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Howth 17s And Trading Ketch Ilen On Track For Dates With Destiny

27th June 2023
"I am their leader, which way did they go....?" Howth 17 Class Captain Dave O'Shea (left) in deep discussion with former Baily Lighthouse Keeper Billy O'Sullivan in his family's popular pub in Crookhaven in ultimate westerly West Cork Credit: Dave Nixon

The Howth 17s, on their Quasquicentennial (125th Anniversary) Cruise-in-Company in West Cork, are on target with their arrival this afternoon (Tuesday) from Schull at their furthest west port of Crookhaven. There, it was discovered that Billy O'Sullivan, second generation host of O'Sullivan's the cruising enthusiasts' favourite pub in the picturesque port, is no stranger to the historic class. Years ago, he was in Irish Lights, and served for eighteen months at the Baily Lighthouse at the steep seaward end of the Howth Peninsula.

Meanwhile, the restored 56ft trading ketch Ilen, built in 1926 in Baltimore to the designs of Conor O'Brien, is due tomorrow (Wednesday) in Porto Santo close north of Madeira, after a good passage south from Dun Laoghaire, which she departed on June 17th after a commemorative lunch in the Royal Irish Yacht Club.


This leaves all craft nicely on track for their dates with destiny. Tomorrow (Wednesday) the Howth 17s plan to sail out to the Fastnet Rock, and then head on into North Harbour on Cape Clear for the night. And next Monday (July 3rd) is the precise Centenary of Conor O'Brien's arrival with the Baltimore-built 42ft Saoirse at Funchal in Madeira, after what had been in effect the trial cruise of the newly-built boat - a passage of 1,300 miles - in preparation for his pioneering global circumnavigation south of the Great Capes.

By Monday, July 3rd at the Club Navale in Funchal on the main island of Madeira, Ilen will be joined by 38 boats of the Irish Cruising Club, the Royal Cruising Club and the Ocean Cruising Club to mark a major Centenary for Irish voyaging and boat-building.

All the threads come together- the Ilen sailing in Dublin Bay, with the Baily Lighthouse in the background. Photo: Gary Mac MahonAll the threads come together- the Ilen sailing in Dublin Bay, with the Baily Lighthouse in the background. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Published in Howth 17, Ilen, West Cork
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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Howth 17 information

The oldest one-design keelboat racing class in the world is still competing today to its original 1897 design exclusively at Howth Yacht club.

Howth 17 FAQs

The Howth 17 is a type of keelboat. It is a 3-man single-design keelboat designed to race in the waters off Howth and Dublin Bay.

The Howth Seventeen is just 22ft 6ins in hull length.

The Howth 17 class is raced and maintained by the Association members preserving the unique heritage of the boats. Association Members maintain the vibrancy of the Class by racing and cruising together as a class and also encourage new participants to the Class in order to maintain succession. This philosophy is taken account of and explained when the boats are sold.

The boat is the oldest one-design keelboat racing class in the world and it is still racing today to its original design exclusively at Howth Yacht club. It has important historical and heritage value keep alive by a vibrant class of members who race and cruise the boats.

Although 21 boats are in existence, a full fleet rarely sails buy turnouts for the annual championships are regularly in the high teens.

The plans of the Howth 17 were originally drawn by Walter Herbert Boyd in 1897 for Howth Sailing Club. The boat was launched in Ireland in 1898.

They were originally built by John Hilditch at Carrickfergus, County Down. Initially, five boats were constructed by him and sailed the 90-mile passage to Howth in the spring of 1898. The latest Number 21 was built in France in 2017.

The Howth 17s were designed to combat local conditions in Howth that many of the keel-less boats of that era such as the 'Half-Rater' would have found difficult.

The original fleet of five, Rita, Leila, Silver Moon, Aura and Hera, was increased in 1900 with the addition of Pauline, Zaida and Anita. By 1913 the class had increased to fourteen boats. The extra nine were commissioned by Dublin Bay Sailing Club for racing from Kingstown (Dún Laoghaire) - Echo, Sylvia, Mimosa, Deilginis, Rosemary, Gladys, Bobolink, Eileen and Nautilus. Gradually the boats found their way to Howth from various places, including the Solent and by the latter part of the 20th century they were all based there. The class, however, was reduced to 15 due to mishaps and storm damage for a few short years but in May 1988 Isobel and Erica were launched at Howth Yacht Club, the boats having been built in a shed at Howth Castle - the first of the class actually built in Howth.

The basic wooden Howth 17 specification was for a stem and keel of oak and elm, deadwood and frames of oak, planking of yellow pine above the waterline and red pine below, a shelf of pitch pine and a topstrake of teak, larch deck-beams and yellow pine planking and Baltic spruce spars with a keel of lead. Other than the inclusion of teak, the boats were designed to be built of materials which at that time were readily available. However today yellow pine and pitch pine are scarce, their properties of endurance and longevity much appreciated and very much in evidence on the original five boats.


It is always a busy 60-race season of regular midweek evening and Saturday afternoon contests plus regattas and the Howth Autumn League.

In 2017, a new Howth 17 Orla, No 21, was built for Ian Malcolm. The construction of Orla began in September 2016 at Skol ar Mor, the boat-building school run by American Mike Newmeyer and his dedicated team of instructor-craftsmen at Mesquer in southern Brittany. In 2018, Storm Emma wrought extensive destruction through the seven Howth Seventeens stored in their much-damaged shed on Howth’s East Pier at the beginning of March 2018, it was feared that several of the boats – which since 1898 have been the very heart of Howth sailing – would be written off. But in the end only one – David O’Connell’s Anita built in 1900 by James Clancy of Dun Laoghaire – was assessed as needing a complete re-build. Anita was rebuilt by Paul Robert and his team at Les Ateliers de l’Enfer in Douarnenez in Brittany in 2019 and Brought home to Howth.

The Howth 17 has a gaff rig.

The total sail area is 305 sq ft (28.3 m2).

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