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Tall Ship Grace O’Malley’s Stately Inaugural Progress Along Irish Coast Promises Worthwhile Maritime Future

13th August 2022
A heart-stirring sight – Grace O’Malley under full sail
A heart-stirring sight – Grace O’Malley under full sail

In recent days, we’ve seen celebrations honouring the super-star young sailors who have brought major international sailing medals of gold, silver and bronze home to Ireland and their rightfully-delighted families and cheering local clubs. These are sailors whose special talent has been identified and encouraged at an early stage in a broadly maritime sociological environment, such that they almost automatically qualify for inclusion and support in what we might call the Fast-Track Flotilla.

But make no mistake about it, there has to be a very special talent present in the first place. And there has to be a preparedness for dedication to a level of hard work at fitness, combined with an almost continuous devotion to practice, which would arguably amount to cruelty were it not for the fact that it is usually the young Special Ones themselves who are setting this personal career pace, and where necessary ruthlessly dragging their supporting circle along with them.

Letting them start young. Laser Gold Medallist Rocco Wright in his Optimist-racing daysLetting them start young. Laser Gold Medallist Rocco Wright in his Optimist-racing days

Nevertheless, there’s no denying that often they start from relatively special positions in the first place, and thus it is timely to take an overview of one of the routes into sailing available to those who may not come from a sailing background or who even - though it is rare in Ireland – live at some distance from a place where sailing is regarded as just one of many parts of the local scene.

While noted sailing schools – of which the all-encompassing Rumball family’s INSS in Dun Laoghaire is the largest – play a very praiseworthy role in bringing people into the sport, as do clubs with an energetic local outreach programmes, there’s no doubt that when the Sail Training Brigantine Asgard II was in her prime, she was uniquely placed to bring young - and sometimes not-so-young folk – into a state of natural sea-awareness.

When the going was good. Captain Tom McCarthy (foreground) with the crew of Asgard II in Coruna in 1990 after being declared overall winners of the International Sail Training Plymouth-Coruna Race. Photo: Ted CrosbieWhen the going was good. Captain Tom McCarthy (foreground) with the crew of Asgard II in Coruna in 1990 after being declared overall winners of the International Sail Training Plymouth-Coruna Race. Photo: Ted Crosbie

For Asgard II ticked all the boxes. She had a natural historical position, she was just big enough to be seen as the national flagship, she was instantly recognised in whatever Irish or foreign port she was visiting, and aboard her there was true equality in shared seagoing experience and the learning process. She was the living breathing camaraderie of the sea in one attractive and accessible package.

So when she sank - for still not really satisfactorily explained reasons - in the Bay of Biscay fourteen years ago, to be followed to a watery grave in Rathlin Sound two years later by the Northern Ireland 80ft ST ketch Lord Rank, despite the absence of any loss of life the Irish maritime community north and south went into a state of grief of such profundity that some of us still haven’t really got through the denial stage.

There are times when we really do believe that it’s all a bad dream, that Asgard II will sail into port in the morning. And beyond that, we find it difficult to accept that it seemed the Civil Service and most of the Government were glad enough to see Asgard II gone in 2008, as running a sail training ship does not fit easily into any Irish government programme, and at a political level there are proportionately very few votes – even in coastal areas – in promising to provide such a service.

But happily there are those who - instead of sinking into gloom – steadily moved into action, and the recent certificate awards ceremony of Coiste an Asgard’s successor Sail Training Ireland reminded us that at a more modest size, there are private-enterprise craft as diverse as the Limerick ketch Ilen, the ex-MFV Brian Boru and the chartered-in Pelican which provide berths for Irish trainees.

The former Brixham trawler Leader is a recent addition to the fleet in IrelandThe former Brixham trawler Leader is a recent addition to the fleet in Ireland

As well, from the north and lately seen in Dublin is the classic Brixham sailing trawler Leader, while for those whose offshore sailing ambitions are very specific, Ronan O Siochru’s Irish Offshore Sailing of Dun Laoghaire provides courses in Sunfast 37s which can culminate in the Dun Laoghaire to Dingle race, the Round Ireland, and the Fastnet Race, in which in 2021 they were top-placed Irish boat, and second – by minutes – in their class.

But while all this is well and good, the size of vessel in the established Irish-based sail-training fleet means that they’re lacking in what sail-training Dermot Kennedy of Baltimore – one of the original inspirers of the eventual Jack Tyrrell design – described as the “eye-popping” factor.

Way back in 1972 when ideas for replacing Asgard I were being tossed about, Dermot bluntly dismissed those who sought a modest-looking utilitarian craft by declaring their attitude was nonsense - the new ship should be an instantly-recognised clipper-bowed craft of significant size and classic appearance setting as many square sails as possible, and lighting up every anchorage she visited. And in 1981, he got his way. But in 2008, she was gone.

Enda O Coineen understands many things, but he has no comprehension whatsoever of the meaning of the word “No”.Enda O Coineen understands many things, but he has no comprehension whatsoever of the meaning of the word “No”.

However, for some years now a contrarian who could match Dermot Kennedy any day for stubbornness has been beating the drum about a proper sailing training for the whole island, and that is Enda O'Coineen with what was originally the Irish Atlantic Youth Trust, but now seems to be the Atlantic Youth Trust plain and simple, overseen by a Board of Directors well peopled with the great and the good, with Peter Cooke recently succeeding Olympic Gold Medallist Robin Glentoran as President.

Nobody can accuse the AYT of being impatient, as they researched the project for years at every level to come up with proposals which would provide a ship well able to provide useful educational services beyond straightforward sail training. And from time to time, Governments north and south – when approached – made encouraging noises.

The Believer. Peter Cooke has taken on the demanding role of President of the Atlantic Youth TrustThe Believer. Peter Cooke has taken on the demanding role of President of the Atlantic Youth Trust

But in the uncertainties of pandemics and the current political situation, the need for leadership through action became increasingly evident, so when a suitable ship became available in Sweden on the second-hand market, they dropped the idea of building from new, and went for it.

And though pessimists would suggest that we’re probably at the least suitable time in at least ten years in which to bring a proposed all-island sail training vessel to Ireland, there’s something about the Grace O’Malley’s very presence which seems to generate goodwill, and while she looks impressive in harbour, she looks even better under full sail.

All of this you’ll have read in various disparate articles in Afloat.ie for several months and more now, but with the 164ft Grace O’Malley cleverly making her Irish debut in the recent Foyle Maritime Festival, the story is gaining momentum, and as Afloat.ie’s Betty Armstrong reported yesterday, she has since being making a quiet but favourable first appearance in Belfast.

Grace O’Malley – as seen in Belfast last week – looks very well in port……..Grace O’Malley – as seen in Belfast last week – looks very well in port……

…….but she looks even better under sail and heading seawards…….but she looks even better under sail and heading seawards

Her current duty commander is Captain Gerry Burns, who hails from a fishing background in West Cork but these days lives in County Down. He was a regular relief captain for Asgard II, and his passion for the realisation of the full potential of Irish sail training is a wonder to behold, so there’ll be a fervent atmosphere in Warrenpoint this weekend as Grace O’Malley will be in port.

Thereafter, what could become a circuit of Ireland’s main ports is the planned progression, and it would be only right and proper to include a visit to the Sea Queen Grace O’Malley’s island base of Clare Island, not least because the ship has two O’Malleys from there – Brian and Owen - in her crew, and they don’t deny direct descent from the woman herself.

The circle completed - Operations Manager Brian O’Malley hails from Sea Queen Grace O’Malley’s home place of Clare Island, and is of course descended from the famous mariner.The circle completed - Operations Manager Brian O’Malley hails from Sea Queen Grace O’Malley’s home place of Clare Island, and is of course descended from the famous mariner.

In time, when fully operational next year, the Grace O’Malley will turn heads wherever she goes, and the programme will have developed to have a throughput of a thousand trainees annually. In Irish sailing terms, that’s a lot of potential seafaring talents, so who knows what new names of national and international maritime significance will emerge from the voyaging of the good ship Grace O’Malley. We wish her well.

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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