Irish sail training “shipshape” in spite of Asgard II loss

Annual trainees awards due to be presented in Dublin today

Witnessing a “whiskey planking” is not an everyday event in a politician’s diary, but Minister for the Marine Simon Coveney is on the guest list for one in a south coast boatyard next month.

The "whiskey plank" is the last piece of timber fitted to the outer shell of a wooden hull. The last nail being knocked into the hull of a restored ketch named Ilen is a significant milestone for master shipwrights – and for the Irish sail-training programme.

As Gary McMahon, leader of the Ilen restoration team, explains, Ireland will soon get a "fine little authentic ship" which has as much history behind it as the original Asgard.

Named after a west Cork river, the Ilen was designed by Conor O'Brien, the first Irish man to sail around the world in a small boat, and was built in Baltimore for use as a trading vessel in the Falkland Islands.

After its launch in 1926, O’Brien sailed it in Kerry waters before taking it on its delivery run to the southern ocean with two Cape Clear islanders, Denis Cadogan and his cousin Con, as crew.

Classic boats

McMahon secured its return to Ireland in 1998 and formed a not-for-profit trust to rebuild what he described as the “perfect expression” of an Irish sailing vessel back in west Cork. There’s still a bit to go, but he is hoping it will be certified for sail training within a year.

And that training is "never in better shape" here since its nadir in 2008 when the brigantine Asgard II sank in the Bay of Biscay. The wringing of hands "didn't last too long", according to those involved in establishing Sail Training Ireland (STI), a charity with a commitment to maintaining Asgard II's mission. Formed in 2011 with the support of Dublin port, the charity replaced Coiste an Asgard as an umbrella organisation for sail training activities, and promptly set out to find other "ships of opportunity". Michael Byrne, its manager, was familiar with the fact that many tall ships visited Irish ports as part of race festivals or during summer cruises. His initial focus was to secure funding which would assist Irish trainees in securing berths on such vessels, including the Dutch-registered brig Morgenster and the Dutch schooner Gulden Leuw.

Sail-training vessel

A 70ft classic schooner named

Spirit of Oysterhaven

swung in behind STI, and is Ireland’s only operational non-naval sail-training vessel – until such time as the


joins the fleet. More than 500 Irish trainees have now been to sea and the programme is on a “very firm footing”, Byrne says.

Dubliner Jonathan O’Brien (34) is due to receive a “volunteer of the year” award at STI’s annual prizegiving in Dublin today. He explains that sail training is about far more than the term suggests.

“You have a bunch of young kids from all sorts of backgrounds, who don’t know each other, you break them up into watches and they have to learn about getting on, sailing a ship, and about life.”

STI is now finding berths for almost as many trainees as during the life of the Asgard II. It is working with the Merseyside Adventure Sailing Trust and its 2015 season includes a number of new schemes.

One such is a project with the Garda and Naval Service aimed at young people from Dublin. The aim is to use lottery funding to offer berths for those who might have least opportunity and might benefit most.

A cross-Border programme has also been set up with the Atlantic Youth Trust under the 2014-17 Reconciliation Fund, while the European Commission will also fund projects under the new Erasmus + scheme on the Morgenster.

A Drogheda sail-training bursary scheme supported by the Drogheda Port Company is in its third year and the Belfast Tall Ships race festival will support almost 100 berths for young people on a voyage to Norway. STI says it works well with the Atlantic Youth Trust (AYT), which has a remit to secure a permanent Irish sail-training vessel. Members of an AYT Foróige trainee group – Michael Collins, Dean McKeon, Brandon McDonagh, Daniel O'Halloran – are due to receive the perpetual Asgard award at today's event in Dublin.

Master of ceremonies will be sailing journalist Winkie Nixon, and the host will be Lord Mayor Christy Burke, who is also honorary "admiral" of Dublin port.