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Never Mind the Weather, the Historic Ilen Boat Project Sails On

18th March 2018
Journey’s end – the ketch Ilen’s new spars arrive from Limerick at Oldcourt in West Cork Journey’s end – the ketch Ilen’s new spars arrive from Limerick at Oldcourt in West Cork

Much of Ireland may seem to have endured one bout of meteorological mayhem after another for most of the winter, with this weekend being no exception writes W M Nixon. Yet the Guardian Angel of the Ilen Project has always intervened in a very helpful way when this fascinating two-strand restoration of a 1926-built 56ft ketch needs some gentle weather conditions for everything to go according to plan.

Back at the beginning of January, the world watched and waited with bated breath for suitable tidal conditions and a usable weather window to coincide. This was needed to move the 30-ton vessel from her re-build shed to her fit-out berth in the hyper-crowded circumstances of master shipwright Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt in West Cork.

The winter weather onslaught abated for a day, the complex move was made with even a tiny glimpse of January sunshine to brighten its progress, and then with the historic ship secure in her new shore berth, the weather closed in again with renewed vigour for a week, until it relented sufficiently for a robust deck-tent to be erected to allow work to continue.

The presence of the deck tent meant that when the new masts arrived from the Ilen Boat-building School in Limerick for almost immediate stepping, gentle conditions were once again required, as the job of craning them in was in effect being done blind.

Ilen mast move2
Ilen’s new mainmast in daylight for first time in Limerick on Thursday
ilen mast move3
On the ground, the mainmast is big, long and heavy
ilen mast move4
Load her up and away we’ll go…..
ilen mast move5
It may seem like just another load trucking down the highway, but for the people at either end of the journey, this is one very important cargo.

This week, everything that could be done to the masts in the Limerick workshop was completed. And the weather portents indicated that a smoothly-executed transport job, with 200 kilometres of trucking for the spars, would do the trick provided they were on their way from Limerick on Thursday, and everything was in place for the main part of the stepping on Friday.

This may all seem fairly straightforward to those accustomed to major industrial projects with abundant resources and every possible sort of equipment. But the Ilen Project is none of these things. It’s more of a wing-and-a-prayer shoestring operation. Yet despite their very limited resources, Gary MacMahon and Liam Hegarty and their teams at both locations have succeeded in restoring a fine little ship, and one of considerable historic significance, thanks to her links with Conor O’Brien.

ilen mast move6
Inside the tent…..will it fit?
ilen mast move7
Already, the mast is looking as though it belongs……..
ilen mast move8
….and yes, it does fit

And as the photos show, once again as soon as it was needed, the weather served up conditions even gentler than the most optimistic forecasts. The entire mast move from Limerick to West Cork, and the blind stepping, went like clockwork.

The process demanded the participation of 14 individuals, two forklifts, a 45ft foot road trailer, and a crane and a shorter trailer on arrival at the boatyard. Today, Ilen has two new masts, a prodigious bowsprit, and a very happy crew.

ilen mast move9
The two masts in place after everything has gone precisely to plan. And the sun is still shining. What on earth could anyone imagine might have gone wrong?

Photos: Deirdre Power, Dermot Lynch and Gary Mac Mahon

Published in Ilen Team

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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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