Row, row, row your currach
Perched on a wooden seat the other day I gripped a pair of heavy oars that were about as aerodynamic as two-by-fours, preparing to embark on my maiden voyage in a traditional Irish currach.
Seated behind me, veteran rower Kathy Walburn gave last-minute instructions.
"Remember — when you pull, lean way back," she advised.
"Right," I replied.
"Don't feather the oars."
"And don't try to see where we're going. I'll steer, you just have to row."
I lined up my oars to match the starting position held by Maureen Plumleigh, seated in front of me.
"Here we go!"
With that, the three of us pulled in unison, and instantly the butt ends of my oars slammed together, skinning the knuckle of my right thumb.
"One more thing," Walburn called a tad belatedly. "When finishing your stroke keep your left hand over your right."
Not long after this somewhat inauspicious launch, though, I found my rhythm and the currach plowed neatly through waves on the Thames River in New London. Soon we were zipping along just as Saint Brendan "The Navigator" must have more than 1,500 years earlier on his legendary quest to find the Isle of the Blessed off the coast of Ireland.
Walburn and Plumleigh are members of the New London Currach Rowers, a team that competes in races close to home and as far away as Boston, Albany, Philadelphia and Milwaukee.
The local club traces its origins to a group called Celtic Cause, whose founders, Geoff Kaufman, Janet Buck, Lorcan Otway and Diarmuid Hanafin, arranged for master currach Builder, Monty O'Leary of County Kerry, Ireland, to build three of the vessels in 2005.
The boats were raced the following year during the Celts & Currach Festival hosted by New London Main Street. After this annual festival ended in 2009, participants in the sport then formed the New London Currach Rowers.
The North American Currach Association (NACA) certified the club in 2010 in the wake of an exhibition regatta on the Thames River.
As Connecticut's only team, the New London Currach Rowers has for years hosted an official NACA regatta in July.
Walburn said competitive currach racing began in the United States in the early 1980s when migrants in Boston began competing against fellow immigrants in Annapolis and New York City. Teams continued to develop, and by 1982 there were seven clubs that formed the NACA.
According to Walburn, the currach's design and construction are believed to be unique to the Irish and Scottish west coasts, allowing for variations in shape and size by region. The currach — sometimes anglicized as curragh and pronounced "kurr-rock" — is sometimes referred to as a naomhóg in the counties of Kerry and Cork, and in West Clare as a canoe.
Used primarily for fishing and transportation, the currach once was made of animal skins, but today most are constructed of paint- or tar-coated canvas, stretched over a wood frame. Boats used for racing typically measure 25 feet long, 3½ feet wide and at least 14 inches deep, and weigh up to 250 pounds.
Currachs may be clunkier than sleek rowing shells or kayaks that are fabricated from such space-age materials as Kevlar and carbon fiber, but once under way they move right along at about 4 mph.
During my outing we launched from a beach at the Thames Yacht Club off Pequot Avenue with welcome assistance from a handful of club regulars enjoying happy hour on the rear porch.
Up until a year or so ago the rowers had been towing their currach on a trailer to a nearby beach. When yacht club members noticed rowers struggling to lug their unwieldy vessel to the water they generously offered use of their facility, where two of the club's boats are now securely stored.
Walburn said the John P. Holland Division of the Ancient Order of Hibernians has offered to restore the third currach. The club also has received support from Westerly's Irish Cultural Club, Neff Productions; the city of New London; Mitchell College, New London Maritime Society; Kennedy Marina; Thames Yacht Club and the former Hannifin's Irish Pub.
Both Walburn and Plumleigh are of Irish heritage, but that isn't a requirement for club membership.
"It does help, though," Plumleigh joked. "It also helps to be a little crazy."
With only about a half-dozen active members the New London rowers sometimes compete as a team but also hop aboard other teams' boats during regattas in order to enter several races.
Regattas usually consist of 8-10 races, which include different combinations of men and women rowers.
"It's a lot of fun — but we also want to win," Plumleigh said.
The club, which schedules workouts at the Thames Yacht Club beach at 6 p.m. on Wednesdays and Fridays, and 9 a.m. Saturdays from spring through fall, is always looking for new members.
For more information email the club at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go, remember: Keep that left hand over your right.