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River Class One Designs: A Century Old & Still Racing on Strangford Lough

11th September 2020
The River Class racing at Strangford Lough The River Class racing at Strangford Lough Credit: Patrick Hobson

Scottish yacht designer Alfred Mylne designed the River Class in 1920 at the behest of eight members of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club (RUYC) in Bangor on Belfast Lough. Next year the design is celebrating its 100th anniversary. In all 12 were built and are still racing at Strangford Lough Yacht Club (SLYC) at Whiterock on the western shore of the Lough. They were all named after Rivers in Ireland, but one aristocratic owner had her own ideas. 

Ten of these handsome 29ft one-design sloops were built before 1923 with racing starting at Clyde Fortnight in June 1921. They then sailed across the North Channel to Belfast Lough. They are believed to be the first Bermudan-rigged one-design keelboat class and were based at Royal Ulster. Within a few years, some migrated to Strangford Lough and racing alternated between the RUYC on Belfast Lough and at sites on Strangford Lough. At that time there were no clubs on the Lough, and the Rivers became the first incarnation of SLYC years before any clubhouse appeared at Whiterock.

Lovett's Shipyard showing Rivers in winter storageLovett's Shipyard showing Rivers in winter storage

Gradually all the Rivers migrated to Strangford Lough - perhaps the delivery along the hazardous Ards Peninsula coast was too much for some – though races were organised between the two Loughs and the Class became firmly established at Whiterock by the late 1930s. None remained in Bangor after 1938.

At one time some were owned by the aristocracy of County Down with Lord and Lady Londonderry of the 'big house' at Mount Stewart on the other side of the Lough having two. In fact, as noted by WM Nixon in on 6th August 2014, the Londonderrys argued so much aboard their first River, 'Gweebara' that they commissioned another 'Uladh', so that Lady Edith could race against her husband. She was a determined lady and chose the name 'Uladh' (the ancient title of Ulster) whereas 'Gweebara' is named after a pretty river in County Donegal. She refused to budge when asked to do so and it is alleged that she was duly T-boned during an event by her husband in his boat. And there is evidence that she had scant regard for the racing rules!

Lady Edith Londonderry helming the River, UladhLady Edith Londonderry helming the River, Uladh

Viscount Bangor of Castleward near Strangford town-owned 'Strule' and was famed for sailing hard and never reefing. The mast broke at Portaferry Regatta in 1936 when he was the only boat not reefed. Nowadays the mainsails do not have reef points, and synthetic sails allow the boats to sail safely in heavy weather under full sail.

The Viscount Bangor at the helm of Strule as pictured in this 1935 edition of the Northern Whig and Belfast Post newspaper courtesy James NixonThe Viscount Bangor at the helm of Strule as pictured in this 1935 edition of the Northern Whig and Belfast Post newspaper courtesy James Nixon

The Andrews family of Comber have the longest period of ownership in the Class, buying "Shimna" in 1924 and the descendants still race the old boat very competitively. In the 1920s and '30s, some of the political leaders in the newly constituted Northern Ireland government raced keenly and were hard to beat. By the post-war years, the most celebrated skipper was Sir Jack (JLO) Andrews, who was an astute and successful helmsman, and politician.

River Class Shimna  Andrews The Rt Hon J M Andrews on board Shimna as this newspaper cutting describes 

The Centenary celebrations planned to begin next May will start with a Cocktail Party to which past members will be invited; a Classic Regatta in which the Club is encouraging old boats to take part; a Parade of Sail; an Anniversary weekend of sailing and the publication of a history of the Class by James Nixon, part-owner of 'Faughan'.

The Class is also organising an exhibition in conjunction with the National Trust (given that Mount Stewart and Castleward have strong links with the River Class as mentioned earlier and are now owned by the National Trust). It is also hoped that the twelve will race in the traditional Narrows Series in the waters between Portaferry and Strangford at the mouth of the Lough.

Class Captain John McVea is looking forward to the celebrations "There may well be no other class quite like the River class amongst the many esteemed classic yacht classes in existence. The fact that only 12 yachts were commissioned, what is now 100 years ago and that all 12 race regularly at Strangford Laugh Yacht Club is a unique and a remarkable testament to both the boats and the many owners over the years.

A recent River racing series on Strangford LoughRiver racing series on Strangford Lough

The River provides exciting one-design racing way beyond what one might reasonably expect from a yacht of 100 years whilst also having a timeless beauty to her lines. It is for this reason that the Class wish to celebrate this wonderful milestone in the yacht's history on the water as well as having some appropriate social events. The hope is that we will celebrate the 100th sailing season by not only having a regatta at Strangford Louth Yacht Club but also by turning up en-mass at the Lough's regattas who have seen the Rivers attend throughout the history of their clubs. The Narrows series is a personal highlight of my season, and as the Class Captain I hope to encourage all 12 River Class yachts to attend".

Betty Armstrong

About The Author

Betty Armstrong

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Betty Armstrong is Afloat and Yachting Life's Northern Ireland Correspondent. Betty grew up racing dinghies but now sails a more sedate Dehler 36 around County Down

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