Displaying items by tag: Royal Ulster Yacht Club
Although the mystery of how a Goblet inscribed Royal Ulster Yacht Club, dated 1869 and awarded to a Mr Foster Connor, ended up in Melbourne (Read Afloat's earlier report here) has not been resolved, the trophy has been bought by the club and is now in a glass cabinet in the Gloucester Room.
Mr Connor was a wealthy Belfast linen merchant with a home called Seacourt on Wilson’s Point in Bangor overlooking the Lough. He was Rear Commodore of RUYC in 1884 and owned the Amba. It would appear that he gave his name to some buildings in Bangor – Connor House School and the Connor Wing of the local hospital.
Given the significance of the date, this is likely to be the oldest cup in existence bearing the Club’s Royal name. Its size may disappoint as cups awarded for club races in those days were mainly “keepers” rather than perpetual challenge cups!
Recently Royal Ulster Yacht Club was contacted by a Mr Andre Jaku of Melbourne, Australia about a goblet he had bought from Leonard Joel’s Auction house in the city.
It was listed as silver and was engraved with the words:
Royal Ulster Yacht Club
Won by the AMBA The property of Foster Connor Jun Esq.
Corinthian Match Aug 1869
It appears slightly repaired on the stem and there is a small mark on the bottom. I understand from the club historian, Ed Wheeler, that it is the trophy for the race between Amba owned by Mr Connor and Mr John Currell’s Flirt.
According to the Club history, Foster Connor seems to have become a member in 1869 and this was the year in which the Club received its Royal warrant (ie its name changed from the Ulster Yacht Club to the Royal Ulster Yacht Club). Interestingly, this did not come officially into force until a meeting on 14th October at which the warrant was received and the name change took place. So, the date on the goblet, August 1869, precedes the date on which the Club became RUYC, so the inscription may be misleading, although the trophy could have been awarded and inscribed after the warrant was formalised.
Connor’s 9-ton cutter Amba and John Currell’s 7-ton cutter Flirt seem to have been the leading protagonists.
Ed Wheeler reveals that Currell and Connor were having some kind of feud at the time and at a committee meeting a letter was read out from Foster Connor, in which he declined to accept the jurisdiction of the “three gentlemen who proposed to decide a question in dispute on that occasion”. At the meeting, he said that the Protest Committee was not properly constituted because not all of the Sailing Committee had been invited and of the three who were, two were brothers, so he would not abide by their decision. Mr. Richard Patterson then said that, before the race started, Mr. Connor had told him that he would not be bound by any decision the race committee might make; he then said that the reason they agreed to go before the two members on the committee after the race was because they were sure that the decision would go in their favour.
Connor was Rear Commodore of RUYC in 1884 and his son, Charles C Connor held the same position in 1891. Although the details of the race for which the cup was awarded in 1869 are not known, the following year a similar race took place. This was a “Corinthian” race, meaning a race for amateur sailors only, for yachts of 10 tons or under. Cups awarded for club races in those days were mainly “keepers”, rather than perpetual challenge cups, which is why the cup is marked as Foster Connor’s property.
There are several occasions in which a Mr Foster Connor is mentioned in records.
And from those he would appear to have been a wealthy man, owning two residences, one in Belfast and a grand mansion called Seacourt which he built at Wilson’s Point on the west of Bangor Bay. In the Dept of Communities Historic Buildings it is included as “A grand symmetrical, classically-styled, two-storey three-bay house over concealed basement, built c.1865, located to the north side of Bangor, overlooking the sea and in 1860 the Journal of the Society of Arts named Foster Connor and Co as one of the six principal linen manufacturers in Belfast. He was also a keen yachtsman. (Journal of Society of Arts; Hunt’s Yachting Magazine) Connor died in 1881 and the house then passed to his son Charles C Connor”
In a Belfast Street Directory, he is listed as a linen merchant and yarn merchant with a residence in Linenhall Street, Belfast.
Connor is buried with other family members in the Belfast City Cemetery with an 8ft high headstone described as a
Memorial to the Foster Connor (died 5th December 1881 aged 70 years) as well as other members of his family.
Foster Connor was a wealthy linen merchant who lived in Belfast but also had the fine residence Seacourt built for him at Wilson's Point, Bangor.
So, the question is how did the goblet come to be in Melbourne?
The 35th staging of international races for the 176-year-old America’s Cup is rising rapidly up the agenda. The opening jousts for challengers begin on 26th May 2017 at the first-time-selected venue of Bermuda, and the cup series itself starts there on 17th June. It’s time to focus on the sailing paradise of Bermuda, and particularly its role in changing the shape of sails in mainstream sailing. W M Nixon takes a typically skewed look at what it all might mean.
The irony of it is that, long before the rig was popularly accepted, it was the sailors of Bermuda who were credited with the invention of the jib-headed triangular shape for mainsails. This dominated yacht design for nearly a century. Yet in 2017, as the inevitably trend-setting America’s Cup finally comes to Bermuda for the first time, it will be raced by sailing machines – the word “boats” seems inadequate – which are setting what looks very like an extremely modern variation of the classic gaff rig.
For what are today’s state-of-the-art square-headed mainsails other than an attempt to get as much sail area as possible within the limits set by the height of the mast and the length of the boom? And what rig was based on the same premise? Exactly. The gaff rig, and its very useful cousin, the sprit rig.
Yet at a certain stage, as the pioneering Dutch yachtsmen moved from the sprit rig to the gaff rig, the gaff booms became so short that the sailing world was very close to having jib-headed mainsails. But boats setting bisquine rig or something very similar showed what could be done with topsails, and longer gaff booms with topsails above them became the norm.
In due course, the logic of having lighter masts, and mainsail and topsail one and the same with no booms between them, became inescapable. Yet because so many people, relatively speaking, had by this time taken up sailing, the arguments about which rig, gaff or Bermudan, was superior soon became ludicrously heated.
Traditionalists argued that while Bermudan rig might be just about acceptable for inshore racing in sheltered water, anyone going cruising or racing offshore needed the rugged gaff rig with its compact mast, possibly heightened by a topmast which could he lowered and housed against the forward side of the mainmast when at sea and conditions deteriorated.
And then there were and still are the uber-traditionalists who argue that if gaff rig had been good enough for their fathers and forefathers before them, then it was good enough for them, and you don’t have to go any further than Howth, Connemara or Falmouth to find them in their droves.
A new factor entered the equation with the development of the heritage industry, which concluded that that the loss of familiarity with handling the formerly-universal gaff rig was a real cultural threat. So in 1963 the Old Gaffers Association came into being at much the same time as the Classic Yacht Movement was starting to gain traction, and thus the preservation of gaff rig was being upheld from both ends of the wealthy to barely-getting-by spectrum.
It was all great fun if you didn’t take it took seriously, but in its day, some people took it very seriously indeed and a few still do, so we’ll give the pot a very good stir by revealing that it was Irish sailors who played a key role in making Bermudan rig mainstream.
Our header image reveals that Bermudan rig in a quite sophistcated form was not unknown from 1834 onwards. But nevertheless even in crack yachts like Belfast linen magnate John Mulholland’s schooner Egeria of 1865 vintage, and John Jameson of Dublin’s cutter Irex designed by Alexander Richardson in 1884, the relatively crude gaff topsails being set still showed how closely they were descended from lug rigs which in turn had evolved from trying to get simple squaresails to set closer to the wind.
But by the late 1880s, topsails were becoming more clearly jib headed, and for a while they used a combination of short mainmast, a short topmast, and a topsail yard to provide their height, which could resulted in a distinctly stunted look when on a dead run, as is seen in the Scottish ironmaster Peter Donaldson’s all-conquering 70ft 40-rater Isolde, designed and built by Fife in 1895.
It is the famous photo of the new Belfast Lough 25ft One Designs at their start in the RUYC Regatta in July 1898 - their second season – which best shows how gaff rig had developed in the decade since Irex was the boat to beat. The BLOD 25’s have topsails which use long yard to sit as flush as possible with the mast. As the luff length of the topsail was actually longer than the luff length of the mainsail, and as it is luff length which does most of the work in making to windward, getting the topsail and mainsail to set as one was vital in achieving best performance.
In fact, as I learned in my days of racing a Howth 17, fractions of an inch in the location of the topyard halyard and jackyard outhaul on their respective yards made all the difference between having a very effective topsail, and having a heap of rubbish aloft which was only holding you back if the wind freshened on the final leg. You were getting there if, when setting the sails, you could look aloft and see the newly-hoisted topsail set as flat as a board, with even tensions to every corner. This meant that you could ease the mainsail peak halyard just a smidgin to transfer some of the load directly to the topsail, thereby making mainsail and topsail in effect into one sail which happened to have a couple of bits of wood in the middle.
However, despite the favourable impact made by boats such as Isolde and the BLOD 25s, larger yachts tended increasingly to revert to long topmasts in order to make their topsails more effective, and in the most enthusiastic cases, the mastman would be despatched aloft to lace the luff of the topsail to the topmast and the mast itself. This certainly achieved an efficient set for the sail, but was unseamanlike in the extreme, as it totally obviated the topsail’s supposed benefit of being able to reduce sail area aloft in only a few minutes.
Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t until 1912 that designer Charles E Nicholson was allowed by an owner to do away with the cumbersome, eddy-inducing topmast altogether, simply by extending the mainmast in the lightest possible section in a 12 Metre.
Naturally the critics expected the new unfeasibly tall masts to break under the load of the topsails, and some of them did just that. But those tall continuous masts that stayed aloft tended to win races, and so the Marconi mast was here to stay. They were nicknamed “Marconi” masts in acknowledgement of the high aerials required by Italian radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), whose mother was a Jameson and whose first radio report of a sporting event was the Royal St George YC Regatta of 1904 in Dublin Bay.
It was only two years after the first Marconi sailing mast appeared in a yacht that the first international racing yacht took the next logical step of making the topsail and mainsail into one, and that yacht was newly-commissioned in 1914 from Fife of Fairlie by an Irish yachtsman, Arthur F Sharman Crawford, Commodore of the Royal Munster Yacht Club on Cork Harbour.
There’s a book to be written about Arthur F Sharman Crawford (1862-1943), for there’s no way that even a dozen blogs could explain how the Dublin-born English-educated younger son of a northern family with extensive land-holdings in County Down – particularly on the shores of Belfast Lough – came to be the Managing Director of Beamish & Crawford’s brewery in Cork. There, he joined the management team at the age of 28 in 1890, and guided it as Managing Director through some of its most successful periods, and also skillfully negotiated the difficulties of World War 1, the Easter Rising, the War of Independence and the Civil War in a total period from 1914 to 1923, while at the same time being a great benefactor to his adopted city, particularly in the area of technical education, but also in the broader cultural and artistic sphere.
Yet this was no unduly serious do-gooding workaholic. On the contrary, Arthur Sharman Crawford (the family preferred their double surname without a hyphen) was sports mad. A keen yachtsman who was an early owner in the Cork Harbour One Designs of 1896, he was elected Commodore of the Royal Munster YC when it was still at Monkstown in 1898. When it moved to Crosshaven in 1923, as he lived at Lota Lodge in Glanmire north of the harbour, he transferred his full allegiances to the more conveniently located Royal Cork at Cobh where he was already Vice Admiral, and in 1925 he became Admiral and served in that post until 1935.
He also rode to hounds every winter with ferocious enthusiasm, being Joint Master of Cork’s United Hunt for four years. And in later life he played a central role in the establishment of Cork Golf Club, where he served as an actively and frequently-playing President for many years. But in his prime, sailing was his main sport, and he spread his wings far beyond Cork Harbour, for he campaigned on the international scene with a Fife 12 Metre called Ierne, and as a member of many yacht clubs throughout Ireland and Britain, he was a frequent guest helm at regattas, with particularly close associations with the Royal Ulster YC on Belfast Lough.
There, his older brother Robert was Vice Commodore and chaired the committee which oversaw the five challenges for the America’s Cup by Thomas Lipton, the first in 1899 and the last in 1930. The advice of the widely-experienced Arthur was regularly sought by this committee. Yet in other areas of life, there was a parting of the ways between the two brothers. In a time of political restlessness, the northern-based Robert Sharman Crawford was uncompromisingly unionist, and became an active leader in the Ulster Volunteer Force from 1912 onwards. But in the different mood of Cork, the southern-based younger brother had a more accommodating attitude towards Home Rule, reflected in the fact that he continued to play a public role in Cork life, and all his branch of the family were at their deaths buried in the family plot on Little Island in Cork Harbour rather than in the ancestral family lands at Crawfordsburn in County Down.
There was a very pointed irony in the brothers’ relationship, for even as the brewery in Cork prospered under Arthur’s stewardship, the inherited income from the Crawford estates in the north was shrinking thanks to longterm effects of the activities of Michael Davitt’s Land League and the resultant Gladstone-inspired Land Acts of 1896. The dividends from Cork became an increasingly important part of Robert Sharman Crawford’s income to maintain his opulent lifestyle as a leading yachtsman and as Lord of the Manor of the new loughside Crawfordsburn House, built in the late 1890s to the designs of Vincent Craig. He was the architect brother of Northern Ireland’s future first Prime Minister James Craig (another sailing enthusiast), and his considerable architectural talents were at the same time being deployed for the design of the new Royal Ulster Yacht Club building, which opened in April 1899.
By 1912 and the public declaration of the Ulster Covenant with Robert Sharman Crawford a leading signatory, the fact is that his way of life was largely supported by Beamish & Crawford dividends. It seems only ironic in hindsight – at the time, everyone on all sides though they were doing the right thing. It is only in looking back from the distant and safe viewpoint of 2017 that we realise how curious it was that 104 years ago in 1913, when Colonel Robert Sharman Crawford put his own-funded brigade of the Ulster Volunteer Force through their parades, manoeuvres and exercises on the lawns and fields of Crawfordsburn House, it was all being largely paid for by the continued devotion of the Beamish stout drinkers of Munster.
Yet in that dreamlike pre-World War I era, such activities still seemed slightly theatrical and unreal, and normal life went on at an even more determinedly enthusiastic pace than ever. Having finally agreed a Measurement Rule with the defenders, early in 1914 Thomas Lipton’s latest America’s Cup Challenger, the Charles E Nicholson-designed Shamrock IV, was nearing completion in the south of England. And in the Fife yard in Fairlie in Scotland, a new William Fife designed yacht with an experimental rig was under construction for Arthur Sharman Crawford.
For although Lipton’s technically advanced Shamrock IV carried a very sophisticated gaff rig, it was a gaff rig nevertheless. Thus Arthur Sharman Crawford’s new boat was more important in terms of overall technological development. A more manageable 8 Metre after several successful but demanding years with the 12 Metre Ierne, the new Ierne II was the first yacht to the International Rule of 1907 to set a Bermudan rig.
Why is she almost totally forgotten in Ireland? Well, Arthur Sharman Crawford led a sort of sailing double life, or even treble life. At home in Cork Harbour, his sailing was local, often using local boats. On Dublin Bay and particularly in Belfast Lough, he was associated with the Lipton camp. But on the Clyde or in the Solent, he was the international or even supra-national yachtsman Arthur Sharman Crawford, challenging the top talents at a rarefied level which was remote from the more localized approach of Cork Harbour or Belfast Lough, and at a tasteful remove from the razzmatazz of Lipton’s America’s Cup challenges.
So when Ierne II appeared fresh out of the wrappers to surprise everyone in the Solent in July 1914, she had never been anywhere near either Belfast Lough or Cork Harbour. It was in the Solent that she made her debut, and for a few very encouraging weeks, while she was undoubtedly a very different creature to sail than a gaff-rigged boat, she was out-performing them all to windward.
It’s intriguing to reflect that when Ierne II was being admired as the hottest new boat in Cowes in late July 1914, briefly in the same harbour at the same time we would have seen Erskine & Molly Childers’ Asgard and Conor O’Brien’s Kelpie pretending to be leisurely cruisers going gently about their business, when in fact they were bound for the Ruytigen Lightvessel to collect their cargoes of Mauser rifles.
Within a couple of weeks, everyone’s plans were in disarray with the outbreak of World War I. All the key figures in the Asgard/Kelpie adventure quickly found themselves positions with the Allied Forces. As for Arthur Sharman Crawford, at the age of 52 this was not an immediate consideration, but his plans for a new programme of fresh excitement for a keen yachtsman past what was then considered the prime of life simply evaporated. Cowes Week 1914 was cancelled completely, and Ierne II was denied the stage which would have provided the setting to enable her to claim her rightful place in sailing history.
Indeed, it was only when noted Yorkshire sailor Hew Jones spotted her laid up in Portugal in 2005 and set about a restoration on Humberside that the whole astonishing story was revealed. When World War II ended in 1918, anyone running a business in Cork amidst Ireland’s growing troubles had other things on his mind, and Arthur Sharman Crawford put Ierne II – laid up since the beginning of August 2014 – on the market. She was eventually bought by Norwegians who wanted a boat for the 8 Metre Class in he 1920 Olympic games in Belgium, and they struck gold in every way, as Ierne II won the Gold Medal.
The top racing sailors were increasingly convinced that Bermudan rig would be where it was at, but in the post war recession, progress was slow. Nevertheless, it was another Irish owner who led the way in the south of England. Elizabeth Workman was the widow of one of the founders of the Workman Clark shipyard in Belfast, and as they at least had done well out of the war, she had the resources to re-commission her 112ft gaff cutter Nyria, designed by Charles E Nicholson and built by Camper & Nicholson in 1906.
Nyria was Solent-based, and following the success of Ierne II and other newly-Bermuda rigged smaller boats in the 1920 Olympics, Elizabeth Workman took the mighty step of getting Charles Nicholson to kit out Nyria with Bermudan rig for the 1921 season, making this the first internationally recognized “big yacht” to do so.
The corner towards Bermudan rig was being turned, and yet another impulse came from Ireland , this time with the commissioning of the world’s first Bermudan-rigged One Design class. The lively Belfast Lough sailing scene of 1914 had been largely destroyed in the trenches of the Somme by the time peace returned in 1918. In an exchange of letters in 1919, some of the more senior members of the Royal Ulster wrote about the need for a new class of boat “which could be sailed by a man and his daughters”. Far from being a gesture for women’s rights, this was simply a sad admission that so many young sailing men would never return from Flanders fields and northern France that it would be 1925 where anything approaching normal manpower levels in sailing would be regained, and so in 1921 the Alfred Mylne-designed Bermudan-rigged 29ft River class made their appearance on Befast Lough. They have never known any rig other than Bermudan, and they continue racing today, though now based on Strangford Lough.
Thereafter, the move towards Bermuda rig was inexorable and seemingly irreversible, even though sailors as experienced as Billy Mooney of Dublin were ordering the gaff rigged ketch 42ft Aideen to be built by Tyrell’s of Arklow in 1934, and he sailed her so well that he won his class in the 1947 Fastnet Race.
But others were more restless. Since 1898 the gaff-rigged Howth 17s had been sporting their jackyard topsails at their home port north of Dublin, and in 1907 the Dublin Bay Sailing Club adopted the same design, and proprietorially re-designated them as the Dublin Bay 17s. Not only that, but in 1936 a young and competitively successful Dun Laoghaire owner, Terry Roche, decided he would lead the way by converting his DBSC 17 Eileen to Bermudan rig. Despite the fact that she now carried lee helm as he would also have had to move the mast aft to make the new rig balance, he doggedly sailed her to Holyhead and back to prove that all was well. But nobody followed his lead, and after this rather expensive experiment, Eileen reverted to gaff rig and successful racing the following year, and the only lasting memorial of this project is the quaint photo of the Dun Laoghaire waterfront in 1936, a classic image worthy of Cartier-Bresson, with the Water Wags racing off the Royal Irish YC beyond, while in the left of the photo is Eileen sailing under Bermudan rig using mainsail only, which probably balanced quite nicely.
Yet other classes such as the Belfast Lough Island class yawls changed to Bermudan rig in the 1930s, but in Dublin Bay the honour of the gaff rig was stubbornly carried until 1963 by the Dublin Bay 21s, when after sixty years of gaff they converted to Bermudan rig which gave have them another 23 years of active racing life.
Typically of everyone being out of step except Dublin Bay, 1963 was also the very year in which the Old Gaffers Association was founded simply to preserve gaff rig. Ironically, gaff rig is now more visible than ever, albeit above plastic hulls. After all, there are more than a thousand gaff-rigged Cornish Shrimpers sailing the sea.
So is it coming full circle? Maybe. After all, when the America’s Cup multi-hulls start strutting their stuff on Great Sound in Bermuda, they’ll be setting square-headed mainsails which are gaff rig in any sensible definition. And all that where Bermuda rig as we knew it for so long originated more than 183 years ago……
But the real test is on Cork Harbour. The reversion to gaff rig came centre stage there last year when the new Ultra National 18s decided the only way to make their otherwise state-of-the-art boats truly sexy was to give them trendy square-topped mainsails.
And if by any chance the spirit of Arthur Sharman Crawford still sails about Cork Harbour, the place he came to love so well, I’ve no doubt he’ll be doing it aboard a ghostly Ierne XXX under a spectral square-topped mainsail, occasionally waxing nostalgic about the old days when he sailed Ierne II with a quaint three-sided mainsail.
Afloat.ie’s W M Nixon grabbed only a few hours sleep after his almost continuous coverage of the Volvo Round Ireland Race 2016 before haring off to Bangor in County Down to sail in the RUYC 150th Anniversary Regatta on Saturday June 25th aboard the same boat on which he took part in the same club’s Centenary Regatta in 1966 – and with the same crew. But he arrived at his former home port to find that the defining sailing symbols of his more recent home port of Howth had got there before him…
The amateur yacht designer Walter Boyd of Howth crewed on his father’s 72ft cutter Thalia in the Royal Ulster Yacht Club regatta at Bangor on Belfast Lough in July 1897. A week earlier, the Boyd family had concluded their accumulation of tidy sums in prize money in the Clyde Fortnight with the 1891-vintage Fife-designed Thalia. Ironically, Thalia had been sold away from the Clyde to Judge Boyd of Howth in 1892 at a bargain price, as her original Scottish owners felt she was being out-classed by the new boats from the other Scottish designer, G L Watson. But the Boyd family seemed well able to demonstrate otherwise.
Certainly by 1897 it was Fife who was again in vogue with newer winners like Isolde and Ailsa, and that year saw the advent of the new Fife-designed Belfast Lough One Design Association 25ft LWL Class I boats, built by up-and-coming boatbuilder John Hilditch of Carrickfergus on the north shore of Belfast Lough.
They made a very favourable impression on their debut at Clyde Fortnight in late June and early July 1897 closely observed by, among many others, the Boyd family on Thalia. And after returning to strut their stuff at home at the Royal Ulster regatta in mid-July, four of the BLOD 25s then went on to race for several days in the Dublin Bay regattas, making such a good showing that it inspired the formation of the Dublin Bay 25ft OD Class.
The Dublin boats, with the first appearing in 1898, were of the same hull profile, but with slightly finer sections and built to a much higher specification, with a lead ballast keel as opposed to the Belfast Lough boat’s cheap-and-cheerful cast iron.
Yet even while the pundits of the Clyde, Belfast Lough and Dublin Bay were debating the merits of one against the other, and indeed whether it was even a feasible idea to have a One Design of such a size that she was capable of going offshore, the Howth men returned to their peninsula home, and cogitated among themselves on what they had seen. They were looking for something economical to replace the deathtraps which were the Half Raters they’d been racing for three or four seasons.
Bangor Marina with some of the Mylne-designed Glens from Strangford Lough in the foreground, and jackyard topsails much in evidence on the Howth 17s beyond as they prepare to race across Belfast Lough to their 1898 birthplace of Carrickfergus. Photo: Trish Nixon
The result was that by the end of October 1897, Walter Boyd had produced a design for an able little 17ft LWL, 22.5ft LOA gaff sloop complete with jackyard topsail. An order to build the first five was immediately placed with John Hilditch at Carrickfergus. And by the beginning of April 1898, these new Howth 17s were ready to be sailed the 90 miles to their home port by their notably keen owners. From design finalisation to first race took barely six months, which tells us much about the spirit of the 1890s.
The world has moved on since 1898, but there is still a numerous class of Howth 17s at Howth, including the original five built by John Hilditch at Carrickfergus. In 1998 a flotilla of them returned by road to their birthplace for some decidedly crisp Easter sailing to celebrate their Centenary, and then – the wind being fair – they all made a fast if freezing overnight sailing passage home.
The Return of the Seventeens – approaching Carrickfergus SC on June 23rd 2016, Ian Malcolm’s Hilditch-built Aura (7) leads from Roddy Cooper’s Leila (3, also Hilditch-built) while third lies Class Captain Tom Houlihan in the 1899-built Zaida. Photo: Trish Nixon
Since then, they’ve had further outings to various classic events, with a couple even managing Brest on one occasion, and the Solent Classics on another. But their most impressive outing was in 2003 when no less than 15 boats were moved in a masterclass of logistics to the Glandore Classics. So although the regular annual race programme, which provides them with sixty races each summer at Howth, is the backbone of the class, now and again other possibilities turn up, and for 2016 there was a double offering on Belfast Lough.
There, sailing seems to have suddenly taken off in 1866, as 2016 offered both the 150th Anniversary of Carrickfergus Sailing Club with a special Hilditch Regatta to celebrate the memory of a boatbuilder who was in business for only 24 years from 1889 to 1913, but he was very productive during those years. And it was also the 150th Anniversary – the Sesquicentennial, forsooth – of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, which had started life as the Ulster Yacht Club in 1866, but thanks to having Lord Dufferin of high latitudes cruising fame as Commodore, by 1869 they’d the Royal warrant.
Yet when the Howth 17s’ designer raced with his father and siblings aboard the Thalia at Bangor in 1897, the RUYC was still modestly housed in a rented semi-detached house – a big semi-detached house admittedly – above the Bangor seafront. So although the Belfast Lough season of 1898 had still not begun when the new Howth 17s sailed past homeward bound in April 1898, there was a flurry of building work under way on the Bangor waterfront, as RUYC had acquired an important new member, and he required the club to have a proper clubhouse to provide a base for a project he had in mind.
First time together – the RNIYC Fairy Class, built by John Hilditch in 1902, get together in Carrickfergus with the Howth 17s (built Hilditch 1898) Photo: Trish Nixon
The new member was Thomas Lipton, already a multi-millionaire with a rapidly expanding grocery empire. His ambition was to challenge for the America’s Cup, and his notions of grandeur chimed well with the feelings of a significant group of the RUYC membership, who felt that a rented semi-detached house, despite its desirable seafront location, was no longer adequate for their rapidly rising status in the world of yachting.
A mid-season meeting of RUYC members in 1897 had already decided that a new clubhouse be built, and architect Vincent Craig – a keen sailing man – soon produced an Arts & Crafts-inspired design with a hint of the Scottish baronial for the selected dominant site. The whole extraordinary confection of a building, with a sort of inspired “instant antiquity” in the mood it created, was built in 18 months, with the opening in April 1899. As we were suggesting earlier, things got done – and done quickly – in Belfast Lough in the 1890s.
The 1899-completed clubhouse of the RUYC was built in a near-record time of 18 months. Photo: W M Nixon
Since then, Thomas Lipton’s five America’s Cup challenges have come and gone, and though he never won, he was definitely a serious contender in 1901 and 1914. World wars have since been fought, empires have disappeared, the global map has changed, and the world structures of sailing have been re-configured. Yet the Royal Ulster YC’s history-laden clubhouse continues to brood above the Bangor waterfront. And the Howth 17s remain unchanged at Howth. They and the RUYC clubhouse are almost exactly the same age. Clearly, the Sesquicentennial Regatta offered a very special opportunity for these two relics of old decency to get together for the very first time.
Of course, there was far more to the events of this past week and more on Belfast Lough than this. But when a 118-year-old class is kept in good order in one place, and a 117-year-old clubhouse of real character is lovingly maintained in another, there’s every possibility of an interesting chemical reaction when the two get together.
But for me, interest in this event was in another direction entirely, for 1966 was the last year in which most of my sailing was Belfast Lough-based. I tended to head south thereafter, soon re-locating in Howth. But for the Centenary Year of 1966, it was Belfast Lough and RUYC virtually all the way, and as on many occasions during the 1960s, there was a June cruise with the chartered 9-ton yawl Ainmara – designed and built by John Kearney of Ringsend in Dublin in 1912 – to West Cork.
It was the first proper sailing visit to West Cork, for though we’d called at Baltimore while coming in from the west coast during an anti-clockwise round Ireland cruise with Ainmara in 1964, for 1966 we lingered on in summer somnolence (remember when summers had somnolence?) in sweet places like Glandore and Castlehaven when they were decidedly less crowded than they are today.
The only time limit on this easy-going venture was to get Ainmara back to Belfast Lough in time for the Centenary Regatta of the RUYC at the end of June 1966, for the old girl (we already thought of her as very old in 1966) had recently passed into the ownership of Dickie Gomes, and as an RUYC member and very proud of his newly-acquired boat, this was definitely a must-do fixture.
The day itself was one of a sunny though not overstrong nor’easterly, but as it would have set up an awkward little popple in the Belfast Lough sea state, Ainmara was not at her best against more modern boats in the windward work. So although there’s a medallion on the bulkhead in Ainmara’s saloon to commemorate her participation in this Centenary Regatta, fifty years later neither Dickie Gomes nor his wife Deirdre nor I – all of us on board at the time – have any idea of our result, but we’re reasonably sure it wasn’t a win, so blessed amnesia has been at work in the intervening fifty years.
The saloon bulkhead in Ainmara now has the addition of the 150th Anniversary plaque. The medallion top right commemorates the RUYC Centenary Regatta of 1966, between the clock and the barometer is a smaller plaque commemorating participation in the Clyde Cruising Club’s Golden Jubilee Cruise-in-Company in 1969, and the photo is of Ainmara at the start of the CCC’s 1972 race from Inverness across the North Sea to Norway. Photo: W M Nixon
During those same fifty years, while Dickie kept on with Ainmara and did many things with her, including racing to Norway and cruising to the Outer Hebrides and southern Brittany and notching success in many North Channel offshore races, he also spread his wings in many other sailing directions. In 1982 he and sailing friend Brian Law built the 40ft Dick Newick trimaran Downtown Flyer with which they scored a raft of successes in events up to the international Round Britain and Ireland level, and in 1986 – in November, no less - he established a new Round Ireland Record with the 83ft catamaran Novanet. This record stood until Steve Fossett came along to snatch it with the trimaran Lakota in September 1993, and then in 1988 Dickie Gomes found himself back in mono-hulls, in command of Brian Buchanan’s Frers 49 Hesperia (she’s now Jamie Young’s Killary Flyer down in north Connemara), and was overall winner of the 1988 Round Ireland Race.
This successful relationship with Hesperia became a feature of the sailing scene for many years, and during this period Ainmara was resting in a shed at Dickie and Deirdre’s farm in the Ards Peninsula in east County Down, awaiting repairs and refurbishment after breaking from her moorings in Strangford Lough in a winter storm. But she’s a tough old bird, John Kearney built her well, she was well worth restoring, and there was never any doubt that, whatever the other distractions, she’d be sailing again for her own Centenary in 2012.
She was out and about again in 2011, her Centenary in 2012 was then marked with a celebratory cruise to the Outer Hebrides, and in 2013 she played a starring role in the Golden Jubilee Celebrations of the Old Gaffers Association, adorned with prizes too, for although Ainmara has been Bermudan-rigged since the 1930s, she’s revered as an honorary gaffer.
Tom Houlihan’s Howth 17 Zaida off Bangor. Photo: Trish Nixon
The Sesquicentennial Parade of sail was a real floating come-all-ye, with Toppers and other dinghies mixing it with Howth 17s such as the award-wining Gladys (14) and modern cruiser-racers. Photo: Betty Armstrong
History afloat. The 1958 America’s Cup Challenger Sceptre off Bangor with an RS Elite. There’s more to this than meets the eye – the RS Elite is Phil Morrison’s miniaturized take on the special America’s Cup Class which succeeded the 12 Metres such as Sceptre as the boat of choice in AC racing. Photo: Betty Armstrong
Thus the up-coming RUYC Sesquicentennial Regatta was seen as a celebration of many things, of friendships which have withstood the test of time for many decades, of wonderful old boats which continue to give great sport, and of a surreal clubhouse which had become increasingly irrelevant as sailing’s focus shifted to smaller boats with amateur crews, but then found a new role as a sort of living museum of sailing history when Bangor was provided with what was then Ireland’s largest marina in 1991. This elevated the old clubhouse on the hill into a sort of Temple of Sailing, where devotees of the more rugged versions of the sport can retreat to reflect on their experiences in a peaceful setting well away from the hurly-burly of the marina waterfront.
The RUYC Sesquicentennial attracted boats from every background. This is Wild Goose from Portrush, renowned in times past for her links with sailing writer Wallace Clark. She has been complete up-graded in a somewhat changed form by Robin Ruddock of Portrush, who brought her to Bangor to salute 150 years of Belfast Lough sailing. Photo: Andrew Gallagher
So how do you celebrate the 150th Anniversary of such a remarkable institution? It’s of special interest in Ireland, as we are already anticipating the 300th Anniversary of the Royal Cork Yacht Club in 2020. In Bangor, RUYC Vice Commodore Myles Lindsay and Rear Commodore Greg Taylor and their team put together an intensive four week programme which has seen a variety of events including the Sigma 33 Championship, a Classic Yacht Regatta, a 150th Anniversary Regatta which included a wide range of boats reflecting Belfast Lough and Ireland’s sailing’s diversity, while this weekend it is concluding with an assembly of the Cruising Clubs which will mercifully see the focus of activity move gracefully up the west coast of Scotland and into the Hebrides in a Cruise-in-Company which will enable them to pause for breath back in Bangor.
In tandem with this, the Hilditch Regatta at Carrickfergus drew in the Bangor-assembled boats on Thursday June 23rd for a good day of sailing, and for the first time ever it brought the Hilditch-built Howth Seventeens which had breezed in from Bangor together with the Hilditch-built (1902) Fairy Class from the Royal North of Ireland YC across the lough, plus sundry other craft including the Ainmara, without which no proper boat event in the north is complete.
Hal Sisk’s 1894-built Peggy Bawn returns to her birthplace of Carrickfergus in June 2016. Photo: Trish Nixon
Peggy Bawn on Belfast Lough in 1894. Photo courtesy RUYC
However, by any standards the star of the show was Hal Sisk’s meticulously-restored G L Watson-designed 36ft Dun Laoghaire-based Peggy Bawn, a Hilditch-built cutter of 1894 vintage. While the Howth 17s are still as originally designed, although standards are rising every year they’re not all yet to classic yacht standards. As for the Fairy Class, they have been changed to Bermudan rig. And the old Ainmara and others like her are clearly not as originally designed. But Peggy Bawn is in a league of her own - she’s so authentic and exquisitely finished that it hurts.
Roddy Cooper’s Leila (built 1898) and the RUYC clubhouse (built 1899) get together for the first time. Photo: Betty Armstrong
The Howth Seventeens re-assembled back in Bangor to find they were seven in all, a gathering made easier - when you’ve only four road trailers - by the fact that the father of the class, Nick Massey, crewed by Dave Nixon, had sailed the 1907-built Deilginis from Howth to Bangor in two swift daylight stages, with a stop in Ardglass. They were now joined by six boats of the Glen Class which had sailed round from Strangford Lough, for although the Alfred Mylne-designed 25ft Glens – which originated in 1947 – are now found only in Strangford Lough and Dun Laoghaire, they began life as an RUYC Class, built in Bangor at the long-extinct Glen Boatyard on Smeltmill Bay to the west of the town.
Howth 17 overall winner Aura (Ian Malcolm, left) and Deiliginis, which sailed from Howth to Bangor, parade past the guardship HMS Archer. Photo: Andrew Gallagher
Together with the restored local 18ft keelboats of the 1902 Waverley class in Bangor, there was now a comprehensive gathering of past and present to sail forth in the RUYC Sesquicentennial last Saturday. Your reporter arrived on board Ainmara in reasonable time to find the doughty skipper and his shipmate Brian Law dressing the old boat overall, while just across the pontoon was the 1958 America’s Cup Challenger, the 12 Metre Sceptre, on one of her regular outings from the north of England. And across the way was Dutch skipper Ben Korner’s Open 40 Masai, recently retired from the Volvo Round Ireland Race thanks to a broken forestay fitting, hugely frustrating as they’d been in a splendid battle through the North Channel against RORC Commodore Michael Boyd’s First 44.7 Lisa, which went on to place third overall.
At this stage of the day there still seemed a chance of some lasting sunlight, but as Ireland was plumb under the malign influence jetstream, weatherwise it was a day of everything except what you wanted. But in terms of a reunion it was perfect, as I sailed again with Dickie and Deirdre Gomes, and our crew was joined by Jervis “Jess” Fleming home in holiday from West Australia – last time we sailed together, it was on that early June cruise of 1966 in Ainmara to West Cork.
With winds fluking around between northwest and northeast and sudden gusts coming from everywhere, the water of Belfast Lough were in a horrible popple which was a death knell for Ainmara’s afternoon racing hopes, but first there was the main part of the programme, the Sesquicentennial Parade of Sail, and for that the breeze was in brisk form.
Doughty skipper Dickie Gomes (age undisclosed) takes to the bowsprit to clear Ainmara’s jib topsail, while Deirdre Gomes (back to camera) and Jervis Fleming, both of whom sailed on the boat in 1966, get ready to tail on the halyard. Photo: W M Nixon
In fact, if it hadn’t been a Parade, we wouldn’t have dreamt of sending up our jib topsail. But our doughty skipper – whose chronological age is a secret, he’s permanently 25 in apparent terms – was soon out on the bowsprit clearing it for hoisting, the motley crew got it aloft, and in the nick of time the old girl was roaring along at full chat to cross the line in top style – even her bunting looked its very best.
As for the racing, we had our moments, but were stopped still for too long, while newer boats glided ahead, to figure in any prize-worthy placings. But frustration was soon allayed by a fresh new nor’wester which we enjoyed so much we sailed an entirely superfluous circuit of the course, and then back in the berth the old saloon was so comfortable and filled with memories that we yarned well past the time when we should have been up in the club for the official events. But we touched base there in time for our skipper to get his prize as Best in Show, which was all due to that last-minute full blossoming of the jib topsail just as the old girl came roaring up to the parade area inside the Royal Navy’s HMS Archer.
Made it in the nick of time……Everything up and drawing as Ainmara sweeps past the Guardship. Photo: Andrew Gallagher
The Howth 17 crews were made welcome and made themselves very much at home in the RUYC clubhouse. Photo: W M Nixon
So fifty years after the Centenary Regatta, Ainmara’s participation in the RUYC Sesquicentennial Regatta had hit the jackpot. The high was maintained all evening amidst much banter from the Howth 17 crowd, who had made themselves thoroughly at home in RUYC, with Ian Malcolm’s Hilditch-built Aura reckoned the best performer, though the 1907-built Gladys (Pat Heydon, Ian Byrne and Eddy Ferris) got the award for best-dressed overall. As Ian Byrne revealed, they’d gone to the trouble of putting their signal flags in the approved naval order, and these things count when you’re celebrating a 150th birthday.
The One-Designs had another day’s racing on the Sunday, but our job was done, and we’d to get Ainmara home to her secret place among the islands of Strangford Lough. As all the Howth 17s were going to be road-trailed home, Paddy Cronin with the 36ft Westerly Conway Aquarius of Howth was no longer needed as mother-ship, so we were his pilot veseel in an effortless if damp passage down the County Down coast, through Strangford Narows with the surging flood tide, and on along a winding route to Ballydorn, where the snuggest of berths was shared at the pontoon at Down Cruising Club’s lightship headquarters. It was a good end to some very special days.
The weekend comes to a close in a very special place. Ainmara with Aquarius of Howth berthed alongside the Down Cruising Club’s pontoon at its lightship headquarters at Ballydorn in Strangford Lough. Photo: W M Nixon
At Royal Ulster Yacht Club over 80 boats gathered off Bangor on Saturday to take part in the 150th Anniversary Sail Past.
It was the latest event in June's RUYC Sesquicentennial celebrations. Previously, as Afloat.ie reported, the club welcomed HRH The Princess Royal to the Club. The occasion was a lunch in conjunction with the Royal Yachting Association of which Princess Anne is President.
150th celebrations got underway on June 20th when the club staged the British Sigma 33 Britsh and Irish Championships.
The sail past was presided over by Mr David Lindsay, Lord Lieutenant of Down with all the yachts sailing or motoring past the Club between the shore and HMS Archer. Nearly every yacht, motorboat and dinghy was dressed overall to make the occasion colourful. There were some outstanding sights such as Dickie Gomes' Ain Mara under sail and fully dressed overall who won the prize for Best Dressed large boat. The fleet of Glen Class yachts from Strangford Lough Yacht Club, returning to Bangor where they were built over fifty years ago. Seven members of the Howth 17 one-design class from Howth attended - these boats were originally built in 1897. Howth 17 No 14, Gladys won Best Dressed Overall Small Boat.
The 150th Anniversary Templeton Robinson Regatta followed the Sail Past with the boats competing over a course from Ballyholme Bay towards the Harbour. Mixed wind patterns made for difficult racing for some but everyone did enjoy the special day on the water.
Class 1 - Mini Mumm - Flannigan Family RUYC/BYC
Class 2 - Bad - Steve Atkinson - CSC
RS Elites - Storm - Messrs Gunning, Kelso and McKee RUYC
Class 4 - Mingulay - Ritchie Family RUYC
Class 5 - Hecla - K Walsh -CIBC/DSC
Class 6 - Wild Goose II - A Armour - CIBC
Glens - Glen Lark - R Aiken - SLYC
Howth 17s - Aura - A Foster - Howth YC
Class 10 - Oliver Haig - Topper
Class 12 - Robert Milligan - RS200
Class 13 - N Strain - RS400
Honouring a tradition of Belfast Lough sailing which can be traced back to its foundation in 1866 and beyond, the Royal Ulster YC at Bangor on Belfast Lough began its four week “Sesquicentennial Sailing Celebrations” over the weekend with the British & Irish Sigma 33 Championships.
Three days of good racing on the open waters of Belfast Lough were enjoyed by nineteen Sigma 33s, which continue to have significant strongholds in the Firth of Clyde, as well as enthusiastic local small groups at many other ports. Ten races were scheduled, and despite varying winds and weather over the event, all ten were fully completed by a fleet drawn from Cornwall, Liverpool, Dunmore East, the Isle of Man, Glenarm, Strangford Lough and points round the Clyde, together with Belfast Lough-based crews, for the Class’s biggest event of the year.
The racing was close such that seven races on Friday and Saturday produced six winners. Bangor based boat ‘Squawk’ (Emma and Paul Prentice) got the local fleet off to a good start with a win in Race 1. Eric Robertson and Alan Harper from Cove Sailing Club in Loch Long in Argyll won Race 2 in ‘Leaky Roof II’, and Mark Bradshaw and Jack Gallagher in ‘Busy Beaver’, also from Cove SC, took Race 3. In contention after two days was James Miller’s Mayrise from Helensburgh, the winner at the recent Silvers Scottish Series at Tarbert. Race winners on Saturday were ‘Busy Beaver’, Stephen Martin’s ‘Signet of Kip’ from Strangford Lough YC, Allan Lennox and Grant Simpson’s Miss Behavin from Helensburgh SC, and Griogair Whyte’s Close Encounters from Royal Northern and Clyde YC.
Signet of Kip (SLYC) was winner of the Irish Sigma 33 Championship – this is Stephen Martin and his crew from Strangford Lough YC
Sunday saw three races sailed in the only damp weather of the series, and the Bradshaw/Gallagher team on Busy Beaver continued in good form, taking honours in Races 8 & 9. It was left to the Class Chairman, Paul Prentice, and his crew in Squawk to finish the event the way they had started, with the win in Race 10.
SIGMA 33 UK CHAMPIONSHIP WINNER: Busy Beaver (Mark Bradshaw & Jack Gallagher), Cove Sailing Club, Loch Long
Runner Up: Mayrise (James Miller) Helensburgh Sailing Club.
IRISH SIGMA 33 CHAMPIONSHIP WINNER: Signet of Kip – Stephen Martin (Strangford Lough Yacht Club)
Runner Up: Squawk (Emma and Paul Prentice) Royal Ulster Yacht Club/Ballyholme Yacht Club.
The RUYC 150th Anniversary Programme continues this weekend with a thee day Classics Regatta from Friday 23rd to Sunday 25th June, in the midst of which on Saturday 24th June is the Sesquicentennial Regatta which will feature a Sailpast by classics and traditional boats, including varied craft from several Irish Sea and Clyde branches of the Old Gaffers Association.
The first event of the 150th Anniversary celebrations for Royal Ulster Yacht Club at Bangor on Belfast Lough will take place from Friday 17th to Sunday 19th June. The Sigma 33 UK & Irish National Championships has attracted twenty boats from throughout the UK and Ireland. From Lough Swilly to Waterford, and from the Clyde to Falmouth taking in Liverpool and the Isle of Man on the way. The visitors will join the local boats for three days of racing on the open waters of Belfast Lough.
The Howth 17s – the first five of which were built on Belfast Lough in 1898 – will be travelling north to join the RUYC Classics Regatta from June 24th to 26th
Randox Health are also the title sponsor of our 150th Keelboat event with racing between Friday 24th and Sunday 25th June. This event has attracted not only local modern yachts but also some of the classics of the sport such as the Howth 17 Class from Howth, Dickie Gomes’ 103 year old yawl ‘Ain Mara’ which also took part in the RUYC Centenary Regatta back in 1966 , the G L Watson-designed Peggy Bawn, owned by Hal Sisk of Dun Laoghaire and built by John Hilditch of Carrickfergus in 1894, Ian Terreblanch’s ‘Trasnagh’ a 1913 Mylne-designed Island Class yawl also built by Hilditch, and the 1958 America’s Cup Challenger, the 12 Metre Sceptre.
Dickie Gomes’ 103-year old Ainmara will be taking part. She also raced in the RUYC Centenary regatta of 1966
Ian Terreblanch’s 39ft gaff yawl Transnagh will be travelling north from Dartmouth in Devon to join the RUYC festivities. Originally she was built by John Hilditch of Carrickfergus in 1913 to be one of the Belfast Lough Island Class yawls
Hal Sisk’s G L Watson-designed Peggy Bawn – built by John Hilditch in 1894 – was a member of the RUYC fleet from 1898 to 1919
It is hoped to also have the Classic Mylne-designed River and Glen Classes from Strangford Lough Yacht Club also competing, as both these boats started their racing careers at Royal Ulster YC, together with other classics and Old Gaffers which are taking part in the Hilditch Regatta across the lough at Carrickfergus, but are shaping their course for Bangor on the Saturday (June 25th) when a highlight of the three day RUYC Regatta will be a Parade of Sail past the historic clubhouse from where Sir Thomas Lipton made his five Americas Cup challenges – all with racing yachts named Shamrock - between 1899 and 1930. The Sail Past will commence at 12.00 and will be followed by the Club’s Annual Regatta supported by Templeton Robinson.
The fortnight of celebrations – with Randox Health on board as title sponsor of the event – concludes on Friday 1st July with a Gala Dinner, following which a large gathering of cruising yachts which will have assembled in Bangor will be making their final preparations to depart on a 150th Anniversary Cruise-in-Company to the West Coast of Scotland jointly involving boats of the Clyde Cruising Club, the Irish Cruising Club, and the Royal Ulster Yacht Club.
The Royal Ulster YC clubhouse at Bangor
Maybe it’s time and more to see sailing and its story – and particularly the complex history of Irish sailing north and south – in a new light. This year, the historical sailing focus is on Northern Ireland, where the Royal Ulster Yacht Club and Carrickfergus Sailing Club are both celebrating their 150th Anniversaries. For RUYC, this has already resulted in a Royal visit in recent days. But it was a Royal visit with a difference. W M Nixon takes a look at how the sailing celebration scene in Northern Ireland is reflecting an increasingly nuanced interaction with our sailing history, and how this in turn can affect how we interpret the story of sailing.
It was certainly a Royal visit with a difference, as it usually is with Princess Anne. Whatever your views on Royalty in any of its manifestations, purposes and functions, it has to be accepted that this is one very hard-working member of the British Royal family. When she’s President or Patron of some national or international organisation, it will almost inevitably be because she’s personally interested in the activities involved. And being an involved and can-do person, rather than a stand-aloof sort of figurehead, you’ll find that she was, and probably still is, a very enthusiastic participant in at least some specialized activity within the broad spectrum of the organisation’s remit.
Thus the fact that she and her husband are keen cruising enthusiasts who have in recent years moved up to the Rustler 44 Ballochbuie – which they base in Scotland - after many years with a Rustler 36, means that her role as President of the Royal Yachting Association is something with real meaning. When she goes to a yacht or sailing club, while inevitably there’ll be that slightly giddy mood which always accompanies the presence of Royalty, there’s no escaping the fact that this is a working visit. It’s a long way from being purely ceremonial – people find themselves talking about their own sailing, and sailing in general, both how it is run, and where it is going.
Serious business. Princess Anne in earnest discussion with Gordon Finlay, RUYC Honorary Archivist. On the left is Peter Ronaldson, former Vice Commodore RUYC and former Commodore Irish Cruising Club.
This isn’t the first time in Ireland north and south that Irish sailing has experienced the inspirational results of involvement by the Princess Royal. Twelve years ago, early in 2004, Afloat and the ISA got the word that a Big Idea floated some time earlier might just have wings.
In those days, our annual “Sailor of the Year” and “Sailors of the Month” awards were on a much more commercial basis, as they were strongly sponsored by Cork Dry Gin. It may now seem light years away, that a drinks company could so publically sponsor a major sports awards ceremony. But such was the case – they’d been doing it since 1996.
By 2004 it had become a very smoothly-organised affair, staged in the Irish Distillers Jameson Centre in Dublin where they even have a usefully-sized theatre/cinema which was ideal for this ceremony, and very efficiently organized as an event with Deirdre Farrrell, Irish Distillers’ in-house PR person, skillfully pulling it all together. Afloat and the Irish Sailing Association provided the details on who got what in the awards area, and Paddy Boyd, Secretary General of the ISA, performed as an extremely competent Master of Ceremonies while my job in concert with David O’Brien was to enumerate each of the citations for the usual multiplicity of awardees.
Thanks to the enthusiastic and directly-involved support of the sponsors, this annual show became such a byword for a well-run and popular yet efficiently-controlled event that we found ourselves playing a role in the much wider national and international scene.
The often difficult relations between the Republic of Ireland and Britain had started to thaw quite markedly after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, and it was obvious that for this normalization process to continue to develop in a meaningful way which would have a resonance for many points of view within Ireland, in due course a Royal Visit to Ireland by the Queen would have to be on the cards.
So the buildup towards such a visit was set in place with quiet appearances at some relatively low key events – international charities were very useful for this – by some minor members of the Royal Family. The process then moved on, and when someone in the ISA/Afloat setup suggested that in order to add that extra zing to the annual Irish sailing awards, we should ask the Princess Royal in her capacity as President of the UK’s Royal yachting Association to do the honours, ISA President John Crebbin and Paddy Boyd made a discreet enquiry to the British Embassy, and found they were pushing at an open door.
Irish sailing’s idea fitted in very neatly with the development and implementation of improvements in Anglo-Irish relations. In a remarkably short space of time, what had been shaping up as the usual awards ceremony at Irish Distillers in February 2004, to present the gongs for 2003 including Sailor of the Year, had been re-shaped as a Royal occasion, while retaining the basics of the proven annual ceremony to provide an event in which everyone could feel at ease.
Back in February 2004, Irish sailing was given the Royal treatment in Dublin
For that’s what happened. It all went as smooth as clockwork. Deirdre Farrell was in her element keeping it all nicely but gently under control, while Paddy Boyd’s outlining of Royal protoocal beforehand, and his smooth running of the on-stage happenings, would have made you think he had a second life as some sort of big cheese in the United Nations.
As our double-page spread from the March 2004 Afloat suggests, just about everyone was there, they all had their chance of a word or two – and sometimes many – with the Royal President of the RYA, and then we had to canter through a multiplicity of awards with more appropriate words on stage at each juncture, followed by the presentation of the top trophy, which for 2003 was a double, as it was for Noel Butler and Stephen Campion, new World Champions of the International Laser 2 Class.
The RUYC clubhouse was built in 18 months in 1898-1899
The Princess Royal’s visit this past week to the Royal Ulster clubhouse in Bangor was a very different affair, as she was honouring the clubhouse as much as the club and the history to which it is home. In fact, the RUYC carries so much history that you’d wonder they aren’t burdened with it. But they wear their sometimes colourful past remarkable past lightly, for the creation in Bangor, over an ongoing process since 1984, of one of Ireland’s largest marinas, with all amenities including a boatyard, has meant that Belfast Lough and in particular Bangor sailing can move confidently through the present and on into the future, as dinghy sailors’ needs are superbly met by Ballyholme Yacht Club on the most easterly of Bangor’s notable bays.
This means that while today’s Bangor sailors can see the two clubs of RUYC and BYC as the natural focal points which meet their contemporary social needs, in the case of the RUYC clubhouse, it can double as a really remarkable sailing museum. Among other things, it includes the Lipton Room, filled with fascinating memorabilia of the hyper-energetic millionaire Thomas Lipton, who made no less than five challenges for the America’s Cup through the RUYC between 1899 and 1930.
The eternal challenger – Thomas Lipton campaigned for the America;s Cup five times through the RUYC between 1899 and 1930
For the Royal sailing visitor, study time in the Lipton Room provided a vivid insight into one aspect of RUYC history. But then, after the meeting and greeting session with a diversity of members including RUYC Archivist Gordon Finlay and RUYC Historian Ed Wheeler, who are battling with a mountain of incredible material, the visit to the club was rounded out by the presentation to the Princess Royal by Vice Commodore Myles Lindsay of a legendary cruising book which she assured everyone will be going straight into the bookshelf aboard Ballochbuie.
RUYC Historian Ed Wheeler with his wife Jan in a lighter moment with the Royal visitor
The immediately-cherished book was Letters from High Latitudes, published in 1856 as an account of the voyage by Lord Dufferin (his family seat is Clandeboye near Bangor) to Iceland, Jan Mayen and Spitzbergen in the schooner Foam. It has long been a classic of cruising literature, and it still reads today as crisply as though it was written only last week. For Frederick Temple-Hamilton-Blackwood (1826-1902), who eventually became the Marquess of Dufferin & Ava, was a very able sailor and navigator in addition to being a noted diplomat and imperial administrator and excellent raconteur..
So when a few Belfast Lough sailors got together to form the Ulster Yacht Club in 1866, naturally they asked the local national sailing celebrity, this special man who had voyaged to Iceland and beyond ten years earlier, to become its first Commodore, and he in turn ensured that the new club of which he was senior officer became the Royal Ulster YC in 1869.
Lord Dufferin’s Foam, which he sailed to the High Arctic in 1856. He was Commodore RUYC 1866 to 1902.
At first they did without a clubhouse as the sought to serve all the more significant sailors throughout the north of Ireland. But by 1872 they rented some premises on Bangor seafront, and then in 1876 they took a lease on a substantial if semi-detached house on an eminence above the eastern side of Bangor Bay.
By the late 1880s and early 1890s, sailing in Belfast Lough was beginning to take off with local confidence, for before that leading northern sailors such as Henry Crawford with the cruiser-racing yawl Nixie, and John Mullholland - later Lord Dunleath - with the schooner Egeria, had tended to cut a dash elsewhere, Crawford on Dublin Bay, and Mulholland also on Dublin Bay, but even more so in the Solent.
However, by 1890, things were changing very rapidly to bring Belfast and Belfast Lough to the forefront of sailing, and this year’s 150th Celebrations at both Carrickfergus and Bangor – the official title is “Sesquicentennial”, since you ask – make us want to know more.
We’re going through such a plethora of major anniversaries these days – both national and international – that it’s natural there should be growing public interest in the story behind the story, the in-depth background to the history. We now want to know more about some great event way beyond the fact that it merely happened at a certain date, and that by doing so it had some significant outcome.
The much-travelled and very successful racing schooner Egeria was built in 1865 for John Mulholland. The following year, he became the first Vice Commodore of Royal Ulster YC
It may well be that one of the reasons sailing is a sport which is lacking in general public resonance is because histories of sailing have tended to concentrate on the narrow narrative of the development of the sport, and the boats it inspires. As for information on the sport’s administrative history, this tends to be no more than closely focused accounts of how clubs and national organisations emerged to meet the growing demands of this new recreational activity, without setting such developments in a broader framework.
Of course, there are many people who go sailing simply to “get away from it all”, for it’s an activity so different from shore life that the mere fact of being on a boat which is sailing is to be conveyed into another world. Such people may well prefer that the history of their beloved escapist sport is kept aloof from the socioeconomic circumstances in which it exists, and the context in which it developed.
But for others, it enriches our experience of sailing to know how it came to be as it is today, and this year in Northern Ireland there are sailing events and commemorations taking place which, when their back-story is analysed in some depth, give us a much better understanding of the way we live today, and how we go afloat today, and it is in turn all set in a meaningful way in the context of the general historical narrative.
In the case of Belfast in 1890, it was suddenly becoming the Mumbai of its day. It may have been the most air-polluted industrial city in the world, but my word they didn’t linger when doing things, as they had the world’s biggest shipyard, the world’s biggest engineering works, the world’s biggest ropeworks, and the world’s biggest linen mills.
It was the sort of place where a bright and energetic young man with some innovative idea in manufacture could make a fortune well within ten years. Indeed, if you weren’t clearly cutting the mustard within two to three years, it was thought you weren’t really in competition at all.
Yet all this was happening in a rapidly-expanding place which had only been accorded city status as recently as 1886, and its famous new-Classical City Hall, the building which still best symbolizes Belfast’s self-image today, was not completed until 1906.
However, all this growth and wealth-creation was taking place in a city which was dominated by the Presbyterian ethos, which had in effect become the northern “state religion” after the Anglican Church of Ireland was disestablished in 1869.
This meant that while there was wealth about, extravagant expenditure on personal enjoyment was frowned upon, and this extended to sailing as to most other things. But the rapidly-rising Belfast area’s middle classes soon found a way of minimizing expenditure while maximizing their yachts sizes and sailing sport.
Some time in 1895, the Belfast Lough One Design Association came into being. Its membership was open to members of any of the half dozen or so clubs now dotted around the lough including the RUYC itself, and its objective was the simple one of creating economical yet effective one design keelboat classes suitable for the sometimes quite demanding conditions to be found in Belfast Lough.
The pioneers of the BLODA persuaded the great Scottish designer William Fife to create them a sweet but able little 15ftLWL keelboat, just 23ft LOA, for 1896, when the first three were racing. And by that time, the Association had become much more clearly structured, as its Honorary Secretary was one James Craig Jnr, aged only 25 but already noted as a formidable organiser.
Carrickfergus around 1901. John Hilditch’s first boatyard in 1889 was in the inner harbour where it says “Boat Shed”, then in 1902 he moved to the former shipyard of Paul Rodgers immediately west of the harbour. At the time, Carrickfergus Amateur Rowing & Sailng Club (founded 1866) was in premises on the east side of the East Pier, the more northerly of the two Boat Houses.
In later life he would become Lord Craigavon, first Prime Minister of Northern Ireland in 1921. But in 1896 his prime interest was in expanding the 15ft LWL class with an up-and-coming new boatbuilder, John Hilditch of Carrickfergus. Hilditch was very much in Craig’s sights as the approved builder, as he and his men had already shown with the building of the 35ft G L Watson-designed cutter Peggy Bawn in 1894 that he could stick rigidly to the designer’s drawings, whereas Paddy McKeown, the back-street boatbuilder in Belfast who built the first three 15ft LWL boats, was notorious for always trying to improve on the designer’s original ideas.
The true pioneers. The Fife-designed 15ft Belfast Lough ODs of 1896 showed the way for the 25ft LWL Class I boats in 1897.
But in the fast-moving world of Belfast in the mid-1890s. events overtook them. Several of the more affluent Belfast Lough yachtsmen had already noted with approval the able seagoing power and attractive performance of the first three 15ft LWL boats. In effect, Belfast Lough provided them with a perfect test tank, and the 15ft LWL boats were their “test models”. In a very short space of time, the heavy hitters in the BLODA had persuaded the Association to order the plans of a 37.5ft LOA, 25ft LWL boats, and thanks to the efficiency of the Hilditch Yachtyard – which in those days was only a few sheds at the head of Carrickfergus Harbour - the first eight boats of the BLOD Class I were racing. They made a huge impact in a visit to the Firth of Clyde in 1897, they went to Dublin Bay where they inspired the creation the following year of the DBSC 25ft OD, and even though at season’s end, when the weekly magazine Yachting World - in reviewing their success - described them as “a cheap knockabout class”, a laudatory report in the influential New York Times of their doings at Clyde Fortnight in Scotland was to carry them through with fresh confidence into their greatest year, 1898.
The humble birthplace. The new BLOD Class I boats were built with remarkable efficiency by John Hlditch and his team in the little boatyard in those black sheds on the inner corner of Carrickcfergus Harbour in the wintyer of 1896-97.
In all their glory. The BLOD Class I boats racing in full strength in 1898.
But anyone who is into Centenaries will realise that Belfast in 1898 had become a very different place from Belfast in 1798. In 1798, Belfast had been a hotbed of the United Irishmen, and one of the local leaders in The Rising, the Presbyterian Henry Joy McCracken, had been hanged with The Rising’s suppression, executed in the town centre on public land which had been donated to the citizens of Belfast by his own grandfather.
In addition to his many other interests, McCracken had been a very early pioneer in developing Belfast Lough sailing, and he and his friends cruised most summers to the west coast of Scotland. But while McCracken may have been taken, his friends lived on in an increasingly different Belfast in the early 1800s, where successful trade and manufacturing industry obliterated any earlier political idealism. Nevertheless some of those former shipmates of Henry Joy McCracken formed the Northern Yacht Club on Belfast Lough in 1820. But as Belfast port became ever more industrialised, they found it more congenial to sail on the Firth of Clyde, within a few years there was a Scottish branch, and by 1838 the Royal Northern Yacht Club of Rothesay had completely absorbed its Belfast unit, and there wasn’t to be another yacht club on Belfast Lough until Holywood yacht Club came into being beside its drying anchorage at the little County Down town immediately east of Belfast in 1862.
By the end of the 1860s, the Holywood club had been joined by the clubs at Carrickfergus and the Royal Ulster, but some years were to pass before the sport of sailing came central stage. Yet by 1898, Belfast Lough sailing wasn’t just centre stage on Befast Lough. It was world-leading. The Fife-designed One Design classes were widely admired at a time when Fife’s star was very much in the ascendant, and then in August 1898, Thomas Lipton announced his first challenge for the America’s Cup through RUYC, the actual contest to take place in New York harbour early in October 1899.
Already, there was a movement among members to build a proper trophy clubhouse for the RUYC, and Lipton made it clear he was unenthusiastic about having his challenge based on a club which was head-quartered in a semi-detached suburban house. But James Craig had a talented older brother who was an architect, Vincent Craig, and he soon had the plans drawn up for an arts & craft building which continues to dominate the Bangor waterfront today, and houses a priceless collection of yachting memorabilia, while at the same providing a convivial venue to celebrate an important Sesquicentennal.
Thomas Lipton’s Shamrock IV of 1914 was one of his most promising challengers. But the outbreak of the Great War signalled the end of the Golden Era, and though Shamrock IV finally challenged unsuccessfuly in 1920, in was in very subdued circumstances.
Today, we know that none of Lipton’s Americas Cup campaigns succeeded, though some came tantalisingly close to success. Today, we know that John Hilditch’s wonderful boatyard only lasted for 24 years, and the poor man, worn down by overwork and finacial stress, died on Christmas Eve 1913. And today we know that, regardless of the turmoil within Ireland from 1912 to 1922, it was the Great War of 1914-1918 which was to wipe out the cream of an entire generation from the north of Ireland, with sports like sailing taking a very long time to recover, if they ever really did recover until much more modern times.
Yet in 1898, it was a time of such hope, such anticipation, such planning – such excitement and exuberance. It can all be captured again with the many events at Royal Ulster and Carrickfergus this summer, when in addition to the clubs’ 150th anniversaries, they’re also staging a Hilditch Regatta at Carrickfergus with a Parade of Sail to Bangor to give proper prominence to the memory of a man who contributed so much to the success of Belfast Lough sailing in the Golden Era of 1894 to 1914.
In 2016, Royal Ulster Yacht Club is celebrating the 150th Anniversary of its formation in 1866. To mark the anniversary there will be a series of sailing and cruising events throughout the summer.
The important date was highlighted by WM Nixon last Saturday in his Afloat blog Belfast Lough Celebrates 150 Years of Organised Sailing in Style
The main focus of the year’s celebrations is around the end of June starting with the UK and Ireland National Championships of the Sigma 33 Class of yachts (17th-19th June). This event will attract sailors from around Ireland, Scotland, Isle of Man and North West England and Wales.
The following weekend the Club is running its Annual Regatta along with a Keelboat Weekend Event. The Annual Regatta is the flagship event in the club’s year and this year it will include visiting boats from Scotland, Dublin Bay and Strangford Lough to race alongside the competitors from the other yacht clubs in Belfast Lough. The day will start with a Sail Past in front of the Clubhouse and a naval Guardship will be in attendance. The visiting boats will include modern racing craft and classic boats such as the River and Glen classes from Strangford Lough some of which started life competing at Royal Ulster YC over 90 years ago. We are also expecting that several of the classic Howth 17 classes will travel north for our event.
The cruising fleet will be joining forces with similar associations such as the Irish Cruising Club and the Clyde Cruising Club for a social gathering before a cruise-in-company to Scottish waters.
The social highlight of the celebrations will be a Black Tie Gala Dinner at the Club on 1st July.
The recreational marine industry is a demanding trade. Your customers buy boats for pleasure, so they assume it’s a fun business to work in. Thus there’s no lack of potential boat designers and builders to be found among the children of those who only sail for sport and fun, for they see that the adults enjoy being around boats, and they get to think that being around boats all the time for work and play is the only way to live.
But in the end, business is business. The bottom line rules everything else. However enthusiastic young people may have been when first going into the boat trade, as they battle on with running their own marine business they find the world of commerce can become a cruel place. W M Nixon considers the challenges of boat-building, and looks at the story of John Hilditch of Carrickfergus, who was one of the brightest stars of the Irish boat-building industry in the golden age of yachting, yet his light was extinguished after barely two decades.
The name of Hilditch of Carrickfergus is synonymous with classic yachts of significant age. John Hilditch built the 36ft G L Watson-designed cutter Peggy Bawn in 1894, and she still sails. In fact, she sails in better shape than ever, as she had a meticulous restoration completed for Hal Sisk of Dun Laoghaire in 2005.
More recently, in 2013 the Hilditch-built Mylne-designed Belfast Lough Island Class 39ft yawl Trasnagh was restored for Ian Terblanche in Devon in time for her Centenary. And in 2015, the Belfast Lough OD Class I Tern – 37.5ft LOA to a William Fife design and built in 1897 with seven sister-ships by John Hilditch - has appeared in Mallorca so superbly restored that when she went on to Les Voiles de St Tropez at the end of September, she won her class despite it being heavy weather, and she only just out of the box.
Peggy Bawn in her first season afloat in 1894. She was built for A J A Lepper, Commodore of Carrickfergus Sailing Club, who was one of John Hilditch’s most loyal clients. Photo courtesy RUYC
A monumental achievement. All the boats of the new Fife-designed Belfast Lough OD Class 1 of 1897 were built by John Hilditch in less than a year. Photo: Courtesy RUYC
But we don’t have to go to distant restoration specialists to find evidence of the large and varied Hilditch output. The first five boats of the Howth 17 OD class were built by John Hilditch immediately after he’d built the eight Belfast Lough Class I boats. The little new Howth gaff sloops – rigged with huge jackyard topsails as they still are today - sailed the 90 miles home down the Irish Sea to Howth in April 1898, and had their first race on May 4th 1898. All five of the original Hilditch creations continue to race with the thriving Howth 17 class, which today has eighteen boats.
The Howth 17s Aura (left) and Pauline. Aura is one of the original five Howth 17s built for 1898 by John Hilditch immediately after he had completed the Belfast Lough Class I boats. Photo: John Deane
This concentration of yacht design development in a short time span, and through just one boatyard, is rare but not unique – the great name of Charlie Sibbick of Cowes shone equally briefly but even more brightly at much the same time, as he was a designer too. But Sibbick made his name in an established international centre for sailing. Yet when John Hilditch – who was both a seafarer and a fully-qualified shipwright – established his yard at Carrickfergus on Belfast Lough in the winter of 1892-93, the north of Ireland was still a relative backwater in international sailing terms. Thus his achievement is indeed remarkable. For by the time Hilditch closed down in the winter of 1913-14, he had put Belfast Lough firmly in the global picture as a pace-setter in yacht development, and his pivotal role in that transformation is gaining increasing recognition.
Not that there hadn’t been sailing in Belfast Lough before Hilditch came along. There are many yacht and sailing clubs around this fine stretch of sailing water, and the most senior of them is Holywood Yacht Club (on the waterfront below the hills where Rory McIlroy learned to pay golf), which dates back to 1862. And in 1866, two more new clubs came into being – Carrickfergus Sailing Club which was obviously location-specific, and the Ulster Yacht Cub, which became the Royal Ulster Yacht Club in 1869, but was a premises-free moveable feast until 1898, when America’s Cup challenger Thomas Lipton insisted it have a clubhouse, which was duly opened on an eminence close above the Bangor waterfront in April 1899.
The shared foundation year which goes back through the mists of time to 1866 means that both clubs will be celebrating their 150th Anniversaries in 2016. They’ve been quietly working on their separate plans towards celebrating this significant date, with a massive new history of the RUYC under way for a couple of years now and due for publication in the Spring, while Carrickfergus also has plans in the publication line.
Yet although there is much to write about now, in both club’s cases the pace of development was relatively slow until the late 1880s, for until that time, the business of the rapidly expanding city of Belfast was business, and more business. It wasn’t until the 1880s that leisure sailing began to get serious attention from the rapidly growing middle classes of the greater Belfast area. But once they did begin to take it up, they did so with complete enthusiasm, and the sailing pace of Belfast Lough during the 1890s, and on towards 1910, had few rivals.
For the rapid yacht design development seen during John Hilditch’s busy years, compare this with the next image. The old-style hull of Peggy Bawn is revealed as she is lifted out of the Coal Harbour Yard in Dun Laoghaire in 1996 for a first attempt at restoration. Later, Hal Sisk took over the project, and it was completed for him by Michael Kennedy of Dunmore East. Photo:W M Nixon
The new style shape. Although they were built only three years after Peggy Bawn, the Fife-designed Belfast Lough Class I boats had a much more modern hull shape and were primarily racing boats, yet they were required to be well capable of sailing to Scotland and Dublin Bay, and did so
Formidable performers. The Belfast Lough Class I boats Merle (6, Brice Smyth) and Flamingo (2, John Pirrie) racing hard in 1898. Both owner-skippers were members of Carrickfergus SC, and based their boats there. Photo: Courtesy RNIYC
In order to meet this demand, John Hilditch was able to expand his new boatyard at an extraordinary pace. Even then, he couldn’t keep up with demand, such that one new Belfast Lough class, the Linton Hope-designed lifting-keel 17ft LWL Jewel Class of 1898, had to be built in Chester in England. And at the same time, the fishing-boat builder James Kelly of Portrush on the North Coast found that yacht-building to supply the new craze was much more lucrative than producing his own variant of the classic Greencastle yawl for fishermen on both the Irish and Scottish coasts, and he went into yacht-building both for Belfast Lough and Dublin Bay.
But in terms of overall contribution to the transformation of Belfast Lough sailing, John Hilditch was very much in a league of his own. So much so, in fact, that noted international classic sailing polymath Iain McAllister got to thinking last winter that even though no trace whatsoever now remains of this once famous yard, it was time and more for John Hilditch’s work to be celebrated, and how better than a Hilditch Regatta during 2016 to tie in with other Belfast Lough sailing celebrations?
Hilditch-built. The Linton Hope-designed Fairy Class – seen here racing on Lough Erne – were built by John Hilditch in 1902-1903, The larger division of the class at RNIYC in Belfast Lough is now Bermuda rigged, but the Lough Erne boats have retained the original gunter lug.
It’s a great idea which seemed almost too good to be true. But thanks to quiet work behind the scenes, most notably by Wendy Grant who recently became Commodore of Carrickfergus Sailing Club neatly in time to hold the top post during the 150th celebrations (she’s the mother of renowned offshore navigator Ian Moore), plus a special sub-committee in RUYC which likewise holds to the notion that the early stages of good work are best done by stealth, a programme is emerging which will keep all organising parties happy while providing participants with a manageable user-friendly schedule.
It has all become viable during this past week thanks to the confirmation that the more distantly-located significant classic boats of the Hilditch oeuvre – Peggy Bawn of 1894, Tern of the 1897 Belfast Lough Class I, the Howth 17s of 1898, and Trasnagh, the Island Class yawl of 1913 – all hope to be in Belfast Lough towards the end of June 2016, where numbers will be further swollen by the Hilditch-built Royal North of Ireland YC Fairy Class of 1902, together with some of their sister-ships from Lough Erne.
The Hilditch-built Tern in a breeze of wind on Belfast Lough, 1898
Tern in a breeze of wind at St Tropez, September 2015.
In addition, the fleet will be increased by other classics of every type, coming together to wish the Hilditch boats well at this special time. And there’ll be a goodly contingent of Irish Sea Old Gaffers which will be heading towards the big event on Belfast Lough in late June by way of the Old Gaffers Rally at Portaferry in the entrance to Strangford Lough from June 17th to 19th.
But before getting carried away by anticipation of all this festivity, let us remember that this week’s thoughts were introduced by a precautionary reminder that the boat-building trade is no bed of roses. So just what did go wrong, that the much-admired Hilditch yard faced closure before the end of 1913, with the man himself dead – perhaps broken-hearted – before the end of 1914?
There seem to be a number of explanations, all of which combine to explain the sudden demise of a great enterprise. The incredible rate of economic expansion in Belfast – which had been accelerating virtually every year since around 1850 – seems to have first shown significant signs of slackening in 1910. The greater Belfast economy did continue to expand in the broadest sense, but the rate of expansion was now slowing.
During the rapid growth years, John Hilditch was able to meet demand, but regardless of the underlying economic patterns, by 1910 his market was beginning to reach saturation levels. If people had continued to change their boats every three years or so – as they’d anticipated doing when the Belfast Lough One Design Association was established in 1896 – then an artificial demand might have been maintained. But people were beginning to realise that a good one design boat was good for much longer than a mere three years. In fact, some argued that a class was only bedded in after three years. So the number of new boats being ordered dried to a trickle.
Yet those boats that were being ordered became individually larger. When the Alfred Mylne-designed 39ft Belfast Lough Island Class yawls began to be conceptualised as the world’s first true cruiser-racer one designs in 1910, they would be far and away the biggest and most expensive one designs Hilditch had yet built. He held out for a price of £350 per boat, but the potential owners – hard-headed Belfast businessmen determined to drive a tough bargain and not to be seen to weaken – wouldn’t budge beyond £345.
In those days, yacht-building was simply priced by overall length, so Hilditch resigned himself to accepting the £345 by agreeing to build a boat with a slightly shorter bow. For all parties, it was a case of cutting off one’s nose off to spite one’s face. The new Island Class yawls were handsome enough. But with a longer bow, they’d have been beautiful.
The island Class yawl Trasnagh, seen here in her first season of 1913, is believed to be the last boat to have been built by John Hilditch. Photo: Courtesy RNIYC
The last of them, Trasnagh herself in 1913, was the last boat to come out of a formerly great yard rapidly tumbling towards extinction. The times were restless politically as well as economically, so it wasn’t a good time to rely on building pleasure boat for a living. And apart from the saturation of the market and the financial demands of building the relatively large Island Class boats, sailing was no longer attracting the same number of newcomers, as rival interests such as motor cars and aeroplanes were taking away many potential enthusiasts,
Yet ironically, had John Hilditch been able to hang on for just another year into the beginning of the Great War of 1914-18, a slew of war work for the Admiralty would have given his yard a new lease of life. But it was not to be. The yard was gone. And soon, so too was the man himself.
But the boats live on. One hundred and two years after John Hilditch’s death, boats that he created are still sailing the seas, and their assembly in Belfast Lough from June 22nd 2016 onwards will be a reminder that, once upon a time, on a site long since covered by Carrickfergus’s re-developed waterfront, John Hilditch and his team built nearly a hundred fine yachts, the best of which have well stood the test of time. All that together with the 150th Anniversaries of two remarkable sailing clubs. For sure, late June on Belfast Lough is going to be one very special time.
Trasnagh restored for her Centenary in 2013