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West Cork Traditional Boat Sets the Style on America's Great Lakes

3rd November 2020
The 1893 25ft 6ins Heir Island lobster boat Hanorah (Nigel Towse) was restored at Oldcourt in 2003, and had her lines taken off by the Traditional Boats of Ireland Project. The lines have now been used to build a sister-ship, Fiona, at Manitowoc in Wisconsin on Lake Michigan The 1893 25ft 6ins Heir Island lobster boat Hanorah (Nigel Towse) was restored at Oldcourt in 2003, and had her lines taken off by the Traditional Boats of Ireland Project. The lines have now been used to build a sister-ship, Fiona, at Manitowoc in Wisconsin on Lake Michigan Photo: Traditional Boats of Ireland

You can take the boy out of West Cork, but you can't take West Cork - and its boats and sailing - out of the boy. That's especially so if he's one of the O'Keeffes, whose great names in sailing - such as Paddy O'Keeffe of Bantry and Maurice O'Keeffe of Schull - live on afloat through present generations, and in the restored and much-loved classics which they sailed in their day.

An intriguing example of the "Reach of the O'Keeffes" is Don O'Keeffe of the Schull branch. He may have fetched up in Wisconsin in the American Midwest, but by so doing and making a successful career there since 1987 in motor-yacht design, he reminds us that not only are the Great Lakes much more extensive than many of the salty seas that most of the rest of us so proudly sail, but his home port of Manitowoc has also been the setting – since 1968 – of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, an institution which has steadily developed and expanded to put anything comparable in Ireland very much in the shade.

The quality of the WMM's dynamic interaction with the local community and the world beyond is well illustrated in this museum-produced video of a project that Don O'Keeffe recently brought to completion:

It tells us a lot, and very eloquently too, for Don has a lovely way with words. But for those who seek even more background, his 25ft 6ins Heir Island Lobster Boat Fiona is based on the lines – taken off by the Traditional Boats of Ireland Project – of the 1893-built Hanorah, which was re-built in 2003 in Oldcourt as part of a course run by owner Nigel Towse of Sherkin Island, and master boatbuilder Liam Hegarty.

traditional lines of Hanorah have been replicated in Don O'Keeffe's new boat Fiona in WisconsinThe traditional lines of Hanorah have been replicated in Don O'Keeffe's new boat Fiona in Wisconsin. Plans: Traditional Boats of Ireland

Hanorah (left) and new-build sister-ship Saoirse Muirreann (Cormac Levis) in perfect summer sailing conditionsHanorah (left) and new-build sister-ship Saoirse Muirreann (Cormac Levis) in perfect summer sailing conditions off Sherkin Island. Photo: Robby Murphy

In recent years we've had two links to Don O'Keeffe, as this most recent Wisconsin project came to us through Simon O'Keeffe of Schull, Don's nephew, who currently has a project under way with Tiernan Roe of Ballydehob to restore the famous gaff cutter Lady Min, which Simon's great grandfather Maurice O'Keeffe designed and built at Schull in 1902. 

The Lady Min – currently under restoration with Tiernan Roe of Ballydehob The Lady Min – currently under restoration with Tiernan Roe of Ballydehob – was designed and built by Maurice O'Keeffe of Schull in 1902.

But while Maurice O'Keeffe is now best known for his personal creation of the Lady Min 118 years ago, across the hills in Bantry Paddy O'Keeffe was linked to several notable boats, most notably the Albert Strange-designed yawl Sheila II which later was sailed to New Zealand in the 1950s, the handsome Robert Clark-designed 16-tonner John Dory, and designer-builder John B Kearney's own pet boat, the 1925-built 38ft yawl Mavis, which went to America in 1956.

We have of course been following the saga of the restoration of Mavis in Camden, Maine by Ron Hawkins. But while she finally sailed again in September of this year, when she was launched for the first time in her restored form back in 2015, as Ron Hawkins shepherded her down the harbour with a little outboard-driven tender alongside, at the helm of Mavis was Don O'Keeffe no less, keeping in touch with the boats of his youth and the special sailing to be found in West Cork.

The newly-restored John B Kearney 1925 yawl MavisThe newly-restored John B Kearney 1925 yawl Mavis – owned for some years by Paddy O'Keeffe of Bantry – is shepherd to her mooring in Camden, Maine by restorer Ron Hawkins, with Don O'Keeffe on the tiller.

Published in Historic Boats
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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