Tag Archives: sailing

A look at the Achill yawl

Achill Island is famous for its marvellous traditional boats. In the old days before roads, the best way to transport goods was by water and so these smart little local boats – the Achill yawls – would sail south past a necklace of tiny islands – Clare Island, Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishshark –  and round into Galway to pick up goods that had been transported there by the big steamers.

Last time I was on Achill, I took my ease – and a hot whiskey – in Pattens pub:

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And there, I met the two Joyces: Thomas and Tommie, father and son.

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The roads have improved since the old days and so cars and buses have replaced water transport but the yawls remain as a reminder of the skills that went into both the making of them and then the sailing of them.

Nowadays, Tommie Joyce sails them and his father – a fisherman and  a  boatbuilder – makes them to scale.

Here’s a picture of the Mayo Man, made to scale by Thoms Joyce:


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Mayo Man is owned ( and sailed in its full size) by chair of the Achill Yawl Association, Dr. Cowley. Here he is,  on the right:

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And by the way, Dr Cowley’s wife, Teresa, takes the most brilliant photos of yawls, water and light on water I have ever seen.

The whole point about all this sailing activity is that there’s an on-going festival of events and yawl races on Achill throughout the  year:

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The main race in June was won by  Yellow Rose, owned by Micheal  (“The Shore” ) Patten. Michael’s father, also Michael Patten, was another great boatbuilder.

Back in the day, yawls were made of oak and larch and the yard was made of pine though nowadays it’s made of light aluminium. The sails were linen which wasn’t great because linen is very heavy when it gets wet but made of  linen and calico they were – and all handsewn.

Now the sails  come up from  Cork which, in the great days of sail, was the biggest exporter of sailcloth in Europe – but that’s another story.

Early yawls were called double-enders as they had matching pointed ends fore and aft  and though there’s bound to be a sailing term for this  I’m afraid I don’t know it. Later, the transom stern was introduced which had a straight stern, making it easier to load and off load goods.

Sailing a yawl is sailing by the seat of your pants. One sail, few sheets, no traveller and definitely no technology apart from the brain and the hands and the skill and wisdom of the skipper who held a corner of the sail in his hand and conducted things from there. When you changed tack, you walked the sail round the mast to the other side.

The crew – usually about 7 – did what they were told and also acted as ballast so all the business of sailing etc was done in the area of the mast in order to maintain balance. Not easy.

And what about going in to the water? It’s no secret that most fishermen – and that meant most Achill yawl sailors – don’t swim. But now with Brussels not far away,   Health and Safety makes its demands which is why the Achill Yawls have their own safety boat in attendance.

Here are a few more yawls:2014 may achill h boll fest yawls etc 023


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Hang on – where did this boat come from?


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Testing, testing: This isn’t  a yawl but a Galway Hooker.


If you’d like to know more about the Cruinniu Badoiri Acla, you’ll find info on their Face Book site – Yawl Racing Achill





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The Achill Island Yawl.

  This is a short  blog about the marvellous boats on Achill, a small island on the edge of the west coast of Ireland.


 The blog is short because I have a concert tomorrow at the National Concert Hall and have to do a bt of a practice. And also because there is so much to say about the yawls and the people who make them and sail them.

Sailing a yawl is nothing like sailing an 11 metre yacht. The former is sailing by the seat of your pants.


Here are a few scale models of Achill Island yawls.

Image  This one is Mayo Man, owned and sailed by Dr Cowley who is also chair of the local sailing group.


Here’s another scale model:  These Image All these models ( there are more to come when I do the next blog) are made by Thomas Joyce whose son, Tommy, sails a yawl.

 And Imagehere’s a blow-in, literally. This  is a Galway Hooker. Isn’t she marvellous?


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High up on Watson’s Bay with a blue sea below and a bluer sky above, Sydney did what only Sydney can do – offering  a panoramic view of the start of the 2013 Sydney to Hobart yacht race.

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Below,  the white bright sails glimmered in the water, the two maxi yachts with their black sails already battling it out. But I was rooting for the clipper ship the London Derry Doire, sponsored by Derry City.


There are 12 clipper ships on a round the world race with this leg of it taking in the Hobart race.

The previous day, in the bar of the Crusing Club of Australia, in Rushcutters Bay, I chatted with some of the crew including Michelle Porter who had had to lifted off by the South African coastguard when she’s suffered a broken arm during a knockdown in the Indian Ocean. ” But I’m like a magnet,” she told me,” I’m always drawn back ot the boat.”

The knockdown ( it only takes a second or so for the mast to come back up again) left two others of the crew dangling by their harnesses. Funny now, not then. There’s always the memory of the terrible year when a storm claimed the lives of six sailors.

This year, the weather forecast isn’t great: down by the Bass Straits, they’re expecting winds gusting at 60 knots and waves 12 metres high – all part of the expected storm later today.

The big boats will have their storm sails up – made not for raciong but for surviving – while the clippers will plough onwards. As ocean-going yachts, this is what they’re built for.

” We even have our own sewing machine on board specially adapted for asymetrical sails,” Conor O Byrne tells me as we chatted pre race in the floating pontoon by the boat. Conor, now a garda siochana, used to work for the RNLI in Dublin.

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Like all such ventures, there are superstitions attached to sailing. Because the boat is mainly Irish, I’d expected the crew logo to be green but no: ” No,” says Nick Blewer, a financial consultant from Cheltenham, ” green is the colour of land – not a good thing when you’re sailing.”

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As the fleet came out through the heads, the tiny motorised convoy of well wishers buzzed to and fro among the yachts until they turned back to the safety of Sydney Harbour leaving the racing yachts to carry on alone, ready for whatever the seas and winds might throw at them.

When I woke in the middle of the night, I thought of the crew of the Derry. At 1am, they’d be getting ready for their third watch….


Stop press: 24 hours into the race, the Derry is holding her own on the top 6.  Derry  Abu!



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Omagh, home of poets – and Ben Kiely.

It’s not hard to like the small town of Omagh. Tucked snugly into the valley of the Strule river, in the county of Tyrone, it is of manageable size.There’s the Court House, a few bridges over the river, the well-stocked Carlisle bookshop – and the marvellous Strule Arts Centre with a lecture theatre, conference rooms, a café, recording studio and, for free, a terrific overview of the river which, at this point, has a fish path created to aid the salmon as they make their mystical journey back up the river.


Omagh is the home of Benedict Kiely, prolific writer, joker and raconteur, whose memory is celebrated with the Ben Kiely Literary Weekend, held every year in September.

This year, the theme was travel with artist Eamon Coleman showing his work in Northern Ireland for the first time. Writers included Carol Drinkwater, Afric McGlinchey, Patricia Craig and Eoin Bourke with Paul Clements and Manchan Magan leading a discussion on travel and travel writing. My own contribution was on Sunday morning when I read from my book on Syria – and even found someone in the audience who spoke Arabic.

It was a great gathering of townspeople and others from further away such as Glenties and Portaferry – where, on a sailing jaunt, I was once left high and dry. Literally. That was the boat, by the way, not me.

Saturday afternoon, we were given an unexpected treat: a bus ride out into the hinterland of Omagh. Parked high up on Pigeon Top


, we had a stupendous view of the Sperrin mountains and, looking dead straight ahead westwards, Muckish and the volcanic cone of Errigal: Donegal – my soul home! (The graffiti comes free, by the way.)


   Then we side-tracked along a private road to the site of an old mass rock. This is our shepherd – Frank Sweeney.Image

Tucked into the hillside where no one could see them, the people used to come here in the penal days and now, once year, they still come to make their local pilgrimage. The place is Corradinna with the land made available by the two local people.


 Next up was Langfield Church in Drumquin and a lovely walk to the former rectory there along a secret, sunlit path.


Strule Arts Committee member Georgina Millar now owns the rectory and the cherry on the cake was a chance to hear her play the piano. A serene occasion.


 On the way back, we passed through Dromore where Ben Kiely’s parents met and where he was born before they moved to Omagh and from where he eventually moved to Dublin’s Donnybrook.

 But wait. I’ve forgotten something. Another deviation took us to the waterfall at Sloughan which, if you want to pretend to be a local, you pronounce Slavin.


It was here that the Black Bush was produced and where, with Frances Kiely and Ben’s old friend Stephen McKennaImage, we drank Ben’s health.

It must surely be something in the water – or the whiskey – for this area has produced many writers: Seamus Heaney is only a stone’s throw away in Derry, Flann O Brien is in nearby Strabane and the great John Montague is from just down the road in Garavaghy. Truly, Omagh is a special place.

The annual Ben Kiely Literary Festival is run by volunteers with the support of Omagh District Council. To find out more, email struleartscentre@omagh.gov.uk

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Antigua, I’m comin’ through…



My Home is Your Home is getting around. This week, I set off for the small island of Antigua, in the eastern Caribbean. There’s a triple purpose to this visit: 1)  I will give a presentation about my travel book on  Syria at the Museum in the capital, St John’s.

Ive been invited to do this because, on my last visit, I gave a talk there about Ann Davison, the first woman to sail solo across the Atlantic, making landfall at English Harbour. This time, my audience will include some of the 500 or so Syrians wh0 have made Antigua their home.


 The second reason is to do some research for my next book which is about the glory days of Cork when the great sailing ships cast off  loaded with delicious creamy butter bound mainly for – you’ve guessed it –  Antigua.

 This is also the subject of an RTE radio doc I’ll be making ( if the funding comes through) about this same butter and how it made the first part of its journey along the old butter roads of  Kerry and Cork. The doc will be called From Cahirciveen to the Caribbean.


And my third reason for visiting Antigua – the last but far from the least – is to visit family including my gorgeous grandaughter whom I haven’t seen for nearly three years. And you’re not to tell anyone because she doesn’t know I’m coming! I’m her birthday present –  one of them.

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