Hundreds of sailors to celebrate Bantry longboat

Hundreds of international sailors will take to the waters off West Cork from this weekend in a major celebration of an 18th century landing craft from a pivotal moment in Irish history.

About 300 sailors in 16 teams will go head-to-head under sail and oar in Bantry Bay longboats from Saturday, in a week-long series of competitions involving the historic French naval vessel.

Organisers of the Atlantic Challenge Bantry Bay Gig World Championships expect up to 15,000 visitors in the town over the next 10 days.

It is the just the second time in the 1986-founded biannual competition’s history that Bantry has hosted the event.

Spokesman Eddie Wiseman said it will give a huge boost to the local economy.

“It’s absolutely fabulous for the town,” he said.

“Bantry has a huge maritime history and culture, and it also has a strong tradition of sport, and to be able to merge these and promote and showcase the town internationally is fantastic.

“It has also brought the entire community together.”

Bantry Bay longboats are replicas of the captain’s landing vessel used by the French navy in the 1700s.

The original longboat, upon which all the race vessels are based, is the oldest surviving vessel in the French navy, and is on display in a Dublin museum.

It featured in the failed Dec 1796 invasion when bad weather prevented the landing in Bantry of a formidable French armada of 48 ships and some 15,000 troops under the command of General Hoche, and with Wolfe Tone on board.

Most of the fleet returned to France but one ship’s longboat, which was used in a French scouting landing, was washed ashore with her crew on nearby Bere Island.

The men and their vessel were captured and that longboat, which is now known as the Bantry Bay Longboat, was brought to the boathouse at Bantry House, where she lay for 150 years.

In 1944, she was presented to the National Museum of Ireland.

In 1977, she was lent to the Maritime Institute of Ireland which exhibited her in the National Maritime Museum of Ireland, Dún Laoghaire, until 2003, where a scale model is now displayed.

She was restored at the Liverpool Museum and was put on display in the National Museum of Ireland, Collins Barracks.

The lines used to build the vessels competing in the Atlantic Challenge are taken from the original gig.

President Michael D Higgins will attend the opening of the challenge on Saturday with a parade of nations at 1.30pm, with traffic restrictions in place from 12 noon to 4pm.

The first competition is a dressage event to test crews’ boat handling skills. A twilight pageant takes place at 10pm before a family-day takes place from 2pm on Sunday in the town square.

Competitors will take part in a slalom obstacle course competition against the clock on Sunday, with shore-based knot tying and rope work competitions later. Races will take place every day next week.

Among the other highlights will be a pirate party on Saturday week, on Jul 28, with locals, visitors and holiday makers encouraged to dress up as pirates. It will kick off at 12 noon with a flotilla of pirate vessels from Abbey Point in to the harbour.


The boats

* The Bantry Bay longboat measures almost 40ft (13m).

* It holds a crew of 13 and can be raced under sail and oar, up to 18ft (6m) long.

* Thirteen crew are needed to sail it. Under oar, there are 10 oarsmen and two bowmen.

* The boat uses three sails — a main-sail, a fore-sail and a Mizen sail to assist with steering.

* The gigs are described as “elegant and exhilarating”. They can be rowed at six knots on calm water, and can reach speeds of over 12 knots under sail.

* The 16 international crews have 20 members each — including at least four male and four female. Half the crew must be under the age of 21.

* Teams come from Ireland, Spain, Belgium, Canada, Chile, Denmark, England, Finland, Holland, France, Indonesia, Italy, Lithuania, the North, Norway, Russia, Wales, and the US.

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