Harbour Hobblers

Last Saturday I had the good fortune to
call over to Waterford Airport to see the materials that were uncovered by Noel
McDonagh at Creaden Head, Co Waterford. 
While there we got into a conversation with Michael Farrell of the
Barony of Gaultier Historical Society and Brendan Dunne and his son Ian about
the area around Creaden and one curious place name that jumped out at me was
the Hobblers Rock.  The feature is on the
upper side of the headland, in a sheltered spot, and was a departure point for
the hobblers and their boats in a vital element of our maritime trade, ship
pilotage and docking.
The term Hobbler was first introduced to me
as a boy, listening to the stories of my father and the older men of
Cheekpoint. Their definition has been challenged by others, enhanced or
diminished, depending on who you listen to.  Indeed many look at you, if you mention the word, like you had another head.  Thinking more likely about Hobbits!
Hobbler attending the MV Julia at Waterford circa 1950
Shortall via the Andy Kelly collection
According to my father a hobbler was defined as one of a team of
men who rowed down the harbour in long punts and vied with each other to have
the right to guide a ship into Waterford or New Ross. He admired them as hard working, tough and
resilient men who could row miles off the Hook to engage a craft, and if need be, tow a
ship past Cheekpoint up through the Kings Channel and into the city. (Or via the Barrow to New Ross) Crews were
made up from all the villages and the towns and the competition between crews was fierce. 
The method of securing the right to take charge of a ship has
variations in its telling too. Some said
that it was a straightforward race; first hobbler team to get a rope aboard the
incoming vessel secured the prize. However I have also heard that bidding wars took place with ships
masters, when conditions allowed. Competing hobbler teams would be forced into a bidding war, resulting in bad feeling, scuffles or much worse. My father had one story of a man named Whistler who lost almost all his teeth in a row with another hobbler. As my father had it, thereafter you would hear the Whistler coming because of the wind blowing through his damaged teeth! 
Other accounts say that it was just a
couple of men in a boat, which met incoming boats and won the right to tie them
up. Others talk of winning the right to
discharge or load ships. Whilst others
again talk of them almost in terms of a modern era tug boat, used to move ships
from moorings to berths and vice versa.  Another
curious aspect of the hobbler story is that in Cheekpoint one theory of the
site known locally as “the Lookout” was also linked to them.  I’ve speculated before on a link to this site
and other lookout points as a signaling system employed within the port.
Hobblers mooring a WWI era troop ship. Artist Charles Pears.
First published in the Illustrated London News Jan 1916

With the formation of the Waterford Harbour
Board[1] in
1816 piloting became more organised and pilot boats were employed to put recognised
pilots aboard ships.  This must certainly
have impacted the role of the hobbler, but not completely (I’ve seen accounts of hobblers piloting as late as 1894). I also read
that on the south coast of England “Hovellers” [2]
were a description of the craft or men that sailed as far as Lands End at times
in search of incoming ships in need of a pilot. Indeed the term also existed in Cork and Dublin (I haven’t seen it recorded elsewhere as yet). David Carroll has only recently sent me a book[3]
highlighting their courage and skill, including one poignant story of a
hobblers crew demise.

The Hobbler memorial at Dun Laoighre.  Photo via Derek Carroll and passed along by page regular David Carroll

I’m now convinced that the reason so many
definitions or accounts of hobblers exist, is because the stories I have heard
come from at least two hundred years of maritime trade. Their roles altered as times changed, perhaps initially with the
formation of the Harbour Board and the formalisation of pilotage. Increases in sailing ships with auxiliary engines, and steam boats must
have been the next phase. 

For me, Hobblers Rock in Creaden is a
very important maritime place name connection with the port of Waterford and New Ross’
past.  A point from which I’m sure men
had a lookout post, and where a wary eye was kept on the horizon, and hardened
fishermen waited impatiently for a sail to be sighted and the cry to go up of “sail ahoy”.  Mighty men, deserving
acknowledgement.
I finally got to the monument in Oct 2018
Phioto courtesy of Michael Farrell 

[2] A Dictionary of the Worlds Watercraft.  The Mariners Museum. 2000.  Chatham Publishing
[3] A Maritime History of Ringsend. 
2000.  Sandymount Community
Services
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Wreck of the Hansa; Waterford harbour, 1899

On the evening of Thursday 2nd November 1899, the barque Hansa entered Waterford harbour in gale force winds.  Having endured the early winter storms crossing the Atlantic, and finally arriving at her port of destination, the crew were probably beginning to relax.  The journey was yet to take a final turn however and within hours they would be fighting for their lives.
The Hansa in the harbour (Drumroe or Seedes bank?), note her main mast is gone
photo via Andy Kelly Waterford History Group
The SS Hansa was a three masted barque of 1198 tons.  She was an Italian ship from the port of Genoa.  She had loaded Deals (timber) in St John, New Brunswick and set sail across the Atlantic to discharge at Graves & Co of Waterford.  We know little of her trip, except that the papers spoke of very bad storms all through the previous week across Ireland. In the gathering gloom of a winter evening the Captain was no doubt delighted to round the Hook and head into the harbour.  Alas, as the sailing vessel made her way past Creaden Head a sudden squall blew her off course and onto a sandbank.
The ship stuck fast and began to heal over. Any effort to shift the ship failed and the crew took to the rigging. Distress flares were launched and the pilot cutter based at Passage East came to the rescue, and in darkness successfully rescued all the crew*. The next day three river steamers of the Waterford Steamship Company were dispatched to try refloat the ship.  The Ida, Vandeleur and Mermaid were apparently unsuccessful. The ship remained above water however, the floating nature of the cargo apparently had helped to keep the ship righted.
For the next part of the tale we come to an interesting minute of a Harbour Board meeting titled “Pilotage dues on a salvage boat” in the Waterford Standard of Wednesday 15th Nov
Damage to the side of the ship possibly caused in getting the ship
refloated, or perhaps by salvors in getting at her cargo. NLI
In the piece a Mr Farrell argues that the steamer employed to salvage the cargo** of the Hansa, which is little more that an lighter herself (25 ton) should be exempted from pilotage fees, as she had paid them already to enter port, and were she to pay them each time she came or went to the Hansa, it would be prohibitive.  The plan it seems was that the steamer would tow lighters to and from the wreck, bringing the original cargo to Graves of Waterford. The discussion seems to have been a heated one, with other members of the board being concerned for the loss of revenue. Farrell however won the day, arguing that for the good of the port it was best that the dues be waived.*** Interestingly, although nearly a fortnight after the initial grounding, it suggests that the ship has yet to be got off. The plan was that once relieved of her cargo she would be towed to Cheekpoint.

This subsequently happened and it appears she was initially towed to Drumroe bank at Duncannon and hence to Seedes Bank at Ballyhack.  A Lloyds telegram covered in the Cork Examiner of 5/12/99 confirms as such.

The Munster Express newspaper of 23/6/1900 continues our story where we are told that in the month previous, the wreck was auctioned and sold to a Liverpool merchant for £40. The crew we are informed had been kept on with the vessel and had taken up residence in the village, where we hear “…they became quite favourites, especially with the gentler sex.”  Their conduct however “...during their stay of the past three months was most exemplary…” perhaps in light of their “...warm Catholicity...”
The captain and mate supervising on deck NLI
Their ship being sold the paper continues the Italian Consul Mr Vi O’Carvi facilitated the crews return to their home port of Genoa, causing we are told “...much regret of their newly found friends who had began to admire and respect the dark eyed, olive tinted children of the land of fig tree and vine.”
The final piece to the story of the Hansa comes via Frank Murphy an every dependable support to me. The North Devon Gazzette of 21st August 1900 tells us that the Hansa once refloated was bought by Messrs Cook and Galsworthy of Appledore in North Devon.  The refloating was a difficult process and that following the removal of the cargo the ship was got off the sandbank but subsequently sank. The ship was lightened, no doubt explaining the loss of her mainmast and 1300 paraffin casks were tied around the hull which successfully raised her.  She was made seaworthy again at Ballyhack and was eventually towed by tugboat across the Irish sea arriving at Appledore 15 August 1900. She was then employed as a floating hulk at Badstep.
Please note, ever effort has been taken to keep this account accurate.  There were many newspaper reports which were contradictory and online threads/sites(for example this fascinating exchange via the NLI) that suggested she was a German vessel or other nationalities ( I found reference to at least two German, a Dutch, Norwegian and Swedish Hansa and have no doubt there were more),  This account is based on my own judgement and close reading of the reports and the dates that we have.
* I would imagine the pilot boat was already on her way to put on a pilot.  No mention was made of a pilot being aboard at the time of the grounding.
** The Munster Express names the salvage company as Alnsick of Queenstown
*** An interesting aspect of the discussion was that the river steamers and the lighters that operated, did so without any need for a pilot, crewed by men, no doubt, that would know the harbour as well as the pilots. (perhaps that swayed the argument, as local lighter men were no doubt aboard the salvage steamer.
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Enduring “Mal de Mer”

We were based in Dunmore in the winter of
1983 for the Herring fishing but we returned home in the Reaper for Christmas,
and along with all the other half-decker’s, manoeuvred inside Cheekpoint quay,
where they could be moored without any concern for their safety. Once Christmas
came no one wanted to be checking on boats, for the week we’d be off.  It
would be over soon enough. Once there was a buyer we would be away fishing
again, and with empty pockets, glad of it.

Cheekpoint village mid 1980’s.  MV Reaper at the top of the quay,
Boy Alan and St Agnes amongst others.  Photo via Anthony Rogers

That January of 1984 a market came
available on the Sunday after New Year.  The weather had been broken, with
gale after gale blowing in off the Atlantic.  As we walked onto the quay
that afternoon it was enough to just look at the boats in the harbour of Cheekpoint
to know that the evening wasn’t going to be pleasant.  Punts and half deckers
alike were pulling on anchors and ropes, swaying in and out at their moorings,
reflecting the restlessness of the river.

As we set sail there was a low scudding
cloud and a fresh wind from the SW.  We were an hour or two from high
water, which would mean a slower trip than usual down against the incoming
tide.  At Ballyhack the seas were already a choppy, but by Creaden (the
Waterford side of the harbour mouth) we were pitching and heaving heavily, the
seas breaking in on Broom Hill (Wexford side) looking fairly ominous.
Deep down in my stomach I could feel the
rumblings of upset and my head was starting to pound a little.  I had been
there before, and knew that by keeping my head up and staying busy it had
helped. As we kept moving out the harbour I noticed a change for the worst in
the seas.  The wind hadn’t altered any but the seas were running higher
and the trough that the Reaper went into became deeper and slower to climb out
of.  Standing was difficult, and making your way round the deck took planning, attention and luck.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time,
the tide was now running ebb and with it the change for the worse in the
seas.  Try as I might, none of my tried and tested methods of keeping the
sickness at bay would work.  Progressively I worsened, just like the seas and
then I started to yawn, deep yawns which seemed to rise out of my belly. 
Minutes later I was spewing over the side.  Immediately I felt better, and
longed to believe that the worst was over. 
There was a small flicker of
hope, maybe we wouldn’t find any fish and we could go in.  However
this was dashed when we marked a sizable lump of herring and Jim shouted to set. 
I was sick again and then it was time for the nets to go.  When we had the
nets out and the tea brewed, I forced a cup of the hot sweet tea down. 
Jim said it would help, but Denis was just grinning. I took one look at the
sandwiches and cast them into the sea.  Gulls pounced on them immediately,
screeching at each other and tearing away at the bread. How I longed to be like
those birds, with feathered wings to take them above the relentlessly pitching
and heaving seas.  A seal came into view, a giant, interested no doubt in
the actions of the birds, and what they had found to eat.  If I jumped in
and swam with him, would the cold of the seas and the shock of the water be
enough to relieve me of the horrible sensation that seemed to make every fibre
of my being ache.
I wondered how the other boats were
faring, were others feeling as bad. I also realised my father was nearby in the
Boy Alan.  I wondered what he would make of me. I said a quick prayer to our lady, asking for the strength to finish the job, not let myself or my father down. Again the sickness came, but it was a dry wretch, more painful and debilitating.  
Tea over, Denis checked the net. 
Signs were good.  Jim and himself consulted and decided we better start to
haul.  As the nets came in so did the herring, pile and pile of them and
the back breaking work of dragging the fish filled nets across the deck, was
like my own cross on Calvary.  I have no recollection of how long it took,
but I know that I didn’t have anything left to vomit as we proceeded. 
Over and back, stowing them safely, whilst the deck heaved, rolled and pitched
and I staggered like a drunk.  At some stage the winkie came into view and
it was like Christmas morning all over to me, to see it advancing towards the
gunwale of the boat.
Once in I loosened to light to stop the
winkie from flashing and last thing I remember was slumping onto the
nets.  I awoke at the breakwater at Dunmore East, and was surprised that I
no longer felt sick. But I was worn out, grey in the face, a spent force. We
tied up at the quayside and I started to get the ropes ready for the
shaking.  However a wave of relief washed over me when Jim said that we
would go home that night and return in the morning to shake out the nets. 
I didn’t sleep well that night.  The
sense of shame I felt at and the expectation of the slagging I would get next
day stopped my mind from finding rest.  In the morning I strolled over to
the village to get a lift to Dunmore.  Calling in to my parents, I found
my father lying on the couch.  My guard was up immediately, 
“How’re ya today?” he asked.
 
“I’m grand” I said
“Although I’d be better if we had the nets shook from last night”
  
“There was a lot of men glad to get
home from Dunmore last night” he said, continuing “that was one of
the roughest nights we had in many a year”
“No one else was sick” I
said, 
“Oh they were sick alright” he
countered, “You should have seen the speed of some of them going up the
ladder in Dunmore” 
And although I doubted it, I still had a
laugh, and started to feel a little better.
“Did I ever tell ya about the young
scouser that shipped out of Liverpool with us on a trip to Gibraltar” One of my
father’s traditional opening lines to a yarn. 
“No” I said, wondering where
this was going
“Ah he was all mouth” he said,
“There was nothing he couldn’t do, or hadn’t seen. We were in the Irish Sea
when he started to grow green.  By the time we were in the channel he
couldn’t stand and when we reached Biscay he barricaded himself into his cabin and
refused to stand his watch.  The bosun was another scouser and when he
heard of the carry on, he grabbed a fire axe and splintered the cabin door.
 He grabbed the young fella by the throat and dragged him to his watch.
 By the time they got to Gibraltar the young land scurried down the
gangway and as far as we know took a train home”

From outside I heard a car horn blowing,
it was Robert Ferguson, come to collect me father in his white Hiace van.
 I started towards the village via the knock, but as I walked I thought
about my father’s story.  Did he just make that up for my benefit, or was
it actually true and if so how did he recall it so fast.  Down the years
I’ve often wondered about that ability he had.   Maybe now as a father I
can properly understand, we show love in so many different ways, we constantly
worry about and try to protect our children. Just like his ability to soothe
away the blood and pain when we were in a fall, he also done his best to soothe
away the pain of growing into adulthood. Whether the story was true or not, it was a
wonderful ability he had.  And it at least meant I could hold my head up
that morning as we journeyed to Dunmore and I continued my journey towards
adulthood.

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
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amongst the Herring shoals in Waterford harbour

As the Reaper and the other Cheekpoint boats proceeded
downriver, we were joined by the Passage and Ballyhack men, forming a convoy of
decked and half decked motor boats of varying size and power and a multitude of
colours.  Depending on the tides, the
Passage men might head down inside the Spit light along the west banks, with
Creaden off their starboard bow.  The “Pointers”
along with the “Hackers” favoured the channel waters around the spit,
onto Duncannon and beyond to the lower harbour.
the Cheekpoint fleet from around this time
Photo courtesy of Anthony Rogers

It was only after Duncannon that you felt the change in the
river and the deepening and less familiar seas of the lower harbour.  The sea around Broom Hill told you all you
needed to know of what to expect below. 
If the rocks were calm and free of waves, you could expect a reasonable
sea, but if the seas were surging up and around, it was to be heavy going.  If seas were breaking, and the mists were
rising up from it onto the grass banks above, then you knew the seas were
turbulent, and most likely we would never have even “set sail”.  (Many was the afternoon the skippers would be up on the high road, looking down the harbour and discussing the weather) 

When we arrived in the lower harbour, boats began to disperse,
hungrily searching the deeper waters for signs of herring shoals.  Some were close in to the shore, beneath
Loftus Hall and further down towards the Hook. Others maybe stretched as far as
Creaden Head.  Boats took various courses,
and many zig zaged amongst each other, keen to “mark” a herring shoal on the
fish finder and establish a pattern of where to “shoot” the nets.  Dunmore boats skippered by Paul Power, Napper Kelly and Mick Sheen would be sounding as they came across to met us, effectively covering the entire harbour.
As the gloom of the evening gathered and the sun set over
the Commeraghs away to the west, the frenzy grew.  Some evenings the sunset was hidden but the evenings the sky was clear were a feast for the eye, the colours magical, the sky almost afire, a contradiction to the cold night to come.  Boats were eager to set in daylight, to
better see where others were setting nets, and also because the herring tended
to rise with the dusk and skippers felt they would miss their chance of a
decent haul if they left it too late.
Some nights the shoals could not be found.  It was generally obvious from a lack of bird
activity, the tell tale signs of gulls wheeling overhead, or divers such as the
majestic and gigantic gannets plunging from a hundred feet or more into the
freezing seas and emerging with a beak full of silver meat.  On these nights the boats tended to be well
spread out and the VHF radio was quiet. 
Occasionally a haunting voice would float across the radio.  Kenny Bolger (RIP) singing an Irish ballad,
when that happened, it tended to confirm that there would be no fish on that
particular night. The Bolgers were fishy folk, as good at catching fish as anyone, and if my school mate from De La Salle was left near the radio it meant there was damn all else to do.
Other nights however were different.  The seas were alive with birds and
seals.  A slick of oil, released from the
herring on the sea bed, which Denis said you could smell and taste in your
mouth, but something, I never manged to do. 
The radio was buzzing with sightings and at times Jim would call us in
to look at the fish finder, the tell tale blackness of a herring shoal, and the
extent of it mapped out on the grey blue paper as a stylus flicked over the
paper marking the fish below.
Once satisfied that the herring were abundant enough the
winkie was turned on and cast over, followed by the nets.  I looked after the lead rope initially, not
trusted as yet with the head rope and ensuring that the cans were paid out clear
of the nets and set to the correct depth. 
Generally all the nets were set, but occasionally, Jim might heave too,
concerned by the markings on the fish finder and the extent of the shoal.  When you hit the herring in large quantities
a couple of nets could fill the boat, and the last thing you needed was extra
work.  Once set, the nets were tied via a
hauling rope to the bow of the boat we hung from them. 
This was a signal to get the tea on, and the grub bag
out.  Tea in the Reaper was always good.  As much as Jim loved his cigarettes, he
equally loved his tea.  The kettle was
boiled on a gas stove and the tea bags were added as the kettle started to
sing.  Hot and sweet, tea and sandwiches
never tasted any better.  
On another
occasion I was asked to go with another Cheekpoint boat for a couple of evenings.  Having set the nets, The skipper tasked his brother “wet the
tea”  What he produced was so vile, even
the copious amounts of sugar I added couldn’t disguise the awful
taste.  I honestly thought he had pee’d
in the kettle and on the first opportunity tossed the lot over the side.  When he spotted my cup empty he was immediately
on me, “will ye have more tea Andy” “I won’t J… J.. thanks” says I…and like a
not yet created Mrs Doyle, he harangued me about it saying ”a ya will, ye
fecking will”  until I dolefully relented.  The next night I was more wary,
and as “cook” went forward to boil the kettle I kept a close eye.   Under constant pressure from the skipper who would
shout in occasionally, reminding him to hurry, that they needed to haul the
nets, he flung in the tea bags before the kettle was anywhere near boiling
and emerged with only a faint hint of steam from the kettle moments later.  At least I could drink it knowing the problem
was half-boiled water.
The nets would be checked on occasionally, to be sure that
they were fishing, and to get a sense of how heavy the catch might be.  Too early and you could haul the nets off the
rising fish, too late however and you risked overloading the boat. 
Hauling was a tough affair when the nets were full.  Here’s an interesting example from Northern Ireland.  But at least a net hauler made the work
easier.  Once ready to commence, the rope
was hauled in to the gunwale and opened from the net.  Then the head and lead ropes were gathered up
and placed over the hauler drum.  The
hydraulics were engaged and the nets were then pulled on and helped in over the
side. 

While Jim kept the boat up to the
nets, Denis hauled the ropes and I gathered up the nets as they fell to the
deck and dragged them to the stowing area. 
When the catch was light this was easy enough, but on nights with a big
catch, this was hard arduous work.  The
netting coming in over the drum could be three feet wide and it was all I could
do to help Denis and Jim at the hauler and then stagger away under the weight
of the nets to stow them on the boats deck. 

You had to be careful where you dropped the nets, and on more than one
occasion Denis had given me a tongue lashing. 
Stowing the nets meant making it easy to clear them afterwards and safe
to steam back to port.  On a decked boat,
it was important that the nets and fish were properly dispersed, and it was
something he wanted me to get right from the start.
Having hauled a big catch, there was always a sense of
ephuroia aboard.  A big catch, once you
had a market, meant a decent wage that week, and in the weeks coming up to
Christmas, or indeed after it, such a catch was always welcome.  Big catches were not the norm, and you would
have plenty of”watery hauls”.  You tended to relax after that exertions and
in the tired but happy glow, surrounded by flipping fish in their death throes
and wheeling gulls, calling to you, as if for a feed, Denis would often set to
telling yarns.  Jim tended to wink at me,
or throw his eyes up to heaven and I never knew if there was any truth in what
Denis would tell me, but I would always be doubled up with laughter.
One of the nights a seal had bobbed up aft of us as we
headed across the harbour towards Dunmore.  “Did I ever tell ye the one about Tailstones (Jimmy Doherty) and the seal in
Youghal”.  Even if he had I would have
said no.  I never got tired of listning
to his stories.  “Himself, Lannen (Jimmy’s brother Andy) and
myself were fishing salmon in the Dominic this summer down in Youghal.  Well all was going grand till this day we were
hauling back on the nets and half the fish that came in over the side had a
piece missing.  ‘Mother of God’ said
Lannen…’if them seals don’t clear off, we wont have the price of a pint this
week’  Tailstones said he’d put them
seals right, once and for all.  Next day
they arrived in Youghal to go fish and he retrieved a shot gun from out of the
back of his van.  When they were out
fishing, I spotted a seal a long way off, head bobbing out of the
water.  Tailstones fired up the engine
and went in pursuit and moments later brought her about and stepped up to the
Gunwhale, loading the gun.  He raised it
and was about to discharge it when the seal turned and lo and behold the seal
had the full face mask of a diver and a mouthpiece to boot.  I threw my hand up and diverted the gun
barrel to the heavens and the same moment the gun was discharged and the only
casualty was a gull that happened to be flying past.  ‘Mother of God’ said Lannen, ‘we’d have never got
absolution’ 
As I laughed at his yarns the next phase of the job was coming into my head; shaking the nets, and it would take time and energy.  But that respite leading up to it, as the boats bobbed and swayed across the harbour towards Dunmore was most welcome.  More work might be ahead but we were a satisfied crew bringing home the catch, and with the promise of a few bob in your pocket at the weekend
Next instalment – clearing the nets and selling the fish

I publish a blog each Friday.  If you like this piece or have an interest in the local history or maritime heritage of Waterford harbour and environs you can email me at russianside@gmail.com to receive the blog every week.
My Facebook and Twitter pages are more contemporary and reflect not just heritage 
and history but the daily happenings in our beautiful harbour:  
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