Sunday, March 30, 2014

Lockley's Curragh

R.M. Lockley The Seals and the Curragh jacket
(click any image to enlarge)
A skilled naturalist and prolific writer, R.M. Lockley (1903-2000) wrote more than 50 books, many of them about the wildlife of the British Isles. While recovering from injuries suffered while on service during the Second World War, he discovered, on a secluded beach at the base of a cliff on a remote part of the Welsh coast, a breeding colony of harbor seals. A year later, with the war still underway, he sailed there in a curragh, beneath which, overturned, he camped for months while studying the seals' breeding habits.

The Seals and the Curragh is Lockley's account of that idyll. And though the curragh gets major billing in the title, it plays a minor role in the book, which concentrates more on the seals, on conservation, and on Lockley's charming relationship with Tessa, a 13-year-old girl, a refugee from London who lived in the home of a local Welsh farmer and who brought Lockley milk, helped him in his studies, and kept him company at his secluded campsite. This was a time when a man's intentions toward minors were assumed to be honorable (or, at least, those of men of a certain class), and Lockley's description of his innocent relationship with Tessa recalls what seems now a time of great naivete and purity (strange, that, during the most destructive war in history, describing a relationship between an injured soldier and a girl who had lost her mother to a German bomb and whose soldier father was presumed dead in Singapore).

So the curragh gets fairly short shrift, overshadowed by the seals, Tessa, and Lockley's progressive concern for the natural environmental. We are, however, treated to the following:
Giddy  -- that's how the Irish describe a curragh in one natural word of caution; but it gave you a marvellous feeling to watch a Dingle or Blasket man handle one. Like a fleet-toed dancer the curragh skimmed over the white breaking currents, a living bird of the waves, safe in the skilled hands of the men of the Irish south-west.
The Welsh fishermen had gasped at her long length of twenty-five feet and narrow beam of four feet with horror. Nor had these men of the grey coast appreciated the smiling eye and shark teeth which I had painted each side of the bow, in the Iberian fashion, to give life to the black tarred hull. It was the evil eye to them; they were afraid of that which they could not understand.
Lockley's curragh under sail
Lockley's extraordinarily painted curragh running before the wind. The lightweight boat appears to be on plane.
Aside from this, we learn only a little about the boat itself: The tarred skin over its wooden framework was of canvas. It had a small lugsail which, in the book's only photo of the boat, is turned athwartships with its peak lowered almost to horizontal, a virtual squaresail for when the boat runs before the wind. Two sets of reef points are visible, but no forestay, and one suspects the absence of shrouds and backstay. There was a sloping transom, but no keel or other underwater plane. It had tholepins (single or double is not clear) for rowing. And steering was by means of a paddle held over the starboard quarter. It was capable of being easily rowed, dragged ashore, and overturned, all by one man, and it could carry some number of sheep between the mainland and islands off the coast. Judging by Lockley's description of sailing through a storm while alongshore, it was extremely seaworthy.
R.M. Lockley curragh sketch
Lockley and Tessa voyaging to a small island near the seal nursery to check on Lockley's sheep. Illustration by Lockley.


  1. Not looked in for a well an a treat to see this post. Have the book and it is a good read. Descriptions of his voyages do show what can be done sailing a craft without a keel despite the pundits claiming it is almost impossible because of leeway.

    The Welsh fishermen didn't take all that kindly to him or the boat but the occuli are a bit extreme perhaps. I found it refreshing to have an account of his friendship with the girl and reminds me of the 1950s radio series of nature studies, "Mr Collins and Tony" where an older man would take a young boy on instructive nature walks. We have sadly lost innocence.

  2. That looks like a naomhog from west Kerry. It's a fabulous boat to row in a big swell but I'm not sure I'd enjoy it in a cross wind without a full crew of four, and as for one man lifting it ashore and turning it, I'd like to watch him :)
    We sail them with the two middle pairs of oars rowing, the stern crew member using a special steering oar over the stern quarter and the forward crew member controlling the sail. You can set lee boards but sail-assisted rowing is easier.