Sandra Lefroy speaks about their houseboat where she and her family have enjoyed many happy years on the River Shannon.
IT is easy to understand why Sandra and John Lefroy consider their almost unique 1872 vintage heritage boat part of their family.
Based in Killaloe for much of her life, mostly in the ownership of the Lefroy family, The Phoenix has been home, Sandra estimates, to her and husband, John at different stages for a total of over seven and a half years.
Now regarded as one of the most important historical boats in Ireland, it was their full time home for 18 months from May 1971 to December ’72, and for nearly two-and-a-half years from September 1989 to December ’91.
Their part-time life on board for regattas, sailing courses and other events over the past 46 years would amount to some 180 weeks, thereby adding an extra three-and-a-half years.
In an interview with The Clare Champion, Sandra outlines what it is like to live on a boat and why it has such a special place in their hearts.
“The Phoenix is very much part of the family. We all love her dearly. Hopefully we will keep her going for another few generations.”
Her two sons became very competent sailors. Peter has sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, and both of them competed in sailing races such as the Tall Ships.
“They could row before they could walk. It happened automatically, they didn’t feel themselves learning. They saw people doing it so they did it. As children, they put on their life jackets with their clothes in the morning. It was a way of life,” Sandra explains.
Built in Waterford in 1872, the Phoenix arrived on the Shannon in June 1873. She is 58’6” long, with a 10’4” beam and a draught of 4’4”. Weighing about 30 tons, she is built of Lowmoor iron in flush-riveted plates. Her hull is long and narrow, with a straight stem and counter-stern.
She is the second oldest of her kind in the country, according to the Lloyd’s Register of Yachts.
“She is very pretty. Her lines are reminiscent of the early ‘Cunarders’. She has very elegant lines. People like taking photographs of her,” says Sandra.
The vessel, which is now moored in the Lefroy’s back garden in Clarisford, Killaloe, has hosted some famous people including President Eriskine Childers and his wife who were taken onboard to an open-air service in Clonmacnoise, where he read a lesson.
In June 1974, they boarded the vessel in Banagher, were taken to Clonmacnoise and back to Shannonbridge where they were collected by the presidential car. She recalls the president and his wife were great on the day.
“President Childers knew my mother many years before. They came with an aide-de-camp and two Special Branch officers, who searched the boat to ensure we weren’t going to blow them up.”
A year after their marriage in 1970, the couple spent time in Carrick-on-Shanonon setting up the new Emerald Star Line operation, with John as its first managing director and they needed to move to Portumna to open a base for the company at the northern end of Lough Derg.
The couple had nowhere to live so they purchased the Phoenix from John’s father for use as a “temporary home”.
He had been threatening to get rid of the boat, as none of the younger generation was at home to use and maintain her, and he was delighted to make a sale within the family.
The Phoenix had become very dilapidated so they brought her from Killaloe to Carrick to carry out some preparatory work, which proved to be more extensive than originally anticipated.
In fact, the new wheelhouse was only bolted into position on the day before they moved in.
As departing to a tight deadline proved stressful, Sandra prepared a nice lunch in the saloon. Just as she was about to call the crew, one of the windows in the coachroof above fell out of its framing and landed with a crash on the table, with predictable results.
“When the tears had been suitably dealt with, and the broken glass had been picked out of the salad, we continued on through Jamestown Lock and downstream towards Lough Derg and a new chapter of our lives.”
She describes living on a boat as a “state of mind”.
“We had super friends who said ‘would you like a drink or would you rather a bath first’. There is a freedom about living on board a boat. If you want to go somewhere, you just untie the ropes and go. You don’t have to pack up or decide what you want to take with you.
“You are very stuck for space and don’t have the bathrooms like you would have in a house. “Cooking is not bad because you have pretty much everything, albeit in a very small space. You can reach everything you need in the kitchen on the boat without moving your feet.
“There is a full oven, but the fridge is located in the wheelhouse. In most places you can plug into the electricity, but we do have things that run on batteries as well. We are completely self-contained.
“Why make life complicated by transferring milk from a perfectly adequate container to a jug, or butter to a dish which takes up additional space on the table and then has to be washed up, using precious decanted water in the process?
“People think we became rather peculiar and Bohemian during our time on board, but I think we sorted out a lot of our personal priorities in the process.
“The laundrette in Nenagh became one of my very favourite places. It seemed absolutely miraculous to be able to gather up a boat-load of dirty, diesely garments into a rubbish bag in the morning, and come back in time for lunch with a supply of clean, sweet-smelling laundry.”
Looking back on their first stint on the boat, she recalls they were a very young partnership starting Emerald Star Line in autumn of 1969.
“John was the first employee and it started under the auspices of Guinness. It was a bit of pioneering on the river.
“It grew enormously in the seventies. The Portumna base was running about 100 boats for hire. There was a very strong English, Dutch and French market in those days. It was very exciting at the time.”
Overall, Sandra describes living on the boat as a “terrific experience”.
Things were a bit more complicated for their second stint from Christmas 1989 to 1991 when they were building their current home in Clarisford, which took longer than originally anticipated.
“Somewhere to keep the boat came first, and the house came afterwards,”she says.
They now had two sons, two dogs and a horse.
“David, (14) was at boarding school in Dublin, coming down to join us on the boat in the school holidays and at half-term.
“We wondered what his peers felt about his new residence. It transpired that there was a degree of sordid glamour associated with living afloat and, rather than detracting from his reputation, it added a definite aura of mystery.
“Fortunately, my parents were still living in Dublin and we were able to do all the washing, ironing and mending required to school gear at their house at the end of term.
“I don’t know what we’d have done otherwise – nine white shirts and a term’s worth of rugby kit would have been difficult to deal with in the Phoenix’s galley-sink!”
Peter, aged 10, was still attending primary school and now travelled into Limerick by school bus.
She thinks he felt a bit different from the others to begin with, but they also seemed to think he was rather exotic.
However, Peter did find life afloat rather distracting when it came to homework
They spent two Christmases with a fir-tree in the traditional ship’s position – up the mainmast. The centre of gravity seemed to be in the wrong place, and the Phoenix leaned away from the wind much more than she would normally have done.
There were several nights of books flying off shelves and dogs getting upset. But they managed to cook their turkey and Santa Claus found their new address.
Christmas cards were suspended on bits of string, rather like a cat’s cradle. There was a bad patch just after Christmas one year when it rained non-stop for about ten days, and nobody would go out not even the dogs and every time people turned round they fell over somebody else.
“Living with the children on board the second time pulled us into a very tight family unit. We have a much closer relationship with our sons who are in their forties than we would have otherwise. There are no secrets in the family.
“It teaches people to be very tidy because there isn’t room to leave things lying around. The two boys can rise above their surroundings.
“Living in a boat promotes personal responsibility. It is a wonderful way to teach children to be self-reliant. Everyone is equal on the water. The boys made life-long friends.”
The only thing the couple really missed while on board was their books, as they are both avid readers. It got to the stage when anyone went ashore they returned with a book.
Sandra has some interesting literary connections. William Wordsworth was her great, great, great, great uncle.
Historian, Alice Stopford Green was her great great aunt and Dorothy Stopford Price, who played a key role in the elimination of childhood tuberculosis in Ireland by introducing the BCG vaccine was her great aunt.
On John’s side, Tomas Langlois Lefroy, Chief Justice, was a boyfriend of Jane Austen in their early years.
During the June Bank Holiday weekend, she recalls they took the Phoenix out on the lake, dropped anchor behind islands for three nights, and didn’t come ashore.
They have introduced the sixth generation of the Lefroy family- Sandra’s grandchildren Sophie (5) and Kate (3) to the vessel.
While living on a boat is a real adventure for Sophie and Kate, Sandra insists they can’t go from the salon to the wheelhouse without their life jackets.
Their worst boating experience was when the weather changed while they were en route coming down the lake in 1990 returning from the final sailing regatta of the season after the Halloween weekend.
By Parker’s Point SW7, the wind was gusting force eight. Large box-waves popped up all around as they passed north of Scilly Island, five foot high at times.
Down the Killaloe arm, the wind and waves got even worse. On six or more occasions they dipped their bow under. It took five hours to go from Terryglass to Killaloe and the crew were finally glad to be on dry land.
Dr Alf Delaney, a double Olympian, who was a very good sailor into his nineties said, ‘If you can sail a dinghy in Dromineer Bay, you can sail anywhere in the world’.
“Lough Derg is interesting because the wind comes down from the mountains and the shape of the mountains can influence where the wind is coming from. A storm can erupt in the lake quite quickly, which is why so many people do get into trouble,” says Sandra.
“It is a big lake, which has to treated with a lot of respect. Lough Ree is different because it isn’t surrounded by a lot of mountains. It is tricky because it is shallow. You can run out of space if you are drifting near the shore, and can find the boat hitting off the bottom.”
She has a lot of happy memories from their time in the boat.
“Boats attract people. The characters you meet on the river are priceless. We have kept a log most of the way through.
“We have her history from when she was built, which is unusual.
“We are always conscious of her venerable age and try to treat her with respect. We always observe all the safety precautions and she is checked out on a regular basis. We never go out without towing a dinghy because any boat can go on fire.
“It gives us nightmares seeing hired boats going out without dinghies, it is not a good idea.”
Winter time presents more challenges for boat occupants. “It is easy enough to keep a boat warm, it is more difficult to keep it dry because if you increase the heat, you get condensation.
“Your clothes are slightly damp in the morning when you go to put them on. People do get to the end of their tether, and there is the odd
outburst. It is character building.
“You see it coming and learn to go to the other end of the boat, read a book and wait for it to go away.”
The boat has seven berths and is very long and narrow, the widest part is only ten feet.
“That is why she is so elegant and moves relatively fast through the water because of her shape.”
Before the arrival of the RNLI, the couple used the Phoenix to tow a lot of boats off rocks as part of numerous rescues on the lake.
There was an informal arrangement at the time that they rescued boats at the top of the lake, while Kevin O’Farrell, who was running Derg Line, looked after the bottom half.
The Dublin native grew up on a pony and came to the river when horsey friends asked her if she would like a boat trip.
At the age of 14, Mr Lefroy from Ballina, Killaloe, was the one of the first people she was introduced to. They struck a deal that she would teach her future husband how to ride a horse, while he would teach her how to sail a boat.
For five years before they were married, they sailed and raced together as a partnership.
She believes the key to maintaining the Phoenix in good repair is to ensure it is used regularly as more damage is caused by rain water coming in from on top rather than water from underneath.
The couple try to complete one major job every year. To carry out any major job underneath, she has to be taken out of the water and brought to a dry dock in Athlone.
The fact it is moored at the rear of their back garden meant they could carry out maintenance during strict Covid-19 restrictions without breaking any rules.
John used the Phoenix with his son, Peter for a week’s Mayfly fishing, while the couple were out recently with their eldest son, David and they were joined by Peter with one of his daughters.
Since John left Emerald Star Line, he has worked as a boat surveyor for insurance companies up to his retirement in 2019.
Water levels between Clarisford and Killaloe Bridge can change, depending on what the ESB are doing in Ardnacrusha.
Sometimes the couple can check the boat and find it has run aground. If water levels rise dramatically, there is a risk the electrical points on the boat can go under water.
On a boat the size of the Phoenix, it is not obligatory to wear a life jacket, but it is mandatory to have life jackets on board for all passengers.
In a dinghy or smaller boat, a life jacket must be worn. No child is allowed on the deck of the boat without a life jacket.
She advises anyone who is interested in buying a boat to hire it for a week to see if they like it. If they are smitten, she says they should go up and down the river and look at hundreds of boats as part of extensive research.
“If your partner doesn’t like it today, they will probably not like it in six months’ time. There is no point in committing yourself to a huge outlay, if it is not going to work.
“We have seen people who spent huge amounts of money buying boats, particularly during the Celtic Tiger that were only used once because the person’s wife said ‘never again’. Get to know your boat, you can’t just turn a key and drive off like a car.”
by Dan Danaher