Displaying items by tag: Saoirse
On most coastlines in the world, you’ll invariably hear of some challenging nearby headland being referred to as “the local Cape Horn” writes W M Nixon
No other promontory worldwide has the same global image. It tells us much about the fearsome reputation of South America’s most southerly point, jutting as it does into the turbulent waters of the Great Southern Ocean where it becomes the Drake Passage, with Antarctica itself not so very far away across some of the roughest seas on the planet.
Cape Horn is always on the oceanic sailing agenda. And at the moment it is top of the list, with 73-year-old Jean-Luc van den Heede of France, leader in the Gold Globe Golden Jubilee Race, rounding it a week ago, while second-placed 41-year-old Dutchman Mark Slats (in a much-depleted fleet) will soon be there, albeit more than a thousand miles astern of van den Heede.
They and the remaining sailors in this challenging re-enactment are following in the wake of solo skipper Robin Knox-Johnston fifty years after he became the first man to sail round the world non-stop in Suhaili, with Knox-Johnston and his little ketch undoubtedly achieving one of world sailing’s truly great firsts.
But by the time Suhaili rounded Cape Horn on 17th January 1969, a number of small sailing boats had done so before her, though none in the same epic non-stop world-girdling style. However, some 45 years had elapsed since the first rounding of Cape Horn by a small cruising boat which had crossed the southern reaches of the South Pacific to get there. But though it was hailed afterwards as the great pioneering achievement it genuinely was, at the time those involved seemed to handle it in an almost low key way, however much it may have meant to them personally.
It was the evening of Tuesday, December 2nd 1924 (94 years ago this Sunday) when the small bluff-bowed 42ft gaff-rigged Irish ketch Saoirse, a craft of antique appearance, approached Cape Horn from the west. The weather had been unsettled with winds from several directions, and two days previously, squalls from the northeast had brought flurries of snow despite it being early in the southern summer. But conditions were improving as the Horn came abeam around 2200hrs in the last of the daylight.
With the onset of the short southern summer night with its brief darkness, the wind settled in the north, and the little ship made steady progress. By noon on Wednesday in fine conditions, she had made good 140 miles in 24 hours, aided by a favourable current of at least one knot. Superb visibility enabled the ketch’s crew to admire the massive scenery along the rugged coast as they shaped their course to pass eastward of Staten Island. The wind then drew fresh and favourably from the southwest, and despite progress being slowed by their vessel’s fouled bottom - for they had been at sea for more than 40 days since leaving New Zealand – by Saturday December 6th they were moored in Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands.
In rounding Cape Horn, the ketch’s amateur skipper Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) of Foynes Island on the Shannon Estuary had made the breakthrough towards becoming the first to take a small yacht around the world south of the Great Capes, running down his easting across the full width of the far Southern Pacific through everything that the Roaring Forties and Screaming Fifties could throw at him.
He faced it with some confidence, as his little vessel had successfully negotiated several ocean storms during her long passage from Dublin Bay. Ironically, it was in the warm and sunny latitudes of the Canary Islands that they had experienced one of their most severe tests, logging a day’s run of 185 miles while driving hard in rough seas in a sharp gale of the northeast trade winds.
But O’Brien’s own-designed little ship, soundly built by Tom Moynihan and his craftsmen at the Fisheries School in Baltimore in 1922, proved well able, and continued to log many excellent 24-hours runs. The most severe conditions were experienced between southern Africa and Australia, yet the ketch seemed to lead a charmed life. Although he and his shipmates observed several huge pinnacle breakers caused by intersecting wave patterns which he felt sure would have overwhelmed his vessel had she been caught up in one of those mega-breakers, it never happened, and the long haul across the southern Pacific to curve southward to round Cape Horn was subsequently recounted in an under-stated tone. But then, that was the style of the era and the milieu from which Conor O’Brien had emerged.
O’Brien may have been rewarded with a fairly gentle rounding of the Horn itself, but the very small world of ocean voyagers at the time had no doubt of the quality of his achievement. Although Joshua Slocum in Spray had negotiated his way westward from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the channels north of Cape Horn some 28 years earlier, the weather he’d experienced, coupled with the historical stories from the crews of much larger sailing ships which had succeeded in rounding the Horn – for many failed in the attempt – left no doubt about the extremely changeable and often ferocious conditions which were central to the challenge O’Brien had faced.
For circumnavigator sailors from Europe, once you’ve rounded Cape Horn and returned to Atlantic waters, there’s a reassuring feeling of being on the home stretch, for all that there are ten thousand miles still to sail. Certainly O’Brien and his crew of two became so relaxed that they spent six weeks in the Falklands over the Christmas period, becoming so much part of the local community that a crew-member married a local girl and much of Saoirse’s subsequent voyage northward through the Atlantic was made with just two on board.
Yet although it all continued to be done in a low key style, O’Brien was no slouch when publicity opportunities arose, and he returned to Dun Laoghaire on Saturday June 20th 1925 – two years to the day since he departed – in order to facilitate a rapturous welcome. Dublin Bay Sailing Club even cancelled their Saturday racing programme so that their members could join the fleet welcoming Saoirse home.
For most of the voyage, however, Saoirse and her crew were totally out of contact, and could get on with traversing the oceans in traditional lone ship style. And 45 years later, there were long periods in 1968-69 when Robin Knox-Johnston’s location with Suhaili was a matter of speculation rather than precision – it was something of a surprise when the battered but unbowed little ketch appeared in the distant approaches to Falmouth to claim an indisputable “first”.
But today, a constant flow of information in every shape and form is central to any major oceanic sailing event. The Golden Jubilee of the Golden Globe is supposed to be a retro event in which the participants sail old-style boats of closed hull profile using only the technology available in 1968. But the demands of the 21st century with its multiple communication technologies means that the outside world knows almost everything that is going on in this nine month saga.
Thus when Jean-Luc van den Heede had passed Cape Horn a week ago, it so happened that the AGM of the Old Cape Horners Association was being held in England’s historic naval harbour of Portsmouth, and they were provided with a radio linkup with the 73-year-old Frenchman who revealed that it was in fact his tenth rounding of the Horn, and his most recent visit had been during a cruise in the area when they’d landed at Cape Horn island’s semi-sheltered bay, and had gone visiting with the lighthouse keepers for all the world like cruisers of yore making their way along the west coast of Ireland or through the Hebrides.
This almost light-hearted approach to the realities of Cape Horn is classic van den Heede, for in order to still be in the lead in the Golden Globe, he had to survive a knockdown four weeks ago which was so violent that it caused the through-mast bolt supporting his lower shrouds to cut its way downwards through the mast extrusion, leaving the vital lower shrouds dangerously slack.
For a while it looked as though he’d have to divert to Chile for repairs, but somehow this doughty veteran got aloft and cobbled together a repair which held together has now got him round Cape Horn and on to what is admittedly the longest homeward stretch in the world. But his performance is impaired, and he usually has three reefs in the main when only two would be needed were all the rig in full health.
This has meant that second-placed Mark Slats of The Netherlands has been closing the gap, but as van den Heede was an astonishing 1470 miles ahead when his rig damage occurred, Slats has to steadily outperform him by 20% in order to be first back to les Sables d’Olonne in 2019, and since van den Heede got into the Atlantic, the Slats rate of gain has slowed.
Race Tracker here
Both van den Heede and Slats are racing Rustler 36s, a slippy Holman & Pye designed sloop of 1980 which fits neatly into the retro requirement of being a 36ft production design of 1980 or earlier with the specified closed profile, even if in the Rustler 36’s case it does result in a transom stern with a very steeply sloping rudder and a propeller in a large aperture cut from the rudder, which must make them the very devil to handle under power in astern, or indeed under power in any confined manoeuvring situation under power, where prop thrust is often the key to doing the job.
This is probably not remotely of interest in the Great Southern ocean, but as Tim Goodbody so brilliantly revealed with his J/109 in Dublin Bay last weekend, a boat which has an easily-accessed stern-boarding system and handles confidently in astern under power is a very effective rescue machine in a man-overboard situation.
But that’s another topic to which we’ll return some day. Meanwhile, the reality was that the most popular design which turned up to start the Golden Globe Golden Jubilee was the Rustler 36, something of a surprise to casual observers as most folk had initially thought the response would be something nearer Suhaili, and ketch-rigged too.
But as it happens, the one Suhaili sister-ship which was allowed in under special dispensation, Abilash Tomy’s Thuriya from India, and one of the few other ketch-rigged boats, our own Gregor McGuckin’s Biscay 36 Hanley Energy Endurance, were both dismasted in September in the mother of all storms in the middle of the southern Indian Ocean.
Their skippers were successfully retrieved by a French Fisheries Patrol vessel while McGuckin was in the midst of an heroic effort to get to the seriously-injured Tomy under jury rig. But despite promises that Thuriya would be retrieved by the Indian Navy and restored to seagoing standard, she still seems to be out there and virtually not moving at all. This suggests that she is still lying to her broken rigging, whereas McGuckin’s boat is now nearly 400 miles away nearer Australia, as before his controlled retrieval and passage towards Tomy under jury rig, he succeeded in cutting adrift all the broken spars and rigging, and the former ketch has sometimes been drifting at 1 knot and more.
The experience of McGuckin and Abilash in that “perfect storm” is of added interest in that it happened in the area of ocean where Conor O’Brien saw his ultimate breaking crest. The wind strengths were nothing like the horrific power which assaulted Tomy and McGuckin, as at the time Saoirse was running in her surprisingly speedy style before “a moderate gale” (as they used to say), and O’Brien and his helmsman observed a large waving moving along with them maybe about a mile away.
There were marked cross seas running at the time – a significant factor recorded by Gregor McGuckin – and they went to work on this big wave until it peaked out like the Matterhorn or Mount Fuji, an absolutely extraordinary pinnacle of water which then collapsed in hundreds of thousands of tons of breakers and spume.
Neither O’Brien nor his shipmate said a word to each as this all-powerful force of nature manifested itself, but afterwards in his deck log he noted that had Saoirse been caught up in it, she and her crew would have instantly been goners. As for the professional seaman who’d been helmsman at the time, as soon as they reached port in Australia, he went ashore and wasn’t seen again. It greatly annoyed O’Brien, as this was the only helmsman other than O’Brien himself who had shown he could get Saoirse to perform to her best, and O’Brien had hoped that in due course the situation would arise where their combined efforts would see Saoirse achieve the 200 miles day’s run of which he was convinced she was capable.
He had many crew changes, but despite that and other difficulties, his underlying intention to sail home via Cape Horn was maintained. Ninety-four years ago on Sunday, it was achieved - a simple and beautiful historical fact of small craft ocean voyaging.
Today, the realities of the Golden Globe Golden Jubilee race underline the remarkable nature of what Conor O’Brien and Saoirse made into reality. He may not have been single-handed, but his crew of two were of limited experience, the boat was of extremely primitive type by today’s standards, and the elements of the unknown in what they were undertaking were beyond calculation.
Now that we know so much more about Cape Horn and the conditions which may be experienced in sailing past it, O’Brien’s feat with Saoirse in 1924 becomes that much greater. He may have died on Foynes Island in 1952, but Saoirse has lived on, and she is currently being re-built by Liam Hegarty at his Oldcourt Boatyard near her birthplace of Baltimore. In 2020, Saoirse will sail again, and we will wonder anew at the achievement of the great pioneering sailor of Limerick.
While the 56ft 1926-built restored ketch Ilen is a flurry of activity at Oldcourt near Baltimore in West Cork with the final stages of work before her re-launching late next month, in the Top Shed nearby where Conor O’Brien’s pioneering world-girdling Saoirse of 1922 is being re-built, there’s a more measured pace to the work writes W M Nixon
For this isn’t just any boat - Saoirse is something very special. Master shipwrights Liam Hegarty and Fachtna O’Sullivan and their team are putting all their skills into the re-build - working with plans taken off by Uffa Fox in 1927 - in order to provide commissioning owner Fred Kinmonth with a vessel which properly reflects the high regard in which Conor O’Brien’s circumnavigation of 1923-25 is held.
The photos show how the technology of 1922, and the skills of original boatbuilder Tom Moynihan, are being brought alive again in a setting which has for so long been associated with the restoration of Ilen. But once that larger ship had been taken out at the beginning of January to clear the way for Saoirse to be re-born, a new atmosphere began to prevail between the old stone walls, and the re-emergence of Saoirse, even if she is still at a very preliminary stage, is a wonder to behold.
More than ever, it brings a keen anticipation of sailing aboard a small vessel which punched way above her weight in setting some remarkable speeds in open water. Quite how she managed it is one of the reasons Uffa Fox was so keen to take off her lines when Conor O’Brien took her over to Cowes to do the Fastnet Race of 1927, the year after he’d sailed Ilen out to the Falklands.
This photo of Conor O’Brien in the first stage of the voyage, sailing the North Atlantic from Dun Laoghaire to Pernambuco in Brazil, tells us something of the secret of her unexpectedly high average speeds. They’re in the northeast trades probably in the region of the Canaries where they did the best day’s run of the entire voyage, clipping along in very fine style as the bow-wave and wake reveals. Yet the new little ship exudes an air of comfort, helped by the relaxed image projected by Conor O’Brien at the helm.
For by this stage, he knew his little ship – which he’d designed himself – was a winner on ocean sailing with sheets freed. We tend to take this knowledge for granted now. But what is forgotten is that when Saoirse departed from Dun Laoghaire with much fanfare on June 20th 1923, neither she nor her owner had ever completed an ocean sailing voyage.
Yet now, here is O’Brien savouring the fruits of his creative labour, and he does it with style. Far from being attired in rugged seafaring gear, he’s dressed as though he’s on his way to an informal and convivial lunch at some friendly country house, followed perhaps by some mildly tipsy tennis. That summery shirt, collar spread wide, together with the tweed jacket, speak of everything except being at sea and sailing quite fast.
However, if we look more closely, we note that his tweed jacket’s left arm - draped nonchalantly along the taffrail - is soaking wet. A playful wave of the sea has decided that he can’t be allowed to get away with this performance without something happening. But with the camera out, O’Brien is determined to play it for all its worth, and the image of a pioneering ocean voyager without a care in the world is beautifully captured.
In recent weeks, much of the attention on the traditional boat-building Mecca of Oldcourt in West Cork has been focused around the complex moves involved in vacating the 56ft ketch Ilen from the boat-building shed writes W M Nixon. This meant safely re-locating her through the very crowded boatyard to a secure commissioning berth where a sheltering tent could be erected to allow the fitting-out work to proceed whatever the weather.
Then in time, while fitting the interior has been proceeding, there followed the “blind stepping” of the two masts which had been trucked down from the Ilen Boat-Building School in Limerick, where the massive spars and rig had been built and pre-assembled.
All this has been safely dealt with despite some periods of freakishly bad weather. But it had to be done on time, as the shed was needed because it had been agreed to start work in January on the re-build of Conor O’Brien’s 1922-built 42ft Saoirse. This project – for experienced sailor Fred Kinmonth of Hong Kong – will be in honour of Saoirse’s great achievement of 1923-25, the first global circumnavigation of the world by a cruising yacht south of the Great Capes.
So while much attention has been on the brightly-painted Ilen and the flurry of activity around her, in the shed shipwrights Liam Hegarty and Fachtna O’Sullivan and their team have been left in relative peace for the key initial stage of creating Saoirse’s backbone from various very substantial pieces of carefully-selected oak.
But as Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Project puts it: “In taking on a job like this, you have to create a new supply chain. There is no line of supply for traditional boat-building on this scale, and we had to make our own way in finding pieces of sound oak which would help to provide the myriad of shapes from which the backbone and the frames will eventually be created”.
The upshot was that if a great oak came down anywhere in Munster, they’d soon be on the spot to see if anything usable could be salvaged from it. And even then, after the processes of seasoning and so forth, that was only the beginning of the job. A piece of oak might be worked on until it was nearly ready to be installed in the backbone, but then some aspect of the almost-finished section would give out the wrong messages, and it would be discarded and an alternative piece sought from the stockpile.
So it was patient, painstaking work, it took time, and it was best done in peace and private. But finally the makings of the backbone were in place, and there then could be visible progress – the erection on the keel, from stem to stern, of the temporary moulds which would show precisely the ultimate shape of Saoirse’s frames.
This has been taking place during the past week, and though it’s essentially a mock-up, just an integral part of the building process, nevertheless it feels as though the project has taken a mighty leap forward. And as with everything to do with Saoirse, it’s redolent with history.
While Conor O’Brien of Foynes and Tom Moynihan of Baltimore may have sketched out Saoirse’s lines (with Moynihan insisting the inelegantly short stern be lengthened a little), their drawings were only very rudimentary. But after the great voyage, Saoirse was famous. When Conor O’Brien took her to Cowes to do the 1927 Fastnet Race, the already-legendary Cowes-based designer Uffa Fox took off the boat’s lines.
As was right and proper, the lines sketched by O’Brien and Moynihan were remarkably close to the little ship as she was finished. But it was the lines as taken off by Uffa Fox which have been used in the process whereby the moulds have been assembled and erected, and this has been a speedy process which by Friday night was providing a vision of Saoirse which has an air of reality to it.
At the end of 2017, it was still a project in planning. But now, we’re already seeing something. The dream is becoming reality.
West Cork may have the image of an easy-going paradise where life proceeds at a leisurely pace writes W M Nixon. And maybe that is indeed the case in summer, when there are more people around determined to keep things gentle and slow.
But it seems that by contrast, in winter it’s all bustle and productivity. As regular readers of Afloat.ie will be aware, while the rest of us were snuggling down to get through the depths of the festive season with occasional bursts of good news from the Irish-dominated Sydney-Hobart Race as our only contact with the world of sailing, down in West Cork around Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt there was a flurry of activity when conditions suited.
These bursts of skilled co-ordinated work were to take advantage of the brief daylight and narrow weather windows for the delicate job of moving the 30-ton newly-restored trading ketch Ilen. The 1926-built 56ft vessel had to vacate the building shed in order to provide space for work to begin in January on the re-building of Conor O’Brien’s historic world-girdling 42ft ketch Saoirse, built in Baltimore in 1922, and by 1925 a global circumnavigation veteran and pioneer of the challenging route south of the Great Capes.
Although Conor O’Brien’s subsequent writings on seamanship and the special demands of ocean voyaging were influential, he was directly involved in the design and of building only two vessels, Saoirse in 1922 and the Falkland Islands trading ketch Ilen in 1926. Both were built in the Fisheries School boatyard in Baltimore in West Cork under the direction of Tom Moynihan. And if Conor O’Brien was listed as the designer, nevertheless Tom Moynihan was known to have improved on O’Brien’s ideas when he thought it necessary.
But while Baltimore was where the two ocean-going craft were built, O’Brien himself was very much a sailor of the Shannon Estuary. His family were associated with the lands along the south shore of that mighty waterway, and with Limerick city itself. Yet there were many in Limerick – and throughout Ireland too – who felt that Conor O’Brien never really received the recognition he deserved in his own country.
Many may have thought it, but only one took action. Twenty-one years ago a young Limerick man, Gary MacMahon, decided that the best way to begin to remedy the situation was to bring the recently-retired Ilen home from the Falklands to Ireland for a full restoration.
It says everything for Gary MacMahon’s dogged persistence that despite a lack of practical official interest in Ireland – other than some general goodwill - not only has Ilen now been restored, but in Limerick the Ilen Project has spawned a successful city-based boat-building school. This has links to international artisan boat-building networks, while at the same time working a successful co-ordination with the Oldcourt boatyard for the Ilen restoration.
Meanwhile, as all this was steadily developing, MacMahon was continuing to enlarge his substantial Conor O’Brien archive, and always in the background there was the idea that Saoirse herself could be re-born. A widely-accepted narrative had it that she had come ashore to destruction on Negril Beach in Jamaica in 1979 in the aftermath of a hurricane. But until he had actually visited the area and talked with locals himself, Gary MacMahon had an open mind on whether or not enough of Saoirse still existed for a re-build.
His hunch proved sound. An extended visit to Negril and relevant areas of Jamaica in July 2015 provided both significant parts of Saoirse herself, and sufficient documentation to ensure that any project would be recognised as a re-building.
It had been a couple of months earlier, at the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival in May 2015, that Gary MacMahon and Liam Hegarty had found they both passionately believed to the point of total agreement that Saoirse should be re-built to become a full sea-going vessel again. As to the means to do it, at that time it was a matter of faith. But as they had already found sources of good timber for the restoration of Ilen, they also began ordering wood which could be used in a re-building of Saoirse.
It was all still a vague and benevolent notion in the background of the Ilen project until, in September 2016, noted Hong Kong-based sailor Fred Kinmonth stepped into the old shed where Ilen was being restored, and the entire project took on a fresh direction. There are special Kinmonth family connections to West Cork, and in due course, Fred Kinmonth confirmed that he wished to support the re-building of Saoirse as a two year project, beginning January 2018.
It was a decision both inspiring and demanding. It set a deadline. And like all deadlines for worthwhile projects, it was close enough in the end, but it was met. By January 2018, Ilen was gone from The Old Grainstore to a new berth in the yard where her commissioning continues, while in the shed the space was cleared and re-organised, and now Liam Hegarty’s team, with master shipwright Fachtna O’Sullivan the most experienced, have already created the basis of the backbone for re-building Saoirse.
The atmosphere is almost reverential, for it’s very seldom that such a remote dream can be brought to fulfillment in the one place where it can be validly created. In time, the re-building of Saoirse will develop its own routine, and the colourful camaraderie of the top shed will brighten the work on its way. But for now, in the first weeks of this very special project, we’re at the serious stage where everything has to be just right. For the time being anyway, the open-door policy is no longer operational - the days of anyone just dropping in and hoping to engage the team in friendly chat are on hold. There is only one genuine opportunity to re-build the Saoirse. This is it. It’s a serious business.
Work began this week at Oldcourt near Baltimore in West Cork on reconstructing Conor O’Brien’s Saoirse. One of the most remarkable sailing vessels in Irish and world maritime history, the 42ft Saoirse is unique in many ways. W M Nixon gives some of the background to a complex story.
The early 1920s in Ireland are generally remembered as a time of extreme turmoil, with a War of Independence, the establishment of the Irish Free State with Northern Ireland partitioned, and a Civil War which was followed by a restless period as the fledgling State developed its new identity.
Yet in this uneasy time of frequent disruption, in Baltimore in West Cork a special boat, a proper little ship, was built in 1922 to become an ocean voyager which provided a vision of a more peaceful time for a world still only slowly recovering from the horrors of World War I in 1914-1918.
This unique sailing ship was also a maritime inspiration for the new Ireland, uncertain of itself in an uncertain world. For this was Conor O’Brien’s characterful 42ft ketch Saoirse, which he designed himself, and with which - between 1923 and 1925 – he pioneered the round the world route south of the Great Capes, an ocean voyaging “first” which was forever written into world sailing history.
The scale of Conor O’Brien’s achievement at the time is difficult for us to grasp today, when we are aware that the Great Southern Ocean, which runs unhindered round the globe and regularly generates extreme storms, can indeed be navigated by relatively small craft, albeit with the strongest of construction, the best of equipment, and experienced crews.
But in the early 1920s, it had a completely fearsome reputation, and rounding Cape Horn was a venture undertaken only by the most capable and usually very large sailing ships, or the most powerful steamers. So when the little Saoirse rounded the Horn from New Zealand in the last of the daylight on Tuesday December 2nd 1924, it was a pioneering achievement for everything which has come since, including the Golden Globe, the Whitbread Race, and the Volvo Ocean Race.
In Ireland, the greatness of what Conor O’Brien and Saoirse had done was recognized at the time, and his departure from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923 was well celebrated and reported in the Dublin newspapers. Accounts of some aspects of the voyage then appeared in the press in Ireland during its progress, and Saoirse was welcomed back to Dun Laoghaire afloat by Dublin Bay Sailing Club cancelling its racing for the day to provide an escorting fleet, and ashore by a crowd of at least ten thousand, followed by a ceremonial parade into the city with the day concluding with a gala dinner.
After that, O’Brien was busy with writing the story of the voyage for what was to be a popular book, Across Three Oceans, and seeing through the fulfillment of a contract for the construction of a larger version of Saoirse to be the inter-islands communications vessel for the Falkland Islands, for the islanders there had been much impressed by the little ship’s sea-keeping power when she came into port with Cape Horn successfully astern.
The 56ft ketch Ilen was the result of this, and O’Brien – crewed by Cape Clear men Con and Denis Cadogan – sailed her out to the Falklands in 1926 from his home port of Foynes in the Shannon Estuary. For although his boats were built in Baltimore by Tom Moynihan and his team at the boatyard attached to the Fisheries School, the O’Brien ancestral lands were along the south shore of the Shannon Estuary, while his first steps afloat were at Foynes, though he also learned sailing at Derrynane in West Kerry where the family took summer holidays. But from 1914 onwards, as the effects of Land League and other factors diminished the family estate, Foynes Island was both his home and his home port in Ireland.
However, with the publication of Across Three Oceans and the completion of the Ilen contract, his diminishing income was temporarily boosted, and 1927 was celebrated with the ketch-rigged Saoirse being given a rather spectacular new rig which, despite the same masts being retained, made her look like something of a small brigantine, and with this O’Brien set out to do the Fastnet Race.
This meant he spent some time in Cowes beforehand, where he was much feted, with the legendary designer Uffa Fox taking off Saoirse’s lines. For although she was rightly described as “a bluff-bowed little boat”, by the standards of the day she had achieved some formidable 24-hour runs during her circumnavigation, and Uffa Fox was determined to see if he could find some special secret to her shape to explain the high average speeds.
But the secret was Conor O’Brien himself. Although the Fastnet Race was dismal for Saoirse as it involved much windward work, off the wind with his nerves of steel he was able to drive his peculiar little ship well beyond her theoretical limit. Yet he almost always brought her to port in one piece, and his judgment of what was possible was renowned.
From this you might expect a stern steady silent type, but Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) was a man of many talents and a mass of contradictions. Short-tempered, sometimes voluble to excess, he expected too much of crews who were sometimes casually recruited, and in all he may have had as many as 17 different people crewing with him during Saoirse’s circumnavigation.
Away from his sailing, his life sometimes seemed aimless. Reared largely in England though holidaying in family properties in Ireland in the summer, following some changes of direction he finally qualified as an architect, and after 1903 he lived for some years in Dublin. Mountaineering was his main outdoor activity, but soon he was further into sailing, and by 1910 he’d bought the hefty cutter Kelpie which he modified for cruising with conversion to a ketch.
Another interest was support of Home Rule for Ireland, and in July 1914, Kelpie joined Erskine Childers’ Asgard in going to collect the arms for the Irish Volunteers from a rendezvous at the Ruytigen Lightship off the Belgian coast. While Asgard’s consignment of Mauser rifles was spectacularly landed in broad daylight in Howth on July 26th, the Kelpie’s cargo was brought ashore at night a few days later at Kilcoole in County Wicklow, having been trans-shipped to the auxiliary yacht Chotah, owned by another distinguished sailing man with direct Limerick connections, the surgeon Sir Thomas Myles.
Within a very few days, the entire scene changed with the outbreak of the Great War, and most of the leading gun-runners were to serve with the British forces. Despite his Home Rule enthusiasm, O’Brien had since 1910 been a member of the Royal Naval Reserve, which had given him useful training for his growing involvement in sailing. Between 1914 and 1918, it provided him with sometimes uneven war experience, for his temperament was much more suited to small unit action than anything involving significant numbers in some sort of organised form.
Post war, he returned to an Ireland which since the 1916 Easter Rising was moving inexorably towards independence and inevitably towards partition. When a unofficial Independent Provisional Government was set up in 1919 in a sort of parallel universe functioning effectively in opposition to British rule from Dublin castle, he offered his services to it with the Kelpie, and was a seaborn Fisheries Inspector for this alternative administation on the West Coast in the summer of 1920.
The situation was confused, to say the least, and in 1921 he went off cruising to Scotland single-handed, with some mountaineering planned in Skye. Returning alone through the North Channel and slowly beating to windward at night, he slept through the ringing of an alarm clock, and the heavy Kelpie came ashore in the foggy dark, well stuck on rocks near Portpatrick on the Scottish coast, and slowly but inevitably became a total loss.
O’Brien appeared out of the morning mist into Portpatrick Harbour, rowing in his little dinghy with all that remained of his worldly possessions about him, for he had sold his house in Dublin, and all he had for home was the use of a family cottage on Foynes Island.
As he recovered both there and with family in Dublin from his ordeal – typically blaming the alarm clock – he started finalizing the designs of an ocean-going voyager. For although he had no personal experience of long sea voyages under sail in a small yacht, he had long wished to do so, but had known the Kelpie was far from ideal for such ventures. What he wanted was a boat of simple ketch rig capable of setting proper square sails for long runs in the Trade Winds.
His acquaintance with the skills of Tom Moynihan and his shipwrights in Baltimore had come about when Kelpie had been damaged during severe weather off the Mayo coast during his season in 1920 as a Fisheries Inspector. The repairs at Baltimore satisfied even the pernickety O’Brien, so as the winter of 1921-22 progressed, negotiations led to the beginning of the construction of a 40ft ketch of a virtually unique design.
She had been kept down to 40ft overall to fit into O’Brien’s very limited budget, but Tom Moynihan felt that would make her so dumpy as to be ugly, a poor advertisement for the boatbuilders of Baltimore. So he and his men quietly increased her overall length to 42ft by the addition of a very fore-shortened counter which redeemed the situation, and O’Brien was later to admit that, in this at least, Tom Moynihan had saved him from himself – his original version of Saoirse would have been something of an ugly duckling.
Nevertheless the new ketch was a boat of very primitive type. When we consider that just three years later, William Fife was to design the extremely elegant 70ft Bermudan-rigged Hallowe’en which went on to take line honours in the 1926 Fastnet Race, by superficial comparison Saoirse seems like a mighty backward leap of at least a hundred years in design development.
Yet which boat would you rather be on board for long periods at sea? Like virtually all yachts of her era, Hallowe’en’s galley was well forward in a position of maximum movement in any seaway, and while her wide saloon was stylishly comfortable in port, at sea it was too spacious. On deck, the only comfort is for two or three in the small cockpit.
By contrast, with the accommodation layout of Saoirse, Conor O’Brien deployed his full architectural enthusiasm for the Arts & Crafts concepts of simplicity, comfort and functionality. He placed the homely galley well aft, he created a saloon which would have felt appropriate in a cosy cottage yet worked extremely well in port or at sea, and in all he created a comfortable little ship of suprisingly good performance which sailed in harmony and provided accommodation that fitted around you like a much-loved jacket.
This reassuring homeliness of Saoirse was well proven in the years following her great voyage. In 1928 Conor O’Brien – then aged 48 – was tamed a little, and certainly slightly domesticated, when he married Kitty Clausen, an English artist from a noted creative family of Danish descent. Her family had links to Cornwall, to which O’Brien was already attracted as he found the increasingly conservative and repressive mood of the new Irish Free State to be very much at variance with the liberal Home Rule ideals he’d supported in 1914 and again in 1920 when he’d sailed as a fisheries inspector.
Thus the southwest coast of Cornwall became their home area, with Saoirse based at St Mawes on the east side of Falmouth Harbour. But soon they were on their way, cruising to the Mediterranean, where they overwintered with a base at Ibiza – very different from what it is today – while Conor wrote, and Kitty sketched and painted.
The success of Across Three Oceans and the magnitude of his voyaging achievement had established him as an authority on seamanship, but none of his subsequent books on this and other topics were the same runaway success as that first masterpiece.
Nevertheless he enjoyed reasonable success with accounts of their Mediterranean cruises – one was to the Greek isles – charmingly illustrated by Kitty. But this idyllic phase of their life together was all too brief, by 1934 it was clear that Kitty was unwell, they sailed back to Cornwall, and in 1936 she died at St Mawes, it is believed of leukaemia.
For a year or so Conor O’Brien was something of a lost soul, at one stage living aboard Saoirse while she was laid up in the boatyard at Falmouth. But he’d found another outlet for his writing talents with adventure boys for books, and in all he had five of these published, while also producing another four books on seamanship and yacht equipment.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 had provided another opportunity. He renewed links with the Royal Naval Reserve and joined the Small Vessels Pool, positioning small craft for the Navy, and filling the role so well that in 1943 he found himself having a fine old time in New York – whose brazen new architecture he adored - involved in the shoreside running of the organisation which made preparations for naval crews to deliver American-provided craft across the Atlantic to the main war zone.
But meanwhile he had sold Saoirse in 1941 to an English owner Vincent Ruck, who was to base her between Chichester Harbour in Sussex and Falmouth Harbour in Cornwall, and over the years along that coastline of the south of England, Saoirse was to receive her quota of quiet but approving recognition as the unusual little ship which had pioneered the global route south of the great Capes.
At the end of World War 2 in 1945 and now aged 65, Conor O’Brien returned to Foynes Island for the rest of his days. He kept himself busy building small boats, and sometimes he lived almost like a hermit, but at other times he’d emerge and socialize. He’d been made an Honorary Member of the Irish Cruising Club, and attended some of its dinners. And as he’d kept himself notably fit - if the mood took him in summer, he’d swim with his clothes in a bundle on his head across to Foynes village and stand in the bar there, the water still dripping from him, downing pints of Guinness porter and exchanging banter with the locals.
He died on the island in 1952, and was buried beside his parents at Loghill Church along the mainland County Limerick coast. Saoirse meanwhile remained a much-cherished member of the Ruck family through several generations until the 1970s, when a new owner brought her first to Ireland in 1973, and then went on to Iceland.
Subsequently she took the increasingly popular tradewind route to the Caribbean where she cruised among the islands for several years. But in unsettled weather with hurricanes about in 1979, she came ashore on Negril Beach in Jamaica. At the time it was reported that she was virtually a total loss, but a subsequent visit in recent years to Negril by Gary MacMahon of Limerick – the Conor O’Brien enthusiast par excellence - has resulted in enough artefacts and constructional items from Saoirse being recovered to make a re-build – albeit in a very complete way – a possible project, with enough of the spirit of the ship emerging to be able to state that Saoirse’s soul lives on.
But by the time these items were retrieved from Negril, as any regular reader of Afloat.ie will well know, Gary MacMahon was already well down the long route towards the re-building of Saoirse, but by a somewhat different route. In 1997 he organized the return from the Falkland Islands of the recently de-commissioned Ilen with the simple hope to restoring her to a seaworthy state with all sorts of sailing functions in mind.
Eventually this became the Ilen Project, with the Ilen Boat-Building School as a reconised training organization with proper fully-equipped premises in Limerick, while the hull of Ilen herself came under the care of Liam Hegarty at his boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore. For although the original boatyard on the waterfront in Baltimore where Saoirse and Ilen were built in the 1920s had gone into decline, these days Baltimore is a bustling breezy focus of West Cork sailing, one of Ireland’s truly pace-setting sailing centres, and waterfront property has become much too expensive to accommodate a workaday boatbuilding yard.
There were considerable leaps of faith involved in working towards fulfilling the many and varied potentials of all the strands of the Ilen Project, but throughout it Gary and his team have been given the inspirational support of Brother Anthony Keane of Glenstal Abbey, a personal tower of moral support in trying to achieve objectives some of which are tangible, yet others seem vague in the extreme.
But somehow or other, as the 21st Century settled in, proper work got under way on the restoration of Ilen. Resources have been stretched now and again, and it has taken time, but that’s no harm in that, for now it is one of the best-known ongoing boat restoration projects in the world, almost a matter of pilgrimage.
Meanwhile, however, Gary MacMahon and Liam Hegarty shared the view that the restoration of Ilen would only make sense if, with the experience it provided, they then went on ahead with a new project - the re-building of Saoirse. This was long a vague aspiration, but it became more real after Gary visited Negril Beach, got to know the fascinating community there, and returned with some bits and pieces which provided such a sense of Saoirse that at the Baltimore Woodenboat Festival in 2015, he and Liam found themselves in complete agreement that somehow or other, Saoirse would sail again.
Their faith was so total, and supported of course by Brother Anthony, that they started ordering timber in order to have secured a properly seasoned stock by the time work on the Ilen had been completed. But it was all a matter of faith until September 2016, when Fred Kinmonth came into the ancient building – it has several names, in the yard they simply call it “The Top Shed” – where Ilen was being restored. With traditional boat-building under way, it is a place of unique serenity, and the entire scene spoke to Fred Kinmonth in a special way.
He’s of a high-powered professional family with cherished links to West Cork – as long ago as 1966, he was cruising from Union Hall to Valentia in the family’s Tyrrell-designed-and-built sloop Sinloo. But while most Kinmonths have gone into medicine, Fred went into corporate law, and he has had a stellar career in Hong Kong and right across the Far East.
He is very much into sailing in Hong Kong and is personally linked to a series of successful boats called Mandrake (the current Mandrake III is designed in Ireland, a Mark Mills 41), while he’s also a longtime member of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club and will be among those involved when Hong Kong welcomes the Volvo Ocean Race fleet in a few days time.
He enjoys life at the sharp end, indeed he thrives on it. But if he feels his batteries need re-charged, he puts in time in his spiritual home of West Cork. It was in this quietly thoughtful frame of mind in September 2016 that he looked into the top shed at Oldcourt and inhaled that Ilen restoration atmosphere. By the time he was returning to Hong Kong, it had been decided that Saoirse would be re-built for Fred Kinmonth, and the worked started this week.
All of which goes some way to explain why, as the rest of us wound down towards Christmas except for those heroes gearing up for the Rolex Sydney Hobart Race, down Baltimore way there was a special buzz of activity at Oldcourt around Ilen. The shipwrights’ work had been finished, the deck and houses had been sealed, most future work in joinery would be inside the hull, so it was time to move and vacate the shed for work to begin on the re-build of Saoirse.
The result is that in the depths of winter, we have had an inspiring glimpse in daylight of the transformation which has been worked on Ilen. Not only is it something which provides great expectations of what the re-built Saoirse will look and feel like, but it is very encouraging to continue progress towards Ilen’s new role as a Marine Learning Environment, a sailing schoolroom which will bring the message to schools and communities.
As for the future of Saoirse, this morning it is enough to know that the re-build is happening, but for the moment it is behind closed doors. You’ll note that as soon as Ilen was out of the shed, the great doorway in the gable end through which she had exited was closed off. Setting up to re-build Saoirse properly to a contract time is a serious business, and Liam Hegarty and his team have deserved to be left in peace during this key week.
The significance of Saoirse and her re-build contributes in unexpected ways to an awareness and maybe an understanding of our island’s complex past. The first major recognition that Conor O’Brien and Saoirse achieved was the award of the Royal Cruising Club’s Challenge Cup – the world’s senior cruising award – in 1923 while the voyage was under way. He received it again in 1924, and in 1925.
The RCC was at the very heart of the British maritime establishment. Yet despite his known gun-running voyage, the RCC had admitted O’Brien as a member in 1919. That may seem to stretch tolerance. But even more bizarre is the fact that O’Brien was proposed for membership by Frank Gilliland, a member from the north coast of Ireland, and seconded by Erskine Childers, who had joined the RCC when he started working in England in 1895.
However, by the time Saoirse departed on her voyage in June 1923, Frank Gilliland had since 1921 been Commander Frank Gilliland, Aide de Camp to the Governor of the newly-established Northern Ireland. And Erskine Childers, having come out in armed opposition to the treaty establishing the Irish Free State and the partition of Northern Ireland, had in November 1922 been executed by a firing squad of the Government of the new Irish Free State.
Through all this extraordinary turmoil and mixing of allegiances, Conor O’Brien and the Saoirse sailed on with their exceptional voyage. It was the great cruising authority Claud Worth, the adjudicator of the RCC awards, who best put Saoirse’s achievement into perspective, and explains why the work which started this week in Oldcourt is so important. Worth commented:
“Anyone who knows anything of the sea, following the course of the vessel day by day on the chart, will realize the good seamanship, vigilance and endurance required to drive this little bluff-bowed vessel, with her foul uncoppered bottom, at speeds of from 150 to 170 miles a day, as well as the weight of wind and sea which must sometimes have been encountered.”
Amen to that.
The process towards re-creating Conor O’Brien’s famous Baltimore–built 42ft ketch Saoirse, in which he gained his place in international sailing’s Hall of Fame with the first circuit of the world by a small vessel south of the great capes in 1923-1925, has been quietly confirmed this week with the agreement of a well-resourced backer who for the moment prefers to remain anonymous. W M Nixon takes a fresh perspective on one of Irish sailing’s central stories.
Much and all as there was triumph and tribulation and then triumph again in Conor O’Brien’s sailing achievements, his personal life could be summed up as one of success and sadness. So could many lives. But as with most things to do with Conor O’Brien, success and sadness came on an epic scale – there was a monumental, sometimes tragic quality to it.
It is something which is inevitably going to receive more attention as the process of re-creating his remarkable little ship swings into action in Oldcourt near Baltimore. The Saoirse re-build is coming centre stage in West Cork as the great and lengthy project of re-building his 57ft 1926 ketch Ilen nears completion. Ilen will be launched next summer, and the quality of the workmanship of Liam Hegarty and his craftsmen in Oldcourt with this project will achieve the recognition it so richly deserves.
So too will the vision of Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick who inspired Ilen’s re-birth, which in turn has provided the credentials to make the re-creation of Saoirse something which is becoming very real. It has become so real that the new keel has already been cut and shaped, while enough bits and pieces have been retrieved in Jamaica from the wreck of Saoirse in her first incarnation to provide a real connection for the re-born boat. Meanwhile, next week will see the orders being placed for further consignments of the required timber.
The very idea of some day being able to sail on an exact replica of Saoirse, a replica which has retained the soul of the original vessel, is something which will fascinate anyone who has made even the most cursory study of what O’Brien achieved on his voyage, and in his design of this unique boat.
There are probably many more in Ireland who are tangentially aware of O’Brien through the fact that, with the ketch Kelpie, which he owned from 1911 to 1922, he was the junior partner with Erskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard in the gun-running to Howth and Kilcoole in 1914, with Kelpie’s cargo of 600 Mauser rifles being taken for the final stage to the Kilcoole landing aboard Sir Thomas Myles’ auxiliary-powered Chotah. But in terms of the world’s amateur sailing history, the 1914 gun-running pales into insignificance when set against the mighty circumnavigation of the little Saoirse in 1923-25.
It was the first major international voyage undertaken under the ensign of the new Irish Free State. Yet despite the new tensions which inevitably existed between the British establishment – particularly the British maritime establishment - with the nascent Irish state and those who created it and ran it, it was a pillar of the British maritime establishment who set the international tone in putting Conor O’Brien’s voyage with Saoirse in its proper and revered context.
These days the name of Claud Worth will only be known to those who are immersed in the details of the history of cruising and its development. But in the first thirty years of the 20th Century, Claud Worth – ophthalmic surgeon by day, seagoing guru for much of the rest of the time – was an authority in a league of his own.
A kindly authority, let it be said. And always a source of helpful advice, with suggestions which are still relevant today. Just recently, someone asked about how best to prepare a log for a cruising competition. The most useful response was to quote Claud Worth’s suggestions from 1910 about how you should gradually introduce the boat, her crew and the planned cruise as the story unfolds, to bring the reader along with you to share the experience, rather than have it hurled at them as a mass of indigestible statistics about mileages, wind strengths, and dealing with problems large and small.
Thus by the time Saoirse set off on her voyage, Claud Worth was the global authority in the world of log adjudication, and he found himself in the demanding position of assessing logs for the world’s senior cruising trophy, the Challenge Cup of the Royal Cruising Club.
This had been awarded on its inauguration in 1896 to Belfast doctor, Howard Sinclair, for a cruise round Ireland in the 6-tonner Brenda. But by 1923, the scope of the several major cruises put forward for the Challenge Cup had expanded enormously from round Ireland voyages. Yet in his adjudications, Claud Worth unhesitatingly awarded the Challenge Cup for 1923, 1924 and 1925 to the former gun-runner as Saoirse’s voyage round the world went on to various ports, through the Great Southern Ocean, and back into Dun Laoghaire exactly two years to the day since he first departed on what had been casually described as “a voyage to New Zealand for some mountaineering”.
In fact, so clearcut had Worth been in his analysis that he provided the Introduction for Conor O’Brien’s entertaining if sometimes eccentric account of Saoirse’s circumnavigation, the timeless sailing classic Across Three Oceans. Claud Worth’s foreword has so much insight that it continues today to be the final word on the voyage, and in a few pithy comments he sums up what had been achieved by the 42ft ketch to O’Brien’s own design, and built in fishing boat style by Tom Moynihan and his shipwrights in Baltimore.
“Mr O’Brien’s plain seamanlike account is so modestly written that a casual reader might miss its full significance” wrote Worth. “But anyone who knows anything of the sea, following the course of the vessel day by day on the chart, will realize the good seamanship, vigilance and endurance required to drive this little bluff-bowed vessel, with her foul uncoppered bottom, at speeds from 150 to 170 miles per day, as well as handling the weight of wind and sea which must sometimes have been encountered”.
The voyage completed, the energetic and sometimes impatient O’Brien was busy with fulfilling the contract he’d brought home with him to build the Ilen to be the Falkland Islands freight and passenger ketch, and with writing his book. Once the latter had appeared, his celebrity was assured, and he was persuaded to enter Saoirse in the 1927 Fastnet Race.
There was much windward work as soon as the fleet had left the Solent, and no-one in the crew disagreed when he eventually withdrew, as he’d re-rigged Saoirse as a sort of mini brigantine, and windward work definitely wasn’t her strong suit. But it had by no means been a wasted expedition, for in Cowes before the race, designer Uffa Fox took off Saoirse’s lines. O’Brien - an architect by training - may have designed her himself, but many of his drawings were distinctly free-form, so now that Saoirse is going to be re-created, the precision of Uffa Fox’s work is going to be invaluable in getting once again the exact shape of “this little bluff-bowed vessel”.
As the 1920s drew to a close, Conor O’Brien was at something of a loose end. Of a land-owning family in West Limerick, his expected inherited income had shrunk with the effects of the various Land Acts which had started in the year of his birth, 1880. It was a situation of which a part of him approved, yet he could be such a prickly individual that he never functioned comfortably in the committee situations which his speciality as an ecclesiastical architect required him to work, and thus his earning levels could be precarious
He was uncompromising in his approach to anything and everything. Saoirse was a complete statement of his wish to have a simpler world in which every item was attractively functional. She was the seagoing expression of his enthusiasm for the purest tenets of William Morris’s Arts and Crafts movement. It will be intriguing, when she is reborn, to see if she really is as comfortable as it appears in the drawings and photos. These seem to suggest that she’s the sort of boat it’s a pleasure to be aboard for extended periods, and you will definitely be in her rather than on her - she is a a proper little ship, a world of her own.
It was a world O’Brien needed to share with someone special, and miraculously he found that someone with Kitty Clausen. Of an artistic family, she was nevertheless a practical person who was one of the few people who could make Conor O’Brien content, for in his world voyage his impatience with the short-comings of others meant that, in all, Saoirse carried something like 18 different crewmembers before she finally returned to Dun Laoghaire.
Conor and Kitty were married in 1928, and by 1931 a new and mellower Conor O’Brien had emerged as they sailed a slightly more domesticated Saoirse to the Mediterranean. There, they found the then little-known Balearic Island of Ibiza to be a congenial base where Conor continued writing books, and Kitty provided the illustrations. It was an idyllic existence, and their pleasure in it was reinforced by any return visits they made to the Ireland which was emerging after Independence, for they found it an oppressive place far indeed from the idealism of those who, like Conor O’Brien, had actively supported Home Rule.
Thus when they sailed north they tended to go to Falmouth in Cornwall, with their base at St Mawes on the east side of that fine natural harbour. However, cruises to the south continued - they were in the Greek Islands in 1934, and by February 1935 they were wintering in Vigo in northwest Spain. But Kitty’s health was deteriorating, and they returned that summer to St Mawes. She died of leukaemia in 1936, aged 50, and was buried nearby at the waterside church of St Just-in-Roseland.
Conor O’Brien wrote little of her death and what it meant to him, but for some time, his life lost all purpose. He’d lost the urge to cruise Saoirse, and had her hauled in the boatyard across in Falmouth, where he lived a hermit-like existence on board. Then the outbreak of World War II brought him back to life. Like all the gun-runners in 1914, he’d immediately gone into action with the British forces in World War I, serving on mine-sweepers in the North Sea. But on the outbreak of World War II in 1939, with his age now approaching 60 he became involved with the Admiralty Ferry Service, delivering American-built naval and military vessels across the Atlantic.
While in America, in 1941 he got an offer which he accepted from Eric Ruck to buy Saoirse in Falmouth. Ruck and his family were happily to continue owning this eccentric but very loveable vessel until the late 1960s, following which she had two owners, one of whom brought her to Ireland in the mid-1970s during a voyage to Iceland, while the other then sailed her across the Atlantic and lost her on a Jamaican beach in heavy weather in 1979.
But for Conor O’Brien, from 1945 onwards after the excitement of World War II, life trickled away. He retreated to a cottage on Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary, and while he joined family on the island for meals, his was a solitary existence, though visits to “nearby Ireland” could occasionally result in unexpected conviviality.
He died in 1952, aged 72, in a world and in an Ireland very different from the high hopes of the 1920s, when a little ketch had set out from Dublin Bay to celebrate the establishment of a newly independent Ireland. In doing so, she was to make one of the greatest voyages of all time, a pioneering achievement which was publicly recognized at the time.
But by the depressed 1930s, people had other things on their mind, and by the 1950s when Conor O’Brien died, it was largely forgotten outside the circles of dedicated cruising enthusiasts.
Yet time heals, and changes our perspective. The voyage of the Saoirse is now more widely acknowledged than ever as an exceptional seafaring achievement, as is the special genius of Conor O’Brien, and the re-creation of Saoirse is the greatest tribute which can be paid to him.
As for the woman who brought him true happiness for a cruelly short time, it was many years ago that we first visited the sailing enthusiast’s church of St Just-in-Roseland on the east side of Falmouth Harbour. But it was only more recently that we learned that Conor O’Brien’s wife is buried there, under a giant pine tree. Her grave is marked by a simple headstone, designed by her husband in his signature style. It is a peaceful place.
#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.