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The historic Irish ketch, Ilen, has docked at Westport, County Mayo to deliver a unique addiction recovery programme. The boat, which was built in the 1920s and underwent a full restoration in 2018, is now part of the award-winning charity Sailing Into Wellness.

The AK Ilen was designed by Conor O'Brien, who had previously circumnavigated the globe aboard another boat he designed, the Saoirse. O'Brien's seagoing experiences were put to use in his design of the Ilen, which was built for the Falkland Islands and launched in 1926. Under O'Brien's command, the Ilen plied the waters doing inter-island trade for many years.

Since her restoration in 2018, the AK Ilen has been part of Sailing Into Wellness, a charity that uses the unique setting of the sea to empower individuals to overcome challenges, increase coping mechanisms, and build a positive sense of self and community. The charity offers programmes for people with mental health and addiction challenges, intellectual and physical disabilities.

AK Ilen moored in Westport harbour Photo Alex BlackwellAK Ilen in Westport harbour Photo Alex Blackwell

James Lyons, General Manager and Co-founder of Sailing Into Wellness explained that the AK Ilen came to Westport to deliver a new addiction recovery programme. The programme combines adventure therapy, sailing, and psychotherapy, and after a week onboard the AK Ilen, participants will spend the weekend on Achill Island in a therapy setting. Following this, the charity will be joined by Safehaven, an organisation that works primarily with young people in direct provision, for a three-day voyage from Achill to Galway City.

AK Ilen tied up at Westport Quay. Photo Alex BlackwellAK Ilen tied up at Westport Quay. Photo Alex Blackwell

The AK Ilen has a rich history and is an important part of Irish maritime heritage. The boat's arrival in Westport is a significant event and highlights the importance of innovative approaches to addiction recovery and mental health treatment.

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In the buildup to the Centenary of Conor O'Brien's significant arrival with Saoirse at Funchal in Madeira next Monday (July 3rd), the restored 1926-vintage O'Brien-designed 56ft trading ketch Ilen, under the command of James Lyons of the Sailing Into Wellness movement, has made a good eleven-day passage from Dun Laoghaire to Porto Santo in the northern part of the Madeira group of islands and berthed there this morning at 6.10 am local time.

The assembly of the 38-strong Centenary Fleet is now underway, with the Club Navale in Funchal and the hospitality agencies in Madeira putting out the red carpet in a big way for the start of official celebrations at the weekend.

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An international Irish sailing event called the “Saoirse Rally” organised by the Irish Cruising Club, launched from Dun Laoghaire harbour, Co. Dublin, Ireland last Saturday, 17th June 2023, to commemorate the heroic achievements one hundred years ago of legendary Irish sailor Conor O'Brien from Foynes, Co. Limerick.

Conor O'Brien was the first sailor to circumnavigate the world in a small yacht via the 3 Great Capes, a remarkable achievement and one that many contemporary sailors aspire to follow. Conor O'Brien designed and commissioned the Saoirse, a 42-foot ketch for the circumnavigation, which was built in Baltimore in West Cork in 1922. Conor O Brien’s circumnavigation commenced from Dun Laoghaire on 20th June 1923. The Port of Funchal in Madeira, Portugal, was his first port of call, where he arrived on 3rd July 1923.

Alex Delamer, a direct descendant of circumnavigator Conor O'Brien, aboard the Ilen at the Royal Irish Yacht Club immediately prior to the ketch's departure for Maderia, a 2,500 mile voyage to celebrate the Centenary of the Limerick man sailors circumnavigation of the globe in June 1923 Photo: Eugene LanganAlex Delamer, a descendant of circumnavigator Conor O'Brien, aboard the Ilen at the Royal Irish Yacht Club immediately prior to the ketch's departure for Maderia, a 2,500 mile voyage to celebrate the Centenary of the Limerick man sailors circumnavigation of the globe in June 1923 Photo: Eugene Langan

As Afloat reported previously, an international gathering of yachts voyaging from multiple locations was launched from Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland on Saturday, 17th June 2023 and are now sailing to the Madeira Islands, Portugal, arriving on the 3rd July 2023, at the capital city’s Port of Funchal to mark the centenary of Conor O Brien’s circumnavigation of the world.

Speaking during a planning meeting for the 'Saoirse Rally’ Irish Cruising Club Commodore David Beattie remarked that:

'This rally is a great example of modern Irish sailors being inspired by the adventures and achievements of innovators such as Conor O Brien a century ago. His inspiration and influence were such that sailors from Ireland have experience in every ocean, with club members enthusiastically cruising worldwide, including Arctic and Antarctic waters.’

O Brien’s restored Falkland Islands trading ketch boat the AK Ilen, is the leading vessel for the Saoirse Rally and is skippered by Conall Morrison, assisted by crews of fourteen members from the Irish Cruising Club.

Saoirse Rally in Madeira

The authorities in the capital city of Funchal, Madeira, Portugal were so captivated by the historic nature of Conor O Brien’s circumnavigation that they have committed significant resources to hosting the rally welcoming yachts from various nationalities and countries. The international “Saoirse Rally” will be hosted in a specially installed marina in the Funchal Events Basin. The “Saoirse Rally” will become a featured event in the Madeira tourist calendar. Clube Naval do Funchal (CNF) is acting as host club for the rally in Funchal supported by Madeira Ports Authority (APRAM), and the Regional Tourist Authority (DRT). Welcome events are planned, including a reception at the Events Basin, a series of tourism activities for visiting Irish sailors to experience the islands, a Regatta with members of The Cruising Club of Funchal (CNF) and a closing event on 8th July 2023.

Conor O Brien (1880-1952)

Conor O Brien (1880-1952) was a legendary Irish sailor who made significant contributions to the world of sailing. O'Brien was also an accomplished mountaineer, patriot, architect and author. O'Brien began his sailing career at a young age, and his love for the sea would eventually take him on adventures around the world. One of O'Brien's most notable achievements was his circumnavigation of the world in his boat, the Saoirse. This journey, which began in 1923, took him two years to complete and covered over 40,000 miles. Saoirse was a 42-foot ketch designed by O'Brien himself, and it was the first Irish-built boat to complete a circumnavigation under the new tricolour.

O'Brien's voyage was a major accomplishment, as it was the first circumnavigation south of the three Great Capes by a small yacht. His journey inspired other sailors, and he is still celebrated today as a pioneer in the world of sailing. In addition to his circumnavigation, O'Brien was also an accomplished writer and wrote several books on his sailing adventures.

His books, such as "Across Three Oceans" were popular among sailors and adventure enthusiasts and provided insight into his experiences and the challenges he faced during his voyages. O'Brien's passion for sailing, his adventurous spirit, and his pioneering achievements have left a lasting impact on the world of sailing, and he will always be remembered as one of Ireland's most accomplished sailors.

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The Commemoration of the Centenary of the pioneering global circumnavigation south of the Great Capes by Conor O’Brien of Foynes, sailing the 42ft ketch Saoirse between June 20th 1923 and June 20th 1925, was put underway yesterday (Saturday) from Dun Laoghaire with the 56ft 1926-built trading ketch Ilen – another O’Brien creation – departing from the Royal Irish Yacht Club to replicate Saoirse’s initial 1923 passage, the 1,300-mile voyage to Madeira.

Having been restored by Gary MacMahon of the Ilen Project in Limerick, working with Liam Hegarty of Oldcourt Boatyard in West Cork, Ilen is now under the command of James Lyons of the of Sailing into Wellness Programme, and she was accompanied out of Dublin Bay by a flotilla of other craft including sail-training vessels.

A very complete reception has been arranged in Madeira for July 3rd and subsequent days, by which time Ilen will be accompanied by 38 other craft – including some quite substantial vessels – to mark and celebrate what was a very special first port in the as-then untested new ship’s remarkable voyage.

The re-build of Saoirse sailing recently in Baltimore. Photo: Kevin O’FarrellThe re-build of Saoirse sailing recently in Baltimore. Photo: Kevin O’Farrell

Ilen is fulfilling this role in 2023 as the newly-commissioned re-build of Saoirse, undertaken for Fred Kinmonth of Hong Kong and West Cork by Liam Hegarty, will remain Baltimore-based for the time being.

But meanwhile, in the Royal Irish Yacht Club in Saturday, safe in the knowledge that O’Brien and Saoirse’s “leap in the dark” of a hundred years ago went on to achieve complete and totally ground-breaking success, Commodore Jerry Dowling hosted a very convivial and fully-attended Saoirse Centenary Lunch.

This was for Commodore David Beattie and his members of the Irish Cruising Club, who have published a special Centenary 6th Edition of O’Brien’s highly-regarded account of the voyage, Across Three Oceans. The large attendance included members of the O’Brien family most closely related to Conor O’Brien, as well as many other Saoirse/Ilen enthusiasts.

 Royal Irish Yacht Club Commodore Jerry Dowling (right) presenting Irish Cruising Club Commodore David Beattie with the Saoirse half-model on Saturday Photo: Aoife Nolan Royal Irish Yacht Club Commodore Jerry Dowling (right) presenting Irish Cruising Club Commodore David Beattie with the Saoirse half-model on Saturday Photo: Aoife Nolan

The lunch programme included a ceremony in which the RIYC presented the ICC with a half-model of Saoirse that will now remain on permanent display in the Royal Irish YC clubhouse, together with a bust of O’Brien – sculpted from whalebone by Danny Osborne – which was presented to the club at a ceremonial lunch in 1998 to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the voyage.

The O’Briens gather. Close relatives of Conor O’Brien on Saturday in the RIYC with the Danny Osborne-sculpted whalebone bust which was presented to the club in 1998 to mark the 75th Anniversary of his circumnavigation. Photo: Aoife Nolan The O’Briens gather. Close relatives of Conor O’Brien on Saturday in the RIYC with the Danny Osborne-sculpted whalebone bust which was presented to the club in 1998 to mark the 75th Anniversary of his circumnavigation. Photo: Aoife Nolan 

The current healthy state of the two most historic O’Brien vessels is very largely due to the determined enthusiasm of Gary Mac Mahon of Limerick, who devoted 27 years and more of his best efforts to ensuring that they sailed again. When he brought the “worn-out” Ilen back from the Falkland Islands in 1997 where she had been retired from her duties as inter-island service boat, her restoration became an eleven-year project after the first of many fund-raising projects had amassed sufficient initial funds.

As for Saoirse, a post-hurricane beaching and break-up in 1979 in Jamaica had resulted in very little in the way of surviving material. But Gary retrieved what he could of those artefacts, and steadily amassed an impressive collection of research material and technical data. This included lines taken off by international designer Uffa Fox in 1927, which showed that Conor O’Brien’s initial rough sketches of 1922 were remarkably accurate, but their availability added even further credibility to the re-build.

The Ilen heads seawards followed by sail-training vessels leader and Brian Boru. Photo: AfloatThe Ilen heads seawards followed by sail-training vessels leader and Brian Boru. Photo: Afloat

 Ilen is Madeira-bound. The initial 1,300 mile passage from Dublin Bay to Madeira was Saoirse’s first real experience of ocean voyaging back in 2023. Photo: Afloat Ilen is Madeira-bound. The initial 1,300 mile passage from Dublin Bay to Madeira was Saoirse’s first real experience of ocean voyaging back in 2023. Photo: Afloat

His work successfully completed, Gary Mac Mahon has now stood back from day-to-day involvement. But in celebration, Saturday’s lunch concluded with two toasts – one for Conor O’Brien, and the other for Gary Mac Mahon. And then the crew of Ilen and their escorts and the well-wishers embarked on their various craft to sail out into a grey sea which was decidedly at variance with the bright cheerfulness of the dining room in the RIYC. But the mood was good, and doubtless the sun will be shining brightly when the well-attended rendezvous – with generous hospitality from the Madeiran authorities – gets under way in Funchal on July 3rd.

Flag signal to Ilen as she leaves Dublin Bay: “I wish you a safe voyage, Ilen” Photo: Aoife NolanFlag signal to Ilen as she leaves Dublin Bay: “I wish you a safe voyage, Ilen” Photo: Aoife Nolan

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The Royal Irish Yacht Club was the focus on Saturday afternoon for the beginning of celebrations of the centenary of Conor O'Brien's departure in Saoirse from Dun Laoghaire Harbour on his pioneering global circumnavigation.

An Irish Cruising Club/Royal Cruising Club gathering was hosted by Royal Irish Commodore Jerome Dowling and ICC Commodore David Beattie, with O'Brien's restored ketch Ilen moored alongside the clubhouse.

Ilen, built originally in 1926 and rebuilt in 2018, is based in Kinsale and operated by Sailing Into WellnessHistoric ketch Ilen departs Dun Laoghaire Harbour. Constructed in 1926 and rebuilt in 2018, Ilen is based in Kinsale and operated by Sailing Into Wellness

It was also an occasion when Ireland’s sail training gaff ketch fleet, the Ilen, the Leader and Brian Ború, were in the same harbour for the first time and they came together to mark the famous departure by sailing in procession in a misty Dublin Bay.

The three boats left the RIYC and Dun Laoghaire Marina at 4.30 pm, accompanied by a flotilla of ICC yachts and RIBs, and motor sailed down to the Muglins Rock at the southern tip of Dublin Bay before hoisting sail. 

While each of the sail training gaff ketches has sailed alongside one of the others over the past two years, the three have never been together. From left, Ilen, Leader and Brian Ború motor sail out of Dun Laoghaire Harbour in a sea mist as part of commemorations to mark the centenary of the 1923 departure of Conor O'Brien from Dun Laoghaire on his global circumnavigationWhile each of the sail training gaff ketches has sailed alongside one of the others over the past two years, the three have never been together. From left, Ilen, Leader and Brian Ború motor sail out of Dun Laoghaire Harbour in a sea mist as part of commemorations to mark the centenary of the 1923 departure of Conor O'Brien from Dun Laoghaire on his global circumnavigation

As Afloat reports, a hundred years ago, next Tuesday, June 20th, O'Brien took his departure aboard his 42-ft Saoirse from the harbour and headed south. 

Unfortunately, Saturday's tribute saw the boats become shrouded in a sea mist as they reached the edge of the bay.

 Leader is the oldest of the three ketches, built in 1892, a Brixham Trawler based in Newry operated by Silvery Light Sailing Leader is the oldest of the three ketches, built in 1892, a Brixham Trawler based in Newry operated by Silvery Light Sailing

The three ketches bore away to the north east on a starboard reach in a synchronised fashion.

The Ilen then headed south to Madeira as part of the centenary celebrations, Leader headed northabout to Clare Island, and Brian Ború returned to Dun Laoghaire.

Brian Ború is the baby of the fleet at 61 years old and is based in Dun Laoghaire, operated by Dublin Under Sail.Brian Ború is the baby of the fleet at 61 years old and is based in Dun Laoghaire, operated by Dublin Under Sail

The great voyage of the Saoirse is now seen as a cornerstone of world sailing history.

As Afloat reported earlier, in 1923 she was noticed by only a few when she arrived in Madeira, but this time the Ilen – with the initial flotilla expanded to a fleet as Iberian and Mediterranean-based boats of the ICC and the RCC join the trail – will begin an official visit on July 3rd – the Centenary of O’Brien’s arrival – inaugurating a prodigious welcome and round of celebrations.

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A hundred years ago next Tuesday, June 20th, Conor O'Brien (1880-1952) of Foynes took his departure with some fanfare aboard his 42ft Saoirse from the harbour her skipper preferred to call Dunleary, though most of its citizens saw it as Kingstown, and headed south. Saoirse had been designed in a first-time effort by her owner-skipper, and was newly built by Tom Moynihan in the Fisheries School in Baltimore.

When she returned exactly two years later, on Saturday, June 20th 1925, Saoirse had become the first “yacht” to circumnavigate the world south of the Great Capes of Good Hope and Cape Horn, running down her easting in the mighty westerlies of the Southern Ocean through the vast wastes of sea which, until then, had been solely the province of the much more substantial vessels of government-backed explorers, naval commanders, pirates, global traders, and rapacious whalers.

WORKBOAT-STYLE YACHT

To a casual observer, Saoirse’s yacht status would have seemed questionable. This was no glittering toy for the sport of the rich. On the contrary, her archaic rig and very traditional and largely un-decorated hull was loosely based on the lines of an 1860s Arklow fishing boat, whose looks and sea-keeping qualities O'Brien had come to admire.

Saoirse. Conor O’Brien’s sail-plan for his first yacht design was essentially for offwind sailing, and the stunsails…Saoirse. Conor O’Brien’s sail-plan for his first yacht design was essentially for offwind sailing, and the stunsails…

…………were by no means ornamental, adding real speed in light winds. Photo courtesy O’Brien family…………were by no means ornamental, adding real speed in light winds. Photo courtesy O’Brien family

Yet by any commercial definition, she wasn’t a workboat, for in Irish waters, she sailed under the burgee of the 1831-founded Royal Irish Yacht Club. And abroad, her owner used the additional muscle of the 1880-founded London-based Royal Cruising Club in order to smooth the way in foreign ports and also – through its highly-regarded annual RCC Journal – to help in his need for resources-generating publicity which was also supported by articles in Irish newspapers.

ABNORMAL TIMES, WAR-TORN LOCATIONS

In the early 1920s, undertaking such a project in normal circumstances would have been something special. But the Ireland of the early 1920s was anything but normal, and the voyage of the Saoirse emerged from a time of turmoil. The new vessel - O’Brien’s first yacht design - was built shortly after the War of Independence and during the Civil War, in which her birthplace in West Cork was at the heart of one of the most active theatres of conflict.

It was a time of heightened feeling, of lifelong friendships sundered by opposing opinions and the outcomes of irreversible actions. O’Brien may have been a grandson of Young Irelander William Smith O’Brien of the 1848 rising, but his own father Edward, an extensive land-owner of Cahirmoyle near Foynes in County Limerick, had been largely inactive in politics and generally conservative in outlook for much of his life.

O’BRIEN THE GUN-RUNNER

Yet a period of living in Dublin after schooling and university in England saw the young Conor O’Brien’s opinions crystallising strongly in favour of Home Rule, and he became a fellow-gun-runner - sailing his own ketch Kelpie - with Erskine & Molly Childers with their ketch Asgard in the 1914 gun-running on behalf of the Irish Volunteers.

Erskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard of 1905-vintage as conserved by John Kearon in Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin. In all, three yachts were involved in the 1914 gun-running – Asgard, Conor O’Brien’s Kelpie, and Sir Thomas Myles’ Chotah. Photo: W M NixonErskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard of 1905-vintage as conserved by John Kearon in Collins Barracks Museum in Dublin. In all, three yachts were involved in the 1914 gun-running – Asgard, Conor O’Brien’s Kelpie, and Sir Thomas Myles’ Chotah. Photo: W M Nixon

O’Brien’s English schooling and university experience had seen mountaineering as his primary recreational interest, but regular family holidays at Derrynane in Kerry and subsequent experience afloat at Foynes had strengthened a longtime interest in sailing to such an extent that, in his Dublin period in the first dozen or so years of the 20th Century, he took the step in 1910 of selling his house in the fashionable Fitzwilliam area of the city (where he’d been a founder member of the United Arts Club in 1907) in order to buy the 1870-built 48ft Kelpie.

She was a heavily-rigged cutter, but for ease of handling, he reduced the sailplan to ketch rig, and continued to build his seagoing experience with coastal projects such as a round Ireland cruise in 1913, while formalising his knowledge of navigation through enrolment in the Royal Naval Reserve.

“ANGER MANAGEMENT” PROBLEMS

He managed this despite being a notoriously short-tempered individual who could fall out with his sometimes voluntary crews as readily as he could disagree with his naval superiors. For the fact is that in beginning the celebrations of the Centenary of Saoirse’s departure with an Irish Cruising Club/Royal Cruising Club gathering in the Royal Irish YC today hosted by RIYC Commodore Jerome Dowling and ICC Commodore David Beattie, there’ll be a tacit acknowledgement that in any society, Edward Conor Marshall O’Brien would have instantly qualified as a charter member of the Awkward Squad.

But then, amidst the experiences, general maritime knowledge and attitudes of his time, no sensible normal person would have dreamt of setting off in such a small and relatively untested boat with such huge ambitions into what was still largely the Great Unknown.

Yet there was a certain inevitability about it. Two years earlier, while returning from a sailing/mountaineering expedition to The Cuillin Mountains of Skye, O’Brien had found himself obliged to sail single-handed back to Dublin Bay in what was now his floating home, the Kelpie.

THE LOSS OF THE KELPIE

Turning slowly to windward through the North Channel at night aboard Kelpie, O’Brien took off southeastwards from the mouth of Belfast Lough, and set his alarm clock to give himself an off-watch of two hours of sleep in open water. Typically, he furiously blamed the German manufacturers of the clock for the fact that he slept through the alarm. Either way, while Kelpie may have come gently aground on rocks just south of Portpatrick on Scotland’s Galloway coast, she was doomed.

Conor O’Brien aboard Kelpie off the West Coast of Ireland in 1913. Even with her rig reduced to a ketch configuration, Kelpie was a massively heavy challenge for a single-hander. Photo: courtesy O’Brien family.Conor O’Brien aboard Kelpie off the West Coast of Ireland in 1913. Even with her rig reduced to a ketch configuration, Kelpie was a massively heavy challenge for a single-hander. Photo: courtesy O’Brien family

Any salvage of the ship as she began to break up as the tide started to fall was beyond the abilities of O'Brien on his own, and he emerged at Portpatrick out of the morning mist, rowing in the Kelpie’s little dinghy surrounded by his personal possessions, and already thinking of the next chapter in his apparently rather aimless life.

He retreated for mental convalescence to a cottage on the family-owned Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary, and soon was drawing the lines of his new dreamship. Funds were very limited, so he restricted himself to a chopped-off transom-sterned hull design just 40ft long.

Conor O’Brien’s cottage on Foynes Island, as seen through the rigging of the restored Ilen in 2018. Photo: Gary Mac MahonConor O’Brien’s cottage on Foynes Island, as seen through the rigging of the restored Ilen in 2018. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

TOM MOYNIHAN, BALTIMORE’S VERY SPECIAL BOATBUILDER

Tom Moynihan in Baltimore seems to have been one of the few people with whom he retained a comfortable working relationship, and thus when Moynihan quietly lengthened the hull with two extra feet of sawn-off counter (reputedly while O’Brien was away from being an almost-constant presence in Baltimore), Tom earned the world sailing community’s eternal gratitude, for at a stroke he gave Saoirse a rather jaunty look that the original O’Brien lines had conspicuously lacked.

There simply isn’t the space here – or perhaps anywhere – to discuss all the ramifications of Saoirse’s design. Sufficient to say that as a late-flowering architect with an enthusiasm for William Morris’s Arts & Crafts movement, in some ways O' Brien aspired to create a comfortable sea-going cottage. And it’s significant that while Erskine & Molly Childer’s Asgard – otherwise one of the finest cruising yachts of her era – had the galley located uncomfortably forward of the mainmast in the “them and us” attitude of the time, Saoirse’s galley – complete with coal-burning stove – was right aft in the position of least sea-going motion.

Saoirse’s accommodation plan clearly indicated the cooking stove beside its coal bunker located in the position of least motion well aft……….Saoirse’s accommodation plan clearly indicated the cooking stove beside its coal bunker located in the position of least motion well aft……….

…….and after Conor O’Brien’s marriage to Kitty Clausen in 1928, Saoirse’s potential for cosy comfort could be fully realised. Courtesy O’Brien family…….and after Conor O’Brien’s marriage to Kitty Clausen in 1928, Saoirse’s potential for cosy comfort could be fully realised. Courtesy O’Brien family

PIONEERING USE OF IRISH TRICOLOUR

It will have come as little surprise that he named his new vessel Saoirse to celebrate the freedom of the new Irish state. But his declaration that he would be flying its tricolour ensign when he reached a foreign port – the first Irish-registered vessel to do so – was tempered by the fact that he left what its citizens generally still thought of as Kingstown with the Royal Irish YC’s British ensign at the top of the mizzen mast.

It was a gesture of unusual diplomacy by the head-strong skipper, but he needed the goodwill of the club and its members. For although in his own mind the voyage had started from Foynes a couple of weeks earlier, where he felt all his voyages began, the Dunleary/Kingstown launching pad was essential to get the publicity machine rolling steadily along.

Saoirse departs from “Dunleary”, June 20th 1923. Although it was intended to fly an Irish tricolour ensign when entering foreign ports, in what most of its citizens still firmly regarded as Kingstown she tactfully flies the Royal Irish YC British blue ensign from the head of her mizzen mast.Saoirse departs from “Dunleary”, June 20th 1923. Although it was intended to fly an Irish tricolour ensign when entering foreign ports, in what most of its citizens still firmly regarded as Kingstown she tactfully flies the Royal Irish YC British blue ensign from the head of her mizzen mast

As it happened, the original Irish ensign on the Saoirse got no further than the first port of call at Funchal in Madeira. The newly appointed Irish Free State consul on that island – with whom O’Brien had a celebratory night of subsequently glossed-over carousal in celebration of the successful completion of both his own and Saoirse’s first ocean passage under sail - was given a present of the flag to fly outside his Consulate, as the new government in Dublin seemed in no haste to issue the trappings of what was an honorary role in such a relatively minor location.

Thus it was some time before a replacement tricolour had been prepared for Saoirse’s entering of foreign harbours – usually to the bewilderment of the port authorities – but meanwhile, the voyage progressed with the usual problems of a new vessel and her archaic rig being solved along the way.

Merrily we roll along. On her first ocean voyage - the 1,300 mile passage from Dublin Bay to Madeira - Saoirse is making excellent and comfortable progress in the Portuguese trades, and Conor O’Brien is at last conspicuously relaxed at the helm. Photo: Courtesy O’Brien family. Merrily we roll along. On her first ocean voyage - the 1,300 mile passage from Dublin Bay to Madeira - Saoirse is making excellent and comfortable progress in the Portuguese trades, and Conor O’Brien is at last conspicuously relaxed at the helm. Photo: Courtesy O’Brien family. 

A LEAP IN THE DARK

This had been an extraordinary departure in many ways. Although he had voyaged many miles offshore in his naval reserve service in the 1914-1918 World War, O’Brien had at most sailed only a couple of hundred oceanic miles. And Saoirse had sailed even fewer. Yet here he and she were, spreading various tales through various publications and conversations about the real purpose of their voyage, purposes which moved between joining mountaineering expeditions in South Africa and New Zealand to the simple ambition of circling the globe south of Good Hope and Horn.

And all this with a new boat which had experienced only the most rudimentary of shakedown cruises, with the passage round from Foynes to be positioned in Dublin Bay probably the longest.

Thus the 1,300 nautical miles of largely oceanic passage to Madeira was something of leap in the dark. But with particularly good sailing in the Portuguese Trades, Saoirse proved to be everything that O’Brien had hoped for and confidently predicted, even if he admitted to those closest to him that the prospect of it all had made him very nervous.

THE “REAL VOYAGE” BEGAN FROM MADEIRA 

The arrival in Madeira was over-celebrated, so they more or less had to move on after three days, leaving their Irish tricolour ensign behind yet being rewarded at sea with strong fair winds through the Canariea that gave Saoirse her best day’s run of the entire voyage, 185 miles.

O’Brien was confident that if he could recruit a helmsman whose talent equalled his own in understanding the little ship’s steering needs, then they could break the magic 200-mile barrier. But in his rapid turnover of crew -18 in all during the voyage – there was just one helmsman who began to show sufficient talent. And when he and O’Brien silently witnessed an absolute Mount Everest of a breaking sea building up and crashing over about a mile away in the cross seas of post-storm conditions while south of the Indian Ocean, although nothing was said, both knew that if Saoirse had been caught in up that rogue wave, she was a goner. So at the next port, that most promising of young helmsmen departed without a word.

The restored Conor O’Brien-designed Ilen will depart today from Dun Laoghaire, bound for Madeira. She is seen here during a cruise to Greenland in 2019. Photo: Gary Mac MahonThe restored Conor O’Brien-designed Ilen will depart today from Dun Laoghaire, bound for Madeira. She is seen here during a cruise to Greenland in 2019. Photo: Gary Mac Mahon

Meanwhile the successful arrival in Madeira had indicated that what had been thought of as a crazy idea by many back home was now being treated with proper seriousness, and as part of the celebrations a flotilla from the Irish Cruising Club, Royal Irish Yacht Club, and Royal Cruising depart from Dun Laoghaire today on a cruise-in-company to Madeira led by the restored 56ft O’Brien ketch Ilen, whose original construction in 1926 - again by Tom Moynihan in Baltimore – was inspired by O’Brien’s successful arrival in the Falklands shortly after his rounding of Cape Horn in December 1924, when the islanders felt a bigger version of Saoirse would provide them with the ideal inter-island service boat.

THE ORIGINS OF ILEN

These days, Ilen is run by the Sailing into Wellness organisation, but in 1997 her retrieval from a retired state in the Falklands in November 1997 was entirely the doing of Gary MacMahon of Limerick, who was becoming more totally involved with each and every passing day into what almost amounted an addiction to seeing that Conor O’Brien’s achievements were properly remembered.

The MacMahon Plan was that his two key boats - Saoirse of 1922, which had been supposedly lost in a hurricane in Jamaica in 1979, and Ilen, which was now back in Ireland and ripe for restoration – would both sail again, whether in a re-built or restored form.

At the time, with the 75th Anniversary of O’Brien’s departure due in 1998, others of us thought some sort of commemorating was appropriate, and at an astonishingly festive gathering in the RIYC – which Gary and many O’Brien relatives attended - a specially commissioned bust of O’Brien, hewn by sculptor Danny Osborne of Beara from the beach-scavenged vertebra of a giant blue whale that would have been of an age to have observed Saoirse sailing past, was presented to the RIYC. And for any normal people, that would have been quite enough until the Centenary came around in 2023.

The Conor O’Brien whalebone bust presented to the Royal Irish Yacht Club in 1998 to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Saoirse voyage. Sculptor Danny Osborne of Beara is best known for his statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin. The Conor O’Brien whalebone bust presented to the Royal Irish Yacht Club in 1998 to mark the 75th Anniversary of the Saoirse voyage. Sculptor Danny Osborne of Beara is best known for his statue of Oscar Wilde in Merrion Square in Dublin

ILEN RESTORED, SAOIRSE RE-BORN

But like Conor O'Brien himself, tedious normality is not the default mode with Gary Mac Mahon. He has given more than a quarter of a Century of his best efforts and energy, and ideas to ensure that Ilen has been restored to continue serving a useful purpose, while all the data has been in place to enable the authentic re-building of Saoirse to take place in Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt on the Ilen River in West Cork, where Ilen had been restored.

Thanks to the resources of Fred Kinmonth, Saoirse has been re-born, and for the first time ever, she and Ilen sailed together at last month’s Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival, with Saoirse now identifying as an icon of West Cork. And Gary Mac Mahon, his 27-year mission magnificently completed, has stood back from day-to-day involvement with either vessel.

Gary Mac Mahon at the helm of Ilen in Greenland in 2019Gary Mac Mahon at the helm of Ilen in Greenland in 2019

CENTRAL TO WORLD SAILING HISTORY

The great voyage of the Saoirse is now seen as a cornerstone of world sailing history. In 1923 she was noticed by only a few when she arrived in Madeira, but this time the Ilen – with the initial flotilla expanded to a fleet as Iberian and Mediterranean-based boats of the ICC and the RCC join the trail – will begin an official visit on July 3rd – the Centenary of O’Brien’s arrival – inaugurating a prodigious welcome and round of celebrations organised by the island’s hospitality dynamo, Catia Carvalho Esteves, and the Clube Naval de Funchal.

The projects completed or initiated through the inspiration of Gary Mac Mahon since 1997 are a little short of miraculous. Conor O’Brien is now remembered, and his achievements are appreciated. All we need to hear is that, in some hidden cupboard of the Irish Consulate in Funchal, they’ve discovered a hundred-year-old Irish tricolour.

“A jaunty little ship”. Fred Kinmonth’s new Saoirse – seen here being stern-chased by the Pilot Cutter Marian during the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival in May 2023 – had her appearance vastly improved thanks to shipwright Tom Moynihan’s insistence in 1922 that she be given an extra 2ft in overall length at the stern, with an up-lifting sweep to the sheerline. Photo: Robbie Murphy“A jaunty little ship”. Fred Kinmonth’s new Saoirse – seen here being stern-chased by the Pilot Cutter Marian during the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival in May 2023 – had her appearance vastly improved thanks to shipwright Tom Moynihan’s insistence in 1922 that she be given an extra 2ft in overall length at the stern, with an up-lifting sweep to the sheerline. Photo: Robbie Murphy

Published in W M Nixon
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With just three weeks to go to the Centenary of the departure from Ireland on June 20th 1923 of Conor O’Brien’s world-girdling 42ft Baltimore-built ketch Saoirse, the public debut of the re-born Saoirse (Fred Kinmonth) at last weekend’s Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival added an extra resonance to an already multi-faceted interaction of events afloat and ashore at West Cork’s “Sailors’ Capital”.

We’re indebted to the busy Robbie Murphy of Sherkin Island (his home base for an active oyster fishery) for taking time out from his own sailing to record some of the images of an extraordinary and historic occasion which – as in many events in times past – Baltimore took in its stride.

The “standard size” Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Marian (Dom Ziegler) emphasises Saoirse’s modest dimensions. Photo: Robbie MurphyThe “standard size” Bristol Channel Pilot Cutter Marian (Dom Ziegler) emphasises Saoirse’s modest dimensions. Photo: Robbie Murphy

It says much for the variety of the fleet attracted to this annual gathering that there were many boats there almost as interesting as Saoirse herself, not least of them being the restored 56ft O’Brien trading ketch Ilen of 1926 vintage, which now plays a key role in the Sailing into Wellness programme.

The 1926-vintage Ilen, restored by 2011 through the Ilen Project of Limerick directed by Gary MacMahon, returns to her birthplace of Baltimore. Photo: Robbie MurphyThe 1926-vintage Ilen, restored by 2011 through the Ilen Project of Limerick directed by Gary MacMahon, returns to her birthplace of Baltimore. Photo: Robbie Murphy

Summertime below the Baltimore Beacon for (left to right) Marian, Holly Mae, Willing Lass and Guillemot. Photo: Robbie MurphySummertime below the Baltimore Beacon for (left to right) Marian, Holly Mae, Willing Lass and Guillemot. Photo: Robbie Murphy

But in the end, all eyes were drawn to Saoirse, looking at her most jaunty in her attractive livery and tanned sails. There remains one dominating and abiding impression. By today’s standards, she’s a small boat. It may have been festival time as she sailed about Baltimore Harbour in company with other fascinating craft, but there was an underlying seriousness in realizing that the exact original of this “bluff-bowed little boat” really did pioneer the Great Southern Route south of the Great Capes entirely on her own, far indeed from the comforting conviviality of West Cork.

Jeremy Irons’ Oldcourt-built Willing Lass and the Galway Hooker Loveen. Photo: Robbie MurphyJeremy Irons’ Oldcourt-built Willing Lass and the Galway Hooker Loveen. Photo: Robbie Murphy

Dreamtime in Baltimore – Ilen heads seaward into the promise of a summmer’s dayDreamtime in Baltimore – Ilen heads seaward into the promise of a summer’s day

Published in Historic Boats
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The Journal has highlighted the upcoming centenary of Irish yachtsman Conor O’Brien’s pioneering circumnavigation.

In June 1923, Limerick man O’Brien set off on his yacht the Saoirse — named after the then newly created Irish Free State — on the two-year voyage that was to make him the first Irish amateur to sail around the world.

His indirect route across the southern oceans, following the winds, took him past the three great capes: South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Australia’s Cape Leeuwin and South America’s Cape Horn.

For many decades, however, O’Brien’s achievements were little more than a footnote in Irish history, due in part to his aristocratic background as the country forged a new identity post-independence.

But his legacy has been revived in more recent years, thanks to the traditional boat-building initiative in Limerick inspired by O’Brien’s Ilen — a similar vessel to the Saoirse that he had built in Baltimore for the Falkland Islands in 1926.

And what’s more, Saoirse herself re-emerged in 2018 in West Cork, where the 42ft ketch is proudly sailing once more.

The Journal has much more on the story HERE.

Published in Conor O'Brien

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…

Published in Ilen
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Sailing into Wellness, which offers educational and therapeutic programmes for “at-risk” young people and adults, has been recognised for its expansion as a result of a Rethink Ireland Sports to Impact Fund award.

It is one of three national sports organisations – the other two being Special Olympics Ireland and ExWell Medical - which use sport to increase inclusivity for marginalised groups.

Rethink Ireland says the groups have thrived and expanded to reach more socially excluded people despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Sports to Impact fund is made up of 50% private philanthropic funding, self-raised by the three awardees. The other half comes from Government, through the Department of Rural and Community Development via the Dormant Accounts Fund.

As The Irish Examiner reports, Sailing into Wellness founded by Colin Healy and James Lyons was declared a critical service during the Covid-19 pandemic and was able to continue its invaluable work.

The project acquired two 20-foot (six-metre) Hawk class sailing vessels which can be launched by trailer from any pier. Healy and Lyons also acquired use of the 56 ft (17-metre) timber ketch, Ilen, which was built in Baltimore, West Cork to a design by Conor O’Brien, the Irishman who sailed around the world in 1923-25.

Last year, it offered courses in Kinsale, Howth, Co Dublin, on the River Shannon, in Dunmore East, Co Waterford, Dun Laoghaire, Co Dublin, and has extended to Carlingford, Co Louth.

With over 900 participants to date, it hopes to extend to the west this autumn. Those who wish to progress from day sailing to longer voyages can do so through three-day “voyages of recovery”.

At first, it was difficult to convince potential backers of the value of the model. As Tessa Kingston, counsellor and psychotherapist from Kinsale, explains, adventure therapy is well developed in North America, Canada, Australia and Scandinavia, but not so advanced here. Along with Leonie Conway, she is a full-time instructor with Sailing into Wellness.

“It has a different impact on everyone,” Kingston says. “The impact may seem so slight that it happens organically.”

Read more about the experiences of Colin Healy and participants Eoin Barnes and Natasha O’Brien in The Irish Examiner here

Published in Ilen
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At A Glance – National 18 Dinghy Specifications

The new National 18 ‘Ultra’ Specifications

Designer Phil Morrison
LOA 5.49m
Beam 2.36m
Hull Weight 160kg
Sailing Weight <200kg
Crew Weight No Limit
Main & Jib 22.5 m2
Kite 21.0 m2
PY 910
Construction Vinylester Foam Sandwich

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