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Campbeltown to Belfast without any charts, 1923

In this extract from ‘Cruises of the Joan’ by W E Sinclair we hear about the skipper and mate’s passage from Campbeltown to Belfast 100 years ago, without the benefit of any charts. The article is illustrated with a photo of ‘Master Frank’ an Isle of Man longliner, home port Ramsey and still seen sailing in the Irish Sea.

I felt a considerable pleasure in merely writing home to tell them to send letters to Belfast. The other man was jubilant but kept himself in hand. There was nothing much in the job, but we felt like a couple of Vikings. We did manage to buy a chart which included the peninsula of Cantyre, and by its aid we reached Campbeltown knowing all the time just where we were. There we discussed our plans for sailing to Belfast.
“I don’t see there’s much in it,” said the mate.
“We know Ireland’s out there south-west somewhere and I should think we’d find Belfast by the number of vessels going there. It’s the only big port in the place.”
“Very likely. Still, it may be tiresome sailing up and down the Irish coast to find the biggest stream of traffic”.
“Couldn’t we hail a boat and ask the way? ”
“Yes, but we’re not going to. Suppose you were off Southend and a passing boat asked you the way to London, you’d give him an ironical answer. That’s what we’d get. ‘Sure and begorra now but ye’ll only need to keep sailing on. Ye can’t miss Belfast. Ye’ll tell it by the lively disposition of the people.’ I suppose you haven’t seen a picture of Belfast so that you’d recognize the place when you see it?”
“No. I know it is on Belfast Lough.”
“That’s helpful. Let’s collect a few facts. My nautical almanac gives a list of lights, buoys, bearings and distances.” With a little trouble we drew a diagram.
“Our course from Sanda Island is S27W magnetic, thirty miles to Belfast Lough entrance. Sounds quite simple. I wonder what the Maidens Light is on, the mainland or an outlying rock. Now that I see the names, I remember that Fair Head and Lough Larne were in Ireland when I went to school. But in what part of the country is the Copeland Island Light? And I see there’s a Mew Island Light in the same region. Any idea how far up into the country Belfast Lough goes?”
“No. Ireland’s only a small country, so it can’t go far.”
“And I don’t know what the coast is like, flat or high: nor whether the water along shore is shoal or deep. We’ll learn more about Ireland on this trip than ever we knew before.”

We sailed from Campbeltown at noon on July 27th. The wind blew hard enough after our start to make the passage until midnight a boisterous one. After passing Sanda Island, which is immediately south of the peninsula of Cantyre, we were able to lay our course, for which I felt as pleased as though I were grateful for an unexpected blessing. I hate trying to make a passage against the wind; it means so much labour and so little profit. The dinghy had to be bailed out three times before dark. This job was unpleasant and the mate said it looked dangerous, from his lookout position in the well, where he had an excellent view of the dinghy tossing a few yards astern. I had to hold on to a seat with one hand while I threw out pailfuls of water with the other. It is really dangerous to do this in a rough sea when you are alone. You can jump into the dinghy and you can bail out, but to attempt to haul back to the boat from the dinghy itself would probably result in filling it. The man left aboard has to pull it alongside while the other sits in the stern.After dark we made out two lights ahead. One was the Maidens. We were certain of that by its period. The other we took for Black Head without being sure of it. Our doubt was caused by the difficulty of timing the light from the deck of the ‘Joan’: for the waves occulted the light so frequently when it flashed that we were never quite sure whether the light was fixed or flashing or occulting.

There was one of each kind to be seen on this part of the Irish coast. About an hour before midnight one of the wire shrouds supporting the mast gave way and an hour was spent in repairing it. To my surprise Black Head Light had disappeared. Soon afterwards the Maidens grew dim and disappeared too, and then I saw that they had been hidden by an approaching mist. As this came nearer the wind died away until we were at last left to drift helplessly with the tide. Thick fog covered us closely until five o’clock when we made out a coast some three miles off, which we assumed to be Ireland. Later in the morning we saw what appeared to be a huge battleship. As the mist went and we drifted nearer, this was seen to be the Maidens, which we thus discovered to be some island rocks. We were between these and the mainland. All excitement over our little exploring trip was now gone, for the rest of the passage was obviously a straightforward sail. The coast was a line of rocky cliffs, from which we concluded that there was deep water close in. We had only to follow this line of cliffs southward until Black Head was reached. Our almanac said “lighthouse red,” which was better than having the name painted on the tower. For several hours we sailed along this bold coastline. Inland were great sloping hills turned into patchwork by the hedgerows which divided them into a thousand little fields. This panorama was foreign enough to our eyes to be Irish. One of the happiest recollections of the summer is of that morning’s sail. A fine sun, a fine wind, a fine coast, an object achieved; what more could two healthy men want? Near the foot of the cliffs were many caves; and 30 feet above the water a narrow footpath had been made, which crossed the caves by little swinging plank bridges. It looked perilous and we supposed it was a tourist trot where Irish guides invented unbelievable stories of smugglers, giants and fairies.

Nothing else happened on the journey except the sailing on to Belfast. The Lough was so well buoyed that anybody could have found his way to the town. Once there we went into the first opening that offered, took all the advice freely given us and tied against a dirty cosy wall in the corner of Spencer Basin. “Nothing in it at all,” said the mate. “What’s the good of wasting money on charts?”

Lodestar Books

‘Cruises of the Joan’ is from a delightful series, the Lodestar Library, featuring ‘interesting, the unusual, and the downright eccentric in nautical writing’. The series is published on ‘Sailing by’ with permission from Lodestar Books.