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Howth 17s Celebrate Twenty Years Since Their Epic Centenary Sail

16th April 2018
Centenary Season. Twenty years ago in April 1998, Ian Malcolm’s Howth 17 Aura celebrates her Centenary by returning to her birthplace of Carrickfergus on Belfast Lough with its famous 12th Century Norman castle Centenary Season. Twenty years ago in April 1998, Ian Malcolm’s Howth 17 Aura celebrates her Centenary by returning to her birthplace of Carrickfergus on Belfast Lough with its famous 12th Century Norman castle Photo: David Jones

These days, we’ve become accustomed to the historic Howth 17s of 1898-vintage – the world’s oldest keelboat class still sailing as originally designed – putting in admired appearances at classic boat festivals at home and abroad writes W M Nixon. But just twenty years ago, with the Class’s Centenary looming, they tended to be homebirds, though a couple had been transported to the famous Brest Festival in France, while some had made significant voyages, and one had even been used as a honeymoon cruise yacht.

Nevertheless when it was suggested early in 1998 that a representative trio of Howth 17s should be road-transported to Carrickfergus, where the first five of the class had been built by the famous John Hilditch in the winter of 1897-’98, in order to mark the Centenary properly, there were those who were convinced that the old boats would be shaken to bits on such a journey. But as the Massey brothers of the 1907-built Deilginis had a road-trucking business, they decided to take their own boat and Paddy & Rachel Cronin’s Gladys on a low loader, despite the fact that both boats had actually been built by James Kelly at Portrush on Ireland’s north coast. However, Ian Malcolm had the real McCoy, the 1898 Hilditch-built Aura, and he took her north on the class’s one and only road trailer.

So the show was on the road, but twenty years ago the negotiations for the Good Friday Agreement were reaching a crucial stage in Belfast at exactly the same time, and peace was by no means a given. Yet the Howth 17 people were determined that their three-boat delegation – with many friends and supporters - should be in Carrickfergus precisely a hundred years to the day after the first five boats had undertaken their maiden voyage to their home port after launching from Hilditch’s yard into Carrick’s history-laden harbour on Belfast Lough.

aura gladys carrick castle2Aura and Gladys (Paddy Cronin) bid farewell to Carrickfergus Castle before setting off on their Centenary Sail home to Howth

Thus in 1998 their boats were being launched into Carrickfergus marina and getting the masts stepped even as the political negotiations at Stormont near Belfast entered their final most difficult stage. Yet although the sun shone, it was bitterly cold with a northeast wind and snow flurries. And while the Seventeeners and their supporters were warmly welcomed with a Civic Reception by Mayor of Carrickfergus David Hilditch (a distant relative of the original boatbuilder) and hospitability received to lunch by the Fairy Class of 1902-vintage at Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club across the lough at Cultra, any sailing had to be restricted to the relatively sheltered waters off Carrickfergus and its historic 12th Century Norman Castle.

deilginis county down3Deilginis (Massey syndicate) heading south off the County Down coast while conditions were still moderate. Photo: Damien Cronin

deiliginis from gladys4Small boats, big wide sea – Damien Cronin helming Gladys with Deiliginis following, and 80 miles to sail through the freezing night to Howth. Photo: Paddy Cronin

The boats having survived to such a great age, the impression given was that they wouldn’t be expected to replicate the achievement of the original flotlla of 1898 by sailing home the 89 open miles from Carrickfergus to Howth. After all, the conditions a hundred years earlier had been gentler, but for 1898 the forecast was for a further freshening of the nor’easter, with the strong possibility of snow.

Yet after completing all their planned activities on Belfast Lough, suddenly on the Sunday afternoon the three little boats simply sailed for home. Nick Massey and his nephew Ian were on Deilginis, Ian Maclolm and Davy Jones sailed the true Centenarian Aura, and Paddy Cronin and his son Damian swept off into the freezing evening in Gladys.

aura surfing5Aura, with Ian Malcolm and David Jones aboard, starting to experience more demanding conditions as they approach the South Rock Lightship. Photo: Damien Cronin

The blustering fair wind made for a fast passage, but the temperatures froze in the dark. However, while there were some massive snow-and-wind-filled clouds about, they managed to avoid them. By sunrise next morning, they’d swept into Howth harbour, their crews almost completely frozen but still functioning enough to grab their moorings and get ashore to de-frost in Howth Yacht Club with a full Irish breakfast, while the word came through that back around Belfast Lough, the coastline was now covered in a mantle of snow.

aura from astern6Aura making knots while a snow-shower beyond tries to build itself into a mini-storm. Photo: Damien Cronin

This past weekend, that very special Centenary Sail has been celebrated in Howth Yacht Club twenty years on, with the six sailors who did it honoured at in an informal gathering of classmates and well-wishers in HYC on Friday night, while this morning (Monday) marks the exact 20th Anniversary of the appearance at dawn of the three little sails from beyond the horizon to the north, an achievement which inaugurated a busy and very successful Centenary Season.

Not even the damage sustained by seven boats on Howth’s East Pier during Storm Emma on Friday 2nd March 2018 has daunted the Class’s remarkable spirit

In the twenty years since, the Howth 17s have gone from strength to strength. In 1998, it was thought remarkable that they had achieved the Centenary at all. But now, at 120 years old, their busy annual programme continues to provide sixty races ever season, their numbers are greater than ever with 20 boats in class and new boats building, and they regularly appear at major classic boat festivals, with the most recent in 2017 being Morbihan Sailing Week in France in May, and the Classics Division for the Kingstown 200 Cup in the Volvo Dun Laoghaire Regatta in July.

crew of 1998 in howth7The crew returned from Carrickfergus starting to de-frost in the early morning sun at Howth YC on Monday April 13th 1998 are (left to right) Ian Malcolm, Ian Massey, Damien Cronin, Davy Jones, Nick Massey and Paddy Cronin

Not even the damage sustained by seven boats on Howth’s East Pier during Storm Emma on Friday 2nd March 2018 has daunted the Class’s remarkable spirit. The historic Long Shed in which they were stored may had its roof stoved-in by huge breaking seas, but miraculously only two of the seven boats within were very seriously damaged. Thanks to the skills of multi-talented boat-builder Larry Archer, five are already seaworthy again, while the severely-damaged Rosemary is into a major repair job which should have her sailing by the summer, and the most-damaged boat of all, Anita of 1900-vintage, is being researched for further progress as a national or international re-build project.

These wonderful old boats have a lot of sailing in them yet.

centenary 2018 crew8The Centenary Crew of 1998 re-united at Howth YC on Friday April 13th 2018 are (left to right) Davy Jones, Ian Malcolm, Nick Massey, Ian Massey, Paddy Cronin and Damien Cronin

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