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Ireland’s Small Tall Ship will Brighten a Winter’s Night in Dublin

14th January 2020
Vilia in 1910, as designed by amateur naval architect Vincent Craig with gaff sloop rig. In 1991 under a gaff yawl rig, she was one of the smallest participants in the Tall Ships race from Cork to Belfast Vilia in 1910, as designed by amateur naval architect Vincent Craig with gaff sloop rig. In 1991 under a gaff yawl rig, she was one of the smallest participants in the Tall Ships race from Cork to Belfast

Tall Ships and Sail Training? Everyone will immediately think of stately clipper-bowed cathedrals of sail making their elegant and timeless way across the high seas, driven along under acres of square-sailed cloth, spreading the gospel of international fellowship and the benefits of sail training.

But the many training associations worldwide have to live in the real world. Much as they all like to have their international Parades of Sail dominated by such magnificent Tall Ships, they know that many sail training vessels are much more modest craft. So for their inter-port races, the fleet is divided into classes which – at the lower limit - include smaller fore-and-aft rigged cruiser-racers which can qualify simply by being of reasonable size and carrying the minimum required proportion of trainees in the crew.

Yet as far as the general public is concerned, it’s still a Tall Ships Race. And one of the most spectacular staged in Irish waters was back in 1991, when a huge fleet raced from Cork to Belfast, with our own late lamented Asgard II – skippered by Captain Tom McCarthy – as flagship.

It was months – indeed years – in the planning, and during that time a young Northern Ireland sailor, Adrian “Stu” Spence, was pleased to find that his 1910-built gaff yawl Vilia was big enough to qualify, as her hull was 37ft in length when the lower limit was 35ft, while by adding in the bowsprit and the mizzen boom, she clocked in at 45ft.

vilia 1991 crew2Peter & Gary Lyons and Stu Spence aboard Vilia for the Cork-Belfast Tall Ships Race 1991
Thus Vilia qualified comfortably, and with his old friend Peter Lyons as First Mate and Peter’s son Gary as one of the trainees, Vilia made her way to Cork from Portaferry and raced back to Belfast in style, finishing with many bigger boats astern.

Since then, Stu Spence has become internationally known as the long-time owner of the former pilot cutter Madcap, which was built in 1874, but her great age didn’t hold him back from some remarkable voyages. And as it was that early experience with Vilia in 1991 which led on to these achievements, it is now time and more to remember a special boat and that Tall Ships race of nearly thirty years ago.

madcap 1998 greenland3Stu Spence’s 1874-built former pilot cutter Madcap in Greenland in 1998. Photo: Frank Sadlier
Stu and Peter have put together a show about it all, and it’s being presented as part of the Dublin Bay Old Gaffers Association Winter Programme at Poolbeg Yacht & Boat Club on Thursday January 23rd at 8.00pm. Admission is free, but there’s a €5 donation for the Howth Lifeboat.

It promises to be something which will brighten away those dark January blues, and we may even learn a bit more about Vilia. She was built as a gaff sloop by the renowned Belfast back-street boatbuilder Paddy McKeown to the designs of Vincent Craig, who was himself an interesting bit of work.

A keen sailor who was an architect noted for such buildings as the original Belfast Boat Club (no longer in existence, alas) and the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, he was a younger brother of James Craig (himself a keen sailor in his younger days) who later became Lord Craigavon, the first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1921.

belfast boat clubBelfast Boat Club
ruyc clubhouse5The Royal Ulster YC clubhouse of 1899 was another Vincent Craig creation
Vincent didn’t share his brother’s all-or-nothing approach to the developing political situation in Ireland, so around 1912 he took early retirement and went to live in the south of England. However, talk of “early retirement” was only a politeness, as he and his six siblings were extremely rich, thanks to their father’s enormous success as a whiskey distiller. As Vincent’s obituary in 1925 in the Irish Builder delicately put it, “he was never obliged to engage in the rough and tumble of professional practice, or to trouble about business, as he had ample private means”.

Yet his buildings were interesting, while Vilia was almost embarrassingly fast despite being rated as a cruiser. Nevertheless, it’s a reminder that in those heady days of sailing expansion in Ireland as the 1800s became the 1900s, much of it seemed to be funded by a profitable sea of booze, driven along by a wind filled with equally profitable tobacco smoke, all of which looks decidedly murky from health-obsessed 2020.

So you can say what you like about Tommy Lipton and his America’s Cup mania, but at least he made his money out of tea…

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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