Ed, president of the club, has invited me down to the river on a blistering Saturday morning to see for myself how it feels to be out on the water in a 25-foot hand-built craft that is little more than a sheet of black-painted canvas (20 or more coats) stretched over steam-bent ribs of wood.
It feels pretty great, actually. Even when a power boat roars by on the Jersey side of the river, trailing a rooster tail of spray in its wake and setting off rolling swells, the currach—pronounced “CUR-ra”—clings to the oily surface like a water bug.
It’s easy to see how the currach—a traditional Irish and Scottish fishing or work boat—has been a fixture along the rocky coastlines of those countries since the time of Caesar.
At the same time, the currach clearly was not built for comfort. Keep that in the mind the next time someone regales you with tales of St. Brendan the Navigator, who is alleged to have sailed from Ireland to North America in a currach in the 6th century. And Brendan had something like 25 monkish pals traveling with him. The Love Boat, it ain’t.
The Philadelphia club’s two boats—each one with a St. Brendan’s cross painted on the stern, a circle of dolphins chasing their tails—are not built for such long journeys. They’re built for racing. One of them was pieced together by Boston boat-builder Mike Lally; Ken, the team captain, built the other one over a winter with help from his daughter Sarah, also a rower.
From late spring to early fall, members of the club take part in a half-dozen or so currach racing regattas in cities up and down the East Coast, from Boston to Annapolis, and as far west as Milwaukee. (The Philadelphia rehatta, the first of the season, was scheduled for Saturday, June 24, at noon at the Columbus Country Club, on State Road just south of Street Road in Bensalem. Ten events were scheduled, running the gamut from a one-man and one-woman race to four-person crews.)
Teams generally race as far as two nautical miles, round a buoy, and dash back to the finish line. Like so many Gaelic sports, it is not for the timid or the faint of heart.
“It can get pretty rough out there,” says Ed. “You’re fair game on a turn. The other guys can clip you and send your boat spinning 180 degrees. Races can be won or lost on the turns.”
For Lafferty, a member since the club’s founding in 1987, tradition has kept him in the sport—little known outside the very small circle of like-minded hobbyists—for 17 years. “I got involved because it was something Irish,” he explains. “And going to regattas is great fun, with traditional Irish music afterward.”
Ken admires the tradition, but he also regards currach racing as a form of productive—if a bit unorthodox—exercise. “Workout equipment is boring,” he says. “But to be out here on the Delaware in a boat like this … there’s no comparison.”