Boatbuilder and master mariner


PUSHING THE BOAT OUT Jarlath Cunnane at work on his replica of the James Caird lifeboat used by Shackleton and five crew to reach South Georgia from Elephant Island.

Áine Ryan

HIS many marine adventures may have started in canoes and dinghies on Lough Carra and Lough Corrib, but the epic expeditions of such seafarers as Ernest Shackleton and his brave crewmen were destined to bring him across distant horizons.  
In the beginning, he may have braved Clew Bay for the outpost of Clare Island, sailed the wild west coast aboard his friend’s Galway Hooker, the Saint Patrick, but the icy-packed tumultuous Southern Seas around Antartica, and indeed, the Arctic, would be the frontiers that beckoned to him.  
An inveterate voyager, Mayo man Jarlath Cunnane has crossed the Atlantic eight times and circumnavigated the North Polar ice cap.
He has built boats, crewed and skippered them and famously capsized three times before abandoning the Tom Crean – a remake of the famous lifeboat, the James Caird. He had been attempting to recreate the 800 nautical mile open-boat voyage undertaken by Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men from Elephant Island to South Georgia on April 24, 1916, to save their colleagues. The James Caird was one of the lifeboats attached to Shackleton’s ship, Endurance, which had become trapped and crushed by packed ice during his 1914-17 Antarctic expedition.  

Polar expedition
THROUGH his skills as a boatbuilder and master mariner Jarlath Cunnane has ensured that the bravery of members of the crew of Shackleton’s dramatic journey remains alive.
The attempted recreation of this voyage in 1997, which honoured in particular the low-key crew member and Kerry man, Tom Crean, culminated in abandoning the little craft, as stated above.
Incidentally, the Tom Crean had been built on a FÁS scheme under the direction of master boatbuilder Michael Kennedy, as well as Cunnane, in Tullaroan, near Kilkenny.
Jarlath Cunnane explains: “It was the same size as James Caird, but based on the lines of an Achill yawl, not having access to the measurements of the Caird at the time. I modified the design to make it stronger, constructed of three layers of glued cold-moulded marine plywood and supervised the construction.”
Fast-forward to Monday, January 26, 1997, and the five-man crew of the 23-foot lifeboat are been tossed around by 40-foot waves in a Force 10 storm. Hanging upside down at one stage with water everywhere they were forced to abandon it having been hit repeatedly – likened to repeated belts of a hammer.
Poignantly, they had already weathered half of the hazardous passage between Elephant Island and South Georgia in Force 8 and 9 gales. Unsurprisingly, this led to skipper, Paddy Barry’s comment, to The Irish Times: “Well, it certainly enhances Sir Ernest Shackleton’s achievement, doesn’t it?”
He was speaking from the 57-foot rescue yacht, the Pelagic, which had been positioned ten miles away from the tiny wooden boat. Conditions were so desperate it would take 14 hours after their last capsize before the daring rescue could be carried out.
Reflecting more recently on that dramatic rescue, Jarlath Cunnane observes: “I believe there can be nothing more distressing than being under a capsized boat in freezing seas 1,500 metres deep! Having righted Tom Crean the third time, good sense prevailed and we chose to abandon the attempt.
“When conditions improved we radioed our support vessel Pelagic, a 57ft heavy steel yacht, to come and take us on board. Next morning Pelagic succeeded in finding our position, and with some difficulty and reluctance we abandoned our small boat for the safety of Pelagic to continue the voyage to South Georgia to successfully complete the mountain traverse.”

Pandemic project
NOW almost a quarter of a century after he first became interested in the most famous lifeboat attached to Shackleton’s polar exploration ship, the Endurance, Jarlath Cunnane is building a more-exact replica of the James Caird. Well, self-isolation and a large workshop provide the perfect panacea for Covid-19 lockdowns.
Armed also with more information about the measurements and design of the boat than he had during the original build, Cunnane has added a new dramatis personae to the legacy he has created around low-key Kerry man, Tom Crean.
This time the replica will be named after a dour Scottish man and Endurance’s carpenter, Henry McNish.   
Cunnane explains that his interest in yet another relatively unknown member of Shackleton’s crew was sparked around the time of the 1997 voyage.
He explains: “The Shackleton boat journey from Elephant Island to South Georgia has always fascinated me more than any other polar voyage. Shackleton showed great leadership in guiding his men to safety, but showed his unkindness in denying the ship’s carpenter, McNish, the Polar Medal.
“True, McNish was known to be a dour Glaswegian but clearly was a very competent shipwright who proved his worth. Shackleton never forgave McNish for his alleged mutiny when he objected to dragging the boats across the hummocked ice floes.”
Significantly, Cunnane adds: “But without McNish’s work in strengthening and decking the boats on the ice, with primitive tools, I doubt if the crew of Endurance would have survived. That’s why I feel McNish was badly treated by Shackleton.”
Writing recently in the Irish Cruising Club Annual, Jarlath Cunnane outlines the various inaccurate conclusions cited in books about the make-up of the James Caird. Ironically, one of the worst was Frank Worsley’s claim that it was clinker built whilst it was clearly a carvel design.
Indeed, it turns out that Shackleton himself got the length wrong, albeit by mere inches. But isn’t the devil in the detail when you are a passionate craftsman like Cunnane?

In the late 1990s, having retired from his work as a construction manager, Jarlath Cunnane built the 50-foot ice-strengthened aluminum sailing vessel the Northabout. The following year, he embarked on an epic voyage through the ice-bound Northwest Passage.
This turned out to be a three-year adventure: over-wintering in Nome Alaska after the first leg; sailing south to the Aleutian Islands and through the inside passage to Vancouver in 2001; then northwards to the port of Prince Rupert, British Columbia, in 2002; and then across the Pacific to the Russian port of Anadyr and the Northeast Passage.
When Jarlath Cunnane and the crew finally returned to Westport in October 2005, it was over four years since they had sailed from the west Mayo town.
Northabout had become the first boat to circumnavigate the world on the east-west route.