It's anchors aweigh as my ships come in
I felt like Robinson Crusoe this week. There stood I, telescope in hand, scouring the horizon for hours in search of a distant tall ship in full sail. And then — ship ahoy Cap’n! — just like those proverbial buses, along came three at once.
As anyone who lives in Bangor, Larne, Carrickfergus, or indeed anywhere along the mouth of Belfast Lough knows, as June turns into July, maritime season begins in earnest.
Every year around this time and without any forewarning, fully-rigged ships can be spotted gliding silently and gracefully into the bay, the only sound the distant flapping of sails against the breeze and the welcoming toot of passing ferries.
I may have lived by the sea for “nigh on many-a-year”, but it’s still a sight I will never tire of. In fact, I think I must have been a salty sea dog in my past life, living the life of a ruffian on the open wave, such is my joy at the vision of a schooner or a creaking galleon preparing to drop anchor.
They were, of course, on their way to Belfast for the return of the fantastic Tall Ships Race, where landlubbers and seafaring folk alike flock to the dock to celebrate our majestic maritime heritage.
It’s the third time this event has launched from Belfast and each time it seems to get bigger and more impressive.
I will never forget the first time they gathered here, way back in 1991. That was my first summer in Northern Ireland and before my kids were even a twinkle in their father’s eye. We had just relocated from England and, as Belfast was still steeped in the Troubles at the time, my parents back home were anxious to say the least.
Our family had no connection to Northern Ireland; no one had even been here before and all any of them knew about the place was what they had seen on the news, which, at that time, was pretty grim.
But I was delighted when Mum and Dad agreed to come and visit, to see Northern Ireland for themselves and I planned their visit carefully. It was no coincidence then that their trip coincided nicely with the maiden visit of the Tall Ships and all the thrills and excitement that they were promising to bring along with them.
On their first night here, we took mum and dad out for a meal to the Royal Hotel in Bangor after a drive along the beautiful coast and, to our delight, two of the most magnificent tall ships were moored off the pier directly opposite, resting for a few days before the festivities started.
We sat by a window overlooking the harbour and as the sun started to sink behind the sails, it looked like a scene from a holiday programme, or a film adaptation of a Thomas Hardy novel. But what happened next made the evening even more magical.
The hotel manager announced an impromptu performance, for our entertainment. In came the crew of one of the ships, dressed in traditional seafaring garb (complete with tricorn hats!) and they proceeded to serenade diners with a selection of sea shanties and tales from the high seas.
Shiver me timbers and avast ye me hearties! I couldn’t have planned it better myself! It was all just a bit of frolicking fun and they carried it all off with more than a pinch of salt, but any misgivings that my folks may have had dissolved there and then as everyone joined in, sang along and cheered them on.
I joked to Mum and Dad that this was just a typical night in Northern Ireland and this sort of thing happens every time you go out anywhere here.
Over the following few days, as the events got under way amid much pomp and ceremony, the whole city was overtaken by a feeling of excitement and occasion. The atmosphere was fantastic, the sights were astonishing and the memory was something none of us would ever forget.
Mum and Dad, meanwhile, left feeling a lot more happy about our future here and proceeded to tell everyone they met how fabulous Belfast really is.