Roamer: The Tall Ships are coming

They were a great bunch
They were a great bunch

Next month, for the third time, the spectacular Tall Ships Race comes to Belfast, bestowing the harbour and the River Lagan with the exclusive honour of being home port for the start of the 2015 competition.

Next month, for the third time, the spectacular Tall Ships Race comes to Belfast, bestowing the harbour and the River Lagan with the exclusive honour of being home port for the start of the 2015 competition.

There’ll be a record tally of over 50 of the world’s finest high-rigged vessels berthing on the Lagan, a sail of the century for four days over the weekend of July 2-5.

Sail Training International’s Tall Ships event is a massive stamp of worldwide approval on our unmatched maritime legacy - as well as attracting an expected 500,000 people and bringing an economic windfall of at least £10 million to the city.

This is all well-deserved!

Northern Ireland, perched on ‘the top’ of a uniquely historic little island, is bordered on the east by the Irish Sea, with the North Channel beside us and St George’s Channel further to the south, aside the Celtic Sea.

On the north and over to the west is the planet’s second biggest ocean, the Atlantic.

Ireland’s neighbouring sea areas beckon from the shipping forecast like old acquaintances - Malin, Rockall, Fastnet, Shannon, Lundy and the Irish Sea itself, with the Faeroes, Bailey and South East Iceland on the further edges of our briny boundaries.

Our coastal waters may be shallow, but they rub their saline shoulders with a total volume of worldwide seawater that is calculated at an awesome 1.35 billion cubic kilometres - that’s about 320 million cubic miles.

The average depth of our oceans is around 3,700 metres or 12,100 feet, the equivalent of about one third of the altitude of a scheduled commercial jet, or 80 statues of Liberty on top of each other!

So we have a head for depths, and a maritime mind-set evolved from centuries of sea-going and shipbuilding.

Over 1,000 crew and seafarers will arrive next month on around 17 massive Class-A, fully-rigged, sailing vessels and on dozens of smaller barques that have ploughed through boundless waters, borne by the winds to Belfast.

In 1991, around 250,000 folk gathered for the Tall Ships event, then the first of its kind in Belfast.

Commentators said that it was the first time in several decades of conflict that Northern Ireland had relaxed for a while and breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Some would say that it released the first waftings of peace across our then-troubled land.

In 2009, Belfast welcomed 46 sailing vessels back to the Lagan, including 11 Class-A ships.

Some 500,000 people strolled the crowded river-banks and another 300,000 watched from various vantage points both inside and outside the city.

The 2009 Tall Ships event generated £16 million for the local economy, almost twice the target and undoubtedly a catalyst for next month’s nautical extravaganza.

For many Ulster folk, the event will spotlight our proud sea-going and ship-building heritage.

At its peak, when many tens of thousands of local men and women toiled in our unrivalled ship-building industry, over 100,000 folk across the north and south or Ireland laboured to manufacture components for the constant armada of vessels that rolled down the slipways.

Belfast ultimately became the ruler of the waves - over 4,000 mighty vessels were built and launched on the Lagan since the early 1600s - but Carrickfergus, Londonderry, and other coastal towns and villages did more than their share to keep the world afloat with sturdy ships and shipping lines.

The breathtaking vision of over 50 multi-flagged barques during next month’s weekend of sea-bound splendour will be a vivid reminder that the Lagan once bore as many ships every day of the year, all the year round!

Today Belfast Harbour is Northern Ireland’s principal maritime gateway and logistics hub, serving our economy and increasingly that of the Republic of Ireland.

Around 70 per cent of Northern Ireland’s and about 20 per cent of the entire island’s seaborne trade is handled by the Harbour each year.

Some 9,000 ships annually ply its channels, with the Port’s turnover in 2013 exceeding £50m for the first time in its history.

Over 20 million tonnes of cargo were handled and 1.4 million passengers arrived and left Belfast during 2014, when almost half a million freight vehicles and a record 112,000 cruise passengers traversed the port’s busy quays.

There have been numerous stories shared on this page about our famous docks and slipways, and about all the other industries that were nurtured by the Lagan’s waters and workforce.

As we eagerly await next month’s fleet of sailing ships, a short note from Newtownards-reader Peggy Harrison is just one of many reminders that Belfast is more than worthy of its tall-masted visitors.

Peggy included an old photograph of a small team of men who, like countless others, helped put our capitol city firmly on the map of the world.

“My late husband George Ewart worked in Harland and Wolff’s drawing offices from the late 1940s until his illness in 1965 and subsequently his death in 1966. He had been promoted to ships manager in late 1964.

“I met him in 1950, and I enclose a couple of pictures of his colleagues and himself. I knew many of these men and they were a great bunch. Five of them were great friends of ours but sadly they have passed away.”

Peggy would love to get more “pictures from that time” and hopes that the plans to turn Harland and Wolff’s old drawing offices into a hotel and heritage space “come to fruition.”