ONE of the highlights of the summer in West Kerry has to be the various regattas that take place in villages around the Dingle Peninsula.
This time-honoured tradition sees competitors from the age of nine to up to the ranks of well seasoned seniors race on the Atlantic waves in naomhóga, light boats made of tarred canvasl over a frail wooden lattice that were once commonly used for fishing and that are now something of a motif for the maritime culture and tradition of Corca Dhuibhne. The naomhogs, famously likened to shiny black beetles, will be in action on the water over the summer at regattas in Ventry, Ballydavid, Brandon, the Maharees and Dingle.
Indeed the Dingle Regatta attracted national attention when former Taoiseach, the late Charles J Haughey, became something of a patron of the event, and he always did his best to ensure that he made it to Dingle every summer to fire the starters shot at the beginning of the men's senior race. Since his passing, his family have continued this local tradition with his sons, their families and grand-children making the pilgrimage to Dingle every summer to be part of the regatta.
Today, one of the area's most renowned rowers is Maunza Heidtke, who at 21 years of age arrived in Dingle from Dortmund, in Germany back in 1988 and has since played a huge part in helping to develop the sport in Corca Dhuibhne.
"I moved over to join my father Pepsi and my brother Frank, who had settled in Dingle, and I decided to give rowing a go – I suppose I felt I wanted to get involved in something locally," she explained.
Back in Germany Maunza had no experience of boats but it didn't take long for her to discover a passion, and a natural talent, for rowing in the traditional naomhógs.
"The club, Cumann Ramhaíochta Chorca Dhuibhne, was established the year after I arrived and I just got drawn into it. They taught me how to row and soon I became part of a crew that competed at the different regattas around the peninsula in Ventry, Ballydavid, Brandon, Maharees and Dingle," she said.
It soon became clear that Maunza could compete with the best of them and she rose up in the ranks, giving the hardy, often weather-worn, seafarers who had grown up in the discipline a run for their money. Over the years the amount of wins Maunza and her crews have racked up is incalculable and she is now recognised as one of the true bastions of the sport, not just in West Kerry, but along the entire west coast of Ireland.
She has also played a key role in developing the underage element of naomhóg racing and now the club in Dingle boasts rowers from the age of nine upwards. Along with West Kerry rowing stalwart and naomhóg builder Eddie Hutchinson, Maunza trains local children (boys and girls) and adults and they can be seen in action around Dingle Marina three or four night a week. They have also expanded the club by sending competitors out to other regattas in Clare and Galway and last year their U18 crew won the All-Ireland title.
"When I first started out it was mainly seniors competing but now there is a strong generation of young rowers and this is very positive for the future of the sport," she said.
Asked what it was about naomhog racing that engaged her, she simply answers: "it suited me". "I was reasonable at it." Modest words indeed from one of the best naomhóg rowers West Kerry has ever seen.
Maunza's brother Frank is another prominent seafarer through his involvement with the coast guard services and last year he was one of the few chosen to greet Queen Elizabeth II in the Phoenix Park on her official state visit.
Maunza also cites her late father Pepsi, who also loved the sea, as a source of inspiration through his immense support for her endeavors over the years.
Reflecting on the many years of success, Maunza is philosophical. "We'd had many wins, but we have had lean years and lost our fair share also. But it's great to see the next generation engage in the sport and we are confident of producing strong senior competitors; its definitely progressing in the right direction," she said.
You can catch Maunza competing this summer with her crew of Tara Follan, Elaine Waters and the 2011 Kerry Rose Shelia Ní Dheargáin.
"It is great exercise and an excellent way to encourage teamwork as you really have to work together when you have four people together in a naomhóg," Maunza quipped.
With an eager young generation coming up through the ranks, the future of naomhóg racing in the west is secure but Maunza will no doubt put them through their paces this summer at regattas in the Maharees (July 8), Ventry (July 29), Ballydavid (August 6), Dingle (August 18 and 19) and Brandon (August 26).
Cumann Ramhaíochta Chorca Dhuibhne's Facebook page also contains the details of forthcoming events this summer; check out Facebook.com/DingleRowingClub for details.