A ‘Yachty’ Tale
John McCurdy remembers reunion week on Rathlin Island
In the summer of 1988, Father McAteer had an idea to have a reunion week for the Rathlin Islanders. Those who had left the island married and settled in whatever part of the world.
Some would have visited with their families on holiday every year. Others had left and had not been back for some time. The reunion would be a great opportunity for everyone to meet up again and catch up with each other’s lives and reminisce about bygone days.
With all this in mind we started to put together a plan of action for the week. We decided to try and organise events that would have been running when these people were in their youth.
One such event was the model yacht racing on Ushet Lough. Prior to 1989 the last model yacht race would have been forty years earlier. The model yachts were 22 inches long, with anything longer not being allowed to sail – the rules were very strict.
Old yachts were resurrected from lofts and barns. Some needed lots of repairs others needed very little work. Cloth was bought in Telfords, ships chandlers in Belfast, to make main sails and jibs.
Poles were planed and shaped out of 20 foot lengths. The poles were used to catch and guide the yacht at the end of each tack. The yacht was then set on the next tack. The yacht is not allowed to leave the water.
Slowly the model yachts appeared in magnificent colours. Ready to cheat the wind and sail across the lough once again after so many years in retirement.
We had practice sessions every evening, some of us had never sailed the model yachts before. We had a lot to learn – adjusting the main sail and the jib to be able to make the yacht tack around the course. Each evening the wind could be coming from a different direction and this determined the course.
Model yacht racing had been carried out on Rathlin for more than 200 years. From the fun and sharing of knowledge with the older generation, I could understand why it had survived.
When the reunion week arrived in July 1989, Rathlin islanders came from all parts of the world. Every bed and floor in the island homes was bursting at the seams.
The model yacht races were traditionally held on Sundays. I could hardly wait for Father McAteer to finish saying mass so I could get to the lough. The excitement was so strong the whole way through mass, I sailed round the lough 20 times in my head and won every time.
There were two ‘crew’ allowed to sail each yacht. My cousin Dominic was my crewmember. This yacht had been made and sailed originally by my uncle Johnny McQuilkin 45 years earlier.
Everybody arrived at the lough for a two o’clock start. There were ten yachts and lots of advice from the older men who knew all the tricks of the trade, on how they won the races in their day.
We drew numbers for starting places, the course was set, the shot was fired and they were off. I went around the lough to meet the yacht after its first tack and to set it on the next tack to Dominic who then scudded it back to me.
I had to sail it back to Dominic who was at the finish line. We were lying in sixth place at this stage. I started running around the Lough, stepped in a rabbit hole and fell on top of my new pole, which, snapped in two pieces. Red-faced I picked myself up and kept on running. Sadly we lost the race – maybe I should have paid more attention to Father McAteer at mass.
Everyone enjoyed the day and of course there was lots of advice as to where we had gone wrong. After our disappointing result Dominic and I decided to make our own yachts. We dissolved our partnership and became opponents.
The rest of the reunion week continued with ceildh dancing and a two act play performed by the drama group – revived for the week. Analysis of all events was helped by consumption of a few Guinness in the pub.
Addresses and telephone numbers were exchanged with a promise to keep in touch. With a tear in our eye, we waved our friends and relations goodbye, as they sailed into the sunset.
By John McCurdy