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A Great Irish Lass Reborn

Updated on February 16, 2016
The Jeanie Johnston at her home port in Dublin, August 2015
The Jeanie Johnston at her home port in Dublin, August 2015

It’s been 150 years since the original Jeanie Johnston made her last attempted trans-Atlantic voyage and sank in mid-ocean in 1858. Not unusual for aging ships of her era, except when you consider that over the previous ten-years she had brought thousands of Irish immigrants to the east coast during the worst of the Great Potato Famine; and she did all this, including the sinking, without losing a single passenger.

“As a group we’re particularly proud of that achievement”, beamed Co-Captain Michael Coleman from the foredeck of the new Jeanie Johnston during a recent stop in Washington, DC. “And this goodwill mission is meant to show descendants of Ireland that we still remember them fondly.”

In the midst of an eight-month North American tour, the Jeanie Johnston is the culmination of a decade’s work and millions of Euros to commemorate the vast migration of 3.5 million Irish to the US & Canada in the 19th century. They came, seeking a better life, packing themselves into the holds of this erstwhile cargo ship, often bringing nothing more than the clothes they wore.

Whether you’re a square-rig neophyte or a hardcore Patrick O’Brian fan, a walk on the deck of this classic beauty gives a humbling appreciation of every meticulous detail (and expense) that went into this faithful re-creation of the original. From the buxom figurehead to the oak steering wheel at the helm, there is little apparent to the eye that betrays the 19th century here—there are lights below deck, self-inflating life rafts, an electric winch, but little else that would put you in the now. “She’s totally authentic, but meets all Coast Guard safety regulations,” added Captain Coleman.

Hailing from Tralee, CountyKerry, the Jeanie Johnston is a 167-foot 3-masted barque that is a virtual facsimile of the original. At 700 tons she is much heavier than her name sake, due to her well-hidden twin 280 hp. diesel engines, and carries a full complement of 11crew and 29 trainees, most of who were on shore leave during the layover in Washington.

The maiden voyage was not for the timid. Almost immediately she ran into foul weather as crew and captain pitched and yawed their way south, and by the time they made their first landfall in the Canaries there were more hours on the engine, and more broken dishes, than anyone would have liked. The plan from there was to travel along Columbus’s route to the New World, and to enter the US at Palm Beach.

The feisty trade winds and huge following seas pushed them across the Pond. The weather remained fairly miserable the entire way over and though the ship has modern safety gear, the builders chose to (gasp) eschew an autohelm in favor of an authentic manual helm. Finally, on the 54th day they spotted San Salvador, but passed it in favor of a stop in Nassau, and then West Palm Beach on April 15.

Since leaving Charleston it’s been a lot of…”Irish weather” lamented Bosun Tom Harding. “The weather has been really wet and cold here, feels like Cork.” The ship’s 15’ draft and 100’ spars preclude it from using the ICW, so it’s been an outside affair as they travel up the coast.

All too soon it was time to collect the crew, cast off the lines and head down the Potomac, bound for Baltimore and points north for the summer. Watching her lumber away on the ebb tide I couldn’t help but feel sad, knowing that it would be ages, if at all, that the Jeanie Johnston would pass this way again. I envy those lucky sailors and the journey they’re on. I just can’t imagine living without my auto helm.


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