certain places in Brittany, and particularly New Zealand.

Yet the women get them, and they get them home to Ireland, and they keep them. Thus we have the likes of Dan Mill in Galway, Steve Morris in Kilrush, and Bill Trafford in the hidden depths of the country near Mitchellstown, all three of them trying to ensure work of the highest quality in a country where “Ah sure, ’twill do” is sometimes the defining motto in woodwork.

Having arrived in Galway, Dan Mill found himself within the orbit of the formidable John Killeen, with whom all ideas are possible, and somehow they found themselves setting out to build a cruising version of an Open 60.

Nimmo yacht construction 6The galley area in Nimmo under construction

Nimmo Yacht table 7Beauty in detail – Dan Mill’s craftsmanship in evidence on a table for Nimmo.

In the end she became a very one-off 68-footer named Nimmo in honour of the great Scottish harbour engineer Alexander Nimmo, who is one of John’s heroes. When she was eventually finished after four years with Dan being responsible for virtually every bit of skilled work in her complex construction and superb finish, he was exhausted, but his reputation in Galway was well established at a very high level, and he’s now the man to go to with boat maintenance needs and problems. He’s not above undertaking a mid-level job such as putting a new deck and coachroof on an older fibreglass hull, but as for launching another project on the Nimmo scale, that would require some thinking about.

Launching day Nimmo 8Launching day for Nimmo, built in a very basic shed in Galway
Dan Mill 9Dan Mill this week in the boat yard in Galway

Nevertheless, talking with the man who built Nimmo was an eloquent reminder that there’s a lot more to sailing in the West than Galway Hookers and other traditional craft. But equally it was a reminder that the traditional skills are still being maintained and indeed nourished out beyond the Pale. So after a leisurely breakfast next morning with Pierce and Susan Purcell in their dream house in Clarinbridge, with a busy red squirrel feasting on the bird table close outside the generous window, there was time to inspect Pierce’s boatshed out the back, one of those green steel sheds which sit so well in the Irish countryside, particularly when – like Pierce – you have your 26-footer comfortably winterised in it, and a fine well-equipped workbench right to hand.

Clarenbridge Pierce purcell 10What price a facility like this at your house on the East Coast? Pierce Purcell in “the little shed out the back” at Clarenbridge Photo W M Nixon
It’s the sort of ideal setup very few can manage on the over-crowded East Coast, and I headed south musing on the east-west imbalance, and readying the thinking for something entirely different - the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick. This started as the backup service for the restoration of the Conor O’Brien 57ft ketch Ilen by Liam Hegarty at Oldcourt near Baltimore, and recently in the Ilen School they’ve produced deckhouses for Ilen to the highest standard, and are currently finishing the last of the new spars.

But under the inspiration of Gary MacMahon (who personally was responsible for bring Ilen home from the Falklands) and others such as Brother Anthony Keane of Glenstal Abbey, the Ilen School has become a remarkable educational and training resource undertaking a wide variety of projects such as creating replicas of the traditional Shannon Estuary gandelows, and building a class of the very handy CityOne sailing dinghies to a design by the late Theo Rye, a successful project which further revealed the multiple talents of that much-mourned expert in every aspect of naval architecture.

grand banks dories Ilen BoatbuildingCourses constructing traditional Grand Banks Dories provide popular night classes at the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick. Photo W M Nixon

Another handy course which the Ilen School offers is through building traditional Grand Banks dories, simple yet effective boats which must have seemed very small indeed as you were left behind in the Grand Banks fog by the Bluenose fishing schooners to get on with the day’s business of ling-lining for cod. By the time the schooner found you again towards evening, your little dory would be dangerously laden with a great catch of wet and scaly silvery wealth.

In fact, the Ilen School is a whole host of experiences, for there in the main work-space were the mighty new spars for Ilen together with the distinctly aged original gaff which goes all the way back to Tom Moynihan and his shipwrights in Baltimore 91 years ago. And in another workspace, the Ilen team are building two very able little dinghies to the Valentine type from dimensions supplied by Hal Sisk, and they will in time be Ilen’s boats. But before you get to these sensibly–shaped little dinghies, you’ve to take on board the Hildasay, the Ilen school’s latest acquisition.

Valentine dinghy Hal sisk 12The Valentine dinghy, from plans provided by Hal Sisk, has been built at the school to be a ship’s boat for Ilen. Photo W M Nixon

Ilen gaff boom 14Ilen’s new main gaff boom (left) and the original (right), which was shaped in Baltimore in 1926. Photo W M Nixon

mainmast Ilen 13The mighty mainmast for Ilen, with topmast temporarily in place in Limerick, is ready for dismantling and transport to Baltimore. Photo W M Nixon

We all know that Limerick is a Viking city, in fact there are those who would argue that it still is, and in its rawest state too. But nevertheless it takes a while to get your head round how a boat like Hildasay, of the very purest Viking descent, should have ended up in a big shed in a trading estate in Limerick.

Hildasay was built in Shetland as a sailing development of the traditional clinker-built sixareen (six oars) in 1951, and is such a sweet little 26-footer that your heart falls for her, even if your head tells you that the slim Viking stern mean there’s very little space just where you most need it most, while the classic clinker construction poses its own special maintenance problems in a vessel which is a semi-keelboat.

Jack Hawks Shetland sixareen 15Jack Hawks with the Shetland sailing sixareen Hildasay, whuch he has donated to the Ilen Boatbuilding School. Photo: W M Nixon
She has been in and around the Shannon Estuary for abut 15 years, but owner Jack Hawks was recently seriously ill, and though he has fully recovered he felt the demands of Hildasay were getting a little too much for him, and wondered if the Ilen Boat Building School would be interested in her as a gift.

She’s an ideal gift, as she’s of a size to be very manageable, she provides special maintenance problems which, while not enormous, are very educational as part of the school’s courses, and each summer when she’s in commission she could be based either on Lough Derg, or somewhere down the Estuary.

Team Ilen School 16The “day team” at the Ilen School with their new acquisition Hildasay include Luki O’Brien, Jack Hawks, Elan Bromley, Owen Lacey, Sid Dorchenas, Matt Diss, Gary MacMahon and Luna MacMahon. Photo W M Nixon
The problem in Limerick is that though the Shannon is very much in the midst of it, access to it in the heart of town is limited, and in any case below the weir the big tides are a problem. But up on Lough Derg or further down the Estuary, there are all sorts of opportunities to get conveniently afloat, and having the use of an interesting sailing boat which is bigger than a CityOne or a gandelow is a natural add-on to the Ilen School’s activities, providing a broadening of the mind for some young would-be boatbuilders who may have spent too much time solely at the workbench without seeing what the resulting use of the end product is all about. And who knows, but they might even manage a race with the lovely gaff cutter Sally O’Keeffe built by Steve Morris of Kilrush with the community team from nearby Querrin as a replica of the traditional Shannon Estuary trading hooker.

Having seen the possibilities of mind-broadening in Limerick, the final part of this western tour took in a project which is mind-blowing. Admittedly the good people of the townland of Skenakilla would never for a minute think of themselves as being in the west, but for the rest of us this hidden spot beyond Mitchellstown in North Cork seems to be in the middle of nowhere. But then when you’ve found it, and spent a bit of time with the ebullient Bill Trafford in his remarkable Alchemy Marine boat workshop in Skenakilla, you feel you’re at the hub of the universe.

Bill is another case of Mna na hEireann reeling them in – a classic yachtbuilder and particularly an enthusiast for the International 6 Metre Class, he met an Irish girl and that was that. He made a living plying his highly specialized trade the length and breadth of our island working from a van, and then discovered his own niche in doing interesting, indeed extraordinary things, with old fibreglass boats.

Bill Trafford Elizabethan 23 17Bill Trafford’s transformation of an Elizabethan 23 won international awards last year.

Etchells 22 lengthened 20Bill Trafford’s current project at Alchemy Marine is the transformation of an Etchells 22 into a weekend cruiser by raising the freeboard, and providing a beautifully-made coachroof (foreground) Photo: W M Nixon

Bill TraffordBill Trafford – he is as enthusiastic about the full potential of glassfibre construction as he is about using classic yacht joinery work. Photo W M Nixon

He’s unusual in that he’s as enthusiastic about the wide potential of glassfibre construction as he is profoundly satisfied by working in wood to the highest classic yacht standards. While his special abilities were well known to a select few, he came to international notice last year when one of his masterpieces, the complete re-working of a seemingly tired little Elizabthan 23 into an elegant 26ft sloop with a classic New England style, was awarded a top prize in the Classic Boat annual competition.

His current project for a Cork owner is even more intriguing, the transformation of an ordinary and no longer young Etchells 22 into a 34ft LOA day cruiser of unique appearance. He has raised the topsides using glassfibre moulding to give her a completely fresh sheerline, he has transformed the stern by giving it a new-look counter with a curving transom which gives more than a nod in the direction of the unique sterns of the Friendship sloops of Maine, and he has built the most beautiful coachroof in the best Knud Reimers style to provide a boat which comes with a heady combination of Down East and Scandinavia to her.

Etchells 22 lengthened 20The lengthened stern has seen the rudder being moved aft by half a metre to provide a much roomier cockpit. Photo: W M Nixon

west sail21While compact, the accommodation provides for weekend cruising, but it’s expected to be comfortable day sailing which will be the best use of the “new” boat. Photo: W M Nixon

The stern is lengthened such that the LOA is now 34ft instead of the original 30.5ft, and the possibilities this has provided for a large cockpit to match the very pleasant accommodation (including a proper toilet compartment and a Beta diesel auxiliary) have been met by moving the entire rudder half a metre aft.

With his experience of tweaking boats this way and that, Bill reckons the sailing balance will if anything be improved by this re-location of the rudder. Personally, in the standard Etchells I’d always thought it too far forward anyway, so I could live with this change, yet found it entertaining to note that while he talked of moving the rudder aft by half a metre, when I asked him how he calculated the perfect-looking camber in the new deck, he said his rule of thumb is one inch for every four feet of beam. This is as near as dammit one in fifty, but his mixture of measurement systems makes him just like the rest of us who are mere bodgers, for when we’re measuring something we just use the side of the steel rule which comes up first, be it metric or imperial…….

deck camber 22Under the new foredeck – Bill’s rule of thumb is a deck camber of one in 48. Photo: W M Nixon

This is very much a bespoke project, so Bill has been able to introduce all sorts of quirky little features, a very attractive one being the ports for the navigation lights, which are set well into the hull either side of the stemhead, and look for all the world like the eyes put in Mediterranean boats to ward off evil spirits. In fact, they give such an appearance of good cheer to this new-old boat that when you see her from ahead, she looks for all the world as though she is smiling so much that she’s about to burst out laughing.

ports navigation lights 23The Watchful One…….it was a Bill Trafford’s idea to build special ports for the navigation lights. Photo W M Nixon

There’s still quite a bit to do before she’s ready for the water, but Bill is now in such a rhythm of working on his own that he can put in long productive hours without really noticing it, so we hope to get back to Skenakilla sooner rather than later. As for those around him, one unexpected advantage of being near Mitchellstown is you’re right in the heart of the dairy engineering industry, where the use and working of stainless steel is second nature. In fact, down there they sometimes use stainless steel which is of a superior grade to the 316 which is usually good enough for the rest of us.

Truth to tell, I didn’t know there were types of stainless steel superior to 316, but you learn many things down in Skenakilla, and it was encouraging to hear that the best workers in the stainless steel fabricating shops are happy to lend their skills in their spare time to bring Bill’s self-made stainless steel fittings up to professional standards of finish.

stainless steel yacht fittings 24Thanks to the local presence of high-grade stainless steel engineering for the dairy industry, it has been possible to make these fittings in Skenakilla. Photo: W M Nixon

Yacht coachroof 25A work of art in its own right, the new coachroof will be fitted any day now. Photo: W M Nixon

All being well, the new boat will be a star at the 25th Anniversary Glandore Classics Regatta from July 23rd to 29th, in fact Bill rather hopes the owner might consider taking her to the Classics Regatta celebrating the Bicentenary of Dun Laoghaire Harbour from July 6th to 9th as part of Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta.

The good news here is that Cathy MacAleavey, chair of the Dun Laoghaire Classics organising committee, and Sally Wyles, who heads up the Glandore organisation, got together last weekend to see about selling their two events as a sort of package, as the clear fortnight between them makes participation in both a very realistic proposition.

Certainly the Dun Laoghaire Classics is beginning to look impressive, particularly if you go by the measuring method of counting the number of famous designers involved. The recent interest shown by Rob Mason of Milford Haven to come over with his newly-restored 36ft Alexander Richardson-designed 36ft Myfanwy brings a once-famous Liverpool designer back into the limelight. It’s where he deserves to be, for Richardson designed John Jameson’s all-conquering Irex in 1884.

Alexander Richardson 36 footer MyfanwyRob Mason with his restored 1897 Alexander Richardson 36-footer Myfanwy off Milford Haven. He has indicated interest in participation in the Bicentenary Regatta in Dun Laoghaire in July

In Dublin Bay, Myfanwy would see this Richardson creation shaping up to designs by G L Watson, Alfred Mylne, William Fife, John Kearney, O’Brien Kennedy, Arthur Robb and others, and that’s the list already with the net only newly cast.

As for what Glandore can offer, there’s at least one unique proposition. A special race will be sailed to honour the memory of Theo Rye, the fleet including the CityOnes from Limerick and a host of other boats, new and old. On each and every one of them, Theo would have had something new and of real interest to say, for that’s the kind of devoted student of naval architecture he was throughout his far-too-short life. He is much missed.

Theo Rye 27Much missed. The late Theo Rye aboard the 1887 Fife cutter Ayrshire Lass, which was restored by Michael Kennedy at Dunmore East. Theo Rye will be commemorated in a special event at the 25th Anniversary Glandore Classics Regatta from July 23rd to 29th. Photo: Darryl Hughes

Published in W M Nixon
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