Racing in Historic Irish Fishing Boats
An Insight to Currach Racing with the Milwaukee Currach Club
When was the Milwaukee Currach Club founded and what's the club's mission?
It was founded in 1989 as the Irish Fest [Milwaukee] Currach Team to promote the Irish nautical heritage in the Midwest and currach race across North America. Although we continue to host our annual regatta at Milwaukee Irish Fest, we are our own nonprofit entity now.
What is a currach?
The currach - pronounced CUR-ruck (U.S. pronunciation, along with cur-ROCK) or CUR-rah (Ireland) - is a historic Irish fishing boat that has been used for centuries in all Irish coastal areas. The simple skin-on-wood frame design has changed very little over time, but each area in Ireland has developed modifications based on the water and weather conditions and how the boats are used - for fishing; transporting people, goods and livestock; rescue; recreation; and racing.
Our club is part of a conference - the North American Currach Association - that requires racing boats to be 25 feet long. The boats in the U.S. are typically made of pine ribs and stringers with oak gunnels. The frame is covered in canvas and painted with 3-4 layers of oil-based paint to waterproof and harden it. Although it may seem fragile, the boat is quite sturdy if handled properly. The boat sits very high on the water so it can skim up shallow rivers, and also manages quite well on large Lake Michigan swells, although there is the danger of taking on water over the bow since the bow on the boats does not rise far off the line as a result of racing modifications.
How does currach racing differ from rowing?
The currach is a fishing boat with fixed seats while racing sculls have sliding seats. There is no coxswain in a currach; everyone faces the back of the boat and everyone rows. There are two oars per seat and each swivel on a metal or wood pin that is attached to the gunnel. The oars are each 10 feet long and taper near the end, which goest into the water, resembling large chopsticks. There is no flat blade on the end like a scull oar, so the handles are not feathered as in sculling; instead, the ends of the oars slice through the water and propel the boat with the large surface contact, which is 2 - 3 feet.
What are some kinds of training techniques and practices?
The best rowers are those who listen! When you get into a currach, you have to throw away any ideas you have of how to row a boat. The tendency of all novices is to sit up straight and try to move the oars through the water with just their arms. This just doesn't work in a currach simply because of the design of the oar. Not only is each oar 10 feet long, but the handles cross over 6 inches to 12 inches, and if you're sitting up straight, you don't have room in your lap for that kind of crossover.
photo courtesy of Kristen Scheuing
When you are starting out, your captain will constantly be yelling at you to "lean back!" The stroke is like a deadlift in the gym. It starts by pushing your feet against a brace and then moves up through the legs, then core, and finally the upper body. By the end of the stroke, your knees are straight, your elbows are locked out and your upper body is leaning back. The stroke is long and seems slow, so the tendency is to want to speed up, especially in races. But contrary to what most of what you have learned in life, one of the main currach mantras is "rowing faster is not going faster."
Competitive rowing practices are an all-body workout - with cardio and strength training. By the end of a rowing summer, the most developed muscles are those in the forearm, plus the quads and the core. Some of the best currach rowers tend to be lanky and lean, with great balance and focus, and the ability to row perfectly in sync with others. In this sport, form is the key rather then sheer strength.
The Milwaukee Currach Club hosts the Milwaukee Irish Fest Regatta every year - what all goes into planning that?
Milwaukee Irish Fest is a busy time for us! In addition to hosting our national regatta, we have a tent at the Cultural Village, where we have displays and educate attendees on our club, the sport and the history of currach rowing and racing. The Milwaukee team is the furthest west of all the NACA teams, and in order to make it more appealing for the east-coast teams to travel out for the regatta, we have to have multiple boats, oars and equipment in good shape to lend them; so a lot of work goes into that over the summer and especially in the weeks leading up to Irish Fest. We also handle the accommodations, in-town travel and food for our visiting teams.
photo courtesy of Kristen Scheuing
We also have to coordinate barge delivery and pickup with the City of Milwaukee, a chase boat for race day, and work with the Milwaukee Police Department to patrol the lagoon and make sure recreational boats don't come in during the regatta. For the tent, we work on creating an exhibit that fits the festival's theme and will help us accomplish our mission to educate people about the nautical heritage of Ireland. On top of all that, we are still practicing and preparing for the races. We row the boats over to the Irish Fest grounds early in the week so that we can practice on our own race course. On the Sunday of Irish Fest, we host the Lavin Cup Regatta, with boats from the Milwaukee Police Department and Milwaukee Fire Department, in memory of Milwaukee's Great Third Ward Fire of 1892, which decimated the city's Irish community. As for all other Milwaukee Irish Fest participants, it's an exhausting time, but we - and the visiting teams - love to compete in front of the huge crowds there.
Can anyone join the Milwaukee Currach Club?
We welcome members of all ages, rowing experience and athletic ability. Our competitive team trains 2-3 days a week while our non-competitive rowers can sign up for recreational boats. We are based oat McKinley Marina and are on the water from the end of April to mid-October. We practice within the breakwater and venture out past the breakwater when the water and wind conditions are deemed safe. On longer rows, we head up to the KK, Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers. Milwaukee Currach is a member of the North American Currah Association, which sponsors regattas in each of the host cities: Albany, Annapolis, Boston, Milwaukee, New London, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
To fulfill our mission to educate, the club also does demonstrations and exhibitions at other Irish and water festivals around the state of Wisconsin, including Oshkosh Irish Fest and LaCrosse Irish Fest.
Anything else you'd like to mention about currach racing or about the Club?
The average age of those currently competing in NACA is about 30, with rowers as young as 12 and as old as 75. We have men's, women's and co-ed races and practices and races, and in recent years, we have had mostly women on our team. We are always looking for new and younger people to learn our sport.
Like most wooden boats, currachs require special handling and regular maintenance, especically if used a lot at practice. The most common damage that occurs is ripped or punctured canvas. The wood is also susceptible to rotting with prolonged and repeated water exposure.
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photo courtesy of Kristen Scheuing photo courtesy of Kristen Scheuing