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Belfast Lough Celebrates 150 Years of Organised Sailing in Style

19th March 2016
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The newly-built Fife-designed Belfast Lough Class I 25ft LWL boats Feltie (George Clark) and Halcyone (Bertie Brown) in action in Clyde Fortnight 1897, just four weeks after they’d had their maiden race on May 29th at Carrickfergus, where they were built by John Hilditch. In a classic Firth of Clyde squall, Feltie is still hanging on to her topsail, though Halcyone under her lowers seems to be providing her robust helmsman with quite enough to be thinking about as he shapes up for a gybe. Belfast Lough Class I made such an impressive debut in Scotland in 1897 that a lengthy report of their success were carried in the New York Times. Photo: Courtesy RUYC The newly-built Fife-designed Belfast Lough Class I 25ft LWL boats Feltie (George Clark) and Halcyone (Bertie Brown) in action in Clyde Fortnight 1897, just four weeks after they’d had their maiden race on May 29th at Carrickfergus, where they were built by John Hilditch. In a classic Firth of Clyde squall, Feltie is still hanging on to her topsail, though Halcyone under her lowers seems to be providing her robust helmsman with quite enough to be thinking about as he shapes up for a gybe. Belfast Lough Class I made such an impressive debut in Scotland in 1897 that a lengthy report of their success were carried in the New York Times. Photo: Courtesy RUYC

The development of organised sailing in Ireland seems to have spread northeastwards from the south and southwest coasts. Although the great chieftain Hugh Maguire had a fleet of pleasure vessels including sailing craft on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh in the 1500s, while the noted scientific polymath Sir William Petty found a sailing “pleasure boatte” on Dublin Bay to test his catamaran Simon & Jude against in 1663, it was on Cork Harbour that we find the first formal organisation with the foundation of the Water Club in 1720 writes W M Nixon.

Before the advent of good roads, and long before the railways arrived, Ireland’s myriad waterways and lakes provided the best options for the inland transport both of goods and people, and inevitably some gentrifried working boats were also used for relaxation, and the next club to be formed was Lough Ree YC in 1770. By 1820, the world’s first club specifically organised to provide racing came into being on Lough Erne, then nearby on Lough Gill in Sligo, the Ladies’ Cup was first raced for in 1822, and it still is cometed for today, though now at Sligo YC’s sea base at Rosses Point.

In the pre-famine era before 1845, the relative affluence of the west and southwest of Ireland supported the landed classes in yacht ownership, and a regatta at Kilrush in the Shannon Estuary in 1828 saw the establishment of the Royal Western of Ireland YC, which at its height in 1838 had a fine fleet of 18 cutters – some of quite substantial size - based in Kilrush Creek and spreading outwards to families along the coast such as the O’Connells of Tralee, Cahirsiveen and Derrynane.

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The Game Changer. Dun Laoghaire’s first regatta in 1828 set Dublin Bay on course to be the pace-setter in yachting development.

But 1828 also saw the first regatta to be staged at the new harbour of Kingstown on Dublin Bay, and the success of this provided an unrivalled focus for the development of new ideas in sailing not only in Ireland, but at an international level. Whereas other sailing area saw the locations of activity spread across several centres large and small, in Dublin Bay there was just this one big powerhouse of sailing development through which all the recreational nautical energy of the capital city was channeled. The Royal Irish YC came into being in 1831, the Royal St George YC got going in 1838, and soon Kingstown outstripped most comparable centres at home and abroad, particularly in racing development.

Yet at this time Belfast was already the fastest-expanding city in Ireland, and it was moreover a growing centre of genuine wealth-creating manufacturing industries and ship-building enterprises. Why wasn’t Belfast Lough in the forefront of sailing development by the 1850s?

It wasn’t as though there wasn’t a small but time-honoured local recreational sailing tradition on Belfast Lough. During the 1780s and 1790s, Belfast had been a place of liberal ideas and social innovation, and a small group of recreational sailors led by Henry Joy McCracken pioneered cruising from Belfast Lough to the west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides. But then in 1798 McCracken also led the rising of the United Irishmen, and when it was suppressed he was executed by hanging in the Cornmarket in Belfast on land which his grandfather had donated to the town.

Subsequently, the Presbyterian majority in the north turned in on themselves and concentrated on commerce and manufacture and literally minding their own business. But though, as prosperity returned, a small group of McCracken’s former shipmates formed the Northern Yacht Club in Belfast Lough in 1824, Belfast’s rapid industrial expansion made the port very limited as a yacht harbour, thereby limiting their growth.

Belfast Lough may have provided splendid sailing water, but it was very poorly served by other smaller harbours, so the Northern Yacht Club members often found themselves sailing to the more congenial and well-serviced shores of the Firth of Clyde. They soon formed a Scottish branch, and by 1838 the Royal Northern Yacht Club - as it was to become, with an impressive clubhouse in Rothesay - had taken over the few remaining assets of the Belfast Lough branch, and that was the end of any club in the Lough for another quarter century.

Yet any student of sailing history will know that in 1856, Lord Dufferin from Clandeboye near Bangor on the shores of Belfast Lough made a celebrated voyage to the high Arctic with his schooner Foam. And in 1865, one of the most successful racing schooners of all time, the 99ft Egeria, was built for leading Belfast linen manufacturing magnate John Mulholland. So why wasn’t Belfast Lough sharing the sailing fame of other Irish centres such as Dublin Bay and Cork Harbour, which had shown their pre-eminence by staging the world’s first recognisably modern offshore race from Dublin Bay to Cork Harbour in 1860?

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The extremely successful racing schooner Egeria was built for Belfast business magnate John Mulholland in 1865, but she was seldom if ever in Belfast Lough

The simple answer seems to be that in its period of hyper-growth, the business of Belfast was business, and sailing for recreation was not a Belfast business. Those who expected to sail at the highest level did so elsewhere, and once the Belfast to Dublin railway had been connected in 1855, it was as handy for the more affluent would-be yachtsmen to avail of the proper facilities in Dublin Bay rather than risk their yachts on exposed moorings in Belfast Lough, where shore facilities were still woefully lacking.

But in time the rapid rise of an energetic middle class in Belfast saw increasing demand for sailing amenities and events nearer home. We know that a regatta of some sort was staged at Holywood immediately east of Belfast on the lough’s south shore in 1854, and it was at Holywood – despite the little town’s drying anchorage – that the first club since the Northern YC in 1824, the Hoywood Yacht Club – was formed in 1862, and it still exists, Belfast Lough’s senior club.

Then in 1866 a regatta was staged from the only half decent harbour on the lough, at Carrickfergus, and the organisers were pleasantly surprised by the number of boats which turned out, boats whose owners had squirrelled out bits of shelter for their craft in small places like Donaghadee, Groomsport, the tiny drying harbour at Bangor, in the open roadstead off Cultra, in the cleaner parts of Belfast docks, in Carrickfergus itself, and round the corner in Larne Lough.

From this there immediately emerged the Carrickfergus Amateur Rowing & Sailing Club, but mostly to cater for local demand. But soon afterwards in Belfast the Ulster Yacht Club was formed by a group of affluent businessmen, professionals, industrialists and landowners with Lord Dufferin as their Commodore. By 1869 he’d seen to it that they’d become the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, but it was an organisation which was resolutely to function without a clubhouse until 1899, nevertheless growing in prestige with every passing year.

Thanks to that focus of interest through the Carrickfergus Regatta of 1866, 2016 will see double celebrations on Belfast Lough with the 150th Anniversaries of both Carrickfergus Amateur Rowing and Sailing Club (which everyone knows as Carrick Sailing Club), and the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, which since April 1899 has been based in an impressive Arts & Crafts clubhouse on an eminence above Bangor’s waterfront.

Royal Ulster clubhouse4
The RUYC clubhouse was built in 18 months and opened in 1899 in order to be ready for Thomas Lipton’s first America’s Cup campaign

When the clubhouse was built, the harbour at Bangor was still rudimentary, but the sailing was great. However, since 1984 Bangor Bay has been turned into one of Ireland’s largest marinas, and now RUYC has the berthing facilities and the sailing water to stage major events with confidence.

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Befast Lough provides excellent sailing water, but until the marina were built at Carrickfergus and Bangor, it lacked sheltered berthing

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Carrickfergus Marina, with the harbour and its famous 12th Century castle beyond

Equally at Carrickfergus they also have a marina – in fact it pre-dates the one at Bangor – but as Carrickfergus was also the base of the extraordinarily productive yachtbuilder John Hilditch, albeit only from 1889 to 1913, one of the main parts of their celebration is going to be a Hilditch Regatta, not just for boats built by him such as Hal Sisk’s famous 1894 Watson cutter Peggy Bawn, the Howth 17s of 1898, and the RNIYC Fairy Class of 1901, but indeed for any classic or traditional craft, as Carrick has always been a spiritual home for the Old Gaffers Association.

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Bangor Marina, with Ballyholme Bay beyond

Royal Ulster has meanwhile taken a different track through sailing history, for between 1899 and 1931, it was the club through which Thomas Lipton made his five America’s Cup Challenges, which has tended to obscure the fact that in the 1880s and 1890s, Belfast Lough with RUYC in a key role were setting a fantastic pace in sailing development, as they were trying to get a one design keelboat class going as long ago as 1889, and by 1895 they’d brought the Belfast Lough One Design Association into being with a determined young sailing man called James Craig as Honorary Secretary. Membership of the BLODA was open to any member of one of the recognised six clubs now based round the lough, but young Craig – who later went on to become Lord Craigavon, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1921 – was realistic in his expectations for the life of a strict one design keelboat class, and he only expected his members to be “in class” for three seasons.

By 1896 they’d the first two boats of a new 15ft LWL keelboat class designed by William Fife, no less, sailing on Belfast Lough, and before the summer was out the signs were good for a significant increase in numbers for 1897. James Craig was insisting the boats be built by John Hilditch, as he was noted for sticking strictly to the plans as drawn by the designer, whereas the builder of the first two boats for 1896, Paddy McKeown in the heart of Belfast, was always trying to improve on the designs, even if they were from Fife.

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Regatta day for the Dublin Bay 25s – their design was inspired by the Befast Lough Class I boats.

But events overtook the programme. A group of affluent Belfast Lough movers and shakers decided they certainly wanted a One-Design class to the Belfast Lough ODA rules and designed by William Fife, but they wanted a proper sea-going boats with a cabin, around 37ft in hull overall length, and 25ft on the waterline, and setting a proper gaff rig with a jackard topsail rather than the modest little gunter rig set by the 15ft LWL boats, which were still referred to as Class I.

But as the idea for the bigger boats gained traction, they became Class I, and for a while the 15ft LWL boats became Class II, but after 1900 they were Class III when a 20ft LWL class came along. But meanwhile in late 1896 and early 1897, the Hilditch yard went mad, building nine of the new 25ft LWL boats. Even Lord Dufferin and his friends Lord de Ros and Lord Bangor came round from County Down in April 1897 to the tough town of Carrickfergus to see this remarkable new class of boats being built. And once the 25 footer had their first race off Carrickfergus on May 29th , they swung into action with what today would be called a series of promotional tours, as they did all of Clyde Fortnight after a stormy crossing of the North Channel, and then after being back in Belfast Lough for long enough to race the RUYC regatta, they headed south to Dublin Bay in late July and inspired the creation of the Dublin Bay 25 class.

1898 was when they were in their prime, and by 1899 some owners were aready invoking the “three season” rule to move on, but in fact the class continued to race actively – though sometimes with very depleted numbers – on Belfast Lough until the end of the 1909 season.

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John Hilditch was very busy in 1897 – in addition to the Belfast Lough Class I boats, his yard also built this 56ft motoryacht Romance for A J Lepper, for whom he’d built Peggy Bawn in 1894.

We get some idea of the boat-building pace around Carrickfergus in the late 1890s when we realise that in 1897 John Hilditch and his men were also building a 57ft Dixon Kemp motor-yacht, the Romance, for A J Lepper, for whom they’d built Peggy Bawn so well in 1894, and no sooner was the Romance out of the way than they turned to the next job, the building of the first five Howth 17s which their owners were able to sail the 90 miles to their home port in April 1898.

So obviously there’s going to be quite a complicated programme around Belfast Lough in late June and early July this year. And as the Howth 17s are in the unique position of being a Hilditch class which is not Belfast Lough-based, they hope to be able to pay their respects at Carickfergus both to the memory of their builder and to the 150th Anniversary of the Carrickfergus club, while also being able to do full justice to the Classic One Designs Regatta, which RUYC will be staging from Friday June 24th to Sunday June 26th.

The Hilditch Regatta meanwhile is from the evening of Wednesday June 22nd to Saturday June 23rd, when the fleet heads from Carrickferus to Bangor for a sail-past as part of the Royal Ulster events, but with some of the Old Gaffers then returning to Carrick (after due celebrations in Bangor) as the Carrick event is seen partially as a follow-on to the Portaferry Sails & Sounds the previous weekend, which is very much an Old Gaffers event.

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In Carrickfergus are (left to right) Nick Massey, Roddy Cooper, Tom Houlihan, CSC Commodore Wendy Moore, and Ian Malcolm. Photo: W M Nixon

But for classes like the Howth 17s, despite their antiquity proper racing is what it’s all about, so I tagged along with a reconnaissance group of Howth 17 eminences when they went up North to suss out the scene this week. And as the group included Nick Massey who re-energised the class when it was going through a flakey period in 1972, Ian Malcolm who is playing a key role in the class’s current revival such that they’ll have eighteen boats racing this year, Roddy Cooper who owns the Hilditch-built Leila, and Class Captain Dr Tom Houlihan, you can be quite sure there wasn’t a dull moment.

First call was with Wendy Moore at Carrickfergus, where she’s Commodore for the 150th as the club settle into the new clubhouse after a disastrous fire three years ago, and as she’s also the Marina/Boatyard Manager and the newest addition to the ranks of owners in the local thriving Ruffian 23 class, everyone was on the same wavelength.

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You’ll always find it’s now in a carpark….Roddy Cooper and Ian Malcolm stand on the spot where their Howth 17s Leila and Aura were built in 1898, with Carrickfergus Castle in the background. Photo: W M Nixon

Then we swung by Royal North of Ireland Yacht Club at Cultra on the south shore of the lough, home to the Hilditch-built Fairy class against whom the Howth crowd regularly have inter-club races, and fortuitously met up with Northern Ireland Old Gaffers Association Chairman Gary Lyons for some very high-powered info exchange. As a result we round out this week’s blog with a photo which does justice to the Portaferry Sails & Sounds which he is organising in June.

Then on in haste for a sailing business lunch (delicious) at Royal Ulster YC with Vice Commodore Myles Lindsay, Rear Commodore Greg Taylor, Honorary Sailing Secretary Robin McKelvey and Press Officer Fiona Hicks, learning yet again that the RUYC clubhouse is such a store of sailing memorabilia that it’s a difffcult to concentrate on the formal agenda, but I think the Howth men and the Bangor men understood each other very well indeed.

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Myles Lindsay, Vice Commodore RUYC

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Robin McKelvey, Honorary Sailing Secretary RUYC

The RUYC people have a lot on their plate, for no sooner is the Classics Regatta out of the way than they gear up at the beginning of July for an assembly in Bangor of cruising boats from the ICC, the RCC, the OCC, the CCC and other associated organisations, followed by a 150th Anniversary Cruise-in-Company along the Antrim coast and on to the West Coast of Scotland and the Hebrides.

But for the recce group from Howth, now it was down to Bangor Marina where manager Kevin Baird couldn’t have been more obliging, but the Howth 17 men all fell in love with the classic ketch Morna berthed right next to the marina office, so Fiona and I had to speed them on their way to the exhibition of 150 Years of sailing in Bangor Museum.

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The classic ketch Morna in Bangor Marina. Photo: W M Nixon

And then after that, duty done and work completed, I took them for the treat of the day, down among the hidden places of Strangford Lough to meet up with Kenny Smyth at his boatyard, which for any one who is into classic, vintage or traditional boats is heaven on earth. And of course it emerged that Kenny the King of the River Class, Whiterock’s historic Mylne-designed premier fleet, has recently become Commodore of Strangford Lough Yacht Club. So we headed for home into a gorgeous sunset having notched up two Commodores, one Vice Commodore, one Rear Commodore, one Chairman, one Honorary Sailing Secretary, two Marina Managers and one Press Officer. And if that’s not a good day’s work on the diplomacy and negotiating front, then I don’t know what is.

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The eternal enthusiast. Kenny Smyth of Whiterock runs a boatyard, he is also Commodore of Strangford Lough Yacht Club, he is River Class champion, and he just loves talking about boats night and day. Photo: W M Nixon

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The promise of summer – the classic and traditional season in the north starts with Portaferry Sails and Sounds on June 16th.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland for many years in print and online, and his work has appeared internationally in magazines and books. His own experience ranges from club sailing to international offshore events, and he has cruised extensively under sail, often in his own boats which have ranged in size from an 11ft dinghy to a 35ft cruiser-racer. He has also been involved in the administration of several sailing organisations.

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William M Nixon has been writing about sailing in Ireland and internationally for many years, with his work appearing in leading sailing publications on both sides of the Atlantic. He has been a regular sailing columnist for four decades with national newspapers in Dublin, and has had several sailing books published in Ireland, the UK, and the US. An active sailor, he has owned a number of boats ranging from a Mirror dinghy to a Contessa 35 cruiser-racer, and has been directly involved in building and campaigning two offshore racers. His cruising experience ranges from Iceland to Spain as well as the Caribbean and the Mediterranean, and he has raced three times in both the Fastnet and Round Ireland Races, in addition to sailing on two round Ireland records. A member for ten years of the Council of the Irish Yachting Association (now the Irish Sailing Association), he has been writing for, and at times editing, Ireland's national sailing magazine since its earliest version more than forty years ago

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