IN THE winter of 1796, the French sent 43 ships to Bantry Bay to liberate Ireland from British rule. Due to disastrous weather conditions and poor management, their mission failed. The only one of the vessels to land on Irish soil was a longboat.
That longboat is still with us today. Housed in the Collins Barracks museum in Dublin, it is the oldest surviving vessel of the French navy. By what can only be described as a serpentine twist of fate, Bantry is now preparing for an invasion of replicas of that same boat.
This time, the invaders will only have fun and healthy competition in mind. The Atlantic Challenge is a youth-oriented contest of seamanship in which 16 international teams, each with a crew of 20, compete in sailing, rowing and other tests of seamanship.
At least four male and four female members are in each team and half the crew must be under the age of 21.
The competition was conceived 26 years ago when American maritime philanthropist, Lance Lee, and French maritime expert, Bernard Cadoret, were involved in the first Atlantic Challenge, which took place in New York harbour. Seeking a boat best adapted to the requirements of competitive training, they hit upon the design of an 18th-century, French navy longboat.
The oldest surviving example of this happens to be the longboat that landed in Bere Island, in Bantry Bay, in 1796 as part of the failed invasion, which was led by General Louis Lazare Hoche and organised by Wolfe Tone.
The unfortunate crew of the longboat went to Bere Island in search of help. They were arrested and the boat was seized. It remained there, in use, for some years before going to Castlehaven, and finally ending up in Bantry House, where it remained until 1944.
The longboat was then given to the care of the State — first in the National Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire, and now in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks in Dublin.
Thanks to the popularity of the Atlantic Challenge competition, this vessel has been replicated many times all over the world, and, today, the design is known as the ‘Bantry longboat’. It’s 13 metres long, holds 13 crew, and can be manoeuvred under oar or sail (it has three sails).
The national-team selection varies from country to country. In Denmark, members are chosen from the Roskilde Rowing Club. In Canada, there’s a nationwide selection process, and in Ireland members are chosen from the rowing club in the place where the story started, and where the latest staging of the bi-annual event will be — Bantry.
Mark Wickham has been involved in the competition for more than 20 years.
“The first time a Bantry crew attended an Atlantic Challenge event was in 1988, when we went to Douarnenez in Brittany,” says the retired, Bantry-based teacher. “We went with a man called Hal Sisk, who was a maritime historian of the famous 9xSisk family. He was besotted by maritime history and he was the curator of the Maritime Museum in Dún Laoghaire at the time.
“We got together a crew of 20 people, most of whom didn’t know what was happening … we went over and saw the ‘Bantry longboat’ built by Lance Lee for the first time; raced in it and sailed in it, without knowing really what to do.”
AFTER that first, tentative experience, the Bantry representation spearheaded a local fundraising campaign and had their own ‘Bantry longboat’ built. Named l’Unité, it was built by Billy Andy O’Driscoll in Baltimore.
“It’s been a fantastic experience,” says Mr Wickham. “The kids have had some brilliant experiences … they’ve learned so much and the town has gained so much from it.”
Over the years of growing international competition (Indonesia is the latest participating nation), many strong friendships have been formed, with even one case of a marriage.
“I get a fantastic bang out of it when it comes around every two years. It takes over your life … in a nice way,” Mr Wickham says.
On the French side, Paul Le Joncour has also been similarly ‘swept away’ by the effect of the Atlantic Challenge.
“I took over the responsibility of our longboat,” says Mr Le Joncour. “So, I’m very familiar with the history of Bantry. I’m also a big fan of maritime history, local history, Breton history … just history, basically.”
The event, this year, he says, will have special significance as what he calls the ‘yole de Bantry’ (Bantry yawl) will be making a spectacular return to its historical origins.
“It’s highly significant, because if that boat hadn’t been captured in Bantry Bay in 1796, there might never have been an Atlantic Challenge,” Mr Le Joncour says.
Back in Bantry, Atlantic Challenge committee chairman Diarmuid Murphy is one of the many former crew members who are now part of the organising committee.
“We’re proud to be hosting the competition,” he says. “It’s a great buzz and anything like this, in the current climate, is wonderful for morale,” he says.
nThe Atlantic Challenge Bantry Bay Gig World Championships competition takes place from Jul 21 to Jul 29 in Bantry. As well as the main events, there will be a number of fringe events, including outdoor concerts, street theatre, fireworks and a ‘pirate day’ (Jul 28) during which an attempt will be made on the Guinness Book of Records for the greatest number of ‘pirates’ assembled. For details, see www.bantry2012.com