18th December

Wear the fox hat...

The crew (l to r): Mickey, Dick, Donal, Tommy alongside in Crosshaven. Photo Tom Lawlor

The crew (l to r): Mickey, Dick, Donal, Tommy alongside in Crosshaven. Photo Tom Lawlor

Tom Lawlor

The perfect way to spend a summer is to idle on a boat along the Galician coast, especially in the company of kindred spirits. I was invited to join a delivery crew to sail the ketch Brisa Mar from Spain to its home port of Cork. I joined Donal O’Boyle and Dick Lincoln in Dublin airport for the flight to Santiago. Donal and I are old shipmates and were attired like pilgrims; Dick who has sailed to every island on the west coast of Ireland was more David Bowie. 

We joined the boat in Portosin where Tommy and Mikey Dwyer welcomed us on board.  We would spend the next week drifting from village to village before beginning the homeward leg to Cork.

Mikey showed all the symptoms of a man who was coming to the end of  a month’s holiday afloat: beard, deep tan and a gait that comes from strolling from boat to bodega to bunk with a following of disciples that would join us for some day sailing. Tommy appreciated the arrival of new shipmates. A fresh audience for his songs and stories.

 

Mussel manoeuvres

We spent a week day-sailing towards the ‘end of the world’– Cape Finisterre on the north-west shoulder. The approaches to many Spanish ports required some dexterity on the helm as we steered a course between the numerous mussel rafts that make these waters the mussel capital of the world and a challenge to navigate.

Evenings were spent ashore enjoying the coastal communities. Mikey’s day was incomplete unless he began his dinner with a starter of pigs’ ears – a sure sign he was going native. We knew it was time to return him to the land of the crubeen. Dick visited every church while Tommy and Donal researched the bars to find one that would welcome Tommy’s anthem, Paddy’s McGinty’s Goat, performed with signings for the deaf.   

Leaving Finisterre astern at 05:00hrs to ensure we cleared the shipping separation lanes off the north-west coast we entered the Bay of Biscay and set a course for Cork.

Triple layered sky

We had three days warning of the advancing storm. Dick filled a black binliner with assorted sandwiches and cooked a chicken stew – and the oil lamps were emptied and stowed.

We would operate two-man watches: 1 hr on:2 hrs off, but constantly on standby. The Dwyer brothers sensed the arrival of the storm and in a fifteen minute window took down sails, readied the boat for the ensuing turmoil, got out the life jackets and harnesses which everyone wore for the duration.

When the storm arrived the canopy of the sky was layred into three levels. The highest was bright blue, then white and the lowest was dark grey. The white and grey moving in opposite directions. On the horizon grey rain clouds fell to sea level. The sea lifted, tumbled and fell around us. During the daylight a swallow used our guardrail to rest.

Galeforce winds

At night, for a moment, the moon split the black curtain and peeked into the storm. The dim lights on the instrument panel showed over 40 knots of wind. Below deck the off-duty watch used kit bags and spare sails to jam themselves into small spaces and miraculously slept.

Our helmsmen had different styles of keeping on course. Tommy’s grip on the helm was certain and strong while Mikey stood off centre and had a more light handed touch. But Dick was Ben Hur.  Standing firm on the deck, feet apart, square on to the wheel with arms outstreched he drove us homeward. But sometimes the storm and heavy seas drove us towards Greenland.

Men often share stories and reminiscences when on a nightwatch.

Mikey recalled to me a story his father Charlie told, of a sailor who experienced a frightful storm at sea and promised his God that if he survived he would never get on a boat again.

Some days later they reached a safe harbour. He took an oar from the boat and began to walk inland. When he found a community who did not know what an oar was, he settled down and lived there.

Land fall

Our arrival day was strong and sparkling. Under full sail the ketch shouldered the seas aside and the sun dried all the wet gear on the deck. Roche’s Point seemed to hide below the horizon. Entering the approaches to Cork evoked many memories for me. As we passed Fort Camden I recalled the great comrades and carefree days I enjoyed there with the Slua Muiri and especially the late Noel Cullen.

We landed at Crosshaven’s town pier and the skipper filled glasses of whiskey to toast a good crew and a good voyage. The five amigos ambled the short journey to Cronin’s pub for dinner and cheer.

I detoured to light a penny candle and later joined the crew in the select lounge. I arrived in time to hear Tommy finish his joke: ‘Wear the fox hat.’ All the company collapsed in laughter. Later I enjoyed a dead man’s sleep in a bed that never moved.

Next day on my train journey home to Dublin I noticed a man in a field shouldering a golf club. He reminded me of a man with an oar.

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