Brooklands, the last sailing schooner and continuing a tradition of sailing “before the mast”

This morning, the Morgenster, a Dutch two masted, square rigged, sailing ship will enter Waterford Harbour with her crew and 30+ trainees aboard.  She is sailing under the auspices of Sail Training Ireland and on Saturday she will be open to the public to mark the 200 year anniversary of the Port and as a fundraiser for Waterford City River Rescue.  Tickets for a groups of four are available for €10.  Waterford In Your Pocket has all the details.

But apart from the magic of seeing a tall ship in the harbour, or a fundraiser for one of our favourite charities, what makes it so special is that our eldest daughter Hannah will be one of the trainee sailors aboard.  She shipped out last Sunday evening, from Cobh in Co Cork. I mentioned Cobh before on the blog, because it was a departure point for many of the family who never returned.  I’ve always found it a emotive location. It was all the more so to us as we walked towards the pier with our daughter.

Morgenster at Cobh

Hannah was fortunate of course.  An email from a singing buddy, Breda with the Waterford Women’s Centre had caused her much excitement. It spoke of an opportunity to have a bursary towards a sailing experience, with the assistance of Waterford Area Partnership, Waterford Port Authority and the Council.  She had the choice of applying for a five or sixteen day trip.  She ticked the latter and sent it off.  A week before we had heard nothing, and so following  a few calls and social media call messages, Alina from Sail Training Ireland came back and suddenly rather than speculation it was planning!

Hannah was a little unsure coming closer to last weekend.  Was it all a bit rushed, would she have the right equipment, how would she really get on.  Although unspoken, we both shared her fears and more. However, remaining quiet and trying to be supportive we gave what encouragement we could. It was after all her decision.  Coincidentally, or was it something more, a few weeks before my mother had passed on a family memento to me for safekeeping.  Taking it down, I passed it over to her.  She placed her hand into it and I explained what it was used for.  It instantly relaxed her, almost as if the physical action of connecting with the weathered leather, imbued with the blood, sweat and seawater of generations, eased her mind and grounded her.

Palm and needle, and an Aul for making holes
in canvas when required

For as long as I can recall my father had this Palm and Needle. The palm and needle was used by sailors in the past when sailing before the mast to make and repair sails. In fact it was so common to me growing up, I always presumed it was his. However, when my mother passed it on, I noticed his handwritten note to say it came from a sailor aboard a tall ship named Brooklands. The Brooklands, a three masted schooner was originally named the Susan Vittary.  She was built in 1859 by Kelly of Dartmouth and had plied a trade originally between England and the West Indies. She was sold to the Crenin family of Ballinacurra in Cork in 1923, renamed and continued to work until her timbers gave way and she sank off the Tuskar Rock in 1953.1    

Brooklands inbound to Waterford early 20th C, Minaun in the distance
photo accessed from WHG, posted by Andy Kelly. 2

What was so special about her, was that she was the last ship to ply the southern Irish coast without auxiliary power. Tom MacSweeney gives a great sense of what that means in this extract about her.  Unfortunately I never got to ask my father just what his connection to the Brooklands was, but I imagine there were Cheekpoint men sailing her from time to time.  Another possibility, is that whilst dropping a cargo of coal to Cheekpoint, or awaiting a favourable wind, my father was aboard hearing the yarns of the sailors that he would one day want to emulate.  I’m well aware of the numbers of such ships that entered and left the harbour.  Growing up in the forties my father had a front row seat to witnessing the dying tradition of sailing “before the mast”.  I asked him often if he would have liked to try it but I recall him always changing the subject or dismissing the suggestion. He told me the last man that he knew in Cheekpoint who had sailed such ships was Larry Cassin on the old road. Larry worked at the time in the Harbour Board, and to my eternal dismay I never made it my business to call to him and ask about it before he died.

Last Sunday evening in Cobh we got the chance to board with Hannah and meet her shipmates and see her thrilling home for the next sixteen days.  Alina was our guide and the ships captain Harry was very welcoming and we had a brief chat about our family tradition. “Well then Hannah” he said, “I can promise you an experience that your forefathers missed”

As we turned to leave Hannah was in two minds. That uncertainty was back. Eventually she said “I’m scared, but I’d feel worse driving home not knowing what I missed”  How many others uttered the same words at Cobh through the generations I wondered.

Hannah on the left, enjoying some down time
photo via Sail Training Ireland Facebook page

1&2.  Irish. B & Kelly A.  Two Centuries of Tall Ships in Waterford. 2011. Rectory Press.  Portlaw.

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