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Ilen’s Ancient Appearance at Sandycove in Dun Laoghaire Is Offset By Some Modern Thinking Underwater

22nd September 2022
Ghost ship? Ilen anchored off Sandycove seems like a wraith-like image from the past
Ghost ship? Ilen anchored off Sandycove seems like a wraith-like image from the past Credit: Afloat

It was good to know of the sail training ketch Ilen lying serenely in the Scotsman’s Bay-Sandycove anchorage south of Dun Laoghaire Harbour last night, like a proper sailing ship of ancient times taking a useful break to await a fair tide and a proper breeze while passage-making. But as it happens, in some ways, the 56ft ketch designed by Conor O’Brien of Limerick and built in Baltimore in West Cork in 1926 to be the inter-island service vessel for the Falkland Islands had some ideas ahead of her time.

During his six “resting” weeks in the Falklands after rounding Cape Horn in the 42ft Saoirse in December 1924, O’Brien had been briefed on the requirements for the hoped-for new inter-island ferry and transport vessel, and he particularly noted the smallness and confined nature of some of the coves and piers from which she would have to work.

So although Saoirse made her voyage round the world without an auxiliary engine, he asserted that the new vessel would require an auxiliary engine which would do much more than merely provide forward movement when the wind failed. On the contrary, it would have to be a real asset when manoeuvring and berthing in tight corners.

“Good morning Forty Foot, I’m Fifty-Six Foot…..” Ilen making her presence felt at Sandycove“Good morning Forty Foot, I’m Fifty-Six Foot…..” Ilen making her presence felt at Sandycove Photo: Afloat 

At the time, when small sailing vessels were being fitted with auxiliary engines and the propellor shaft was in the centre line, the necessary aperture for the propeller would mostly – and sometimes entirely – be taken out of the rudder. The alternative was an offset prop, which made any close-quarters manoeuvring an even more dicey business. Either way, the valuable prop thrust which is such a manoeuvring virtue in modern craft was absent, particularly if the rudder was also – as was common - installed with the shaft markedly raked aft.

O’Brien looked at all this with an architect’s rather than a sailor’s eye. And thus, although Ilen was to take her general appearance from Saoirse, which in turn was based on an Arklow fishing boat of the 1860s that O’Brien had admired, underwater down aft she was arguably state of the art.

By taking Ilen’s propellor aperture entirely out of the deadwood in the hull, Conor O’Brien gave this hard-worked boat impressive manoeuvrability under the auxiliary engine. These photos were taken while preparing for the passage from Ireland out to the Falklands. Conor O’Brien’s Yachtmaster certificate failed to provide insurance for a commercial vessel, so Ilen sailed to the Falklands as a yacht of the Royal Irish YC. It is believed the temporary nameplate of 1926 is now in Ireland. Photo courtesy Gary Mac Mahon/Ilen.ieBy taking Ilen’s propellor aperture entirely out of the deadwood in the hull, Conor O’Brien gave this hard-worked boat impressive manoeuvrability under the auxiliary engine. These photos were taken while preparing for the passage from Ireland out to the Falklands. Conor O’Brien’s Yachtmaster certificate failed to provide insurance for a commercial vessel, so Ilen sailed to the Falklands as a yacht of the Royal Irish YC. It is believed the temporary nameplate of 1926 is now in Ireland. Photo courtesy Gary Mac Mahon/Ilen.ie

For O’Brien gave her a large and almost vertical rudder, and he took the propeller aperture entirely out of the deadwood, so much so that the stern post was retained for added structural integrity. It’s an installation of practicality, beauty and effectiveness, and ensures that half the propellor thrust can be very usefully re-directed as wished.

And if you’re wondering why the ghostly appearance of Ilen off Sandycove in Dun Laoghaire has provoked such a line of thought, the answer is there’s been some cyber-discussion of late about an otherwise exquisite new long-keel modern classic which has such a large propeller aperture taken out of her raked rudder that the fitting of a bow-thruster became an essential for any close-quarters manoeuvring. They should have taken a look at Ilen before starting the project…

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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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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