13 September 2008

Asgard II Crew returns home as Inquiries open

The crew of the Irish brigantine and sail training vessel Asgard II (archive photo above) which was lost at sea off the coast of Brittany on Thursday morning (for details see my entry from September 11th), has returned home to Ireland yesterday evening.
Captain Colm Newport, five regular crew members and twenty trainees who had to abandon ship in pitch-darkness after a sudden ingress of water had turned their vessel into a floating hulk, arrived save and sound at Dublin airport.

After being rescued by the French Coast Guard, they had spent a day on Belle-Île-en-Mer, an island off the southern coast of Brittany, close to the Quiberon peninsula and Quiberon Bay.

Despite the shock and sadness over the loss of the nation's only proper sail training vessel, the good news is that no human life was lost and no-one suffered injuries. Some of the trainees still looked a bit shaken when they landed in Dublin last night, but that will pass. They all behaved in a professional and disciplined way, even under extreme and traumatic circumstances, and that shows that their training has been successful after all.

Meanwhile the Irish Marine Casualty Investigation Board (MCIB) and its French equivalent, the Bureau d'enquêtes sur les événements de mer, have begun their separate inquiries into the circumstances of the sinking of the Asgard II.

As the brigantine is now in waters about 90 metres deep, it is doubtful if an attempt to raise and salvage her can be made or would be sensible. A detailed survey in respect to that and to the vessel's current condition has yet to be conducted and might take a while.

However, the general opinion in Irish maritime and sailing circles is that building a new vessel as replacement for the Asgard II might be the better and more likely option. Unfortunately the loss comes just at the beginning of an economic recession in Ireland, and one has to wonder if Finance Minister Brian Lenihan (who is not the seafaring type) will find enough money in the treasury for such a project.

But all is not lost, even if the Irish government should decide that it has no money for another sail training vessel. We could employ a procedure which has been used with great success in the past, and especially throughout the 19th century (when most people had a lot less money than they have today). I am thinking of Public Subscription, a joint effort of many individuals, putting together as much money as they can afford to give, in order to create a large project. Carlow cathedral, Wellington's obelisk in Phoenix Park in Dublin, and the municipal Clock Tower here on the Quay in Waterford are three examples of works created entirely by using that system.

I am neither a politician, nor rich, so I have neither the power nor the money to start a possible public subscription campaign. But I have pitched the idea already to a cabinet minister and a TD (member of parliament) yesterday, in the hope that it will sink in and influence the government in a positive way.

In less than three years Ireland and Waterford will host the start of the annual International Tall Ships' Race again. It would be very desireable to have a proper national sail training vessel in service again by then.
I still remember how the Asgard II (accompanied by the other two Irish tall ships Dunbrody and Jeannie Johnston) led the Parade of Sails out of our port and down the river Suir in 2005. It was the first and only time that all three Irish tall ships were appearing together.

Speculations that for the time being the Dunbrody and Jeannie Johnston might temporarily be drafted in as sail training vessels might have some substance, but it is doubtful if that would be a good idea and a workable solution. Both barques are replicas of 19th century originals and the main purpose they have is to be a floating museum. The Dunbrody does not even have a full certificate for the high seas, which the Jeannie Johnston was granted after a major struggle with the Irish bureaucracy. Both vessels also operate an extensive programme of corporate entertainment and that provides a significant part of their budget. So it is more than unlikely that they could really function as proper sail training vessels like the Asgard II did.

Having put my idea forward into the political channels, I hope it will be taken up, so that the gap created in the sail training community by the loss of Asgard II will be filled as soon as possible.

The Emerald Islander

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