Ship had an impact way beyond maritime sector


BACKGROUND:"MY SHIP" was how the late taoiseach, Charles J Haughey, described Asgard II, which he launched in Arklow, Co Wicklow, in 1981. It was a sentiment shared by the thousands of trainees who sailed on the brigantine in Irish and international waters.

"The ship had a tremendous impact, way beyond the maritime sector," Michael Tyrrell, son of its designer, the late Jack Tyrrell, told The Irish Times yesterday.

"All sorts of people cut their teeth on board - people who might never have had a chance to go to sea otherwise," he said.

"It [the sinking] is very sad, when it survived several hurricanes and never broke a spar. At the same time, the captain and crew have to be complimented on ensuring that everyone was evacuated safely."

The vessel was commissioned in March, 1981, by Haughey - who sailed on its first passage up to Dublin from Arklow. However, former defence minister Paddy Donegan had initiated the project in 1973, a year before completion of the last official sail training season by the famous gun-running ketch Asgard.

The new ship was required to have a permanent crew of five, trained to handle up to 20 volunteers at any one time - and a total of 500 a year.

It became an ambassador for Ireland, winning numerous legs of tall ships races, crossing the Atlantic on several occasions and sailing to Australia in 1988.

Run by a voluntary committee, Coiste an Asgard, it was funded by the Department of Defence. Its mission statement was to ensure that anyone over the age of 16, regardless of background or income, would have the opportunity to spend time at sea on a traditional sailing ship.

These sea passages were "character-forming" and could not be measured on "any accountant's balance sheet", Frank Traynor, its first official mate, noted on RTÉ radio yesterday.

The age of trainees ranged from pre-Leaving Cert to beyond retirement. The ship could handle 70-knot winds, when trainees had to fight to take in seven-tonne sails and heavy ropes without the help of modern winches.

It also volunteered to assist during several marine emergencies in its time.

In a 2005 interview Capt Colm Newport summed up his experience of the vessel before Asgard II, the Jeanie Johnston and the Dunbrody sailed out of Waterford estuary in company for that year's tall ships event.

"When you are up the yards on one watch, and cleaning the toilets on another, you learn about compromise," he said.

"For some of the kids who join us, it's also the first time they've ever had to function without sleep. Then there's nothing quite like being at the helm under a starlit night off the Irish coastline, and it's something that doesn't leave you - you never forget."