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Ketch Ilen’s Mainmast is Finally on its Way to Join the Ship

15th March 2018
Ilen’s mainmast assembly before most of the steel fittings (except for the mast ring lower right) had been galvanised Ilen’s mainmast assembly before most of the steel fittings (except for the mast ring lower right) had been galvanised Credit: Gary MacMahon

You might well say that the Ilen Project has been galvanised into further action writes W M Nixon. The historic 1926-built 56ft ketch’s restoration has been a matter of the hull being re-born at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore, while the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick has moved forward in tandem, building smaller items including deckhouses, which have then been taken to the ship for fitting. And today (Thursday) the mighty mainmast and topmast are being trucked southwestward from the school for early stepping in the ship.

For modern sailors accustomed to silver aluminium extrusions or black carbon fibre, the sight of the beautifully-crafted wooden spars gives pause for thought. But in some ways even more impressive are the traditionally galvanized steel fittings. One upon a time, galvanizing steel fittings for marine use was looked on as something of a luxury. Indeed, it was argued that the “right kind of rust” was in itself a sort of protective coating. But then we went through a stage where galvanizing for everything maritime made in steel was the done thing, while the height of luxury was having bronze fittings in special marine grade.

ilen spars2Wood, beautiful wood………Photo: Gary MacMahon

Quite when stainless steel started to take over is hard to say, but these days grade A316 is the minimum standard stainless steel expected. But traditionalists would have it that if you’re restoring a traditional ship, you must have traditional galvanized fittings. So that was the code followed in assembling the steel bits and pieces which work together to make the Ilen’s mainmast assembly a thing of power and purpose.

ilen spars3Unto everything there is a purpose…….

ilen spars4….and what started as a piece of basic fabrication is beginning to acquire its own functional beauty. Photo: Gary MacMahon

Firstly they were made up as naked steel. Then they were given a test fitting. And then when everything had shown itself as right and proper, off they all went went to the nearby galvanizing works, for that’s the way you can do it in the heart of Limerick city.

This week it has all been coming together in its finished form in the boat-building school, and the Thursday journey to far West Cork is a time for mixed feelings. Those spars had become part of the character, the very soul, of the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick. The place won’t seem the same without them, centrally present at some informative stage of their creation. But their departure is part of the continuing creative process. Now, a safe journey is the priority.

ilen spars5Useful reminder. When you’re working on specific items, it’s helpful to have some idea of the overall picture. Photos: Gary MacMahon

Published in Ilen
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Ireland's Trading Ketch Ilen

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

Designed by Limerick man Conor O’Brien and built in Baltimore in 1926, she was delivered by Munster men to the Falkland Islands where she served valiantly for seventy years, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties.

Returned now to Ireland and given a new breath of life, Ilen may be described as the last of Ireland’s timber-built ocean-going sailing ships, yet at a mere 56ft, it is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

Wooden Sailing Ship Ilen FAQs

The Ilen is the last of Ireland’s traditional wooden sailing ships.

The Ilen was designed by Conor O’Brien, the first Irish man to circumnavigate the world.

Ilen is named for the West Cork River which flows to the sea at Baltimore, her home port.

The Ilen was built by Baltimore Sea Fisheries School, West Cork in 1926. Tom Moynihan was foreman.

Ilen's wood construction is of oak ribs and planks of larch.

As-built initially, she is 56 feet in length overall with a beam of 14 feet and a displacement of 45 tonnes.

Conor O’Brien set sail in August 1926 with two Cadogan cousins from Cape Clear in West Cork, arriving at Port Stanley in January 1927 and handed it over to the new owners.

The Ilen was delivered to the Falkland Islands Company, in exchange for £1,500.

Ilen served for over 70 years as a cargo ship and a ferry in the Falkland Islands, enduring and enjoying the Roaring Forties, the Furious Fifties, and Screaming Sixties. She stayed in service until the early 1990s.

Limerick sailor Gary McMahon and his team located Ilen. MacMahon started looking for her in 1996 and went out to the Falklands and struck a deal with the owner to bring her back to Ireland.

After a lifetime of hard work in the Falklands, Ilen required a ground-up rebuild.

A Russian cargo ship transported her back on a 12,000-mile trip from the Southern Oceans to Dublin. The Ilen was discharged at the Port of Dublin 1997, after an absence from Ireland of 70 years.

It was a collaboration between the Ilen Project in Limerick and Hegarty’s Boatyard in Old Court, near Skibbereen. Much of the heavy lifting, of frames, planking, deadwood & backbone, knees, floors, shelves and stringers, deck beams, and carlins, was done in Hegarty’s. The generally lighter work of preparing sole, bulkheads, deck‐houses fixed furniture, fixtures & fittings, deck fittings, machinery, systems, tanks, spar making and rigging is being done at the Ilen boat building school in Limerick.

Ten years. The boat was much the worse for wear when it returned to West Cork in May 1998, and it remained dormant for ten years before the start of a decade-long restoration.

Ilen now serves as a community floating classroom and cargo vessel – visiting 23 ports in 2019 and making a transatlantic crossing to Greenland as part of a relationship-building project to link youth in Limerick City with youth in Nuuk, west Greenland.

At a mere 56ft, Ilen is capable of visiting most of the small harbours of Ireland.

©Afloat 2020

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