Irish vessel to be exchanged with six dhows

Classic 'hooker' is on its way to the UAE as part of a boat swap marking the participation of Abu Dhabi and Galway in the Volvo Ocean Race.

The Galway Hooker 'Little Nora' being loaded into a 40-foot container in Ireland to start her journey to the UAE for the Abu Dhabi stopover of the Volvo Ocean Race

Courtesy Padraic de Bhaldraithe
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A century-old Irish sailing boat has been loaded into a container to start a journey to the UAE as part of the Abu Dhabi leg of the Volvo Ocean Race.

In exchange, six traditional Arabian dhows will be sent to the Irish city of Galway for the finish of the race in July next year.

Organisers of the boat swap say they expect the traditional Galway hooker Nora Bheag (Little Nora) to reach Abu Dhabi about the first week of December.

Once here, the vessel will be kept under the close watch of the Emirates Heritage Club until the racing fleet arrives on January 1.

Nora Bheag is being brought to Abu Dhabi as part of the Maritime Heritage Cultural Exchange initiative, organised by Emirates Heritage Club and the Galway Hooker Association, and coordinated by the Irish expatriate Peter Vine.

This will be the first time the UAE has taken part in the race. Mr Vine said he strongly believed the Abu Dhabi boat Azzamwould win.

"It's going to be an exciting occasion and a huge celebration when the boats reach the shores of Galway, especially because the links between the UAE and Ireland, in business and in culture, are so strong," he said.

The Maritime Cultural Heritage Exchange is setting up a schools programme so pupils in Ireland and the UAE can follow the route of Nora Bheag's container on the website

Mr Vine, who runs a media company in the UAE, came up with the idea of bringing the classic Irish ship to Abu Dhabi because of the two countries' shared maritime heritage.

"The eyes of the world will be on Abu Dhabi when the Volvo Ocean Race comes here and the yachting traditions of the UAE will really be at the fore," he said.

"It's something that a lot of people identify with, and the scene of these traditional boats will be unbelievably dramatic."

Enda O'Coineen is an Irish entrepreneur who is also leading the initiative.

"The old traditional crafts are a great contrast to the modern Volvo Ocean Race machines," Mr O'Coineen said. "Galway hookers, like the Arabian dhows, are part of our culture. They appeal to the romantic and abstract part of us.

"We hope to use the visit to strengthen the relationship between the two countries."

Padraic de Bhaldraithe, who co-authored the book Glorious Galway - Gaillimh na Seod about the history and revival of traditional Irish boats, said there were many similarities between the two types of boat.

"Nora Bheag was originally rigged with a dipping lugsail, which is not too dissimilar to the lateen sails on the dhows," Mr de Bhaldraithe said.

Both were put to similar uses, including personal transport and fishing. The hookers were also handy for moving peat, which was used for fuel.

The term "hooker" refers to four classes of traditional sailing boats from the west coast of Ireland. They all have black hulls with distinctive dark red-brown or black sails. Nora Bheag is the smallest type, known as a pucan, and was built in 1916.

Irish families have started to revive the old working boats as heirlooms, and they are often used in regattas such as the Galway Races, which attracts more than 200,000 people to the city every year.

"We on the west coast of Ireland regard the sea as a way of joining people, not dividing them," said Mr de Bhaldraithe.

The organisers of the boat swap are not the first to make the connection. In his book Atlantean, the filmmaker Bob Quinn identified a strong historical connection between Arabia and the west coast of Ireland.

"There is a continuity of influence from the Middle East right through the centuries," Quinn said. "And because fish were the main diet of coastal dwellers, fishermen from the south used to sail up the Atlantic coast to follow the delicious Atlantic cod."

History will repeat itself, Mr Vine said, when the dhows arrive in Galway Bay next year.

"The Irish guys are going to get to know the Emirati sailors and will get the chance to sail on the dhows, and the Emiratis likewise will get to sail on our traditional boats," he said.

"This will be a huge common shared experience that will build true friendships and a real cultural exchange.

"I am hugely grateful to Emirates Heritage Club, which has done so much to revive Arabian dhows, for making such a project possible."