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THE ATLANTIC CHALLENGE...

Words & Pictures - Mark Deane

In the cold windy January of 2004 Dave Dean the harbour master at Lower Town Fishguard phoned up and asked if Celtic Diving would be willing to volunteer our dive boat for safety/press boat cover for a week long boating event in July.

“This is the middle of our diving season ! “ I protested “you’ll ruin us !”.  “Yeah, I know” he said “but it’s for a good cause.”

Intrigued, I decided to do a bit of research on this Atlantic Challenge.

It turns out that Atlantic Challenge International sponsors a friendly contest of seamanship in Bantry Bay gigs, held in a different host country every other year.

The aim is to build trust among nations and form a community of youth and adults from different countries, while encouraging the practice of traditional maritime skills.

  

The origins of the Atlantic Challenge movement are firmly rooted in the teachings of Kurt Hahn, who is widely recognised as one of the 20th. century’s greatest educators.

Reflecting Hahn's belief that self-discovery comes through challenge, American Lance Lee and Frenchman Bernard Cadoret inaugurated the Atlantic Challenge, when the first races took place in New York harbour.

This first challenge was held between the USA and France at the Centennial Celebrations of the Statue of Liberty in 1986. Since then the competition has grown to fourteen nations, and sixty Bantry Bay gigs have been built worldwide.

The boats are replicas of an 18th century captain’s “gig”, captured from a French man o’ war in Bantry Bay 1796. The original gig is now on display in the Dublin National Maritime Museum.

The 38ft gigs are carvel built, ie; with the hull planks lying flush or edge to edge rather than overlapping.

A gig has three masts with dipping lugsails. The two main masts require a crew of five, with the remaining crew attending to the third, smaller sail and helming the vessel.

The length of the gigs, combined with their narrow width and large sail area, means they are capable of great speed under sail. Gigs can easily reach speeds of 12 knots, requiring supreme skill, teamwork and concentration on the part of the crew.

The simplicity of the rig allows for the masts to be lowered quickly and the gig can be rowed with ten oars, the longest of which are 18’6” (5.6m). The gig is tremendously manoeuvrable under oars, but is also swift, allowing a crew to maintain a speed of 5 knots over several miles.

These boats are well suited to their purpose; they have undeniable beauty, exhilarating performance and complexity of operation. Many have been built as community projects with young people and adults working side by side.

During the contests teams are housed and fed together in a local school or campground. Besides their daily efforts on the water, team members from different countries have ample time to spend together, and many form lifetime friendships with their international peers.

The Atlantic Challenge competitions and races include the following events:

L'Esprit:  A cooperative event with mixed crews, sharing knowledge and meeting a challenge together. A variety of skills are tested, including rudderless slalom and man-over-board under sail.

Rowing Race:  Race over a 2 nautical mile straight course.

Jackstay Transfer:  A sack is transferred from a pier to the gig and then rowed to a destination.

Sail & Oars: Twice around a 3 nautical mile triangular course using sails and oars alternatively.

Captain's Gig: Transfer of a "very important person" from the pier to a vessel. This is a style event and is not judged on speed.

  

Navigation: This event is based on the water and tests knowledge of compass course, speed, time and distance calculations, plotting, latitude and longitude, dead reckoning and tides.

Towing Race:  Under sail and oar featuring pairs of boats and emphasizing cooperation between two gigs.

Rowing Slalom:  Boat handling contest around buoys without the use of a rudder.

Having delved into the history of the Atlantic Challenge, I thought; “This all sounds very exciting”. Especially as this was to be the first time for the Atlantic Challenge to be held in the UK.

Two hundred and eighty crew members from ten participating countries were to be housed in a “tented village” in Goodwick, our home town !

Fishguard harbour forms a natural amphitheatre enabling visiting spectators to view the events from several different venues. The photo opportunities were going to be enormous.

So I rang Dave Fletcher the main organizer and co-coordinator and not only donated the use of “Ivy May” our dive boat for the week but also offered to be official photographer!

I was granted the concession; kept that week free from bookings, ordered a new camera to celebrate and looked forward to what promised to be a memorable competition.

As the weeks drew closer we had fine weather in June and at the beginning of July, the posters and advertising started appearing around the place, the tented village sprang up.

Dave Dean was working tirelessly around the clock arranging things including the impressive pontoons, donated by Roy Harries of Stena Line, which were set in place on the eastern breakwater.

Just days before the event was due to take place and the competitors were arriving, a force eight gale started to blow in.

I had to rescue our boat on the deep water mooring out in the harbour while Dave Dean and Roy Harries battled to save the pontoons that threatened to break loose and wreak havoc!

Throughout the night the winds blew in from the north and we all had to hope that nothing would get totally destroyed.  The whole event hung in the balance !

Morning came and with it better weather, the gale subsided and everyone pulled together to make the necessary repairs and get on with the last minute preparations.  There was a bustling hive of activity at Goodwick Parrog.

The tented village started to fill up with residents, the gigs arrived, the harbour office was opened up, impromptu car parks materialized, unfamiliar out of town visitors wandered around lost, barrels were rolled into the beer tent - the scene was set for the Tenth International Atlantic Challenge.

“West Wales centre stage as the Atlantic Challenge blows in the winds of international harmony”

  

Celebrating the honour of being selected as the venue for the 2004 event, the UK gig 'Integritie' was paraded through streets of Fishguard before the official contest preview was launched by Sir David Mansel Lewis, former Lord Lieutenant of the county of Pembrokeshire and Chairman of the local Atlantic Challenge committee.

Reflecting on over 200 years of history, the procession was led by the historic local heroine Jemima Nicholas - famous for helping defeat the failed French invasion force that used boats like the Bantry Bay gig when they landed near Fishguard in 1797.

Competing teams for 2004 were; Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France (with two teams), Ireland, International, Italy, Norway, Russia, UK and the USA

The newest gig in the Atlantic Challenge was the Finnish Gig.  She took to the water in May to begin her preparations.

Thursday 8th.July, the accommodation was officially open and a celebratory meal was held in the evening.

Friday and the weather improving, the orientation and safety briefings were held and there was an evening welcome in the “Entertainments” (beer) tent.

Saturday saw the safety inspections of the gigs, then the beaching. This was followed by the opening ceremony, very grand and then the launching and mooring of the boats at the pontoons.

The first events were the rowing heats, a supreme test of strength, speed and stamina. Sweat, heave-ho-ing and shouts of encouragement from the spectators.

A large results table, keeping a tally of the positions and scores, was conveniently positioned on the wall of the harbour office so that it was always possible to find out how the various teams were doing.

  

We had “Ivy May” moored at the pontoons and were busy taking photographs and ferrying officials, television and press people to and fro.

Sunday morning saw the Esprit event with mixed crews, albeit a bit confusing at first, probably because of the language barriers.  But the willingness to cooperate was very apparent and as things progressed the skills seemed to come together more smoothly.

Sunday afternoon saw the exciting Sail and Oar races - very energetic and visual events which really give you an idea of the seamanship and teamwork the crews have to master to get that edge - gripping stuff !

Monday morning heralded the slalom event which saw tricky rowing coordination carried as fast as possible, making you feel exhausted just watching !

Crew members also demonstrated their rope work abilities by knowing the function and method of tying a selection of knots, whippings and splices.

The first sailing heats were held in the afternoon and as we were out on the water with the boats we did have some of the best views, up close and personal.

Tuesday morning the gigs navigated a course while rowing. Testing knowledge of the use of the magnetic compass, including the determination of compass error and variation, steering a compass course, speed, time and distance calculations.  In addition crews had to focus on plotting, latitude and longitude, depths and tides.

  

In the afternoon was the Jackstay Transfer - without doubt a complicated and fascinating event which is based on the old method of bringing supplies onto a vessel, without coming into port.

The teams have to row like crazy towards the breakwater, throw out an anchor at the last minute to swing the boat round so the stern comes in closest, cast a weighted line ashore to establish the jackstay between shore and boat, and heave the mast up to haul their load.  Once on board immediately half the crew start rowing for the finish line while the others got the mast back down.

Wednesday morning we were treated to the Captain’s Gig, in which Jemima Nicholas was rowed in style more times than I could remember from the pontoon to the Fishguard Lifeboat moored in the middle of the Harbour.

The afternoon saw the sailing run off and final.  To the crowd’s amusement a pod of about fourteen dolphin appeared in the bay to join in the event!

Thursday was the rest day and we all needed it after not only the past days’ events but the late evening/early morning shift in the “Entertainments” tent !

Friday morning witnessed the “man overboard” event, with the teams working together to retrieve a hapless crew member, usually the smallest/youngest, who has to jump from the moving gig into the water. The team to retrieve the casualty fastest and then cross the finish line wins.

In the afternoon we had the towing row and sail exercise, which must have finished off what little energy the crews had after a week of strenuous competitions.  This event features pairs of boats competing together and emphasizes cooperation between two gigs. Boats are towed upwind under oars before swapping roles for a tow downwind under sail.  The course is then run again with boats swapping roles. The transitional phases are crucial to a successful outcome.

Saturday came round and it was time for the boats to come out of the water.  The crews had the chance for a last sail around to enjoy the views and relax, in contrast to the competitive sailing during the events.

The awards ceremony and prize giving took place in the afternoon. For the first time since 1998 a new name will go on The Atlantic Challenge perpetual trophy.  The team from the UK came home in first place with 90 points, followed by Belgium with 87 points and the USA in third place with 79 points.

  

This is the first time that the UK has won the International Contest of Seamanship and the first time that a newly entered country has won since Canada at Roskilde, Denmark in 1998. The UK victory was based on being the most consistent performers throughout the contest, scoring second place in over half of the races.

The Belgian team, based in Ghent, were competing in only their second contest. Finishing so highly underlines the fine way in which they handled their gig during the contest. 

Then there was the closing party that evening, what a bash !

The Italian city of Genoa will host the next Atlantic Challenge contest in the summer of 2006. Genoa was chosen after presenting an impressive bid to the international trustees.

The contest in West Wales was the first time that the Italian Gig had competed. Even more impressive considering launching took place only 6 weeks before the start of the contest. 

For further information or to contact Atlantic Challenge International please refer to;
www.atlanticchallenge.org