a d v e n t u r e  t h e o  d o r g a n



A crew of four, including the relatively inexperienced author, are bringing a seventy foot steel schooner, Spirt of Oysterhaven, home from Antigua to Kinsale, in the south of Ireland, via Horta in the Azores. From the author’s log-book....


A ship at sea needs to be entirely self-sufficient. This may seem obvious, but to someone like me, still learning the ropes, it’s a vast subject for contemplation. Consider the vessel first. The hull must be sound, all seacocks, inlets and outlets checked. The standing rigging must be checked, the wire or stainless steel rods that hold up the masts. The forces in play when sails are up are awesome forces, especially on this big schooner. We are wire-rigged, so the integrity of the rig depends not just on the structural strength of masts, booms and related fittings but on the absence of fatigue in the stays that hold the assemblage together. You check for signs of rust or abrasion where the wires are bonded to the hull through deck fittings – water can collect in the collars called swages where the wire finishes on a turn. One wire parting under pressure can bring the whole rig down, and in the middle of the ocean that could mean losing a mast, perhaps both masts; in dirty weather, with mast or spar banging into the sides in heavy seas, this could mean breaching the water-tight integrity of the hull itself. The hatches must be checked for water-tightness, as must the ports along both sides of the hull and in the two deckhouses. The washboards have to be fitted at the top of the companionway: these will keep water out if waves are breaking into the cockpit. So, test them for fit, then store them somewhere instantly accessible. Water making its way in, tons of it in a matter of seconds, especially through a hatch in heavy seas or if she rolls over when broached, can sink a boat in minutes


The sails have to be inspected for chafe, tears, holes, missing stitches. The headboard – the aluminium plate at the top of the sail where the halyard is attached that will pull the sail up – must be checked. The roller drum on the furling genoa must be checked, perhaps hosed out with fresh water. The running rigging must be gone over, the ropes, sheets in shipboard parlance, that run back from the sails to the cockpit winches must be checked carefully for signs of wear, replaced if necessary. The winches themselves must be checked, the drums spun to ensure they are running freely. The liferaft must be examined. The gas bottles in their stainless steel cage on deck at the foot of the foremast must have the regulators checked.


Check the electricals, the instruments – log, speed, depth, GPS, radar – and the instrument panel itself. The compass was swung before she left Ireland last autumn, that is to say examined for deviation, so that doesn’t have to be done, but we’ll do it anyway.


Check the gas pipe run to the cooker, the sea cocks, the internal lights, the nav lights and steaming lights, the deck lights, especially where wiring runs emerge through the deck. Check the water tanks and diesel tanks, the toilets, basins and showers in the heads forward and aft, the medical kit, the pots and pans, the crockery and the cutlery.


If anything is missing once we’re at sea we must improvise from what we do have, or do without. If anything breaks, we must fix it. If anything falls overboard, we cannot replace it unless we are carrying spares. So the spares must be checked, but you can’t carry a spare for everything.


As usual in human affairs, there is the imponderable gap between what would be ideal and what we’re going to decide we’ll probably get away with. Ultimately it’s the skipper’s call…


Checking the log and the nav information before going on watch becomes an element in the waking-up process, a way-station between bunk and deck. It prepares you for the information the offgoing watch will want to pass on – heading, weather patterns, handling and so on. This is all the more important when, as will happen today or at the latest tomorrow, we change over to single watches. With two up, one can always pop below to scan the previous situation and retrieve useful information about, for instance, a rising or falling curve of barometric pressure. On a lone watch, you may need to hold all this in your head for four hours. There is a further, psychological, aspect to all this. The body experiences the ocean as trackless: there are no landmarks to orient yourself by (if you discount the stars, which are in any case experienced as unfixed); everything outside the boat is unstable, in flux, disorienting. We have a profound need to situate ourselves, a need unconsciously satisfied on the small scale by the sailor’s habit of constantly reaching to touch things. On the larger scale, the vectors of heading and speed, our position relative to the nearest landmass, our plotted position on the gridded globe, all these, when computed and shown as an ‘x’ on the chart, bring peace of mind. At the back of your head, always, is the simple question: if anything goes wrong, how will they know where to send help? The mundane questions also need answering: Where the hell are we? Where are we going? How are we doing?


We are doing very well, considering. Charlotte is murmuring with Zaf as Simon and I join them for tea on deck in the tropical night. The land smells are long gone, there is the fresh-washed cleanliness of salt in the backdraft from the sails, a sense of expansiveness in the starry night. We can see quite well, all the way out to a clear horizon all around. The moon astern is high now and there is a broad path of silver on the sea behind us. For a long time after the others have gone below Charlotte and I are companionably silent. From time to time we discuss small changes to the sail trim – we bring in the main a little, let the genoa out full as the wind falls back a knot or two. The aim is to sail her with maximum efficiency always, to keep the slot between the two sails as clear as possible so that the wind coming off the genoa flows cleanly over the taut belly of the main. In this wind we could run up the foresail as well, but we decide to leave it until the next watch change.


Charlotte is really quite ill, it takes a lot out of her to be on deck at all; but she takes her turn at the wheel, never complains, rarely adverts to how she’s feeling. It’s a curious thing but I’ve never yet been seasick, no matter how rough the conditions. This is all the more odd since, like most of my brothers (but not my sisters), I suffer from a nervous stomach, am a finicky eater with an uncertain appetite. It’s not unusual for even the most hardened sailors to suffer from mal de mer; I am always touched by the tact with which the unafflicted deal with sufferers. I had thought there would be a certain amount of covert scorn for such signs of weakness – of the kind, say, that hardened drinkers display for the capacity-impaired – but unobtrusive sympathetic concern has been the style always, at least on this boat. Seasickness can be dangerous: the sufferer can become disoriented, weak and inattentive, a situation that may be compounded by the side-effects of some of the prescription or over-the-counter medicines commonly used to combat the condition. Anytime I’ve felt slightly queasy I’ve used a pebble held by an elastic band to the inside of the wrist, about two fingers back from the fold line, and this seems to work. Can’t remember now where I heard of this, a remedy probably derived from acupressure.


Taking turns to relieve each other at the wheel, each of us more or less lost in thought, we make on through the night as so many have done before us, watching the compass, watching the stars, drifting in and out of awareness of where we are. And so the night passes.


It is broad daylight when I come on deck again. Simon grins and gestures around him: ‘Vaast ocean, Mon.’ And it is. A long, low swell, cobalt blue, a thin transparent lacing of bubbles on each crest; a hard glare off the water, little sound except for the swish of the bow-wave running alongside, the occasional creak of the mainsheet running from the boom overhead to the track behind the wheel. The wind’s in the east, as is the mid-morning sun, so there’s no shade on deck and it is hot. We are careful always of the sun, even in northern waters. It’s surprising how quickly you can get burned, even on an overcast day off the Irish coast. Lip protector, suncream of at least factor 15, a hat, preferably wide-brimmed, long sleeves and long light trousers are the order of the day. Secretly, of course, we all covet that crinkle-eyed hardy sailor look, so the long tropical days are a negotiation between vanity and prudence…


My notebook at 18.00 records we are loping north, a long undulant dip and rise, sun to port, six widths above the horizon, low clouds all around the horizon, small puffies overhead, the light all around us the kind of bleached purple fuzzy grey that one gets off the Irish coast at the end of a perfect summer’s day.


Off watch, not needed in the galley yet, I spread the chart out on the saloon table. Simon has marked in our latest position, and I am musing over it when I see the notation ‘Nares Abyssal Plain’. What? I look more closely. Over there to starboard are depths of 6,340 metres. The vast ocean suddenly acquires a third dimension: down. A long way down. Christ, we are sailing over Switzerland! There are huge mountains down there, we are passing between two of them even now. The hull of Spirit is 6mm steel. Good steel, sound steel, well cared for, impeccably maintained. But, 6mm? There’s a lightless chasm down there (I look at my feet, at the cabin sole), down taking on a tolling, plangent resonance. Down. Down. I bolt up for air, grabbing the Atlantic Pilot as I pass the nav station.


There are small traces of cirrus far off to the west, heralding perhaps a change in the weather. It’s just about dark as I begin my first solo watch. From now on it will be two hours on, six hours off for everyone. The next watch, Zaf in my case, is the standby watch, meaning the first person to call if you think a sail change is needed, if there’s a ship about whose behaviour you’re not sure of… It’s a good system, it means that everyone gets some guaranteed sleep, a full six hours if nothing untoward crops up. Whatever his place on the roster, the skipper always gets called if the ship is even remotely threatened


Tonight I’m listening to Furtwangler conducting Beethoven and Brahms, Vienna 1943. I remember the cold, crisp day I bought these CDs, an afternoon in Vienna last November, Paula back in the hotel going over poems for her reading that night. I remember thinking it would be strange listening to this, imagining the audience at the performance where it was recorded, the black uniforms of the SS, the women in furs, the complacency and brute indifference to the human context, the contrast between the darkness of spirit everywhere in the wartime city and the beauty of the music. It never occurred to me I would be listening to this recording in the middle of the ocean. The soundscape is beautiful, but there’s a rip of pain in there too, thinking of those souls who were as moved by this music as I am now, before people sitting in that very audience the night of the recording took a hand in their murder.


The sky is full of stars, there are curious mist wisps racing around the boat, close in, catching the green, red, green, red of the running lights as we rock on.


By now we’re over 500 miles from Antigua. Our official port of refuge (where we run for if we get into trouble) at this point is Hamilton, Bermuda, more or less due north. Just before coming on watch I got through to Paula, gave her our position. Her response was succinct: you stay out of that Bermuda Triangle! Don’t want to think about that just now, plenty of food for thought in the depths immediately beneath us. I think of that ship in Heaney’s wonderful poem, in the clear air over Clonmacnoise church, dropping anchor in the sanctuary. I think of the Saint on the altar, watching a crewman shinny down to free the hook, remarking that these cannot breathe our air. From nearer to home, there’s the story of St. Finbarr, patron saint of my native Cork, and his encounter with another monk, ScoithĚn. Finbarr, rowing across the lake at Gougane Barra, meets ScoithĚn walking toward him. ‘What are you doing, walking on the lake?’ ‘What are you doing, rowing across this meadow?’ Finbarr leans over the gunwale, scoops out a redgold salmon, holds it thrashing in the air. ScoithĚn bends down, plucks the red flower, scoithĚn, from the grasses at his feet. Each regards the other thoughtfully, then after an exchange of benedictions, ScoithĚn goes on his way, Finbarr rows on. And that, the Annals tell us, is how St. ScoithĚn got his name. Now, out here on the water, my own thinking re-arranged, I observe that it was the boatman who named the landsman, and therefore the water is granted the prior or superior reality. Out here on Planet Water that seems perfectly right and natural to me…


The long swell has been building steadily all day, to the point where, near sunset, we estimate the wave height at three metres or so. Zaf is looking thoughtfully back in the direction of Bermuda, and I know what he’s thinking. There must have been a bit of a blow back there, perhaps west or north-west of the island. We’re getting steady winds all day, 10 to 15 knots most of the time, and Spirit is averaging 5 to 6 knots over the ground, a good pace all things considered. We put the engine on when the sun goes down, the green and red running lights up forward become slowly more distinct as darkness comes over us and we forge on into the night. The engine is a kind of heartbeat after dark, as comforting in its own way as the safety umbilical we clip on automatically when we come on deck after dark.


I had the wheel at sunset while Charlotte and Simon went forward to bring in the cruising chute. It’s lore if not law (Oliver’s remembered phrase) to reduce sail before dark – this reduces the likelihood of anyone having to go on deck at night if the wind gets up.


Simon and Charlotte clip on the combined lifejacket and lifeline we all wear, snap shackles on to the webbing straps, the jack stays, that run stem to stern along the side-decks. I watch them go forward at a half run, position themselves at the rail, wait without turning around or speaking for me to slack off the cruising-chute sheet where it’s cleated off at the winch. There’s a short length of line fixed to another cleat beside the wheel; I tie the free end to the wheel rim to hold her steady, move to the winch, press the flat of my left palm to the coils of line on the winch, to hold them, undo the free end of the sheet. Then, keeping the tension on the sheet, I carefully take a few turns off the winch drum until there’s only one left, then take the strain, feel the chute pull away from me slightly. Now I let it off, slowly, slowly, the chute pulls away up and forward, then begins to collapse, losing its shape, spilling wind and power until its clew comes fluttering down to where Simon, one elbow hooked in the shrouds, begins to gather in the sail. He undoes the bowline in the clew, ties the sheet around the nearest stanchion with a quick hitch. I pull in a little slack on the winch, for the sake of tidiness, then go back to my station at the wheel. Charlotte, on the halyard at the foremast, gives Simon slack progressively as he gathers the pink and blue cloth to him in armfuls now, then she lets the halyard and the peak of the sail come floating down to the deck. She unshackles the halyard, clips it to the frame around the gas bottles, then both of them bundle the sail in to its sailbag, Charlotte holding the neck open, Simon plunging the material in, making sure that tack, peak and clew are at the top for the next time the bag is opened. Finished, they lash the bag to the bottle frame, trail their lines back to the cockpit, swing in, unclip and settle there for a moment to catch their breath. The whole operation has taken about five minutes, and what I notice when we’re done is that nobody needed to talk, we all three of us knew what was to be done, and then just did it. This is only as it should be, but silence is more often a feature of work done after dark than it is of work done in broad daylight…


We plan to leave [Horta] at 13.00, but succumb to the lure of one last lunch in Peter’s. The unfortunate skipper of the English boat beside us is in danger of apoplexy. What do we mean we’re not heading out after all? It’s damned awkward, don’t we know? Yes, yes, says the imperturbable Zaf, we won’t be long now. And off we go to the pub. It’s surprising how many people we have come to know. Somehow the quick lunch we’d envisaged stretches into a long afternoon of leavetaking; the Mate next door is beginning to wonder if he’s going to need the cardiac ambulance for his skipper when, finally, we find ourselves at our stations. Taff is ready to slip our bowline, the Smiling Policeman is standing by, somebody from the marina staff is patiently stationed at our sternline.


Zaf sniffs the wind. You know, he says, we could sail her off the wall. We think about this for a minute, gauging the north-west breeze. Someone ahead of us has slipped their moorings, is footling about off the dock; the Pico ferry is coming up outside the wall, preparing to turn in; the big English boat has moved out into the centre of the harbour – it’s getting very crowded out there. Tell you what, says Zaf to our assembled crew, we’ll motor out to the middle, then as I bring her head around we’ll run up sail, OK?


There’s a tension in the air now, a tension we mask as best we can in a barrage of farewells, jokes and insults. We suddenly want to leave Horta in some style, and there are a lot of people around.


Let go aft. Let go for’ard. We’re drifting away from the wall, we’re moving ahead at low speed, the dock and its knot of waving figures is moving away from us. Charlotte musters us forward then the bow is coming around, I haul on the main, putting everything into it, winch it desperately the last two metres and make fast. Simon has the staysail up, Charlotte and I get the foremain rattling to the top of the mast in no time and then we are heeling over, catching the wind, gathering speed. Along the wall to our left people are climbing up and cheering, waving, cheering again, a long line of people. We feel like mighty seadogs altogether, doing our best to hide it but delighted with ourselves, delighted with Zaf, delighted with this lovely, lovely boat. We must make a brave sight as we thunder away down the harbour, the only boat this week to make out under sail. OK, OK, says Zaf, get the fenders in and stowed, lively now – but Zaf is the best-pleased of us all, one hand on the wheel, the other waving his cap at the fading cheers, the dwindling figures on the long wall.


Spirit puts her head down and comes up in a burst of spray, shaking off the torpor of land, coming alive again in her proper element. Me, too. All of us. We look at each other covertly as we scurry about doing small bits of necessary work and we are asking: You, too? Do you feel it too?


Driving on Munster from the sea, from the south, our Munster of Gaelic and English, of plain and hill farm, mountain and sea, of snug towns and confident cities, I am gripped in a kind of vision, a disjointed and over-heated scrambling of sense and sight and sound. What I have seen and what I have heard, what I have read and what has been sung. Hartnett’s sweet province of plenty and heartbreak, of ruin and peasant, of famine and greed, of great houses and fallen lords, of hazel grove, pasture, moorland and bog. Munster where Spenser, that epic idiot as Curtis brands him, fell on the oak woods like a storm, a province raped to build the warships of a nascent empire. Munster of swordsmen fleeing to exile, to die in the service of foreign kings. Munster of famine ships making west out of Queenstown, their holds crammed with destitute labourers, singers and servant girls, thieves, teachers, farmers and craftsmen, new-wrenched into exile from a land where soldiers rode escort to grain and cattle and hides bound eastward for Bristol and London. Munster where Spanish traders shipped wines and silk from the south, where Viking invaders found refuge and founded cities. Munster whose poor shipped out in the British Navy, died in red uniforms in desert and jungle and mountain far from home. Munster whose educated sons officered regiments and commanded districts in the ranks of Empire. Munster whose desperate sons and daughters would battle the Empire in their native hills. Munster whose Fusiliers fell in their thousands, like scythed grain in the harvest of the Somme.


Coming up on Cork from the sea, crossing the tracks of so many ships: the great grain traders from Australia; Barbary pirates from Algeria in 1642, led in by native pilots to Baltimore, which they would sack and leave in flames, carrying off, some say, more than 700 souls; coasters and traders with coal and grain and wine and cloths and beer and butter and timber and manufactures, heading east and west in a scurry of commerce; great trans-Atlantic liners, Titanic, Queenstown her last port of call, Lusitania bound for her fiery rendezvous off the Old Head of Kinsale; the French fleet bearing Theobald Wolfe Tone to Bantry; the fast ships out of France and Spain carrying boys to the seminaries of the Catholic South, bearing priests north again, years later, to a forbidden native country; my own native city which in 1919 sold the first agricultural machinery into Soviet Russia, from the factories of Henry Ford, himself the great-grandson of a woman of the lanes; Cork of the great harbour, Cork of the merchants and canny dockworkers, Cork of the troopships, Rebel Cork, Cork of the martyred Lord Mayor; stone quays from which tens of thousands sailed into loneliness and dispossession, quays known to sailors of every nationality under the sun; my waterborne city built on a marsh, her motto ‘Statio Bene Fide Carinis’ – A Harbour Good and Safe for Ships; Cork with her tower of Shandon topped by a golden salmon, Cork with her back to a sufficient province, her many faces turned always to the south and to the sea…


It’s time to go in. We’ve made some leeway in this north-westerly, we’ve drifted from under the black and white banded tower of the Old Head lighthouse. We’ll have to tack, says Zaf, and we do, leaving the Bullman buoy to starboard, then we come about and begin the long run in under main, foresail and genoa, as much sail as we need, more than enough to make a brave show, and we want to make a brave show, by God, we want to stomp in there as gallant as can be. Charles Fort ahead, the great stone bastions pale in the sun. Green everywhere to left and right, such rich and lustrous colours, such rich land. Such a strong fort. 1601, I think, the Spanish force under Don Juan del Aquila making in, O’Neill and O’Donnell camped to the north of the town, suddenly it’s that classroom again and time is thickening around me. I shake it off, punch redial on the phone, Paula is shouting “We see you, we see you,” and we whip out the binoculars, we see them, waving madly, a boat coming out gives us a cheer and we cheer back and then we are under the walls, they’re cheering us from the walls and we’re cheering back, I can see Paula, phone to her ear and now she can see me, I go forward waving her blue scarf, we’re nearly hoarse now on board and then we’re past, they’re scrambling to the cars, we’re in the inner basin, we run the genoa in, we haul the sails down, stow them, tip the fenders over. Kinsale is humming, traffic noise, voices calling here and there, a coaster at the deepwater pier unloading grain, a trip boat going out, trawlers manoeuvring. Zaf throttles back, starts a long glide in to the dock. Everyone’s down at the water’s edge, Oliver brandishing champagne: we can see the gold foil on the bottleneck. I keep seeing Paula’s eyes.


There’s a moment, a moment only, when the crew is tumbled together aft. We stand just there and look at each other, and then Zaf says, Well done everybody, well done. We did it, eh?


Everything is fragile and solid all at once, we’ve been together for so long, and now at the end we are breaking apart; without fuss or time for reflection, we have ceased to be a crew.


The starboard side touches, the merest kiss of the fenders. The lines go arcing through the air. Oliver, Tom O’Leary and the harbourmaster make us fast.


Simon has got the ladder down, now everyone scrambles aboard. Everyone’s talking, embracing and shaking hands at once. Oliver pops the champagne, happier than I’ve ever seen him, Curtis has a grin on him that could give him lockjaw, my sister Martina pops up, we’re mugging for photos with Charlotte’s Rasta wig, people we half know are appearing on the dock, and I have Paula in my arms, speechless with happiness, when Simon calls through a momentary silence: Hey Dorgan, what do you say? Abair rud Čigin, say something.


I look at him, trusty Sweeney, at Anne hand in hand with her husband, at Charlotte raucous with sunny happiness, at Zaf, my teacher, my friend. At Oliver, remembering Biscay. I feel 4,000 miles of water and light and weather inside me, the great weight and curve of the Atlantic, and then I say the only possible thing to say, the bronzed faces of my fellow-crew shining before me: Comrades, that is a vast ocean! Here’s to the ship that brought us home!


I hold Paula close. I look down at her feet then and she puts her arms around my neck, she sings in my ear softly, “Oh what will you bring me from beyond the sea…”



SAILING FOR HOME A Voyage from Antigua to Kinsale, by Theo Dorgan, was published by Penguin Ireland in 2004
and is excerpted here by kind permission of the publishers. All rights reserved.
©Theo Dorgan, 2004

Theo Dorgan in Archipelago: Twentieth Century Irish Language Poetry, in An Leabhar Mňr / The Great Book of Gaelic.



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