The establishment of Sail Training Ireland is welcome. W M Nixon looks at the realities of national sail training in the 21st Century.
With the launching of Sail Training Ireland and its registration early in 2011 at the Companies Office as a charitable trust which can encompass both individual and corporate members, the movement for the provision of Irish seagoing experience under sail in ships rather than only in yachts has taken a step in the right direction.
The loss of Asgard II seemed a huge setback in September 2008. But she was sailing on borrowed time. After 27 very active years, her traditionally built timber hull was an increasing maintenance challenge, while her single-skin planked construction was in questionable compliance with the latest passenger-carrying safety requirements.
But over and above that, the very notion of a government-run national sail training ship seemed increasingly far-fetched in the 21st Century. Even on an island, governments should not be in the business of running a sail training ship on the sea any more than they should be running schools and universities ashore. A modern democratic government should be in the business of regulating the activities of the various specialist teaching and training organizations and institutions in all areas of education and instruction. These activities should be run by trusts and private organisations, and sail training is no different.
Only if the statutory bodies which actually use ships and boats in their work - such as the Naval Service, the Revenue, the Gardai, Waterways Ireland, the Marine Institute, BIM, fisheries administrators, and harbour authorities – put forward a cogent argument in favour of a national sail training ship to help them with their work in training personnel, then and only then should any government sail training be seriously considered.
There is nothing new in this conclusion. When the most majestic tall ships visit Waterford in July, it will be seen that they are linked directly with government maritime services such as the US Coastguard, the German navy, or some national merchant marine academies. When Coiste an Asgard came into being in 1968, even then the notion of a government sail training ship open to all was unusual. But in the Irish context of more than four decades ago, it was the only way that some valid use could be made of Erskine Childers' original 51ft 1905-built ketch Asgard. However, she was clearly too small for the task, and it was the determination of a couple of bull-headed government ministers – Paddy Donegan and Charlie Haughey – which led to the eventual commissioning of the 84ft brigantine Asgard II in 1981.
Thanks to the genius of Jack Tyrrell of Arklow in developing, promoting and ultimately building the ship, she was a little miracle, a magnificent flagship for Ireland. But as Ireland's prosperity grew, we should have been mature enough to realize that the concept of a government-funded national sail training ship on which anyone could sail was an increasing anomaly.
Despite our increasing affluence, Ireland clearly had problems in the infrastructural, health and education areas which had much stronger claims on the national exchequer. And this year, with the disgraceful news that Ireland has slipped from 5th place to 17th in the rankings of literacy among the developed nations, it's perverse to talk of spending government money – wherever it comes from – on a sail training ship.
But beyond that, if we in the maritime community feel that Ireland needs a sail training ship, then it's up to us to get the momentum towards it under way on a voluntary basis, and keep it that way. Beyond that again, we should not have the ambition of having it eventually taken over by the government in the misguided belief that this would make it "official". We should remember that many of the most admirable organizations in Irish life - such as the IFA, the RDS and the ICA – have emerged from the enthusiasm of individuals, and they would wither if they admitted the dead hand of government into their functioning.
That said, the new Sail Training Ireland organisation will have to be seen to operate in a truly national context if it is to succeed. With the Irish Sailing Association providing its administrative base, it is well placed to do this, and in turn its association with the ISA will be to the latter's benefit.
Initially, Sail Training Ireland will operate as a focal point for fund-raising and maintaining the movement towards building a replacement for Asgard II. In the meantime, ships can be chartered for specific purposes or indeed for entire seasons, but eventually the need will become paramount for a vessel which will speak for Ireland. However, she will be a national vessel, not a government ship.
An interesting example of what can be done is found in Sweden. In times past, Sweden had government-run sail training square-riggers for the national maritime services, the Falken and the Gladan. But that was half a century ago. However, in 1997 the keel was laid in Stockholm for a replica of the 115ft timber-built Gladan, originally built as a sailing naval cargo-carrying vessel in 1853. Though there were slight modifications aft to accommodate the auxiliary engine and on deck to provide cabins, plus an increase in sail area in the brigantine rig, when the new ship Tre Kronor made her debut in 2009 to cut an elegant and swift swathe through the Tall Ships fleets in the Baltic, old salts who had sailed on the Gladan said she was indeed the Gladan, only better.
Like all good ships, the new vessel cost almost exactly twice the original estimate of the early 1990s, finally going afloat for €6.5 million. Yet Tre Kronor is funded entirely from the private sector. The organisation – Society Foreningen Briggen Tre Kronor – was founded in 1993, and has 4000 members, and in addition to their subscriptions it is further financed by private donations, corporate contributions, and foundations.
There is much that we in Ireland could learn from the SFBTK, and from sail training trusts in other countries. But equally there is a vast pool of experience to be drawn on from those who served on Coiste an Asgard, on the ship herself, and from the increasing number of Irish officers and crew with qualification in tall ships.
As for the eventual design, there are obvious attraction in building a steel version of Asgard II. But maybe she could be slightly bigger – after all, Jack Tyrrell's original concept in 1954 had been for a 110ft ship. However, despite sentimental attachment to timber construction, she should undoubtedly be in steel, of genuine double-skin construction below the waterline.
Some happy day, the only matter of debate will be a name for the new ship. Few would argue against calling her Asgard III. But maybe the government might argue that the name is their property. If so, let them keep it. Many of us would be more than pleased, if his family permits, to see the new ship Jack Tyrrell sail the sea as Ireland's privately-funded national sail training vessel.
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