The earliest depiction of a harbour at Portrush appears on the 1580 “Swift” map of Portrush Peninsula. This was a rocky inlet at the southern end of Ramore Head and sheltered from Northerly and North-easterly winds by the massive bulk of the headland. This inlet was later developed as a more accessible harbour and improved by the addition of wooden jetties and steps. It is today what we know as the Old Dock.
It is within this harbour that we find the “Pilgrim Steps” used by emigrants to board small boats to take them out to larger ships and thence to North America.
During the medieval period the harbour would have been used by many of the Spanish and French fishermen fishing local waters to provide essential protein rich food for the populations of these countries.
It is also known that during this period considerable trade was carried on between the North Coast of Ireland and many other continental European countries including several of the Baltic nations. In the eighteen century Portrush had become an important port for importing and exporting cargo for merchants in the nearby town of Coleraine.
Whilst Coleraine did have its own harbour this was to be reached by crossing a shifting sand bar at the mouth of the River Bann and then navigating that river up to the town. Neither was easy in good conditions and with a high tide but in bad weather and with low water the task became virtually impossible.
In 1826 a group of Coleraine merchants and Principal Landowners came together to finance and construct a new harbour at Portrush. The eminent engineer, John Rennie, who had previously been commissioned to identify a suitable site for “a safety harbour” on the North Coast had reported in 1803 that the only site that he could discover was within the West Bay at Portrush. Having obtained the necessary Act of Parliament and Royal Assent to the setting up of Portrush Harbour Company 21 June 1827 work was started without delay.
The basalt rock used to construct the two piers was blasted from Ramore Head completely removing Crannagh Hill and from the west facing cliffs in the area behind Kerr Street. The original plan was quickly achieved well within budget and the engineer, now Sir John Rennie, persuaded the company to adopt a revised scheme which would result in the much larger harbour we see today.
At this point some 100,000 tons of rock had been torn from the headland and placed in the two piers. By 1829 ships were using the new harbour and in December Sir John noted that the north pier was now 402 feet (122.5 metres) long and the south pier 230 feet (70.1 metres) long. By 1835 the new harbour was complete: it had cost £18,048 3s 8d; enclosed approximately 10.5 acres (4.25 hectares) of water; and could float vessels up to 500 tons (50,802.5 kilogrammes) at any time of the tide.
Over time the harbour would see many changes in its use. The area left by the removal of Crannagh Hill would become a coal yard, then home to an RAF Marine Craft Unit and finally the location of Waterworld, a council owned indoor water play park.
The south pier would become home to bathing boxes, diving boards, steps and two tethered rafts. Local entrepreneurs would set up businesses hiring out rowing boats to holidaymakers or providing refreshments to those using the beach and harbour from the “Teas & Ices” shop on the south pier (now rebuilt and operated as Babushka).
Cargoes of many sorts would be imported and exported, principal among the exports being crushed basalt stone from Craigahulliar Quarry. Passenger carrying boats from Scotland and England would transport thousands of holidaymakers and day trippers to and from Portrush and a container shipping company,”Anglo-Irish Transport” would operate between Portrush and Preston, during the 1960s.
A fleet of fishing boats, initially sail powered but later diesel engine powered, would operate from moorings in the harbour with their catches being eagerly awaited and landed on the north pier. The harbour would host swimming competitions and become the home of Portrush Yacht Club and the RNLI.
With the arrival of the railway in 1855 tracks would be laid to the harbour and these would be used for many years by the railway company and the Portrush, Bushmills and Giant’s Causeway Tramway Company to transport goods and raw materials. Today it is a much quieter place with little commercial or passenger traffic apart from the occasional cruise ship anchoring in the West Bay and landing its passengers by tender.
A small number of boats offering sea-angling trips, undertaking a little commercial fishing or running sightseeing trips around the coast. Moorings are much better organised and the harbour has become a marina for pleasure craft. The bathing boxes and all the diving and swimming equipment has gone as have all the remnants of the harbour’s commercial past.
RAF 1105 Marine Craft Unit
Portrush harbour had some important newcomers in 1964, when four high-speed launches, two high speed launches – 68ft (20.7 metres) Vosper Rescue and Target Towing Launch Mk. 1A – and two smaller pinnaces – 63ft (19.2 metres) General Service Pinnace Mk. 2 – belonging to the Royal Air Force (RAF) arrived. They were there in preparation for a new base for No. 1105 Marine Craft Unit which was to be opened later that year- the result of two years of work between the harbour owners, the Urban District Council and the RAF.
A new jetty adjacent to the Lifeboat House was constructed, prefabricated office & workshop buildings were erected in the old coal yard site and Leander House (now demolished) on Bath Road was purchased and fitted out for accommodation.
Vice Admiral Sir Arthur Hezlet sailed into the port on the Royal Navy minesweeper H.M.S. Wiston to tour the station before being escorted to his house in Aghadowey, Co. Londonderry. The principal functions of the unit were target towing, recovery of practice shells and bombs and rescue of downed aircrew.
Portrush also had the flagship of the RAFs small fleet of vessels allocated to it, which was Her Majestys Royal Air Force Vessel Seal. HMAFV Seal had been specially designed for the RAF, and was designated as a LRRSC (Long Range Recovery and Support Craft) so as to carry out quite a number of tasks that the RAF needed with the introduction of more modern aircraft. Seal was 120ft (36.6 metres) long, was manned by a crew of 18 and she had been across the Atlantic to work in the Bahamas on a torpedo recovery exercise with the US forces.
The base spent seven years as a familiar sight in Portrush, before the unit was withdrawn when R.A.F. Ballykelly was closed, the last motor launches leaving the harbour on 4th March 1971. A plaque and information board on the wall of the Harbour Office commemorates the unit and one of the launches once based at Portrush – No. 2757 – is preserved in the Royal Air Force Museum at Hendon.