Sunday, 16 August 2009

Land-lubbers out to see the Tall Ships in Belfast... arrr

The last few days have apparently seen crowds, comparative to 1/3 of the population of Northern Ireland, find their way into Belfast to take in the sight of the Tall Ships that took part in the last leg of the 2009 Tall Ships Atlantic Challenge. Well and truly keeping Belfast's numerous maritime links in the public imagination, and this year with the biggest Tall Ship event to meet these shores for decades, the city seems to have capitalised. Norn Girl and I were eager to make the time to head to what has to be the most publicised and plugged event I’ve ever seen in this part of the world. We wanted to go, not because of the adverts, but because of our past experiences at similar tall ship events in Belfast over the last few years. The last time so many tall ships were here for a previous event on this scale though was 1991. An event my fiancĂ©e went to see as a child. A long wait for the event to be repeated in full – so what went on and what did we find?

The build-up has been going for weeks if not months. The BBC have been plugging it, the local press all seemed to jump onboard and the council turned just about every lamppost in Belfast city centre into a ‘summer in the city – tall ships are coming’ beacon. With that level of promotion I don’t think there was anyone in Northern Ireland with access to a TV or Radio who could have not known that this event was happening. It was quickly upon us and the local press became flooded with the news of the arriving ships. The talk at work was constantly about when everyone was going down to see them and the anticipation of the events of the last 2 days of the week and the weekend were starting to seem a little feverish. The first ships of the Atlantic Challenge had arrived much earlier and here they are docked prior to the events on land that started on the Thursday. I nipped down to take a sneak peek at the first two boats to dock to see what they were like compared to ships that had been here in previous years and I have to say they didn’t seem much different, it was the quantity of ships that was going to be the spectacle this year ... or so it seemed.

On Thursday and Friday nights we could hear the fireworks going off down on the quaysides from our house and over the TV. We had seen what must have been similar displays including hot air balloons at a previous year’s event and really enjoyed them so were a little sorry we didn’t head down to these this time. Saturday morning was soon upon us and Norn Girl and I had to head into town to get our hair cut before heading down to see the vessels. The bus into town was packed, more than your average Saturday morning crowd. This was sadly a sign of things to come. Town had been quite busy the 2 days previous with the traffic also very heavy but Saturday was something else. The previous days had been wet and not ideal for those braving the early bird trips to see the ships. Saturday started that way, but before long the outlook turned and the sun was out with blue streaks and patches dotted between the white and grey clouds. We were a wee while in the hairdressers but it was much needed; I emerged with a much lighter head and a slightly itchy neckline. After a quick port of call at some shops for Norn Girl to buy some clothes, we wandered to the side of the Lagan.

Like the previous days in town, it was heaving! We first of all tried to make it down to Clarendon Dock. This took about 10 minutes shuffling and jigging to avoid people kicking our feet or running over them with buggies. We made it but were in touch with Norn Girl's family who were also in the area. We made it to the dock but were soon walking back the way we came as it was decided we were to head to the Queen's Island side to get something to eat together. We intended to make it back to that side of the event... we never did. Back to the Lagan Weir footbridge and it was one way traffic. A constant snake of people trying to cross. We got in line and joined what could have made an impressive conga line! Within minutes I was being tripped from behind by a lady with a child’s buggy – she took out the back of my left ankle and ran over my left foot. No apology, she just looked at me blankly and pushed on. I gave her evils! It wasn’t long before we were stuck behind 2 old ladies who were developing their own version of musical statues. A few paces were followed by sudden stops causing a headache for everyone behind, especially us who had to try and avoid sending them into the river below. In fairness to them they were being distracted by the sights of the stunt plane doing twirl, loops and tumbles through the air. That and the Whacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tube Men!

We finally made it across but were soon queuing all the way into the mass of people bunched together around the Odyssey. It was impossible to move at times. There just wasn’t enough floor space for people to walk. We made our way into the Odyssey itself and had to laugh at the epic queues for both the ladies' and men’s toilets. I’ll be amazed if everyone who tried to make it to those toilets made it in without letting loose prematurely. This great queuing trend continued. Everything except the cinema had a huge queue. Nothing was going to be done soon. We headed out again and into the melee. The entertainment for this side of the event seemed just the same as previous years except there were more stalls and a bigger beer tent. One thing that did seem new was the quagmire. It seemed like wooden chips had tried to be laid down for the festivities but it hadn’t worked. It was a mud bath between the stalls and women with sandals were getting a free beauty treatment to their feet.

After another queue we finally had our hands on some food and we took our burgers down towards the boats to have a look at them. In previous years where there had been only around half a dozen ships we’ve been lucky enough to look around them. On this occasion it was hard enough to even get through the 10-deep crowds to the railings to look at the ships. Queues everywhere! Queues longer than your average land-lover would have been willing to stand in - all to simply look around a stationary ship.

We had a look at the boats but in all honesty we must have spent more time looking at the back of peoples legs whilst trying not to clip their heels. That was a shame because they looked great too!
Here are a couple of the tall ships:

Our trip had taken a couple of hours but all we had managed to do was queue several times and see the tall ships moored up. We had to leave eventually to head to pick up our wedding invitations and I at least left a little disappointed that because of the volume of people we’d not had chance to really do anything. Over the few days the Ships had been in town, I’d heard a few accounts from different people at work and at a fun ‘computer game party’ that turned into a card game party on Saturday night. It was a mixed bunch of reviews but the general gist was the same as my experience. Too many people, too many queues.

Today (Sunday) was the day the ships set sail. We planned to head to see them on their way and to see the spectacle that was really missing from the previous days queuing. It didn’t really go too well again though. Setting off in what we thought would be plenty enough time to get to the park and ride and from there to get to the beach to see the ships blown along Belfast Lough. We instead found ourselves stuck in a 3 mile traffic jam on the motorway. We were trying to get to Loughshore where a small event was going on with a few classic cars, a wee market and some entertainment. The plan was to watch the ships gracefully make their way into the Irish Sea then to enjoy the sun and look around the market and take in the atmosphere.

What we ended up doing for the first couple of hours was queuing. All but one ship was on the horizon by the time we were able to get there.

It was a real shame. We were not alone in having that problem though by all accounts. The upside was that we did see the ships out on the horizon and we did have a nice time by the beach in the sun. There was more space at this little event and plenty of chairs laid out for people to sit down. Lots of food stalls and although a fair few queues, nothing as crazy as the day before. It was just the traffic issue that was the sinking blow to being able to enjoy watching the boats sailing.

So overall, my weekend can be summed up as being dominated by queuing on land. Through bad luck or bad planning it was a little bit of a disappointment. Sadly the real spectacle for me turned out not to be the ships but the people. So many people! On the plus side it’s a great indication that people from all over Northern Ireland are willing to come out and enjoy something together when the effort is made to reach people... even maybe a little too much! Hehe.
Already, I can’t wait for the tall ships to return. I just hope that next time the events on the ground run as smoothly as the ships did on the water.

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