The legacy of the schooner B.I. Waterford 1937

Being from Cheekpoint, I’ve often met people both at home and abroad with positive memories about the village or its inhabitants. Its usually a connection with an individual but also recollections of views from the Minaun, the meeting of the three sisters, or a meal in the Suir Inn.  So on first meeting a lady in Kilkenny some years back at a picnic lunch, I was taken aback, when on hearing my birthplace, she remarked “oh the people who pillaged the schooner B.I.!”

Lying alongside the Strand Rd, Cheekpoint
Photo via Tomás Sullivan

All of us knew of the BI growing up.  The schooner was then a wreck on the strand road, directly opposite a garage owned by Jim “Dypse” Doherty.  We would also know her story, retold often through a poem, written by Bill O’Dwyer.  I recall no better recitation than that of Matt “Mucha” Doherty, which would have easily graced the stage of the Theater Royal.

I’ll sing you of a gallant ship that sailed
o’er the western seas,
Whose flag has braved for seventy years the
battle and the breeze.
She was built in 1867 when Parnell was just
a boy,
She was christened at first the Sarah Anne,
but later renamed the BI
She tramped the Atlantic far and wide, and
sailed the Pacific too.
She has seen many weathers and many a gale
and many a cargo and crew.
But though long the day the night must come
and ships and mortals must die.
But the storm at Christmas sealed the doom
of that of that gallant schooner BI

She sailed from Arklow, this gallant ship,
bound down for the English shore.
But she sprang a leek outside Rosslare, and
was stranded just near Dunmore.
She was towed from Passage to Cheekpoint
quay, now her hold is no longer dry.
Battered fore and aft that stately craft,
that was once the schooner BI
With an ugly list on her starboard bow,
with her mainsail gone and her boom.
Now her guardian angel is Captain Burns,
with Darkie as non-de-plume.
She was auctioned as scrap and a Tramore
man, her trappings and all did buy.
He promised the Darkie ten shillings a week
to watch over the schooner BI.
While the Captain slept one cloudy night,
some fellows came in a boat,
Went aboard the schooner and stole some
rope they needed to fetter a goat.
When the Captain found the loss next day he
raised a terrible cry.
He was scared of what the owner would say
of the theft from the schooner BI.
When the owner came and heard the news a
wrathful man was he.
He told the Darkie he was no use, he knew
nothing of ships or the sea.
He cursed like hell and said “well well, my
information I’ll buy
Five pounds I’ll give to arrest the thief
that raided the schooner BI”.
Now Captain Burns was an honest man and he
resented the owners remarks.
He said “Since I took charge of your hulk
I’m working from dawn to dark.
I’ve welts on me feet from walking the deck
so pay me my wages my boy.
And I’ll bid you farewell you may go to
hell, yourself and the schooner BI”.
The BI in prouder days
Photo via Tomás Sullivan

The poem may have had a Cheekpoint bias and my Father when asked, would shrug and say they were hard times.  When pushed he would regale us with stories of “Captain” Burns, who seems to have been a real “character” and perhaps not the first choice for a watchman.

Boats such as the BI had a proud, workman like tradition and went where they were required, and carried what was available. Schooners originated in America and by the start of the 19th C had spread to the Europe.  They were ideally suited to sailing in coastal waters where winds changed constantly and shallow drafts were common. Certainly there are a few mentions of her in the Irish papers of the era, and she seems to have worked out of Youghal for many years. In 1917 the then Cork Examiner carries details of a court case where damages are sought against Youghal Urban District Council, “by reason of a foul berth”.  In September of 1925 the BI is up for sale in a notice in the Irish Independent, her captain retiring, and details can be had from a D.Donovan of Youghal.  The Donegal News of August 1931 in their Ballybofey and district notes, welcomes the BI with a cargo of coal, which were are told was a welcome site at Ramelton quay serving as a “reminiscence of the shipping in the past”

Her last days are recorded for posterity by the man who captained her for the last time; Bob Roberts. Roberts was a seaman, journalist, storyteller and musician and in his own words tells of her last voyage, which I have edited significantly here:

Having departed Wexford Town for Falmouth on Christmas Day with only myself and the mate for crew, (the crew had refused to sail we’re told) the BI ran into serious weather.  Carrying only ballast, she sprung her timbers and we battled for 48 hrs manning the pumps as much as the wheel or the rigging.  Realising our journey, not to say investment and lives were in serious peril, we turned to leeward and made for Waterford harbour.

We spotted the hook in the early hours and with some difficulty, and a lot of trepidation, rounded and headed into the harbour.  The ship at this point was dangerously full of water and we were in unfamiliar waters and unsure if this was indeed the harbour or the feared Tramore Bay. Eventually we found ourselves in shelter and at daybreak, with the assistance of two hobblers, stranded the BI at Passage East.

There our luck turned, as we were reported by a “busy body country custom official” to the Board of Trade.  A survey was required and what might have been a quick repair job turned into a financial nightmare. We were broke and the BI had to be auctioned.
From a piece titled “To earn a living under sail”Yacht and Yachting magazine. December 11 1964 (1)

The Cork Examiner carried the notice on 9th January 1937 saying the “Topsail Schooner BI” would be sold by public auction on Tuesday 19th January at 12 noon.  Locally it was said she was purchased by a man from Tramore who had some plans to make her sea worthy again but he ended up selling what he could from her deck and hold and left the hulk to rot.

aground at Strand Rd. Photo via Tomás Sullivan

As regards the pillaging piece, I suppose I can understand the feelings of Roberts.  Having invested his savings in a joint venture to return the schooner to England, he must have felt cheated.  The crew, weather and eventually the ship turned on him.  The “busy body” custom official and the price of a proper refit must have sealed his opinion of a pretty disastrous venture.  In such a light his badmouthing of the area is probably understandable, but at least he went on to future, and more successful, adventures.

Locally however the reputation of Captain Burns and the BI is well protected. They live on through the folk memory and the telling of the poem to succeeding generations.  I wonder when Jim Doherty recorded it in the Irish Folklore Commissions School Project, not long after it was first written, could he have foreseen that the BI would still be recited today and his words be there for succeeding generations to enjoy.  I sincerely doubt it.  I’d love to know if Bob Roberts knew of it too! Certainly, I made sure my acquaintance that day in Kilkenny did.

(1) The article was passed on to me by William Doherty and was received from another villager who lives abroad, Pat O’Gorman.  My thanks to them both.

Bob Roberts wrote several books.  Some titles here at Amazon.

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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

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
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 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:  
F  T