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Limerick Ketch Ilen’s 'Salmon's Wake' Voyage to Greenland Provided Research from High Latitudes

12th September 2019
Frank Nugent, a crewman on the Ilen Salmons Wakes Voyage to Greenland, climbing the ridge of Tilman Peak (named for pioneering mountaineer/sailor Bill Tilman) in West Greenland, with Ilen a barely visible dot, very far below in the small bay immediately to the right of the rocky summit. Photo: Paddy O’Brien Frank Nugent, a crewman on the Ilen Salmons Wakes Voyage to Greenland, climbing the ridge of Tilman Peak (named for pioneering mountaineer/sailor Bill Tilman) in West Greenland, with Ilen a barely visible dot, very far below in the small bay immediately to the right of the rocky summit. Photo: Paddy O’Brien

This past summer’s successful Salmon’s Wake voyage by Limerick’s 56t traditional ketch Ilen to Greenland worked productively in many ways in high mountains, on the sea, and in ports where the crew interacted with Greenlanders on several cultural programmes.

But for Project Manager and skipper for the outward voyage Gary Mac Mahon, a particular aspect of Ilen’s fascinatingly varied sailing across oceans, along the coast of Greenland, and off the coast of Ireland, is that it has been done in a trading ketch of traditional Irish type, the only one currently sailing.

ilen mountain greenland2Seen from the heights of Tilman Peak, Ilen is the distant dot barely perceptible at the centre of this image. Photo: Paddy O’Brienilen sailing greenland3An “obsolete” yet still relevant type – the 1926 ketch Ilen in Greenland in 2019, setting her traditional square sail complete with distinctive Salmons Wake logo. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Here he reflects on this aspect of Ilen’s busy year, and makes links to previous sailors of “obsolete” craft:


“Let past times become pastimes”- James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, (1939)

“The venturesome pastime of sailing relatively small obsolete wooden traditional vessels towards remote parts in the pursuit of climbing, or just communing with lonely coastal mountains, is very much the business of a small group of individuals writes Gary Mac Mahon.

These individuals were favoured or perhaps inflicted with a singular character, and while often perceived misanthropically, were rather just the individual expression of an inscrutable humanity.

1913 conor obrien4Conor O’Brien at the helm of his 1870s-built ketch Kelpie off the coast of Ireland in 1913. After Kelpie was lost in 1921, during 1922 in Baltimore he had the 42ft traditional ketch Saoirse built, and in 1923-25 sailed round the world south of the Great Capes with her
For this piece reflecting on the origins of the Ilen Project, I have plucked out two from a very small group, and they are mountaineer and round-the-world voyaging pioneer Conor O’Brien of Foynes (b.1880), and mountaineer/sailor Bill Tilman (who latterly lived in the mountains in North Wales, b.1898). Both were men of extraordinary fortitude and energy who shared a rich capacity for writing, ocean voyaging, mountaineering and the maintaining of big timbered sailing boats.

Both these men seemed at variance with the epoch they were inescapably thrust into, exemplified by their singular and similar life choices, but specifically for this specialized role: the nostalgic retrieval of boat forms of times past for deployment in the pursuit of adventurous pastimes. A not uncommon if atavistic response from individuals in the face of a world which would otherwise change too fast.”

1950s bill tilman5The legendary Bill Tilman at the helm of his traditional Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Mischief, voyaging and mountaineering in High Latitudes in the 1950s

Published in Ilen
WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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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.

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