Wallace Clark: Yachtsman and adventurer who sparked a revival of sea-rowing boats
Tuesday 09 August 2011
The death of the charismatic author, businessman and adventurer Wallace Clark brings to an end a life lived with vigour and panache. Clark was known in the yachting world as the semi-professional yachtsman who commissioned the Aileach – the first full-sized replica Hebridean war galley to be built for over 300 years. However, back in his native Ulster he was more celebrated for his classic volume Sailing Round Ireland, which still sellsi well more than 30 years after publication. By the time the Aileach was launched at Moville, Clark was 65, yet he still slept on bare planks in the open air alongside his men when skippering the 16-oared craft from Ireland to the Outer Hebrides.
Born in the village of Upperlands, Co Derry in 1926, Wallace Clark came from an energetic family of mill owners, almost all of whom worked in the family linen mill, founded in 1736. A broth of a boy with a hungry eye for naughtiness, Clark was still a child when he was given his first dingy. After Shrewsbury School he joined the navy shortly before VE day, leaving three years later. A year's hard tack on a bumboat trading cattle to Africa followed, after which he reluctantly returned to take up his mill duties, working there, often in marketing, until past his 65th birthday. The firm still trades.
In 1957 he married June Deane, and the couple had two sons, who became respected writers; Miles died young, while Bruce works for The Economist. In 1961 his friend, Lord MacLeod of Fiunary, contacted him after the Church of Ireland agreed to finance the building of a curragh (a leather boat) to recreate the voyage of St Columba from Derry to Iona 1,400 years earlier. Clark regarded his skippering of the boat to Iona as being a highlight of his life. He was greeted on Iona by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, and shortly after piloted a similar craft, the Brendan, on the same trip for the historian Tim Severin.
In 1979, according to his tale, he had a vision of a galley sailing down the Sound of Mull and decided to build the first replica seen in the Hebrides since the last one was commissioned in 1707. It was not an easy task. Although by his own estimate over 4,000 such craft had been built, nobody really knew what they looked like. He undertook measurements from many of the carvings of the vessels before defining his brief to her designer, Colin Mudie.
The Aileach was launched to considerable interest in 1991, sailing to the Faroes two years later and generating so many questions that a number of galley conferences evaluating her performance took place. This summer over 30 newly built traditional sea rowing boats are expected to be entering regattas in Scotland. When told of this revival, of which he was in many ways the instigator, Clark chortled, "Well I hope you are all having lots of good parties; that's half the point!"
Perhaps Clark's most testing period was during the Troubles, when for seven years he acted as a company commander in the Ulster Defence Regiment after playing a key diplomatic role in the dismantling of the notorious B-Specials, for which he was awarded an MBE in 1970. His later book on his work in these roles, Brave Men and True, caused raised eyebrows after he indicated that he held no malice for some, though not all, of his enemy warriors in the IRA. His other notable books included The Lord of the Isles Voyage, Sailing Round Ireland and Sailing Round Russia (written with Miles).
Wallace Clark, businessman and adventurer: born Upperlands, Co Derry 20 November 1926; MBE 1970; married 1957 June Deane (one son, and one son deceased); died 8 May 2011.
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