Ghostly Sea Shanty Tour

Andrew Johnston has the fright of his life on board the Lagan Boat Company's spooky ship

The Lagan Boat Company’s sea shanty tours first ran during the Tall Ships’ visit in August. They were such a success that the company has decided to do them again for Halloween. That means the Mona is setting sail, her masts festooned with Edvard Munch masks and giant spider’s webs, with a musical duo providing a sinister soundtrack below decks.

Stepping gingerly across the gangplank, I feel the glare of ghoulish dummies from around the vessel…

On this maiden Halloween voyage, around 30 hardy folk (many in fancy dress) have gathered, as the promotional flyer puts it, to ‘quiver on the river listening to ghostly tales and live spooky music’. Patrons are urged to ‘spook early’ to avoid disappointment, and to come ‘dressed to scare’. The best pun I can muster is that the tour is nautical but nice, but that’s not even Halloween-related.

It’s best to leave the witty wordplay to master tunesmith Geoff Gatt, who, as alter ego Captain X, is the leader of the Ghost Band, our entertainment for the evening. Allegedly, Captain X was once the captain of the Mona, but was forced to walk the plank and is now a spectral troubadour, strumming his ukulele for anyone who’ll listen. ‘Some say I died, some say I didn’t,’ he croons, his voice pitched somewhere between Neil Innes and Captain Birdseye.

Joined by the enigmatic Minerva Whynot on harp, accordion and banshee-like wail, Captain X enraptures the lower deck with seasonally tailored renditions of shanty singalongs. There’s ‘Drunken Sailor’, of course, while ‘Sea Cruise’ becomes ‘Ghost Cruise’. ‘One night I swore I could see a shark dancing to this very song’, says X, while Minerva talks of being haunted by a dog. (It was ‘ruff’, apparently.)

The Mona was built in 1951, is 51 feet long and weighs 25 gross tons. She started life on the south coast of England, where she was known as the Cornish Belle, before passing to the Lagan Boat Company late last year. Tonight’s leisurely excursion along Belfast Lough and the Lagan takes in many of Belfast’s iconic waterfront landmarks – the Harland and Wolff cranes, the paint hall movie studio and the docks, where RMS Titanic was built.

A cackling hag goes around the cabin, dishing out witches’ brew. Then enters a one-man skeleton crew, offering sweets and treats out of a disembodied vampire’s head. I grab a drumstick and some Tayto cheese and onion before Dracula can bite back. On this trip, ‘ghouls rule the waves’ – another one from the flyer –, but it’s possible to sight the occasional cormorant and black-headed gull as they dart around in the nighttime drizzle.

There’s scant time for wildlife lectures or history lessons, though. The cruise is pure, silly fun, with the Ghost Band’s eerie melodies conjuring the perfect atmosphere onboard.

This hour-long jaunt is sure to amuse children of all ages in the run-up to Halloween. To paraphrase ‘Monster Mash’, another of the devilish ditties served up by Captain X and Miss Minerva – ‘When you get to the Lagan Boat Company’s door, tell them CultureNorthernIreland sent you.’

The Ghostly Sea Shanty Tour runs until October 31 at 6pm and 7.30pm nightly. For more information, phone 028 9033 0844 or 07718 910423, or visit the Lagan Boat Company’s website here.

Andrew Johnston