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.

Cadoret and his wife Michelle suggested that the Bantry longboat would be an ideal craft for the various tasks, with its 10 oars, its three-masted dipping lug sail, and its minimum crew of 13. The first challenge was held under the shadow of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbour in 1986.

Since then, more than 70 of the “Bantries”, as they have been nicknamed, have been built worldwide. Ireland hosted the event once before, in 1996 in Bantry, naturally, and so this year’s return is something akin to an Olympics of seamanship.

About 17 participating crews, 15 of whom are competing, have begun to arrive in the town, where they have been assigned “shore bases” in the classrooms of the new Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí secondary school.

The crew panel of 20, with a minimum of 13 in each craft, comprises at least four male and four female sailors or rowers, and half of the complement must be under the age of 21. Ireland is sporting three vessels – one from Bantry, one from Meitheal Mara in Cork and one international mix of Irish, Lithuanians, Russians and Chileans using the Waterford longboat An Seabhac Mara.

Last week, Bantry’s own Unité, which has won the challenge on four previous occasions, was being painted and prepared for the water in a storage hangar at the local airstrip. Team member Jack Rice explained how the challenge involves navigating a triangular course by sail and oar, and completing man-overboard exercises and a slalom (without a rudder).

Each crew member has to rotate “billets” or positions, so that everyone can experience the “loneliness of command”. Crew must be able to whip and splice, tie their bowlines and sheepshanks, and knot a monkey’s fist to weight a rope for casting ashore.

The bay, framed by Bantry House, Whiddy Island and the 284m peak of Knocknaveagh, forms a natural amphitheatre. From shore last week, one could almost hear the kettle brewing on the Naval Service patrol ship LE Orla, which anchored near the course to host a reading for the West Cork Literary Festival.

Chairman Diarmuid Murphy, the son of Dr Matt Murphy and proprietor of the Fish Kitchen restaurant, is directing a hardworking team of volunteers. He was reared on longboat skills, and his extensive seagoing experience includes participation in a voyage undertaken between Denmark and Ireland by the world’s largest Viking replica, Sea Stallion, in 2007.

The first contest for the “ambassadors in seaboots” takes place this Saturday.

The Atlantic Challenge Bantry Bay Gig World Championships is on July 21st-29th, including a world-record attempt for the largest pirate gathering on July 28th.