For whom the bell tolls

Malcolm Doherty displaying some of his hand crafted bell ropes by the River Foyle, once a bustling locus of merchant shipping.
Malcolm Doherty displaying some of his hand crafted bell ropes by the River Foyle, once a bustling locus of merchant shipping.

Waterside man Malcolm Doherty has sailed around the globe twice.

Originally a native of the driftnetting village that once was Culmore, Malcolm’s spent the past 44 years travelling the world in various guises with the Merchant Navy, having joined his first ship in Sligo in 1970.

Culmore native, Malcolm Doherty, was on board the Ocean Ness (on left) in the North Sea a few weeks ago, when this picture was taken by a Cyberhawk drone.

Culmore native, Malcolm Doherty, was on board the Ocean Ness (on left) in the North Sea a few weeks ago, when this picture was taken by a Cyberhawk drone.

Now as Londonderry prepares to sell its proud seagoing heritage to the wider world as ‘Maritime City 2016,’ the Sentinel caught up with the Brigade resident to talk about life on the high seas as well as a dying seaman’s art that he’s been honing over recent years.

In between times escorting drones out for oil rig inspection in the North Sea (see picture) or rescuing ditched aircraft pilots in Morecambe Bay, to name but two of his day jobs, Malcolm is also keeping the fine tradition of handcrafted bell-rope manufacture well and truly alive.

“Years and years ago at sea, on deep sea passages, if you were going from London, say, to Australia, the seamen had no computers, no laptops, no iPhones, even no TV.

“And when it came to the good weather they were fit to sit outside or sit in the mess room, maybe they played cards, maybe they got a bit of wood and they carved a

The view frrom the bridge of the Ocean Ness during heavy swells in the North Sea.

The view frrom the bridge of the Ocean Ness during heavy swells in the North Sea.

ship out of it, or maybe they made a bell rope,” he explains.

Traditionally used for marking time at sea bell ropes were actually the shortest working ropes on board ships.

In the current age of electronic timekeeping, they would be in danger of becoming quaint relics of a bygone era, were it not for the likes of Malcolm.

But whilst the local seaman would have been long familiar with the tradition, it was only five or six years ago that he first started making his own.

The hospital on board the Ocean Ness.

The hospital on board the Ocean Ness.

“I made them different colours to see how they would match in and I wasn’t even thinking when I made this colour here [pointing to a green and yellow design] that it was actually Donegal colours I was making,” he says.

“This one here, which is my own bell rope, which I use hanging in the house, that’s the Merchant Navy colours, that’s green for starboard and red for port,” he adds.

So get your orders in now for Institute or Derry City coloured ropes. In the short period of time Malcom’s spent making bell ropes his output’s been remarkable. How many has he actually made?

“I couldn’t really count them. Maybe...well over a hundred,” he replies.

“There are ones in Portugal, sold. There are ones about the town, ones in Scotland, ones in England, two in America,” he adds.

Some readers may, in fact, be familiar with Malcolm’s work without actually realising it.

Patrons of some well-known Londonderry watering holes, for example, might have heard his bell ropes ringing last orders.

“There’s one in the Monico Bar, one in WG’s, there’s one in Upstairs Downstairs and one in the new Glen Bar,” he tells the Sentinel

There’s even one in Puerto del Carmen in Lanzarote, which, as it happens, is owned by another man from the North West with cultivated sea legs.

“There’s one hanging up in a bar in Lanzarote, The Spinnaker Bar, and the fellah that actually owns that is actually from Inch Island, the name of Gilbert Brown,

“They were actually famous fishermen, known as famous fishermen, but he packed in the fishing and opened a bar - The Spinnaker bar in Lanzarote. He’s got one hanging up there,” says Malcolm.

The ropes are actually made from working sailing cord that Malcolm sources from Castle Cords in Moville.

Incredibly strong, the cord can also be used by fishermen for making nets or various other functions on board ship.

Malcolm says the only other material used - apart from the hook on top - is a 12mm dowel rod to keep the rope straight.

“This here knot at the top is called a star knot,” he explains, pointing to one specimen. “It’s the famous star knot. These are turk’s head and these are over plaitting and this here’s right handed hitching.

“To do that hitching, I’ve this hanging on a hook, and we’ve got sailing twine maybe the length of this room and that’s wrapped around a stick and I’ve a glove with the fingers cut out of it, so I can lift each strand, and it has to be pulled tight, as tight - you can hear it, you think you’re going to break it.”

Ultimately, Malcolm ends up with a colourful labour of love, though it’s not always plain sailing.

“The sailing twine I use to do my hitching, I broke that a few times because I’ve been too strong with it. But sailing twine is very, very hard to break but I have parted it, snapped it, a few times.

“You might be halfway down and you’d have to unravel the whole thing a way back up again.”

The knots used in the bell ropes are purely decorative but both the star knot and the turk’s head can be used to perform simple functions in different contexts on board a ship.

“If you had a long rope, say on the gangway, you could put a star knot in the middle of it to give you grip,” explains Malcolm. “You can put the turk’s head on it to give you grip.”

Needless to say the job of creating bell ropes - an age old practice - is one done entirely by hand.

“I haven’t seen a machine that can make one yet or I haven’t heard tell of a machine that can make one,” he says. “And I think if they were to be made by a machine it would take the seamanship out of it.”

Malcolm makes the bell ropes on his periods of four weeks leave from the Ocean Ness, on which he works in the North Sea, normally sailing out of Aberdeen or Stavanger.

There was a certain inevitability that he’d end up spending most of his working life at sea.

“Culmore was a wee fishing village as you know, they fished the salmon down there,” he explains. “My father was a seagoing person, my brother was seagoing, he’s retired now.

“And another brother, he was seagoing, he was paid off from the shipping in 1963 and was killed on the taxi on the way home, 1963. It’s in the blood. I’m still at it yet. I still enjoy it.”

Although Malcolm spent years circumnavigating the globe on deep sea cargo ships, he’s been based around the North Sea for the past 15 years or so.

He tells the Sentinel about his work on board the Ocean Ness.

“She’s over 64 metres in length. She carries two daughter craft and two fast rescue craft. On board this ship I’m assigned as able bodied seaman and Advanced Medical Aider (AMA).

“Sometimes the rig would fire maybe four dummies down into the water and we’ve got a certain time to launch the rescue craft and go and pick those dummies up.”

The crew then retrieve tags from the dummies, which describe hypothetical scenarios.

It’s up to Malcolm to initiate the correct drill for taking the dummies to the ship’s hospital [see picture] to await what would end up as a medical evacuation in a real emergency.

However, it’s as well the crew are well-drilled. Malcolm recalls a mission on board another ship - the Highland Sprite, sailing out of Liverpool - when he was involved in the rescue of a pilot who had ditched his plane in the notoriously treacherous Morecambe Bay.

“This fellah was flying a light aircraft from Isle of Man to Blackpool, just a wee mail run. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning. We got a call that there was a light aircraft ditched.

“We launched the fast rescue craft (FRC) and we got to him and we got him on board. Got him back to the ship. He had a small wound on his knee but he was alright.

“His plane had sunk. By the time we had got him back on board, they had brought a helicopter out from Blackpool and they medivaced him and he was okay.

“That happened in daylight hours. If that had happened in the hours of darkness he might never have been got because there are strong currents down there, strong tides, in Morecambe Bay and forbye, the weather was flat calm.”

The nightmare scenario in the North Sea would be an explosion on a rig but thankfully, that’s a situation Malcolm’s never had to face.

“That’s your worst scenario. If that was to happen. An explosion on a rig. The injuries that you’re likely to receive there, are burns, head injuries, shock.

Touch wood. We’re there if it happens,” he says.

Malcolm’s now facilitating jobs he wouldn’t have imagined being involved in forty years ago. Who’d have thought when he walked up the gangplank in Sligo in 1970, he’d be escorting unmanned drones out to the North Sea in 2014.

“At one time it used to be a survey boat or a dive ship would’ve come out there and they would’ve done that there. For that type of ship to do that it would’ve taken two to three weeks and these guys can do it in about four or five days weather permitting,” he says.

As the Londonderry Clipper sails further and further towards its home port and the city gears up for the mooted Maritime City 2016, Malcolm feels its important to keep the old seafaring traditions - including bell rope manufactue - alive. Especially, given the city’s proud maritime heritage.

“In this town there’s a lot of history of merchant shipping. I remember as a schoolboy, my father was a seaman too, and I remember as a school boy coming into the town with my mother on a Friday, and my father worked on a ship called the Ulster Drover that used to run between Derry and Liverpool, and they carried cattle and they carried various other parts of cargo too.

“She used to come in to meet my father coming off it. That was the Ulster Drover. The history in the town, you’ll probably know this yourself, there’s a lot of

shipping history, Merchant Navy, Royal Navy, and coming in May now, you’ve got the Battle of the Atlantic coming up again.

“There’s a lot of history you know and maybe the young generation don’t realise that. The history’s there.”

If you’re interested in ordering your own custom made bell rope email: or phone: 07596196233