Sunday, 20 April 2014

Bilderglug again

Secret messages passing, of course now overheard by GCHQ and others, suggest that Bilderglug may be about to happen again, perhaps for the twelfth time.

A forecast of a light Easterly proved accurate and it was too good a morning to miss, but on Easter Sunday no buses or ferry and Vice-Admiral Sir B**** A****, Bart (applied for) doesn't have his modified Ninigret afloat yet to supply a run home. Solution - the venerable Nutshell, now nearly twenty eight and the best little tender in the world.

I got the Kelpie underway at 0800 with the Nutshell in tow and we ran down to Toberonochy before a gentle breeze with a falling tide, grounding on the slatey sand at 0945. A good cup of strong coffee, some chocolate and chat, then off under oar at 1045.

There followed a pull of 45 minutes against the tide in Shuna Sound to the North of Shuna island, about one and a quarter miles, then a half hour hike across to Right Island for a break of fifteen minutes for bananas and a drink of water.

There was then a long stretch of four and a half miles home, with a little land breeze, which sadly faded and became a fresh little Easterly just when port was in sight.

Altogether a good day was had, about seven miles rowed in two and a quarter hours in a boat under eight feet long.

Friday, 28 March 2014


I've cared for her since 1976 and she's been a big part of my life, source of a lot of joy and good friendships and occasional worries. She's taken me and those I love safely through storms, gently cradled us when we were tired and thrilled us when we eased her sheets and let her reach across broad seas.

I've never counted the hours spent caring for her, but am sure there are few yachts her age in better condition. She's as strong as when McGruers launched her in 1929.

I'm sixty six now and won't be taking her, as I once did, to Ardminish or to Craighouse, or to Skye or Muck or Eigg or Coll or Mull or Wester Ross. She needs someone younger to do such things, in Scotland or further afield; I won't care if she's going to be in good hands.

Stroma is up on the hard at Cairnbaan along the Crinan Canal, a two hour trip from Glasgow. I'm asking £18,000, about 22,000 euros, for her and she's well worth that to the right person.    

There are full details elsewhere on our sister website,

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Classic Boat Awards 2014

Ellad, photo by Nigel Pert

Interesting to see a good Scottish contingent getting awards at the Classic Boat 2014 awards, with best restoration William Fife III’s Ellad heading the list, and his Saskia included.

Our own St Ayles skiffs did well, coming runners-up to the CW Hood 32 footer from the United States, a fibreglass “Spirit of Tradition” daysailer, which I guess would have collected a few trans-Atlantic votes.
Skiffieworlds in Ullapool
American plastic daysailer
Among the human winners were Fiona and Alastair Houston, tireless organisers of the Fife Regattas and Martin Black, the painstaking biographer of G L Watson, whose massive work is a great read and a fantastic resource for anyone looking for information about our sailing heritage of a hundred years ago, available from our fellow blogger the Leggy Prawn.
Fiona and Alastair

The images in this post have been lifted from Classic Boat, who attribute the one of Ellad to Nigel Pert. The takers of the others are not identified, but the one of Martin is mine, which I took when we were aboard the Ayrshire Lass last year. It’s always nice when the commercial sector acknowledges the efforts of those of us who publish for the fun of it. 

Sunday, 9 March 2014

The Easdale Ferry

Until recently almost any journey on our western seaboard would have involved a ferry crossing or two. The ferries were part of the lifeblood of the coastal communities and stories about them form an interesting component of our social history. The skills of the ferrymen were legendary in keeping vital routes open in all weather. 

Greatly improved roads and numerous bridges have reduced the numbers considerably and ferrymen and women are now quite a rare breed. Some of the ferries from earlier days can be seen gently rotting in remote bays, a reminder of the greater skills required of the early motorists than those of today.

There seems to be constant pressure, certainly from landowners if not from the ordinary folk, to reduce ferry links further by constructing more bridges and causeways. After all, having a proper road link to the mainland provided at the taxpayer's expense will easily add a zero to the end of whatever figure one's island is currently valued at. The implications of this in terms of rapid influx of new residents, pressure on island roads and so on are pretty obvious. Perhaps more important is the loss of the peculiar quality that makes islands special, the uniqueness of access by ferry. 

I was able to reflect on this a few days ago when crossing to Easdale for a quick visit that had been arranged before the wind got up. With over 30 mph blowing across the Sound I wouldn't have been surprised to find the ferry off, so there was a little surprise and apprehension when I saw the two ferrymen and their dog setting off in response to my summons. I needn't have worried, because the trip across and back was a model of expert seamanship and boat-handling. It would take a lot to stop the Easdale ferry running. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Cold water sprinting

Boating events are great for getting us out when we otherwise wouldn’t go and coastal rowing is great because the skiffs are available to do so when yachts and dinghies are at rest. The first formal event of 2014 at Loch Insh will be hard to beat for the competitive buzz, great company and an excellent location purpose-built for watersports.

On Sunday the forty participants were divided into eight teams plus coxes, resulting in a total of seven races - four heats, two semis and the final.

Novices and more experienced rowers were mixed but our crew were all entering just our second season, Will Glover from the Isle of Islay and myself from the Isle of Seil plus two from slightly newer clubs, Gillian Innes from Eskmuthe and Donna Martin from South Queensferry. Will and I grabbed our usual rowing stations, bow and stroke respectively and left it to the women to deliver the real power in the middle of the boat.

Usually everyone likes to have good quick blast on the water to open up the blood vessels and get rid of any residual hangovers, but this wasn’t possible with heats scheduled ten minutes apart so that you climbed aboard less than five minutes before the start. To make matters worse the temperature was hovering around zero.

One always has difficult choices about what to wear, knowing that you can’t change once you’re out. In general I think it’s worse to wear too much and risk becoming overheated and dehydrated, but in these conditions it was better to be well covered up. Gloves are another issue – in general I hate them as even slight separation between the fingers makes the grip less comfortable but they were certainly required at the weekend.

Suitably wrapped up and gloved we joined our cox the experienced Adam Graham aboard the Esther and just had time to sort out our footrests before lining up for the start.

When you’re in a race you don’t seem to see much, all your effort goes into delivering and you’re truly just one piston in a four cylinder engine. You’re running on rocket fuel made from an oxygen and adrenaline mix.

The leg out to the turning mark was pretty hard, the gasps of ice cold air really hurting and the legs suffering from it being a month or so since I was last out. I just remember Adam’s constant urging us on, then the turn, which we did quite well considering we’d never rowed before as a team. On the return leg I think the two skiffs were probably about level most of the way and the finish was the closest of our three races.

It was only after we finished that I realised we had won. This meant, of course, that we had to do it all again twenty minutes later, just time for a quick pint of water.

We drew the Soy Loon for the semi-final. He feels lighter, but maybe that was just his colour, after black Esther. I liked my rowing position further from the pin and felt that my oar suited me rather better. Adam was rowing against us, so Phil Robertson coxed us.

The first race had served as a warm-up and I found the second one much easier despite, I think, my setting a slightly faster pace. As our crew felt confident we did a racing start too.

Again I had no idea during the race about how we were doing but I know the result was pretty close. The closing stages seemed to last much longer than the thirty seconds or so they took in reality.

Thus we found ourselves with less than five minutes before the final race, just time for a slug of water from Will’s bottle.

I’m told the black boat beat us to the turn, but after we were round we settled down to a good fast clip and after half a minute or so I saw her just behind us. The combination of good coordinated rowing, a slight following breeze but most importantly Phil’s incredible coxing kept us ahead, until suddenly he shouted “You’re going to win, take it a little easier and enjoy your success!” and we finished a length or so ahead.

The best thing about coastal rowing is the incredible generosity of the clubs. At Ullapool we had to borrow from North Berwick to complete our over sixties crew and it happens time and again. Rowing with experienced people from older clubs and in other skiffs is the best way to learn and is the way to bring everyone up closer to level. On this occasion the main lesson learned (apart from having drinking water aboard) was the value of good coxing from Adam and Phil, two of the best.

Finally a word about our hosts, the Offering a combination of good accommodation, plenty of parking, an excellent restaurant with covered viewing, everything was ideal for skiffing. 

The only problem is the possibility of ice at this time of year, but then if you come in summer it seems you may be treated to aquatic acrobatics, see here: Loch Insh at play

First four photos courtesy of Ian Bright, Portsoy.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Sell wot you got, not wot you ain’t got…

This is the second guest post from Richard Pierce and contains a lot of thought-provoking stuff.

Sell what we’ve got….not what we’ve not got!  I was stopped in my tracks when I heard this clear order from the production manager to the marketing department of the competent manufacturing company I worked for in my early 20′s. And the absolute wisdom of those words has rung in my ears ever since a project I embarked on in the early 1990′s.

The mantra works in a number of ways, but fundamentally it says deal with certainties, not possibilities.

In the early days of my own boatbuilding business we had few orders, but it was immediately clear to me I should use my time to produce boats, solid products that had a value that could, sooner or later be realized. If a day passed with no product a day was lost that could never be regained. We duly started to turn a profit.

Without a sample available, winning a customer is much more difficult, so a substantial part of each day was spent creating new boats. For the first few months these were capitalized by a bank loan of £500, sufficient to cover the material costs of 4 small dinghies in those days. Within 6 months the loan was repaid, and we never used credit again, preferring to re-invest the proceeds of sales in more tools and materials.

After 10 years trading this model was providing a steady if unremarkable income for a few faithful helpers and me. A flow of orders flowed from the distinguished house-style of our product, which was clearly different from anything  anyone within hundreds of miles of our sales pitch was offering. We were building beautiful race-winning yachts.

Then the catastrophe happened. I was lured into a contract to build two racing yachts, just a little larger than those we had been turning out regularly for a few years. Armed with hundreds of photographs and drawings of  typical and contemporary 5-5metre class (34ftLOA) racing yachts I gave a fixed price, and set to work.

CAD machine printing was a new innovation at that time, and in lieu of a  bulky envelope of sweet smelling dye-line construction  drawings, the first package from the designer was a roll of drawing plastic showing the sections, neatly and accurately printed full size, followed by many feet of fax. Precise in some ways, but not a firm base for a contract I later realized….

Time being of the essence (the yachts were to be delivered six months hence to Norway for the World Championships) we set to with little other than a small scale profile drawing showing the station locations and the luxurious, full size, planking-reduced sections to work from. To save time and money the designer’s proposal was that we would remove the decks and cockpit soles from 2 old 5.5′s and install them ready fitted out to the new hulls and keels.  Retaining the old sailnumbers would also avoid the substantial payment of a building fee to the IYRU, an organization to which one of my customers was a past chairman!

The new hull building proceeded apace, with slight delays occuring with the delivery of the designer-specified non woven tri’axial glass cloth, a material I had no previous experience with. (In the event this material needed so much epoxy to fill its interstices its doubtful it was, in practice, any better than a conventional flat weave low-crimp cloth).


At this point line drawings for a bulb keel arrived… at the last possible moment, with some further details later by fax. A pattern had to be built and delivered to the lead keel foundry, Henry Irons in Cornwall some 388 miles distant. The shape was significantly more complex than anything seen in the 5.5 class before, and so the pattern took twice as long to make.  Apart from superior hydrodynamics the designer was aiming to place the CG lower than conventional, which meant that a hollow stub keel had to be built into the hull.

The fabrication and installation of these elements took way longer than the usual 5.5 arrangement (which was simply to bolt a fin onto a flat on the bottom of the canoe body using big washers and ten or a dozen bolts ready cast into the keel). Apart from the enhanced difficulty of ensuring perfect alignment, many hours of extra manufacturing were involved in this ‘new’ layout

Did I mention a call from the foundry? The lead castings turned out significantly heavier than designed, and so had to have the top 4″ removed, to be replaced by deadwood. Another small job in itself that multiplied the time needed to fit the keel. At this point I had to move the yacht hulls to other premises with the benefit of an overhead crane… the finished & painted hulls could not be simply lifted onto their completed fins standing on a trailer. This also complicated the painting  process… each boat took 8 hours of almost continuous paint spraying.  I climbed on and off 2ft high benches to reach from deck edge to keel sole, round the boat 6 times. Painting just a hull or keel is very easy by comparison.

Fitting the keels did not bring the job to completion… another first for these yachts was the inclusion of a trim tab. As all yachtbuilders know, fitting, fairing, flapping and pivoting a tab or rudder to the trailing edge of a keel is a highly skilled job. The final sting in the tail was a call for existing rudders to be modified. These would be extended in depth to almost the full draft of the yachts, with a modified foil section. Sometimes its easier to start from new!

Further delays were encountered when special chainplates had to be manufactured… the fabricators did a great and prompt job, but I was frustrated that the drawings were not available at the outset of the contract. Off-the-shelf parts also caused frustration… specified stock rudder bearings from an American manufacturer with a UK agent arrived only after much chasing on the telephone. What a waste of time. At a late stage new masts from an untested alloy were specified, and when the tubes were drawn they proved almost impossible to drill to mount fittings!  Fortunately this was outside the scope of my contract.

In the last month before delivery another insideous, unforeseen factor grew out of control. With time slipping away one owner started to call on their newly invented mobile phones, not just once but many times a day, each time with another good idea. I estimate I took over 150 calls, 75 hours, during that last month, with no positive benefit to the yachts.

Even loading a yacht on a trailer into a container sounds simple… in the event it would have been easier to tow the yachts to Norway behind the trusty Scimitar!

I learned very painfully that I should always keep a diary of additions and variations to contract, however insignificant they might appear at the time. In this instance each variation from the conventional seemed almost trivial, but collectively they would have been my downfall had it not been for other trade. From that time onwards, customers were welcome at the yard after 4 on Friday afternoon to inspect progress, meet or phone to agree variations to the contract. All other time was ringfenced for construction.

The ability to build a beautiful boat is not sufficient to ensure a fruitful future in boatbuilding. Skills in sales, estimating, accounting, purchasing, man management, planning, contracting and transport are equally important elements; ignore any one at your peril.

Sell what you’ve got…. this does not necessarily have to be something you have completed, it could be a skill or experience you have already acquired, but  whatever, it should be something of which you are in complete control of every last detail, from drawing to finished specification. Something you have in stock.  The most reliable sub-contractors will sometimes be unable to deliver, but then its your head on the block, not theirs.

Happily 20 years on, the yachts have new owners, are re-named and sailing in the Netherlands, see the picture at the top of this post.

Comment by Ewan

There are at least two lessons here. Not only should you only sell what you can deliver, but when you have no client in view you must keep the yard busy by creating something you can sell later.

A good example of the latter is the beautiful Rosemary IV built by William Fife III when the Fairlie yard was temporarily out of orders. The result was not only a lovely work of art, still sailing today, but one of the few examples of what the designer really wanted to produce, unconstrained by the troublesome requirements of a customer. I've written about this before, here: The designer unconstrained

A similar episode happened when I was building Sonas to a design of the late David Ryder-Turner (David was indirectly responsible for Richard and I meeting up, but that is a story for another day!). By the late 1980s orders for wooden yachts were few and far between and the McGruer yard had been suffering like many others. Under a scheme funded by public money the yard was persuaded to build a little yacht on spec and to engage some trainees in the process. David readily agreed to do the design work, I suspect gratuitously, and four young people were duly signed on for the duration of the build. The result, the lovely Amber, was sold before she was completed. Sadly no lessons were learned by management, who failed to cash in on the new talent that had been acquired. Amber will remain for all time the last wooden yacht ever produced by this once great yard. 

Saturday, 11 January 2014

The Royal Windermere Seventeens - a guest post by Richard Pierce

       Many predicted the demise of the Royal Windermere 17 restricted class through the 1970′s as race          turnouts dwindled, and mass-produced glassfibre boatbuilding boomed.  Indeed the National Trust        conserved a couple of yachts in sailing order as an important Lakeland icon, fearful that the heritage        would be lost. The yachts could be hired from Fell Foot Park by the half day. 
Then in 1981 David McCann asked Ian Howlett to design a new 17 for Richard Pierce to build. Freedom, no 44 won her first race, and absolutely dominated the fleet in her first season. Not only was her hull form a significant development in the class, her construction revolutionised the structural integrity (and maintenance needs) of wooden racing yachts, and revitalized the class. 
Freedom’s launch heralded an unprecedented decade of  excitement, growth, and development. A flurry of yachts were brought out of retirement and restored, some half a century old, and just a year after Freedom’s launch Brian Ellis ordered Falcon, no. 45 during the excitement of the 1983 America’s Cup. The class hastily (and sadly… rp) ruled against winged keels when it was rumoured that the new yacht would sport this feature! 
Throughout the class history America’s Cup designers have been called to draw Windermere 17′s.  Alfred Milne, David Boyd, Arthur Robb, and Olin Stevens are all represented, and until the late 1960′s Windermere 17′s hull forms resembled 12m yachts of the day.  But at this point RWYC sadly ruled against the newly emerging bustle. This feature would have reduced the building cost and maintained the handling character of older yachts.
Un-noticed by most, the reason for Freedom and Falcon’s superiority was largely down to a reduction of wetted area, achieved by moving the rudder post forward and thus shortening the keel. While significantly reducing skin resistance, this had the unfortunate consequence of increasing the likelihood of stalling the rudder with attendant loss of control. Ian’s later designs incorporated a skeg behind the rudder which helped alleviate the unfortunate characteristic, and Freedom and Falcon were modified in due course.
The 1984 season opened with the launching of Falcon, sadly disqualified from her first race for a pre-start port & starboard incident involving a boat from another class that unsportingly strayed into the the starting area and forced its right of way.  But thereafter Freedom’s absolute superiority was challenged and the remainder of the season was hard fought between the two new yachts. The photo shows a typical finish at the Henholm line after several hours of close fought racing!

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water