Back to the future in a Shannon hooker

 

A project to recreate a traditional wooden Shannon hooker – not the same as the Galway version – and adapt it for modern use is helping to revitalise parts of the Shannon Estuary

IN A workshop in Querrin, Co Clare, shipwright and New Zealand native Steve Morris shows a group of trainees how to recreate one of the workhorse boats that once plied the Shannon Estuary when it was still a highway for transporting goods.

The boat, whose keel and ribs are still exposed before the next phase of planking it begins, is reminiscent of a Galway hooker but, at 25 feet and weighing five tonnes, it is a smaller craft.

Because it is being built as a sail-training vessel, Morris is moving away from a purist vision of what the craft was as a cargo-carrying boat to one that would meet the needs of a new generation of traditional sailing trainees. The boat’s two-tonne ballast is a lead casting, which is external to the craft instead of the traditional sand, gravel or stones, which can move in rough seas. A three-cylinder, 27-horsepower diesel engine is also being fitted, an important safety feature for getting a boat out of trouble if it is in danger of running aground.

Otherwise, the materials are traditional ones: the oak keel and ribs were sourced from Coillte-managed forest in Dundrum, Co Tipperary, and the larch planks – which are being left to season outside for the next eight weeks – came from Mountbellew, Co Galway.

But unlike the Galway hooker or the Heir Island lobster boat in Co Cork, the Shannon workboats may not have had a unique design. “There is no real evidence that there was a generic Shannon hooker,” says Morris, who believes Galway hookers were probably used alongside a distinctive estuary currach for carrying turf, fish and foodstuffs to towns and villages with no port facitilites.

“What I liked about this idea was that we were designing a boat that is more built for purpose, which is as a sail-training vessel that will be a safe boat that will sail well and will never need to carry six tonnes of fish,” he says.

Morris says there were mixed feelings about the new boat in the Seol Sionna group, which was originally formed to revive the dying art of currach-building in the region and following the success of that, moved on to the idea of a sail-training vessel.

The group was also inspired by the discovery of remains of a timber boat in Blackweir, a tributary to the Shannon Estuary’s Poulnasherry Bay. One of the founding members of Seol Sionna, Richard Collins, says he and a group of fellow enthusiasts dug out more of the ancient boat and as they learned more about its history, they were able to locate a 95-year-old man who had loaded the barge as a boy. “It turned out to be a turf cot, used specifically to bring the turf from the bank to a sailing hooker. As we dug it up, we heard more stories about it.

“We were not just digging up the boat, we were digging up the whole social history around Poulnasherry going back hundreds of years. Vast quantities of turf were brought from Poulnasherry to Limerick.”

Meanwhile, Morris, who worked on the Jeannie Johnston and traditional fishing craft in Cornwall, as well as building his own hooker, helped with the re-imagined concept of the Shannon hooker as sail-training vessel after it was initially researched by traditional boat expert and UCD archivist Críostoír Mac Cárthaigh and designed by naval architect Myles Stapleton.

The boat will be carvel-built, meaning that its planks will be flush with each other, giving a smooth hull. It will be classed as a cutter and will be single-masted, with a main sail and two head sails. Seol Sionna have also organised a Yachtmaster navigation course to be run during the winter for prospective sailors.

The VEC-supported project has been funded by Leader rural development funding through the Clare Local Development Fund. Twelve trainees are learning the craft of timber boat-building. “They all signed up because they were interested. What I am trying to do is let them get stuck into it. It’s a chance of a lifetime to see a boat like this being built from start to finish.”

Skipper Denise Twomey says she finds the project fascinating because of the insights it gives her into how a boat works. “You understand how a boat moves by building it. If there is a problem somewhere, you know how it would move better in the water.”

Trainee and fisherman Emmet Ryan underlines how sailing craft can re-connect towns and villages between Kerry and Clare after lorries replaced boats as the dominant form of transport. “We think of [the hooker] as a link. She will link the coast and she will link communities,” he says.

This has already happened with the currach project and multiple regattas held during the summer months. The greater vision is that, as with the revival in currach regattas along the west coast, traditional sailing vessels would return to the Shannon Estuary to take advantage of the dozens of underused jetties and piers sprinkled along the coasts of Clare, Kerry and west Limerick.

“If this boat goes well, we have the model and design and there would be nothing stopping another community on the estuary doing one. If there were fleets of them out there, it would really make the Shannon,” says Seol Sionna member Trea Heapes.

The boat will be launched in August. “We are going to try to get as many traditional boats as we can together. My idea would be to keep the weekend in the diary for a traditional boat festival every year,” Heapes says.