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Ireland & Ballyholme's Sailing History – Memories, Myths, & Matters of Fact

9th October 2021
The The 1938-founded Ballyholme Bay Class when still going strong in 1970, with Bobby Swanston's Eileen leading from Frank Humphreys' Penelope. While the class in Bangor is now largely defunct, an active sister-ship has emerged in Isle of Wight ownership
The 1938-founded Ballyholme Bay Class when still going strong in 1970, with Bobby Swanston's Eileen leading from Frank Humphreys' Penelope. While the class in Bangor is now largely defunct, an active sister-ship has emerged in Isle of Wight ownership Credit: W M Nixon

Coming as it does from David Tasker - an Afloat.ie reader from the Isle of Wight - a typically Autumnal query received a day or two ago from this new owner of an interesting and much-loved vintage boat is one of those gems that could well trigger lines of enquiry which will still be trundling along at Christmas, such that before you know it, the days will be getting longer, and it will be time to think of fitting-out, with the Boat History File consigned for the summer to the top shelf - as it should be.

He attaches three photos, and tells us:

"I have just purchased what I believe to be a Dublin Bay 21. I understand she was bought back from Ireland in the 80s and restored around about 1994. I am trying to find her earlier history and wondered if you could help please".

It emerges that a previous owner, an English sailing enthusiast based for a while in Northern Ireland in the 1980s, had spotted the boat in a run-down state in Killyleagh on the shores of Strangford Lough. He fell in love as one does, and in trying to buy her, was assured by the owner that she was a Dublin Bay 21.

A Ballyholme Bay OD in another guise – Iolanthe on the slipway in the Isle of Wight in 2021. Photo courtesy David TaskerA Ballyholme Bay OD in another guise – Iolanthe on the slipway in the Isle of Wight in 2021. Photo courtesy David Tasker

The boat – Iolanthe is her name – was indeed just over 21ft long. And the members of Dublin Bay SC can be rightly proud that their time-honoured reputation for setting the gold standard in One-Designs as visualised by creative legends of the calibre of William Fife and Alfred Mylne is such that the "Dublin Bay" name was invoked as redolent of quality in a place like Killyleagh.

For in normal circumstances, a favourable attitude to Dublin is emphatically not part of the Killyleagh mind-set. This is despite the fact that the little town is indirectly but tangibly linked to William Rowan Hamilton (1805-1865). He's the astronomer and mathematical genius who, during a stroll along the Royal Canal in Dublin in 1843, had such a flash of insight into a solution to the problem of quaternions that he immediately scratched his new formula into the stonework of Broom Bridge in Cabra.

Eureka Killyleagh style….Broom Bridge on the Royal Canal in Dublin, where William Rowan Hamilton inscribed his new theory……Eureka Killyleagh style….Broom Bridge on the Royal Canal in Dublin, where William Rowan Hamilton inscribed his new theory……

…..a piece of inspired graffiti which has now been given retrospective respectability through proper commemoration.…..a piece of inspired graffiti which has now been given retrospective respectability through proper commemoration.

It has to be said that the Killyleagh owner of Iolanthe back in the 1980s had a flash of best Rowan Hamilton-quality inspiration in describing Iolanthe as a Dublin Bay 21. The DB21s – now in process of restoration through Hal Sisk and Fionan de Barra working with Steve Morris of Kilrush Boatyard – are unmistakably an Alfred Mylne design, 21ft on the waterline and 31ft in hull overall length. But Iolanthe is none of these things.

Classic Mylne…..the restored Dublin Bay 21 Garavogue racing in the Royal Irish YC end-of-season Pursuit Race 2021. Photo: Gilly GoodbodyClassic Mylne…..the restored Dublin Bay 21 Garavogue racing in the Royal Irish YC end-of-season Pursuit Race 2021. Photo: Gilly Goodbody

For she, on the other hand, may potentially be a little sit-in weekend cruiser. But at 21.75ft LOA, 15.5ft LWL, 5.75ft beam and 3ft draft, her dimensions are put in perspective when we realise they aren't that much larger than those of a Flying Fifteen, which is a very sit-on sort of boat, but comes with the aura of being an Uffa Fox design.

It was far from the exalted world of Uffa Fox and William Fife and Alfred Mylne that the design of the little Iolanthe emerged, but it's an intriguing story nevertheless. That said, it's told here from memory and inference while we let various researchers do things in their own time.

Thus we're winging it, and not for the first time. But it is a fact that in the latter half of the 1930s the British Royal Family was going through some turmoil, and when a reasonably normal couple saved the dynasty by having their Coronation as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth in 1937, the marine industry celebrated with some boatbuilders describing their broadly standard products as the Coronation Class.

One such was a little Scottish firm in the Firth of Clyde called James Colhoun & Co, who are recalled as being based in Dunoon, but nobody remembers them there, so it may have been Troon. That they existed there's no doubt, for in Lloyds Register of 1964 they're listed as having become Colhoun & Sons, but without an address – they're only in the Register because the greatest success of their own-designed new Coronation OD was as the Ballyholme Bay Class.

In 1938, Ballyholme YC on Belfast Lough took an option on 12 of the boats, eventually reduced to nine which successful raced as the Ballyholme Bay Class for many years. With understandable pride in their new senior keelboat OD class, they emphatically described them first as the Bay Class, and later as the Ballyholme Bay class.

The Ballyholme Bay ODs shaping up for some club racing – the design origins as the Coronation OD by Colhoun & Co were submerged in local pride. Photo: W M NixonThe Ballyholme Bay ODs shaping up for some club racing – the design origins as the Coronation OD by Colhoun & Co were submerged in local pride. Photo: W M Nixon

Thus when two or three of the Coronation Class (possible originally intended for Balyholme) found their way to Strangford Lough as individual boats, the thriving Ballyholme Class ignored their existence as they put through their own hectic annual programme on Belfast Lough.

A highlight was their annual visit to the Regatta at Carrickergus, where the Bay Class provided some of the strength for an informal but brutal rugby match between Bangor and Carrick sailors on the green between the Anchor Inn and the historic castle, while the social pace in the Inn itself was set by the Bay Class's most heroic toper, a gnarled character of magnificently colourful nasal architecture whose day job was the sacred task of supplying and tuning the finest church organs in Northern Ireland.

It's difficult to say exactly why the Ballyholme Bay class are either defunct or at the very least in mothballs, though some would argue that their surviving rivals of the Waverley Class had deeper local roots, as they were designed by John Wylie of Whitehead, and built at yards on the shores of Belfast Lough.

Yet the 29ft River Class on Strangford Lough are – like the Ballyholme Bays - entirely Scottish in origin, having been designed by Alfred Mylne and all twelve built either at his own yard at Ardmaleish on Bute, or in the boatyard next door. But this has in no way hindered the Rivers' increasing good health in recent years, with all twelve in action for the class's Centenary in 2021.

As for Iolanthe, by 1997 the enchanted owner who had bought her in Killyleagh had brought her home to the Isle of Wight for a very thorough restoration with Will Squibb and Eddie Wade at Bembridge in one of those workshops which are mini-temples to the arts and crafts of the shipwright.

A mini-temple to the arts and crafts of the shipwright – Iolanthe being restored in the Bembridge workshop. Photo courtesy David TaskerA mini-temple to the arts and crafts of the shipwright – Iolanthe being restored in the Bembridge workshop. Photo courtesy David Tasker

And since then, Iolanthe has proven her seaworthy credentials by cruising down channel as far as Dartmouth in Devon, which is rather further and more exposed than the passage to the Narrows Regatta in Strangford Lough occasionally achieved by the Ballyholme Bay Class.

Iolanthe's latest owner may have to accept that he doesn't have a Dublin Bay 21, or a Dublin Bay anything. But in fact, he may have something rather more special, as there's now a charming corner of the Isle of Wight that is forever Ballyholme.

A little corner of the Isle of Wight which is forever Ballyholme – with an enlarged headsail, Iolanthe is providing improved performance. Photo courtesy David TaskerA little corner of the Isle of Wight which is forever Ballyholme – with an enlarged headsail, Iolanthe is providing improved performance. Photo courtesy David Tasker

WM Nixon

About The Author

WM Nixon

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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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