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Sailing on Saturday with WM Nixon

Joseph Conrad wrote many stories and novels with a nautical setting, based on his time in the British and French merchant marine and in the old sailing ships. They depict trials of the human spirit and one of his memorable quotes is – “The mind of man is capable of anything.”

Perhaps so too is the mind of a marine journalist, because several current images have been coming to its surface.

I am the only Irish marine journalist who was present at the reappearance of the legendary Conor O’Brien’s Ilen when it was brought back to Dublin from the Falkland Islands on the deck of a freighter. I have followed it through the great restoration at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard near Skibbereen, not far from Baltimore where it was originally built.

SQUARING UP ON THE ILENSquaring up on the Ilen

When the square sail, the last of the seven made for it, was raised quietly (shown above) and with not a lot of public attention, in Limerick Port where Ilen is based for the Winter. A very capable, four-sided sail last deployed on the good ship some 92 years ago… an image invoking an emotive sense of pride in the achievements of those who restored and rehabilitated her….

People can do wonderful things in the marine sphere and that was added to when I was sent the other photo here, from Clare Island, because the offshore islands are not, in my view, given the attention they should get and it has been overlooked that, in the current battle against plastic pollution of the oceans they are amongst the first recipients of this waste…

"Listen to the Podcast to hear more about how the offshore islands are dealing with plastic and other pollution"

Listen to the Podcast below to hear more about how the offshore islands are dealing with plastic and other pollution that is increasingly washing up on their shores and particularly Clare Island, a lovely island to sail into… and also about my third image… what do you do with old sails?

Clare Islanders have built a bungalow from waste plastic bottlesClare Islanders have built a bungalow from waste plastic bottles

Listen to the Podcast below

Published in Ilen

In ancient Greece, the Halcyon Days were a mythological seven day period of calm clear weather at the mid-winter Solstice writes W M Nixon. Down Limerick way, they’ve been making the best of the Halcyon Days, with the blue River Shannon ruffled only by the gentlest of breezes for several days now, while the sun has shone on the Ted Russell Dock where the restored 56ft 1926-built gaff ketch Ilen has seen continuing work by the Ilen Project team.

Various tasks have been ongoing to have her ready for the 2019 season, which will include a round Ireland voyage with a significant visit to Dun Laoghaire. And since Ilen returned to Limerick at the beginning of October, she has been much-visited by a wide range of people including President Michael D Higgins and groups of schoolchildren taking part in the interactive educational projects linked to the historic ship.

squaresail yard fitting2The power exerted by the squaresail demands substantial fittings – the transverse yard itself was specially designed by the late Theo Rye. Photo: Gary MacMahon

details from dockside3The proper sheeting of squaresails is almost a forgotten art – thanks to the forward lead to the cathead, Ilen’s topsail can be usefully carried on a reach. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But while she is so important historically, the Ilen nevertheless has to project an attractive persona, and one of the useful things about the holiday period is that it provided opportunities to see the re-born Ilen at leisure, with the “small tall ship” in an uncrowded state. It is then that her true spirit shines through, and you appreciate why Project Leader Gary MacMahon chose the special colour schemes he did. For as one visitor seeing the ship for the first time commented: “The Ilen looks so jaunty – she cheers everyone up”.

"a round Ireland voyage with a significant visit to Dun Laoghaire"

There was further cause for cheer in recent days when the newly-arrived traditional squaresail, exactly as designed by Conor O’Brien of Foynes Island back in 1926, was offered up to its spars and equipment – and fitted perfectly. So it’s only a matter of time before that long and distinctive bowsprit re-emerges from the sea lock into the Estuary, and we see Ilen setting full sail for the first time in many decades.

obrien drawings4Back to the original – Conor O’Brien’s drawings for squaresail control

Meanwhile, for those who would like a comprehensive overview of this very special project, the profusely-illustrated and comprehensive Ilen Report 2018 has just been published as a generous 32-page fully-coloured booklet, and is available free both as this Ilen_Report_Final.pdf, and in hard copy from [email protected]

reflections from astern5Reflections on a peaceful evening of early January in Limerick. A year ago, the weather was very different, and Ilen was facing a difficult launching operation and berthing move in the crowded boatyard at Oldcourt in West Cork. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Published in Ilen

Down Limerick way, somebody is probably already putting together an appropriate song about how the historic sail trading ketch Ilen was saved from the scrapyard through a heroic decade-long restoration programme by Limerick’s Ilen Project, only to spend her first winter in twenty years back in commission sharing quaysides with ever-changing mini-mountains of scrap metal writes W M Nixon.

Certainly, if the activity of the scrap metal trade from Limerick’s Ted Russell Dock is any indication of the good health of the metal-bashing trade in the Shannon-side city, then there’s no doubt that it’s thriving. And as the Dock is a capacious and clear space at weekends because of the high level of respect for the traditional Ship Owner’s First Commandment: “Though Shalt Not be in Port on Sundays”, then when Ilen’s crew avail of the briefly ship-free space for manoeuvring training, it’s invariably done against yet another new mountains of metallic bits and pieces which one day might be eligible for the Turner Prize.

ilen clayton2There’s plenty of space for Ilen’s manoeuvring training as she heads down the dock with the Clayton Hotel beyond, as the First Commandment of successful cargo ship management is: “Thou Shalt Not Be In Port On Sunday”. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so perhaps in addition to an Ilen Development Gallery from this winter’s activities, we’ll find a range of photos chronicling those ever-changing hills and mountains of metal offcuts. Stranger things have happened.

But certainly, those who are involved with the Ilen these days have developed a certain fondness for them, as they’ll forever be associated in their memories of a time when the Ilen ideal was being achieved.

In recent weeks, skilled joinery worker, boatbuilder and instructor Jim McInerney of the Ilen School has overseen the finishing of the furnishings in the pilot house, and very well they look too, an attractive combination of traditional quality woodwork providing a framework for the installation of electronic and other equipment, all of which is itself beautiful in its own way.

ilen pilothouse3The new finish in Ilen’s Pilot House (above and below) is an attractive mixture of classic marine joinery work and modern electronics

ilen pilothouse4

ilen pilothouse5

Jim and his group have now moved on to the completion of the main saloon-cum-classroom, which will be both comfortable and functional, for Ilen in her new life will have many roles.

To fulfil many of them, her crew will need to be confident of their handling abilities when berthing a boat with what could well be the longest bowsprit in Ireland. In fact, it sticks out so far ahead of the vertical stem that it has been seriously suggested they should think of installing a camera in its outer end to send a continuous transmission back to a little screen at the steering wheel, because it must be nearly 70ft from one to the other, and there’s lots of nautical paraphernalia in between.

ilen helm lessons6Close concentration for trainee helmsman James Madigan under the experienced guidance of Captain Gerry Burns (right) with Ilen Project supporter Chelsea Canavan (left) of the Hunt Museum enjoying a day n the water. Photo: Gary MacMahon
Be that as it may, last weekend Project Leader Gary MacMahon and his team had the benefit of guidance from Captain Gerry Burns, one of the most experienced seafarers and ship-handlers in Ireland. In fact, if you were to list the best people in the country for this particular piece of instruction, Gerry Burns would almost invariably come out on top of every list, for his experience ranges from fishing boats and yachts of all sizes right through to the largest ferries, while he was also a key member of Asgard II’s roster of reserve skippers.

For training in handling Ilen and bringing her alongside in challenging circumstances, much was learned, for as Ilen was designed to draw only 3ft forward in order to facilitate coming safely in on Falklands beaches on little islands which lacked even the most basic quay, it means that in cross-winds her head will very quickly be blown off course.

ilen profile7Ilen’s beach-friendly profile inevitably means that the bow is very easily blown to lee at slow speeds in cross-winds, and part of the special skill in handling her is knowing how to anticipate this and deal with it
They’ve learned all sorts of tricks such as the value of approaching tricky berths in astern. With her 150 hp Gardiner diesel and enormous three-blade prop, Ilen doesn’t mess about when you give her a bit of welly in astern - the bow will very quickly fall into line, and there’s the bonus that you have a much clearer view of where you’re going, but it’s a technique which needs confidence and competence.

ilen quayside clayton8“If you can walk away from it, then it’s a landing…..” The rough humour of aviation was not needed with Sunday’s readily-available and neatly-accessed quayside space in Limerick, giving Ilen plenty of different berths to test the skills of trainee helmsmen. Photo: Gary MacMahon
That and all other aspects of ship-handling in restricted places only comes from instruction and training and practice and practice again and then practice yet again and again with the best teacher you can find, and with Gerry Burns enthusiastically sharing the sea training and awareness ideals of the Ilen Project, they’d the best man for the job amongst the moving mountains of the Ted Russell Dock.

ilen crew9At the end of a good day’s work are (left to right) Gary Mac Mahon, Eoin Mac Mahon, James Lyons of Sailing Into Wellness, James Madigan, Tony Daly and Captain Gerry Burns

Published in W M Nixon

When we’d flash floods pestering the country recently with wayward downpours, Gary MacMahon went to check out the beloved Ilen in Limerick docks, and found the old girl sitting serenely under her own private rainbow writes W M Nixon

But then, the restored 1926-built 56ft trading ketch, with her impeccable connections to global circumnavigating pioneer Conor O’Brien of Foynes, has had a year of good fortune since she was skillfully extracted in a brief weather window in January from Liam Hegarty’s Top Shed in the hyper-crowded Oldcourt Boatyard near her birthplace of Baltimore.

The rigging and finishing process was a painstaking and time-consuming task, and so too was the long process of bringing her up to the rigorous standards for certification as a passenger carrying vessel. Thus the Autumn was well upon us when she’d to face the challenge of getting from Baltimore to her home port of Limerick, but with a crew of all the talents aboard, they took full advantage of another handy weather window, and saw it off in just 17 hours.

Since then, in addition to a visit by President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, the ship’s arrival in Limerick has chimed neatly with the much-visited Ilen Exhibition in the Hunt Museum which successfully concluded yesterday, but the ship’s company did find the time to put to sea for one last occasion in 2018, going down the Shannon Estuary beyond Scattery Island a couple of weekends ago in search of a breeze, and nipping inside Foynes Island on the way back for an unofficial reconnaissance in anticipation of the official visit there next year.

ilen passing glin2There’s no hiding place for Ilen when she proceeds down the Shannon Estuary – her familiar shape was spotted from the south shore as she passed Glin. Photo: Estelle O’Driscoll

The old ketch has such a distinctive appearance that several people recognized her immediately as she moved sweetly through the estuary waters, and Estelle O’Driscoll at Glin was one of them, getting got some photos which show how much at home Ilen is on that fine waterway.

And as Afloat.ie reported at the time, Alison O’Brien – a Conor O’Brien relative by marriage – was at the family place on Foynes Island for the weekend, and she too was very much aware of the ketch’s presence.

conor obrien cottage3Conor O’Brien’s home place on Foynes Island was the cottage known as Barneen, as seen here from Ilen during the recent visit. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But now, the workaday surroundings of the Ted Russell Dock is Ilen’s home until the end of winter, and much work still needs to be done until the full programme for next year – which may well include a round Ireland venture – can be finalized.

With traditional and wooden boat festivals springing up all round the coast, everyone will want to have the now widely-recognized Ilen at their particular gathering, and the problem will be trying to fit it all together to make logistical sense. Popularity and immediate public recognition certainly bring their own challenges…..

Published in Ilen

#ShannonEstuary - The recent return to the Shannon Estuary, almost 100 years later of restored ketch trader Ilen, which Afloat highlighted, sees the sole surviving Irish built ocean-going timber sailing vessel back home in Limerick Docks, writes Jehan Ashmore

After a 20 year restoration project, the 56ft 'small tall ship' Ilen, returned last month to the estuary after an absence of 92 years as focused by Afloat's W.M. Nixon. The Illen, built to a Limerick design where such vessels traded on the estuary in Munster, had docked in the mid-west city port's Ted Russell Docks. Take note as Afloat previously reported, today's (Thursday) conivial Come-all-Ye party to celebrate the restoration at the Ilen Exhibition in the city's Hunt Museum (between 5.30 to 8.00pm). All are welcome.

On completion of Ilen in 1926, Conor O’Brien's ketch, built with an auxiliary engine, departed Limerick for Falklands Islands owners where for the majority of time served 60 years in inter-island cargo trade deep in the South Altantic Ocean. Last month, however Ilen would finally sail up the Shannon Estuary again having made a delivery passage from Baltimore (where built), retracing a preparatory journey to Foynes made by O'Brien in advance of the ocean delivery to the Falklands Islands Company.

The small cargoship having become abandoned, eventually returned as deck cargo to Ireland when loaded ashore in Dublin Port in 1997. In the following year work began to restore the unique Irish built sail ocean going cargoship.

Close to Baltimore is where Ilen, mid-way through its restoration, in 2008 was given a new lease life thanks to the ketch receiving the skilled craftmanship at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard in Oldcourt, upriver on the River Ilen from Skibberean. Much of the restorations detailed work of mast and sail work, though took place at the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick.

Also in 2008, a personnal visit took place to the city's Ted Russel Docks to examine the commercial shipping scene, albeit then no sail traders of the past but motorised ships such as Celtic Spirit. The general cargo short-sea trader (pictured above) in the port's single dock basin is seen in October just over a decade ago with Inland Fisheries Ireland patrol cutter Costantoir Bradan.

As W.M. Nixon also alluded in recent coverage of Ilen (scroll down to photo) which sparked memories as the scene included a blue hulled cargoship (likewise of Celtic Spirit). The shipping scene shows the stark contrast in the Dock between the restored ketch complex foredeck and completely differs to those experienced by sailors on the modern ships nearby.

The unidentified blue hulled ship is similar in size to Celtic Spirit, which then had opened up a new service in trading round timber (logs). Trees felled from commercial forests in Co. Tipperary were the source and if recalled correctly, also involved plantations from some of the neighbouring counties. A dockside grabber crane would seize several logs at a time before swung speedily into the hold of Celtic Spirit whose cargo was bound for a European port.

Celtic Spirit no longer forms part of the current 9 strong fleet of Welsh based operator, Charles M.Willie & Co.(Shipping) Ltd located in Cardiff. A successor of the same name serves alongside a fleetmate, Celtic Freedom acquired last year from Arklow Shipping Nederland B.V. as their Arklow Rally. Also sold but in 2016 was Arklow Shipping Ltd's (ASL) Irish flagged Arklow Rose which was renamed Celtic Venture.

At the time of that report another of ASL oldest R-class short sea traders, Arklow Raider had called to Limerick Docks. The dock basin is one of six terminals operated by Shannon Foynes Port Company (SFPC) which recorded a third consecutive year of record profits as 2017’s return in turnover was close to €14 million.

The presence of Ilen in Limerick's Ted Russell Dock (completed in 1853) brings the past and the present to co-exist in terms of demonstrating traditional Irish maritime heritage and modern day shipping and aptly Arkow Shipping, Ireland's largest indigenous shipowner-operator. 

As previously alluded in the year Ilen was built (1926), Ted RusselI Docks that same year reported around 100 importers and exporters using the port. At that time, the dock's principle client were the flour millers, John Bannatyne & Sons. 

The activities of Bannatyne contributed to approximately half of the revenue to Limerick Harbour Commissioners (from 1994, SFPC). Only last year, SFPC's Limerick Docklands Framework Strategy announced plans to reinstate historical buildings over time such as the large Ballantyne Mills building that occupies the main quay lining Ted Russell Docks. 

Exports from Limerick Docks more than tripled imports in 2016, which shows how the dock basin asset has contributed to business in the city and the wider mid-west region. Another recent caller last month to the Dock was again from ASL whose Arklow Cadet (also dating to 2016) which docked in the inland port located on Ireland's largest estuary.

 

Published in Shannon Estuary

Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary exerts an almost supernatural attraction for the O’Brien family writes W M Nixon. The great circumnavigator Conor O’Brien always regarded it as his one and only true home. And though his voyagings and other adventures took him all over the world, he would be back on the island as often as possible. He spent his final years from 1944 to 1952 there, living frugally, doing some writing, and building elegant rowing punts until his death – still on the island - at the age of 72.

So although the port of Foynes on the mainland shore has greatly expanded – with Foynes Yacht Club becoming a regional pace-setter – the island continues to have an attractive air of remoteness. And while the O’Briens most closely related to Conor are now spread throughout Ireland and abroad, it’s seldom that a long time passes before there are some of them back visiting the island again.

ilen downriver2A perfect Autumn morning, but little enough wind – aboard Ilen, speeding down the Shannon Estuary on the strong ebb in search of a breeze. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Certainly this was the case last weekend, when the Ilen Project’s Gary MacMahon and a dozen shipmates took the ship to sea for some training sessions, and further testing of the restored 1926-built ketch’s systems – the word is that Robert Smalle of Limerick is a great ship’s cook.

ilen learning3Enough breeze finally arrived to make it worthwhile setting the sails. Photo: Gary MacMahon

But even to seaward of Scattery Island they found little enough wind for a few hours of sailing and some adjusting of the reefing systems, so when they headed back up-river, they decided to make an unscheduled diversion inside Foynes Island. For despite what some official narratives may tell us, Conor O’Brien always regarded Foynes as the starting port for all his major voyages with his world-girdling ketch Saoirse (1922) and the sail trading ketch Ilen (1926).

Now as it happens, Ilen will be making her official return to Foynes in the springtime of 2019, with all the proper official ceremonial to go with it. But evening was drawing on – surely no-one would notice in the gathering dusk last weekend if they briefly paid their respects with the restored Ilen to this place which meant so much, for here it was, right beside them, and the weather so settled?

Not a chance. The extended O’Brien family’s fondness for Foynes Island caught them out. Alison O’Brien, who is married to Stephen O’Brien the son of Murrough O’Brien who was Conor O’Brien’s nephew, was on the island for a few days, and she spotted Ilen immediately the historic little ship poked her nose into the channel.

ilen at foynes4Even in the gathering dusk, Ilen’s brief unofficial return to Foynes for the first time in 92 years did not go unobserved. Photo: Alison O’Brien

ilen foynes5The restored Ilen salutes Foynes Island. Photo: Alison O’Brien

ilen departs foynes6Ilen departs Foynes to catch the flood tide up to Limerick. Photo: Alison O’Brien

 

saoirse foynes7Times long gone – Saoirse herself after she’d been fitted with her first auxiliary engine. Photo courtesy Gary MacMahon

So now we have the first images of the restored Ilen back at Foynes, and through the winter can compare them with photos of the ship there in 1926, and of Saoirse in and around Foynes too. It was well dark when Ilen returned to Limerick city on the surging flood tide, and went back into her berth beside the pilot boat in the Ted Russell dock in fine form after that unplanned but magic meeting at Foynes

Next happening up on the agenda has been well-signalled – tomorrow evening (Thursday November 1st) sees the come-all-ye Ilen Shindig within the Ilen Exhibition in the Hunt Museum. It’s from 5.30pm to 8.00, there’s entertainment and proper hospitality, and the celebration of the Ilen restoration will perfectly suit the times that are in it.

Published in Ilen

The return of the restored trading ketch Ilen to Limerick after 92 years has been a matter of quiet celebration among all involved since the 56ft “small tall ship" sailed up the Shannon Estuary from Baltimore at the beginning of October writes W M Nixon. And interest has been such that people from near and far want to meet those involved in every aspect of the 20-year project, which eventually saw the ten years from 2008 until 2018 taken up with giving new life to Ilen at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt in West Cork, with much of the detail work being done at the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick.

With the successful Ilen exhibition being staged in Limerick’s renowned Hunt Museum, the ideal venue for a party is available, so there’s going to be a convivial Come-all-Ye within the exhibition in the Museum on Thursday November 1st from 5.30 to 8.00pm. At it, everyone will be welcome to have a good time and an informative one too – the benign presence of the Ilen in the Ted Russell Dock has brought daily interest and greater awareness in Limerick, and an increased sense of the city’s truly maritime nature, with its fascinating past and developing future

ilen foredeck2.jpgContrasts in Limerick’s dockland - the restored Ilen’s complex foredeck speaks of a different world from that experienced by sailors on the modern ships nearby, yet they share the same sea. Photo: Deirdre Power.

Published in Ilen

The restored 1926-built 56ft ketch Ilen proudly tells us on her transom that her home port is Limerick writes W M Nixon. And while Limerick may have come to prominence as a raiding base and trading centre for the Vikings at the head of the Shannon Estuary, today it is a strategically-located commercial and manufacturing city where - despite many handsome buildings - you are never far from reminders that this is a place where they make things, and metal-working is often involved.

The Ilen Project’s work has reached the successful conclusion of the re-born “small tall ship” making the passage at near-record speed from Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore in West Cork right up the coast of West Cork and Kerry to the length of the Shannon Estuary and the heart of the city in the Ted Russell Dock. There, further protection is provided by the lock gates necessitated by the large tidal range at the head of the estuary.

In her home port, Ilen and her crew have constant reminders that Limerick is a working place. All sorts of cargoes are coming and going, and though she is in the choice position of being allocated a prime spot beside the official Pilot Boat berth, just across the quayside is the transit point for many cargoes. And at the weekend in the sunshine, it had a mountain of scrap metal ultimately destined for “other places beyond the seas”. 

ilen limerick docks2Ilen’s location seems completely different from a changed perspective. Photo: Gary MacMahon

It can be other shipments at other times, but as the Limerick folk are taking the Ilen to their generous hearts, they know that a completely sheltered winter berth is vital, regardless of what neighbouring cargoes may be like from time to time.

With Ilen now securely in place in her home port, the connection can be made with the Ilen Exhibition which has been running successfully at the city’s Hunt Museum, so much so that the Ilen Schools Programme is now booked up until the end of November. There’ll be a further official ceremony on November 1st to link the Hunt Museum Exhibition (which runs until November 14th) with the ship’s presence in the dock, and meanwhile exciting plans for the vessel’s programme in 2019 and beyond are taking shape, all to be revealed in due course.

rosies at hunt3Keen crew: an Ilen Workshop under way in the Hunt Museum for pupils from “Rosie’s” – aka Our Lady of Lourdes Primary School, Rosbrien, Limerick.

sabina and crew4President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins with Ilen’s crew in Limerick Docks. Photo Ilen Network

For the Ilen Boat-Building School team, it will all be a new stage in the process, which reached a high point when President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina made a point of going aboard Ilen during their recent Limerick visit, and meeting those who were both involved in the re-build, and as the delivery crew.

For Project Director Gary MacMahon, the focus of life is under-going a complete change. During the eleven-year re-build, he made the return journey between Limerick and Oldcourt more than 500 times. There are times when West Cork can seem very far away, no matter where you start from…..

As for the delivery passage, it went smooth as silk in light winds, drawing on Ilen’s reality as a motor-sailer. She’s powered by a 150hp Gardner diesel with a 2:1 gearbox which is perfectly in balance with the big propeller, such that at 1,000 rpm the ship is at optimum speed with the engine temperature never going above 60 degrees.

ilen at skellig5Smooth progress. Ilen makes her way past Skellig Michael off the Kerry coast, on course for Limerick from Baltimore. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Thus the total time for the passage was just 17 hours, and when it became evident they were going to be early, with night upon them they were able to pull into Carrigaholt on the Clare side of the Estuary for a four-hour rest. That was the sweet spot for Gary MacMahon. The anchorage and quay at Carrigaholt are dominated by the distinctive 1480-built castle of the MacMahons, the Chieftans of the Loop Head Peninsula. Maybe it was time for the ancestors themselves to show respect for a wonderful project nearing its successful conclusion……

carrigaholt castle6Carrigaholt Castle, an ancient stronghold of the MacMahons on the north shore of the Shannon Estuary. This was Ilen’s only stopping place on the passage from Baltimore to Limerick

Published in Ilen

The story of the historic 1926-built trading ketch Ilen, and her recent return in her restored state to the Shannon Estuary and Limerick, has evoked many memories writes W M Nixon.

But few if any of these stories are as special as those shared by the McCarthy family of Cork, whose interest was spurred when Ilen was re-launched. This inspired a heartfelt personal Facebook post by Paul McCarthy, manager of the Firkin Crane Dance Theatre in Cork, and with his permission, we publish it here:

Bursting with pride I was. Bursting with pride. The TV news report was about the launch of a boat called the Ilen in Baltimore harbour in West Cork. The boat had been refurbished locally by passionate enthusiasts, their passion emanating from a legacy laid down when the boat was originally built in Baltimore in 1926 and sailed, by brave West Cork seafarers, all the way to the Falkland Islands, 7,000 nautical miles, straight down the globe, next stop Antarctica. The Ilen would be, for the next 70 years, a supply vessel connecting the Islands. In the1990’s, ready for the junkyard, the Ilen was rescued and transported back to Cork to be restored to her original splendour.

For me, seeing the Ilen for the first time was quite an eye-opener. Like seeing in glorious colour what had only always been available in black and white. Have you ever told something to someone and you know they are impressed but you also know in your heart they don’t have the full picture? Now I realise how my dad must have felt because I had no idea the boat he had been telling me about, was just, so, small.

My dad Patrick McCarthy was an engineer in the Royal Navy between 1939 and 1961. He left Bantry looking for work in Liverpool and enlisted just before the breakout of World War 2. His passion was mechanics, and the Navy provided the opportunity to learn all there was to know about engines. We’ll put aside his WW2 exploits during the Artic and Atlantic Convoys and the Italian and Normandy Landings, because this story is about the good ship Ilen in peacetime, in 1952.

The Falkland Islands are located in the Southern Atlantic 300 nautical miles from the mainland of Argentina. Claimed by Britain, contested by Argentina, the nearest friendly mainland was, and still is, Chile, 700 nautical miles away and around Cape Horn, the most treacherous sea passage in the world, where the Pacific and the Atlantic constantly clash heads.

As a British overseas territory exposed to invasion from Argentina, there was the need for a constant military presence entailing at least one Royal Naval ship at anchor in Port Stanley. In 1952 my dad was the chief engineer on one of those visiting ships on guard duty, the frigate HMS Veryan Bay. 

ilen sailing2aThe 56ft Ilen as she was when Conor O’Brien, crewed by Con and Denis Cadogan of Cape Clear Island, sailed her out from Ireland to the Falklands in 1926

The Ilen by this time had seen 25 years in service bouncing around on the often-foamy waters between the islands. She was in need of a serious overhaul and the nearest facilities were in Punta Arenas in southern Chile, 400 miles straight across the wild open ocean that is the South Atlantic. The regular crew of the Ilen were not seafarers or engineers, and so would not risk the long journey. On a regular basis the Governor of the Island, Sir Geoffrey Miles Clifford, would welcome the newly visiting Navy ships and, usually invited to dinner in the officers’ mess, he would explain about the plight of their local supply boat and enquire if anyone aboard might be able to help. The answer was always no. That was until my dad’s ship arrived. That night at dinner the Captain put the message out around the ship to see if anyone would volunteer to help. Guess who knocked on the door of the officers’ mess? ‘What do ye need?” offered Dad in his never diluted Bantry accent.

The following day he went aboard the Ilen with Sir Geoffrey and looked over the engine, started her up, listened, and turned to the Governor and said he was sure he could keep her going long enough to make the crossing. Sir Geoffrey beamed: “You must come to dinner tonight, I want you to meet my wife and family and we can discuss the practicalities. Thank you so much, Pat. I have gone aboard numerous visiting ships up to now, and no one has offered to help. And the Islanders thank you.”

At dinner that night in the Governor’s Mansion, while his shipmates settled for standard ship’s fare, Dad was treated like a hero. They discussed the route options and they agreed the safest route would be through the Magellan Straits which are named after the great explorer Ferdinand Magellan who, when failing repeatedly to bring his own ship around the ferocious seas off Cape Horn, sought out this inland route inside the tip of South America.

pat mccarthy3Pat McCarthy in his days as a ship’s engineer
None of the regular crew would agree to the trip, they were after all part-time sailors, mostly farmers, who manned the Ilen whenever supplies needed to be moved between the islands. The Governor said the crew would be made up of a group of five local whaler fishermen, who had sailed the southern oceans crewing other whaling boats. They had saved up enough money to purchase their own boat in Chile, and so agreed to crew the Ilen to Punta Arenas in exchange for free passage. Dad slept in a bedroom that night in style and comfort far removed from his bunk on the Veryan Bay.

Following breakfast the next day, he headed back down to the port and reporting on board his own ship, he explained the situation to the Captain who released him to make his own way to Punta Arenas where they would rendezvous. The Veryan Bay would sail the 700 nautical miles around Cape Horn while Dad and the Ilen would take the more direct route through the Straits, too shallow and narrow in places for the big ship.

I remember asking Dad what the others on his ship thought of his plans, and he just shrugged his shoulders, “It needed to be done and I could do it. I knew the engine, and plus they knew I spent the war volunteering for everything that came my way, so this was no different.” On another occasion, over a pint with my dad, he revealed that his habit of volunteering early on in the war resulted in lucky escapes on at least two occasions when the ships he departed for volunteer duties had subsequently been sunk in battle, one with all hands lost, so he considered volunteering a natural, positive twist of fate that was being sent his way.

A few days later, while Dad was meeting with his fishermen crew and going over the workings of the Ilen, the Veryan Bay disappeared over the horizon. He was now on his own, an honorary Falkland Islander. They spent several days preparing the boat for the voyage they estimated should take 4 days if the weather held.

It was a fine Friday morning when they motored out of Port Stanley leaving the Governor, his family and a smattering of Islanders on the quayside wishing the gallant men bon voyage. Dad was at the helm and having carried out a rudimentary service on the engine, he was confident she would deliver them safely through the Straits. But before the Straits, there were those 300 miles of open ocean.

ilen map4A very exposed part of the world. The Ilen’s passage from the Falklands to Punta Arenas in Chile would have been challenging even if she had been in first class order
It was on Saturday the weather began to change. With the wind gusting from the south, and waves growing in stature, the direct westerly line of navigation had to be abandoned in favour of a zigzag pattern, to avoid being hit broadside by the waves and weather. This more than tripled their rate of progress through the water and the number of days exposed out at sea. The foul weather continued unabated for the next 24 hours and the constant changing of direction was putting an undue strain on the ailing engine.

The darkness delivered even greater danger and required all hands on deck to scan the black horizon for incoming waves. It was a blessing that the engine lasted until dawn. But with the dawn came spluttering and then silence. Dad belted below as one of the crew took over the wheel and the others frantically raced to hoist the sails. Dead in the water in these conditions, she would be knocked over within minutes unless they regained control and direction.

They were now 160 miles from the relative shelter of the Straits and without engine power, under sail relying on the wind alone. Fortunately, the crew were competent seamen and had a fair bit of experience in these waters under sail, but that was in boats designed for heavy weather and with much larger crews. Still, they kept her off the wind and as steady as possible while Dad worked on the engine below. At one point, he recalled, one of the crew appeared by his side offering to help. Dad was grateful for a while but soon sent him back up as he was only getting in the way. I know from personal experience that my dad had exacting standards, and a short temper when things are not going as planned, so the young crewman would have been much safer on deck.

pat mccarthy5A man with a fantastic store of memories - the late Pat McCarthy in his retirement home in Cork

He remembered being tossed about like a rag doll in the engine compartment, sometimes using lengths of strapping, normally used to secure cargo, to tie himself into position while he dismantled the engine looking for the problem. After hours below, he could not remember or was not counting how many hours. As he began to reassemble the engine, he became aware of the increasing violence of the rolling from side to side, and the brute force of the waves crashing over the boat. The storm was getting worse. Then, a crewman rushed below to tell him the sails were blowing out and he should get ready to come up top or be trapped below if they sank. He stayed where he was. He knew he was almost there. Soon after, just as it was getting dark, he restarted the engine. It sounded good. It would hold. He clambered up onto the deck and took the wheel from the sailor who joined his mates pulling in and tying down the remaining sails. He turned the Ilen into the wind and gauging just the right amount of throttle, rode out the remainder of the storm.

With the sun rising on their backs they could just make out the shape of land ahead. By lunchtime, they were scrutinising the charts to find the narrow inlet that was their entrance to the Magellan Straits. Through the next night, they motored gently through the channels. Huge cliffs sometimes closing in on them, and at other times it was wide inland waterways, often as rough as the oceans outside. Dad explained that whatever about the danger of the open ocean this was even more treacherous because if the engine failed again they would be blown into the cliffs for sure.

veryan bay6HMS Veryan Bay was a Bay Class Frigate, in commission from 1945 to 1957
Arriving at Punta Arenas, the HMS Veryan Bay was waiting. A small party of Dad’s navy crew came aboard the Ilen to welcome the adventurers ashore with fresh food and some beers. The Islander crew, to demonstrate to the navy sailors how close to disaster they had come, unfurled the sails to reveal mostly shredded canvas. My dad recalled the feeling in the pit of his stomach, It had been getting dark when they were stowing the sails at sea, and he had no idea at the time that all that was left was shredded canvas. All agreed it was a miracle that they stayed afloat in such a storm with so little sail, but the hero was the man who would not give up and got the engine running just before the last piece of sail blew out.

Dad left the Navy in 1961, the year I was born. He told me that story many times over the years, usually over a pint after his retirement, but most recently in the nursing home where he passed away only two years ago. I knew the story by heart but not until I saw the footage of the Ilen on TV, the actual boat, all 56 feet of her, did I grasp the magnitude of that achievement. Bursting with pride I am, bursting with pride.

In Memory, Patrick McCarthy, Born 28th September 1920, died 2016.

higgins paul mccarthy7President Michael D Higgins with Paul McCarthy at a recent event in the Firkin Crane Theatre in Cork.

Published in Ilen

President Michael D Higgins wished further fair winds for the historic ketch Ilen when he and his wife Sabina went aboard the newly-restored Conor O’Brien ketch during his visit to Limerick writes W M Nixon.

Ilen has been brought back to the Shannon Estuary after 92 years away, with the last ten years being taken up by the restoration as a joint project between the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick, and Liam Hegarty’s Oldcourt Boatyard near Baltimore, the West Cork port which was Ilen’s birthplace back in 1926.

Ilen is now the last surviving Irish sail trading vessel, and her restoration has developed into an educational project which is also being promoted by an exhibition currently running in Limerick’s Hunt Museum. For the Ilen Network’s Gary MacMahon and Liam Hegarty, it was the very special fulfilment of a long-held dream when they were finally able to walk the decks of the newly-restored Ilen with the President of Ireland in the ship’s home port of Limerick.

ilen limerick dock2 Ilen is home….the 1926-built ketch in Limerick Docks. Photo Ilen Network 

higgins macmahon3The President and Sabina Higgins greet Ilen Project Director Gary MacMahon (right) as they prepare to board Ilen. Photo Ilen Network

Published in Ilen
Page 1 of 7

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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