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Ballyholme Bay’s Bondi Beach Days

25th April 2022
The 20-ton ketch Morna on Ballyholme Beach in September 1935 after a mooring gave way in a nor’east gale
The 20-ton ketch Morna on Ballyholme Beach in September 1935 after a mooring gave way in a nor’east gale

Ballyholme Bay in Bangor on Belfast Lough is a Jekyll-&-Hyde sort of place. For much of the time, it’s serene, with excellent sailing waters off a neat urban waterfront above a tidy esplanade on its western shoreline, while the eastern part is bounded by the unspoilt rural peace and quiet beauty of Ballymacormick Point.

Indeed, so sheltered is the usual mood in summer that for years it was the main yacht anchorage in the area, until the total year-round shelter of the Marina was created in Bangor Bay in the late 1980s. Now, all Ballyholme-based racing boats are dinghies, hauled after sailing.

Yet the chart suggests good anchorage in the bay. But that most assuredly is only when the wind is in the southern arc. For as the brisk onshore breezes of the National Youth Championship of the last four days at Ballyholme YC reminded us, when the wind’s a strong nor’easterly and low tide is approaching, Ballyholme Bay can give a passable impression of Sydney’s Bondi Beach.

The chart may suggest an anchorage, but it can become “uncomfortable” in anything other than a southerlyThe chart may suggest an anchorage, but it can become “uncomfortable” in anything other than a southerly.

And in a real nor’east gale, in those busy multiple-moorings days pre-1989, Ballyholme’s wicked Mr Hyde took over from the benign Dr Jekyll, with the anchorage becoming a maelstrom while the beach became a boats’ graveyard. But thanks to local ingenuity, even when a boat came ashore and seemed irretrievable, the situation could sometimes still be saved, and our header photo is a reminder of one happy outcome.

It’s 1935, and the boat on Ballyholme Beach as a nor’east gale pauses for breath before its next blast is R E Workman’s hefty gaff ketch Morna. Normally the Queen of the Fleet towards the head of Belfast Lough at Cultra, where R E Workman had Godlike status in Royal North of Ireland YC, Morna was too large to be hauled on the RNIYC slip. So as usual at season’s end, she had been left down-lough to overnight on a Ballyholme mooring, before Bertie Slater and his men in Bangor Shipyard beside Ballyholme YC hauled her on the next day’s high tide.

But a sneaky little deepening low pressure area swept up northwards into the Dover Straits from Biscay, and by the small hours an unforecast full nor’east gale was blowing into Ballyholme Bay. In the morning, there was Morna, the fine yacht of Bangor Shipyard’s most prized client, on the beach with no hope of hauling off towards the next high water as the nor’easter was now expected to increase again.

The Ballyholme Bay waterfront at its most sereneThe Ballyholme Bay waterfront at its most serene

Thus the prospect was that the rising tide and increasing breakers would sweep Morna towards destruction - battered by the surf, pounded on the beach, and then finally smashed against the stone face of the Esplanade. But Bertie Slater, a quietly tough man who successfully ran the yard for many years, was having none of it. He and his men stripped Morna of everything removable, laid out a fan of anchors towards the sea to hold her in place, and then drilled some substantial holes in her hull so that she would fill as the tide came in, making her as immovable as a half-tide rock.

The gale was finally abating as the tide ebbed, and there was Morna next day, seaweed-draped and very sandy perhaps, but largely unharmed. Bertie and his men quickly sealed off the holes they’d drilled, and she floated in near calm conditions to be immediately hauled. Although the winter fit-out involved an exceptional amount of cleaning and engine re-conditioning, Morna was launched as good as new in 1936, and still sails the seas, an award-winning classic.

The alternative – and fortunately rare – face of Ballyholme as a vigorous nor’easter does its stuff at high water.Ballyholme as a vigorous nor’easter does its stuff at high water

But not all Ballyholme beachings has such a happy outcome, and the local sailors developed thin skins when the subject of their exposed anchorage arose. Thus when Ronald Green, the Commodore of the recently-formed Strangford Lough Yacht Club, was Guest of Honour at a BYC Annual Dinner in the late 1930s, he induced an immediate frost with opening his speech by saying how much he enjoyed being at Ballyholme, “with its wonderful anchorage, sheltered as it is to the northeast by Ailsa Craig”.

For readers outside Ireland, we should point out that the conspicuous Scottish mountain islet of Ailsa Craig is all of forty miles away on the other side of the North Channel. Thus nor’easters really were quite the problem in Ballyholme when the moorings were in use, as there’d always be days when it was fresh enough to prevent sailing, but not so fresh as to have the inaccessible boats in the anchorage in danger.

For our bunch of frustrated sailing-mad feral youths at BYC, this problem was an opportunity. With no sailing possible, with any luck the club boatman would go home early. This gave us access to the club punt, a humble workboat of around 15ft which happened to have beautiful lines and three sets of rowing positions.

In those days the support film in the Bangor cinemas would often be about the surf-rescue boats of Bondi Beach in Sydney, so we knew the form. We’d liberate the club punt and borrow at least two sets of oars and go surfing on Ballyholme Beach in optimal tide conditions.

“We’d seen the Bondi Beach surfboat documentaries in the local cinema, so we knew the form….”“We’d seen the Bondi Beach surfboat documentaries in the local cinema, so we knew the form….”

Quite why we thought nobody would notice, heaven only knows, for inevitably somebody did. But as we had the club punt, they couldn’t get at us, and of course, we couldn’t hear them roaring from the beach above the noise of the surf.

It’s the best surfing I’ve ever had, and I speak as the Body-Surfing Champion (Ultra-Senior Hearing-Impaired Division) of Pollurian Cove in Cornwall. So next time you go to Ballyholme and there’s a northeasterly surf coming in on the launching slip, just remember that once upon a time, such conditions weren’t a problem - they were an opportunity.

Happy outcome – the ketch Morna in Bangor Marina in modern times. Photo: W M NixonHappy outcome – the ketch Morna in Bangor Marina in modern times. Photo: W M Nixon

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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