Club History

MARGARET GREEN JULY 1993

‘STRANGFORD LOUGH – SIXTY YEARS OF SAILING’

I first discovered the pleasures of sailing on Strangford Lough back in 1931. The Greens, at that time had a holiday cottage on Mahee Island, from which Ronald and his father sailed an over canvassed 18 footer Stella Maris 11.

In the thirties the Lough was still a commercial waterway, steamers delivering coal and shipping potatoes from the pier at Ballydorn.  There was good fishing, Ardmillan still having the last of its working fishing boats. Old Mr Johnston, who farmed Mahee, remembered the day the family were forced to abandon the farm on Trasnagh, when they could no longer make a living. He also talked of the unexpectedly prosperous farm on the island of Pawle built by a returning emigrant who had struck it lucky in the Australian gold fields.

Whiterock in the early thirties was a quiet empty bay. The Andrews family had their house on Braddock island, with their river “Shimna” and launch “Eilean Mor”, anchored off. The Rivers were the main racing class in the Lough, competing twice a week, once on a course off Calf Island and again sailing off the Black Rocks in the South. These two venues were to accommodate Lord Bangor of Castleward who raced his River Strule and the Londonderry’s of Mountstewart who raced Gwebarra and Uladh. Both Londonderrys and Bangors had paid hands, and to skipper a river, required strictly white top and reefer jacket.

(Lord & Lady Londonderry)

The Andrews were hard to beat, but onlookers accepted that any boat sailed by a Prime Minister and Lord Chief Justice could always sail closer to the wind. Lord and Lady Londonderry sailed in separate boats and there was no love lost when they converged on opposing tacks. The rest of the fleet had to interpret the Yacht racing rules with caution as starboard took precedence over port, but at times it seemed that aristocracy had rights over the rest.

Though there was no racing at Whiterock there was quite competitive sailing around  Strangford. Ronald his father and I campaigned Stella Maris in the early lough regattas. We sailed against other open 18 footers, some of whom carried gravel ballast for stability . which they threw out if the wind lightened. At Strangford regatta Stella was in home waters, previously being owned by the proprietor of the Cuan Bar and named after his place of worship.This was always the most memorable regatta, races being started with live shot from a shotgun, which hailed down on your deck. Field sports followed, with Lord Bangor always fully involved, though everyone bowed to him and referred to him as “The Lord”.

In 1933 we became interested in a new American class, the Snipe.When sailing started at Whiterock a group of us laid plans for a Snipe Sailing Club. This was to be built beside the large white rock which had given the Bay its name. We planned the club at a series of after work meetings in the Globe and Textile restaurant, Donegall Square South. It is strange to think that the current club had its beginnings over poached eggs and tea at the Globe.

In 1934 the Snipe sailing Club opened with a small wooden club house slightly in shore from the present site. This didn’t last long, as it was burnt down after two years. By now there was a large fleet of highly competitive Snipes. We sailed Will O’ the Wisp. Philip Bell (father of Adrian Bell) sailed Red Herring, Tom Black (the first owner of Glen Helen) sailed Seven Seas, Chris and Felix Gotto sailed Black Gauntlet and Wavelength.

In 1936, Philip Bell , a Snipe sailor and Lurgan Architect, designed the Old club house which was opened on Saturday 26th June 1937. The opening took place during the International Snipe Class Championships which were a major event to behosted by such a young club. With the opening of the new clubhouse came the change to the present name, Strangford Lough Yacht Club .

In 1933 we bought our first cruiser the thirty foot Yawl Iverna. We cruised her up the West Coast of Scotland, but our real cruising started in 1936 when we purchased the thirty seven foot 1910 gaff cutter Sarita, previously owned by the Laird of the Hebridian island Muck.

Cruising the west coast in these pre war times was tougher than today. The canvas sails and hemp ropes were so stiff and hard to handle when wet. Yachts were less manoeuvrable and relatively slow unless the wind was behind the beam. Engines were heavy and unreliable.

Many yachts hired a horse to go through the Crinan Canal and ports like Castle Bay in the Outer Hebrides were full of steam herring drifters. In those days every little community was self sufficient with its own shop and bakery. To get from Strangford round Ardnamurchan Point was quite a challenge and it was often easier to get there than to get back.

With the war imminent in 1939 it was obvious there would be no sailing for a long time. A boat yard had been built in the bay next to Whiterock and with the war approaching the owner was keen to unload it, initially hoping to sell it for a pig fattening shed. A group including Ronald, Leonard Green (the River Glynn) Philip Bell (Owen Roe) Sandy Lennox (Scalpa, father of George Lennox) and others bought shares. Most of the Whiterock fleet spent the War years in this yard.

During the war there was no sailing, but each year our friends at the Royal Irish Yacht Club brought us down to Dun Laoghaire , where we sailed and enjoyed their wonderful unrationed hospitality. In 1945, the dried out and very leaky boats were relaunched. As there was no petrol for cars, travelling to Whiterock involved taking a bus to Ardmillan or Killinchy crossroads and walking. Engines could not be fuelled and for several years, when we launched Sarita the engine was left in the boatyard.

Boat equipment was hard to come by as everything was rationed in the austere post-war days. At the end of hostilities the German submarine fleet had been brought to Londonderry to be scuttled in deep Atlantic waters with all their gear aboard. Officially they were sunk intact but that year a surprising number of Strangford yachts seemed to acquire the latest rubber dunlopillo bunk mattresses and around Ulster many were viewing life through binoculars with the best German optics.

The Whiterock boat yard continued to be run by Ronald, Leonard and others, and a youthful Billy Smith was employed to help. In the early 50’s the yard was passed on to him.

In 1948 we had our first cruise in Sarita with the young Greens, Michael and Christopher and as they got older we cruised more extensively up the West coast. We were helped by the always good humoured Tommy Taggart (River Quoile and father of John Taggart) and then by a young University student, John Russell. John and later Joan cruised with the Greens for almost twenty years.

In the late 40s Arthur Clapham of the Glen boat yard in Bangor started building the Glen Class. Alfie King was the first to bring a Glen to Whiterock (Glen Roy) and this was followed by Tom Boyd, Tom Black and John Morrow. Jack Aiken (father of Richard Aiken) brought Glen Lark to the club in 1952. Ronald had raced for years on the River Glynn with Leonard, Harold and John Green and in 1952 we both started sailing on Glen Lark. In those days Tom Boyd and the Morrows were our greatest competitors and before long George, Richard and Nadia Block started to put on the pressure.

In 1964 we sold Sarita and bought the ex-international eight metre “Helen”. She had been built in 1936 for Sir Thomas Glen Coates the thread millionaire. She was long and lean, forty seven feet overall, a thirty foot waterline, eight foot beam and a sixty two foot wooden mast. The ocean racing scene at that time was not so sophisticated. In the fifties and early sixties Helen with her open cockpit, low life rails and no life raft had sailed extensively on the ocean racing circuit.

Helen was a flyer; she didn’t seem to go any faster it just seemed that Strangford Lough had become much smaller. In the next years she cruised to Scotland, round Ireland, to Brittany, and even a two week trip through the Orkneys, the Pentland and back through the Caledonian Canal. When Ronald died in 1971 I decided that I was now too old for sailing and was going to stay on shore. But this did not deter Gerald and Kathleen Leonard who soon had me cruising in Spain and later in the West Indies on Wishbone. I also kept sailing on Helen till she was sold in 1979 and since then with Christopher and Hilary Green on their various yachts in Sydney Harbour.

It seems a long time since Ronald and I, Philip Bell and others sat in the Globe and Textile planning our Snipe Sailing Club. Since then I have sailed in many boats and many places, but it is Strangford that holds all the happiest memories.