#oga50 – The continuing harsh weather has made it rugged going for vintage boats and veteran owners as they get themselves together for this year's Old Gaffers Association 50th Anniversary cruise, which started on April 21st in a brief spell of gentler Springlike conditions from Maldon in Essex, birthplace of the OGA in 1963.
The format of the cruise is a voyage round Great Britain, with some boats going all the way while others join and leave as they please. There's a diversion in a fortnight's time in the Irish Sea westward to Dublin Bay for the Bank Holiday weekend at the start of June, and this will see the OGA50's first assembly of classic and traditional boats in significant numbers. With the programme continuing throughout the summer, numbers will continue to build until it concludes with a mighty Golden Jubilee regatta in Cowes in mid-August.
The Old Gaffer enthusiasts are nothing if not individualists, with boats to match, so getting them to move in the same direction, and at the same time, is about as easy as herding cats. As for speeds, they vary enormously, so it is it all being done within broad parameters, with reliance on good will and the camaraderie of the sea to keep together a fleet of mind-boggling diversity.
The April starters from the heartlands of the association in places like Maldon and Pin Mill and other East Anglian ports were soon joined by a strong contingent from the Netherlands, and gradually they've made their way south and west with the first proper gathering taking place in Southampton Water on May 4th and 5th.
Sailing their home waters of the Thames Estuary takes it own special skills, but it's only natural that those who are more accustomed to working their way among sheltered mudbanks tend to see the coastlines down towards Land's End and the Atlantic as a particularly challenging area. Unfortunately, the seaways and the weather Down West have done nothing to diminish this, with Maytime snow falling in Devon, and winds of Force 10 seeing the boats holed up in every port from the Solent down to Penzance.
Thames sailing barges at Pin Mill in East Anglia, a world away from the rugged Atlantic waters of Land's End. The founders of the Old Gaffers Association in 1963 kept their boats at snug ports like this, but their Golden Jubilee Cruise is taking on the challenge of sailing on waters of all kinds. Photo: W M Nixon
But with the handsome 55ft Annabelle J (Philip Cogdell) setting the pace as befits a 1995 take on the classic Bristol Channel Pilot cutter concept, this weekend the leaders have reached Milford Haven to link up with boats from South Wales and the Bristol Channel area. The festivities will be mighty, but with the challenge of Land's End astern, the distances are now modest, and it becomes a sort of royal procession, as in a week's time they'll be making the scene in Holyhead. And after that, it's only 55 miles across Channel to join the growing throng in Dublin Bay.
The 55ft Annabel J steps out at the initial sailpast in Southampton a fortnight ago. She has been setting the pace in the gale-dogged progression down to Land's End and north to Milford Haven. Photo: Keith Allso
Every finger a marlin spike.......a pair of hard chaws convince themselves that summer has arrived aboard Aeolus in the Southampton sailpast Photo: Keith Allso
Obviously such a relaxed programme anticipates that different crews will have their own variations on the basic themes, and already one of the Dutch participants, Rik Janssen's 46ft Cine Mara, has kept to the northwest after Land's End, and is heading for Cork. But that was always on the cards, as Cine Mara is a steel-built Galway Hooker, and if she doesn't actually get to Galway Bay, at least some Galwegians might come a-visiting if she can get to Cork before heading for Dublin Bay.
The 46ft Cine Mara (Rik Janssen) is a steel-built Galway Hooker
Built by the Dublin co-operative which owns and sails her, the Galway Hooker Naomh Cronan is a regular participant in Old Gaffer events. Photo: W M Nixon
By the time Dublin Bay is reached, there'll be enough gaffers of all kinds taking part to satisfy even the most fastidious enthusiasts, and entries include the senior of them all, Adrian "Stu" Spence's much-travelled 43ft former Bristol Channel pilot cutter Madcap from Strangford Lough, built in Cardiff in 1875. There's even a 64 footer coming direct from the west from the Midlands, down the Shannon from Athlone, then through the Grand Canal to the Liffey. This is Rachel Leech's 64ft Dutch tjalk Ebenhaezer, normally an adornment of Lough Ree, but the Poolbeg party was too good to miss.
Joining her from about as far east as it is possible to get in England is another cutter of special interest, the 1898-built Witch (Alastair Randall). With her home port on the lovely Walton Backwaters, Witch is a long way from her birthplace, as she was designed and built by Dickie's of Tarbert on Loch Fyne to be the sailing ferryboat for the Scottish island of Gigha, a role which she fulfilled for 20 year before being converted to a cruising yacht in 1918.
The 31ft cutter Witch was built in 1898 to be the ferry boat for the Scottish island of Gigha.
Even as Witch was under construction in Tarbert, across the North Channel in Carrickfergus on Belfast Lough the first five boats of the Howth 17 class were being built by John Hilditch to the designs of Herbert Boyd. All five boats are still sailing 115 years later, they have thirteen newer sister-ships also surviving, and around a dozen of the class will be taking part in the OGA 50th events in Dublin Bay.
The programme is busy, to say the least. The main event on Saturday June 1st is a race for the cruisers for the RMS Leinster Trophy, which has been presented by the postal workers union to commemorate the hundreds who were lost on RMS Leinster when she was sunk by two torpedoes from a German U Boat in 1918 five miles east of the Kish, remembering in particular the 21 postal workers who died in the mail-sorting room when the ship went down in minutes.
The race course will start from Dun Laoghaire, and will follow at least part of the Leinster's route on that fateful day, before returning to Dublin Bay and a finish at Poolbeg. By that time the Howth 17s should be there, as they start from Howth at 0900hrs on the Saturday morning to get into Dublin Bay before the tide starts to run north.
On Sunday, the entire fleet goes up the Liffey through the East Link and is based along the quays, while the Seventeens stage a historic in-city race between the bridges. Then it's back to Poolbeg that evening, and on Monday things wind down in gentler style with a 1300 hrs start for an all-comers race in Dublin Bay for the Asgard Trophy, specially made by marine conservator John Kearon from spare materials saved from Erskine Childers' Asgard when he was in charge of the preservation process.
It's an appropriate way to conclude the Dublin Bay events, as many of the boats taking part are miracles of loving preservation projects. It's a matter of wonder, for instance, that the Howth 17s are not only still going, but they're still going strong. It's not as if they're handled gently when they're sailed. On the contrary, after 115 years, they're still raced flat out. Maybe there's a lesson for us all in this.
It's the way they sail them....The 1898-built Howth 17 Aura (Ian Malcolm) enjoying a bit of extreme sport in wind-over-tide conditions in Howth Sound. Photo: Jaimie Blandford
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WM Nixon's Saturday Sailing blog appears every Saturday on Afloat.ie