Class of 21 deserves some loving care

Fri, Dec 28, 2007, 00:00

Sailing ColumnCentenary celebrations have been joyful occasions on Dublin Bay recently, opportunities to reflect on the capital's rich sailing tradition - and all a far cry from the sad reality of seven vintage yachts rotting in a farmyard.

But the fate of the Dublin Bay 21-foot class represents far more than the loss of a single class; it is bad news for the bay's yachting heritage at large.

Dún Laoghaire has these past 20 years turned a blind eye to the plight of the oldest intact one-design keelboat fleet in the world.

The modern sport of sailing is governed globally by rules formulated here in 1874. The clubs in Dún Laoghaire established the bay as one of global importance.

But for all the talk of the port's rich sailing history, when it comes to getting behind a project to save its own unique 21 class there is only lip service.

As originally designed by Alfred Mylne in 1900, the distinctive 21s, crewed by five or six, carry an astonishing 600 square feet of sail.

Despite the increasing financial burden, the dream of restoring the class to mint condition has been kept alive by a group of dedicated owners.

As far back as 1993 The Irish Times, in a Christmas sailing column, published details of plans to create a working museum of these antique yachts.

In the absence of a commercial sponsor to commit £150,000 at that time, the class pressed ahead with a group scheme, the object being to provide the nation, before the class centenary in 2003, with a working exhibit estimated at the time to cost £20,000 per boat. It never happened.

The project did, however, attract interest from international bodies such as the Musée de Bateau in Douarnenez, France.

It was also mooted, following an approach from US interests, the fleet be sold "lock, stock and barrel" to the States, where there is a tradition of cherishing and restoring old timber boats.

But the owners were keen for Ireland to hold on to the class.

With the benefit of hindsight that US offer may now look like an opportunity missed, given the boats still lie in the open air on a Wicklow farm.

Built between 1903 and 1908 in Dublin and Belfast, the boats are oak framed with yellow pine planking above the waterline and pitch pine below. The lead keels weigh two tons.

The hulls - considered fragile by Jack Tyrrell in 1988 - are still restorable even if some would need a virtual rebuild.

If Ireland is to enhance its reputation as one of the founders of yacht racing it must at least be able to preserve its roots.

This is the age of mass-produced glass-fibre boats, but Irish sailing still has the capacity to look after its old designs; all we need is the will.

No one involved in Dún Laoghaire sailing should be considered outside the Dublin Bay 21 circle, because the birth of the class 100 years ago was partly responsible for spawning the activity that over 5,000 sailors enjoy on the bay today.

Raising the finance is only one part of the 21 restoration story. If it is not feasible to restore the entire fleet surely a consortium of clubs and entrepreneurs could set sail in one or two? A change of attitude is all that is needed to put these boats back on the bay again.

It's a lovely idea, much nicer than rotting hulks in a farmyard.

Hurricane Charlie finally ruined active Dublin Bay 21 fleet racing in August 1986. Two 21s sank in the storm, suffering the same fate as their sister ship four years earlier; Estelle actually sank twice, once on her moorings and once in a near-tragic downwind capsize.

Despite their collective salvage from the sea bed, the class decided the ancient boats should not be allowed suffer anymore. To avoid further deterioration and risk to the rare craft all seven 21s were put into storage in 1989 under the direction of the naval architect Jack Tyrrell at his yard in Arklow.

While two of the fleet, Garavogue and Geraldine sailed to their current home, the other five, in various states of disrepair, were carried the 50-odd miles to Arklow by road. Nineteen years later the work is yet to start.