As someone who has always admired the world of small boat sailing from a distance, I was fascinated to discover the existence of a home-made sailing boat unique to this little bit of coast. The Holywood Sharpie (or the Holywood 16 Foot One Design Sharpie Class to give it its proper designation) was created in the 1930s in an attempt to make competitive small boat sailing both more affordable and more fair.
Prior to this time, racing at the club had been based around a handicap system, the boats were generally larger than modern dinghies and varied in design. Handicapping was an inexact art and keeping racing both fair and affordable was challenging. So, in 1929, Mr F W Steen and Mr N McArthur jointly drew up a design for a smaller boat which was suitable for the conditions at Holywood and which could be built cheaply by anyone wishing to sail and race at the club – the Holywood Sharpie.
This drew on ideas in sailing magazines of the time and on ideas from America.
The boat was to be 16ft long, gaff (more correctly gunter) rigged with a retractable centre board (necessary at Holywood so the boats could sit level on the mud at low tide).
The materials were not allowed to cost more than £17 pounds and the sails no more than £4-19-6 per set. All planking was based on off-the-shelf lengths and widths, thereby reducing wastage.
From the start, frugality was a feature of the class with its first embodiment, Spray’s, maiden voyage setting sail on the 11th September 1930, with the flagpole of the Kinnegar Inn (now the Dirty Duck) as a mast!
A W T Beatty in his very thorough history of the Holywood sailing classes states:
The boat had no vices except that they were renowned for ploughing through all oncoming seas rather than riding over them. This necessitated the fitting of a splash board on the fore deck to prevent excessive filling. Although constructed of wood throughout and therefore more likely to fill rather than sink, when filled they could not be easily righted and would normally have to be towed ashore for that purpose. Nevertheless they were a safe boat, no member of the club ever being lost in one, and were easily repaired when damaged (see volume 2 page 171) . The strength of construction usually minimised damage when washed ashore except in the fiercest gales.Holywood Yacht Club (Volume 1), A W T Beatty
The Sharpie sailors were clearly a hardy bunch. F W Steen recalls Spray’s third voyage in an article written 40 years later:
Christmas Day was so nice that year we could not resist launching again, and before we realised it we were at Carrickfergus. Entering Carrick harbour we were asked where we came from. After saying from Holywood the gent said “in that” and went on his way muttering something about fools and idiots.First Sail in a Sharpie, F W Steen
However, the new design soon proved itself and around a dozen boats were built. Several of these were constructed by club members in a hayloft above a pig shed behind the Railway Inn (now Platform 20 Bar) in Hibernia Street. It is hard to imagine such dedication today in our era of instant Amazon gratification off-the-shelf plastic everything!
The Carrickfergus critic was soon proved wrong and a fleet of Holywood Sharpies made frequent visits to the port’s regattas and those of Bangor, Cultra and Whitehead. These regattas were the basis of a thriving social cycle which ran throughout the sailing season and were enjoyed by land bound and seafarers alike.
The names of the boats were all meteorologically related – Mist, Spray, Spindrift, Crest, Ripple, Cloud, Tempest, Coral, Squall, Kelpie, Foam, Cyclone.
Not all boats were built with the best of materials. Former owners reflected:
“The quality of build in the majority of boats was always suspect. The builders were in the economic depression of the thirties and could not afford good timber even if it was available. Floor boards 7/8” thick was the wood of choice for the sides and bottom of the boats. Up to the start of the war in 1939 many men were on the dole and these men raced in the sharpies during the day. A wooden cup was turned as the prize – covering it with the silver paper found in cigarette packets. It was named after the minister of employment of the day. I wonder where it is now!? During the war years all sharpies were registered with the “ministry” and had a certified number painted on either side of the bow”Memories from Bobby Graham and Ivan Nelson former sharpie owners
In the late 1960s Fred Steen (who sailed Spindrift) designed a “junior” sharpie for young people. At 10ft long and crewed by two young people these provided enormous fun. About 10 were built by parents and others, then raced by teenagers from Holywood. But these disappeared as mass produced plywood boats came in, followed by fibreglass and now plastic.
Over the years as new classes and new construction materials and methods were introduced, the number of Sharpies gradually declined until 1973 when the last Sharpie – Cyclone – left the club. However, in 1988 George Laing, who had built Cyclone in 1933, found his old boat in a dilapidated state in the Comber River and brought it home to Holywood and there restored it fully.
Subsequent to this a new batch of Sharpies were built to the original specification, including Storm and Jabble, the two boats which remain at the club today.
Both these boats embody the principles of the original Sharpie design. Storm, in that it pwas constructed using salvaged mast, boom, centre plate and rudder from the first Sharpie, Spray, and Jabble whose rudder was once a sideboard! Modern sailors and shore dwellers alike could learn much from this tradition!
- Holywood Yacht Club (Volume 1), A W T Beatty
- First Sail in a Sharpie, F W Steen
- Additional material from Joe Campbell, owner of Jabble