Mov­ing over the face of the wa­ters

DAVID MEDCALF CALLED IN TO THE BOAT HOUSE AT WICK­LOW’S NEW PIER TO LEARN ABOUT A MOD­ERN SPORT IN OLD-STYLE SKIFFS

Bray People - - INTERVIEW -

WICK­LOW Row­ing Club was formed 60 years ago but the or­gan­i­sa­tion draws on an even longer stand­ing tra­di­tion of coastal row­ing.

The club head­quar­ters at the New Pier in the port town is largely quiet at the mo­ment as the mem­bers take their win­ter break. Chair­man Robert Dunne re­mains on duty, how­ever, car­ry­ing out off-sea­son main­te­nance on the boats, which will be in con­stant ac­tion dur­ing the sum­mer months.

He traces the ori­gins of the club back to the 19th cen­tury when many cit­i­zens of the town earned their liveli­hood fish­ing or work­ing as dock­ers. In the days dom­i­nated by sail, the port han­dled large quan­ti­ties of cop­per ore com­ing from the Avoca mines as well as im­ports mainly from Britain.

As a ship car­ry­ing maybe coal or tim­ber hoved into sight on the way to land its cargo, the watch­ing men would be ready.

It was the cus­tom of the time that the job of un­load­ing the vis­it­ing ves­sel fell to the first team of dock­ers out to make con­tact.

So those who wanted the work would hop into their skiffs and haul their way out to the schooner at top speed to stake their claim for em­ploy­ment.

Nowa­days, crews com­pete for tro­phies where their fore­bears of tougher times raced to put food on the fam­ily ta­ble.

‘That’s how the rac­ing started – through ne­ces­sity,’ muses Robert, sit­ting amid the im­pres­sive ar­ray of mod­ern equip­ment in the club’s gym­na­sium.

‘It was not just the five peo­ple in the boat who de­pended on the out­come but their whole team too.’

The busi­ness of putting a more leisurely spin on the skills born of such des­per­a­tion be­gan in 1878 when the first Wick­low re­gatta was staged.

The sub­stan­tial prize money en­sured that com­pe­ti­tion was keen at the an­nual event, which will be held for the 139th time later this year.

In 2017, of course, the par­tic­i­pants will be happy to com­pete for sil­ver­ware, though the hun­gry ori­gins of their sport are not for­got­ten.

The wooden boats which the mod­ern oars­man (and more re­cently oar­swoman) pro­pels through the waves would be read­ily recog­nised by the Vic­to­rian dock­ers.

These sturdy craft are still pow­ered by four row­ers, just as they al­ways were, fac­ing back­wards and work­ing to the or­ders of a cox in the stern.

The her­itage is shared by eight other clubs along the coast, in­clud­ing Ark­low, Grey­stones and Bray along with the Dublin out­posts in Dalkey, Dún Laoghaire, Ringsend (two) and new­com­ers Sk­er­ries. To­gether the clubs pro­mote a pro­gramme of nine an­nual re­gat­tas, which pro­mote a spirit of friendly ri­valry along their stretch of the east coast.

Robert Dunne stresses that the boats have not changed since the prac­tice of us­ing a sim­ple sail was aban­doned more than a cen­tury ago.

The east coast skiff is a flex­i­ble craft which was de­signed to be used fish­ing for her­ring as well as serv­ing around the docks.

The stan­dard length is 25 feet, with a beam (width) of 5 feet and six inches at the widest point – and the club chair­man makes no apol­ogy for not us­ing met­ric mea­sure­ments.

His cur­rent fleet is four strong, two of the boats dating back to the 1950s, when Wick­low Row­ing Club first es­tab­lished. The old­est was con­structed in 1956 by Smith’s of Ringsend while the sec­ond made in Wick­low by Wil­liam War­ren in Bath Street a year or two later.

If tim­ber could talk, then they would surely have great tales to tell and they both re­main in great shape though now used prin­ci­pally in train­ing rather than in com­pe­ti­tion.

The third ele­ment of this fine fleet is a pro­ductt of the Ka­vanagh Brothers yard in Ark­low and it t was launched in 1999. The fourth is an im­port t made by an English skiff builder called Mau­ricee Hunkin in 2006 at his yard in Corn­wall.

Hunkin was ap­proved by the East Coast Row­ing Coun­cil as they at­tempted to bring in a com­mon stan­dard for all craft tak­ing part in thee events un­der their con­trol.

The Cor­nish man threw him­self and all hiss ex­per­tise into the ex­er­cise, vis­it­ing all the clubs s to carry out de­tailed re­search.

He se­lected Wick­low’s old work­horse ‘Saint t Man­ntan 1’ as his model: ‘He chose ours as his s tem­plate. He liked the build of it, an old boat andd the best main­tained,’ as Robert re­calls.

The Wick­low mea­sure­ments have since beenn faith­fully re-cre­ated many times since Hunk­inn took his mea­sure­ments and made his moulds.

He re­mains the prin­ci­pal sup­plier to thee var­i­ous clubs, though Ka­vanagh’s re­mains open for busi­ness in Ark­low and a yard in Done­gal is also avail­able.

Robert re­veals that his grand­fa­ther Sid Dunne e also used to build row­ing skiffs in the 1970s,, some­times in as­so­ci­a­tion with Peter Earls.

Ex­am­ples in­cluded the ‘The Star’ and ‘Colleen Bawn’ (made for the now dis­banded Leitrim club) which even­tu­ally proved pop­u­lar with sea scouts once their rac­ing days were done.

All the skiffs are clinker built. The term means that the hull com­prises over­lap­ping planks of best Ore­gon pine or sil­ver spruce, held in place with cop­per nails.

Wick­low Row­ing Club was formed on the ini­tia­tive of parish priest Father Hans, who was keen to pro­mote a healthy pas­time at a time when the Ir­ish econ­omy was in the dol­drums.

He helped to ar­range for a dis­used pub­lic toi­let to be made avail­able as premises close to the stony beach at the start of the Mur­rough.

The site re­mains the same though the lava­to­rial ori­gins of the greatly ex­tended build­ing are now im­pos­si­ble to recog­nise.

‘They cleaned it up and put a door on it and we have been here ever since,’ says the chair­man.

Many of the orig­i­nal row­ers were fish­er­men and dock­ers, while the cur­rent mem­bers mostly take to the sea strictly for re­cre­ation and fit­ness.

The club be­gan with an all-male line-up but has been cater­ing for women too since the 1960s,

andd ththey bbringi hhome ththeiri fful­lll shareh off ti­tlti­tles.

There are at least 100 mem­bers on the books, in­clud­ing 40 young­sters in the fast ex­pand­ing youth sec­tion for chil­dren who take up their oars from the age of 12.

It is not un­known for row­ers to keep their places in com­pe­ti­tion into their fifties and vet­eran events al­low the over-60s to take part.

The pier pro­vides a fine view­ing point for races in which crews are tested not only for their abil­ity to gen­er­ate speed in a straight line but also to tturn smart­lytl aroundd mark­erk bbuoys.

‘One of the big­gest thrills is turn­ing in front of a packed pier,’ ob­serves Robert, who has seen many a race de­cided at the buoys, by fair means and foul.

‘We say we have the best venue here in Wick­low for spec­ta­tors. It is great ex­er­cise and very in­tense in short bursts.’

A skiff with an ex­pert team on board ex­pects to com­plete a four kilo­me­tre event in un­der a quar­ter of an hour. The club reg­u­larly takes part in longer char­ity events, haul­ing up to Kil­coole or even Grey­stones and back.

In 1982 a crew even made it across the Ir­ish Sea to the Isle of Man and it is one of Robert’s en­dur­ing re­grets that he was deemed too young to take part in that epic round trip.

The club nour­ished by such long­stand­ing tra­di­tions in­tends to keep the old­est skiff in its fleet on the wa­ter for some time yet: ‘If prop­erly main­tained, we can keep it go­ing in­def­i­nitely,’ says the chair­man of ‘Saint Man­ntan 1’, though the 61-year-old is grad­u­ally be­com­ing wa­ter­logged de­spite all the care de­voted to her beau­ti­fully crafted hull. ‘There comes a point where we have to say we can­not con­tinue us­ing her for train­ing and we might just keep her for spe­cial oc­ca­sions.’

THE fact is that new­ness mat­ters and ‘Saint Man­ntan 4’ is the one ev­ery­one re­ally wants to take out on to the wa­ter, and there are de­mands to or­der ‘Saint Man­ntan 5’. ‘Saint Man­ntan 3’ is also used in races and, at 18 years old, she re­mains a good bet for a heavy crew and ca­pa­ble of turn­ing with com­mend­able agility.

Each club on the re­gatta cir­cuit has its own style, with Wick­low’s pull on the 14 or 15 feet tim­ber oars typ­i­cally long and heavy, ideal for deal­ing with heavy seas.

Con­trast that with the short and snappy row­ing which is the norm in Ringsend, where the Lif­fey es­tu­ary is a more shel­tered en­vi­ron­ment. Dún Laoghaire is the club with the big­gest mem­ber­ship but Wick­low and the other out­fits from the county are all com­pet­i­tive.

The club­house in Wick­low (shared with the sub-aqua club) is open six days a week dur­ing the row­ing sea­son – they usu­ally take Satur­days off. Though num­bers par­tic­i­pat­ing have grown, fresh re­cruits are al­ways wel­come – just come along to the pier or visit wick­lowrow­ing­club.ie.

MAIN PICTURE: An un­der-18 race at Wick­low Re­gatta Fes­ti­val. BE­LOW: Wick­low Row­ing Club chair­man Robert Dunne.

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