Ardglass harbour master retires

Ardglass harbour master retires

4 July 2018

JOHN Smyth may be walking away after 30 years from his role as Ardglass harbour master, but you will still find him close to water most days.

“I tend to get the shakes if I’m away from the water. I’m always close to or on the water every day. 

“Even on holidays, I go somewhere to the sea or take a river cruise,’ he said.

The 59-year-old Ardglass man retired last Friday surrounded by his colleagues from the harbour and the Northern Ireland Fishing Harbour Authority (NIFHA) in Downpatrick.

While he’s sad to leave his colleagues, fishing boat captains, fishing crews and the ever-changing hustle and bustle of one of Co Down’s busiest harbours, he admits that he likes relinquishing responsibility.

“I will miss it surely, the routine of it and all the people but to be honest I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders and that feels welcome,” said John.

He was a perfect candidate for taking over the reins as harbour master at the age of 29. He had spent the previous 12 years working as a navigator in the Merchant Navy sailing to ports worldwide.

John retains a link to his former working life by calling his own boat The Rock Dodger after the smaller vessels which were used as ice breakers moving ahead of the cargo ships.

It’s not surprising that he chose the Merchant Navy as he has salt water in his veins, being born and reared near the sea. Feeling at one on the water is second nature to John as his father and his father before him all fished from Ardglass.

When he can, and if the weather is fair enough, he goes out from morning to evening to fish for lobster and crab, relishing the thrill of the daily catch.

Working with deputy harbour master Richard Fitzpatrick — who also retires in September — along with Fred Milligan and Jimmy Mullan, who helps over the summer months, John says that no day was ever the same.

He was on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a week and could have been called from home for something as simple as changing a light fuse or, importantly, to close the harbour gates during high winds and waves.

Being the harbour master required him to be a ‘jack of all trades’ — as an electrician, mechanic, plumber, welder and even painting as he had to touch up the old piece of wood work every now and then.

His paramount role over the years has been health and safety for all who use the harbour, a role which became ever more important as new safety procedures were devised and introduced.

He and his team had the responsibility of a check-list of things every day to do to ensure that safety lighting, ropes and buoys and such like were always working and effective.

One of his other main jobs was overseeing the vital operation of the ice plant at the harbour and its production of 10 tonnes of ice each day. 

With at least two to three tonnes of ice on board each day, local fishing boats can feel confident of heading out to fish for several days at a time. 

Anything less, the boats may only go out for a day’s fishing as the need to keep the fish fresh, particularly in the current hot weather, is important.

While the father of two adult children — Own and Joanne — may be now retired, that’s not an indication of how active John intends to be in the coming years.

“My wife Siobhan and I decided to open a guest house our house, now called Ringfad Bed & Breakfast, as our children have left home. That will keep me busy as well with helping to look after our guests,” said John.

“I’ve been amazed by the potential for tourism in Ardglass as we find that there’s a surprising number who want to visit locally.

“I’ve also been brushing up on my French with our visitors, have taken up guitar lessons and I’m still making furniture and hope to get back into tour guiding with my friend Michael Flynn so I don’t think I’ll be too bored.”

NIFHA chief executive Kevin Quigley paid tribute to his outgoing harbour master, who will be succeeded by James Lenehan.

“When I joined the Authority some six years ago, my predecessor said to me, ‘Seek and follow John’s advice as he’s quite simply superb’,” said Mr Quigley.

“And so it was proved. John is one of those rare folk able to put others first, always seeking and finding the best solutions to issues. It’s no accident that he was widely recognised as our leading harbour master. I and the rest of the team will miss him hugely.”