The uniquely compact boats of Ireland’s characterful Drascombe fleet have their own way of doing things. Encouraged by their easily-lowered rigs and extra-shoal-draft-with-centreboard versatility, they’re well able to explore little-known harbours and winding waterways where bridges or overhanging trees might make cruising impossible for more orthodox craft.
Yet they’re also deservedly renowned as able sea boats. Here in Ireland, at least one has made the circuit cruise, with the young Ogden brothers from Baltimore getting round in their Drascombe Lugger in 2015, while others have been to the Outer Hebrides. And of course the American Webb Chiles saw no reason why he shouldn’t sail across the Pacific in a Drascombe, and did so, and subsequently, he has sailed round much of the world using several of these distinctive little craft.
So it’s entirely in keeping with their able boats and individualistic approach that the Irish Drascombe Association should see the history-laden links of the 12th July 2020 - the 330th Anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne - as providing the ideal occasion to hold a Boyne Rally using the cruising potential of the partially restored Boyne Navigation, with the fleet made up from the north and the south of Ireland for a cruise-in-company involving sea passages and river transits.
As is expected with the 12th July and the days around it, many flags were flown by a fleet of eleven Drascombes (five from the north and six from the south) along the Boyne water. But it was all in a spirit of the warmest friendship and a shared enthusiasm for special boats and the unique exploration opportunities they provide, with a potentially complex six-day programme involving distant launching points and coastal passage-making, with a growing fleet and stopover ports towards the Boyne.
It was smoothed out by John White from the north shore of Carlingford Lough for the northern division, who launched on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 8th at Greencastle at the entrance to Carlingford Lough, and Jack O’Keeffe of Cork, whose group from the south had their most southerly launch point at Skerries. Others from north and south launched at Port Oriel at Clogherhead where the total fleet was finally assembled on the evening of Friday, July 10th, with those who’d sailed there reporting a variety of seagoing experiences.
The northern group had stopped at Gyles Quay under the Cooley Mountains and enthused about the extraordinary selection of bird-song to be heard in wildfowl-rich Dundalk Bay, while those from the south had seen the most exploration by Jack O’Keeffe, whose passage northward had included a brief diversion up the shallow River Nanny at Laytown, “the only harbour in all County Meath”, which is just the kind of thing you do with a Drascombe.
Port Oriel provided the opportunity to liaise with Sean Flanagan of the RNLI whose local knowledge was invaluable, and then Saturday morning saw the combined fleet sail south round Clogher Head, and into a first river stop in the Boyne estuary at Mornington to see how helpful advice from Drogheda Harbour Master Martin Donnelly helped shape their plans for the day.,
With low water there at 1045, the tide was soon flooding up the history-laden waterway into the heart of Ireland past Drogheda, where the best berth for Drascombes was at anchor off the Coast Guard slip. There, they were made welcome by the Coast Guards, and some took the opportunity to explore the nearest parts of an ancient port city which at one time rivalled and even exceeded the seaborn trade going through Dublin.
Knowing they’d need to lower masts to negotiate bridges on the next stage upstream, some simply did it at anchor in a neat demonstration of Drascombe convenience, while others did it at a handy berth alongside a dredger, and then there were good wishes from the shore and from above from spectators as they negotiated the bridges to reach the sea lock into the Boyne Navigation 2.5 miles upriver of the Coast Guard slip.
The members of the Boyne Branch of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland have been restoring their bit of navigable water for some time now, but as it’s an outlier which does not connect with the main waterways system, it has often been a lonely struggle. The Covid Lockdown had not helped in having the locks in full working order, but as the Drascombe Weekend approached, they put in a heroic effort led by Stephen Early, who was helped on the day by the Boyne IWAI’s Anne Gregory, Willie O’Donnell and Fiachra de Reoise to make sure everything was functioning and undergrowth cleared along this well-wooded waterway.
As a result, a milestone was smoothly passed with the Drascombes providing the largest number of boats to transit the restored lock at once, in fact numbers were such that it had to be done in two batches of six each. Once through and above the salt water, they were into such a different world, with trees and meadowland and rural aromas, that it was difficult to remember that only that morning they’d been in been in sea-dominated, fishing-boat-flavoured Port Oriel.
And the transformation was made even more complete by their overnight fleet stop at Staleen which was total country – kingfishers and other waterfowl, quietly evocative rural sounds, atmospheric sunset, and everyone dining on board their little boats in a shared mood of bliss.
Morning came early on their central target date of Sunday12th July, with the dawn chorus at full strength by 0500 hrs as the sun emerged through the mist. It was a busy day with a morning stroll along the Boyne Footpath to meet Claidbh Gibney at the Boyne Currach centre with its fascinating demonstration of ancient boat-building, with the bonus of his encyclopaedic knowledge of much local coastal and river lore.
This included an enthusiastic outline of the “lost” medieval harbour of St Denis close west of Port Oriel, which resulted in a typically easily-made Drascombe change of plan, as they agreed they’d spend that last night at St Denis rather than Port Oriel, persuaded by Claidbh by his assurance that he’d be there to guide them in.
But there was much to be done before they reached that mysterious place, for by lunchtime they’d made their way along the short haul on the waterway to Oldbridge and the gardens of the Battle of the Boyne centre, where the arrival of a mini-fleet proudly displaying flags of north and south in a spirit of warm friendship on the 12th July really was something very special indeed, even if the Covid-restrictions mean that Oldbridge House itself is closed until July 20th.
In fact, this meant that the Drascombes – who are more accustomed to doing their own thing quietly under the radar – were akin to being the main event at the site on the 330th Anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne on July 12th 2020. But they took it in their stride with the usual mixture of banter and boat talk which soon took on an extra purpose as the turn of the tide was approaching, so it was back to seafaring business as they headed down through the sea lock with their two transits, and then with a fine fair ebb, made short work of negotiating Drogheda’s bridges and the lengthy stretch along the estuary to Mornington, accompanied all the way by the folk from Boyne IWAI and the Boyne Currach centre.
Mornington was a hive of activity afloat with boats being made ready for sea, as the introduction of the ultra-ancient harbour of St Denis into their cruise-in-company plan gave an added urgency. But by 1800 hrs they were emerging on time into the Irish Sea at Boyne Mouth, and a crisp two hour passage northward around rugged little Clogher Head took them past Port Oriel and on towards that barely-visible indentation of the coast where the remains of the medieval harbour that used to serve the sacred St Denis’s Well were to be found.
Claidhbh (Clive) Gibney was there, ready on the shore to guide them in, his readiness and enthusiasm being such that he promptly waded in chest deep to make sure they found the channel, and then provided the additional service of “walking the seabed” where each boat chose to anchor to ensure that they wouldn’t be settling on a boulder at low water.
This was purest Drascombe territory. An elusive wraith of a forgotten port being brought briefly back to life for the fleet’s last overnight together, with few if any lights visible from the nearby shore as the summer night closed in. Yet again, there was enormous effort needed to realise that their day had started in a very different place, deep in the heart of the country as the dawn chorus grew in strength over the mists of the Boyne on the anniversary of the history-changing battle.
Their final morning together provided the time for an exploration of the remains of the forgotten St-Denis harbour’s walls before the new tide floated them off and the fleet dispersed – some north to Carlingford and Greencastle, and others swiftly south towards Skerries along the now-familiar coast of County Louth, all making good progress – whether headed north or south – in a healthy west wind off the land – “off the grass” as the crewmen in Irish Lights fondly describe it – to find their road trailers and the way home.
By Tuesday night, all were safely back in their home ports, which in many cases means on the road trailer in the front drive. Yet as the Boyne 12th July Long Weekend had well shown, if it’s a Drascombe on that trailer, your home port will give ready access to some truly intriguing cruising grounds very remote indeed from modern suburbia.