In a historic first for the Atlantic Youth Trust, €15,000 has been donated in the memory of Adrian Ryan in order to provide 15 years of bursaries for young teens who ordinarily would not have the opportunity to access youth development tall ship voyages.
The generous donation was facilitated by Adrian’s brother Joe Ryan, retired Irish Coast Guard official, following the sale of a beatiful Ford RS 2000 that his brother Adrian had been restoring prior to his passing earlier this year.
Speaking about this donation Joe Ryan said: “I have been a long supporter of the Atlantic Youth Trust and for me and my family the thought that Adrian’s memory will live on for the next 15 years is heartwarming. Spending time at sea as a teenager can have a profound impact on a young person's life.”
The Bursary stipulates that €1,000 will be made available for a teenager from a city centre school in Dublin or Belfast under the ‘Adrian Ryan Bursary’. Adrian and Joe both attended C.B.S. Westland Row and it is hoped that students from that school will benefit in the years ahead. This will allow for approximately 10 days of voyaging per annum, over the coming 15 years.
Atlantic Youth Trust’s Neil O’Hagan added: “The long term sustainability of any youth development tall ship trust is in its ability to provide access for all young people regardless of means or ability. In order to do so financial support is essential whether it be public funds, private, philanthropic, corporate or legacy donations.”
“This incredibly generous donation and the ‘Adrian Ryan Bursary’ is the first of its kind for the Atlantic Youth Trust. We hope, as is the case with many charities close to people's hearts, that it will be the first of many.”
Both the Irish and Northern Irish Government’s have formally committed to the Atlantic Youth Trust’s plans for a new tall ship to be run along the same structure as the highly successful Spirit of Adventure Trust in New Zealand. Prior to the new vessel being commissioned, the bursary will be used to place youths on other ships.
Back in June I asked if there was sufficient joined-up thinking about the project for a new Irish tall ship – and why the Naval Service hasn’t taken a more active role in Irish sail training over the years, with advantages to itself, comparable to what the Royal Navy does in Britain…you can read that story here.
Neil O’Hagan, Executive Director of the Atlantic Youth Trust, organisers of a new national tall ship project, sent me an email saying that it is good to see discussion about the project so that it gets attention… but that “there is more going on than meets the eye…”
On this week’s Podcast, I indicate that I am glad to hear that, but I have reservations and will be convinced about actual Government support when I see it delivered…
Listen to the Podcast below…
As we move into March each year, throughout Ireland Tall Ships enthusiasts will wistfully recall that it was in March 1981 that Ireland finally commissioned her own Tall Ship, a national flagship worthy of our aspirations, the Jack Tyrrell-designed and Arklow-built 84ft brigantine Asgard II writes W M Nixon.
She gave years of excellent service and introduced young people from all backgrounds and every part of the country to the complete sail training experience at its very best. Yet although she was officially within the remit of the Department of Defence, in times of government expenditure cutbacks, the very existence of such an exotic creature in the amidst the workaday problems of running organisations with a military emphasis could be problematic.
Under a succession of talented and dedicated skippers with a small but devoted permanent crew, Asgard II was run in an efficient yet distinctly non-military, non-bureaucratic way. Even if at times it was done on a shoestring, it was all kept working, appearances were kept up with the vessel maintained by the crew, and the seemingly free-style system of command, while it had a core of disciplined pure steel at its heart, worked well to create a happy ship.
Nevertheless it could be argued that the unique and complex problems of running a small national sail training ship and her programme were about as far as could be from the instinctive abilities and traditional approach of the Irish Public Service mindset. But that said, the Irish public service has broad shoulders. There may not always have been total enthusiasm within it for having anything to do with running Asgard II. But it was always there in their In-tray, and they got on with it, with secretaries to Coiste an Asgard tending to give service way over and above the requirements of duty.
Yet being a Government-run ship, inevitably the viewpoint of whoever was Minister for Defence at the time affected the attitude to the Asgard programme. The realities of democracy intervened. At a national level, even in coastal constituencies, few if any votes were won or lost over whether the local TD vociferously supported the Asgard II sail-training programme. And if the current Minister for Defence happened to represent an inner-city constituency with little if anything in the way of deeply-engrained maritime traditions, Asgard II was way down the list of priorities.
But she could be kept going – just - thanks to the ability of those running her to stretch resources to the limit and beyond. Yet with every passing season, the longterm problems were increasing. By the time she was sailing her 25th season in 2005, there were those who argued that a traditional wooden hull, with its single-skin planked construction, was no longer in compliance with increasingly complex regulations which required double-skin construction in a passenger-carrying boat, but Asgard II – with her limited number of trainees - was still able to pass regulations as a cargo-carrying vessel.
Then too, in the late noughties, Asgard was looking her very best with a devoted skipper and an extremely able bo’sun. But skilled painting, word-class varnishwork, and the necessary provision of a new and highly-visible set of immaculate spars, disguised the fact that if Coiste an Asgard had been given the funds to provide a replacement hull, the latest set of regulations would have insisted that it be double-skin. That in turn would have led to a raging public debate between those who would insist that Asgard III must be built in wood, and those who would reasonably point out that a double-skin wooden hull – with a safety gap between the skins as required by regulations – would be very space-consuming in a little ship which, even in her single-skin version, was already very crowded within her hull, and thus steel or even aluminium would provide the best way to go.
It all became very academic on September 8th 2008, when Asgard II sank off Belle Ile in the Bay of Biscay while on passage with a full crew of trainees from Falmouth in Cornwall towards the French port of La Rochelle. It started to happen shortly after midnight, and as she sailed along in reasonably pleasant late summer conditions, no-one on board had seemed aware of any impact with a submerged hazardous object, such as a container, which might have caused this sudden ingress of water.
But it became such that the ship’s pumps couldn’t cope, and the captain’s first duty was to his trainees – it would have been irresponsible to spend precious time in the small hours of the morning calling up any ship which might happen to be in the neighbourhood, in the hope that she might have transferrable pumping systems which would have helped alleviate the problem.
The seamanlike thing was to declare the ship a hulk, and arrange her abandonment in an orderly manner. The only setback which arose in this action was the collapse of the floor in one of the large liferafts – a liferaft which had only recently been re-certified – but the people on it were transferred to other liferafts, and in due course the local lifeboat arrived and took everyone to Belle Ile while Asgard sank with a certain quiet dignity, and took up a position sitting on the seabed in 84 metres of water.
There were immediate calls for her salvaging as soon as possible, to be followed by full restoration and a resumption of sail training duties. But the senior officer of the Naval Service involved in the issue put it all in a harsh but necessary perspective: “Would you like your children to go to sea as trainees in a ship which has sunk in this way” he quietly asked, “when, however good the restoration, it is still the restoration of a vessel which inexplicably sank like this?”.
For however much you try to read into the official report, its results are not totally conclusive, and the reality is that the Asgard II sank, and sank quite quickly, after an impact of which no-one was aware. It’s very likely the sinking would not have happened had she been double-skinned. But any attempts to make a raised and restored Asgard II into a double-skinned vessel would have been an absurd waste and misdirection of resources.
Be that as it may, by this time, the Irish economy was in complete free-fall off a very high and steep economic cliff, and although the loss of the Asgard II was assuaged eventually by an insurance payout of €3.8 million, it was only within the sail training community that anyone protested against the transfer of these funds to the Department of Finance at a time when the national economy was on its knees with the Troika bail-out.
In fact, the Government – for the time being at any rate – was quietly exiting the sail training arena, and in 2011 all the remaining assets and functions of Coiste an Asgard were transferred to a new non-Governmental organisation, Sail Training Ireland, which set to work to find berths for Irish trainees on other ships in an international network which, partly thanks to the very favourable reputation which Asgard II had established for herself during her 28 busy years, has been working well as they’ve also brought in “private enterprise” training ships such as Oliver Hart’s yacht-like 70ft schooner Spirit of Oysterhaven, which has been awarded the Sail Training International Small Vessel Award for 2016, a really notable achievement in a crowded field.
But inevitably a couple of years after the loss of Asgard, when her complete demise was finally accepted, voices were being raised in support of returning some day to the position of Ireland having her own sail training ship. It has to be said that these were for many years just a few voices crying in a wilderness, for in the near decade since Asgard II sank, Ireland has been a complete disaster area for tall ships and sail training vessels.
The litany of disaster is unbelievable. The only redeeming feature is that in a great tapestry of sinkings and groundings and the striking of rocks, not one life has been lost. But many dreams and careers have been utterly destroyed.
Appropriately, we’d had a rehearsal on RTE way back in 2003, when the traditional gaff schooner Carrie involved in the reality TV series Cabin Fever managed to come ashore on Tory Island, and soon broke up for the delectation of millions of viewers worldwide, with the whole sorry episode being on a loop on the screen in many a harbourside bar.
Then, even before the Asgard II story had been laid to rest, in 2010 the Northern Ireland Sail Training ship, the 80ft Oyster ketch Lord Rank, managed to impale herself on a rock northwest of Ballycastle in Rathlin Sound on the Antrim coast. Once again the incident got even more publicity than would have normally been expected, as they had a team from Downtown Radio on board to transmit a broadcast.
But a Bermudan rigged ketch on an isolated rock doesn’t make for nearly as spectacular a wreck as a proper Tall Ship destroying herself in against a cliff, and this epic was provided in 2013 when it was demonstrated that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Ireland was barely getting her nose above water after the bail-out, and in order to get things moving again on the tourism front – for who would want to be a tourist in a country in the depths of economic and psychological depression? – the Department for Tourism set up 2013 to be the Year of the Gathering, when people of Irish descent worldwide would be encouraged to return home for holidays in the Old Sod, the land of their ancestors.
Whether it was a bright idea or not is neither here nor there, as funds were lapped-up in order to pay for “Gatherings” such as family weddings. But the fact is that generally it was announced with little enough time to spare for anyone, other than those catering for people who make last-minute short-break holiday decisions, to make proper plans. Thus with only months to go, the Irish Sailing Association co-opted the Cruising Association of Ireland to put together a Gathering Cruise for visitors from Dublin Bay to West Cork, and while it attracted a turnout, the mood became more optimistic as they proceeded along the south coast, as it was learned that at Oysterhaven the little fleet would be joined by the 137ft Dutch Tall Ship Astrid, which at a stroke would maybe double the number of people taking part.
But the Irish weather and the fates in general would not let you get away with such a serendipitous turn of events. Following the Oysterhaven meet, the fleet were to parade round to Kinsale. But it was a dirty day of an onshore wind, and the old Astrid would need the help of her small auxiliary engine if she was going to make a suitably impressive entrance to Kinsale close by the cliffs.
Unfortunately, at a port of call earlier in her voyage from the Netherlands, Astrid had mistakenly had some fresh water put into her diesel tank. Though every effort had been made to remove it, the fuel was still contaminated and the engine cut out at the absolute crucial moment of rounding the headland immediately east of Kinsale.
Unlike the Asgard II’s graceful departure, poor old Astrid had a long and lingering death in against those cliffs. It was a salutary lesson for everyone, for until then we’d tended to look to the Dutch as the very exemplars of a properly-run, indeed closely-regulated maritime nation. Yet it emerged that neither Astrid nor some of those involved in running her were properly certified to be taking trainees to sea.
We’re always told that we in Ireland are too lax in implementing European maritime law, working on the old Chinese saying that the mountains are very high, and the Emperor is far away. Admittedly, apart from Snowdonia in Wales, there are no mountains between Ireland and Brussels. But even so, things seem to be the other way round in any case – the nearer you get to the entre of power, the more relaxed is the observation of “petty” regulations.
In 2013 I’d already seen a demonstration of this when a large Dutch contingent arrived in Dublin as part of the Old Gaffers Association Golden Jubilee Cruise in Company. When we were in Dublin port, up the river came a Dutch character boat captain and his little dog in their tiny dinghy, and a classic Seagull outboard on the stern spluttering all sorts of pollution at a time when everyone else in Europe seemed obsessed with the compliance of regulations about changing to much heavier pollution-reducing four strokes, or making the big move to electric outboards.
So all is not as it seems at the heart of Europe. And after the Astrid disaster those who might have though of using the highly-regarded Dutch marine industry as the source of a new vessel had to undertake further research until they were once again certain it was still the right thing to do.
But equally, after the loss of the Carrie, the Asgard II, the Lord Rank, and the Astrid, and after it had emerged that it was simply too costly to keep the Jeannie Johnston in Dublin and the Dunbrody in New Ross in certified condition as seagoing tall ships, instead of just using them as permanently-berthed visitor attractions, there inevitably has emerged a quiet but real body of opinion which reckons that Ireland having the luxury her own sail training tall ship simply isn’t worth the hassle.
After all, Sail Training Ireland – now with Darragh Sheridan as CEO after Michael Byrne has moved on to fresh fields after several successful years – is running very smoothly in placing trainees in other European ships, with the Dutch vessel Morgenster in particular proving so popular that she is now almost honorary Irish.
As the STI programme has developed, well-wishers and organisations such as the Irish Cruising Club are finding it an attractive propositions to provide bursaries for young people to go to sea in a proper international tall ships situation through the STI’s current setup. It’s neat, tidy and manageable. And when winter comes, it’s not our concern whether or not the Morgenstern, and other ships that we in Ireland use, such as the splendid Europa, have to undergo a major refit or instead get themselves out to the Canaries for a profitable winter programme.
Thus as ever it was heartening to attend STI’s annual awards ceremony in Dublin’s Mansion House, and share the enthusiasm of an enormous diversity of young people each of whom had responded in their own favourable way to the Tall Ships experience.
But then you couldn’t help but notice that in the Mansion House a popular guest, to whom everyone seemed to relate, was Neil O’Hagan, of the Enda O’Coineen-inspired Irish Atlantic Youth Trust. Their purpose is the creation of an all-island Irish Sail Training Ship, a 140ft three-masted barquentine based on the proven Spirit of New Zealand, and built in steel in the Netherlands by reputable designers and builders, while keeping open the option of having her builders provide a kit which can then be assembled here to become a ship built in Ireland.
To work, the project would need a considerable level of Governmental input and in Ireland’s always fluid yet somehow also rigid political situation, that is the Great Unknown. The Atlantic Youth Trust has offices in Dublin and Belfast to deal directly with Government even if the island’s real maritime capital is Cork, but resolving that will be another day’s work.
As it is, thanks to the influence of leaders such as Chairman Lord Glentoran, the Atlantic Youth Trust arranged a meeting with Peter Robinson MLA, the then First Minister of Northern Ireland. A Tall Ships gathering was shaping up in Belfast (when it happened, it was a notable success) so the mood was good for the delegation, and the First Minister warmly received the idea of a concept which would inevitably involve Government capital expenditure.
And then he made one request. He asked them to go along the corridor and put the idea to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness MLA, as that was the way shared power was meant to work. So along they went in some trepidation, and after the usual introductory pleasantries, they outlined the situation and were almost bowled over by Martin McGuinness’s enthusiasm.
Eventually, when they were taking their leave, they asked him why he had leapt at the idea so keenly. He replied that apart from it being a very good idea, it was maybe the first clearcut occasion on which the First Minister had received a proposal, and then without the usually inevitable closeting with his special advisors, had immediately given it a fair wind along to the Deputy Minister. It was how power-sharing was meant to work, but very rarely did.
It was a good start, but there was still a long way to go, for in tandem with their negotiations in the north they had to bring the Dublin government in as an equal partner. Here, the overall response was favourable but the complexities – involving a different structure of Government departments, not to mention all the movements in political mood - made it long hard going.
Meanwhile, there was a by-product which bears out the effect they’d had in the corridors of power in Stormont. Our northern correspondent Betty Armsrong was in Derry for the visit of the Clipper Fleet, in which the city had an entry, and came back enthusing about her new VBF Martin. It turned that while in the Maiden City, she’d spent some time in the company of Martin McGuinness whose enthusiasm for the entire waterborne pageant was total. “Admittedly” said he “the cost of supporting the boat and getting the visit seemed very high when we were being talked into this, but now that it is happening so well, it’s worth every penny”.
It would be ironic if the successful visit of the Atlantic Youth Trust to the office of the Deputy First Minister is in the end only recalled for the fact that Martin McGuinness was an increasingly enthusiastic supporter of major maritime events and projects. But the reality in Government is that the political personnel landscape is now entirely changed both north and south, and we’ll need the dust to settle before we can see where it’s all going.
Yet even as recently as November, Neil O’Hagan reckoned things were looking good, and he’s convinced they’ll come good again in due course. Back in November, despite the turbulence of Brexit, he was getting various government departments north and south and the STI and other bodies nicely lined up for a series of test programmes using the Morgenstern, and then anticipated building on that. A plateau of achievement had been reached, and former Olympic Gold Medallist Lord Glentoran, a visionary chairman but now well into his eighties, felt the time was right to step down and be replaced by noted businessman and experienced sailor Peter Cooke.
But since November, other things have happened. The collapse of the Stormont administration and the General Election last Thursday will have its effect. So will the possible changes of leadership south of the border. And while Enda O Coineen now has a largely honorary role in the Atlantic Youth Trust as President, public perception is so febrile that we can only guess at the effects – favourable or otherwise – his major setbacks and his courageous handling of them in the Vendee Globe race will have on the way people view the Atlantic Youth Trust.
Thus for the moment there’s a distinct vacuum where positive progress towards a joint-government-underwritten sail training ship for all Ireland might normally be found, and all too quickly, vacuums being what they are, all sorts of alternative solutions may be offered.
The trouble is that, when faced with a big traditional sailing ship and better still a square rigger - any square rigger, and preferably one with a magnificent clipper bow – people will lose the run of themselves in dreams. Dreams of sailing the seas as the great mariners of yore did before them. Dreams of introducing young people to the wonders of sail. Dreams of saving the planet through the healing effects of majestic rigs driving non-polluting tall ships cross the ocean.
Such dreams are getting thing entirely the wrong way round. Certainly you may be inspired by seeing a ship like the Europa making her handsome way down Befast Lough under full sail. But having seen her, that’s when the research work should start, the hard work behind the scenes to make it all a realistic proposition, and start working towards sustainable funding.
Yet it so easy to see the ship and get inspired and immediately involved without a thought for what it will cost in the long run. That’s probably how the elderly owner of the Astrid was drawn into the dreadful mesh. And in the north, they’ve two character ship ventures whose owners dream the dream, but whether either can ever become reality is another matter entirely.
There’s a vessel called the Silvery Light in Newry, and she inspired those who saw her when she first arrived in Ireland alongside the quay in Carlingford. But now the owner seeks support from whatever source to make her fit to be a sail training vessel – we can only wait and see, for we have some idea of what a monumental task this is.
But in the little village of Portaferry, a tall ship dream has turned into disaster. We’ve carried stories of the sunken 130ft Regina Caelis on Afloat.ie in recent weeks, but things get no better.
Apparently she is owned by someone who bought her from a previous owner for just £1.The previous owner from Northern Ireland had bought her in Scotland, hoping to turn her into a tall ships dream to sail in warmer seas. But by the time he’d got her home to County Down, he realised it was beyond his ability to complete the work, so after he’d managed with great difficulty to get her berthed on the end of the little public quay at the south end of Portaferry, she was offered for sale for the nominal sum.
That was more than a year ago. Since then she has changed ownership for £1, but she continued to completely block off what should be an important local amenity, as Cook Street Quay – to give it its local name – traditionally provides free berthing, but its successful functioning depends on no-one abusing this valuable privilege.
Whatever about the good intentions when this ship the Regina Caelis arrived at the quay, berthed on it she is so out of scale that her bow sticks out at one end and her stern sticks out at the other, thereby impeding boat access to either side of a public pier. Staying there for more than a year soon became a matter of abusing a communal facility. But then it all became completely pear-shaped when she sank at the pier, gradually leaching 900 litres of diesel fuel into Strangford Lough, a very special nature reserve.
It’s now an environmental and neighbourhood disaster beyond belief. But with a free pier and in the absence of an active government, the position has been allowed to persist, while the optimistic owner has launched a crowd-funding initiative in order to raise his vessel and restore her to her full potential as a tall ship.
Seasoned observers reckon that it will indeed be a crowd-funding initiative which will solve the acute problem of the Regina Caelis slowly disintegrating at Cook Street Quay in Portaferry. But the crowd will be the much-put-upon taxpayers of Northern Ireland, and they’ll be in this crowd-funding project whether they want to or not.
Whatever the outcome, it’s all a very long way indeed from a properly researched and resourced sail training barquentine for the young people of all Ireland. And in its veiled hostility, it’s all an extremely long way away from the friendly efficiency of the annual Portaferry Sails and Sound music and traditional boat festival, which shows Portaferry at its best. In every way, it’s an excruciatingly unpleasant situation for a charming village. Portaferry deserves better.
#SailingTalk - The next event in Greystones Sailing Club’s Winter Wednesdays series of talks hosts Neil O'Hagan of the Atlantic Youth Trust, the project that aims to bring about Ireland's next sail training tall ship.
O’Hagan is also on-shore co-ordinator for Kilcullen Team Ireland in the Vendée Globe, and he will have all the scuttlebutt on the highs and lows of Enda O’Coineen sailing Kilcullen Voyager, Ireland’s first entry in the round-the-world solo yachting challenge.
The date for diary is next Wednesday 25 January at 8pm, bar open from 7.30pm. You won’t want to miss it!
#JamieBoag - Volvo Ocean Race team commercial boss Jamie Boag was honoured for his contributions to sailing at the Atlantic Youth Trust's conference and dinner in Galway last weekend, as the Galway Independent reports.
The commercial director of Abu Dhabi Ocean Racing – winners of the most recent Volvo Ocean Race – received the trust's Lifetime Achievement Award for his work with its Irish-flavoured predecessor Green Dragon Racing, as well as his hand in bringing the world's most gruelling ocean yacht race to Galway.
Also on the evening last Saturday (12 March), the Galway Independent contributed €5,000 towards a seed fund to develop a bursary for youth sail trainees in the West of Ireland, along the lines of those already established in Drogheda and West Cork.
Designed as workshops with input from participants, the day's programme comprises three lively sessions commencing at 11.30am with a break for lunch and the Six Nations rugby match, and rolling into the evening's gala ball.
Session 1 is on 'Educating & Youth Development on the Ocean', a concept something obvious to those who have experienced it first hand yet hard to comprehend for those that haven't. The conference will hear from some of the island's most experience shore-based and ocean-based educators.
Session 2 from 3/30pm is on 'Vessel Design & Construction' - with an emphasis on how to design the best yacht or tall ship to be fit for purpose.
While the focus will be on the Atlantic Youth Trust's proposed new tall ship, the session will hear from a range of experts in traditional and modern design, and will also explore the Galway Hooker One Design concept.
Session 3 from 4.30pm is on the topic 'SeaFest 2016 & Hosting and Attracting Major Maritime Events'. Speakers will include some of the most experienced event managers of high-profile maritime events on the island of Ireland previewing SeaFest 2016 this July and discussing the development of related ideas informed by last year's inaugural event.
The day's events are aimed to attract a wide range of stakeholders and will conclude with the gala dinner.
To book your free place at the conference (lunch not provided) or to book a table or individual place at the dinner, visit the Atlantic Youth Trust website HERE. Special hotel rates are also available.
The sail training tall ship project, which recently hailed its inclusion in the new implementation plan for the Stormont Agreement, will hold the event at the Galway Bay Hotel on Saturday 12 March – in the same city that's prepping a bid to attract the Tall Ships Races in 2019.
Besides hosting an evening of keynote speakers and an afternoon of workshops, the day is also intended to double as a fundraiser for a West of Ireland Bursary Fund for youth sail training along the lines of those already established in Drogheda and West Cork.
As previously reported on Afloat.ie, the Atlantic Youth Trust proposes the construction of a new tall ship to replace the Asgard II as a symbol of cross-border unity and a practical training vessel to teach adaptable skills for young people.
The Galway Independent has much more on the story HERE.
The governments in both jurisdictions in Ireland have included an all-Ireland sail training ship for the Atlantic Youth Trust in their long term capital expenditure proposals. And the movement in favour of support for this project has become so strong that the nationwide team involved in promoting it are confident that the ship’s future is now secured.
They continue to hold this view even with general elections and possible major changes in administrative direction taking place, north and south, within the next four months. Thus this week’s 2016 Annual General Meeting of the Atlantic Youth Trust in Irish Lights Headquarters in Dun Laoghaire found itself reviewing a remarkable year of progress and achievement, while giving pointers and reassurances for the successful way ahead. W M Nixon was there to take on board an evening of multiple messages.
It could well be that some time in the future, we will come to the sad but inescapable conclusion that the foundering of the Republic of Ireland’s national 84–ft sail training brigantine Asgard II in September 1908, followed within two years by the sinking of the Northern Ireland 70ft training ketch Lord Rank, were necessary disasters for the progress towards the ultimately more healthy ideal of a Class A 40-metre sail training barquentine.
The proposed ship - determinedly and enthusiastically serving all Ireland – will be initially funded through donations, and by government grants from both sides of the border. But the vessel is to be run independently by a cross-border trust rather than by some obscure unit of a government department.
September 2008 saw Ireland on the edge of the financial abyss. For a government under enormous pressure from all sides, a government, moreover, in which the minister responsible for the Asgard II took little or no interest in the ship and what she did, this sinking was a blessing in disguise.
The hull of Asgard II, completed in 1981, had long passed its sell-by date. When she sank, she took with her the magnificent rig which had been totally replaced only a couple of years earlier. Yet a properly involved government would surely have taken on board the advice that her timber hull urgently needed replacing, preferably with one built in steel. For although in 2008 the ship looked better than ever thanks to the devotion of her crew in working way over and above the call of duty in painting, varnishing and routine maintenance, there was no escaping the fact that the basic hull and its original fittings were living on borrowed time.
Ironically, the visit to La Rochelle, which she was nearing when she sank, included plans for a three-week stopover for a complete survey and some necessary repairs. Whether or not this would have revealed the fracturing seacock which many reckon to have caused the unstoppable ingress of water can only be a matter of speculation. The fact of the matter is the ship sank, and in an exemplary display of seamanship, the captain and crew ensured that their full quota of young trainees got safely away.
Flying the flag for Ireland – Asgard II in fine form, seen from another tall ship
But although Asgard II remained stubbornly intact and upright for some weeks on the Bay of Biscay seabed off Belle Ile, a government with financial Armageddon crashing down around its ears was glad enough to be shot of a unique project which some of them had never really understood or supported in the first place. Thus they refused to consider multiple suggests as to how best Asgard II could be salvaged. And frankly, it was for the best that they did so. For like it or not, while she was much-loved by the maritime community, the vessel had lost public confidence.
The subsequent loss of the Lord Rank in July 2010 after striking a rock likewise resulted in a merciful absence of casualties. But with Ireland north and south now in the utter depths of economic recession with no governmental enthusiasm whatsoever for non-essential projects, it was time to re-group for a few years and re-think the entire sail training ideal. It became almost an underground movement, with Coiste an Asgard being re-structured as Sail Training Ireland, and diligently setting about placing Irish trainees on the ships of other nations. It’s an ongoing programme which has been notably successful in providing both sea-going experience and a guaranteed international dimension for young people from all over Ireland, city and country alike.
Meanwhile there were rumblings from the west of Ireland where Enda O'Coineen and John Killeen were building on the can-do attitude of Galway, and from this there gradually emerged the Atlantic Youth Trust. It’s a determinedly all-Ireland group in which the Chairman is former Winter Olympics Gold Medallist Lord Glentoran from Northern Ireland, with the unstoppable unsinkable O Coineen as President. Supporting them is one very impressive list of seriously heavy hitters in the maritime and big business sphere from all over Ireland on its board, and perhaps most importantly of all, at an early stage they secured Neil O’Hagan as Executive Director.
Neil O’Hagan, Executive Director of the Atlantic Youth Trust
This sounds an impressive title, but at the moment he heads up a minimal staff. You can get the flavour of it all by taking a look at the Sailing on Saturdays conversation I had with him, reported here on 4th April 2015. The amount of work he puts in is prodigious, and though the Trust’s founding General Meeting was held in Belfast in the Harbour Commission’s historic building on September 10th 2014, they’d to forego a General Meeting during 2015 while various elements and agreements were being finally edged into place.
Since April 2015 we’ve had snippets of news about the governments north and south starting to provide what are essentially government letters of intent in support of the project. However, politics on this island being a snakelike progression notwithstanding the best efforts of St Patrick, with every twist and turn of the political machines the AYT have been at pains to ensure that gains supposedly agreed by one administrative decision-maker are carried through into the remit of the next when the inevitable political wheel of fortune turns yet again at the individual level.
But now, with two general elections in the offing and a rapidly improving situation developing in the AYT’s prospects, it was essential for a properly-convened AGM to be held on Thursday January 21st, staged this time in the impressive board-room of the Irish Lights Commissioners in Dun Laoghaire.
The boardroom at Irish Lights HQ is an impressive venue for any meeting, and it suited the Atlantic Youth Trust’s 2016 AGM very well
The maritime evangelist……Enda O'Coineen in full flight at this weeks AGM of the Atlantc Youth Trust
Ironically, although one of the main lines of thought in the AYT’s thinking is that the ship they’ll provide will be more of a floating multi-discipline schoolship of many projects, both afloat and ashore, rather than a traditional sail training ship, it emerged at the AGM that it was the traditional Tall Ships visit and Parade of Sail in Belfast and on Belfast Lough last July which gave them their greatest boost.
They’d a significant presence there, and thanks to one of the Trust Board Members, they’d the use of a fine big motor vessel aboard which visiting politicos and other heavy hitters could be taken on a sociable yet instructive tour of the harbour and the Tall Ships fleet. For many of these decision makers and opinion formers, it was a transformative experience, turning them into supporters of the Atlantic Youth Trust’s way of thinking.
The Tall Ships in Belfast, July 2015
She’s not a tall ship, she doesn’t even set sails, but the availability of the fine motor-yacht Evolution as a tour boat was a game changer for the Atlantic Youth Trust at Belfast’s Tall Ships Festival. Photo: W M Nixon
This opened doors north and south, and they rapidly increased their already formidable knowledge of how to work the corridors of power. The meeting on Thursday in Irish Lights was chaired by Peter Cooke from the north, and his affable presence made the running of business very smooth indeed. But as each specialist on the board revealed the progress they’d made during the past year and more in their particular task, it was to realize that here were people who were utterly professional in their approach, yet went at the job with the total enthusiasm of dedicated amateurs.
But what most impressed was the synergy of the high octane talents on the board which, in addition to Lord Glentoran, Enda O Coineen and Peter Cooke, can draw on the talents of people of the calibre of Dr Gerard O’Hare, Roger Courtney, Sean Lemass, David Beattie and John Killeen – with Neil O’Hagan as the key conduit, they’ve turned themselves into a formidable lobbying organisation.
It’s a fact of life in all Irish political administration, and particularly in Dublin, that each separate government department much prefers to function independently within its own little bubble, with nothing whatever to do with any other department while avoiding overlaps if at all possible. This is especially so in the neglected area of maritime activity, which is overseen by several departments, and is further warped by the reality that the government is in Dublin - which is also the biggest port - yet the real scene of the maritime action and the true hotbed of ideas is Cork.
So our shrewd operators in the AYT stood back and concluded that the politician they should most directly target was of course Minister for the Marine (and many other matters) Simon Coveney TD of Cork, but that in Dublin the departments to be wooed were Finance and the Office of the Taoiseach.
With increasing support at official level in the north and enthusiasm from key decision makers in the Republic, things were going grand when the President of the AYT suddenly went off in December 2015 to race single-handed across the Atlantic from the Caribbean to Brittany in his IMOCA 60 Kilcullen Voyager. Enda O’Coineen’s big boat has been very much part of the AYT awareness programme for the past year, taking trainee crews to sea. But this was something else altogether, and it made many supporters of the new training ship ideal distinctly nervous.
Enda O Coineen’s IMOCA 60 Kilcullen Voyager was used in Belfast for AYT work, but then in December he went and raced her single-handed across the Atlantic from the Caribbean to France. Photo W M Nixon
Racing across the Atlantic in as rough a December as anyone could remember may have been a personal challenge, but inevitably it was a high risk venture with which the AYT was inevitably associated, whether it liked it or not. The sailing community in Ireland is small, and nothing can happen in isolation. But to everyone’s enormous relief, not only did the boy do it, but he did it well, sailing across in style and securing a podium place with third at the finish.
This was quietly acknowledged as something which had been on everyone’s mind in a graceful little speech by the Deputy Chairman of the Irish Lights Commissioners congratulating the President on his Transatlantic success. So with everything in place as regards where AYT now stands in relation to both governments, the formal part of the meeting concluded with some commitments as to the way ahead, and the news that the Atlantic Youth Trust’s next public gathering of significance will be in Galway on March 12th, when more precise details of the new ship and the building programme will be revealed.
However, with an ethos in which going the extra mile is part of the DNA, the AYT then laid on a hugely entertaining dinner in the neighbouring Royal Irish YC with fascinating shows by the Gardai Siochana’s Conor O’Byrne, who played a central on-board co-ordination role in rescuing a crewman who had gone overboard in mid-Pacific from the Clipper yacht Derry-Londonderry-Doire, and from Stewart Hosford from Cork, who is CEO of the organisation Five Degrees West whose main project is the designing, building and management of the Imoca 60 boats raced under the Hugo Boss campaign by Alex Thompson.
May The Force Be With You – the two faces of the Garda Siochana’s Conor O’Byrne, who gave the AYT and its supporters a fascinating insight into the successful rescue of a crewmember who went overboard from Derry/Londonderry/Doire in mid-Pacific.
Suits you, Sir…..Alex Thompson on the second Hugo Boss. At Thursday’s meeting, Stewart Hosford of Cork – whose interest in the sea and sailing was inspired by Asgard II – gave the inside story on his job as CEO of the Hugo Boss sailing challenges.
Each compact yet thought-provoking show would have made for a worthy topic on its own in most clubs’ entertainment programme. But it was special to include both on this night of all nights, as each speaker had been enthused in their youth by sailing on Asgard II, and each would do anything to ensure that the upcoming generations get a similar opportunity and inspiration.
It was that kind of night, with the congenial attendance including Seamus McLoughlin and Michael Byrne from Sail Training Ireland, and Oliver Hart whose 70ft schooner Spirit of Oysterhaven continues gallantly to fulfill the role of Ireland’s premier sail training vessel from her base on the Cork coast.
In all, it’s a busy few days for Irish sail training, which is definitely no longer an underground movement. Today, Sail Training Ireland hold their 4th Annual Prize Giving and Programme Launch in the Mansion House in Dublin, looking back on a season in which the number of funded trainees sent on sailing ships abroad and at home came in at just under 300, while in all they arranged berths for more than 500.
The plan for 2016 includes a formal twinning of Dublin and Liverpool for maritime festivals, while on the training front, STI are aiming for a target of 350 funded trainees. And as for Ireland eventually returning to having her own sail training ship, no sooner was Thursday night’s remarkable series of events brought to a close than Neil O’Hagan had to gather his thoughts and head off for New York to meet the Ireland Fund. They are taking a serious and very positive interest in the plans of the Atlantic Youth Trust.
The Dutch Tall Ship Morgenster, seen here on Belfast Lough in July 2015, is one of the vessels used by Sail Training Ireland to send more than 500 young people every year out onto the high seas. Photo: W M Nixon
#TallShips - The Atlantic Youth Trust has hailed its inclusion in the new implementation plan for the Stormont Agreement announced yesterday.
As RTÉ News reports, Northern Ireland's power-sharing administration finally struck a deal yesterday (Tuesday 17 November) after more than two months of negotiations.
And according to the trust's Neil O'Hagan, the sail training initiative is "the only the only independent charitable project included in both this agreement and the Irish Government's Capital Investment Plan.
"This secures our future and most importantly our ability to deliver youth development, peace-building and maritime education voyages for generations to come. In the coming weeks we will be working with both administrations to determine timelines," he added.
The Atlantic Youth Trust has proposed the construction of a new tall ship as a replacement for the Asgard II to bring young people from both sides of the border together for sail training voyages.
O'Hagan said the inclusion of the project "in a historic document such as this does not come easily and would not be possible without the support and guidance of our stakeholders.
"We would like to once again thank everyone involved in getting us to this point and look forward to working with you all over the coming years."
I was doing the RTE television commentary at the start of the 2005 Tall Ships Races from Waterford. Three Irish tall ships led the international fleet ASGARD II, JEANIE JOHNSTON and DUNBRODY, with the State’s vessel, ASGARD, accorded the honour of being the first vessel.
Asgard II in the fjords
Photographs of that occasion recall other television broadcasts I did of Tall Ships Races - the 1997 start from Cork Harbour; the Tall Ships Races in Dublin and Belfast and the return of the Race to Waterford for a second time.
When Neil O’Hagan of the Atlantic Youth Trust told me that the Government had included the Trust in its Capital Development Plan, I thought of those occasions and how the active sailing trio of Irish tall ships had been reduced now to zero.
Neil was enthusiastic: “This is a major breakthrough and the result of over three years research, consultation, and professional advice, not to mention the genuine support of the most senior politicians in Government,” he told me.
I am glad to note that last phrase – genuine support from senior Government politicians, because I remember a time when this was not the case for the national sail training programme.
As I thought about his treatment of ASGARD II I wondered – can a State which abandoned a national sail training vessel after many years of dedicated service, be trusted to deliver on what it has promised towards the concept of a new Tall Ship?
The inclusion in the Government’s planning of the Atlantic Youth Trust’s proposal for a new sail training vessel to facilitate youth development, mentoring, and training on an all-island basis is a milestone for the project, as Neil O’Hagan says. He described it as “the first clear, public commitment from an Irish Government to invest in youth development in the maritime sector and positive in cross-Border relations.
It was a previous Government which abandoned ASGARD to her fate on the seabed off France, but behind every Government is the permanent Civil Service and I wonder has the mindset towards maritime affairs really changed there? As a journalist I also wonder, from long experience of politicians, if a Capital Plan on which implementation will not begin until after the next General Election will be completed and if that is cynicism, it can be traced to Willie O’Dea, then Minister for Defence, who had responsibility in that office for ASGARD when it sank on the eleventh of September, 2008. Here I must state a personal consideration. I heard that news when I arrived in Florida in the USA, on holiday with my wife Kathleen. We were both relieved to learn that our son, Rowan, was not aboard. He was Mate and Deputy Master on ASGARD II for over five years. He was on leave and so, was not involved in the sinking.
Asgard II all lit up in Limerick – Willie O'Dea's city
I did not have any involvement in the reportage of the sinking, but when Willie O’Dea as Minister responsible equivocated later about initial promises to replace ASGARD and repeatedly turned down offers of replacement vessels, I took up the issue on SEASCAPES which I then presented on RTE Radio. I was careful approaching the issue, but was surprised that no salvage efforts had ever been made. Whatever about the controversy over whether she could be restored to sailing again, it seemed that recovery would be critical to establishing what happened.
When Willie O’Dea later decided that the compensation money of €3.8m, paid by the insurers for the loss of ASGARD should be handed over to general Government funds and not kept for the national sail training programme which was closed down, it was an issue that could not be ignored. I sought an interview that was never granted. I had no reason to conceal the fact that my son had been on the ASGARD crew.
Asgard II Irish national sail training vessel
I believed that the training programme was essential, fundamental, to stimulating youth interest in the sea and that it also provided a wide cultural and educational benefit to young people, something well testified to by those interested in youth development. It also provided opportunities for older sailors, the mix of youth and maturity aboard was mutually beneficial.
Extensive testimonials to this have proved the point, including my own experience at aboard the Jeanie Johnston when she was at the quayside in Newfoundland on her voyage to America and Canada, with thousands visiting her. I was recording a television programme about the voyage when a teenager from Dublin put me in my place. She was amongst a group of boys and girls from North and South of the Border who I asked whether they had had differences between themselves from their backgrounds.
“Mister,” she responded. “There is no 'I' (which I took to refer to being independent) in a crew which is a team that we are and which we have learned to be to sail this boat.”
As Willie O’Dea abandoned ASGARD, repeated attempts were made through his office, the Department and the ASGARD office seeking an interview with Minister Willie, making repeated offers to go anywhere, anytime, to interview him, they were fruitless. I never did get an interview, though Willie is not shy of appearing on the media.
Maybe I wasn’t trusted!
Public appreciation of sail training on Tall Ships is lacking, not helped by general media savagery against the JEANIE JOHNSTON and DUNBRODY over the years, the latter of which has proved itself an essential part of the economic fabric of New Ross, even if not actively sailing, but telling the maritime, historical and emigration story of Ireland.
So what of the future?
There are supporters and detractors of the Atlantic Trust Project and those involved. There was the same about ASGARD and, while there were exceptional people on its board dedicated to sail training, I did wonder at times about some of the appointees and political decisions.
I wish the Atlantic Youth Trust project well and hope for its success.
Following its inclusion in the current Government’s capital programme, Neil O’Hagan said: “We will be working hard to execute our plans with the support of public, private, corporate and philanthropic supporters. While there is still a lot to do, there is an inevitability growing around the project.”
To look at photographs of ASGARD II, to read Winkie Nixon and Eric Healy’s book about ASGARD I and II and see the restored ASGARD I in the National Museum in Dublin, is to realise the huge tradition the new vessel will have to follow.
Afloat's Asgard coverage that includes sinking reports and salvage attempts from 2008
Afloat's WM Nixon on: