The bay provides good protection from the southeast through south to northwest. Although open to northerly quadrant winds, a great measure of protection is provided against these conditions by the harbour’s enclosing island and its surrounding rocky shoal, particularly so at low water. Access is tidal restricted and requires half tide for entry and attentive navigation to pass the shoal. Although supported by lit transits, daylight entry is advised for any first-time visitor.
Keyfacts for Groomsport
Summary* Restrictions applyA good location with careful navigation required for access.
Position and approaches
Haven position54° 40.650' N, 005° 37.040' W
This is the seaward end of the pier situated at the eastern side of the enclosed bay.
What is the initial fix?
What are the key points of the approach?
- From the north pass Black Head and the Cloghan Jetty to starboard.
- From the east pass north of Mew, Lighthouse and Copeland Island keeping them well clear to port.
- From the south, with a favourable tide, pass between the south side of Copeland Island and the mainland coast through the well-marked Donaghadee Sound shipping fairway.
- Belfast Lough's navigable area is free of dangers and Bangor Bay has no obstructions.
- Track in on the harbour’s beacons in line 207.5° T, front a slim red metal post, rear a white plain wood pole 20 metres behind, at night both markers flash green. Pass between the head of the pier and the islets eastern edge marked by two starboard beacons.
Not what you need?
- Ballyholme Bay - 0.8 miles WSW
- Bangor Harbour & Marina - 1.2 miles WSW
- Port Dandy - 1.6 miles E
- Chapel Bay - 1.7 miles E
- Donaghadee Harbour - 2.2 miles ESE
- Copelands Marina - 2.3 miles SE
- Helen’s Bay - 2.5 miles W
- Whitehead - 3.4 miles NNW
- Carrickfergus Harbour & Marina - 4.3 miles WNW
- Cultra - 4.4 miles WSW
How to get in?
Groomsport Bay, situated to the east of Ballymacormick Point and to the west of the South Brigs reef, hosts its small harbour within a cove at its western end. The shallow harbour has a pier fronted by several local boat moorings that are protected from the northeast by a shoal containing two small rocky islets. At least a half tide is required to support a vessel with a draft of up to one metre accessing the harbour.
The small shallow harbour is home to the Cockle Island Boat Club who, by prior arrangement with the harbour master, provide a single mooring available for visiting vessels. But this can only accommodate vessels no larger than 7.5 metres (25 feet) and with a draught of one metre or less. Vessels that can take to the hard may lay alongside the pier if space is available. Only one visitor mooring is available so it is advisable to contact that harbour master well in advance to avoid disappointment; office phone number is P: +44 28 91278040, M: +44 7702587566, VHF 16 for contact, working channel 8.
Set on the southern entrance to Belfast Lough the Bangor Harbour , situated two miles west by southwest, provides general approach directions to the area.
From the Groomsport Harbour Initial Fix track in on the harbour’s alignment beacons of 207.5° T. During the day the front marker will be seen to be a slim red metal post whilst the rear marker, 20 metres behind, is a white taller plain wood pole immediately on the pier; at night both markers flash green.
The alignment leads into the preferred eastern entrance, clearing the east side of the two Cockle Islets and the surrounding rocky shoal that encloses the small harbour. A port hand buoy will be found offshore and port and starboard beacons will be found close in; two starboards and one port marker off the head of the pier. This is the preferred eastern entrance and it is essential that this is not confused with a single port and starboard marker on the western entrance that is also navigable but makes a less clear-cut approach.
Once inside pick up moorings as directed by the harbour master between the islets and the shore. Land by the pier as promptly as possible as much of the inner harbour area dries, with approximately 0.4 meters LWS in the centre.
Those intending on drying-out alongside should round the pierhead to berth at the wall if there is sufficient draught to come in, and space available.
Do not anchor in the harbour area. The local moorings are braced by a grid of heavy mooring chains. These are laid across the inner harbour and will most likely foul any vessel that attempts to anchor here.
Why visit here?Groomsport derives its name from the Irish Port an Ghiolla Ghruama, "port of the gloomy servant", that was partially anglicised to Gillgroomsport, then finally, over the years contracted, to its present form.
The harbour was originally thought to host a small Viking settlement in the 9th or 10th century. Nestled in behind the two small rocky outcrops, known as Cockle Island, the natural harbour makes for an ideal base. Although Cockle Island is tiny, at high tide the extensive surrounding reef that uncovers at low water provides the bay with excellent shelter. Moreover, the enclosed area south of the island is always separated from the shore by at least 0.4 of a metre of water, making it ideal for Viking longboats.
In later years fishermen took advantage of the naturally sheltered bay, and a row of fishermen's cottages grew to fringe the harbour. During the 17th-century Groomsport harbour activity was significant enough, with both legal and illegal trade, to warrant the construction of a customs house with a customs officer to oversee the port's trade and commerce. As a mark of its importance, it was from this small harbour that the very first emigrant ship from Ulster sailed out to America.
Groomsport’s place in history was to be firmly established fifty years later on the 13th August 1689. Then Marshal Schomberg, originally von Schönberg, commander-in-chief of the Williamite War in Ireland, landed ten thousand raw and undisciplined men here to defend the Williamite cause against the Jacobite supporters of James II. After capturing Carrickfergus he marched unopposed through a country desolated before him to Dundalk. Inferior in numbers and battle experience to his enemy he entrenching himself within Dundalk and declined to be drawn beyond its circle of defences. This turned out to be a bad decision as within the walls disease took more of his number during the winter than they would have sustained by a military defeat.
By the mid-19th-century a relatively large fishing fleet of 20 vessels and 80 fishermen operated from Groomsport. Between 1858 and 1920 a lifeboat station was operated here for their protection. In 1865 the coming of the railway from Holywood to Bangor made the village much more accessible and it became a popular destination for visitors. Fishing, agriculture and loom weaving continued to be the mainstay throughout the Victorian and Edwardian periods until the 1920s.
Today Groomsport is a picturesque and sleepy fishing village that has developed to become a water and shore-based recreation centre. Although a holiday spot with a number of caravan parks situated around the village, it still retains its small harbour village identity and character. The layout has a clear focus on the anchorage and pier with the main street extending off it, together with its historic street pattern.
Within the building, there is a Tourist Information Centre, a heritage centre, a shop, craft demonstrations plus frequent art exhibitions. Admission is free and they are open daily from June through August. Paintings propped up along the external walls are typically for sale.
Throughout the summer months from June through August, the Cockle Row Cottages host a variety of entertainment every weekend afternoon including live music. Activities range from teddy bear's picnics to wildlife road shows and craft activities where you can try your hand at craft making. Groomsport community hall is situated in the historic boathouse that dates back to 1884 and it is here that the 35 years old ‘Cockle Island Boat Club’ has its home. The heroic attempt of the Eagle Wing is commemorated in the village's annual Eagle Wing Festival in July, a lively three-day celebration of the considerable contribution made by Ulster folk to the American way of life.
Excellent public transport links are available along the route so the walk may be completed in its entirety or broken into shorter sections. Likewise, the walk is just as easily accessible from any of the locations we have listed on the south side of Belfast Lough. It is recommended that walkers take a shortened section around Ballymacormick Point, described in the Ballyholme Bay entry, that is easier to access from Groomsport.
Few coastal villages can compare with Groomsport for scenic charm, tranquil beauty and historical heritage. For those vessels that meet the size restrictions of Groomsport harbour, it is a real pleasure that should not to be missed. Although there is only a single visitor mooring there are ninety local moorings alongside, making it a hive of sailing activity.
What facilities are available?Groomsport harbour is owned and maintained by North Down Borough Council and has two slipway launching points with low tide tie-up posts for boat cleaning and maintenance. Slipway hard-standing areas are available for winter storage, dinghy and trailer storage. Each autumn and spring boat club members organise crane hire for launching and lift-out days - any queries regarding these facilities please contact the Harbour Master.
Groomsport's main street has public toilets, a small supermarket that includes a post office, a pub, a coffee shop, and a renowned fish and chip shop, which cater for a domestic population of less than a thousand, but one that can triple during the summer. The park area overlooking the harbour has a recently refurbished children's play area. A bus service is available to Bangor, which is only a few miles away.
Bangor is a prosperous town that is 22 km (13.6 miles) east from the heart of Belfast City Centre on the A2. It has excellent transport connections via trains, and a bus service connection to Belfast city and from there on to any location in Ireland. Flights to domestic and international destinations operate from Belfast City and Belfast International Airports. There are frequent ferry crossings from Belfast and Larne.
For everything else maritime, Bangor Marina is just three miles to the west. This is Northern Ireland's biggest and most prestigious marina offering all facilities 24 hours a day 365 days a year.
Any security concerns?Never an incident known to have happened to a vessel moored in Groomsport Harbour.
With thanks to:Michael Fitzsimons, Groomsport Harbour Master. Photography with thanks to Rossographer, Ross and Albert Bridge.
Aerial views of the harbour
A yacht sailing in the harbour
Views of the harbour and out to sea (with a lot of wind noise unfortunately)
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