Displaying items by tag: Ilen
The restoration of the 57–ft traditional multi-cargo ketch Ilen, built in Baltimore in 1926, has taken a significant step forward through the formal closing of her deck with the ceremonial fastening home of the final plank at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt beside the River Ilen.
The ceremony, hosted on Saturday by the Ilen Project, Limerick, marked a significant milestone in a re-build project whose primary goal is to bring Ireland’s sole surviving wooden sailing ship back to Limerick. It was Limerick man Conor O’Brien of Foynes Island who secured the order for the Ilen when he called by the Falkland Islands after rounding Cape Horn in 1925 in his world-girdling 40ft Baltimore-built Saoirse. The islanders decided that a larger version of Saoirse would provide an ideal inter-island communication, transport and ferry vessel for their rugged archipelago, and within two years Conor O’Brien had returned with the Ilen to fulfill their commission.
Saturday’s very special occasion revealed the beauty of the vessel to all those who attended - the high quality materials, the exemplary craftsmanship, and most significantly the marine educational role the vessel can be expected to play when she takes up her operational life on the Shannon Estuary and beyond, from her new home port of Limerick.
Brother Anthony Keane of Glenstal Abbey, a key promoter of the Ilen Project, officiated at the ceremony and said that what has been achieved so far showed that there was not alone a great work ethic in the Ilen Project but also a spiritual commitment to the work being done. "This is an amazing act of faith and commitment come to fruition. This boat, and the people involved with it, rock. It is heading for the sea, like a salmon, and it will not be stopped, even if some of the financial people have still to solve their problems of calculus and apply their mathematics. The faith, energy and skill of Liam Hegarty, John Hegarty, Fachtna O’Sullivan, and their team at Hegarty’s Boatyard are sufficient to tell a tree to be uprooted and launched into the sea, and see it happen. Their work is a phenomenon which outside administrators might better observe and study rather than direct or control.”
Ceremony guest speaker Lord David Puttnam said that "the project underlined what could be done by a determined community, a community that could make their decisions for themselves, not to be dependent upon others beyond their community, but to be self-sufficient, and the project of the Ilen showed that. It also demonstrated that the skills involved, and which were being taught, were skills which younger people could learn, use and remain in their community, without having to leave, and thus strengthen communities. This is a message from the Ilen project."
Dr Edward Walsh, founding president of the University of Limerick, also spoke, and told of how he had at the outset of the project exhorted all to simply “go ahead and buy the boat” and “pretend” that the money was there, and it was a source of great pride for him to see how it had advanced so far.
The good ship Ilen has advanced to this moment in time where she happily accepts this final plank. It has been a long journey, an arduous journey, which continues, but one which has reached a plateau, a place and time of wonder and of thanks.
In 1926 the Ilen, Ireland’s sole surviving wooden sailing ship, sailed from Limerick to an active 70 year working life in the South Atlantic, and the completion last Saturday of her new weather deck brings her return to seafaring a lot closer.
Saturday’s decking-out ceremony afforded all those who attended the unique opportunity to view the classic lines of the vessel, feel the reel of the heaving keel, admire her sheer, walk the new old growth Douglas Fir deck, or stand below deck amid her massive Irish oak frames - a tactile experiences unique to big wooden sailing ships.
And so Sinead Hegarty and Mary Jordan of Baltimore, hammered home the final deck plank with blows swift, sweet and true. The ship seemed imperceptibly to roll a little, looking forward to her sea trials.
A 22–foot long bowsprit is an impressive sight. ‘Wow’ was my first reaction as I stood on the deck of the historic Ilen looking at it during the ‘decking-out’ ceremony for the vessel which I report on the new edition of THIS ISLAND NATION. It is not a bowsprit to be challenged and it will give the Ilen a distinctive and dominant presence when she goes in the water again. I am looking forward to that day at Hegarty’s Boatyard in Oldcourt near Skibbereen, in West Cork.
It will be some occasion and there is no doubt that it will happen. That was made clear at the ceremony where Conor O’Brien’s famous ketch, the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships, now beautifully restored was the focal point of attention.
“There’s a lot still to be done, but this ship is building herself towards going in the water as the skilled people at this yard restore her and she will go in the water, of that you can be certain,” Gary told me. You can hear him on the programme and also Brother Anthony Keane from Glenstal Abbey who summarised the skill of wooden boat building which Liam Hegarty’s yard has demonstrated in the restoration project. And when you listen to the programme here, he has a bit of news for the Minister for Finance!
I have designed THIS ISLAND NATION to be a reflective, informative and entertaining programme about maritime matters… That’s what is regarded in radio land as a “niche programme…” and it’s one where your comments are always particularly welcome… by Email to: [email protected] or by phone to 0872 555197.
In this new edition you can also hear the words of Damien Brazil, Instructor in the Marine, Offshore Safety and Survival sector of the Fisheries and Marine Institute at the Memorial University of Newfoundland: "We always knew who we were. We came here Irish and we didn't change a whole lot.” He is a man with great knowledge of Ireland's maritime/historical connections. His people emigrated from Ballylongford in Co.Kerry.
With a little bit about jigging for squid; the story of what happened to a Lifeboatman on his wedding day and news about a development to prevent the theft of Ringbuoys as well as new volunteer rescue services in Sligo and Clare, this is an edition packed with maritime news, discussion, comment and information.
We well know from running stories now and again about the restoration of the Conor O’Brien 57ft ketch Ilen at Oldcourt near Baltimore for Limerick’s Ilen Boat-building School just what a high level of interest it arouses at home and abroad writes W M Nixon. So when this Community Invitation for the decking-out ceremony in nine days time pinged through the inbox, we thought for a moment about how best to publicise it. Then the spotting of a little typo allowed us to send a pompous email telling them that the curve of the top of the hull is the sheer, but if you want to shear, then you need sheep.
You don’t pull the wool over the Limerick men’s eyes for long. Within minutes there came back the photo of Ilen’s deck well-filled with sheep during her working days in the Falkland Islands, and then another one with her foredeck topped-up with bags of wool after a successful shearing expedition.
That was followed in due course by a typo-free invite for the ceremony. It will be quite a party.
It’s a developing concept, an event in the making that has the potential to promote to the wider world the special pleasures of rowing Limerick’s many hidden waterways.
Thirty boats gathered on O’Callaghan Strand slip. They were all wonderful vernacular craft of the best traditional types, imbued with their owners’ characters, and manned with equally characterful crews who had travelled with their beloved boats from Cork, West Clare, Limerick and the adjacent boat-beds of Clarina, Coonagh, Ringmoylan and Askeaton, to make up a generous inaugural King’s Island Race fleet. The best of October weather came out in support as the rowers pulled east towards Thomond Bridge, to begin a wonderful inaugural King’s Island Race in warm sunshine.
"Visiting rowers to the city were more than surprised with the splendour of the city’s river environment, and particularly with how being in a small boat can so quickly put it in a fresh context” said Gary MacMahon, director of the Ilen School which hosted the event. “In fact” he added, "they were a bit disappointed we had not shared this metropolitan rowing pearl with them earlier…….At any rate, the secret has now escaped the city, as we at the Ilen.ie School plan to develop this King’s Island Race as a quality international annual river event for Limerick.” he confirmed.
From time immemorial, the waterways of metropolitan Limerick have been noted for their turbulent character, a dynamic confluence of strong Atlantic tides and flooding land-waters. This can make making it an implacable waterway, indifferent to the locomotion of local boats and their pilots. Accordingly, the sagacious Limerick boater will always go with the favourable tides and floods, the great elemental currents that in synchronised use will sweep a boat and her crew 'like the clappers' around King’s Island.
For the few who take pleasure in Limerick City’s local boats, their construction, maintenance and handling, a row around the city's King’s Island is an eagerly awaited seasonal outing which they now wish to share with others. For the energetic boater, it is a magnificent 45 minute dash over fast water, along ever changing river topography. And for the leisurely rower, which seems the greater number of city boaters, it is an inimitable row to another world - one that lies where the built city surrenders to the wild river banks, near the meeting of the Shannon and the Abbey Rivers.
The Ilen School and Network for Wooden Boat Building in Limerick City has for many years taught the craft of building local boats, and it also diffuses the skills of boat handling, particularly as they map on to waters that flow uniquely through the city. The Ilen.ie school also serves as a network for local river folk, a sort of assembly for new ideas and conversations around all things to do with local boats, and which from time to time has entertained the idea of an around Kings Island boat race.
For many of the crews taking part, it was more of a reasonably briskly-paced row-in-company than an out and-out-race. But some were undoubtedly very competitive, none more so than the winners, Michael Grimes and his crew of currach men who hail from Coonagh, a secret little “boat bed” on the north bank of the Shannon Estuary just a mile west of Limerick City. None could match the Coonagh crew.
The re-decking of the 57ft Conor O’Brien ketch Ilen (originally built Baltimore 1926) is the latest stage of this major restoration/re-build project to be nearing completion at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt on the Ilen River between Skibbereen and Baltimore writes W M Nixon. It is expected that the deck will be signed off by October 15th, and work will then proceed on more detailed work.
As part of the project, the new bowsprit – built by trainees in the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick – was delivered down to Oldcourt last Saturday, and Ilen School Director Gary MacMahon reports a magic moment when Baltimore sailing legend Dermot Kennedy, owner himself of a similar ketch the Richard, called by Oldcourt on Saturday to give the deck his blessing and welcome the bowsprit to West Cork.
All the deckhouses, hatchways and similar “cabinet” work in the Ilen project has been done in Limerick and then trucked to Oldcourt. There, the main part of the hull and deck re-building has been progressing steadily, sometimes drawing on the talents of international traditional boat-builders who have been enticed to the magnet of West Cork by the quality and scale of the workmanship being produced by Liam Hegarty and his team.
IIen was originally commissioned in 1925 by the Falkland Islanders to be their inter-island communications vessel after they had been properly impressed by her smaller sister, Conor O’Brien’s own-designed 42ft ketch Saoirse, which called to the Falklands in 1925 after rounding Cape Horn during his pioneering global circumnavigation.
O’Brien agreed to be involved with the Ilen project with Tom Moynihan the master shipwright of Baltimore, and then when the vessel was completed, her sailed her out to the Falklands. Because his only qualification was as a yachtmaster, for the delivery voyage the Ilen had to be registered as a yacht for insurance purposes, and she made the voyage under the burgee of the Royal Irish Yacht Club.
The season is upon us for goodwill and dreams of very special gifts. And for many Irish sailors, the dream Christmas present would be an elegantly classic or solidly traditional wooden boat, with all maintenance and running costs somehow covered by Divine Providence into infinity……W M Nixon goes down the Yuletide timber trail.
Love of wood is part of what we are. It’s in our genes. At some times and some places in the remote past, an instinctive fondness for wood, and an inherited ability to do something useful with it, would make all the difference between survival and extinction. So though today the availability of other more purposeful materials may have transformed boat-building, a new boat without some sort of wood trim is a very rare thing indeed.
At a more personal level, many of today’s generation of sailors cherish family memories of the communal building of wooden DIY kit boats at home. Here, there and everywhere, a drawing room or little-used dining room found itself a useful new purpose as a boat-building salon, with Mirror dinghies and occasionally larger craft taking shape in domestic settings throughout the land.
“Our daddy the boat-builder” became a household name in his own household. And for those who sometimes wonder why today’s adult sailors can become misty-eyed at the very thought of the Mirror dinghy (which really was and is a wonderful design and concept), the answer surely is that at a significant stage of their sailing and family life, a Mirror dinghy was centre stage, the symbol of a family’s shared values, hopes and interests.
But maybe the most important thing about the Mirror is that she is so eminently practical. So perhaps at Christmas we should allow our imaginations to take flight and soar high to envisage the complete wooden dreamship. And there she is as our header image, introducing this week’s meandering thoughts. That schooner at the moment is total fantasy. But any sailing enthusiast who looks at that concept design and doesn’t think: “Now there’s my dreamship”, well, he or she just doesn’t have a true sailing soul.
The origins of Eirinn, as she is named for the time being, go back to 2012, when the nascent Atlantic Youth Trust sought suggestions as to what a new sail training vessel for all Ireland should look like. But with their proposals recently getting the first real hints of a fair wind from both governments, the AYT have gone firmly down the route of a 40 metre steel barquentine.
The Ilen as she was in the Spring of 2015 in Oldcourt...
….while in the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick, spars and deckhouses were taking shape
Deckhouses built in Limerick are offered up on the Ilen in Oldcourt
However, down in Limerick where they were busy with moving forward the restoration of the Conor O’Brien 1926 ketch Ilen at two sites – the hull with Liam Hegarty in Oldcourt near Baltimore in West Cork, and the deckhouses, spars and other smaller items being built at the Ilen Boat Building School in Limerick – they gave some thought in 2012 to the possible form of a new sail training vessel. They came up with the concept of a classic 70ft schooner which they knew, thanks to the work on Ilen, that they could build themselves using the skills learned and deployed in re-building the O’Brien ketch.
A classic hull for a classic schooner – Theo Rye’s profile and general arrangements plan for the schooner concept of 2012
But with the Ilen project moving steadily on towards the vessel’s commissioning next summer, and with other directly-related new proposals at an advanced stage in the pipeline, that sublime schooner concept is in a sort of limbo, truly a fantasy.
Yet she’s such a lovely thing that we’re happy to use her as our symbol of Christmas cheer. Her creators are Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Boatbuilding School, and Theo Rye, who is best known as a technical consultant in naval architecture, and on clarifying matters of design history and detail in boat and yacht design. But he can turn his hand to all sorts of design commissions if required. He came up with the clever concept for the CityOne dinghies in Limerick, and when Gary started musing about a classic training schooner, within the scope of what the Ilen school could do, as their answer to the AYT sail training vessel query, Theo came up with the goods and then some.
In fact, the design of the hull is so perfect that we’ll run it again right here to save you the trouble of scrolling back to the top. The overhangs at bow and stern are in harmony, but it is the sheerline which is the master-stroke. There isn’t anything you’d want to change in it, yet when you look at other famous schooners such as the fictional Southseaman (in real life she was Northern Light) in Weston Martyr’s masterpiece of maritime literature The Southseaman – the Story of a Schooner (1926), we see a sheerline which is too flat in the way of the foremast. But with Eirinn, the curve is just right, and it’s something achieved by tiny adjustments and balances which the eye can’t really perceive, yet somehow it registers the sublime harmony of the total concept.
Worth a second look – and then a third one. The longer you look at the lines of Eirinn, the sweeter they seem. But her overall appearance might be improved with a slight rake of the masts
A schooner sheer not quite right – Weston Martyr’s Southseaman (aka Northern Light) could have done with a livelier sheerline abeam of the foremast.
So Theo Rye not only writes critiques of other people’s designs, but if given the chance he can personally come up with something which is wellnigh impossible to fault. Of course, we mightn’t quite go for the same rig – a little bit of rake in the masts wouldn’t go amiss - and for private use you’d want something a little different from the dormitory layout of the training ship. But that said, this is a beautiful yet not excessively pretty-pretty hull, a boat which sings. And the fact that she’s beyond just about every private owner’s reach only adds to the mystique.
But to redress the balance, last week we’d an inspiring evening’s entertainment and information about a dreamship which really is being re-created. It was the December gathering of the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Association in the ever-hospitable Poolbeg Y & BC, and a full house was there to hear about how Paddy Murphy of Renvyle in the far northwest of Connemara is getting on with his mission of bringing the famous Manx sailing nobby Aigh Vie back to life.
Paddy himself is something special. When asked his trade, he says he’s a blacksmith. But he can turn his hand to anything. Originally a Dub, his early sailing experiences included owning a Flying Fifteen and a Dragon, though not – so far as I know – at the same time. But then got the gaff rig traditional boat bug, and a sail on Mick Hunt’s Manx nobby Vervine Blossom sent him in pursuit of near-sister Aigh Vie. She was reportedly for sale, having for a long time been the pet family cruising boat of Billy Smyth and his family at Whiterock Boatyard on Strangford Lough, after spending her final working years fishing as a motorized vessel out of Ardglass.
Aigh Vie as she was in Whiterock Boatyard when Paddy Murphy bought her, her elegant huul shape clearly in evidence
Aigh Vie in her final working days as a motorised fishing boat based at Ardglass
The deal was done, an ideal buy for a special man like Paddy Murphy, for the Aigh Vie is one very special vessel. The Manx fishing nobbies reached their ultimate state of development in the first twenty years of the 20th Century before steam power and then diesel engines took over. The nobby evolved to an almost yacht-like form through vessels like the 43ft White Heather (1904), which is owned and sailed under original-style dipping lug rig by Mike Clark in the Isle of Man, and the 1910 Vervine Blossom, now based in Kinvara, which was restored by Mick Hunt of Howth, but he gave her a more easily-handled gaff ketch rig which looked very well indeed when she sailed in the Vigo to Dublin Tall Ships Race in 1998.
It was a sail on Mick Hunt’s 1910-built Manx nobby Vervine Blossom which inspired Paddy Murphy to go in pursuit of Aigh Vie
It takes quite something to outdo the provenance of these two fine vessels, but the story of Aigh Vie (it means a sort of mix of “good luck” and “fair winds” in Manx) is astonishing. It goes back to the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U Boat off the Cork coast in May 1915, when the first boat to mount a rescue was the Manx fishing ketch Wanderer from Peel, her crew of seven skippered by the 58-year-old William Ball.
They came upon a scene of developing carnage. Yet somehow, the little Wanderer managed to haul aboard and find space for 160 survivors, and provide them with succour and shelter as they made for port. In due course, as the enormity of the incident became clear, the achievement of the Wanderer’s crew was to be recognised with a special medal presentation. And then William Ball, who had been an employee of the Wanderer’s owner, received word that funds had been lodged with a lawyer in Peel on behalf of one of the American survivors he’d rescued. The money was to be used to underwrite the building of his own fishing boat, to be built in Peel to his personal specifications. The name of the donor has never been revealed, but the result was William Ball’s dreamship, the Aigh Vie, launched in December 1916 and first registered for fishing in January 1917.
Over the years, the Aigh Vie became a much-loved feature of the Irish Sea fishing fleet. Tim Magennis, former President of the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Association, well remembers her from his boyhood days in the fishing port of Ardglass on the County Down coast. Her working days over, Billy Smyth gradually converted her to a Bermudan-rigged cruising ketch with a sheltering wheelhouse which enabled the Smyth family to make some notable cruises whatever the weather. His son Kenny Smyth, who now runs the boatyard with his brothers and is himself an ace helm in the local 29ft River Class, recalls that the seafaring Smyth family thought nothing of taking the Aigh Vie to the Orkneys at a time when the average Strangford Lough cruiser thought Tobermory the limit of reasonable ambitions.
After he’d bought the Aigh Vie and brought to her first base in Howth, Paddy Murphy soon realised he’d still a lot to learn about sailing and about keeping hard-worked old wooden boats in seafaring condition. But he’s such an entertaining and inspirational speaker that you’re swept along in his enthusiasm and empathise with his admission that, now and again, he felt things were getting on top of him.
Sisters - Vervine Blossom (foreground) and Aigh Vie in Howth
Sailing days on the Aigh Vie from Howth, before it was decided that she needed a major restoration
Following several seasons with increasing evidence of problems, he decided that a virtual re-build was necessary. It was then that the Dublin wooden boat owners’ perennial problem shot to the top of the agenda. In our very expensive city, the space and shelter to work long hours at an old wooden boats is almost impossible to come by, and he’d to shift the big Aigh Vie several times. On one occasion, he was asked to move in a hurry out of an ESB shed, but was offered £1,000 (this was pre-Euro days) to do so. He moved heaven and earth and finally found somewhere else at considerable expense, got the Aigh Vie installed there, and then went back to collect his thousand snots. Only to be laughed at. The manager told him it was the only way he could see to get the old boat moved out, but there were absolutely no funds available at all for such a thing, and surely Paddy would have guessed that?
The re-building under way at Renvyle, using the technique where hull shape is retained by first replacing every other frame
With one thing and another, he moved to Renvyle in Connemara where he liked the big country and the open spaces and the friendly people right on the edge of the Atlantic, and in time Aigh Vie came too, and found herself being slowly re-born under a special roof. But it was demanding work for one man, so every so often a team led by Paul Keogh of the famous Galway Hooker from Clondalkin, the Naomh Cronan, together with a good selection of DBOGA specialist talent, descends on Renvyle to put in a ferocious day or two of work, and then on the Saturday night they put a fair bit of business the way of the pub at Tullycross.
The planking was more easily restored by laying the Aigh Vie over on her side
Agh Vie upright again, and the deckhouses are being put in place
DBOGA workteam of all the talents descends on Renvyle. Paul Keogh of the Naomh Cronan (left) and Paddy Murphy himself (second right). Photo: Cormac Lowth
Old Gaffers Association International President Sean Walsh (right) and Peter Redmond install Aigh Vie’s new Perkins diesel. Photo: Cormac Lowth
One of the options for Aig Vie’s rig is the classic lug ketch as shown here with Mike Clark’s 1903-built White Heather
So now, many years later, the journey towards the restored Aigh Vie is getting near its destination. But it will never be fully ended. Thanks to sails, spars and rigs donated from other boats, Paddy has the choice of either gaff ketch or classic lug rig, so she’ll always be work in progress. Which is good news. Because every couple of years or so, the DBOGA can guarantee a full house to hear Paddy Murphy talking about how the Aigh Vie story is going.
He’s a wonderful speaker, sometimes almost messianic, and he shares his every feeling. Thus he mentioned that one day he was feeling a bit low, and he just went out to look at the big boat down by the shore, seeking some sort of inspiration. His mind had been elsewhere with the details of completing the interior, but he suddenly realised that he was at the stage of thinking of putting the white paint on the topsides. So he just set to with a big paint brush and a bigger tin of paint, and Aigh Vie was transformed. So was he. “That’s the secret” says he. “If you’re feeling a bit down, just go out and slap on some white paint. It works wonders.”
Feeling a bit down? Then just go out and slap a coat of white paint on the boat – it works wonders
A very special boat – Aigh Vie’s sweet lines can now be fully appreciated again. Photo: Cormac Lowth
An international gathering at the Ilen School, Roxboro, Limerick of expert marine traditional riggers, sailmakers and classic boatbuilders, might induce one to speculate that a sailing ship is somewhere in Ireland nearing completion. And yes, this gathering of last Friday, clearly marks a significant juncture in the rebuild of Ireland’s 1926 wooden sailing ship Ilen. The way has now been mapped, essential tasks identified, and if rebuilding milestones are achieving, then there is no reason to think that the good ship will not be plying a new trade in Education of the Sea by late summer 2016.
#anglingcot – The Ilen School, Roxboro, are today celebrating a great River Shannon adventure. This adventure involved 180–miles of rowing from Belleek in Fermanagh to Limerick City, over a two week period, by a team of two Ilen School boatmen - Tony Daly and Liam O'Donoghue, both residents of Ballynanty.
Not only did this intrepid duo navigate their traditional 23ft–wooden City Angling Cot to Limerick, through ever-changing river terrain, great lakes and canals, but they also built the beautiful craft using traditional skills over the winter months at the Ilen School.
This adventure further exemplifies the life-long learning philosophy of the Ilen School, which valorises the direct experience of individuals above all else. The school is planning many such adventures in the years ahead, and welcomes the "youth of all ages" with a sense of adventure for building in wood, community building and voyaging on rivers and sea to get involved.
#baltimorewoodenboatfestival – The Ilen School Gandelow crew are celebrating back in Limerick after taking the big rowing prizes at the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival last weekend.
Rowing races at the West Cork festival included on Sunday a Pilot Race Event under sail and oar; a race to land a pilot on an incoming sailing boat in the Harbour then race back to finish at the Pier.
The crew were: Br Anthony Keane, Gary Wilmott, Matt Dirr, Ger Ryan, Tony Daly, Robert Smalle, Liam O'Donoghue, Mike Grimes and James Madigan.
More on the wooden boat festival
#woodenboats – In the annals of Irish seafaring, whether professional or amateur, only a very few can match the achievement of Conor O'Brien (1880-1952). Between 1923 and 1925, this multi-talented sailor from Foynes on the Shannon Estuary circled the world south of the Great Capes in the 42ft ketch Saoirse which he'd designed himself with the help of Tom Moynihan of the Baltimore Fisheries School Boatyard.
It was there that this unique vessel was built in 1922-23 as Ireland in general – and West Cork in particular – recovered from a short but brutal Civil War. The very fact that Saoirse was built in Baltimore, followed by the successful completion of her great voyage, became part of the slow post-war healing process. So as the 2015 Traditional and Classic Boat Season gets under way this weekend with the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival, W M Nixon voices the hope that Saoirse – which had been feared totally lost since 1979 – may be re-born.
They're hardy sailors in West Cork. That lotus-land of easygoing cruising may seem a gentle place in high summer, yet down there they've felt the recent summer-delaying cold spell as sharply as anywhere else. But despite the unfavourable conditions, as usual in this last full weekend of May we'll see the Baltimore Woodenboat & Seafood Festival swing into action. And although wooden boats need reasonably good springtime weather almost as an essential for the annual refit, there'll be a colourful turnout of character vessels large and small.
But the talk of the town will not be about a boat which is showing her style off the busy Baltimore waterfront today. Indeed, not only will this very special boat not be there, but it's a moot point as to whether she still exists. Put another way: Does enough of Saoirse still exists to allow a re-creation of this wonderful little ship to be properly classified as a re-build?
The voyage of the Saoirse in 1923-1925 only gains further lustre and wonder with the passage of time. It was an achievement of greatness, yet of beautiful simplicity. It was a uniquely pioneering venture made by an Irish skipper in an Irish designed-and-built vessel, and it was the first major voyage by an Irish ship of any size flying the Tricolour ensign of the new-born nation.
Saoirse under her original ketch rig in the 1950s, but with a boom fitted to the mainsail. Conor O'Brien had a loose-footed mainsail, and as evidenced here, the sail would have set much better but would have needed more attention in handling. (From a photo by Eric Hiscock)
In dry dock during the 1950s, Saoirse's "cod's head & mackerel tail" hull shape is clearly seen. Yet in the Great Southern Ocean on her voyage round the world south of the Great Capes, this bluff little 42ft ketch regularly logged 180 miles a day in comfort.
The wreck of the Saoirse in Jamaica, 1979.
Thus when the news in 1979 of Saoirse's destruction in a hurricane in Jamaica was confirmed, if anything it added to the legend. But it also meant that the only other boat created by the same team in the same place – the 56ft trading ketch Ilen (1926) – acquired added significance. But she was a long way away, still working the stormy seas around the Falkland Island, for which she'd been built after the islanders had been so impressed by the capabilities of the Saoirse, when she called there after rounding Cape Horn from the west, that they ordered a bigger sister-ship to become the inter-island workboat .
Yet thanks to a totally single-minded approach by Gary MacMahon of Limerick, Ilen was brought back to Ireland in 1998. And though it has taken quite a while for the various ideas to become reality, she is now well on the way to what has become a very public restoration with Liam Hegarty at Oldcourt Boatyard near Baltimore, while the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick has become part of the fabric of Shannonside life, building not only the deckhouses and spars for Ilen herself, but an interesting selection of smaller boats ranging from traditional Shannon gandelows to the new CityOne sailing dinghies.
A man who just doesn't give up. Gary MacMahon of the Ilen School in Limerick. Photo: W M Nixon
By any standards, all these projects would be remarkable achievements in themselves. But in addition to his day job running one of Limerick's leading design studios, Gary MacMahon has for twenty years and more been quietly accumulating every bit of documentation of all sorts there is to be found relating to Saoirse.
It's an absolute treasure hoard of old photographs, certificates, plans, artefacts and other materials. And through this collecting, he has become well acquainted with Anthony Bolton who was Saoirse's last owner. Bolton had the misfortune of seeing his beloved boat destroyed by a hurricane in Jamaica before rescue attempts could save her after she'd dragged her anchor and gone ashore.
But though Saoirse was broken up by the battering of the hurricane, substantial pieces of her remained on the sea bed, and two sea-worn iron hanging knees – lovingly fitted by the Baltimore shipwrights 93 years ago – have recently been confirmed as definite relics of the wonderful little ship.
The hull lines of Saoirse as taken off by Uffa Fox in Cowes in 1927 before the start of that year's Fastnet Race (from which she retired, as endless windward work was not what she was designed for). Thanks to documentation of this quality, it will be possible to re-build Saoirse with precision. But in fact it has emerged that, such was the skill of Tom Moynihan and his boatbuilders in Baltimore in 1922-23, Saoirse as built very accurately followed the original lines drawn by O'Brien and Moynihan.
Saoirse's hull sections as recorded by Uffa Fox in 1927.
More importantly, though, the word is that much of the keel may still be intact. So just as he somehow got himself to the Falkland Islands to buy Ilen back in 1997, Gary MacMahon will shortly be going on the much easier journey to Jamaica for some real on-the-spot research as to just how much of Saoirse survives.
These days, it need only be a very small piece of the original to count as a re-build. But the spirit of the Ilen School is such that even if they find nothing at all in Jamaica, the notion of re-creating Saoirse is gaining so much traction, with that great shipwright Liam Hegarty among those totally taken with the idea of seeing Conor O'Brien's characterful little masterpiece sail again, that already the idea has acquired its own momentum.
But there'll be time enough when winter comes around again to give proper attention to the full range of Saoirse material which Gary MacMahon has amassed in order to ensure an authentic re-build. Meanwhile, this weekend may be seeing the new classic and traditional boat season kick into action in Baltimore, but already things are well under way in France, with last week's huge gathering in the Morbihan on the Biscay Coast, to which seven Dublin Bay Waterwags travelled, and eight returned.
The wonders of the Morbihan. A very small part of the fleet at the Sailing Week eight days ago, with four of the Dublin Bay Water Wags at mid left. Photo: Courtesy Judith Malcolm
Like all the great French classic and tradboat festivals, the Morbihan event (it's full title is La Semaine de la Voile du Golfe de Morbihan, that's Morbihan Sailing Week in simple English) was mind-bending in terms of numbers, with 1200 boats of all shapes and sizes taking part. But the scale and layout of the Morbihan is such that it could well cope. The extensive inlet has six main ports, so the fleet was divided into six sub-groups of around 200 boats each. Everyone mingled out on the water during the day, then each night of the week-long festival saw your group going to a new port.
Two little Water Wags a long way from home – Ian & Judith Malcolm in the hundred year old Barbara (left) and Guy and Jackie Kilroy in Swift (right) in the midst of "sundry boats" in the Morbihan eight days ago. Photo courtesy Judith Malcolm
It worked, and it worked so well that the Irish flotilla of one Shannon One Design (Reggie Goodbody) and seven Water Wags not only had themselves a fine old time, but in a reversal of the usual story where our people return from distant places short of a boat or two, they came back with eight Wags, as Adam Winkelmann was united with his new boat. It was built in France as a boat-building academy exercise with a finish so exquisite that it was on exhibition in a marquee, but he was allowed to bring it home with him to Dublin Bay.
Far to the southwest in Baltimore, today we'll see a complex programme, as several traditional rowing craft (including a 23ft traditional Shannon cot or brochaun, the latest creation of Limerick's Ilen School built by a team headed by Tony Daly) were due to launch last night to berth at the pontoon in Skibbereen beside the West Cork Hotel. Today at 11am they start a rowing race all the way down the Ilen to Baltimore. Fortunately, the tide is ebbing.....
The new 23ft Shannon cot or brochaun is the latest creation of the Ilen School in Limerick. The cot's usual task was to head upriver from Limerick to fish, but today this boat will be rowed down the River Ilen from Sibbereen to the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival.
The rest of the day will see sailing and rowing races off Baltimore with a prize-giving dinner tonight in Baltimore Sailing Club presided over by Tom MacSweeney of this parish, then tomorrow (Sunday), as the one day Seafood Festival gets into full swing, there's perhaps the most interesting event of all afloat. This is the Pilot Race, in which the sailing boats put out to sea, and then turn and approach the harbour to be met by racing gigs each of which has to put a pilot on board one of the sailing craft which then race back into the harbour – it all makes for mighty sport.
Bowsprits at the ready, and the island ferry coming into port – it can only be Baltimore at Woodenboat Festival time
If you can identify even half of the boat types here, then you should be in Baltimore this weekend.
If your heart is with classic and traditional sailing boats, you can get an abundance of them by being in Baltimore this weekend, and then by being along Dublin's Liffey for the Riverfest in a week's time for the Bank Holiday weekend. It's a three day event (May 30th to June 1st) based on Poolbeg Y & BC, with the Old Gaffer's Leinster Trophy Race in Dublin Bay on Saturday, and then two days above the bridge for all sorts of city festivities and boat parades through to Monday evening.
The 117-year-old Howth 17s will be returning to the Dublin Riverfest in a week's time. Photo: W M Nixon
The famous waterborne ballet of the Dublin Port tugs Shackleton and Beaufort will be a main event in the Dublin Riverfest over the Bank Holiday Weekend of May 31st-June1st. Photo: W M Nixon
Following that, on Saturday 6th June out in Howth, the Classic Lambay Race is being provided within the annual Round Lambay Regatta (it dates back to 1904), with the Old Gaffers and Traditional boats joining the 117-year-old Howth Seventeens for a direct circuit from a pier start out to Lambay, round it and back again direct, with no fancy special mark rounding in between.
Defending champion in the Classic Lambay is OGA International President Sean Walsh of Dun Laoghaire with his cutter Tir na nOg, and extra interest is added this year as the fleet will include Dickie Gomes' 1912-vintage 36ft yawl Ainmara, built in Ringsend but now a longtime resident of Strangford Lough. There's a certain edge to Ainmara's involvement, as she was overall winner of the cruiser division in the 1921 Lambay Race when still owned and sailed by her designer-builder John B Kearney. But if you think this remarkable historic link will cause her opponents to give her an easy time of it, you're much mistaken.
The 103-year old Ainmara – seen here on her home waters of Strangford Lough with the Mourne Mountains in the distance – will be returning to the Lambay Classic at Howth on June 6th 2015, which she last won in 1921. Photo: Pete Adams
Sean Walsh is having a busy year of it, as his duties as OGA President take him hither and yon, while Tir na nOg will be flagship for the OGA Cruise-in-Company which will follow the big one of 2015, the Glandore Classics Regatta from July 18th to 24th.
But for this weekend, he's in his home waters of Dublin Bay on a venture which means a lot to him, the OGA Youth Sailing Project at Poolbeg under the direction of Liam Begley. It's for youngsters who might not otherwise get a chance to sail. They're taken out to learn the ropes aboard two fine gaff cutters, the Clondalkin Community group's majestic Galway Bay hooker Naomh Cronan, and the OGA President's own Tir na nOg.
When we remember that many folk head from Dublin towards Cork to go sailing, it's intriguing that in this case the young people have come the other way, as they're a group from Mayfield Community School which has eternal fame through being the old school of Roy Keane.
The tyro sailors from Mayfield – there's nine of them, all in the 15-16 age group - have already become boat-acquainted through the Meitheal Mara Community Boatyard in Cork city. But the outing to Dublin puts a different spin on it all, as the first stage is devoted literally to teaching them the ropes, then after the sailing programme is completed out in the bay, the shift in skills is demonstrated by command of the two gaff cutters being given over to the Mayfield crews, who then have to sail them back to port.
OGA President Sean Walsh (top right) with Junior Gaffers from Mayfield Community School in Cork aboard Tir na nOg in Poolbeg in Dublin. Photo: John Galloway
Junior Gaffers from Cork and Senior Gaffers from Dublin aboard the Naomh Cronan Photo: John Galloway
In all, it's an entertaining balance between an outing to Dublin, a chance to learn in a fun environment, and a real opportunity to demonstrate that practical skills have been well and truly acquired. And before somebody is driven to send in a rude comment after seeing these two photos of last year's Youth Sailing Project course, I hasten to assure you that when they do go sailing, everyone wears a lifejacket.