Searching for a new boat
Iwent to the edge of the known world recently, as the west coast of Ireland was once known, to look at a Galway hooker (the ones that sail, not the ones that solicit). It is all part of my search for a traditional craft that combines a certain aesthetic with shoal draught and I had become spellbound by video footage taken from a drone of a fleet of these alluring boats circling a shallow bay. As an accordion added the soundtrack they looked, with their crow-black hulls and their high-peaked deep tan sails, like Macbeth’s witches dancing around the cauldron.
It was in Galway itself that I saw my first hooker. She was hauled up on a scruffy beach at Claddagh with an assorted collection of yachts moored fore and aft against the harbour wall by Nimmo’s Pier. That she didn’t require the harbour wall to lean against when taking the ground was the first box ticked.
Her sides were a dull black – tar shines when it’s first applied, but the gleam soon wears off – and on her starboard bilge the owner had lashed a beer crate, rather like a gant pole, to prop her up. She had a long keel drawing no more than three and a half feet.
I paced out her length – 26ft – and took in her lines: she had a curved stem, a transom raked at a 45-degree angle upon which a barndoor rudder was attached and bulbous topsides which rolled into a pronounced tumblehome. A very strange but beautiful shape.
She was an open boat apart from a short foredeck, below which a hatch was padlocked. Under this I estimated that there was enough room, just, to fit a berth each side and provide a small stove on the centre line.
Her timbers were massive beneath hefty thwarts and she was engineless. But there was no rig to inspect.
Further along the Wild Atlantic Way, as the coast road is named, we arrived at Clifden in Connemara where there was a hooker for sale. This one had been freshly tarred and still had a shine to her topsides. She was similar to her sister in Galway, but had an old Lister diesel throwing a big three-bladed prop.
For boats of moderate length the rig is hefty: a 30ft pole mast of solid Oregon pine, galvanised single stay rigging, a dressed canvas mainsail and staysail, and a 12ft bowsprit that takes a large jib.
They are not so much mediaeval as agricultural – quite literally – as they were built to carry turf, seaweed for fertiliser and even farm animals.
Still further along the coast, in Sligo, we looked out over the stony Streedagh Beach where three ships of the ill-fated Spanish Armada had come ashore in 1588. A lone surfer rode the seas that once had done for the Men-of-War and as I looked at an embossed heritage plaque depicting the shipwrecks, I had a moment of déjà vu. Take the upper works off a Spanish galleon and scale her down and you have something very similar to… a Galway hooker.
I was left to ponder the pros and cons without the benefit of a sail, alas, as it was too early in the season. Most boats had yet to fit out.
I could get one decked and fitted with berths easily enough, but how to get her home? I could sail her back, I guess. They are made to take the Atlantic weather, but it would be a Spartan voyage before being fitted with accommodation. A road trailer would be out of the question as they are too heavy. Road transport would require a low loader, which would clearly be expensive.
So, dear reader, the hunt is still on for a gaffer no less than 26ft between perpendiculars, with a draught of under four feet, either long-keeled or a centreboarder, or both.
If you can help, the Guinness will be on me next time.
‘It was in Galway itself that I saw my first hooker’