An unusual feature lies derelict on a sandback between Ballina Quay and Belleek Woods – that of the ‘SS Crete Boom’, an old concrete ship in Ballina lying on the River Moy. For the people of the town, familiarity has dulled the sense of wonder, and only the oldest amongst the town’s residents can remember back to before it arrived. Few can remember the actual year of her arrival, but many can remember swimming and diving off the hulk in the good old days of yesteryear.
Over the years, several theories have advanced concerning the origins of the Creteboom, and its former uses. Some say it was built as a decoy to fool the bomber-crews of the German airforce. Others say it was used to train naval cadets in WW1, or that she was employed to bring ammunition from England to France during the same period.
None of these stories have any basis in fact, but the history of this venerable old maritime relic is fascinating nonetheless.
Photographer Corin Bishop has very kindly permitted us to use the above image on this site. Check out Corin’s other work. © Corin Bishop Photography
In 1917, three years after the outbreak of WWI, Germany was still showing no signs of ceasing hostilities, and, at the same time, Britain was experiencing a very severe and worrying shortage of steel. A fleet of ships was needed to transport iron-ore from northern Spain to the steel-starved factories in Britain, but building the fleet would place further strain on steel supplies. Clearly an alternative method of building was the answer to the problem.
It was decided, based on feasibility work carried out before the war that a concrete fleet would be viable, and that this would bring significant advantages and cost and time savings. A decision was made to get the building programme underway and orders were placed for 154 units, 24 of them tugboats, at an estimated cost of £4 million. Work started at nineteen specially constructed sites throughout Britain and Northern Ireland.
Soon after building programme commenced, unforeseen snags were to emerge. It was quickly realised that the vessels could not be completed without a substantial input from skilled craftsmen. It was further realised that construction costs were far exceeding the projected budgets, i.e. a barge costing £17,000 when built of steel was costing £27,000 when built of concrete. Immediately after the war ended in 1918, these factors led to the rapid cancellation of many of the outstanding orders and work continued only on those vessels that were near to completion. Consequently, of the 154 units ordered initially only 52 barges and twelve tugboats were destined to be completed. The programme was then abandoned, the last of the vessels being launched in 1920. Ironically, none of the vessels were built in time for active service. Two of the twelve tugboats, the Cretewheel and the Cretecable were lost in accidents in the early days following their launch. The remainder of the fleet, the responsibility of the inland Waterways & Docks Dept., was laid-up until buyers could be found.
In 1922, a company of London based ship-owners, Stelp & Leighton, Ltd., bought the surviving ten tugboats and thirty nine of the concrete barges and set up the Crete Shipping Co., the largest concrete fleet in the world. All the vessels were positioned on the River Tyne near Sunderland and from there they were used to tow coal to the Continent. The business flourished for a time but became economically unviable and ceased operations in 1924. The vessels were left mothballed on the Tyne.
The Creteboom was one of six similar ships built by John Ver Mehr & Co., of Shoreham by Sea, Sussex and was launched there in November 1919, too late to participate in the wartime service for which it was intended. After being purchased by Stelp & Leighton, the vessel spent some time in the icy waters of the Baltic. When the Crete shipping Company failed in 1924, the Creteboom was laid up on the River Ware for a number of years before being sold on to the South Stockton Shipbreaking Co., of Thornaby on Tees. It arrived at their dismantling wharf on or just before April 27th 1935 and was dismantled and stripped of its metal parts until all that remained intact was the concrete hulk.
In 1937 the Creteboom, together with several other old wrecks, was purchased by the Ballina Harbour Commissioners. It was intended to sink them at the entrance to the river where they would form a sand barrier. The hulk was taken from England to the Moy Estuary. On September 22nd 1937 during the move, the vessel sustained damage, and it was discovered when it berthed at the Quay that it was taking on water. The Ballina Fire Brigade was summoned to pump the vessel out, but their equipment was not capable of stemming the flow. It soon became evident that the Creteboom was in danger of sinking and at that point the Harbourmaster, Mr Eddie Melvin, ordered it to be taken away from the jetty fearing it would sink and block the quay. It was towed to mid-stream where it settled on the bottom and remained there for close on forty years.
The idea of forming a sand barrier was postponed because the Moy Fishery Company threatened legal action fearing a possible interference with the run of salmon into the River. That fact, and the outbreak of World War II in 1939 led to the eventual abandonment of the project.
In the mid 1970’s the River Moy was silting badly and dredging works began. During the operations it was decided that an attempt should be made to move the Creteboom from the centre of the river where it was impeding the flow of water and adding to a build-up of sand. After an inspection of the vessel by the contractor Mr Mahon, his colleague Mr Martin Golden of Templeboy and the Harbourmaster, Mr Vincent Melvin, it was decided that the tons of mud that had accumulated in the hulk should be cleaned out, together with literally hundreds of eels that had made their homes there.
With the cleaning operation completed, and some repairs carried out to secure the ship, high tide on the morning of March 16th 1974 was chosen as the best time to go ahead with the task. At 6.00am working only by the light reflected from a hostel on the east bank, the vessel was lifted slowly from the mud that had been its bed for so many years and towed a short distance to where it remains to this day.
That, briefly, is the history of the Creteboom. It had a short useful life but never fulfilled the purpose for which it was originally built. Today, its mysterious, brooding hulk forms an eye-catching focal point at Ballina Quay and Belleek Woods, an iconic part of Ballina’s infrastructure.
Plans are now afoot to ensure the SS Creteboom, the concrete ship in Ballina becomes even more of an attraction for visitors and locals alike. Watch this space!