Down Coastal Rowing

Down Coastal Rowing Club was established in 2014 by the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership, working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to develop community coastal rowing as part of the management of the area’s heritage and community regeneration. Within a few months it had 300 members!

Heritage Management Strategy pdf
Coastal Rowing – The Narrows Challenges leaflet pdf

The Club’s mission is to celebrate boat building and coastal rowing traditions in this area, involving as many people as possible, and culminating in annual “Narrows Challenge” races in the Narrows of Strangford Lough.
It brings together young and old, whatever their skills, and gets people out on the water to enjoy our wonderful coast and its wildlife.  Read more about membership.

Already, members have come together across nine communities to build St Ayles skiffs in Donaghadee, Ballywalter, Portavogie, Portaferry, Kircubbin, Killyleagh, Strangford, Ardglsss and Dundrum.

Experienced boat builders worked alongside novices, sharing skills passed down through generations.  Many started as strangers but became a team as the boat took shape and they worked together to find premises, work out the plans and get extra bits of equipment and materials.  They were supported and co-ordinated by  the SLLP staff and neighbourhood police officers.  

This initiative was funded by the Down Rural Area Partnership (DRAP) as part of the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development: Europe investing in rural areas, the Heritage Lottery Fund, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and Down District and Ards Borough Councils.

The Club thanks the Irish Coastal Rowing Federation, the Antrim Coastal Rowing Association and Carnlough Coastal Rowing Club for their advice and support in getting started.

Six of the boats took part in the 2014 Narrows Challenges. It is expected that all nine will compete in the 2015 Challenges and that they will be used year round.

The challenge re-ignited a deep seated love of wooden boats amongst many who still had traditional boat building skills. Some had childhood memories of learning their craft alongside their parents and were stirred to pass their experience on to the next generation.  However, for most people it was their first chance to do anything like this and they pitched in with skills learned in other trades or picked it up as they went along. Everyone could get involved.

Within each community boat building sheds were offered, free of charge, from people with suitable premises. People provided tools, volunteered their time and raised extra funds. Each boat took approximately 800 hours to build. At the time of writing most of the boats were completed and some launched. 

St Ayles skiffs

Community coastal rowing has taken off on the East Coast of Scotland where they have developed a system with pre-cut planking which makes it possible for people to build a traditionally styled “St Ayles” skiff. They are 22 ft traditionally styled wooden rowing boats, crewed by 4 oarsmen and a coxswain. Designed by  Iain Oughtred and produced by Jordan boats in Fife, the tight, uniform specification means they can be used for international racing events as well as for local use.

The Royal Oak

It is really fitting that rowing boats are now being built here as the world’s oldest racing rowing boat still in existence, the “Royal Oak” was built here just over 200 years ago for the Bailie family (in 1812) at the  Ringdufferin estate She was designed  as a light, fast, sea-going boat for leisure and racing. Local man John McGiffert purchased and preserved her for posterity. She now takes pride of place at the River and Rowing Museum, Henley.

The Royal Oak is a four oared, clinker built gig with square rivets and the main timbers are oak over elm ribs. She  was famously also crewed by three sisters Bet, Amy and Margaret Long and Jean Gilmore who were fisherwomen from Ardmillan and Ballydorn.

She won every race in which she competed. She did the Great River Race in the 1990s, having been in a barn for 100 years and they only had to replace one plank to make it seaworthy.

Routen Wheel Races (1983-2001)

These races began when a Mr McCullough from Kircubbin presented a ship's wheel to Portaferry Lifeboat Station following a sea rescue. He asked that the trophy be used in rowing races to raise monies for the RNLI and that the event should be called the 'Routen Wheel Race'.

The first race took place over 6 miles, using traditional rowing boats, from Whiterock to Portaferry via Killyleagh and was won by Killyleagh Yacht Club. Previously, the RNLI had held a sponsored an “Around the Lough” row, using two 16ft rowing boats with six rowers each.

(The Routen Wheel is a large whirlpool in the Strangford Lough Narrows).

A way of life

Small boats have always been part of this area with a variety of punts, currachs, cots, clinkers, venetians, ferries, schooners and of course, today, yachts and dinghies.

The first people arrived here by sea some 9,000 years ago and a wooden Neolithic dugout canoe still lies preserved in the sediment of Greyabbey Bay. St Patrick is said to have come by boat through the Narrows and landed at Saul, bringing Christianity to the land.  Later, Viking long ships and their oarsmen arrived. Early ferry boats across the Narrows could be rowed or sailed, carrying people and livestock.

In the 1600s non-conformist  Presbyterian communities on the Ards Peninsula would, weather permitting, row or sail across to Portpatrick for Sunday worship.

Traditionally small, wooden boats that could be rowed and sailed by a single person were used to creel for
lobsters and cribben and to collect dulse seaweed.  

Smuggling was rampant in the 1700s and small boats full of contraband were rowed into secluded bays under cover of darkness.

In the 19th century Portaferry, Strangford and Killleagh were established trading ports and some huge ships were built in Portaferry. Small boats were also crucial and local boats may have raced each other to the Barr to win the chance to pilot large vessels through the channel.

After the war and through the 1950s, 14-16ft boats, that could be rowed by just two people, were raced  across the Narrows, as a Saturday night pastime for people in Strangford and Portaferry.

More recently, rowing races were held at the end of sailing regattas . One colourful event was the Shovel Race where the square shovels used by local coal merchants became oars for a day!  

Paddling is increasingly popular and the Lough has its own Canoe Trail.