If there were any doubts about just how significant the Clipper race would be for Derry prior to its arrival, then they were certainly put to bed on Saturday last.
Looking on to Queen’s Quay from the viewpoint of the newly constructed pontoon, it was clear that the Clipper Round the World Race had captured the hearts and the imaginations of the people of the city and, by the look of it, every other town and village along the Foyle and beyond.
One high profile politician commented that he’d never before seen as many people assembled along the quays. “Never in my lifetime, have I seen a sight like this in Derry,” he marvelled.
Thousands of well wishers, decked out in their best rainwear - and many wearing colourful NI Tourism Board supplied plastic ponchos - huddled along the quay and packed the peace bridge for a party, the like of which the city has never seen.
Aboard the Derry~Londonderry there was very real sense of disbelief among the crew. They marvelled at the sheer volume of people prepared to brave the weather to join in what they collectively agreed was the biggest clipper send off the world has offered them on their global voyage of 40,000 miles.
Isle of Wight native and skipper of the city’s yacht, Mark Light, said he and his charges were completely “blown away” by the Derry farewell party.
With a cacophony of cheers from the quay almost drowning him out, he put the overwhelming scene and electric atmosphere in perspective: “We knew it was going to be big, as the interest all week has been phenomenal but this is something else.
“You just don’t get this sort of thing in other places. We’ve been all the way around the world at this stage and we’ve truly seen nothing like this, it’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant.”
London student Ben Turner, whose been a part of the race since it left Southampton on July 30, 2011, said Derry was the “best stopover by far”.
During the week-long stay, he really got a sense of the public’s “enthusiasm for the future”.
“We’re all so proud to be a part of the story of the city,” he said.
The enthusiasm of the people of Derry was summed up by the broad smile of the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, who looked proud as punch of his city as he directed a thumbs-up to the crew as they finally departed from the packed pontoon.
He was keen to show the pride he had in the people of his home town for having the belief and confidence to throw - as each of the clipper crews agreed - the best party in the world. The success, he said, was only a little flavour of what the future holds for Derry.
“This gives people a taste of what’s to come - what the future is going to be like in Derry. The people of Derry can be very proud of themselves. This is a springboard to a new future - the opportunity of a lifetime now presents itself to Derry and the people will grip it with both hands.”
Those who turned out in their thousands on Saturday certainly demonstrated a firm grip on the opportunity to enjoy the occasion.
Mexican waves followed the clippers as they sailed by, preparing to motor down river to the start line at Greencastle for the penultimate race in the round the world voyage, to Den Helder in The Netherlands.
But it wasn’t just the people on dry land letting their voices be heard - it appeared that every vessel in the Foyle catchment area had assembled to blow their horns and escort the Clipper fleet to the mouth of the river.
Revellers had accessed the Foyle banks the whole way to Greencastle – in secluded spots small groups turned out while at more accessible areas such as Culmore Point and Quigley’s Point large crowds of well wishers assembled.
Spectators even lined along the footpaths of the Foyle Bridge to get a glimpse of the magnificent parade of 68 foot yachts sailing underneath.
It seemed that everyone who could possibly be there had turned out - as well as many who probably should have been somewhere else but just couldn’t miss the opportunity - to be a part of an historic occasion in Derry.
For me, one particular encounter summed up just how much the Clipper event had caught the imaginations of the people of Derry, Donegal and beyond.
A few weeks ago while getting my locks tidied up, I was telling a hairdresser that I was looking forward to the Clipper coming to Derry.
“Clipper, what’s that? Is it a band or something?” she asked. Like so many others I met, she seemed to have little interest.
However, before I boarded the Derry~Londonderry on Saturday morning, I saw her on the quay cheering on the crews with fellow revellers. She was only one of many who had little idea of the significance of the event for the city but who was bowled over by the momentum of support as the Homecoming Festival gathered pace.
Few can deny now that Saturday’s scenes - right from the Peace Bridge to Greencastle - were proof that the Clipper Round the World Race captured the hearts of the people.
There’s little doubt that many of them would agree with Mr McGuinness’s last words to me before we cast off bound for the Greencastle start line: “I really hope the Clipper Race returns to Derry and we can do this all again.”