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Sail Training Ireland announced their Spirit of Asgard Reunion Voyage to be held from 12th – 18th of May 2018. The voyage will celebrate the spirit of the Asgard II Sail Training Tall Ship. Twenty eight former Asgardians will come together for a six-day voyage around the Irish sea on board the Tall Ship Pelican. In conjunction with the voyage, a gala ball will be held for former trainees, families, and friends.

The Spirit of Asgard voyage and ball will take place ten years after the tragic sinking of the much-loved Tall Ship Asgard II. The event will bring the former Asgard II trainees together to relive their amazing experience by taking part in a tall ship voyage and to share their stories and experiences. This voyage will serve to highlight to young people today that the same opportunities are available today via Sail Training Ireland’s annual programme of voyages.

“Born in Limerick with very little opportunity to sail on the sea, I took my first voyage on Asgard II at the age of 23 years. I sailed on Asgard II every year to 2008 starting as a trainee and progressing to watch leader. This life changing experience opened my eyes to a whole new world and great memories. Now faced with a new challenge as an amputee, Sail Training Ireland have given me the opportunity to fulfil my ambition get on board again” said Frank Hogan.

Sail Training Ireland has continued the work of Asgard since her tragic sinking and has placed over 1600 “Asgardians” since 2011. The charity promotes youth development and education to people from all backgrounds and abilities on the island of Ireland by providing access to sail training voyages. In this challenging and fun environment, the trainees learn about themselves, leadership, responsibility, resilience, team work, overcoming adversity, friendship, and cooperation. As a bonus almost, they learn about sailing and the sea.
“We believe this experience builds resilience and an inner confidence in those that take part. In some cases it can be life changing. We are looking forward to hearing the stories of past Asgardians and how the experience changed their lives” according to Daragh Sheridan, CEO of Sail Training Ireland.

Anybody interested in taking part in the Spirit of Asgard Voyages or attending the gala ball should call 01 816 8866. For other voyage opportunities see the full voyage calendar on the site. No experience is necessary.

Published in Tall Ships
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As we move into March each year, throughout Ireland Tall Ships enthusiasts will wistfully recall that it was in March 1981 that Ireland finally commissioned her own Tall Ship, a national flagship worthy of our aspirations, the Jack Tyrrell-designed and Arklow-built 84ft brigantine Asgard II writes W M Nixon.

She gave years of excellent service and introduced young people from all backgrounds and every part of the country to the complete sail training experience at its very best. Yet although she was officially within the remit of the Department of Defence, in times of government expenditure cutbacks, the very existence of such an exotic creature in the amidst the workaday problems of running organisations with a military emphasis could be problematic.

Under a succession of talented and dedicated skippers with a small but devoted permanent crew, Asgard II was run in an efficient yet distinctly non-military, non-bureaucratic way. Even if at times it was done on a shoestring, it was all kept working, appearances were kept up with the vessel maintained by the crew, and the seemingly free-style system of command, while it had a core of disciplined pure steel at its heart, worked well to create a happy ship.

Nevertheless it could be argued that the unique and complex problems of running a small national sail training ship and her programme were about as far as could be from the instinctive abilities and traditional approach of the Irish Public Service mindset. But that said, the Irish public service has broad shoulders. There may not always have been total enthusiasm within it for having anything to do with running Asgard II. But it was always there in their In-tray, and they got on with it, with secretaries to Coiste an Asgard tending to give service way over and above the requirements of duty.

Yet being a Government-run ship, inevitably the viewpoint of whoever was Minister for Defence at the time affected the attitude to the Asgard programme. The realities of democracy intervened. At a national level, even in coastal constituencies, few if any votes were won or lost over whether the local TD vociferously supported the Asgard II sail-training programme. And if the current Minister for Defence happened to represent an inner-city constituency with little if anything in the way of deeply-engrained maritime traditions, Asgard II was way down the list of priorities.

Asgard II l2Thanks to devoted bos’uns and crew, Asgard II was always looking her best even when age was creeping up on her.
But she could be kept going – just - thanks to the ability of those running her to stretch resources to the limit and beyond. Yet with every passing season, the longterm problems were increasing. By the time she was sailing her 25th season in 2005, there were those who argued that a traditional wooden hull, with its single-skin planked construction, was no longer in compliance with increasingly complex regulations which required double-skin construction in a passenger-carrying boat, but Asgard II – with her limited number of trainees - was still able to pass regulations as a cargo-carrying vessel.

Then too, in the late noughties, Asgard was looking her very best with a devoted skipper and an extremely able bo’sun. But skilled painting, word-class varnishwork, and the necessary provision of a new and highly-visible set of immaculate spars, disguised the fact that if Coiste an Asgard had been given the funds to provide a replacement hull, the latest set of regulations would have insisted that it be double-skin. That in turn would have led to a raging public debate between those who would insist that Asgard III must be built in wood, and those who would reasonably point out that a double-skin wooden hull – with a safety gap between the skins as required by regulations – would be very space-consuming in a little ship which, even in her single-skin version, was already very crowded within her hull, and thus steel or even aluminium would provide the best way to go.

It all became very academic on September 8th 2008, when Asgard II sank off Belle Ile in the Bay of Biscay while on passage with a full crew of trainees from Falmouth in Cornwall towards the French port of La Rochelle. It started to happen shortly after midnight, and as she sailed along in reasonably pleasant late summer conditions, no-one on board had seemed aware of any impact with a submerged hazardous object, such as a container, which might have caused this sudden ingress of water.

asgard sinkingMonday, September 8th 2008

But it became such that the ship’s pumps couldn’t cope, and the captain’s first duty was to his trainees – it would have been irresponsible to spend precious time in the small hours of the morning calling up any ship which might happen to be in the neighbourhood, in the hope that she might have transferrable pumping systems which would have helped alleviate the problem.

The seamanlike thing was to declare the ship a hulk, and arrange her abandonment in an orderly manner. The only setback which arose in this action was the collapse of the floor in one of the large liferafts – a liferaft which had only recently been re-certified – but the people on it were transferred to other liferafts, and in due course the local lifeboat arrived and took everyone to Belle Ile while Asgard sank with a certain quiet dignity, and took up a position sitting on the seabed in 84 metres of water.

There were immediate calls for her salvaging as soon as possible, to be followed by full restoration and a resumption of sail training duties. But the senior officer of the Naval Service involved in the issue put it all in a harsh but necessary perspective: “Would you like your children to go to sea as trainees in a ship which has sunk in this way” he quietly asked, “when, however good the restoration, it is still the restoration of a vessel which inexplicably sank like this?”.

For however much you try to read into the official report, its results are not totally conclusive, and the reality is that the Asgard II sank, and sank quite quickly, after an impact of which no-one was aware. It’s very likely the sinking would not have happened had she been double-skinned. But any attempts to make a raised and restored Asgard II into a double-skinned vessel would have been an absurd waste and misdirection of resources.

Be that as it may, by this time, the Irish economy was in complete free-fall off a very high and steep economic cliff, and although the loss of the Asgard II was assuaged eventually by an insurance payout of €3.8 million, it was only within the sail training community that anyone protested against the transfer of these funds to the Department of Finance at a time when the national economy was on its knees with the Troika bail-out.

Spirit Oysterhaven 4Spirit of Oysterhaven is licensed to carry 12 trainees

In fact, the Government – for the time being at any rate – was quietly exiting the sail training arena, and in 2011 all the remaining assets and functions of Coiste an Asgard were transferred to a new non-Governmental organisation, Sail Training Ireland, which set to work to find berths for Irish trainees on other ships in an international network which, partly thanks to the very favourable reputation which Asgard II had established for herself during her 28 busy years, has been working well as they’ve also brought in “private enterprise” training ships such as Oliver Hart’s yacht-like 70ft schooner Spirit of Oysterhaven, which has been awarded the Sail Training International Small Vessel Award for 2016, a really notable achievement in a crowded field.

Kate Hart Sinead Hurley Gary Davis4aKate Hart, Sinead Hurley and Gary Davis of Spirit of Oysterhaven. Winner of Sail Training International Small Vessel Award for 2016.

Spirit of Oyserhaven lines While sail training should be mainly about sailing, from time to time the vessels involved have to manoeuvre under power in very small harbours. Spirit of Oyserhaven’s lines are of special interest, as they reveal the designer has retained a straight leading edge on the rudder, thereby optimising the control benefit of propeller thrust even though the propeller is in an aperture in the long-keel hull.
But inevitably a couple of years after the loss of Asgard, when her complete demise was finally accepted, voices were being raised in support of returning some day to the position of Ireland having her own sail training ship. It has to be said that these were for many years just a few voices crying in a wilderness, for in the near decade since Asgard II sank, Ireland has been a complete disaster area for tall ships and sail training vessels.

The litany of disaster is unbelievable. The only redeeming feature is that in a great tapestry of sinkings and groundings and the striking of rocks, not one life has been lost. But many dreams and careers have been utterly destroyed.

Appropriately, we’d had a rehearsal on RTE way back in 2003, when the traditional gaff schooner Carrie involved in the reality TV series Cabin Fever managed to come ashore on Tory Island, and soon broke up for the delectation of millions of viewers worldwide, with the whole sorry episode being on a loop on the screen in many a harbourside bar.

Cabin feverA video grab from RTE News of the Cabin Fever Ship aground

Then, even before the Asgard II story had been laid to rest, in 2010 the Northern Ireland Sail Training ship, the 80ft Oyster ketch Lord Rank, managed to impale herself on a rock northwest of Ballycastle in Rathlin Sound on the Antrim coast. Once again the incident got even more publicity than would have normally been expected, as they had a team from Downtown Radio on board to transmit a broadcast.

Lord Rank Ocean youth 6The Northern Ireland 80ft ketch Lord Rank sank within two years of Asgard II going down
But a Bermudan rigged ketch on an isolated rock doesn’t make for nearly as spectacular a wreck as a proper Tall Ship destroying herself in against a cliff, and this epic was provided in 2013 when it was demonstrated that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Ireland was barely getting her nose above water after the bail-out, and in order to get things moving again on the tourism front – for who would want to be a tourist in a country in the depths of economic and psychological depression? – the Department for Tourism set up 2013 to be the Year of the Gathering, when people of Irish descent worldwide would be encouraged to return home for holidays in the Old Sod, the land of their ancestors.

Whether it was a bright idea or not is neither here nor there, as funds were lapped-up in order to pay for “Gatherings” such as family weddings. But the fact is that generally it was announced with little enough time to spare for anyone, other than those catering for people who make last-minute short-break holiday decisions, to make proper plans. Thus with only months to go, the Irish Sailing Association co-opted the Cruising Association of Ireland to put together a Gathering Cruise for visitors from Dublin Bay to West Cork, and while it attracted a turnout, the mood became more optimistic as they proceeded along the south coast, as it was learned that at Oysterhaven the little fleet would be joined by the 137ft Dutch Tall Ship Astrid, which at a stroke would maybe double the number of people taking part.

But the Irish weather and the fates in general would not let you get away with such a serendipitous turn of events. Following the Oysterhaven meet, the fleet were to parade round to Kinsale. But it was a dirty day of an onshore wind, and the old Astrid would need the help of her small auxiliary engine if she was going to make a suitably impressive entrance to Kinsale close by the cliffs.

Unfortunately, at a port of call earlier in her voyage from the Netherlands, Astrid had mistakenly had some fresh water put into her diesel tank. Though every effort had been made to remove it, the fuel was still contaminated and the engine cut out at the absolute crucial moment of rounding the headland immediately east of Kinsale.

Astrid wreck 8Death in slow motion. Astrid onto the cliffs outside Kinsale

Astrid wreck 8All hope gone. Astrid’s death throes.

Unlike the Asgard II’s graceful departure, poor old Astrid had a long and lingering death in against those cliffs. It was a salutary lesson for everyone, for until then we’d tended to look to the Dutch as the very exemplars of a properly-run, indeed closely-regulated maritime nation. Yet it emerged that neither Astrid nor some of those involved in running her were properly certified to be taking trainees to sea.

We’re always told that we in Ireland are too lax in implementing European maritime law, working on the old Chinese saying that the mountains are very high, and the Emperor is far away. Admittedly, apart from Snowdonia in Wales, there are no mountains between Ireland and Brussels. But even so, things seem to be the other way round in any case – the nearer you get to the entre of power, the more relaxed is the observation of “petty” regulations.

In 2013 I’d already seen a demonstration of this when a large Dutch contingent arrived in Dublin as part of the Old Gaffers Association Golden Jubilee Cruise in Company. When we were in Dublin port, up the river came a Dutch character boat captain and his little dog in their tiny dinghy, and a classic Seagull outboard on the stern spluttering all sorts of pollution at a time when everyone else in Europe seemed obsessed with the compliance of regulations about changing to much heavier pollution-reducing four strokes, or making the big move to electric outboards.

man and dog boat 9One man and his dog. In 2013, a Dutch Old Gaffer cruising the Liffey had scant regard for Directives from Brussels about doing away with old polluting outboards. But at least they were wearing lifejackets…..Photo: W M Nixon
So all is not as it seems at the heart of Europe. And after the Astrid disaster those who might have though of using the highly-regarded Dutch marine industry as the source of a new vessel had to undertake further research until they were once again certain it was still the right thing to do.

But equally, after the loss of the Carrie, the Asgard II, the Lord Rank, and the Astrid, and after it had emerged that it was simply too costly to keep the Jeannie Johnston in Dublin and the Dunbrody in New Ross in certified condition as seagoing tall ships, instead of just using them as permanently-berthed visitor attractions, there inevitably has emerged a quiet but real body of opinion which reckons that Ireland having the luxury her own sail training tall ship simply isn’t worth the hassle.

Dutch Tall Ship MorgensterThe Dutch ship Morgenster. Should we continue to send her a regular supply of trainees to save ourselves the trouble of running our own tall ship?

After all, Sail Training Ireland – now with Darragh Sheridan as CEO after Michael Byrne has moved on to fresh fields after several successful years – is running very smoothly in placing trainees in other European ships, with the Dutch vessel Morgenster in particular proving so popular that she is now almost honorary Irish.

As the STI programme has developed, well-wishers and organisations such as the Irish Cruising Club are finding it an attractive propositions to provide bursaries for young people to go to sea in a proper international tall ships situation through the STI’s current setup. It’s neat, tidy and manageable. And when winter comes, it’s not our concern whether or not the Morgenstern, and other ships that we in Ireland use, such as the splendid Europa, have to undergo a major refit or instead get themselves out to the Canaries for a profitable winter programme.

Thus as ever it was heartening to attend STI’s annual awards ceremony in Dublin’s Mansion House, and share the enthusiasm of an enormous diversity of young people each of whom had responded in their own favourable way to the Tall Ships experience.

Sail Training Ireland ceremony 11All the award winners at this year’s Sail Training Ireland ceremony in the Mansion House.

Asgard Award12Presentation of the Cork Life Centre-Asgard Award with (left to right) Sara Mason & Daragh Sheridan of STI, MC Marcus Connaughton, Commodore Hugh Tully, Flag Officer Commanding Naval Service, and Dublin City Councillor Ruairi McGinley presenting the award to Stuart Barry, Danny O’Keeffe, William Cooper, and Colm O’Brien

Seamus McLaughlin Chairman Sail Training Ireland 13Nathan Howard (left) representing Tim Baker of Belfast, the awardee for Outstanding Achievement, with Seamus McLaughlin, Chairman of Sail Training IrelandAsgard Award12The STI Outstanding Contribution award goes to Victor Springbok (right) with (left to right) Sara Mason & Daragh Sheridan of STI, Commodore Hugh Tully and Cllr Ruairi McGinley

STI Trainee of the Year Ross Moore 15STI Trainee of the Year Ross Moore (right) with (left to right) Sara Mason, Daragh Sheridan, Commodore Hugh Tully, and Cllr Ruairi McGinley.

But then you couldn’t help but notice that in the Mansion House a popular guest, to whom everyone seemed to relate, was Neil O’Hagan, of the Enda O’Coineen-inspired Irish Atlantic Youth Trust. Their purpose is the creation of an all-island Irish Sail Training Ship, a 140ft three-masted barquentine based on the proven Spirit of New Zealand, and built in steel in the Netherlands by reputable designers and builders, while keeping open the option of having her builders provide a kit which can then be assembled here to become a ship built in Ireland.

To work, the project would need a considerable level of Governmental input and in Ireland’s always fluid yet somehow also rigid political situation, that is the Great Unknown. The Atlantic Youth Trust has offices in Dublin and Belfast to deal directly with Government even if the island’s real maritime capital is Cork, but resolving that will be another day’s work.

Tall Ship Atlantic Youth Trust 16The vision. Concept image for the barquentine-rigged 40-metre Tall Ship proposed by the Atlantic Youth Trust

As it is, thanks to the influence of leaders such as Chairman Lord Glentoran, the Atlantic Youth Trust arranged a meeting with Peter Robinson MLA, the then First Minister of Northern Ireland. A Tall Ships gathering was shaping up in Belfast (when it happened, it was a notable success) so the mood was good for the delegation, and the First Minister warmly received the idea of a concept which would inevitably involve Government capital expenditure.

And then he made one request. He asked them to go along the corridor and put the idea to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MLA, as that was the way shared power was meant to work. So along they went in some trepidation, and after the usual introductory pleasantries, they outlined the situation and were almost bowled over by Martin McGuinness’s enthusiasm.

Eventually, when they were taking their leave, they asked him why he had leapt at the idea so keenly. He replied that apart from it being a very good idea, it was maybe the first clearcut occasion on which the First Minister had received a proposal, and then without the usually inevitable closeting with his special advisors, had immediately given it a fair wind along to the Deputy Minister. It was how power-sharing was meant to work, but very rarely did.

It was a good start, but there was still a long way to go, for in tandem with their negotiations in the north they had to bring the Dublin government in as an equal partner. Here, the overall response was favourable but the complexities – involving a different structure of Government departments, not to mention all the movements in political mood - made it long hard going.

Meanwhile, there was a by-product which bears out the effect they’d had in the corridors of power in Stormont. Our northern correspondent Betty Armsrong was in Derry for the visit of the Clipper Fleet, in which the city had an entry, and came back enthusing about her new VBF Martin. It turned that while in the Maiden City, she’d spent some time in the company of Martin McGuinness whose enthusiasm for the entire waterborne pageant was total. “Admittedly” said he “the cost of supporting the boat and getting the visit seemed very high when we were being talked into this, but now that it is happening so well, it’s worth every penny”.

It would be ironic if the successful visit of the Atlantic Youth Trust to the office of the Deputy First Minister is in the end only recalled for the fact that Martin McGuinness was an increasingly enthusiastic supporter of major maritime events and projects. But the reality in Government is that the political personnel landscape is now entirely changed both north and south, and we’ll need the dust to settle before we can see where it’s all going.

Yet even as recently as November, Neil O’Hagan reckoned things were looking good, and he’s convinced they’ll come good again in due course. Back in November, despite the turbulence of Brexit, he was getting various government departments north and south and the STI and other bodies nicely lined up for a series of test programmes using the Morgenstern, and then anticipated building on that. A plateau of achievement had been reached, and former Olympic Gold Medallist Lord Glentoran, a visionary chairman but now well into his eighties, felt the time was right to step down and be replaced by noted businessman and experienced sailor Peter Cooke.

Atlantic Youth Trust Belfast 17Atlantic Youth Trust in Belfast with (left to right) Neil O’Hagan, Lord Mayor of Belfast Brian Kingston, incoming AYT chairman Peter Cooke, President Enda O’Coineen, and outgoing chairman Lord Glentoran.
But since November, other things have happened. The collapse of the Stormont administration and the General Election last Thursday will have its effect. So will the possible changes of leadership south of the border. And while Enda O Coineen now has a largely honorary role in the Atlantic Youth Trust as President, public perception is so febrile that we can only guess at the effects – favourable or otherwise – his major setbacks and his courageous handling of them in the Vendee Globe race will have on the way people view the Atlantic Youth Trust.

Thus for the moment there’s a distinct vacuum where positive progress towards a joint-government-underwritten sail training ship for all Ireland might normally be found, and all too quickly, vacuums being what they are, all sorts of alternative solutions may be offered.

The trouble is that, when faced with a big traditional sailing ship and better still a square rigger - any square rigger, and preferably one with a magnificent clipper bow – people will lose the run of themselves in dreams. Dreams of sailing the seas as the great mariners of yore did before them. Dreams of introducing young people to the wonders of sail. Dreams of saving the planet through the healing effects of majestic rigs driving non-polluting tall ships cross the ocean.

Such dreams are getting thing entirely the wrong way round. Certainly you may be inspired by seeing a ship like the Europa making her handsome way down Befast Lough under full sail. But having seen her, that’s when the research work should start, the hard work behind the scenes to make it all a realistic proposition, and start working towards sustainable funding.

Yet it so easy to see the ship and get inspired and immediately involved without a thought for what it will cost in the long run. That’s probably how the elderly owner of the Astrid was drawn into the dreadful mesh. And in the north, they’ve two character ship ventures whose owners dream the dream, but whether either can ever become reality is another matter entirely.

Silvery Light Carlingford18Dreamship? The characterful Silvery Light at Carlingford

There’s a vessel called the Silvery Light in Newry, and she inspired those who saw her when she first arrived in Ireland alongside the quay in Carlingford. But now the owner seeks support from whatever source to make her fit to be a sail training vessel – we can only wait and see, for we have some idea of what a monumental task this is.

But in the little village of Portaferry, a tall ship dream has turned into disaster. We’ve carried stories of the sunken 130ft Regina Caelis on Afloat.ie in recent weeks, but things get no better.
Apparently she is owned by someone who bought her from a previous owner for just £1.The previous owner from Northern Ireland had bought her in Scotland, hoping to turn her into a tall ships dream to sail in warmer seas. But by the time he’d got her home to County Down, he realised it was beyond his ability to complete the work, so after he’d managed with great difficulty to get her berthed on the end of the little public quay at the south end of Portaferry, she was offered for sale for the nominal sum.

130ft Regina Caelis 19The elephant in the room, The 130ft Regina Caelis overstayed her welcome by many months when she effectively blocked off Cook Street Quay in Portaferry, making it difficult of access for the race officers in one of the local skiffie events, and unusable by any other boats…….Photo: Gary Lyons

Regina Caelis sunk portaferry 20…….and then she went and sank, polluting Strangford Lough with 900 litres of diesel

That was more than a year ago. Since then she has changed ownership for £1, but she continued to completely block off what should be an important local amenity, as Cook Street Quay – to give it its local name – traditionally provides free berthing, but its successful functioning depends on no-one abusing this valuable privilege.

Whatever about the good intentions when this ship the Regina Caelis arrived at the quay, berthed on it she is so out of scale that her bow sticks out at one end and her stern sticks out at the other, thereby impeding boat access to either side of a public pier. Staying there for more than a year soon became a matter of abusing a communal facility. But then it all became completely pear-shaped when she sank at the pier, gradually leaching 900 litres of diesel fuel into Strangford Lough, a very special nature reserve.

Regina Caelis sunk 21It would provide a perfect course in salvage techniques at some maritime university, but Portaferry could do without it

It’s now an environmental and neighbourhood disaster beyond belief. But with a free pier and in the absence of an active government, the position has been allowed to persist, while the optimistic owner has launched a crowd-funding initiative in order to raise his vessel and restore her to her full potential as a tall ship.

Seasoned observers reckon that it will indeed be a crowd-funding initiative which will solve the acute problem of the Regina Caelis slowly disintegrating at Cook Street Quay in Portaferry. But the crowd will be the much-put-upon taxpayers of Northern Ireland, and they’ll be in this crowd-funding project whether they want to or not.

Whatever the outcome, it’s all a very long way indeed from a properly researched and resourced sail training barquentine for the young people of all Ireland. And in its veiled hostility, it’s all an extremely long way away from the friendly efficiency of the annual Portaferry Sails and Sound music and traditional boat festival, which shows Portaferry at its best. In every way, it’s an excruciatingly unpleasant situation for a charming village. Portaferry deserves better.

portaferry 22Portaferry in happier times, with Scott & Ruth Metcalf’s schooner Vilma off the town Photo: Neil Ritchie

Published in W M Nixon

A massive fire in in Arklow has engulfed and destroyed what most people thought was a large warehouse beside the old Inner Dock writes W M Nixon. But it was in this “warehouse” in the late 1970s and early ’80s that Jack Tyrrell and his men built the 84ft sail training brigantine Asgard II, which he had designed himself and promoted as a developing ideal through much of the 1970s.

In fact, it was the prospect of Asgard II becoming reality in 1977 which prompted the building of the shed, which became a place of pilgrimage, a small but quietly emotive cathedral of classic wooden ship-building for maritime enthusiasts from near and far as the fine ship took shape to fulfill many people’s long-held dream.

Asgard II Tall Ship SailingAsgard II at the height of her powers, going about her business as Ireland’s sail training ship and national flagship.

For reasons which still have never been fully explained, Asgard II foundered in the Bay of Biscay in September 2008 while on her way to La Rochelle. This was planned to be an extended visit to include three weeks of complete survey and inspection in a shipyard which might well have revealed the damaged seacock which many reckon was the cause of her sinking.

After 27 years of very active service, Asgard’s hull was in any case overdue for replacement. But it was not to be, and Ireland is still without a national sail training ship. As for the capacious shed in which she was built, while the Arklow boat-building industry has moved north of the river and is today noted for its alloy-built workboats, the shed meanwhile had been used for furniture storage and display, and then at the time of this week’s fire, it was storing cardboard.

Asgard shed ArklowThe loss of a final link to Asgard II – flames engulf the shed in which she was built 37 years ago. Photo courtesy Wicklow News

Published in Tall Ships
Tagged under

The governments in both jurisdictions in Ireland have included an all-Ireland sail training ship for the Atlantic Youth Trust in their long term capital expenditure proposals. And the movement in favour of support for this project has become so strong that the nationwide team involved in promoting it are confident that the ship’s future is now secured.

They continue to hold this view even with general elections and possible major changes in administrative direction taking place, north and south, within the next four months. Thus this week’s 2016 Annual General Meeting of the Atlantic Youth Trust in Irish Lights Headquarters in Dun Laoghaire found itself reviewing a remarkable year of progress and achievement, while giving pointers and reassurances for the successful way ahead. W M Nixon was there to take on board an evening of multiple messages.

It could well be that some time in the future, we will come to the sad but inescapable conclusion that the foundering of the Republic of Ireland’s national 84–ft sail training brigantine Asgard II in September 1908, followed within two years by the sinking of the Northern Ireland 70ft training ketch Lord Rank, were necessary disasters for the progress towards the ultimately more healthy ideal of a Class A 40-metre sail training barquentine.

The proposed ship - determinedly and enthusiastically serving all Ireland – will be initially funded through donations, and by government grants from both sides of the border. But the vessel is to be run independently by a cross-border trust rather than by some obscure unit of a government department.

September 2008 saw Ireland on the edge of the financial abyss. For a government under enormous pressure from all sides, a government, moreover, in which the minister responsible for the Asgard II took little or no interest in the ship and what she did, this sinking was a blessing in disguise.

The hull of Asgard II, completed in 1981, had long passed its sell-by date. When she sank, she took with her the magnificent rig which had been totally replaced only a couple of years earlier. Yet a properly involved government would surely have taken on board the advice that her timber hull urgently needed replacing, preferably with one built in steel. For although in 2008 the ship looked better than ever thanks to the devotion of her crew in working way over and above the call of duty in painting, varnishing and routine maintenance, there was no escaping the fact that the basic hull and its original fittings were living on borrowed time.

Ironically, the visit to La Rochelle, which she was nearing when she sank, included plans for a three-week stopover for a complete survey and some necessary repairs. Whether or not this would have revealed the fracturing seacock which many reckon to have caused the unstoppable ingress of water can only be a matter of speculation. The fact of the matter is the ship sank, and in an exemplary display of seamanship, the captain and crew ensured that their full quota of young trainees got safely away.

asgard tall ship
Flying the flag for Ireland – Asgard II in fine form, seen from another tall ship

But although Asgard II remained stubbornly intact and upright for some weeks on the Bay of Biscay seabed off Belle Ile, a government with financial Armageddon crashing down around its ears was glad enough to be shot of a unique project which some of them had never really understood or supported in the first place. Thus they refused to consider multiple suggests as to how best Asgard II could be salvaged. And frankly, it was for the best that they did so. For like it or not, while she was much-loved by the maritime community, the vessel had lost public confidence.

The subsequent loss of the Lord Rank in July 2010 after striking a rock likewise resulted in a merciful absence of casualties. But with Ireland north and south now in the utter depths of economic recession with no governmental enthusiasm whatsoever for non-essential projects, it was time to re-group for a few years and re-think the entire sail training ideal. It became almost an underground movement, with Coiste an Asgard being re-structured as Sail Training Ireland, and diligently setting about placing Irish trainees on the ships of other nations. It’s an ongoing programme which has been notably successful in providing both sea-going experience and a guaranteed international dimension for young people from all over Ireland, city and country alike.

Meanwhile there were rumblings from the west of Ireland where Enda O'Coineen and John Killeen were building on the can-do attitude of Galway, and from this there gradually emerged the Atlantic Youth Trust. It’s a determinedly all-Ireland group in which the Chairman is former Winter Olympics Gold Medallist Lord Glentoran from Northern Ireland, with the unstoppable unsinkable O Coineen as President. Supporting them is one very impressive list of seriously heavy hitters in the maritime and big business sphere from all over Ireland on its board, and perhaps most importantly of all, at an early stage they secured Neil O’Hagan as Executive Director.

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Neil O’Hagan, Executive Director of the Atlantic Youth Trust

This sounds an impressive title, but at the moment he heads up a minimal staff. You can get the flavour of it all by taking a look at the Sailing on Saturdays conversation I had with him, reported here on 4th April 2015. The amount of work he puts in is prodigious, and though the Trust’s founding General Meeting was held in Belfast in the Harbour Commission’s historic building on September 10th 2014, they’d to forego a General Meeting during 2015 while various elements and agreements were being finally edged into place.

Since April 2015 we’ve had snippets of news about the governments north and south starting to provide what are essentially government letters of intent in support of the project. However, politics on this island being a snakelike progression notwithstanding the best efforts of St Patrick, with every twist and turn of the political machines the AYT have been at pains to ensure that gains supposedly agreed by one administrative decision-maker are carried through into the remit of the next when the inevitable political wheel of fortune turns yet again at the individual level.

But now, with two general elections in the offing and a rapidly improving situation developing in the AYT’s prospects, it was essential for a properly-convened AGM to be held on Thursday January 21st, staged this time in the impressive board-room of the Irish Lights Commissioners in Dun Laoghaire.

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The boardroom at Irish Lights HQ is an impressive venue for any meeting, and it suited the Atlantic Youth Trust’s 2016 AGM very well

enda O coineenThe maritime evangelist……Enda O'Coineen in full flight at this weeks AGM of the Atlantc Youth Trust

Ironically, although one of the main lines of thought in the AYT’s thinking is that the ship they’ll provide will be more of a floating multi-discipline schoolship of many projects, both afloat and ashore, rather than a traditional sail training ship, it emerged at the AGM that it was the traditional Tall Ships visit and Parade of Sail in Belfast and on Belfast Lough last July which gave them their greatest boost.

They’d a significant presence there, and thanks to one of the Trust Board Members, they’d the use of a fine big motor vessel aboard which visiting politicos and other heavy hitters could be taken on a sociable yet instructive tour of the harbour and the Tall Ships fleet. For many of these decision makers and opinion formers, it was a transformative experience, turning them into supporters of the Atlantic Youth Trust’s way of thinking.

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The Tall Ships in Belfast, July 2015

ay7She’s not a tall ship, she doesn’t even set sails, but the availability of the fine motor-yacht Evolution as a tour boat was a game changer for the Atlantic Youth Trust at Belfast’s Tall Ships Festival. Photo: W M Nixon

This opened doors north and south, and they rapidly increased their already formidable knowledge of how to work the corridors of power. The meeting on Thursday in Irish Lights was chaired by Peter Cooke from the north, and his affable presence made the running of business very smooth indeed. But as each specialist on the board revealed the progress they’d made during the past year and more in their particular task, it was to realize that here were people who were utterly professional in their approach, yet went at the job with the total enthusiasm of dedicated amateurs.

But what most impressed was the synergy of the high octane talents on the board which, in addition to Lord Glentoran, Enda O Coineen and Peter Cooke, can draw on the talents of people of the calibre of Dr Gerard O’Hare, Roger Courtney, Sean Lemass, David Beattie and John Killeen – with Neil O’Hagan as the key conduit, they’ve turned themselves into a formidable lobbying organisation.

It’s a fact of life in all Irish political administration, and particularly in Dublin, that each separate government department much prefers to function independently within its own little bubble, with nothing whatever to do with any other department while avoiding overlaps if at all possible. This is especially so in the neglected area of maritime activity, which is overseen by several departments, and is further warped by the reality that the government is in Dublin - which is also the biggest port - yet the real scene of the maritime action and the true hotbed of ideas is Cork.

So our shrewd operators in the AYT stood back and concluded that the politician they should most directly target was of course Minister for the Marine (and many other matters) Simon Coveney TD of Cork, but that in Dublin the departments to be wooed were Finance and the Office of the Taoiseach.

With increasing support at official level in the north and enthusiasm from key decision makers in the Republic, things were going grand when the President of the AYT suddenly went off in December 2015 to race single-handed across the Atlantic from the Caribbean to Brittany in his IMOCA 60 Kilcullen Voyager. Enda O’Coineen’s big boat has been very much part of the AYT awareness programme for the past year, taking trainee crews to sea. But this was something else altogether, and it made many supporters of the new training ship ideal distinctly nervous.

ay8Enda O Coineen’s IMOCA 60 Kilcullen Voyager was used in Belfast for AYT work, but then in December he went and raced her single-handed across the Atlantic from the Caribbean to France. Photo W M Nixon

Racing across the Atlantic in as rough a December as anyone could remember may have been a personal challenge, but inevitably it was a high risk venture with which the AYT was inevitably associated, whether it liked it or not. The sailing community in Ireland is small, and nothing can happen in isolation. But to everyone’s enormous relief, not only did the boy do it, but he did it well, sailing across in style and securing a podium place with third at the finish.

This was quietly acknowledged as something which had been on everyone’s mind in a graceful little speech by the Deputy Chairman of the Irish Lights Commissioners congratulating the President on his Transatlantic success. So with everything in place as regards where AYT now stands in relation to both governments, the formal part of the meeting concluded with some commitments as to the way ahead, and the news that the Atlantic Youth Trust’s next public gathering of significance will be in Galway on March 12th, when more precise details of the new ship and the building programme will be revealed.

However, with an ethos in which going the extra mile is part of the DNA, the AYT then laid on a hugely entertaining dinner in the neighbouring Royal Irish YC with fascinating shows by the Gardai Siochana’s Conor O’Byrne, who played a central on-board co-ordination role in rescuing a crewman who had gone overboard in mid-Pacific from the Clipper yacht Derry-Londonderry-Doire, and from Stewart Hosford from Cork, who is CEO of the organisation Five Degrees West whose main project is the designing, building and management of the Imoca 60 boats raced under the Hugo Boss campaign by Alex Thompson.

ay9May The Force Be With You – the two faces of the Garda Siochana’s Conor O’Byrne, who gave the AYT and its supporters a fascinating insight into the successful rescue of a crewmember who went overboard from Derry/Londonderry/Doire in mid-Pacific.

ay10Suits you, Sir…..Alex Thompson on the second Hugo Boss. At Thursday’s meeting, Stewart Hosford of Cork – whose interest in the sea and sailing was inspired by Asgard II – gave the inside story on his job as CEO of the Hugo Boss sailing challenges.

Each compact yet thought-provoking show would have made for a worthy topic on its own in most clubs’ entertainment programme. But it was special to include both on this night of all nights, as each speaker had been enthused in their youth by sailing on Asgard II, and each would do anything to ensure that the upcoming generations get a similar opportunity and inspiration.

It was that kind of night, with the congenial attendance including Seamus McLoughlin and Michael Byrne from Sail Training Ireland, and Oliver Hart whose 70ft schooner Spirit of Oysterhaven continues gallantly to fulfill the role of Ireland’s premier sail training vessel from her base on the Cork coast.

In all, it’s a busy few days for Irish sail training, which is definitely no longer an underground movement. Today, Sail Training Ireland hold their 4th Annual Prize Giving and Programme Launch in the Mansion House in Dublin, looking back on a season in which the number of funded trainees sent on sailing ships abroad and at home came in at just under 300, while in all they arranged berths for more than 500.

The plan for 2016 includes a formal twinning of Dublin and Liverpool for maritime festivals, while on the training front, STI are aiming for a target of 350 funded trainees. And as for Ireland eventually returning to having her own sail training ship, no sooner was Thursday night’s remarkable series of events brought to a close than Neil O’Hagan had to gather his thoughts and head off for New York to meet the Ireland Fund. They are taking a serious and very positive interest in the plans of the Atlantic Youth Trust.

ay11The Dutch Tall Ship Morgenster, seen here on Belfast Lough in July 2015, is one of the vessels used by Sail Training Ireland to send more than 500 young people every year out onto the high seas. Photo: W M Nixon

Published in W M Nixon

#tallship – The Tall Ships return to Ireland in spectacular style this summer with a major fleet assembly in Belfast from Thursday 2nd to Sunday 5th July for the beginning of the season's Tall Ships Races, organised by Sail Training International. The seagoing programme will have a strong Scandinavian emphasis in 2015, with the route - some of which is racing, other sections at your own speed – starting from Belfast to go on Aalesund in western Norway for 16th to 18th July, thence to Kristiansand (25th to 28th July), which is immediately east of Norway's south point, and then on to conclude at Aalborg in northern Denmark from 1st to 4th August.

But before leaving Northern Ireland with the potentially very spectacular Parade of Sail down Belfast Lough on Sunday July 5th, the celebrations will be mighty. The fleet's visit will be the central part of the Lidl Belfast Titanic Maritime Festival, which will include everything from popular family fun happenings with concerts and fireworks displays – the full works, in other words – right up to high–powered corporate entertainment attractions.

As for the ships, there will be more than enough for any traditional rig and tall ship enthusiast to spend a week drooling over. In all, as many as eighty vessels of all sizes are expected. But more importantly, at least twenty of them will be serious Tall Ships, proper Class A square riggers of at least 40 metres in length, which is double the number which took part in their last visit to Belfast, back in 2009.

That smaller fleet of six years ago seemed decidedly spectacular to most of us at the time. So the vision of a doubling of proper Tall Ship numbers in Belfast Harbour is something we can only begin to imagine. But when you've a fleet which will include Class A ships of the calibre of the new Alexander von Humboldt from Germany, Norway's two beauties Christian Radich and Sorlandet, the much-loved Europa from the Netherlands, George Stage from Denmark, and the extraordinary Shtandart from Russia which is a re-creation of an 18th Century vessel built for Emperor Peter the Great, you're only starting, as that's to name only six vessels – what we'll be seeing will be a truly rare gathering of the crème de la creme.

So although it would be stretching it to think that a small country like Ireland should aspire to having a major full-rigged vessel, we mustn't forget that for 27 glorious years we did have our own much-admired miniature Tall Ship, the gallant 84–ft brigantine Asgard II. Six-and-a-half years years after her loss, it's time and more for her to be replaced. W M Nixon takes a look at what's been going on behind the scenes in the world of sail training in Ireland and finds that, in the end, we may find ourselves with a ship which will look very like a concept first aired for Irish sail training way back in 1954.

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The pain of it. You search out a photo of Shtandart, the remarkable Russian re-creation of an 18th century ship, and you find that Asgard II is sailing beside her

It was while sourcing a photo of Russia's unusual sail training ship Shtandart that the pain of the loss of Asgard II emerged again. It's always there, just below the surface. But it's usually kept in place by the thought that we have to move on, that worse things happened during the grim years of Ireland plunging ever deeper into recession, and that while our beloved ship did indeed sink, no lives were loss and her abandonment was carried out in an exercise of exemplary seamanship.

Yet up came the photo of the Shtandard, and there right beside her was Asgard II, sailing merrily along on what's probably the Baltic, and flying the flag for Ireland with her usual grace and charm. The pain of seeing her doing what she did best really was intense. She is much mourned by everyone who knew her, and particularly those who crewed aboard her. All three of my sons sailed on her as trainees, they all had themselves a great time, and two of them enjoyed it so much they repeated the experience and both became Watch Leaders. It was very gratifying to find afterwards, when you went out into the big wide world and put "Watch Leader Asgard II" on your CV, that it counted for something significant in international seafaring terms.

But as a sailing family with other boat options to fall back on, we didn't feel Asgard II's loss nearly as acutely as those country folk for whom the ship provided the only access to the exciting new world of life on the high seas.

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Elaine Byrne vividly recalls how much she appreciated sailing on Asgard II, and how she and her siblings, growing up in the depths of rural Ireland, came to regard the experience of sailing as a trainee on the ship as a "Rite of Passage" through young adulthood

The noted international investigative researcher, academic and journalist Dr Elaine Byrne is from the Carlow/Wicklow border, the oldest of seven children in a farming family where the household income is augmented with a funeral undertaking business attached to a pub in which she still occasionally works. Thus her background is just about as far as it's possible to be from Ireland's limited maritime community. Yet thanks to Asgard II, she was able to take a step into the unknown world of the high seas as a trainee on board, and liked it so much that over the years she spent two months in all aboard Asgard II, graduating through the Watch Leader scheme and sailing in the Tall Ships programmes of races and cruises-in-company

Down in the depths of the country, her new experiences changed the Byrne family's perceptions of seafaring. Elaine Byrne writes:

"Four of my siblings (then) had the opportunity to sail on Asgard II. If it were not for Asgard II, my family would never have had the chance to sail, as we did not live near the sea, nor had the financial resources to do so. The Asgard II played a large role in our family life as it became a Rite of Passage to sail on board her. My two youngest siblings did not sail on the Asgard II because she sank, which they much regret".

She continues: "Apart from the discipline of sailing and the adventure of new experiences and countries, the Asgard brought people of different social class and background together. There are few experiences which can achieve so much during the formative years of young adulthood"

That's it from the heart – and from the heart of the country too, from l'Irlande profonde. So, as the economy starts to pick up again, when you've heard the real meaning of Asgard II expressed so directly then it's time to expect some proper tall ship action for Ireland in the near future. But it's not going to be a simple business. So maybe we should take quick canter through the convoluted story of how Asgard II came into being, in the realization that in its way, creating her successor is proving to be every bit as complex.

As we shall see, the story actually goes back earlier, but we'll begin in 1961 when Erskine Childers's historic 1905-built 51ft ketch Asgard was bought and brought back by the Irish government under some effective public pressure. It was assumed that a vessel of this size – quite a large yacht by the Irish standards of the time – would make an ideal sail training vessel and floating ambassador. It was equally assumed that the Naval Service would be happy to run her. But apart from keen sailing enthusiasts in the Naval Reserve - people like Lt Buddy Thompson and Lt Sean Flood – the Naval Service had enough on its plate with restricted budgets and ageing ships for their primary purpose of fishery patrol.

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Aboard the first Asgard in 1961 during her brief period in the 1960s as a sail training vessel with the Naval Service – Lt Sean Flood is at the helm

So Asgard was increasingly neglected throughout the 1960s until Charlie Haughey, the new Minister for Finance and the only member of Government with the slightest interest in the sea, was persuaded by the sailing community that Asgard could become a viable sail training ship. In 1968 she was removed from the remit of the Department for Defence into the hands of some rather bewildered officials in the Department for Finance, and a voluntary committee of five experienced sailing people - Coiste an Asgard - was set up to oversee her conversion for sail training use in the boatyard at Malahide, which just happened to be rather less than a million miles from the Minister's constituency.

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Asgard in her full sail training role in 1970 in Dublin Bay

Asgard was commissioned in her new role in Howth, the scene of her historic gun running in 1914, in the spring of 1969. Under the dedicated command of Captain Eric Healy, the little ship did her very best, but it soon became obvious that her days of active use would be limited by reasons of age, and anyway she was too small to be used for the important sail training vessel roles of providing space to entertain local bigwigs and decision-makers in blazers.

By 1972, the need for a replacement vessel was a matter of growing debate in the sailing community, and during a cruise in West Cork in the summer of 1972, I got talking to Dermot Kennedy of Baltimore out on Cape Clear. Dermot was the man who introduced Glenans to Ireland in 1969, and then he branched out on his own in sail training schools. A man of firm opinions, he reacted with derision to my suggestion that Asgard's replacement should be a modern glassfibre Bermudan ketch, but with enough sails to keep half a dozen trainees busy.

"Nonsense" snorted Dermot. "Ireland needs a real sailing ship, a miniature tall ship maybe, but still a real ship, big enough to carry square rig and have a proper clipper bow and capture the imagination and pride of every Irish person who sets eyes on her. And she should be painted dark green just to show she's the Irish sail training ship, and no doubt about it".

Some time that winter I simply mentioned his suggestions in Afloat magazine, and during the Christmas holidays they were read by Jack Tyrrell at his home in Arklow. During his boyhood, in the school holidays he had sailed with his uncle on the Arklow schooner Lady of Avenel, and it had so shaped his development into the man who was capable of running Ireland's most successful boatyard that he had long dreamed of a modern version of the Lady of Avenel to be Ireland's sail training ship.

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The inspiration – Jack Tyrrell's boyhood experiences aboard Lady of Avenel inspired him to create Ireland's first proper sail training ship

In fact, in 1954 he had sketched out the plans for a 110ft three masted training ship, but Ireland in the 1950s was in the doldrums and the idea got nowhere. Yet the spark was always there, and it was mightily re-kindled by what Dermot Kennedy had said. So at that precise moment, the normal Christmas festivities in the Tyrrell household were over. They'd to continue the celebrations without the head of the family. The great man took himself off down to the little design office in his riverside boatyard, and in clouds of pipe tobacco smoke, he re-drew the lines of the 110ft three master to become an 83ft brigantine, the size reduction meaning that the shop would only need a fulltime crew of five.

Working all hours, he had the proposal drawings finished in time to rejoin his family to see in the New Year. And in the first post after the holiday, we got the drawings at Afloat, and ran them in the February 1973 issue.

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Jack Tyrrell's proposal drawings for the new brigantine, as published in the February 1973 Afloat

In Ireland then as now, most politicians had inscribed in their heads the motto: "There's No Votes In Boats". So after Charlie Haughey had fallen from favour with the Arms Trial of 1970, Coiste an Asgard became an orphan. But 1973 brought a new government, and there was one cabinet minister in it who was proud to proclaim his allegiance to the sea.

Unfortunately for the respectability of the maritime movement in Ireland, our supporters in the higher echelons of politics have often tended to be from the colourful end of the political spectrum, whatever about their placing in the left-right continuum. Thus it was that, at mid-morning on St Patrick's Day 1973, I got an ebullient phone call and an immediate announcement, without the caller saying who he was. "Winkie" he bellowed, "That ship is going to be built. I'll make sure of it. I've just made a ministerial decision".

It emerged that it was our very own new Minister for Defence, Patrick Sarsfield Donegan TD. The enthusiasm for the new ship, engendered by studying Jack Tyrrell's drawings, led to a snap decision which stayed decided, and it all happened in the Department for Defence.

However, it was 1981 by the time the ship was launched, and she looked rather different from Jack Tyrrell's preliminary drawings, though the basic hull shape built in timber was the same sweet lines as originally envisaged, so she was able to sail like a witch. But as for her supporters at Government level, the non-stop cabaret continued. Charlie Haughey had regained power, and by 1981 he was Taoiseach. It was he who had seen to it that the Department of Defence continued to look after the Asgard II project with support from another sailing TD who might not have seen eye–to-eye with him on other matters, Bobby Molloy of Galway.

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Asgard II in her finished form

So on a March day in 1981, almost exactly twelve years after he'd commissioned the original Asgard in her new role as a sail training vessel, Charlie Haughey took it upon himself to christen the new Asgard II in Arklow basin. And the champagne bottle refused to break. Five or six time he tried, but with no success.

Showing considerable grace under pressure and observed by a large crowd, he quietly took his time undoing all the ribbons and paraphernalia on the big bottle. Then he marched with it up to the new flagship's stem, and hit it a mighty double-handed wallop. The bottle exploded that time, with no mistake. And apart from the usual Haughey growl to those nearby about the idiocy of whoever forgot to score the champagne bottle beforehand, it was all done with the best of humour.

For most of her subsequent career, there's no doubt Asgard was a lucky and very successful vessel. Yet when her demise came, you couldn't help but think of the old notion that if the champagne bottle doesn't break first time, then she'll ultimately be an unlucky ship.

But there are more prosaic explanations. With a limited budget and every penny being scrutinized, Jack Tyrrell and his men had to build Asgard II in fishing boat style, which is fine within its proper time span, but that time span is really only twenty years, maybe thirty if the ship gets extra care. But with her fishing boat hull carrying a demanding brigantine rig, although she always looked immaculate, Asgard II was starting to show her age in the stress areas.

By 2005 there was serious talk about the need to plan for a replacement. When her skipper Colm Newport was told to renew her rig as the original spars were clearly well past it, he meticulously searched the best timber yards at home and abroad and when she got her new rig – it was 2006 or thereabouts – I wrote an only slightly tongue-in-cheek article suggesting that now was the time to replace her old tired wooden hull with a new steel one to the same Jack Tyrrell lines, but utilising the excellent new rig and as many of the fixtures and fittings as were still in good order from the original ship.

To say the response was negative is understating the case. People's attachment to Asgard could only imagine a wooden ship. It was the end of any meaningful debate. So things drifted on, with each new government seemingly even less interested in maritime matters generally, and sail training in particular, than the one before.

In September 2008, Asgard started taking in water while on passage with a crew of trainees towards La Rochelle for a maritime festival following which - while still in La Rochelle – it was planned that she would be lifted out for a thorough three week survey and maintenance programme.

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Asgard's accommodation worked superbly whether at sea or in port. But the fact that so much was packed into a relatively small hull meant that some areas were almost inaccessible for proper inspection

It might have been the saving of her. But it was not to be. It's said that it was a failed seacock which caused the catastrophic ingress of water. She was a very crowded little ship, she packed a lot into her 84ft, so some hull fittings were less accessible internally than they would be in a more modern vessel, and may have deteriorated to a dangerous level. But if, as some would propose, she hit something in the water which caused a plank to start, then the fact that nobody aboard was aware of any impact suggests that the time for a major overhaul, and preferably a hull replacement, was long overdue.

The moment Asgard II sank, she ceased to have any future as a sail training vessel, and there was no real official interest in her salvage. You simply cannot take other people's children to sea on a salvaged vessel of doubtful seaworthiness. And as it happens, the sinking came at exactly the time the Irish economy fell of a cliff. So although after an enquiry the Government accepted a €3.8 million insurance settlement, in the end, despite assurances to the contrary, it disappeared into the bottomless pit which was the national debt, and within a year Coiste an Asgard was wound up with its records and few resources incorporated into a new entity, Sail Training Ireland.

The plot takes a further macabre twist in that, shortly after the loss of Asgard II, the Northern Ireland Sailing Training ketch was also lost after hitting a rock on the Antrim coast. From having two popular and well-used sail training vessels in the middle of 2008, within a year Ireland had no official sail training vessels at all.

Yet though the flame had been largely subdued, there were those who have kept the faith, and gradually the sail training movement is being rebuilt. Sail Training Ireland is the frontline representative for around five different organisations, being the official affiliate of Sail Training International, and it has a busy programme of placing trainees in ships which operate at an international level, in which the Dutch are supreme.

In Ireland at the moment, the only sail training "ship" is the schooner Spirit of Oysterhaven, run by Oliver Hart and his team from their adventure centre near Kinsale. In fact, Spirit – you can read about her in Theo Dorgan's evocative book Sailing For Home (Penguin Ireland 2004) – really is punching way above her weight in representing Ireland in a style reminiscent of both the Asgards.

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Spirit of Oysterhaven has been doing great work in keeping sail training alive in Ireland

But having the ship is one thing, paying the fees for the trainees to be aboard is something else, and sail training bursaries are one of the key areas of expansion in current maritime development in Ireland. There was an unusual turn to this in 2014 when somebody came up with the bright idea of using Irish Cruising Club funds (which are generated by the surplus from the voluntary production of the club's Sailing Directions) to provide bursaries for youngsters to take part in last summer's ICC 85th Anniversary Cruise-in-Company along the southwestern seaboard on Spirit of Oysterhaven.

The idea worked brilliantly, and this concept of neatly-tailored sail training bursaries is clearly one which can be usefully developed. But still and all, while it's great that young Irish people are being assisted in getting berths aboard charismatic vessels like Europa, the feeling that we should have our own proper sail training ship again is gradually gaining traction, and this is where the Atlantic Youth Trust comes in.

The AYT had its inaugural general meeting in Belfast as recently as the end of September 2014, so it may not yet have come up on your radar. But as it has emerged out of the Pride of Ireland Trust which in turn emerged from the Pride of Galway Trust, you'll have guessed that Enda O'Coineen and John Killeen are much involved, and they've roped in some seriously heavy hitters from both sides of the border, either as Board Members or backers, and sometimes as both.

The cross-border element is central to the concept of building a 40 metre three-masted barquentine, a size which would put her among the glamour girls in Class A, and could carry a decidedly large complement of 40 trainees, even if you're inevitably talking of stratospheric professional crewing costs.

However, by going straight in at top government level on both sides of the border, the AYT team are finding that they're pushing at a door which wants to open, particularly after the new Stormont House agreement was reached in the last days of 2014 to bring a more enthusiastic approach both to cross-community initiatives in the north, and cross border co-operation generally.

Who knows, but if they can succeed in getting cross-community initiatives working in Northern Ireland, then they may even be able to swing some sort of genuine Dublin-Cork shared enthusiasm in the Republic, for I've long thought that one of the factors in holding back many maritime initiatives in Ireland is that, while Dublin may be the political capital, Cork is quietly confident it's the real maritime capital, and does its own thing.

Be that as it may, the AYT have done serious studies, and their conclusion is the best scheme to learn from is the Spirit of Adventure programme in New Zealand. This is where the feeling of going back to the future arises, for in looking at photos of their ship Spirit of New Zealand, there's no escaping the thought that you're looking at Jack Tyrrell's concept ship of 1954 brought superbly to life.

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Spirit of New Zealand

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Spirit of New Zealand almost seems like a vision of 1954 brought to life...

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.....and that vision is Jack Tyrrell's 1954 concept for a 110ft sail training ship

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The 1954 accommodation drawings for the 110ft ship hark back to a more rugged age. Imagine the difficulties the ship's cook would face trying to get hot food from his galley on deck amidships all the way back to the officers in their mess down aft

We needn't necessarily agree with all the AYT's basic thinking For instance, they assert that Ireland is like New Zealand is being an isolated smallish island. It depends what you mean by "isolated". Those early sail training pioneers, the Vikings, certainly didn't think of Ireland as isolated. They thought it was central to the entire business of sailing up and down Europe's coastline.

Thus any all-Ireland sail training vessel would be expected to be away abroad at least as much as she'd be at home, whereas Spirit of New Zealand is usually home – the season of 2013-2014 was the first time she'd been to Australia since 1988, when she was in the fleet with Asgard II for the First Feet celebrations.

In New Zealand, she's a sort of floating adventure centre, and a large tender often accompanies her to take the trainees to the nearest landing place for shoreside adventures, for it's quite a challenge keeping 40 energetic young people fully occupied.

In Europe, that's where the sail training races come in. Time was when the racing aspect was down-played. But there's nothing like a good race to bring a mutinous crew together, and the recently-published mega-book about the world's sail training vessels, Tall Ships Today by Nigel Rowe of Sail Training International, quite rightly devotes significant space to everything to do with the racing.

Thus if we do get a new sail training ship for Ireland, she'll have to sail well and fast. That was Asgard II's greatest virtue. For there is nothing more dispiriting for troubled young folk than to find themselves shackled to the woofer of the fleet. Yet you'd be pleasantly surprised by how previously disengaged youngster can become actively and enthusiastically involved when they find that they're being transformed from scared and seasick kids into members of a winning crew.

So now, the 64 thousand dollar question. The cost. It's rather more than 64 thousand. AYT reckon they'll have to come up with a final capital expenditure of €15 million to build the ship and get her into full commission with proper crewing and shoreside administration arrangements in place. But after that – and here's the kernel of the whole concept – they reckon that the running costs will come out of existing government expenditure already in place and used every year for education, youth training, sporting facilities, social development and so forth.

So their pitch is that if the governments north and south come up with funding to support substantial donations already proposed for AYT by various benevolent national and international bodies, then once the ship is in being, she will generate her own income in the same way as vessels like Europa and Morgen Stern are already doing in mainland Europe.

And it's to the heart of mainland Europe that they'll be looking for design and contruction, as it's the Dykstra partnership which will be overseeing the design, and their ship-build associate company Damen will likely do the construction work, though one idea being floated is that Damen might provide a flatpack kit for the vessel to be built in steel in Ireland.

Those of us who dream of Asgard II being built anew will find all this a bit challenging to take on board. My own hopes, for instance, would still be to build Asgard II again to Jack Tyrrell's lines, but with the hull constructed in aluminium. It would be expensive as it would need to be double-skin below the waterline, but the ship's size would be very manageable with a professional crew of just five, while she'd sail like a dream And proper top-class marine grade aluminium seems to last for ever, as naval architect Gerry Dijkstra (his surname is slightly different from that of the partnership) himself shows with his remarkable cruises with his own-designed alloy 54-footer Bestevaer.

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A man who knows what he's doing. This is Gerry Dijkstra's own extensively-cruised alloy-built 54 footer Bestevaer. The name translates not as "Best ever", but either as "best father" or "best seafarer", and was the name of affection given to the great Admiral de Ruyter by his loyal crews

Whatever, the good news is that things are on the move, and we wish them well, all those who have kept the Irish sail training flame alive through some appalling setbacks. Now, it really is the time to move forward. And if we do get a new ship, why not call her the Jack Tyrrell? He, of all people, was the one who kept the faith and the flame alive.

Published in W M Nixon

#tallship – You come across a reference to an island nation - the 20th largest in the world - that doesn't have a marine policy or a dedicated marine department, and you think it must be some kind of a joke. It's a ship of state without a captain, or a rudder. It adds insult to injury to discover that this same island nation was moved to the verge of bankruptcy after her inhabitants turned their backs on the ocean and invested too heavily in the land.

So much for living in a smart economy.

Not many people living in Ireland realise that it's the third biggest country in Europe, by virtue of her seabed territory of 220 million acres.

Ask any fisherman what EU membership did for our trawler fleet and you will get a quick answer. Ireland has two–thirds of European fishing waters and 3 per cent of the catch. That sell-out, as the fishing community saw it, was the beginning of the end of marine policy in Ireland.

We have in the past been able to blame a lot of our maritime ignorance on the British, with a little justification. Boat ownership by the 'native Irish' was restricted at times, and fishing permitted only by licence. But that was 400 years ago, so we're running out of excuses.

If you're searching for a recent symbol of this marine neglect, look no further than Asgard II. At 30 years old, the boat was at the end of her working life when she sank off the coast of France in 2008.

She was our maritime flagship, a national icon which had given 10,000 young people the chance to go to sea. The insurance money paid out and it went into central exchequer funds. The State showed no interest in replacing her. Until now perhaps?

There has been some sort of maritime awakening in official Ireland. In June, the Government hosted an Ocean Wealth conference declaring millions could be 'harnessed' from our seas in so many ways.

Separately, a new naval patrol vessel has arrived at a cost of E54m. Another one is expected next year. This month the Taoiseach announced he'd ordered a third.

Is it all coincidence or is Ireland moving towards a new marine game plan?

There's no doubting the public's interest in our seas.Just look at the interest in the maritime festivals around our coast this summer and the crowds that came to see Spain's 'Juan Sebastián de Elcano', the world's third largest Tall Ship in Dublin port in June.

Now there is fresh State impetus in the marine, there should in tandem be plans to replace Ireland's Tall Ship, a symbol of our maritime heritage and the possibilities offered in the seas that surround us.

Published in Tall Ships

#tallships – The perpetual 'Asgard II Award' for outstanding achievement are among a range of awards to be presented at the Tall Ships Ireland annual prizegiving this Saturday (January 25th) at the Mansion House on Dawson Street, Dublin 2. 

There will also be Trainee and Watch-leader of the Year awards made plus details of the latest initiative to provide opportunity for 100 Dublin youths to sail on the Tall Ships in 2014.

In addition a schedule of Tall Ships visits to The Irish Sea and Dublin Port this Summer will be published.

Published in Tall Ships
Tagged under
Captain Colm Newport is the Afloat.ie/Irish Independent "Sailor of the Month" for April in honour of the key role he played in ensuring the continuity of Irish sail training through a difficult period.

Colm Newport was the Master of the sail training brigantine Asgard II when she started taking in water from an unexplained leak in the small hours of September 11th 2008 off the coast of France.

Like all Asgard's commanders during the ship's remarkable 27 year career which took her all over the world, he had a special affection for Asgard II, a small square rigger which punched way above her weight in the company of the world's largest tall ships.

But this was no occasion for sentimentality, and the sadness could wait until later. In a seamanlike manner, Newport analysed the reality of the situation, and calmly ensured that his full-rime crew and the ship's complement of young trainees clearly realized that the order to take up stations to abandon ship was for real – it wasn't simply an unexpected safety drill.

ASGARD_sinks

Asgard II sinks by the bow on September 11 2008 off the coast of France. Photo: Courtesy French Search and Rescue Service

To the credit of all on board, the transfer to the liferafts took place in a calm atmosphere, and as the beloved ship's final hour afloat arrived, Captain Newport gave the order to move away from the vicinity of the vessel to avoid any danger of the liferafts being dragged down by the rigging.

No-one was injured, few had any time even to be frightened, and thanks to the captain and crew's professional skill, the horror of drownings to wipe out Ireland's sail training programme was avoided.

Asgard II being a government-owned ship, the follow-through was inevitably slow. And as the national economic crash was getting up its full head of steam, the priorities of a national sail training programme open to all young people slipped right down the scale, until the Department of Defence quietly wound up Coiste an Asgard, and the insurance money for the ship went into the rapidly shrinking national coffers.

But the spirit lives on, and the newly established Sail Training Ireland – a voluntary body open to membership and all sorts of support – has been set up by several who were involved in Coiste an Asgard. It is officially recognized as the successor to the Asgard programme, and is already strengthened with bursaries from the global body Sail Training International.

In time, we may have a new square rigger, and she really will be the people's ship. But the fact that it can be anticipated with hope and enthusiasm is in large part due to the calm efficiency of Colm Newport and his crew on the morning of September 11th 2008.

Latest Asgard II Stories

Latest Tall Ships News from Ireland

Writing in the Irish Independent on Saturday, WM Nixon welcomes the introduction of Sail Training Ireland as a big step towards getting Ireland back into tall ship sailing.
Nixon also pays tribute to Ireland's previous square-rigger, Asgard II, which held its own among taller competitors for almost three decades before its sinking in the Bay of Biscay in 2008.
That ship was also remarkable for being "one of the very few government owned and run sail training ships in the world".
In the wake of Asgard II, a new approach is being taken with Sail Training Ireland - which is an officially recognised voluntary trust, actively supported by the Irish Sailing Association, that is open to anyone and free to accept donations and corporate endowments.
irishsailtraining.ie
"The sailing community and all those interested in promoting maritime affairs now have an opportunity for self-reliance," writes Nixon, who notes that while we get back on the road to having our own tall ship, Sail Training Ireland will be able to place Irish trainees on other ships already sailing for invaluable experience.

Writing in the Irish Independent on Saturday, WM Nixon welcomes the introduction of Sail Training Ireland as a big step towards getting Ireland back into tall ship sailing.

Nixon also pays tribute to Ireland's previous square-rigger, Asgard II, which held its own among taller competitors for almost three decades before its sinking in the Bay of Biscay in 2008.

That ship was also remarkable for being "one of the very few government owned and run sail training ships in the world".

In the wake of Asgard II, a new approach is being taken with Sail Training Ireland - which is an officially recognised voluntary trust, actively supported by the Irish Sailing Association, that is open to anyone and free to accept donations and corporate endowments.

"The sailing community and all those interested in promoting maritime affairs now have an opportunity for self-reliance," writes Nixon, who notes that while we get back on the road to having our own tall ship, Sail Training Ireland will be able to place Irish trainees on other ships already sailing for invaluable experience.

Published in Tall Ships

Asgard II's wheel and bell look like new again following their recovery from the sunken Irish sail training brigantine. Unlike 2005, Asgard won't be sailing in this year's Tall Ships race when it calls to Waterford but one suggestion doing the rounds is that the shiny bell should sound the start of the race from Waterford on July 3. It's a nice idea, certainly a lot nicer than rotting on the French seabed or sitting on a shelf in the Office of the Receiver of Wrecks. Let us know what you think in our poll on the left hand column.

asgardbell

Back from the deep: Asgard II's bell (above) and wheel look like new again. Should they have a place at the Tall Ships Waterford, vote in our reader poll!

 

asgardwheel

Published in Tall Ships
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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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