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Special Irish Role in the International Links of Classic Wooden Boats

19th June 2018
The Brittany-built American mini-cat in Skol ar Mor colours gets ready for sailing on a Shannon lake The Brittany-built American mini-cat in Skol ar Mor colours gets ready for sailing on a Shannon lake Photo: Ian Malcolm

There’s an informal international network of wooden boat adherents - both classic and traditional - which has found in Ireland an increasingly useful source of recognised designs of intriguing boat types to provide many building challenges for skilled craftsmen and trainees alike writes W M Nixon. And they’ve also become interlinked with fellow enthusiasts in Ireland prepared to take on the ownership of the characterful boats – not necessarily from Irish designs - that result from such school projects.

This network operates at many levels. For instance, the restoration of the 56ft 1926-built ketch Ilen, in a joint venture by the Gary MacMahon-directed Ilen Boatbuilding School in Limerick working in coordination with Liam Hegarty’s traditional boatyard at Oldcourt near Baltimore in West Cork, is a very complex project which has at various times drawn in specialists from several countries, but most notably North America, and England and Scotland, in addition to sourcing much talent in Ireland.

ilen with yard2Work in progress. The restored ketch Ilen in grey weather last week in Oldcourt as she awaits the installation of ballast and the delivery of sails. The carefully-tapered squaresail yard was specially designed for the project by the late Theo Rye. Photo: Gary MacMahon

In the other direction, boatbuilders and boatbuilding schools in the UK, France, Belgium, Spain and the US have found classic Irish designs of special interest in adding variety to the courses they can provide for their pupils and apprentices. Dublin Bay 24s, Howth Seventeens, Dublin Bay Water Wags, Shannon One Designs and other time-honoured golden oldies have been born anew, the most recent instance being the exquisitely-finished new Dublin Bay Water Wag Dipper for David & Berna Williams of Dun Laoghaire, created by American Brian McClelland at his boat-building school in San Sebastian in Spain.

water wag dipper3A Grade A (Hons) teaching project……The new Water Wag Dipper, created in Brian McClelland’s boat-building school in Spain, is a masterpiece. Photo courtesy Waters Wags

The Water Wags, as one of the healthiest One-Design classes in Dun Laoghaire, or indeed all Ireland, have the immediate impetus of their racing programme - combined with other special events - to keep them busy and enthused. But with other characterful designs, there’s always the possibility that the actual business of creating the boat becomes the main purpose of the exercise. Without suitably interesting waters on which to sail them, some one-off classic restorations can go largely unused.

Yet here again, Ireland is uniquely placed to provide a real service. We already can draw on an unrivalled heritage of interesting designs just asking to be built anew. But as well, our special combination of historical sailing centres with yacht and sailing club programmes of time-honoured provenance, when combined with our remarkable mixture of coastal and inland waterways, provides sailing and boat-use settings for every need.

Thus while some classic boats thrive in a crowded class racing and sailing situation, others need more secret waters to give of their best in a setting with a sense of privacy. So although Mike Newmeyer’s Skol ar Mor in Brittany has been much in evidence in Howth recently with the School’s distinctive shade of green highly visible in the keenly-raced new Howth Seventeen Orla, that same shade of green was somehow less conspicuous when it recently and quietly appeared on two characterful little Skol ar Mor-built boats at one of those semi-private harbours you’ll find on most coastlines of the Shannon lakes.

whitehall and beetle4The distinctive Skol ar Mor green livery is seen on the Whitehall 14 and the 13ft Beetle at a secluded harbour on a Shannon lake’s western shore. Photo: Ian Malcolm

beetle cat5The Beetle cat under sail – she is designed to sail on her marks with two adults in the cockpit. Photo: Ian Malcolm

Many of these harbours are on the river and lake system’s west shores, in Connacht and Clare, and one of these was the venue for the low-key gathering of Judith Malcolm’s 13ft cat-rigged Beetle-type Emelline, and Guy and Jackie Kilroy’s 14ft Whitehall New England rowing boat, both of them American concepts. For a bit of balance, in attendance were two craft owned by wooden-boat serial collector William Prentice - a 12ft lug-rigged Coot sailing dinghy from Andrew Wolstenholme, and a beautiful Shannon classic lake boat, 18ft of elegance crafted by Edwin Brennan in Dun Laoghaire to bring back to life a boat owned a very long time ago by William’s father.

whitehall dinghy6For a boat developed for rugged multiple uses in New York Harbour in the 19th Century and earlier, this new Whitehall dinghy has found an unexpectedly serene berth on an Irish lake in 2018. Photo: Ian Malcolm

whitehall dinghy7The concept of the best use of the Whitehall is based on weight distribution – and when speed and extra power are required, two sets of oars can be deployed. Photo: Ian Malcolm

In terms of flotilla size and crowd numbers, it was a matter of small is beautiful, and less is more. But it provided time and leisure to contemplate the boats properly, and consider how Ireland fits into the broader wooden boat picture.

In a quiet sort of way, things are on the move. In an international exchange programme, apprentices from Skol ar Mor did a course with master craftsman Dougal MacMahon at Belmont in County Offaly, while down in Ballydehob in West Cork, Rui Ferreira is already well into lofting up yet another new Water Wag. And up in Kilrush in County Clare on the north shore of the mighty Shannon Estuary, Steve Morris – originally from New Zealand – is re-building a cold-moulded version of the classic Alfred Mylne-designed Dublin Bay 21 Naneen for Hal Sisk and Fionan de Barra, a design which first saw the light of day in 1902.

Other projects are on the move, and wooden boat traditional and classic enthusiasts in Ireland find themselves with an excellent selection of designs and types to choose from, and every possible sort of water on which to sail them. The only unknowable is the weather…….

beetle cat jetty8Summertime on the lake, and the Beetle Cat can be ready for sailing in minutes. Photo: Ian Malcolm

Published in Historic Boats Team

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