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
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 product of the Kavanagh Brothers yard in Arklow and it was launched in 1999. The fourth is an import made by an English skiff builder called Maurice 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 the events under their control.
The Cornish man threw himself and all his expertise into the exercise, visiting all the clubs to carry out detailed research.
He selected Wicklow's old workhorse 'Saint Manntan 1' as his model: 'He chose ours as his template. He liked the build of it, an old boat and the best maintained,' as Robert recalls.
The Wicklow measurements have since been faithfully re-created many times since Hunkin took his measurements and made his moulds.
He remains the principal supplier to the 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 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, and they bring home their full share of titles.
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 turn smartly around marker buoys.
'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.