Way back in 2014 I began a love affair with a very old Dutch lady. Little did I know then that my life would never be the same again and that my naive plans just made the Universe laugh.
Drie Gebroeders, a riveted iron Dutch sailing barge built in 1898, wasn’t just the answer to my housing issues back then, she also fed my love of history and its products. Naivety fuelled my dreams of learning to sail my own ship in quiet, continental waters. Money left from the sale of my house fed her restoration – and the mouths of several local tradesmen hired to do the work!
Fast forward five years and the Universe had revealed other ideas. Having initially sailed her in Essex and Kent, I found myself and my historic vessel in my homeland of Northern Ireland – not the anticipated Netherlands. My choice of the path less taken had left me struggling to find moorings near home and working all hours to keep both her and myself. Worse still, I was pretty much alone in my passion for old boats amongst the local yachties and cruisers. It seemed very few liked “my type of thing” as their preference had a low maintenance white finish.
After a peaceful winter in Newry Canal, and then an inconvenient delay due to a world pandemic, my work-life took us to windswept Bangor, Co. Down. We paused here for a chilly season before I sailed up the Belfast Lough to the more sheltered Titanic Quarter in the capital city of Belfast. Friendly helpful staff, chatty neighbours and the convenience of everything a cosmopolitan city centre can offer were on my doorstep. With the stunning backdrop of the Titanic Centre, Drie Gebroeders became a much photographed addition to the city tourist trail. Videos of her popped up on Youtube and her social media streams attracted visitors from around the globe.
Whilst all this positive stuff was going on my health issues had suddenly forced me to retire a lot earlier than expected. This unexpected turn of events made our future together look uncertain and with much heartache I decided I must sell up and move ashore. A variety of potential buyers came and went, but a concrete sale eluded me. Life looked uncertain and my mood was low. I just couldn’t see myself in a ground floor retirement flat just yet.
Well folks, I’ll tell you, miracles can happen! One day I got chatting to some men who were working on a nearby boat. They’d travelled up from the western county of Fermanagh and were glad of the cup of tea and boaty chat on offer aboard DG. Over several of their trips to the Big Smoke we all became friends and they discovered my unhappy predicament. Their solution took my breath away!
As you could count the number of Dutch sailing barges still rigged to sail in Ireland on less fingers than one hand, they were keen to try this novelty out. In return for this “favour”, they and their friends were to help me with essential maintenance. Needless to say I didn’t think twice about this unexpected offer.
Before I knew it, we were out in Belfast Lough with the sails up. I was ecstatic. So many times over my years aboard I had dreamed of doing just this, but weather and shortage of crew had always scuppered plans. A trip to Carrickfergus work yard resulted in a ton of mussels being rehomed and a shiny, fresh coat of paint and anti-foul on her big flat bottom. We fairly whistled back up the lough after that!!
Skipper Brian, a lifelong salty sea-dog, loves nothing better than a mission! Several years before, during the restoration of the rigging, the bowsprit had broken off and never been replaced. This left the third sail in the forepeak storage. Brian’s incredible team soon included a tree surgeon, Pete, and Allan of AGR Engineering to their ranks. An old telegraph pole was acquired and remodelled into a 4.6 metre bowsprit. At last my restoration boxes were all ticked off. We were ready for our first Big Adventure!
Rathlin Island, off the north coast of Ireland is renowned for its challenging tides and unforgiving rocky coast. But the annual maritime festival beckoned and we had an eager crew. Encouraged by the islanders who had delivered DG from Kent to Ireland in 2019, we set sail and headed North. Of course last minute work and busy people delayed departure, meaning we got the tides and winds all wrong and we had a rock’n’roll overnight passage which has become a legend among the crew.
Nevertheless, lost dinners and lack of sleep were all swiftly forgotten as we arrived in the tiny marina like superstars at an awards ceremony. With no time for recovery or a change of clothes, my old Dutch lady and her crew were mobbed by friends old and new and we were welcomed like royalty. What was planned to be a few days turned into a dozen and as we say over here “the craic was mighty!” Visitors arrived from far and wide, shanty singers and musicians performed on board and the sun shone. My new year gloom had been well and truly banished.
After this magnificent adventure, it was clear I could not part with my old girl just yet. It also made sense to move her nearer my crew. So plans were soon drawn up for a move out West to the welcoming inland waterways of Lough Erne in Fermanagh. Sadly, plans to get there through the Dublin canals were scuppered by her ample beam, so an overland haul was booked.
Nothing can prepare you for the feelings of anxiety and excitement that run through you as you drive up a motorway behind your home perched on a truck!
Thankfully within a couple of hours we were afloat again and a strong cup of tea soon calmed the nerves. As I await the Spring, plans are being laid to explore the vast expanse of the magical Lough Erne and perhaps even down the mighty River Shannon. New friends and potential crew members have already been made from the local barge community and those ashore. Every morning I give thanks for my very beautiful surroundings. I wonder what the Universe has in mind for us next.