It must have caused a wave of excitement in Ballina on that September day in 1937 when the tug towing a concrete ship from Liverpool arrived into the Moy estuary. For just as the ship crossed the bar at Bartra, it was thrown broadside by the high seas against the tug, gouging a leak below the water line, which required it to be towed into the quay side, where the SS Crete Boom began to sink.
Today, the Crete Boom lies derelict between the Quay and Belleek Woods, and has become so much a part of the Ballina skyline as to go unnoticed by the local population. Over the years, hundreds of Ballina youngsters had practised their diving and swimming skills off the old wreck; it was once used – until discovered by Fisheries inspectors – as a storage place for the illegal nets of resourceful poachers; and it provided a home for hundreds of eels. But it no longer exudes the air of mystery and the aura with which it first made its entrance into Mayo waters.
The Crete Boom’s origins go back to the Great War, which had led to a scarcity of ship-making steel and a crisis for the British government, which badly needed vessels for maritime trade. It was decided that in the absence of steel, a fleet would be built of concrete, bringing hopes for advantages in time and cost. And so work started at specially prepared sites across Britain to build 154 concrete ships, at a then huge cost of £4 million.
However, plans soon went awry. It was discovered that the programme would need the input of highly skilled craftsmen, the number of which had been greatly depleted by the demands of war. In addition, construction costs were far higher than had been envisaged – a concrete barge costed twice as much as its steel equivalent. The end of the war in 1918 signalled the end of the experiment, most of the orders were cancelled, with work continuing only on those vessels that were near to completion.
Among the latter was the Crete Boom, which was launched in Sussex in 1919, too late to participate in the wartime service, but yet suitable for cargo work on the north sea. When its owners finally went out of business shortly afterwards, the Crete Boom was dismantled and stripped of its metal content, leaving only the unsightly concrete hulk.
It was then that the Ballina Harbour Commissioners entered the scene. They purchased the ship, with a number of other wrecks, from the British authorities. The intention was to sink them at the mouth of the river Moy where they would form a sand barrier.
However, just as its final destination was in sight, the Crete Boom was to fall foul of the surging western seas. When it was limped into the Quay, it was found to be taking on water. Ballina Fire Brigade tried without success to pump out the vessel. Fearing that the ship was about to sink and block the quay, the harbour master, Eddie Melvin, ordered that it be towed out to the middle of the river. There, the Crete Boom settled on the bottom, where it remained for 40 years.
But its travels were not quite over. By the mid ’70s, the old wreck was seen to be a hazard, creating a build up of silt and interfering with salmon flows. The ship was cleaned of its accumulated sludge of four decades and, on March 16, 1974, on a high morning tide, the Crete Boom was lifted from the mud and towed the short distance to where it lies today.