Tuesday 20 March 2018

Passing Slaney boat tradition to next generation

Fintan Kinsella, pictured crafting a 'Slaney Cot'.
Fintan Kinsella, pictured crafting a 'Slaney Cot'.

SINCE medieval times, fishermen from Enniscorthy to Wexford Harbour have built their own boats, uniquely suited to their fishing methods on the tidal river. However, that way of life is now all but obsolete due to the decline of fish stocks over the past 30 years.

One former Slaney fisherman, 67-year-old Nim Dunne, of Park in Bree, says that cot fishing on the river has been almost entirely wiped out.

'Back when I was a lad, people were fishing for salmon or sea trout on the river all the time, and there was one man, Jim Edwards, that came along to the river every day to buy whatever fish we caught and he sold it on to the wholesalers,' he said.

'With the fish stocks practically all gone and the EU law banning draft net fishing, I was afraid the cots would disappear altogether,' he added.

Catching fish from a Slaney cot required just one fisherman to row the boat, using lapped oars for leverage, while his companion stood on the bank with a warp attached to the one end of a large net that was folded in at the stern of the cot. The boat was used to cast the net in an arc through the water from the bank and the fish were trapped in the net and hauled in.

Nim, who is a founding member of the Edermine Rowing Club, said the Slaney racing cots were deliberately modelled on the traditional fishing cot design in a bid to keep the boats on the river.

'Carrying on the tradition of the old Slaney cot is part of what the Edermine Rowing Club is about and we intend to keep them going as long as we can,' he said.

While the Slaney racing cots have the same design as the old fishing cots, the racing boats are longer to allow for four people and a cox, instead of just two fishermen.

Today's Slaney racing cots also use a different rowing technique, the single sweep oar, for speed instead of the shorter lapped oars of the fishing cots which gave the lone rower more steering control.

'The cots are ideally suited to the Slaney because they are are easily run up onto grassy banks, but since fishing with them has become obsolete we must continue to use them as a sport and a hobby on the river or they will die out,' he said.

Nim's love of boats began as a boy when he went cot fishing with his father off the family farm near the Slaney river for salmon and sea trout. At 22 years of age he started rowing competitively and later in 1973, he set up the Edermine Rowing Club with just one cot.

In the late 1980s there was a renewed interest in the Edermine Rowing Club and membership grew quickly. It now boasts more than 140 members aged from six to 60 years and three Slaney cots, as well as two modern boats, designed by the Irish Coastal Rowing Federation, called 'One Design', which are an amalgated design of the various traditional rowing boats across the country.

'The first Slaney cots used by the Edermine club were The Boro Queen then The Boro Princess followed by The Boro Dale, which have now sunk to their watery graves.

Today the club owns the Boro Mist and The Lady Marmion as well as Nim's own boat, The Lady Power.

With each boat costing up to €2,500 to buy, self-trained boat builder Nim is currently building their newest cot, with the assistance of club members Fintan Kinsella, Colin Cahill (a joiner who has also provided the workshop space), Adam Boyce (also a joiner), and club members Paddy Cogley, John 'Spud' Murphy and Jim Power.

Building a cot by hand takes some 100 hours of labour, but the cost of the wood for one vessel is relatively cheap, at approximately €1,000, so with Nim at the helm, the rowing club has taken on the challenge of building its own cot.

'It's the labour and the finish of the boat that is the most expensive because of the cost of things like marine varnish and seats, and mounting oars,' he said.

Nim is using an original design by the late Pat Savage of Olyegate, who was a renowned boat builder.

There are just three or four cot builders still practising the craft across the entire county. This is in stark contrast to former times when almost every fisherman along the Slaney's banks would have built, or known how to build, his own cot, and there were several boat building companies and full-time boat builders in the county.

Modest in his craft, Nim said he learned how to repair and renovate cots from watching Killurin's part-time boat building expert Jim evine.

'Every boat builder has his own unique design but in the past the fishermen built better boats than the carpenters because they knew more what they needed from the boat,' he said.

The hardwood elm was traditionally used in the making the cots because it was strong, yet lightweight. However, the Dutch Elm Disease fungus devastated these native trees over the last 50 years. Today oak is sometimes used by the boat builders instead of elm, even though it is a heavier wood.

The Edermine team, however, are using good quality White Deal for the strakes (the outside boards), and Marine Ply, which is a type of manufactured hard wood, is used for the 'Knees' or the main framework of the boat.

'We are working more by hand and eye than by mechanical rule,' he said.

'There is basic set of plans that we try to follow but each piece of timber is individual and reacts in different ways to being stressed and pulled and bent, so while the finished product may not be perfect, it will look, and function the way it is supposed to,' he said.

With a wry smile, Nim also revealed some pithy phrases from the dying craft.

'In boat building circles we say "You nail where you can, and screw where you can't, and bolt where you have to".'

The new boat is expected to be launched on the river at Edermine in November, but that is largely dependant on the availability of the volunteer builders, who will have more time for cot building once racing season ends in September.

Last month the team took a group of Swiss rowers from Edermine to Ferrycarrig as part of a 'Row the World' challenge the foreign visitors were participating in.

'The visitors were delighted with the traditional boats and simply couldn't believe how quiet the waterway was because on the lakes in Switzerland they have to get up at 6 a.m. to train before the arrival of the crowds of other water sport users from about 10 a.m.,' he said.

According to Nim, the Slaney is an under-used leisure resource in the county and if the tidal river were dredged it could be used to better advantage.

Slaney Cot racing in the county has grown in popularity in recent years along the river, with clubs not only in Edermine but also in Killurin, Ferrycarrig, Maudlintown and Saltmills.

– Niamh Keegan

Wexford People

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