Challenging gig brings sailors from around the world
Hundreds of sailors are gathering in Bantry Bay for a maritime festival that harks back to Wolfe Tone’s time
WHEN Mary Wickham sends a message in a bottle, one must pay attention. This is not just any old bottle, but one of several thousand collected by school pupils in the west Cork town of Bantry to make an illuminated sculpture.
Boasting “the dimensions of a blue whale”, the completed creation of plastic cartons in the town’s inner harbour is modelled on a Bantry longboat.
The original 200-year-old longboat or yole is the sole relic of Wolfe Tone’s unsuccessful attempt to bring French soldiers to Ireland in 1796. This inspired a committee, involving Wickham, to organise a seamanship competition that takes place at the end of this month. The 11.5m “admiral’s barge” was washed up on Bere island in December 1796, with a French lieutenant by the name of Proteau on board from the frigate La Résolue.
Proteau was one of about 13,000 to 15,000 troops under the command of General Hoche on board about 48 French ships. Many of the vessels were caught in terrible storms and had to anchor in Bantry Bay to wait out the weather. After six days within 450m of the coast, the ships were forced to sail back to the French port of Brest. “We were near enough to toss a biscuit ashore,” Tone wrote in exasperation.
Yeomanry loyal to the English crown and under the command of Richard White of Bantry House apprehended the “barge”. The longboat, which would in time prove to be the oldest surviving vessel in the French navy, was brought to White’s boathouse, where it lay for 150 years.
In 1944 it was presented to the National Museum of Ireland, before being transferred, 30 years later by maritime historian Hal Sisk, to the Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire. It has now been reclaimed by the National Museum and is on exhibit in Collins Barracks, Dublin, where Tone was once imprisoned.
Bantry has a natural affinity with its coastline, and six-oar racing gigs are indigenous to the region. In 1987, Sisk contacted Dr Matt Murphy, the town GP, and asked him if he could rustle up a crew for a new contest called the Atlantic Challenge. The volunteers realised very quickly they also had to know how to sail.
The venue for this challenge was Douarnenez in northwest France in 1988, but the event had been conceived several years before by French classic boat expert and maritime journalist Bernard Cadoret and north American Lance Lee, who initiated an Atlantic Challenge Foundation to promote traditional maritime skills.
The pair were inspired by educationalist Kurt Hahn, who had set up the Outward Bound schools and encouraged former Allied youth to serve at sea together after the second World War.