Grand Tour Day 56: Strangford Lough to Carrickfergus

Missing Link log 11 June 1999

Crew: Kim Hollamby and Malcolm Threadgould.
From: Down Cruising Club, Ballydown Bay, Strangford Lough, NI.
To: Carrickfergus Marina, Belfast Lough, NI.

Port engine start hours: 377.8. Finish hours: 381.4. Hours run: 3.6.
Stbd engine start hours: 378.0. Finish hours: 381.6. Hours run: 3.6.
Log start: 4259.5nm. Log finish: 4315.4nm. Distance run: 55.9nm.

The Down Cruising Club lightship Petrel
The Down Cruising Club lightship Petrel

Navigation log
1145: depart. Head down through inside of islands at slow speed.
1232: Brownrock Pladdy. Speed up to 22kn.
1255: alongside Portaferry Marina.
1450: underway. Speed 29kn.
1503: Bar Pladdy SCM. Turn to run for South Rock lightship. Wind: NE F3. Sea: slightly bumpy swell. Vis: 30nm. Speed 18kn.
1532: South Rock lightship.
1545: 54 27.10N 005 23.07W. Take photographs of Lord Nelson STS.
1606: Sculmartin SWM. Speed 22kn.
1628: 3.2nm off Templepatrick.
1640: Ninion Bushes PHM and through Copeland Sound. Interesting overfalls, not ugly in current wind, but could be! Once through speed to 30kn.
1710: inside Carrickfergus Marina entrance.
1720: alongside berth.

I’d seen pictures of the improbably sited lightship Petrel, headquarters of the Down Cruising Club, and the placid waters of Ballydown Bay over which she now stands sentinel. But you have to enter the tide-scoured narrows between Rainey and Sketrick islands to truly appreciate the sanctity of the place, a hideaway within the beautiful confines of Strangford Lough.

Ballydown Bay Strangford Lough
Ballydown Bay Strangford Lough

Dublin-built in 1911, the Petrel is of traditional iron rivetted and caulked construction, which makes her something of a rarity. Thanks to the goodwill of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the ingenuity of Down CC members and a little negotiation in the style of the country in which they reside, the 172ft vessel found herself a new career, and a much more sheltered spot to lay, in 1968, around 12 years after the club was formed.

Since then it has been a question of gently changing Petrel‘s innards and some aspects of her outward appearance too. But although pontoons line her flanks, the original tall signal mast has been halved to ease maintenance and a bar, lounge and stage can now be found where cramped crew quarters, generators and fuel tanks once resided, there’s plenty left of the original for the intrigued visitor to explore. Perhaps of rather more practical interest, you can take a shower on the ship, or fill up with diesel from one of the modern tanks found on her deck.

Daft Eddy's, Ballymore BayClose by you can find, almost equally improbably, a chandlers, and a large pub named in honour of Daft Eddy. According to local legend the poor lad was hopelessly in love with the daughter of a magistrate who was being held as a hostage by his mates. So intent on wooing was our Eddy, that he gave the game away. There’s nothing apparently daft about the way his namesake is run however and every table was full when Frank Robertson took us there to thaw out after our chilly exploration of Strangford Lough yesterday.

We have been experiencing a consistent weather pattern all week where the sun peeps out first thing in the morning and last thing at night, the rest of the day being socked in with grey cloud. I normally write these internet reports at around 7.00am, but by doing so had been missing one of the few opportunities to take photographs. So determined was I to capture Ballydorn Bay at its best that I stayed up late last night to finish off yesterday’s report and was jogged awake by the alarm, bleary-eyed but triumphant, to a sunny vista at 06.30am.

With the place to myself I walked across the causeway to Sketrick Island, and ascended the footpath to a hill in the middle giving the perfect view of Petrel and her charges. I then followed it onward to a delightful picnic spot complete with tables and windbreaks giving views of Strangford Lough north and south. Pausing there to take in deep breaths of the morning air, dry, getting warmer by the minute and somewhat intoxicating in its freshness, I conspired to leave my new digital camera on one of the tables, a mistake only discovered about 90 minutes later when I checked my bag on Missing Link. Hoofing off in a great hurry, face apparently ashen, I retraced my steps but the camera was nowhere to be seen.

Ranger 36 Hydranger
Ranger 36 Hydranger

Fortunately, the abandoned Nikon had not only been found by the son of the Down CC’s manager, but had been passed to his father. He had mentioned it to another club member who, unaware of my little drama, had casually told Malcolm that that a camera had been found. Meanwhile I was still charging around all over the place, berating myself for being so stupid until I checked in and was told the news. My very grateful thanks to Richard Cooper and to Brian Read, owner of the noticeably well maintained Ranger 36 Hydranger, for their help in making this a very good day after all. There are plenty of places I can think of where I wouldn’t have been so lucky.

In need of a calming sequel, I left Malcolm to point Missing Link‘s bow along our newly discovered inshore route of the day before, picking up the binoculars in a vain search for seals. It was not long before we were passing the moorings off Ringhaddy Quay Cruising Club, then cracking the throttles open for a few minutes down to Portaferry where a 29-berth marina was opened a year ago.

Portaferry, Strangford Lough
Portaferry, Strangford Lough

Like Ardglass, this is very much a transit and event facility, stuffed full on certain tides and at certain times, almost empty at others including when we called. It gave us the perfect stopover point for lunch, a brief walk around the former fishing village, and more than one glance at the car ferries that skew their way across the channel to Strangford, saving car drivers a 40-mile trip around the Lough from one to the other.

Then it was away, taking advantage of the wind direction and Missing Link‘s power to take on the full ebb through the narrow entrance out to the Bar Pladdy south cardinal where a distinct line painted across the eddies said welcome to the Irish Sea again.

South Rock lightship, Irish Sea
South Rock lightship

Using the South Rock lightship as a useful clearing point around Cloghy Bay’s collection of offlying rocks, we said hello to the myriad seagulls onboard her, then turned north. Investigating a set of tall sails a few miles up, we found they belonged to the Jubilee Sailing Trust’s Lord Nelson, slopping along at a gentle 3 knots and, we presumed, losing a bit of time whilst waiting for the tide.

Given the overfalls marked on the chart, we had originally planned to give the Ram Race a wide berth and round Mew Island to the north. But the air was turning chillyand the sea was well behaved, so we aimed instead for Copeland Sound between Lighthouse and Copeland Islands. Approaching the Ninion Bushes buoy we could see a tide rip over the Gavney Shoals, then found ourselves in waters best described as the peaks you find on a particularly well-whipped meringue topping. Missing Link bridged the peaks about three at a time, they posed no problem at all and we chuckled our way through, amused at the performance. But we’d give the place a miss in wind against tide conditions, for sure.

Tracking across Belfast Lough, I opened up to 30kn to kill of the last few miles. Peering through the increasing gloom, I struggled to make out Carrickfergus Marina at first, until I realised that the barren fringes seen when I visited a few years ago for a fun-filled Try A Boat event were mostly now filled with three-storey houses and other developments.

As much as I had been looking forward to returning here, I had a sudden longing for Petrel and her quiet bay again.

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1999 Grand Tour circumnavigation of Britain by motorboat index.

This article originally appeared on the Motor Boats Monthly website.

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