The men of East Belfast Yacht Club transform old hulks into ocean-going vessels. But before they can get out to the open water they have to navigate their boats under the bridge.
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GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS
I think that was probably about 1982.
That was on the back of the Roseanne,
that was the first big boat I built.
For over a century, East Belfast Yacht Club has been an oasis in the
heart of Belfast's heavy industries,
a place where its men have been able to build and work on their own boats
without the titanic price tag of a new yacht.
You woke up in the morning, you couldn't think of anything else to
do but, "Got to go down to the boat, got to do this, got to do that."
And it just seemed like a great time.
Owning a boat means friendship
and the freedom to leave the city behind.
I was probably about 19 there.
That was a good summer, that.
It was such fun.
But for the club's members, one thing always stands in the way.
We're on the bridge on the Airport Road, Belfast.
Up there's the East Belfast Yacht Club.
This is one of the bridges that we have to negotiate to get out, to
get the boats out into open water.
The people in the club don't like the bridge. It's a pure hindrance.
We've about 14 feet clearance between the mud
and the top of the bridge there,
so that's the maximum draught of boat we could get out, 14 feet.
East Belfast Yacht Club has roots going down deep into the
sleech and silt of Queens Island.
My direct family,
mother, father, grandfather,
would all have been East Belfast.
And I would have grown up in East Belfast,
on the Upper Newtownards Road.
The house itself hasn't really changed very much
in all those years.
Round the corner here you can see the cranes of the shipyard there.
And I would say the vast majority of working men around the area would
have worked either there or in the aircraft factory.
In the evening, the road just blackened with people
coming out of the yard.
Today the shipyard builds wind turbines,
but the connection between island men, boats and the sea,
has never died.
We're coming up to East Belfast Yacht Club.
Second home for the last 50 years in here.
GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS
We're the working man's club.
There isn't vast amounts of money to go about.
Probably three quarters of us are over 65 and retired.
But rich people want to come in and join in with the rest of us.
We are quite possibly unique in that we're basically a mile
out of Belfast city centre.
We're a stone's throw from the airport.
We're alongside Sydenham bypass.
Out through the bridge at the end of our embankment here,
we're into the middle of a commercial harbour.
It's also tidal.
It's all very inconvenient, but...
..we have what we have.
Belfast Harbour. This is a small yacht, Nikita.
Inward bound for the Abercorn Basin. Over.
We've just left Carrickfergus, and we're heading up to the
Musgrave channel in Belfast, going to the boat club.
Once a year we usually bring her up,
try and tidy it up a wee bit, to keep it in good order.
Harris is my grandson, and when we go out, I just sit there
and he takes it most of the time.
He'll probably be owning the Nikita someday.
I left school at 15 and then my father said,
"You're going to the shipyard."
I wanted to be a joiner and it ended up there was no vacancies
for joiners, so he said, "You're going to be a boiler maker."
And he says, "It's the same as a joiner, only you work with steel."
We came out of school, went to the shipyard.
We were there till we retired.
This is East Belfast Yacht Club now.
That's the bridge there.
We're going to have to watch here, getting under this.
This time of the year is your start of your boating season.
The sun starts to shine, you want to be out there.
You've been working through the winter, trying to get your boat
ready and everyone's the same round here.
They all want it in the water for the summer.
You need a bit of your own time.
And once I'm out here on the water, mobile phone turned off,
nobody can annoy me.
This is my time.
Look at that. You couldn't pay for that.
That's the bridge we're not going through,
because it's quite low.
But one man is setting his sights far beyond Belfast Lough.
I retired there, officially, about March.
-And I think I've worked long enough, at work!
I think I should've had that backstay onto the, the other one.
I want to get back up the Clyde, I miss going up the Clyde.
Oh, it's fantastic.
I've a wee boat down in Enniskillen,
but it's not the same as up the Clyde.
You're sort of,
you feel a bit as if you've went places up the Clyde, you know, more!
And you've risked it going across.
When you do it yourself and you get there,
you feel as if you've accomplished something.
This is going to be the open area at the back, the cockpit.
The rudder will be going on here.
Down this will be the shower
and toilet and wash hand basin, in that area.
And this will be the main saloon.
That will be seating round there,
and seating here. And this will be a double bunk in here.
And units here and wardrobes.
How much of your time would you like to spend on board?
On board, when this is finished,
I would absolutely love to live on board.
I think it'd be a lovely way to spend your life, but it's a dream.
-We're all dreamers.
Dreams are intangible, but the skills of the boat yard have been
forged through a lifetime in the heavy industries of East Belfast.
I've worked since I was 14. I'm 81 now.
So that's how many years?
60... Oh, God, it's about 67, something like that, yeah?
-I was a bricklayer. I think I worked harder than any of them men
-ever, ever heard of working.
I didn't get started until I was 16.
So I'm 71 now, so...I'm not even going to try and calculate that.
What about Bobby? Come on, let's hear your life story, son.
-I started work when I was eight.
Used to work in the printers. I stuck it till I was 17.
15 when I started in the shipyard,
and then I retired at 65.
-The only job I ever had.
The boats themselves that we would have,
they're quite often boats that other people have given up on.
That's legs for the boat,
to steady the boat, because we've jacked it up,
and one will go on the outside to hold it.
-Got that welded?
Things have to be recycled, reused...
..modified to fit, rather than go and buy new.
I'm not a welder, actually, so I'm not,
but I've been doing a right few.
-I thought you were a welder.
-That's why I always asked you.
No, I'm not a welder by trade.
-Look at the hair on yourself there! Ginger!
Look at that, tin of beer in his hand.
That was taken, that picture, on the Star Of Dyan over there,
we were just heading out fishing for the mackerel, of course.
-And I built that...must have been 40 years ago.
When you left school, your goal was to get a trade like a joiner,
Some people thought their trade was better than others, now, and
the shipwrights, they reckoned they were the top dogs at the time.
But they taught you well, really, sometimes,
cos you did your City & Guilds and all.
You had to go a day,
-day release, and then...
-For four years.
..a couple of nights a week and learn mechanical
drawing and do different things.
The milling machine, the lathe,
and then you did, of course, the welding on the other side.
You didn't know a lot, and then the older ones,
they were very smart, and when they were working with them,
you always picked up things, you know, how to do it easier and all,
and different wee methods they had,
and they were real experts, some real brilliant workers,
-so there were.
-You sort of made your own things there, too,
when you got a chance to.
Not in their time, like, know, at dinner time!
Skills are currency here, and count for more than money.
With the right skills, you can get ready to go to sea.
Well, this is a replacement engine, it's a 1.84 diesel.
It's the only way we can afford it, really,
cos it's the least expensive way,
getting out a car engine and marine-ise it up.
I had to put a bigger diesel tank in and I had to make up a shaft
from the old engine joined to make a breach.
..it'll drive the boat far better than what the wee engine did.
At least now this is enough power,
that it doesn't matter if the wind is blowing or not.
An old boat is given a new lease of life.
Another has been built from scratch,
just like in the shipyard.
This is the masterpiece, this is the one. This is definitely the one.
It was very collaborative.
Jimmy and Billy and Sidney and everybody sort of got involved
in the early stages.
There was a real club effort went into it to start,
like, three, four years ago there would have been
four or five people around it on a Saturday.
Thing that always appealed to me about this is the lack of
legislation that you have to put up with.
There's very little restrictions on boat-building.
I see that as a positive.
That really does attract me to it, you know.
I can build whatever I want and nobody can tell me how to do it.
Nobody tells me how to do it.
Sometimes the process of working on a boat becomes even more important
than the finished vessel.
It's given me something to do, and I'll keep doing it as long as I can.
I was diagnosed with bowel cancer in...
Because of the medical advice I was getting at the time...
..which was, "You're not long for this world,"
the boat got sold.
Immediate surgery was necessary, it was too far gone.
I think it was about 12 days or so later...
..I was up and about.
Was buying this boat an affirmation, do you think, for you?
Initially I had no intentions of buying another boat, but
the more I was out in other people's boats
I just felt the need, I had to have another one.
I'm not sure exactly where I'm going with it,
but age might defeat me
before the boat will.
Once your working days are done,
a boat could be at the centre of your life.
This boat is my floating rose-covered cottage
when I get to be retired.
Hopefully I'll get to spend extended periods of time onboard this,
if my wife allows me.
When you're driving up through the traffic in the mornings,
you imagine the morning that you don't have to drive up through the traffic and
say, "I'm sitting here, somewhere far away and it's just quiet,"
and you're listening to the traffic jams on the radio. I think that just sounds lovely.
So, does having your own boat, does that equal freedom?
Oh, yes. Oh, yes.
You could base your life round a boat this size.
GUITAR MUSIC PLAYS
But before you claim your freedom, there is one more obstacle.
Going under the bridge would be something people would be apprehensive about,
especially a larger boat, it's a bit of a manoeuvre,
sometimes it's quite tricky.
Just have to wait on this tide dropping a wee bit.
Just too early.
-I hope we're not going to hit this bridge too hard.
It's going to push us under, Paul, that tide.
Hateful, this bridge, isn't it?
Only another 10-15 minutes, just let the old tide drop off a wee bit.
Hopefully we won't go under.
Just feed it around by hand. You keep your head down there.
All right, Paul?
-I'm not. I have to give a wee bit to steer.
What is the best thing about having a boat?
-It's a hard question.
You can get out and get away from it all and relax.
But it's a lot of trouble.
The money it costs you and all the trouble you go to,
sometimes you...you wonder if it's worth it.
The best thing about being out on a boat is you realise that you've
-got some of your work done, you've just got some of it done.
The way we do our boating is, it takes a lot of work.
I mean, there's this wee boat here today, and Billy has been at this
ten hours a day, just to get it cleaned again for
the summer. He's exhausted, the poor chap.
But it is worth it for these bits that you get, you know?
This is just lovely.
Time seems to take on a different thing,
you always imagine, we're not far from there, but in boat terms,
you're always a bit further away than you think,
but that doesn't seem to matter, you know.
You just let it go past, just let it go.
Hear that there? The engine just changes its note a little bit,
that's when your heart starts to go, "What was that? What was that?"
It's a sound every boatman listens out for.
No, it's still stopping with that, even.
I'll see if I can get her out.
I think there's still a wee bit of work to be done here, but at least
that's the first trip, and it seems to, it's going better than what it
did before, anyway.
We're nearly ready. Very, very little to do now, thank goodness.
Have to put the mast down again, ready for under the bridge.
If you've built a boat or even got a boat that needed a major restoration
and done that work, and then actually go and sail it
to another part of land, it's a big thing.
It would be our Atlantic, going across our Atlantic,
sailing to Scotland.
With the tide going out,
judging the time to make your move is everything.
I'm just making sure he doesn't get into trouble.
Without me, he'd be lost!
It's just a matter of waiting now for...
for the water to drop low enough.
Apart from being a physical barrier, it's another barrier.
It's a bit like being closed in here, and you're away from
the world, and when you go out you've got to do it yourself.
It's a wee bit too close there.
-Too close to risk.
I think we'll go round again, Sidney.
When you get the boat through the bridge, you feel that's a hurdle
that you've overcome. Then the boat's ready to use.
When you get out through it, you feel,
"Let's put the tools away here for a while, let's go sailing."
Oh, yes, I think I can see a bit of clearance now.
Yes, looking good. I think we'll fit under all right.
Yes, we're going.
Yeah. Looking good.
Well, that's the lowest bit.
Oh, it's clearing it, just.
Oh, good, that's us through!
Four months of renovations and preparations are over.
The sun is out, the tide is running and the open sea beckons.
Sea Horse, Sea Horse, Nikita.
-Go ahead, this is Sea Horse.
Aye, Jimmy, we're going to, we're starting to get set up on our away point here.
OK. Carry on.
Is that the Mull of Kintyre you can see?
Yeah, we'll be going to the right, the starboard side of that, over.
On our way at last.
We'll be going to Campbeltown first.
About 35 miles this will be, then, or something like that. 35, 40.
Been doing it now, oh, just over 40 years,
going back and forth to Scotland.
But the last time over on my own boat was...
..14 or 15 years ago.
You don't even know what day it is, most of the time, it's strange.
Because every day is the same when you don't have to go to work.
-I usually have to ask somebody what day it is.
It sort of, the time just flies, too.
You wonder how you got time to do things when you were in work.
So do you miss work at all?
I miss it like a headache. You know the way you miss a headache?
And then, just the sound of the waves on the hull.
Oh! I don't like the sound of that!
Looks as if there's been an oil leak.
I'm so disappointed with that.
I'm disappointed for Jimmy. He put so much work into this.
Look at how clear it is, look at how close we were!
But although Jimmy and Sid are stranded in the middle of
the Irish Sea, they're not alone for long.
Nikita. Nikita, this is Sea Horse. Sea Horse, over.
-'Sea Horse, come in.'
Nikita. I think the engine has seized,
I think the best thing to do for us would be to turn around and sail
-'Are you sure?
'Cos I can back with you and come back another day.'
Well, Jimmy, I think that's the most sensible thing to do.
Well, yes, that would probably be the most sensible thing to do, it would...
OK. We're going to turn round now, then, over.
'I'll see you there.'
Billy goes the extra mile.
He helps a whole lot of people out.
You know, you just get a second-hand engine and
different things like that, and...
Just hope I get a better one the next time.
But anyway, it's good.
And we're nearly into Belfast Lough again now.
And then if we can do it again some other time
and hope everything works out better the next time.
That's just the way the crumble cookies.
GENTLE MUSIC PLAYS
Some of them look old, but most of them don't feel old, you know?
Maybe the difference between old and knackered!
Probably when they're carting you up the road
to Roselawn, you might feel old then, but other than that,
I don't think so, I never feel old.
No, you definitely don't feel old round this place.
Do you feel old, Jimmy?
-Not all the time. Now and again, when you're sort of...
-..lifting something heavy and your back goes!
It was got off a fella that had it for another boat...
..and I went and approached him...
..and he said he wasn't going to use it,
-so I bought it off him.
It's a proper marine engine. It's been made for a boat.
We may appear to be a bit throughother
in the way we do things,
but that's not to say it's wrong.
If we decide something is going to work, it will work.
We got it done, well, in roughly two weeks.
I might get to Portpatrick for the music festival.
If not, I'll get somewhere sometime.
Sea Horse will be out to sea again.
-Jumping over those waves!
Not too high, I hope.
Not too high.
"Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more."
The people in the club don't like the bridge, but when we think about
it, it has probably saved the club, because if it had've been easy
access, it could have been commercialised and could probably
have been taken out of our hands years ago, so we wouldn't have had
the opportunity to keep boats here.
Bangor, all that, that's been commercialised now, and it's priced
beyond most working men's means.
GENTLE MUSIC PLAYS
The men of East Belfast Yacht Club transform old hulks into ocean-going vessels. But before they can get out to the freedom of the open water they have to navigate their boats under the bridge...