Friday, June 23, 2023

Conor O’Brien’s pioneering saoirse Circumnavigation centenary will be honoured by Irish Cruising

Valentine’s Day with a difference – the new-build of Conor O’Brien’s global pioneering Saoirse steps out in style under sail for the first time at Baltimore on Tuesday February 14th 2023
Credit: Kevin O’Farrell

From Afloat by WM Nixon

The magnificent pioneering voyage round the world south of the Great Capes in 1923-1925 by Conor O’Brien (1880-1952) of Foynes, sailing his new-built engine-less 42ft Baltimore ketch Saoirse, was of such heroic proportions that any attempts at a re-enactment to mark the Centenary of its start this year from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th might seem faintly ridiculous, a profound ocean challenge reduced to pantomime.

Yet the latest images by noted West Cork photographer Kevin O’Farrell of the new and very precise re-build of Saoirse having her first sail in Baltimore on Tuesday of this week (Valentine’s Day, of course) and setting impressively traditional sails from Barry Hayes and his team at the UK Sailmakers loft in Crosshaven, make such a forceful impression that you could well believe that all things – real or re-enacted - are possible.

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
And this was very much the mood when the original Saoirse sailed out from Dublin Bay a hundred years ago.
For apart from anything else, the characterful little ship, which had been designed by O’Brien himself though with some welcome modifications by Baltimore’s master shipwright Tom Moynihan, was still largely untried at sea, and had done no ocean voyaging at all.

Into the unknown…when the new Saoirse departed from Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 1923, neither she nor her skipper had done any ocean voyaging of significance.
Photo: Irish Times


At the time of Saoirse’s build through 1922, West Cork was a hotspot of some of its most active scenes of conflict in the Civil War.
Yet while the construction job was done, there was little enough time or opportunity for sea trials, and Saoirse departed from Dun Laoghaire for “a voyage to New Zealand” largely as an act of faith.
But it was an act of faith gloriously fulfilled, and as confirmed at last night’s AGM of the Irish Cruising Club in Dun Laoghaire, the 1929-founded ICC and the 1880-founded RCC – the latter having given O’Brien’s achievement international recognition while the voyage was under way - have come up with a very appropriate programme to mark the event.

O’Brien’s initial stage of the voyage in June 1923 started with a first passage from Dun Laoghaire to Madeira.
It went very well indeed, with the surprisingly swift little Saoirse making such good time in the brisk Portuguese Trades that, despite calms in the later stages, she arrived off Funchal in Madeira on July 3rd.
So although there’ll be a gathering of cruisers and their crews at the RIYC in Dun Laoghaire on June 17th prior to heading south, there’s no attempt at that stage to match O’Brien’s actual departure date of June 20th, as it’s felt the “Saoirse Show” was really only up and running when Madeira was reached.

Conor O’Brien in relaxed mood at Saoirse’s helm as she proves unexpectedly fast running south in the Portuguese Trades, June 1923.

Thus those members who genuinely wish to show their appreciation of what O’Brien was doing will need to sail their boats to Madeira for the main event on July 3rd, and the word from ICC Commodore David Beattie last night was that 46 boats from many areas and several cruising clubs had expressed interest in being there.
And O’Brien’s other famous ocean-going design, the 56ft trading ketch Ilen of 1926-vintage restored through the tireless efforts of Gary Mac Mahon of Limerick, will also be heading south as part of the fleet, with trainees and ocean-cruising enthusiasts making up her ship’s company.

The restored 56ft Trading Ketch Ilen of 1926 vintage will be sailing to Madeira as part of the Saoirse Centenary celebrations.
Photo: Gary MacMahon


Whether or not the new Saoirse herself is present remains to be seen, as the resources behind her re-build are being provided by Fred Kinmonth, whose family have strong West Cork connections even though he has spent his working life as a Corporate Lawyer in Hong Kong.
Nevertheless, his heart is in West Cork, and his first priority is to emphasise that Saoirse was and is a West Cork boat, despite Conor O’Brien’s frequently-avowed devotion to Foynes Island in the Shannon Estuary.

So with much completion work still to be done internally, after her trial sail on Tuesday the new Saoirse was re-hauled at Liam Hegarty’s boatyard at Oldcourt on the Ilen River, and it is hoped that she will be making her fully-completed and formal debut at the Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival on May 26th-28th 2023.

The Saoirse re-creation newly launched at Oldcourt, September 2022.
Although the hull lines used were those taken off the original hull by Uffa Fox in 1927, they were shown to match Conor O’Brien’s own “rough” pre-build sketches of 1922 very closely.
Photo: John Wolfe

The new build of the design of Saoirse herself by Liam Hegarty at Oldcourt - to very precise lines taken off by Uffa Fox, no less, in 1927 - saw her reaching the launching stage last autumn, and now the accelerated commissioning programme opens up fresh schedule possibilities.
But perhaps the most meaningful option would be to have her in all her unique glory – and very much the flagship of West Cork - in Dun Laoghaire on June 20th 2025, a hundred years to the day from O’Brien’s return.
His success was celebrated with such widespread enthusiasm afloat and ashore that Dublin Bay Sailing Club unprecedentedly cancelled their racing for the day (it was a Saturday) so that their fleet could welcome the great circumnavigator home.


The first edition of Across Three Oceans, O’Brien’s lively and often idiosyncratic account of the voyage, was published within a year in 1926, and it had a freshness which has convinced total Saoirse aficionados that this is the only true account of the voyage.

Yet O’Brien’s lively and decidedly opinionated mind meant that he was always seeing new ways of interpreting his first thoughts and impressions, and subsequent editions always carried so many different angles on it all that the initial impact was lessened, even if the debating points were increased.

One of sailing’s greatest books.
The new Irish Cruising Club/Royal Cruising Club 6th edition of Conor O’Brien’s pioneering account of his global circumnavigation south of the Great Capes with the 42ft Baltimore-built traditional gaff ketch Saoirse in 1923-1925.
Compiled by Alex Blackwell and a special ICC/RCC Publications Committee, it includes extra material about O’Brien’s personal background, and other after-thoughts on ocean sailing which he added with additional analysis and further sea-going experience

But 97 years later, in the hopes of providing an accessible and user-friendly account of O’Brien’s extraordinary achievement and his own equally extraordinary background and family history, the ICC and RCC are jointly publishing a manageable paperback 6th Edition of Across Three Oceans (“manageable” means you can read it in bed), with a foreword by this columnist which tries to explain the history and character of a man who at times would have been at a loss to provide those explanations himself, or would have delighted in spinning a yarn which was at variance with reality.

Meanwhile, for those who wish to go into it all in complete detail, in 2009 Collins Press of Cork published an excellent biography of O’Brien titled In Search Of Islands, written by Judith Hill using the impressive selection of O’Brien material amassed over many years by Gary Mac Mahon.
And of course O’Brien wrote other sailing-related books, the best of them in conjunction with his wife, the artist Kitty Clausen, who died tragically young, but in her prime had sketched the most impressive portrait we have of Conor O’Brien.

Kitty Clausen’s insightful portrait of her husband Conor O’Brien

As for the new Saoirse, Kevin O’Farrell has meticulously photographed every aspect of her build from the beginning of the project in Liam Hegarty’s atmospheric Top Shed at Oldcourt, and his book of those evocative images of the creation of the new Saoirse will be published in May, a work of art in itself and a total immersive experience for lovers of wooden boats, connoisseurs of craftsmanship, and everyone for whom West Cork is a very special place


It says much about the contemporary widespread interests of the Irish Cruising Club that the Saoirse Centenary was just one of many topics covered in a busy agenda last night, but inevitably it was prominent in everyone’s thoughts.
For although the ICC was not founded until 1929 at a modest gathering of five cruising yachts at Glengarriff, one of the first acts of the new club was to make Conor O’Brien an Honorary Member, and from his retirement at his little house of Barneen on Foynes Island, he occasionally emerged to take part in the ICC’s Annual Dinner.

The Club has come through the pandemic in good heart, helped by the fact that the very able Commodore David Beattie had his period of office extended to three years from the usual two, thereby providing continuity at a time when it was sometimes difficult to tell whether boats could go cruising or not.


Yet once there were the faintest chinks of light in the restrictions, they sailed the seas near and far.
But nevertheless there’s something encouraging about the fact that the adjudication by Tom Kirby of Clonakilty for the premier award, the Faulkner Cup, which dates from 1931, has gone to Clew Bay member Duncan Sclare, who’d bought a well-used 29ft Verl 900 on the west shores of the North Sea.
As soon as restriction-easing began in March, he sailed this little boat – called Quibus - home to Mayo in the seasonal fair winds of very raw easterlies, an efficient and seamanlike exercise in exemplary style which gave the Faulkner Cup a fresh perspective.

Plans of the Verl 900 – Duncan Sclare’s Quibus to this design is the smallest boat in many years to have been awarded the ICC’s premier trophy, the Falkner Cup

For many years now, high latitude places have feature in the top awards, and Svalbard or Spitzbergen – just as you wish – has been frequently visited in tines past, But these days that Arctic archipelago is not only too popular for its own good through being over-run by cruise liners, but it’s now considered political frontier country.
So Adrian Spence and Paddy Barry with the former’s 47ft ketch El Paradiso had more than enough problems to deal with in making a worthwhile visit there, but they are awarded the Strangford Cup nevertheless.

Adrian Spence’s Vagabond 47 El Paradiso found that Svalbard is now well-wrapped in red tape, yet she still managed enough cruising to be awarded the Strangford Cup

The Round Ireland cruise can be a work of art in its own right if properly executed, so the contest for its special cup is always fascinating, and in 2022 it was Vice Commodore Derek White of Strangford Lough, with his Limerick-built Fastnet 34 Ballyclaire, who got it right despite the weather in the west sometimes not being right at all.

Derek & Viv White’s Fastnet 34 Ballyclaire in Derrynane during their award-winning Round Ireland cruise


All the ICC logs have been superbly collected and presented in the professional-standard Annual by Maire Breathnach of Dungarvan.
Yet despite this winter workload, her own enthusiasm for cruising and cruising boats seems greater than ever, for although she and husband Andrew Wilkes were stuck in the Canaries during the depths of the lockdown with their 64ft gaff cutter Annabel J, they kept themselves busy by taking over and restoring an abandoned Nicholson 43 called Hunza which they sailed home in due course, thereby taking the ICC’s Atlantic Trophy.

Another ICC member who has always given over and above the call of duty if John Clementson of Strangford Lough, whose ability as a tech whizz landed him with the job of moving the Club into the Internet age, which he did so capably that his work has been recognised with the John B Kearney Cup for Services to Sailing.

The ICC now has a host of trophies covering every possibility of activity and achievement afloat, but one which those in the know look out for is the Fingal Cup for the log which the Adjudicator most enjoyed.
No-one will argue with Tom Kirby’s choice here, as it goes to Andy and Paddy McCarter of Lough Swilly, whose Starlight 35 Gwili 3 suddenly seemed very far away in her longterm Canary Islands base.

Andy and Paddy have both been Free Bus Pass holders for a while, but nothing daunted, they decided to bring Gwili 3 home to Ireland themselves, with both boat and crew requiring specialist attention at times.
In due course, they did it, and produced an enjoyable account of it all while they were at it, in the best ICC style in a club which is itself now beginning to think about its Centenary.

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