Portaferry Lifeboat - Scrapbook
RNLI Lifeboat House, The Strand, Portaferry, Co Down, Northern Ireland

© Portaferry Lifeboat Station

Scrapbook of Portaferry Lifeboat

From 1979 to 2004

After the temporary closure of the Cloughey/Portavogie RNLI lifeboat station on 26 October 1978 a trial inshore lifeboat was established at Portaferry in 1979.

Representations had previously been made by Portaferry Sailing Club and many others to establish a RNLI lifeboat station at Portaferry.   A subsequent enquiry was held by Capt A G (Tony) Course, RNLI Inspector of Lifeboats for Ireland, which recommended the establishment of a RNLI Lifeboat Station in Portaferry.

Following a trial lifeboat period in 1979 the station was officially opened on 1 May 1980 with Dr W M (Billy) Brown being appointed as the station's first Honorary Secretary, Col William Brownlow as Chairman, Sir John Andrews as President and Desmond Rogers as Chief Helmsman.

The following years saw the start of a continuing close relationship with the BBC Children's programme Blue Peter after which all the Portaferry Lifeboats have been named 'Blue Peter V'.

The following is an abbreviated history of the Portaferry Lifeboat from its first operations in 1979 until 2004.

For more information about the station from 1999 onwards go to our News page.

Some of our Blue Peter Visitors

In November 1985 Portaferry Lifeboat Station received the great news that the BBC Television programme 'Blue Peter' would help to fund a new Atlantic 21 lifeboat to be named 'Blue Peter V'.

Since that time the Station has had the fortune to welcome several Blue Peter presenters and their supporting recording and editorial crews.

Some of the many who visited the station are listed below

BBC 'Blue Peter' - May 2000

Matt Baker, of BBC Blue Peter, visited us on 16 May 2000 to record sequences with some of the crew of Portaferry lifeboat Station for transmission during a live broadcast from the Waterfront Hall, Belfast on 29 May 2000.

'Blue Peter V' is put through her paces

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown


Matt learns from Jonathan Brownlee about throttle control

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown


Phil Heath lets Matt try the helmsman's seat

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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Do you remember these BBC Blue Peter presenters who visited the station in 1987?

Romana D'Annunzio, Richard Bacon and Katy Hill

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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3 December 1986

Photo: BBC 'Blue Peter'

Caron Keating of BBC Blue Peter

Caron Keating from CBBC 'Blue Peter', who had just joined CBBC Blue Peter a month earlier, visited Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station on 3 December 1986 to hand over the station's first 'Blue Peter' lifeboat, a Zodiac MK4.  The lifeboat had been funded by young 'Blue Peter' viewers and was the fifth one of several RNLI lifeboats funded in the same way.  

Tommy Mason, an art teacher at St Columba's School, and a Portaferry Lifeboat crew member since a trial lifeboat was stationed in 1979, (top right hand) with Blue Peter presenter Caron Keating and supporters of Blue Peter and Portaferry Lifeboat..

The new lifeboat was christened by a 10 year old girl, Paula Trainor, using a bottle of milk.

Paula Trainor, aged 10, holding two RNLI bronze medals awarded to her great, great grand uncle Andrew Young and her great, grand uncle George M Young who had been coxswains of the Cloughey Lifeboat.


Note: Caron Keating was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997 and after a long and brave fight against her disease she died on 13 April 2004.  

Caron's mother, the well known TV presenter Gloria Hunniford, and her two brothers, Michael and Paul Hunniford, set up the 'Caron Keating Foundation' in her memory with the aim of raising funds to assist health professionals, cancer patients, their families and cancer charities in their quest to improve early detection, treatment and progress towards an ultimate cure.

For more information on the Caron Keating Foundation click here

In 2007 an old video of Caron Keating's visit to Portaferry RNLI was discovered and it was thought appropriate to forward a copy the Caron's mother, Gloria Hunniford.

In response, the following letter from Gloria Hunniford was received;

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RNLI Lifeboat Stations depend on volunteers who spend countless hours manning their station's lifeboat or raising funds in support.

Just some of these early Portaferry Lifeboat volunteers since the Station opened on 1st May 1980 are mentioned below.

Portaferry Lifeboat Volunteer Crew 2004

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Station receives 'Letter of Thanks' from Admiral Sir Jock Slater, Chairman of the RNLI, for the 'Devotion to Duty' of the crew and Station in the search for a missing boy on 11th & 12th January 2004.

Holding the framed letter is John Murray, Station Hon Secretary

Photo: RNLI - Portaferry

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Photo: RNLI - B Rogers

October 2004 - Former helmsman and previous webmaster, Dr Phil Heath, who now resides in New Zealand, paid a visit to Portaferry Lifeboat during a business trip to Northern Ireland.

Phil (centre) is pictured with Desmond Rogers, DLA and former Chief Helmsman, and Jim Brown, Station Co-ordinating Chairman and previous Station President.

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                      Jim Brown               David Russell (incoming Chairman)

RNLI Branch Link Northern Ireland - Spring 2004

Easter 2002

Fun at the Easter Collection

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Pat Browne, Liz Brown and Joan Peacock enjoying their RNLI fundrasinig at Portaferry's RNLI Shop during the annual Easter collection


our Treasurer, Capt Eddie McGee gets a little bit of help with counting the proceeds.

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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February 2002

Fun and laughter at the Portaferry & District Lifeboat Guild's

'Evening of Style & Colour'

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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December 2002

Tommy Mason from Portaferry Lifeboat Station grew a 'Santa' beard to raise monies for the RNLI. The 'fungus' was removed on 2nd December at a 'Santa Shave' held at McNamara's Bar, Portaferry and raised further funds for the RNLI.

Newcastle Lifeboat's coxswain, Franci Morgan and his crew came to support Tommy's fundraising activities.

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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13th January 2001

'To the skipper and crew of the 'Blue Peter V'

"We just wanted to thank you for coming to our aid on Saturday when we became stranded at Island Hill, Comber. We have attached some pictures taken by our son which we will keep as a reminder to check the tides in the future!

Again thanks for you help and professionalism - it is incredibly reassuring to know you are protecting the lough and surrounding area.

We hope God keeps you all safe on future call-outs".


Photo:Family of persons rescued

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The Crew Dinner - January 2002

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Helmsman, Phil Heath, prior to departure for New Zealand, receives a Portaferry Lifeboat Station plaque and a framed montage of photographs during his years of service from Billy Brown, President of Portaferry RNLI. 


Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Crew member Lynn Brown helped once again to organise the annual Crew Dinner


Jonathan takes command

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Mark gets a 'Black Bush' (red diesel) refill

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

"What's that you've got Brian"


Lynn presents Tommy with the new Portaferry RNLI crew pullover

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2 March 2001

Freedom of the Borough of Ards



Lifeboats Ireland 2001


Portaferry Lifeboat crew members and station officials

Photo: RNLI - Portaferry

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Newtownards Chronicle

Crew Dinner - 2000

Guests at the 2000 Crew Dinner included representatives from 72 Squadron Aldergrove Air/Sea Rescue

Photo: RNLI - Portaferry

One of editions of the station's newsletters started in 1999


The Crew Christmas Dinner

Photo: RNLI - Portaferry Hotel


Crew members Phil Heath & Joe Breen who helped to organise the festivities

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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Portaferry Lifeboat Crew on one of their exercises with 72 Squadron from Aldergrove, Co Antrim

Photo: RNLI - Colin Watson


Gabriel Rogers and John Smyth

Photo: RNLI - Colin Watson

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May 1999

'MAYDAY' run for Portaferry Crew

Photo: RNLI - Colin Watson

Portaferry Lifeboat crew taking part in the Belfast City Marathon on 'May Day' 1999

(L to R) Phil Heath, John Smyth, Geraldine McClune, Sammy Gordon and Peter McDevitt

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April 1999

Portaferry Lifeboat website

Dr Phil Heath (Helmsman) & Jim Brown (Station President) establish Portaferry RNLI's Website.

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RNLI 175th Anniversary celebrations

RNLI Branch Link NI 1999

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August 1999

RNLI Branch Link NI 1999

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Lord Mayor of Poole
receives Portaferry Lifeboat Plaque

The Mayor of Poole receives a 'Blue Peter V' plaque from Portaferry Lifeboat Station


Crew members John Smyth, Jonathan Brownlee, Tommy Mason and Joe Breen


The RNLI Northern Ireland regional office staff
Lifeboat House - 33 Saintfield Road - Belfast

Beth Duffin - Regional Manager Northern Ireland

Valerie Cromie - Area Organiser Northern Ireland

During the financial year 2000/2001 the Belfast office was serving 40 Northern Ireland fundraising branches, 11 of which sold RNLI souveniers and supporting the 8 local RNLI lifeboat stations.

Income from the RNLI fundraising branches was £236,086.88 and their souvenier sales were £36,077.41.  Fundraising by the lifeboat stations was £19,785.19

Income from 33 golf clubs was £21,388.25, from 8 yacht clubs £6,859.66, from 6 angling clubs £2,658.73, from 4 bowling clubs £557.00 and from 5 other miscellaneous clubs/events £10,591.00.  

The Portrush Raft Race raised £28,000 and the Whitehead Raft Race £1,000.

Photos: NI RNLI Newsletter 1999    Income source: Lifeboat Ireland 2001


Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Lieutenant Commander Brian Miles, Director of the RNLI and his wife Anne visited Portaferry Station prior to his retirement from the RNLI in December 1998. Brian Miles (front row, 5th from left) is pictured with members of the station's management, crew and guild.

Brian Miles was closely involved with the establishment of a lifeboat station at Portaferry in 1980.

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HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, President of the RNLI, visits Portaferry RNLI

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

HRH Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, visited Portaferry RNLI. The Duke of Kent is shown being greeted by Mr John Murray, Station Hon Secretary, after being introduced by Lt Commander Brian Miles, Director of the RNLI. In uniform is Portaferry RNLI's President, Major Brownlow, Lord Lieutenant of County Down.

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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Champagne & Fashion Morning

RNLI Branch Link NI 1997

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27 December 1994

The Kircubbin Disaster

Loss of five lives

One of the saddest days in the history of the Portaferry Lifeboat station occurred on 27 December 1994.

Six men had set out earlier that day in a 17ft single engined speedboat from the village of Kircubbin, County Down, bound for Sketrick Island, located on the western side of Strangford Lough.

Some of those on board had made the 3 mile crossing to Sketrick Island many times before.

During their return later that night from Ballydornan to Kircubbin the outboard engine of their speedboat developed problems off Sketrick Island.  One of those on board was able to advise a relative during a brief mobile phone call that they were in difficulties.  It was a cold and windy winter's night with heavy rain.

During attempts to restart the engine the vessel capsized, plunging all six men into the icy waters.   

When the alarm was raised, Portaferry and Newcastle lifeboats, two search and rescue helicopters and coastguard search teams from Bangor, Newcastle, Portaferry and Whiterock were tasked to the area.  

For a few hours some confusion reigned as to the numbers and names of those who were on board the ill-fated boat.  As news spread, family, relations and friends began to arrive at Kircubbin Sailing Club in the hope that their loved ones and friends would be found.  

Sadly, only one person, Stephen Martin, was able to swim to safety ashore onto Trasnagh Island where he was spotted and rescued by a SAR helicopter.  The body of Jackie McNamarra was found by coastguards on the shoreline of Sketrick Island later that night and two others, Hugo McCullough and Ronald Grant shortly afterwards.  Extensive searches for the two remaining men continued throughout the night and for the following two days with negative results.

On the afternoon of 29 December, after all hope had gone of any survivors being found, the coastguard service decided to scale down their official rescue searches as the situation had changed from one of rescue to that of recovery.  Voluntary searches continued by crews from the Portaferry Lifeboat Station.

Due to on-going un-official searches by diving organisations, yacht club members and the general public, concerns were raised over the safety and co-ordination of those involved in the search and it was agreed with HM Coastguard to maintain the civilian search co-ordination centre already established at Kircubbin Sailing Club.  It was agreed that Joe Breen, an experienced diver and a helmsman of the Portaferry Lifeboat, would co-ordinate the voluntary under-water search teams.  Jim Brown, also from Portaferry Lifeboat Station, would continue to co-ordinate communications and civilian shore and water searches with the added assistance of Derek Gilmore, Jimmy McCallister, Jim Rogers and other members of the Kircubbin Sailing Club.   

During the following three days over 100 civilian search parties were organised from the co-ordination centre at Kircubbin Sailing Club.  Each search party, consisting of at least 4 persons, combed the waters and shoreline of Strangford Lough, often in difficult winter weather conditions.  Dive teams, both police and civilian, carried out many under-water searches. A water search-dog team was also used on several occasions.  Positions of clothing and other items found during the searches were logged and handed over to police for investigation.

Following a meeting with the families of the those who were still missing at Kircubbin Sailing Club on 2 January 1995 that was attended by HM Coastguard, Portaferry RNLI and others involved in the search, it was agreed that it was time to discontinue the daily co-ordinated searches.  Further co-ordinated searches would continue at the weekend following the meeting, and thereafter during following weekends until the remains of those still missing were found.

On 15 January 1995, the wreckage of the speedboat was located by divers and eventually raised for examination.

A few weeks later the bodies of both missing men, George Sweeney and Christopher Bell, were washed ashore on different dates and locations in Strangford Lough.

Over these weeks, hundreds of local people and organisations had given their moral and physical support to the rescue efforts and the recovery of those who were missing.

Some, but not all, of the organisations from outside the immediate area who gave their assistance were;

Queen's University - Sub-Aqua Team         Neil Powell & his water search dogs

Paddy Prunty & teams from Lough Neagh Search and Rescue

Ballyholme Yacht Club - Diving Club           Don Clarke SLYC       Drogheda Sub-Aqua Club

Trim Divers           North West Mountian Rescue Team

Strangford Lough Memorial Plaque

On 24 May 2004, a plaque was unveiled close to the old Kircubbin Harbour, off Shore Road, Kircubbin, by the Mayor of Ard's Borough Council, Councillor Jim McBriar, in memory of all those who had lost their lives on Strangford Lough.  The service of dedication was conducted by Rev Richard Seymour-Whitley, Rev Bill Cameron and Father's Jim Sheppard & Pat O'Neill.

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

The memorial plaque at Kircubbin, looking north-westwards across Strangford Lough towards Kircubbin Sailing Club from where the six men had departed on 27 December 1994

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

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17 September 1994

Portaferry Lifeboat Crew

with Atlantic 75 - Blue Peter V

Photo: RNLI Colin Watson

Tim Vincent from BBC Blue Peter named the new Atlantic 75 lifeboat 'Blue Peter V'

Photo: RNLI Colin Watson

Some of the large crown who witnessed the Naming Ceremony

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Newspaper clipping - Spectator Newspapers

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Portaferry RNLI celebrates the opening of their new Lifeboat Shop and 100 years of life-saving in the area.

Mrs Anne Miles (left) with Portaferry & District Lifeboat members, Liz Brown and Lea Bradshaw

Photo: Portaferry RNLI

Lieut-Commander Brian Miles, Director of the RNLI, and his wife Mrs Anne Miles, attended celebrations on 23 September 1989 to celebrate 100 years of RNLI life-saving in the Ard's Peninsula and the 10th anniversary of the trials to establish a lifeboat station in Portaferry.  The celebrations also coencided with the official opening of the new Souvenier Shop of the Portaferry & District Lifeboat Guild.

An ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving was held at the Portaferry Parish Church on the afternoon of 23 September 1989 at which Cannon F W A Ball welcomed those present.  An Anthem was then sung by the the Portavogie Fishermen's Choir.  The 1st lesson from Psalm 107 was read by Major William Brownlow, Chairman of Portaferry Lifeboat, and the 2nd lesson by Thomas (Tommy) Mason, a crew member of the Portaferry Lifeboat.  This was followed by prayers offered by the Rev. W. Caughey and the Rev. R G Bagnall.  Following this, an address was given by Lieut-Commander Brian Miles RD MNI RNR, Director of the RNLI, which was followed by prayers and a blessing by the Rev Father G Laverty P.P.   The organist was Mrs E Palmer.

Following the Ecumenical Service of Thanksgiving a Centenary Party was held in the evening, organised by members of the crew and the Portaferry Lifeboat Guild.

At this time the officers of the Portaferry Lifeboat Guild were;

President - Mrs W S Brownlow; Chairman - Mrs Bernadette Rogers; Hon Secretary - Mrs Jess Brown; Hon Treasurer - Capt N Brownlee

Press clipping: Down Recorder 1989

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Jess Brown names 'Voluntary Worker' in Poole

Photo - RNLI

Jess Brown, Honorary Secretary of Portaferry Lifeboat Guild, was invited by the RNLI to name a new 'Tyne Class' lifeboat, 'Voluntary Worker', at the RNLI's headquarters in Poole, Dorset.  The name of the new lifeboat was chosen to honour all RNLI fundraisers.  

'Voluntary Worker' will be used in the RNLI's 'relief fleet' that provides RNLI Lifeboat Stations with temporary 'replacement' lifeboats when their lifeboat has to be withdrawn from service due to mechanical or other problems.

Funding for the new relief lifeboat, costing £560,000, was met in part from the Institution's 'general funds', to which the majority of money raised by branches and guilds is allocated.  The remaining funding of £287,000 was provided through the RNLI Lottery, run in conjunction with Volvo Concessionaires Ltd.  Tickets from the lottery were sold by RNLI volunteers from branches and guilds, whose efforts, with the added generosity of Volvo Consessionaires Ltd, contributed enormously to the appeal's success.

The Naming Ceremony took place on 23rd September 1988.   

Photo: By kind permission of Mrs Heather Kennedy

Jess Brown named Voluntary Worker

Jess Brown was accompanied by her husband, Dr Billy Brown, Portaferry Station's Honorary Secretary.   Several members of Jess's family also attended the ceremony, as did some of her friends and members of the Portaferry Lifeboat Guild who had travelled to Poole from Northern Ireland.

Lt. Cdr. Brian Miles RD, MNI, RNR, Director of the RNLI, opened the proceedings and, following the Service of Dedication, introduced Jess Brown to the large audience and praised her voluntary work for the RNLI, linking this to the many volunteers who carried out similar fundraising work for the RNLI throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland.  

Photo: By kind permission of Mrs Heather Kennedy

Jess Brown was then invited to name the new 'Tyne Class' lifeboat, 'Voluntary Worker'.

Music during the ceremony was provided by the Queen Elizabeth School's band.

UPDATE 1 - 31 October 2015

After 27 years, Tyne Class lifeboat 47-031, 'Voluntary Worker', still remains in service and is currently stationed at Selsey RNLI Lifeboat Station, West Sussex, England.

'Voluntary Worker' was built by Fairey Allday Marine and joined the RNLI relief fleet following her naming ceremony in September 1988.   She was stationed for her first year at Lytham St Annes and then served in various lifeboat relief duties.   In February 2006 she was sent to Selsey where she took over from the Tyne Class 47-001, 'City of London'.   

She is expected to remain in service at Selsey until replaced by a new Shannon Class lifeboat, scheduled for delivery in 2017.

Update 2 - 1 July 2017

Selsey Lifeboat 47-031, 'Voluntary Worker', retired on 1 April 2017 after 29 years of service with the RNLI.  She is being kept afloat on sercice on a mooring at the station until being replaced in the near future by a Shannon Class lifeboat.

'Voluntary Worker' on her last slipway launch from Selsey Lifeboat Station on 1 April 2017


UPDATE 3 - 17 July 2018

Voluntary Worker has been sold out of service by the RNLI to a museum in Lancanshire and is expected to be used as a floating exhibit at some time in the future.

Photo: Martin Fish

'Voluntary Worker' entered service for the first time in the RNLI Relief Fleet on 23 November 1988 when she arrived on station at Lytham St Annes.

Voluntary Worker served in the relief fleet at various lifeboat stations until 26 February 2006 when she was sent to Selsey to replace their 'City of London'.  In April 2017 she was replaced by a new Shannon Class lifeboat, 'Denise and Eric', and subsequently decommissioned shortly afterwards by the RNLI.

During her years as a relief lifeboat she was launched on service 198 times and saved 41 lives.

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On 3 February 1988, Anthony Oliver, Head of RNLI Fundraising, wrote to all RNLI stations about the need to use their facilities to full potential in supporting souvenier sales and generallly bringing the RNLI to the notice of the public.

As a result, Portaferry Lifeboat Guild decided to support the establishment of a Lifeboat Shop at the station's newly completed boathouse and a letter was written to confirm this by the guild's Secretary, Jess Brown, to the RNLI.   Planning permissions were approved on 17 October 1988 and construction of the lifeboat shop started shortly afterwards.

Completion occurred in the summer of 1989.

Portaferry Lifeboat Guild's officers at that time were; President: Mrs Eveleigh Brownlow, Chairman: Mrs Bernadette Rogers, Honorary Secretary: Mrs Jess Brown, Asst Hon Secretary: Mrs Liz Brown, & Honorary Treasurer : Cptn N Brownlee.

Photo: By kind permission of Mrs Heather Kennedy

Jess Brown, Honorary Secretary Portaferry Lifeboat Guild, with crew members Gabriel Rogers and Jackie Harris on board the new Atlantic 21 lifeboat, 'Blue Peter V'

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'Allo Allo'

It's Yvette in her 'search' for René in our 'Atlantic 21'

Vicki Michelle (Yvette, Rene's waitress, in the BBC comedy series 'Allo Allo') with crew members Billy Ellison, Francis Rogers and Gabriel Rogers during a visit to Portaferry

Photo: Portaferry RNLI

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Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown

Photo: RNLI - Jim Brown (June 2012)

A small stone is imbedded in one of the entrance pillars to Portaferry Lifeboat Station. Underneath there is a plaque which reads;

This stone is from the first lifeboat house in Britian built at Formby in 1776.  

The RNLI took the house over in 1824.

The house was abandoned in 1918.

(The stone referred to above was retrieved by the late Jess Brown from the last remains of the first recorded Lifeboat Station at Formby, England, the foundations of which had almost disappeared through errosion by the sea. The stone was placed into one of the old gate pillars at the entrance to Portaferry's first lifeboat station 210 years after the Formby lifeboat station was built)

The remains of Formby lifeboat station in 1986

Photo: RNLI - Jess Brown

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9th May 1987

Opening of the new boathouse

Photo: RNLI

Major Brownlow, Lord Lieutenant of County Down and Chairman of Portaferry Lifeboat Station, addresses those present at the opening of the Station's new Boathouse and naming of the Atlantic 21 Lifeboat, 'Blue Peter V'.   Seated 2nd from right, front row, is Dr Barry Bramwell, the Station's 2nd President. 1st left standing is Jeff Mankertz, Inspector of Lifeboats Ireland.

Portaferry Lifeboat Atlantic 21 'Blue Peter V' pictured at the Strangford Bar


1987 - brochure printed for the opening of the new boathouse

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1987 - Portaferry Lifeboat Guild

Some of Portaferry Lifeboat Guild members in 1987

Photo: RNLI - Jess Brown

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Newspaper clipping from The Mirror

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15 May 1984

Her Majesty, The Queen Mother, presents Desmond Rogers with his Bronze Medal in recognition for his part in the 'Jane's Rock rescue' on 19 December 1982 at the RNLI Annual General Meeting in the Royal Festival Hall, London

Photo: RNLI

Sir John Andrews, first President of Portaferry Lifeboat Station, congratulates Desmond Rogers, Frank Rogers and Billy Ellison.

Photo: RNLI - Portaferry

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The 'Routen Wheel Row'

The entrance to Strangford Lough is located a few miles south of the most easterly point of the island of Ireland.

Strangford Lough is tidal and is fed with waters from the Irish Sea through a narrow channel called 'The Narrows'.

'The Narrows' are approximately 5 Nautical Miles in length but with a navigable channel, in places, only a few cables wide.

Mid-way along 'The Narrows' there are a group of whirlpools known as the 'Routen Wheel'. The tidal stream at the 'Routen Wheel' can reach 8 knots during spring tides.

In the early 1980's a Mr McCullough from the local village of Kircubbin presented a large ship's wheel to Portaferry Lifeboat Station following a rescue by Portaferry Lifeboat.  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 Row'.

A couple of years earlier, on 16 May 1981, members of the lifeboat crew had raised £2,100 during a 17 mile sponsored row, using two 16ft rowing boats with six rowers each.  The crew set off for Kircubbin Sailing Club at 8:50 am on a wet and windy morning and then travelled on to Strangford Lough Yacht Club where they received lunch, after which they made their long return journey back to Portaferry, arriving at 5:30pm..

May 1981 - Crew members and supporters of the 'Around the Lough Row'

The first 'Routen Wheel Row' took place in 1983. The 6 mile race, using traditional rowing boats, was from Whiterock to Portaferry via Killyleagh.

Killyleagh Yacht Club won the first event and in subsequent years the trophy changed hands between Killyleagh Yacht Club and Portaferry Sailing Club.

Each event was followed by festivities, a BBQ and friendly banter.

1986 - Jim Ferris, Honorary Secretary of Killyleagh Yacht Club, accepts the 'Routen Wheel' from Beth Duffin, RNLI Regional Organiser.  Looking on is Portaferry Lifeboat Station's Honorary Secretary, Billy Brown

Rowing races for ladies and RNLI lifeboat crews were introduced a short time later.

By 1987 there were 4 trophies;

The 'Routen Wheel' - men's rowing race
(Presented by Mr McCullough from Kircubbin))

The 'Golden Rowlocks' - ladies rowing race
(Presented by Daft Eddies - Whiterock.   Previously used as a trophy by Daft Eddies during the 'Hen Island Raft Race' to raise monies for the RNLI)

The 'Lifeboat Bell' (formerly the Portaferry Bell) - RNLI crew rowing race
(Obtained from the Cairndhu Rowing Club in 1987 by Liz Brown - formerly presented for rowing races between teams from Portaferry and those on the Antrim coast)

The 'Lifeboat Shield' - sailing club team raising the most monies for the RNLI
(Presented by Killyleagh Yacht Club)

Photo: RNLI - Liz Brown

Plaques presented to all participants following the 1989 and 1990 rows

Ulster Television recorded a 30 minute documentary in 1991 about Portaferry that included the history of rowing and sailing in the area.  The documentary includes footage of the Galway Hooker Festival and the Routen Wheel Row.  

Click here to view this interesting and historical recording.

July 1996

Photo: RNLI - courtesy Newcastle Lifeboat Station

Pictured above are various crew members of the Newcastle & Portaferry lifeboats who participated in the 'Routen Wheel Row' for the 'Lifeboat Bell' (formerly named the Portaferry Bell) with RNLI Area Organiser, Valerie Cromie (seated front row), Bernadette Rogers, Hon Sec Portaferry & District Lifeboat Guild (seated 2nd row) Pat Browne, Chairman of Portaferry & District Lifeboat Guild (standing 3rd row) and David Dunlop, who sponsored the event (1st right 4th row)

Note - Owing to the growing difficulty in obtaining sufficient numbers of traditional rowing boats the rowing races were abandoned in 2001 and the 'Routen Wheel' became mainly a sailing event. The last 'Routen Wheel' event took place in August 2003.


Eight 'St Ayles' rowing skiffs are to be built along the County Down coast in towns and villages between Donaghadee to Dundrum with funding through the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development with support from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Down Rural Area Partnership and Down District & Ards Borough councils.  This community and tourism initiative was developed by the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership and the Police Service of Northern Ireland.  

The goal of the initiative is to revive traditional wooden boat building in the area and to encourage rowing races through the re-introduction of an annual rowing race, the be called 'Narrows Challenge', to be held in the Strangford Narrows, between Strangford and Portaferry.    

Note - Rowing club races took place in Strangford Lough until 1986.  These races were known as the 'Strangford Lough Challenge' and were for a trophy known as the 'Portaferry Bell'.  The last rowing club races were held in the summer of 1986 and were won by the Cairndhu Rowing Club who were awarded the Portaferry Bell trophy.  Following the ending of organised rowing races in Strangford Lough, Liz Brown, the then chairman of Portaferry Lifeboat Guild, approached the Cairndhu Rowing Club to have the 'Portaferry Bell' returned to Portaferry for safekeeping by the Portaferry Lifeboat Guild on the understanding that it was to be used as a trophy for rowing races between RNLI lifeboat crews during the annual 'Routen Wheel Row'.  For several years thereafter Newcastle and Portaferry lifeboat crews participated in the 'Routen Wheel Row' until 2001 when there were in-sufficient numbers of 4 manned rowing boats to hold the Routen Wheel Row races.

5 October 2014 - The 1st Narrows Challenge coastal rowing races take place

On 5th October 2014 the first 'Narrows challenge' races took place in Castle Ward Bay, Strangford Lough, with eight newly built St Ayles skiffs from local coastal towns taking part.

In 2014 the Down Coastal Rowing Club was formed by the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership to co-ordinate rowing activities in the area and beyond.

As of January 2015 there are nine participating St Ayles Skiffs in the County Down area.

For further information about the 'Narrows Challenge' and other future rowing events go to the websites of the Down Coastal Rowing Club or the Strangford Lough & Lecale Partnership

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19 December 1982 - The Jane's Rock Rescue

On the early evening of 19 December 1982 reports were received that the yacht, Frieda, with two yachtsmen on board, had not arrived at Ringhaddy having left Killyleagh earlier in the day.

Belfast Coastguard requested the Portaferry Lifeboat to launch in a search for the missing yacht.

The Portaferry Lifeboat was launched at 18:55 with Chief Helmsman, Desmond (Dessie) Rogers at the helm and Helmsman, Francis (Frank) Rogers and William (Billy) Ellison as crew.  They proceeded in gale force winds towards the west side of Strangford Lough and began a search in the dark between Holm Bay and Island Taggart.  

The yacht was eventually sighted by searchlight, hard aground on Jane's Rock, adjacent to the Long Sheelagh.   Unable to land at that position, the lifeboat made its way to the northern end of Jane's Rock where Helmsman Francis Rogers was able to get ashore.  With the aid of illumination from a SAR helicopter's searchlight he was able to get to the yacht and found that one male survivor was on board.

The survivor reported that his fellow crew member was missing.  The missing crew member had been in their 14ft tender working with the anchor when it was swept away in a north-westerly direction.

With the male survivor on board the lifeboat proceeded slowly towards Kircubbin Bay through the Bird Island Passage.  White flares were used to illuminate the narrow channel.  Winds had now increased to storm force and as shelter from the southerly wind was gradually lost high seas were experienced, at times almost swamping the lifeboat.

On reaching Kircubbin Bay the lifeboat stood off until shore help arrived shortly afterwards and the male survivor was then landed to safety ashore at Kircubbin at 21:45.

Portaferry's 'D' Class in 1982 - Zodiac Mk 4 with twin 40 HP Mariner outboards

At daylight, in strong to gale force winds, the search was resumed for the missing crew member.

Later that morning the missing yachtsman was found on an island by a coastguard auxiliary.  Fortunately, he had been driven ashore in the yacht's tender and had taken shelter under it during the night.  

Having been released from service the lifeboat had a difficult passage back to Portaferry in stormy conditions.

For their rescue, Chief Helmsman, Desmond Rogers was awarded the RNLI Bronze Medal; and Helmsman, Francis Rogers & William Ellison, the Thanks of the Institution on Vellum.

The presentation of the RNLI Bronze Medal to Desmond Rogers was made by Her Majesty, The Queen Mother, on 15 May 1984.   (See photo above)

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The Crew - May 1980

1980 - Portaferry Lifeboat crew & station officials with the Mayor of Ards Borough Council

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Portaferry Lifeboat Ladies Guild - formed in 1979

Portaferry Lifeboat Ladies Guild was formed in November 1979 with Mrs Eveleigh Brownlow as Chairman, Mrs Bernadette Rogers (Secretary), Mrs Pat Browne (Treasurer) and four committee members, Mrs Jess Brown, Mrs Joyce Brown, Mrs A Lawson (Sen) and Mrs M Murray.

By early 1980 Guild numbers had swelled to 22 members and in the first year the Guild had raised £1,400.

On 16 May 1981 the sum of £2,100 was raised as the result of a sponsored row by crew members around Strangford Lough.  Two 16ft rowing boats, each with 6 crew members, left Portaferry at 8:50am in wet and windy conditions and rowed to Whiterock via Kircubbin where the lifeboat crew were kindly supplied with lunch by the ladies of Strangford Lough Yacht Club.  Following lunch they left Whiterock at 13:30 on their return journey via Ringhaddy, East Down Yacht Club, inside the Town Rock off Killyleagh, the Salt Island limit mark, Castleward, around Swan Island off Strangford and then to the finish at 18:30 at the quay at Portaferry, after which all involved made their way to Portaferry Sailing Club for refreshments.

Sir John Andrews, 1st President of Portaferry Lifeboat Station, with Guild members in 1981

One of the early and unusual fund raising events, suggested by a Guild member, Mrs C Stephens, was a pancake and punch party.  It was held on Shrove Tuesday, 1983.  Gas cookers for the event were kindly supplied by Mr S Quinn of Portaferry and several of the Guild members donned RNLI aprons when the 'guests were served freshly cooked crepes with various sweet and savoury fillings'.   Such was the success of the event that it was repeated the following year when 'several new supplies of batter had to be prepared to satisfy the demand'.

Also, in 1983, the first 'Routen Wheel Row' took place in July during the station's Lifeboat Day.   The starting point for the first event was Strangford Lough Yacht Club. Killyleagh Yacht Club were the winners.  As the winners, KYC hosted the start in 1984 and, as subsequent winners, for several years thereafter.  Following the races a BBQ and music was provided by Portaferry Sailing Club. (see Routen Wheel Row history above for further information)

Portaferry Lifeboat's 'D Class' lifeboat had been housed for several years in premises kindly lent by Queens University and subsequently at those owned by Billy Reid and Donald Elliott.

On 27 August 1979 a pre-meditated explosion occured on the yacht 'Shadow V' whilst off Oilean Ruadh, near Mullaghmore, Co Sligo.  As a result, two teenage boys, an 82 year old lady and Earl Louis Mountbatten of Burma were killed. The Belfast Newsletter decided to run a public appeal to establish a memorial fund in their memory.  The appeal raised £10,600 and it was decided to use the monies for the 'Saving of Lives at Sea'.  To this purpose the monies were allocated to assist in the building of a purpose built boathouse to house the Portaferry Lifeboat.

During the 1984 AGM of the Ladies Guild the name was changed to 'Portaferry Lifeboat Guild' to encourage men to join and assist the lady members in helping to raise the £30,000 target towards the cost of the new Boathouse.  During the 1984 AGM, Mrs Brownlow was appointed President, Mrs M Maxwell - Chairman, Mrs Jess Brown - Secretary and Mrs N Davis remained as Treasurer.

With the support of the crew, yacht clubs and the local community, £6,094.21 was raised during the financial year 1984/85.  A fun event, the 'Hen Island Race' in man-made boats and rafts, held at Ballydornan, raised £10,250 over two years.

Many of those who contributed to fundraising for the Boathouse Appeal included crew member Lucinda Hubbard who competed in the Liverpool Marathon and other events, raising £692.60.  The ladies of the 'Daft Eddies' rowing team raised over £1,000 during the Routen Wheel Row.  Others, including children, raised large and smaller amounts, every donation being special and very much appreciated.

In 1985 the BBC childrens programme Blue Peter ran a 'Pieces of Eight' appeal to fund several lifeboats but had raised enough to fund a fifth boat.  Guild member, Mrs A Lawson (the mother of crew member Leonard Lawson) heard that Blue Peter were looking for a suitable home for the additional lifeboat and she approached the BBC.  In November 1985 the station received the great news that BBC 'Blue Peter' had decided to fund a 'Blue Peter Lifeboat' at Portaferry, an Atlantic 21 lifeboat to be named Blue Peter V.

Some of Portaferry Lifeboat Guild members in 1987

On 3rd December 1986, Caron Keating and other members of BBC Blue Peter came to Portaferry and amid rain and strong winds named the new Atlantic 21 lifeboat Blue Peter V.

Assisting them was a 10 year old girl, Paula Trainor, who christened the new lifeboat with a bottle of milk.  Paula was a decendant of the Young family from Cloughey that had been much involved in the former Cloughey Lifeboat Station.

The new boathouse, built to house Blue Peter V, was opened in 1987.

Portaferry Lifeboat Guild members - 1987

President: Mrs Eveleigh Brownlow

Chairman: Mrs Bernadett Rogers

Hon Secretary: Mrs Jess Brown

Hon Treasurer: Capt. N Brownlee

Committee: Mrs Pat Browne, Mrs Liz Brown, Mrs Lily Devlin, Mrs Joan McCoy Mrs Maurren Quinn and Mr Fred Storey.

Guild Members: Mr Jim Black, Mrs Cherry Boaden, Mrs Joyce Brown, Mrs Mary Brownlee, Mrs Margaret Byres, Mr Tom Byres, Mrs J Johnston, Mrs Anne Lawson, Miss McClelland, Mrs Margaret Maxwell, Mr Gabriel Rogers, Mrs Earrol Steel, Mrs Cecilia Stephens, Mrs Mary Toman and Mrs P Willis.

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The Cloughey/Portavogie Lifeboat was withdrawn from service in 1978 due to improvements taking place in Portavogie harbour and representations were made to the RNLI by Portaferry Sailing Club and others to provide lifeboat coverage for Strangford Lough and its approaches.  

 In 1979 the RNLI agreed to trial a single engined 'C' Class lifeboat at Portaferry.

One of the first shouts of the 'trial lifeboat' was on 23 September 1979 when in the late afternoon it was returning after an exercise in the Irish Sea and was called to respond to a SOS from the fishing vessel 'Rueben Bulmer II' with engine failure, giving a last known location as 3 NM South of Portavogie Harbour.  The casualty vessel was sighted by the lifeboat crew 1.5 NM East of the North Rock and on arrival on-scene it was found to have a faulty fuel system.  Two persons were on board, the skipper and his son.  The lifeboat stood by the casualty until the MFV Miss Josephine arrived to tow the casualty to Portavogie.  The lifeboat then escorted both vessels into Portavogie and was then recovered and taken by road trailer back to Portaferry.  The lifeboat crew on the shout were Jackie Harrison, John Murray (Sen) and K Wilson. (& possibly George Rogers)

Another shout for the 'trial lifeboat' occured a few days later, on 6 October 1979, again whilst the lifeboat was on exercise near Round Island, Strangford Lough.  The call was to assist a small boat with an orange hull reported to be in trouble at the Strangford Bar.  The lifeboat proceeded from Round Island to the Strangford Bar arriving at 15:20.  After a lengthy search of the area no orange hulled vessel could be located and the lifeboat returned to the station.  The crew on board during this shout were Tommy Mason and Herbie Taylor.

Many of the initial exercises in the 'trial lifeboat' were used to gather information about boat headings, transits and to survey suitable launching or landing sites within Strangford Lough and along the nearby Irish Sea coastline.  With no Decca or GPS available for inshore lifeboats in 1979 these recorded compass headings and bearings were used time after time by the lifeboat crew to effect successful rescues.   Since the range of the small single engined 'C' class lifeboat was somewhat limited, on many occasions the lifeboat was transported by road to be launched at one location and recovered, sometimes at another.  In this way maximum knowledge of the local sea area was quickly built up by the crew.

It soon became apparent that there was indeed a need for a RNLI Lifeboat Station to cover Strangford Lough and its approaches and in early in 1980 the good news was received that the RNLI had decided to establish a permanent lifeboat station in Portaferry on 1st May 1980 using a single engined D class lifeboat..

Photo: Portaferry RNLI

L to R - Stuart Nourse (RNLI Poole), Sir Arthur Hazlett (RNLI Committee of Management), Dr W (Billy) Brown (to be apponted station Honorary Secretary), Tony Course (RNLI Divisional Inspector Ireland} and Desmond (Dessie) Rogers (to be appointed Senior Helmsman).


On 19 March 1980 the first meeting of the new 'Portaferry Lifeboat Station Committee' took place in the Queens University marine biology center in Portaferry.  Those present were;

Col. William Brownlow - Chairman, D K Elliott - Treasurer, Dr Billy Brown - Station Honorary Secretary, Leonard Lawson (representing the Ladies Guild) and Dr Pat Boaden from Queens University Belfast.

During the meeting it was agreed to:

1.   Open a Lifeboat Station account at the Northern Bank, Portaferry

2.   The Chairman to approach Sir John Andrews to become the first President of Portaferry RNLI Lifeboat Station.


On 28 April 1980 a meeting was held in Portaferry by Tony Course, Inspector of Lifeboats Ireland, with the station's committee at which the operational parameters were established for the new station as follows;.  

The station will be operational from 1 May 1980 using a twin-engined D Class lifeboat from late spring to autumn each year and in daylight hours only.

a.  Max operational wind speed - force 6

b.  Max operational wind speed at Strangford Bar - force 6 but reduced to force 5 during ebb tides in winds N thru E to SSW.

c.  Obligitory radiotelephone calls required if lifeboat is leaving Strangford Lough;

On leaving: At lifeboat's departure from Portaferry quay, before Rock Angus, clear of the race.

On returning: before the race, after Rock Angus, at the lifeboat's return to Portaferry quay.

d.  Radio frequencies to be used:

Call on Ch16 and leave or always return radio to Ch16.  Work as directed by coastguard on Ch 0 or Ch 67 but otherwise leave radio on Ch 16.

e.  Callsigns to use: "Portaferry ILB" - for lifeboat & use "Portaferry Base" - for Lifeboat Station.  Use the portable Pye Bantam for the base station radio.

f.  Maroons: 2 to be kept at 212 Shore Street and 6 to be kept in the boathouse at QUB


On 1 May 1980, Portaferry Lifeboat Station was officially established by the RNLI to carry on the historic life-saving work of the former Cloughey and Cloughey/Portavogie lifeboat stations.

In 1980 the station's crew list was recorded as;

HELMSMEN: Dessie Rogers (Sen Helm), John Murray Sen, John Murray Jnr, Desmond Swail, Mark Browne, Jackie Harrison & Philip Johnston.

CREW: Billy Ellison, Leonard Lawson, Tommy Mason, Frank Rogers, Gabriel Rogers, Heather Brown, Trevor Lawson, Padrig Rogers, Billy Reid, Herbie Taylor, Henrie Taylor, Graham Savage, Allison Ashworth & Jonathan Barry.

Such was the enthusiasm of the local community that a 'Junior Lifeboat' was established, as recorded in the minutes of 8 June 1981, to encourage local youth to become members of the crew.  The 'Junior Lifeboat' was under the supervision of John Murray, Phillip Johnston, Herbie Taylor and Tommy Mason.  Members of the new 'Junior Lifeboat' were recorded as, Rickie Brown, William Brown, Danny Miskelly, Tommy McNamara, David Ritchie, Martin Swail, Paul Boaden, Patrick Mullen, William Kyle, Ruth Taylor, Gwen Taylor and Garret McBrian.  The last recorded mention of the 'Junior Lifeboat' was in the minutes of 25 August 1982.

In the same minutes of 25 August 1982 there was the first record of discussions about the building of a 'new boathouse'.  

Following an explosion on 27 August 1979 aboard the small motor yacht 'Shadow V' off Oilean Ruadh, Mullaghmore, Co Sligo, two teenage boys, an 82 year old woman and the Lord Louis Mounbatten of Burma were killed and several others were seriously injured.  (On the same day 17 British Army soilders had been killed in an explosion at the Narrow Waters near Warrenpoint)

Shortly afterwards a memorial fund was established by the Belfast Newsletter in memory of all those who had lost their lives in the explosion on board 'Shadow V' off Oilean Ruadh.  

In 1982 it was decided to use the £10,600 raised by the fund for the 'Saving of Lives at Sea' and to this end it was agreed to assist the RNLI in providing a purpose-built boathouse for the housing of the Portaferry Lifeboat.  At the same meeting on 25 August a committee was formed to persue the matter, consisting of Leonard Lawson, John Murray, Herbie Taylor and Major William Brownlow.  

After several years of planning and the hard work to raise additional funds by the station's Lifeboat Guild, a boathouse was completed in 1986.

Page updated 22 August 2018

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Ballywalter, Cloughey, Cloughey/Portavogie, Donaghadee & Groomsport lifeboats



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