A GROUP of rowers from Cork’s currach rowing club, Naomhóga Chorcaí, are just back from the 44th Vogalonga in Venice, the famed regatta that takes place along 30km of the narrow waterways of Italy’s most beautiful maritime city, home to a distinctive traditional boat of its own, the famous gondola.
As ever, the distinctive currachs, Ireland’s traditional West Coast craft, made with a wooden frame covered with canvas and waterproofed with tar, drew bemusement from the Italian rowers.
Sharon McDonnell laughs, describing the response: “They say, ‘what’s that? How can that work?’ It’s the oars that they don’t understand, I think.”
Naomhóga Chorcaí, from small beginnings, is now a curraching success story and one of the biggest and most active clubs in the country.
With around 80 active members, they are the possessors of the most complete collection of traditional boats in Ireland, with varieties of currach from Donegal, Galway, Clare and Kerry; the Irish word Naomhóg, little saint, is the Munster word for a currach.
Their partner organisation, Meitheal Mara, is the community boatyard where many of their currachs are built.
Naomhóga Chorcaí frequently travel for international races and have attended the Venetian Vogalonga in previous years.
Sharon, from Douglas, is just back from her maiden Venetian voyage, but there’s no rest for the wicked: she’s back at Naomhóga Chorcaí’s boatyard just days later, for a training session for her second Ocean To City Rás Mór race, where this year she’s on a four-woman team captained by Galician rower Diana Acuna.
The fact that the team is all-female was more coincidence than design, in a club with almost complete gender parity by happy coincidence. There are roughly equal numbers of male and female members, and mixed teams are very common.
“We’re as good as the men; there’s no difference between the men and the women in the club,” Sharon explains, although for regattas teams often are divided along gender lines; the Rás Mór experience should help tighten the team up for future regattas if they want to compete.
Modelled on London’s Great River Race, Cork’s Rás Mór, the flagship event of the Ocean to City maritime festival is a long-distance, mixed rowing and paddling event: everything from Dragon Boats to Kayaks to stand-up paddle boards compete.
Racing in a specially designed racing currach built in Dingle by a master boatbuilder, Diana’s team will start last, under handicap: their lightweight boat is one of the fastest in the race.
Weather permitting, they’ll tackle the 28km Ocean Course, which takes in Roches’ Point out in the harbour. A shorter 22km City Course will be set if the weather is rough; currachs are renowned for their seaworthiness and are the traditional craft in the windswept Aran Islands, but the racing currachs are lower in the water than their working boat counterparts and are hard work in open waters.
Diana, a food scientist, started rowing after she arrived in Cork, by coming down to one of Naomhóga Chorcaí’s open Saturday rows. The bug bit deep and now, six years on, she’s considered one of the best rowers in the club. As captain, Diana is responsible for tactical decisions, motivating her team and issuing steering instructions.
Ailíse Mc Nulty, a múinteoir bunscoile originally from Glandore, is on ‘stroke’; she’s charged with setting the team’s pace and it’s a challenging role. Ailíse used to row in West Cork.
“Sharon asked me if I’d like to join their crew and it’s a really strong crew, and I didn’t even think of it as male or female: I just saw a really good crew and friends,” she says.
Ailíse loves the meditative aspects of rowing and says getting out on the water is a fantastic way to de-stress from work, but it’s the teamwork element of the sport that appeals the most.
“It’s the ultimate team sport,” she says. “If you’re pulling against someone else it doesn’t matter how hard you’re pulling. If you’re not in and out with them, it has a negative effect on the boat. There’s nothing like it when you’re all pulling together.”
Second and third are Sharon, who jokes she has “the easiest job on the boat,” and Kerry woman Anita Locke, who originally hails from Dingle and grew up rowing currachs. When Anita moved to Dublin for work, she brought her love of currachs with her: she co-founded a small but growing currach club in the capital.
Having moved to Cork last year, she now finds herself on a Cork team in the Rás Mór for the first time, although she’s competed on numerous occasions. She’s found a warm welcome in the Rebel City and in the relaxed and flexible approach of Naomhóga Chorcaí.
“It’s brilliant, because you can go for different types of rows,” she says. “You can go for the regattas if you want or you can go for the messin’ rows on Wednesday evenings, or you can enter the long-distance races like Baltimore Wooden Boat Festival or the Ocean To City. You can be a beginner or a pro: everyone’s welcome.”
The women set about getting their currach on the water, carrying boat and oars down the slipway to the Lee.
The club is based at the start of the Marina, next to Shandon Boat Club: the distinctive shapes of their currachs, black forms that look almost like marine mammals when they’re out of the water, can be seen from across the river by drivers along the Lower Glanmire Road.
On the water, they quickly fall into a fast pace, displaying impressive speed and a fluid synchronicity in their teamwork.
On the shore, Sharon’s boyfriend, Ger Baldwin, watches.
Ger has been involved with Naomhóga Chorcaí for over a decade and has seen the club grow and become increasingly popular in that time.
“We had a lot of semi-derelict boats in the beginning,” he says.
“A couple of years ago we had metal boat stands made and that’s really helped: we used to have wooden stands and you’d come down here after a storm and there’d be a lot of damage.”
Ger says the club has grown from around 50 members when he started to 150 today, although about 80 are active. “We’ve always had a good balance between men and women in the club,” he says.
“There are slightly more female members than male, although the male teams seem to do slightly more regattas.”
Diana’s team will compete in the Rás Mór in one of two low, sleek racers and Ger is on the male team who will race in the other, which means Sharon is pitted against her boyfriend for the race.
“If they win, I’ll congratulate her. If we win, I’ll probably be excommunicated,” he jokes.
Diana’s team are competitive and would love to win. Back on dry land, the women’s team say they are indeed in it to win it, if they possibly can. But it’s not all about winning.
“It would be a bonus, but Ocean To City is just great having a goal because the long rows are so enjoyable,” Ailíse says.
“It’s just great to get out on the water. Winning would be a bonus, but it’s not everything.”
The Rás Mór takes place on Saturday, June 2. For more information on it and on the Ocean to City Festival, see www.oceantocity.com
To try your hand at rowing a currach, Naomhóga Chorcaí hold open public Saturday rows each week. For more: www.naomhogachorcai.com