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Conor O'Brien 'Saoirse' Rally Hailed a Success as Fleet Prepare to Depart Madeira

17th July 2023
Historic Irish vessel the AK Ilen departing the Port of Funchal, Madeira, as the Saoirse Centenary Rally draws to a close
Historic Irish vessel the AK Ilen departing the Port of Funchal, Madeira, as the Saoirse Centenary Rally draws to a close

The centenary international Irish sailing event called the ‘Saoirse Rally’ has come to a successful end on the 8th of July 2023 after a series of celebrations hosted in Funchal, Madeira by the Clube Naval de Funchal, Madeira Tourism Board and the Harbour Authority.

As Afloat reported previously, the international ‘Saoirse Rally’ is the first of several events commemorating one hundred years since Irish sailor Conor O'Brien, from Foynes on the Shannon Estuary, Co. Limerick, set off for a two-year circumnavigation of the globe aboard the Irish vessel, a 42-foot ketch called Saoirse. The Port of Funchal, Madeira, was O’Brien’s first port of call after departing from Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin, Ireland on 20th June 1923. This journey, which began in 1923, took him two years to complete and covered over 40,000 miles. Conor O'Brien was the first sailor to circumnavigate the world via the 3 Great Capes in a small yacht, which was a remarkable achievement. His journey inspired other sailors, and he is still celebrated today as a pioneer in the world of sailing.

The international ‘Saoirse Rally’ organised by the Irish Cruising Club, gathered twenty-eight boats from various locations, including Ireland, Western Europe and the Atlantic Islands. Madeira hosted an international gathering of over one hundred crew members and friends warmly received in Madeira and its sister island, Porto Santo, where the boats made their landfall.

The Clube Naval de Funchal, Madeira Tourism Board and the Harbour Authority worked hard to overcome logistical challenges posed by earlier summer storms and provided a varied programme of culture and cuisine in idyllic weather conditions.

Speaking on behalf of the hosts in Funchal, local coordinator Catia Carvalho Esteves said: “I want to thank you all for your friendship and to congratulate you all at the Irish Cruising Club for organising such a great Saoirse Rally. To be able to engage so many sailing yachts for this event is something to be proud of."

The Irish Cruising Club was very grateful for the support, hard work and great hospitality the Clube Naval de Funchal, Madeira Tourism Board, and the Harbour Authority provided. Speaking upon departure, a representative from the Irish Cruising Club said:

"We were overwhelmed by the warm welcome that greeted us in Funchal and by the generosity of our hosts. They built a tented village for us, and we shared many happy moments together. Madeira itself is a revelation, a wonderland of nature, wildlife and friendly people. We would encourage everyone, especially sailors, to visit there at least once in their lifetime. The Irish Cruising Club will certainly return."

The participation of the historic Irish sailing vessel the AK Ilen was a poignant way to commemorate the great achievements of Conor O Brien. The AK Ilen was commissioned by Conor O'Brien after his return to Ireland on behalf of the Falkland Islands government. The AK Ilen served as a workboat in the Falkland Islands for some 70 years before being returned to Ireland for restoration by Hegarty’s Boatyard, Baltimore, West Cork close, to where it was first built.

The AK Ilen is now plying her trade as a sailing charity, providing development programmes to a wide range of community organisations. This community work is delivered in partnership with ‘Sailing Into Wellness’, an award-winning Irish charity and social enterprise started over six years ago, which uses the unique setting of the ocean to empower individuals to overcome challenges, increase coping mechanisms and build a positive sense of self and community.

Conor O'Brien was also an accomplished mountaineer, patriot, architect and author. In addition to his circumnavigation, O'Brien was also an accomplished writer and wrote several books on his sailing adventures. His books, such as "Across Three Oceans"- which has recently been republished by the ICC - remain popular among sailors and adventure enthusiasts and still provide relevant insights into his experiences and the challenges he faced during his voyages.

O Brien's passion for sailing, adventurous spirit, and pioneering achievements have left a lasting impact on the world of sailing, and he will always be remembered as one of Ireland's most accomplished sailors.

Published in Conor O'Brien, Ilen Team

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About Conor O'Brien, Irish Circumnavigator

In 1923-25, Conor O'Brien became the first amateur skipper to circle the world south of the Great Capes. O'Brien's boat Saoirse was reputedly the first small boat (42-foot, 13 metres long) to sail around the world since Joshua Slocum completed his voyage in the 'Spray' during 1895 to 1898. It is a journey that O' Brien documented in his book Across Three Oceans. O'Brien's voyage began and ended at the Port of Foynes, County Limerick, Ireland, where he lived.

Saoirse, under O'Brien's command and with three crew, was the first yacht to circumnavigate the world by way of the three great capes: Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope and Cape Leeuwin; and was the first boat flying the Irish tri-colour to enter many of the world's ports and harbours. He ran down his easting in the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties between the years 1923 to 1925.

Up until O'Brien's circumnavigation, this route was the preserve of square-rigged grain ships taking part in the grain race from Australia to England via Cape Horn (also known as the clipper route).

At a Glance - Conor O'Brien's Circumnavigation 

In June 1923, Limerick man Conor O’Brien set off on his yacht, the Saoirse — named after the then newly created Irish Free State — on the two-year voyage from Dun Laoghaire Harbour that was to make him the first Irish amateur to sail around the world.

June 1923 - Saoirse’s arrival in Madeira after her maiden passage out from Dublin Bay

2nd December 1924 - Saoirse crossed the longitude of Cape Horn

June 20th 1925 - O’Brien’s return to Dun Laoghaire Harbour

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