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Water Wags, Dublin Bay 21s & Howth 17s: Classic Irish Boatbuilding is Pandemic Panacea

18th November 2020
Better than a Health Farm……the soothing setup in the McMahon shed in Athlone, with the "new-old" Dublin Bay Water Wag Shindilla (original built in 1932) nearing completion beside a useful little clinker-built dinghy, while a multi-purpose canoe with sailing potential is stored by suspension from the roof Better than a Health Farm……the soothing setup in the McMahon shed in Athlone, with the "new-old" Dublin Bay Water Wag Shindilla (original built in 1932) nearing completion beside a useful little clinker-built dinghy, while a multi-purpose canoe with sailing potential is stored by suspension from the roof Photo: Cathy Mac Aleavey

In times of stress like this, there is nowhere more soothing than a well-organised but not unduly fussy timber workshop where each day's harmonious effort shows a tangible result. And of all such workshops, there's nowhere so healthily absorbing – both mentally and physically - than a place where they build wooden boats. For not only is something of beauty being created in time-honoured style in a material for which we feel an instinctive affinity, but at the end of it all you have a work of practical art in which it is possible to sail away, and for a little while at least, escape the tedious everyday concerns of shore life.

That said, it is a fact that in Ireland the best of our classic classes continue to thrive, and have new boats built, not only because the owners are enthusiastic appreciators of ancient style, but because the boats provide excellent one-design racing. The importance of good and demonstrably fair sport should never be under-estimated, and thus at various stages of the building, the normal mood of calm creation is interrupted by the scheduled visit of the class measurer.

Happily, things are now at such a steady throughput of production that the Visit Of The Measurer is a social occasion of ceremony and well-formatted routine rather than a nightmare, as the secret is to have the measurer involved from a very early stage, which is easily achieved in a country the size of Ireland. 

the sweet interior of a new-built classic wooden hull at its best with Shindilla in AthloneJust inhale gently but steadily – the sweet interior of a new-built classic wooden hull at its best with Shindilla in Athlone. Photo: Cathy Mac Aleavey

Thus there are several timber boatbuilding or restoration projects underway at the moment, and while there are some we'll be looking at in due course, today it is intriguing to draw comparisons between jobs under way in Athlone, Howth and Kilrush.

Along the Shannon above Athlone, we recently lost one of Ireland's greatest-ever boatbuilders with the death at the age of 94 of Jimmy Furey of Mount Plunkett near Leecarrow in Roscommon. Busy to the end, in his later days he worked with several boatbuilding development projects with former Olympic sailor and round Ireland record-holder Cathy Mac Aleavey, together with another of those seemingly born-to-it boatbuilders who emerge in the Athlone region, Dougal McMahon.

Working with Jimmy, a project had been coming along to build a replacement for the well-worn Dublin Bay Water Wag Shindilla, a 1932 veteran originally built for Ninian Falkiner who was later a noted offshore cruiser and Commodore of the Royal Irish YC, while Shindilla stayed within the extended family as his daughter married into the Collen family, and it is the Collens who have ensured that Shindilla lives anew. The work has been completed in a shed provided by Dougal's father in Athlone, who may have been an engineering bridge-builder by profession, but he's no slouch at the wooden boatbuilding himself.

The 1963 Tyrrell-built Harklow is Dougal McMahon's current restoration projectThe 1963 Tyrrell-built Harklow is Dougal McMahon's current restoration project

With Shindilla completed, Dougal, is spending the rest of the winter on a restoration job in a bigger shed in Portumna on the classic Shannon cruiser Harklow, originally built by Jack Tyrrell of Arklow for sailing legend Douglas Heard (he won the first Helmsman's Championship in 1946) and now owned by Half Ton Racing ace Johnny Swann.

HOWTH 17 BUILDING

Johnny grew up in Howth, and just round the corner from his family home, recently-retired airline captain Gerry Comerford is building what looks like being the strongest Howth 17 ever constructed, the completely new Anna, which is named for his mother. With laminated backbone and frames, and king-size stainless steel floors make up by a steel-working genius in Clontarf, you might well be concerned that Anna will come out over-weight, but this doesn't seem to be a bother among Howth 17 folk.

The latest Howth 17 Anna is currently under construction by owner Gerry Comerford at his home in HowthThe latest Howth 17 Anna is currently under construction by owner Gerry Comerford at his home in Howth

For they well remember that many years ago when all the local cruisers had to be weighed to comply with Channel Handicap Measurement requirements, the Howth 17s got hold of the load cell for a day or two to weigh their own boats at launching time. They found that despite the mostly very old boats being only 22ft 6ns LOA (they go back to 1898), there was a half-ton range in their measured weights. Yet, to everyone's surprise, it was the class's most renowned light airs flyer which was the heaviest boat of all…

Howth 17 measurer Rupert Jeffares with new owner-builder Gerry Comerford and AnnaSinging from the same hymn sheet – Howth 17 measurer Rupert Jeffares with new owner-builder Gerry Comerford and Anna. Photo: Ian Malcolm

Regardless of weight, Anna will certainly have the correct dimensions, as class measurer Ruper Jeffares – for many years the Executive Secretary of Howth Yacht Club – lives close, just down the hill, and dropping by Gerry's house to see how Anna is coming along is always of interest, for in their long existence, only two other Howth 17s have ever actually been built in Howth, and that was way back in 1988.

Howth 17 Anna was going to be built extra-strongAt an early stage, it was abundantly evident that Anna was going to be built extra-strong. Photo: Ian Malcolm 

Thus although the building of Anna has been going on for four years, now that Gerry has retired from the day job he'd better get a move on. For as soon as the lockdown eases, current Howth 17 National Champion Shane O'Doherty (he won it in August with the 1900-vintage Pauline) will resume his popular guided Hill of Howth Hiking Tours, and "Traditional Boat-building with Gerry and Anna" could easily become a must-see stopover on the way over the hill, but a formidable distraction from Work in Progress….

DUBLIN BAY 21s BORN AGAIN IN KILRUSH

Meanwhile, across country in Kilrush on the Shannon Estuary, Steve Morris and his team - having launched the newly-built electrified Galway Bay gleoiteog Naomh Fanchea last week – have now returned to full focus on the latest pair of re-born Dublin Bay 21s, Maureen and Estelle, for the DB21 project by Hal Sisk and Fionan de Barra.

With boatbuilders of the enormous experience of Steve himself, together with Dan Mill and James Madigan (who is of Kilrush, but was much involved with the Ilen project in Limerick) the actual building has an educational element, and apprentice Kate Griffiths was working and learning today (Tuesday) with Dan on Maureen, battening off the new hull prior to laminating the light timbers (two per bay) between the main frames, while nearby James was fairing out Estelle's new deck, which is of laminated Douglas fir beams and carlins.

The 1903 Dublin Bay 21 Maureen continues to re-emerge in Kilrush with apprentice boatbuilder Kate Griffiths (behind boat) and master shipwright Dan MillThe 1903 Dublin Bay 21 Maureen continues to re-emerge in Kilrush with apprentice boatbuilder Kate Griffiths (behind boat) and master shipwright Dan Mill. Photo: Steve Morris

For sure, there are modern epoxies and other chemicals involved in this form of boatbuilding, just as there is with Anna across in Howth and also – though to a very much lesser extent - with Shindilla in Athlone. But nevertheless, in all cases, the abiding impression of the dominant material in use is wood, glorious wood. 

James Madigan at work n the new deck on the DB21 EstelleJames Madigan at work n the new deck on the DB21 Estelle. Photo: Steve Morris

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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