During the first half of the 20th century warships of the Royal Navy regularly made courtesy calls to Portrush with the first recorded visit being in 1907. Amongst the earliest naval visitors was HMS Drake, now a wreck on the seabed off Rathlin Island. She was accompanied by HMS Black Prince and HMS Antrim.
Following the First World War whole fleets of Destroyers were regularly seen at anchor off Portrush. Such visits were an occasion for celebration. Portrush Urban District Council would organise sporting events, bus tours and other entertainments for the ships’ crews and laid on dinners and receptions for the officers. Local shops, cafes, hostelries and dance halls benefited from the tidal wave of hundreds of sailors on shore leave, perhaps with several weeks unspent pay in their pockets.
In the summer of 1925 the largest vessel in the Royal Navy, the battlecruiser HMS Hood, spent a memorable five days at Portrush. She proved a huge attraction with people from all over the province coming to see her: special excursion trains arrived from Belfast with sightseers and hundreds of people gathered daily on Ramore Head to watch the huge vessel. Local fishermen did a roaring trade in taking sightseers out around the Hood and many were able to go aboard in organised visits: in total, 10,000 people are reported to have boarded the ship on guided tours during its five-day visit. The crew were able to take part in tours to the Giant’s Causeway and various tournaments held in Portrush, as well as dances and shows. A special clubroom was opened in the Town Hall, with free writing paper for the men to send a precious letter to their loved ones at home.
Commissioned in 1920 HMS Hood was the largest warship in the world and remained so for the next twenty years. In May 1941, during the hunt for the German battleship Bismarck Hood was torn apart and sunk by a single salvo from that ship. But for three survivors 1,500 British sailors perished in the North Atlantic Ocean including one Portrush man, George Shearer, who had perhaps seen her or even walked her decks in an organised visit in 1925.
In 1930 the battleship HMS Rodney one of the most powerful battleships in the world at that time, visited Portrush. As part of a round of social events during this courtesy visit her Captain, later Admiral of the Fleet, 1st Viscount Cunningham of Hyndhope, KT, GCB, OM, DSO & Two Bars, Andrew Browne Cunningham, he was invited to officially open and name a new street in Portrush – Rodney Street.
In the Second World War, as Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, Cunningham led British naval forces to victory in several critical Mediterranean naval battles. In 1943, Cunningham was promoted to First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy, a position he held until his retirement in 1946. Incidentally, when HMS Rodney sailed at the close of its visit it had acquired a gift from the people of Portrush. It was a black Persian cat named, appropriately, Rodney.
The light cruisers HMS Durban and HMS Wessex were among annual visitors during the thirties and HMS Nelson made a return visit in 1938, just one year before the outbreak of the Second World War. Many ships of various sizes and nations would visit Portrush throughout the war and on clear days lines of vessels could be seen on the horizon as north Atlantic convoys entered the Western Approaches on the final leg of their hazardous journeys from North America to the Clyde or the Mersey.
Post war visits included the battleship HMS Duke of York plus a cruiser, aircraft carrier and destroyer in 1947 during Navy Week. The following year two Battle Class destroyers anchored in the West bay. The last of the “big guns” was HMS Vanguard in 1953. During the 1960s and early 1970s several Canadian, American and British warships, mostly destroyers and frigates made courtesy calls to Portrush but they became less frequent as time passed. In 1977 the Royal Yacht Britannia brought Her Majesty the Queen to the town as part of her Silver Jubilee celebrations.
In recent years several cruise ships of various sizes have visited Portrush. Anchoring in the West Bay they transfer their passengers to and from the new low-level floating pontoons using their own Tenders.