Richie Saunders: a life on the water

Pictured: Richie Saunders. Photo by Kevin O’Gorman.

Pictured: Richie Saunders.
Photo by Kevin O’Gorman.

Richie Saunders is a man who is happy with his lot. As Chairman of St. Patrick’s Rowing Club, he spends his days on the riverside organising club activities or on the water restoring boats that otherwise would be forever lost.

Richie has had a lifelong passion for all things nautical, a love that started when he was a child. He grew up in Whelan House, Ringsend, constantly watching the ships coming and going along the river to the South Docks, where they would discharge and take on cargo.

He had his first experience on the water when a family friend, who worked on the canals, took him out in his boat. He was about eight at the time and can still recall how over-awed he felt when he saw how big the river looked from a boat in the middle of it.

Shortly after that he joined the Dodder Sea Scouts and recalls “getting drenched a lot,” and going on camping trips with Scout Master, Leo Hitchcock, who taught the boys the basics of boating. He went on to join St. Patrick’s when he was fourteen with his lifelong friend, Pat Orr, who is still with the Club.

His obsession with ships continued to grow and he longed to go to sea. He didn’t have family in the business so it wasn’t easy to get a start. At that time, the Sea Lock at Grand Canal Basin had a lock master and five lock-keepers who worked seven days a week on the tide. Richie and his friend, Chappie Kane, loved to go down to the lock and give the keepers a hand when a ship would come in. The lock-keepers were delighted with the help, of course, and let them hang around as much as they wanted.

Unable to get a start on the ships, he took a job with Hammond Lane Steelworks. Although he wasn’t mad about the work, he did discover he was good with his hands and the money was good.

His longing to go to sea was still strong. To stay close to the ships, he continued to help out with the locks in his spare time. It paid off. In 1963, when he was sixteen, one of the lock-keepers, Mr. Mullen, used his connections with the Seamen’s Union of Ireland to get him a start as a deck boy on the Irish Alder, which was owned by Irish Shipping. It wasn’t long before he qualified first as an ordinary seaman (OS) then as an Able Seaman (AB), able for anything on deck.

In 1968 he took a job driving one of the Liffey Ferries (or Dockers’ Ferries as they were known). By then he had met his future wife, Marie, who he claims “fell in love with me straight away.”

He stuck with the ferry work for nine months but his longing to go back to sea was strong. He succumbed, and over the following years he sailed the world on nine ships, his last being the Cameo, a Robinson of Glasgow vessel.

As large tankers became more common, Richie could see that many jobs in the shipping industry would soon be obsolete. He was married at this stage and wanted to save for a deposit on the house. He gave up his seafaring career in 1971.

After a spell working for Crampton’s Builders he got a lucky break when he ran into a former colleague who got him a job in Dublin Port as a relief AB.

He stayed with Dublin Port for 35 years, working in various roles. Although the nature and working conditions at the Port changed over the years, Richie made a conscious decision to adapt rather than resist “for my own peace of mind.” He loved the variety of the work and continued to upskill throughout his career, as technology brought new changes to the work on the Port.

By the time he retired in 2012 there was very little he was not qualified to do; working the Pilot Boats, repairing engines, communications in Port Radio and Officer of the Watch, to name but a few.

Since his retirement Richie has had more time to devote to St. Pat’s and his other passion, salvaging and repairing boats. He has restored two ferries to their former glory, one of which is now licensed to carry twelve passengers on the Dodder and the Canals. He is currently working on an old Lighthouse Tender, The Siren, which was used to supply lighthouses around the UK and Ireland.

Richard stills rows, although not competitively. Last year he rowed on the river Barrow with his friend from Stella Maris, Michael Curry.

His passion for the river has never waned. He comes to St. Pat’s nearly every day and can be seen gazing wistfully out towards the sea or watching the young rowers go through their paces.

He says, “I always have to be doing something,” and when he is not on the river or fixing up boats he is passing on marine skills to the next generation, a cause close to his heart.

By Jennifer Reddin