by Alan Leonard

From time to time over the years, people seeking information about yachts in Northern Ireland have contacted me.  On each occasion, the story has been the same – they have contacted the font of all knowledge on matters maritime in Ireland, Winkie Nixon, who has said “Well actually I can’t tell you a lot about that particular yacht, but I can tell you who can”.  Most recently, I was contacted by Peter Haden, seeking information about the Russian yacht Isha, which bears a bronze plaque stating “Built by B Martin Newtownabbey, 1972”.  Peter suggested that I might write something about her.  I had previously been contacted by Don Street about the yacht that subsequently became his Li’l Ioliare, and which bore a similar plaque with an earlier date.  I thought therefore that it would be of interest to write about all of the yachts built by Brian Martin, who was an ICC member from 1966 to 1983.

I first met Brian, as a teenager, in the 1950s, when my father bought a day sailer (of the Belfast Lough Gypsy Class) at North Belfast Yacht Club and decided to keep her there.  As a family, we sailed from there for several years.  The clubhouse consisted of a hall with smaller rooms along either side.  During the season the hall was used for club functions, but in the winter it was given over to boat building, mainly GP14s and Flying 15s – the latter of double diagonal cold moulded construction. At that time, Brian was negotiating the purchase of a 1912 Gaff cutter, but the deal fell through when the owner decided not to sell.  Ernie Mawhinney, of GP14 fame (who by that time had built several GP14s) said to him, “Why don’t you build a boat?”.  Brian had read in Yachting World of the ‘Lightcrest’, designed by German Frers (Snr), so the plans were duly procured.  She was of hard chine double diagonal construction, to the JOG rule, took about six months to build and was called Kismet.  Brian’s friend, Jackie McClinton helped with the construction.


They cruised her for three seasons – mainly in the Clyde.  On one occasion, when changing a headsail, Jackie fell overboard in full oilskins and sea boots and went straight down. Fortunately, he surfaced beside the cockpit as the boat sailed past. Brian at the helm reached out and caught the collar of his oilskins and held on until help came from below to get him back on board.

While they were building Kismet Brian met Claire, who was to become his wife.  She was a keen sailor and avid horsewoman. They planned to honeymoon on board Kismet but on the day they were married, a full gale was blowing, so they went to a caravan in Ballywalter instead!  Their early married years were spent in Whitehouse Park, not far from the clubhouse.  They later moved to Station Road, Jordanstown, where Brian still lives today and where the subsequent yachts were built.  They cruised in Kismet for three seasons, mainly in the Clyde.

By this time, they had a young family, so a more spacious yacht was required.  He chose to build a Francis Jones design of traditional construction, but modified the design by adding reverse sheer, to increase both headroom and internal volume. (Lightcrest had this feature.)  Making the modifications was not a problem to Brian, as he worked in the drawing office in Mackies, the major engineering works in North Belfast.  At this time he was in charge of an experimental department, which was one of nine departments.  The yacht was originally named Solitaire, as he built her himself, though he did admit to having employed a man from Mackies to help him at the weekends.  Construction was traditional in every way.

The centre line structures were set up and moulds erected on them.  Ribbands were then laid around these and the ribs steamed and bent into position.  Steaming was in a lagged wooden box with a pipe from a tank in which two kettle elements had been fitted.  The ribs were steamed in batches of six for one hour.  The scantlings were three quarter inch (18mm) Oregon pine planking on 1½” x 1” (37 x 25 mm) elm frames, fastened with copper nails and rooves.  The deck was marine plywood and all the brightwork teak.  She was fitted with a Stuart-Turner auxiliary engine.

The Martin family sailed on Solitaire for several years, by which time their increasing size meant that more space was required, so she was sold and work on a new yacht commenced.  In the Spring Solitaire was being fitted out in the Martin’s front garden by the new owners, whilst work was proceeding on the new yacht at the back.  Solitaire was sailed locally for a couple of years and then left Northern Irish waters.  Some years later, she appeared in the Caribbean, where she was bought by Don Street and became his Li’l Ioliare,  (Classic boat 177, March 2003).  She was sadly sunk during Hurricane Ivan in 2004, when a catamaran dragged down on her.

The new yacht, named Sheelagh Patricia, after Brian & Claire’s daughter, was a larger sister of Solitaire.  Brian simply scaled up the plans which again was no problem, given his background.  Her dimensions are LOA 30 feet, LWL 24 feet, Beam 8 ft 6 ins, Draft 5 ft 6 ins.  She is now in Russian ownership and called Isha (ICC Annual 2015 Peter Haden).  Construction was as for Solitaire, but the planking is Iroko, which was carefully fitted and edge glued rather than caulked and filled.  The garboards and adjacent planks are 5 ins wide, all the remainder 3 ins.  The deck is of yellow pine, laid on a marine ply subdeck and all the bright work Iroko.  Brian said that there are 3000 copper nails and rooves in the planking.  He admitted that he had “many times” thought that the task of completing her was a daunting prospect, but also said that it only took two years to build her as compared to five years for Solitaire because “this time he knew what he was doing”.  Her auxiliary was a Ford Prefect engine, marinised using a conversion kit supplied by Wortham Blake.

After sailing Sheelagh Patricia for six years, Brian and Claire’s three children were growing apace and a still larger yacht was required.  The prospect of another build proved too much.  By this time GRP had arrived on the scene so the solution was completion of a bare hull – an Elizabethan 31, Banba.  Sheelagh Patricia was sold to a Mr John Timbey and remained in local waters for a few years.  Completing Banba took only a few months, a relatively easy task to such an accomplished boat builder.  He sailed her “for about ten years”.

Around the time that he acquired Banba, he left Mackies, which was in any case heading for closure.  He was self-employed for a couple of years, mainly working with Jack Carroll in his boatyard in Carrickfergus.  After that, he worked with advanced composites in Learfan and then went to Northwest Design Engineers.  His final employment was with RFD, where he was responsible for testing all of their products, liferafts included. On one occasion, they had to demonstrate that fifty people could be evacuated from a ferry in under 28 minutes.  The rafts and shutes were duly deployed and 50 “squaddies” were all aboard the rafts in 26 minutes.  When he sold Banba, he resigned his ICC membership and retired from sailing, taking up mountaineering as being more suitable for his advancing years!  Banba remains in Northern waters and lies on a mooring in Ringhaddy Sound.

Don Street wrote that Li’l Ioliare was built “by Mr B Martin, an engineer from Northern Ireland, who was obviously a very good amateur shipwright”.  That two of his yachts were so far travelled – Solitaire to the Caribbean and Sheelagh Patricia (Isha) to the Baltic, the Eastern Mediterranean and Galicia is testament to that.

Now in his 80s, Brian still lives in the house where these two fine yachts were built and is content to build a garden shed for his daughter and bedroom furniture for his grandchildren.