The 120 feet ketch Irene of Bridgwater has docked at Youghal Quays today, Tuesday 3rd July 2012, and will remain berthed there until the weekend. The international crew of eight are looking forward to staying on dry land for a couple of days and hoping to see the ‘Youghal Queen of the Sea Festival 2012′ which begins this weekend the 6th, 7th and 8th of July.
Last month the British sailing ship Irene, a 1907 West Country trading ketch bought and restored by owner Dr Leslie Morrish in 1965 and restored again after a fire in 2003, set off from Plymouth on what may turn out to be an historic attempt to set the model for the return of sail power for cargo transport.
Over the next four months or so, according to a report in the Guardian, Irene and its crew will carry organic beer from Devon to France, olive oil from Spain to Brazil and then – all being well – bring cocoa, coffee, Amazonian ‘superfoods’ and rum from South America and the Caribbean back to the UK.
Not that it will be rowed, as most such sailing vessels were in the past, into and out of harbours – the ship’s diesel engine will be fired up to do that. But for the rest is will use merely the power of the trade winds to cross the Atlantic.
The hope is that, with this symbolic season of journeys, Irene – a lovely wooden sailing ship built to transport bricks and tiles – will blaze a trail for other wind-powered cargo ships.
The project, New Dawn Traders, was hatched by Jamie Pike, a Bristol environmentalist and champion of the slow food movement. He wanted to find a way of bringing goods back from South America under sail and approached Irene’s owner, Leslie Morrish, a retired psychiatrist who spent years restoring the vessel and keeping it at sea.
The finances did not add up for a one-way journey, just as they don’t for one-way aviation or road transport. It would have cost Pike £100,000 to charter the boat, a sum he simply did not have, but then Irene’s captain, Laurance Ottley, met someone in the olive oil business and came up with the idea of sailing a consignment out to Brazil (which has a growing appetite for luxury goods thanks to a booming economy) and letting Pike fill the boat up with goods for the return trip.
Dropping off 2,500 bottles of organic ale from Devon for beer-loving Bretons was another wheeze designed to add profit to the enterprise.
A 10-strong international crew has been recruited, including a French paramedic and a Finnish shipwright. Morrish, now in his 70s, will be on board, as will Pike. Ottley, more used to dealing with the likes of Mick Jagger and Pierce Brosnan than a load of olive oil, will skipper the vessel.
For Pike, this trip, which began on Valentine’s Day, is about romance but also about getting an important environmental message out. ‘It’s great to be doing this romantic trip on a lovely old ship,’ he told the Guardian before the ship sailed. ‘But there’s a bigger debate to be had about shipping in general. Is there an alternative to huge polluting cargo ships? We want to help launch that debate.’
The Irene and her dedicated crew are not the only one seeking solutions to the great fuel dilemma.
As previously reported in Sail-World, there are some interesting schemes in the offing aimed at creating wind-powered cargo vessels. A British company called B9 Shipping, for example, is aiming to produce a fleet of Flagships of the Future – cargo ships using wind and renewable energy. Sailors in France and the Netherlands are hatching schemes similar to the New Dawn Traders. On a local level, there are examples in south-west England of goods being moved up river and along the coast by sail.
Another member of Irene’s crew, Lucy Gilliam, a former government environmental scientist, said she hoped the voyage could help provide a ‘narrative’ for the story of trade by wind power.
‘People aren’t really aware of the damage these huge cargo ships are doing to the planet,’ she told the Guardian. ‘There needs to be a great story to get a popular movement going. People are inspired by tall ships. There’s something magical in seeing a tall ship in a harbour or at sea.’
Up until recently, Irene has been used for charter trips around the Mediterranean for the rich and famous. The ship’s captain Laurance Ottley, who has already spent seven years on these charters thinks Irene will be much happier in her new task.
‘I believe it’ll be happier doing what it’s designed to do rather than pampering to the desires of billionaires. It will be doing proper work again.’
Built by F J Carver and Son in Bridgwater, 1907, Irene is the last of the West Country Trading Ketch’s still under sail. She sailed for 50 years as part of the fleet of British Merchant vessels through two world wars and a Great Recession.
For many years she belonged to the Bridgwater Brick and Tile Company plying the waters of the Bristol Channel between Bridgwater and Ireland, carrying cargoes of tiles and bricks. Later she was used for transporting coal and clay around the coast.
She was built to be beached and often unloaded her cargo into carts to be taken by horse across the sands to small isolated communities.
She retired from her trading service in 1960 and then changed hands a few times before being converted to a house boat.
In 1965 she was found in a derelict state in the Hamble river by her present owner, Doctor Leslie Morrish. He bought her for £2,500.00 and began a restoration job that lasted nearly 20 years. His initial task was to motor-sail Irene around to Brentford on the Thames, Irene’s home for the next 15 years. The trip was not without mishap; going under Hammersmith Bridge the bowsprit stuck in the last span of the bridge, pierced the pavement, shut the bridge in the rush hour and cut off the gas supply to half of south London. It was a dramatic start to a new life.
When Irene reached Brentford Leslie Morrish and his family lived on board using her as a house boat and restoring her at the same time. Once she had been restored to her former glory she was used for many commercials, film and fashion shoots. Irene played the part of “The Flying Dutchman” in the epic film biography of the composer Richard Wagner.