I started in 1960, and I’m the 6th generation in my family to be a Foyle Pilot. My great-great-great-grandfather, Roger McCann, was licensed as a Foyle Pilot in 1808, and there were other families who had supplied pilots down through the generations, like the Gillespie’s and the O’Donnell’s. My father was a pilot also living in Shrove and at that time there were about 10 Foyle Pilots altogether, 7 in Shrove –where the Pilot Station used to be – and a further 3 based in Derry.
I was about the pilot station a lot as a child and I remember the liners coming into Moville from Glasgow and Belfast. I remember in 1936 going to Belfast with my father when I was about 7, where we boarded the “Cameronia” - the only Anchor Line ship to have survived WWII. He piloted the ship back up to Moville. After the war, she became the “Empire Clyde” and used to take emigrants to Australia. Believe it or not, you could get a ticket to Australia for £10, because they were so keen to encourage emigration at that time!
WWII was a busy time for the pilots, taking naval destroyers, sloops, coastguard cutters, corvettes and submarines up and down the Foyle to the Naval Base at Lisahally.
When I began as a pilot in the 60s, there was still a lot of naval traffic, especially with NATO fleet activity up and down the Foyle. At peak times like during NATO exercises, we were piloting about 18-20 vessels a day. There were US, British, Dutch and Norwegian ships and submarines coming through. The submarines were difficult to pilot because you were out in the open.
Then in 1968, the naval operations were shifted to Clyde, and the base closed, because the nuclear submarines were coming on stream then and they needed deeper water. The Foyle wasn’t as busy after that and although no-one was let go, as pilots retired they weren’t replaced till the numbers were reduced to about 6.
When I began on the Foyle, there were a lot of coal boats coming to the Derry quays from England and Scotland, averaging about 1200-1500 tonnes each. Then they came from Poland, and now the coal comes from Columbia with ships of about 45,000 tonnes in size. Derry had a big seed potato export trade to the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands, about 80-100,000 tonnes per year, but that has petered out.
As a pilot, we would board the vessels at the mouth of the Lough and take them what was then a 2-hour journey up the quays in Derry. Then if we didn’t have a ship to take back, we would get the bus back home. If we were too late for the bus, there was a flat in Baronet Street with a few bunks where you could stay over and then maybe take a ship back up the next day or take the bus.
When I started, the Pilot Station was in Shrove, where it had been since before my father’s time. It moved to Carrickarory Pier in Moville in 1965 and then in 1999, the new station opened at the harbour in Greencastle.One of the biggest changes during my time, however, was the moving of port operations from Meadowbank in Derry, where they’d been based since the 80s, to the site of the old naval base at Lisahally in 1993. The height of the new bridge had become a problem. It wasn’t so bad when ships were coming in as the weight of their cargo kept them low in the water. But when they were going out, we had to load them with ballast or take the top off the mast to get them out. So the move to Lisahally was good because we could take the bigger ships then.