Monday, 2 September 2019

A Wild Journey round the Isle of Mull

Birthe Marie is a Danish fishing boat, built in the 1930s and rebuilt and refitted for charter work by Mark Jardine of Iona.
Mark in his element.
This Summer hasn't been great for sailing in small boats, with days without wind and others when there's been too much, meaning I haven't been out much in the Mariota. Signing up for a Wild Journey on the Birthe Marie seemed a good idea to get in some serious sailing and also to explore the wild Atlantic side of Mull and the various islets and outliers in safety.

On a Wild Journey you'll be spending the entire time out of doors, something I hadn't done since childhood and, to be honest, never for as long as a week. It was challenging at times, but undoubtedly better than sleeping in a confined space with a crowd of folk.

Our only contact with society was a couple of hours in Tobermory half way through the week and strangely it was nice to get back on board and across to pitch tents on Calve Island.

Dusk on Calve Island
We were lucky at the start of the week, with Caribbean conditions, white sandy beaches in little coves and water warm enough for some (not me) to swim.

Our Captain

Having on board Emma, our own dance mistress introduced an element of gentle exercise and hilarity.

Gymnastik auf der Strand

Nice weather meant little wind, but in the second half we got conditions that made me happy to be aboard a sound ship with a wonderful, caring crew in Mark, Neil and David. We had a couple of days when the rain battered the tents all night. On Mull several roads were closed by landsides.

What sounded like a fleet of heavy lorries revving up turned out to be the thundering of a nearby waterfall. Stranger than this was the sound of singing during the night, a magical watery choir of grey seals.

On Ulva, looking across to Gometra
We left Ulva just after this photograph was taken and a couple of hours later were doing eight knots past Staffa in a big rolling swell, wonderful sailing in a boat strong enough to take it.

Looking West to Little Colonsay, gale setting in

Of course the week was about the landscape and sailing, but far more important was the human element. Our group of very disparate people quickly found all sorts of common ground and bonded  into a happy band of semi-competent sail hoisters, rope coilers and even helmsfolk.

The other human dimension was the Isle of Ulva itself. We camped near one of the numerous cleared villages and also made some excursions along the island's remarkable little tracks.

In 1835, when Francis William Clark, a lawyer from Morayshire practising in Stirling bought the island there were about 600 residents in sixteen villages, mainly crofters, but also including boatbuilders, shoemakers and numerous other trades. Many worked in harvesting kelp, which was sheered along the shores, dried in the sun and then carefully cooked to produce alginates that went on to numerous industries elsewhere.

On right a boat noust, on left what's probably the remains of a fish trap

Bracken shows that this land was once in cultivation

From about 1841 cheap imports from the South Atlantic put an end to the kelp industry and Clark responded by progressively clearing "his" land of the tenants who had been there for centuries. Even among the landlord class of his day Clark stood out for his exceptional brutality, personally throwing people out of their homes, burning the roofs off and destroying furniture and effects. Part of the island became known as Starvation Terrace,

"...Where the old and feeble folk cleared from their crofts were placed by Clark, to exist as best they could on shellfish & seaweed till they died."

By 1889 he had reduced the population to 53, by which time he had bought Gometra and Little Colonsay and cleared them as well.

In contrast to elsewhere in Scotland, where ruins of the cleared houses have often been cannibalised for use in dry stane work, the walls of the little houses often still stand, also remains of nousts and fish traps around the shores. The tracks are in remarkable condition, many sections surfaced with smooth stones as a reminder that most ordinary people wore no shoes; the whole an infrastructure representing millions of hours of hard toil by countless generations.I felt a profound sense of grief and anger, tempered by the knowledge that the island has been secured  and hopefully such suffering will never again be inflicted on those who live there.

Photo credits Neil Harvey at Wild Journeys by kind permission

To learn more visit Wild Journeys

Friday, 28 June 2019

Mariota is afloat!

Mariota afloat at last

I've not been posting on here for a while, as the last few months (years) have been consumed by building the Mariota, which is an Iain Oughtred designed, double ended sloop. She's an extended version of his well kent Wee Seal, drawn out to 21 feet 6 inches but on the same sections. To my eye the longer length works well aesthetically and I reckon he's got the sheer line just perfect.

Mariota, by the way, was the Queen of the Western Isles circa 1380 and a pretty tough lady by all accounts. I found her a couple of years ago, when visiting Eilean Mor MacCormick

Building any boat is quite a big endeavour and this one, my eighth over 33 years, has taken me much longer than I anticipated. In August 2016 when I asked my wonderful neighbour for a loan of here garage I had in mind something like six months rather than three years, but her car has survived and we're still friends.

Sadly my old Volvo hasn't survived. Here she is with the first load of wood for the skeleton arriving for machining.

Some day I'll write a lot more about the joys of building small boats. It's one of the most fulfilling things one can do and really quite easy, as you just keep making bits and adding them to what's already there. But you do need space to do it and an understanding partner. Advantages apart from the obvious include keeping one fit, having no time to get drunk, spreading the cost over time, ending up with something lovely. Traditional art is all about hand and eye coordination, with this build the eye belongs to Iain, the hand is mine, a nice partnership.

Handing over the planking to Alec Jordan saved me about a year of work. The planks were assembled in the house and walked along the road to the garage.

Then assembled on the upturned moulds.

Essential to keep someone else's space nice and clean!
By May 2017 we were ready for a turning party, with help from the village.

Lots of experts.

For those interested in the detail of the Wee Seal/Kotik designs here are some minor changes that may or may not prove to have been beneficial.

Following chats With Mikhail Markov, who has the prototype White Fang, I drew out the external ballast keel forward and also provided a sloping forward end. This unbalanced the boat slightly when she was launched a few days ago and I've added some internal trimming ballast under the stern. I'm not unhappy about overdoing the ballast, as we can have pretty nasty conditions here.

I hated everything to do with the ballast, apart from the nice men at Ballantynes of Bo'ness who have been casting since 1852. Shifting a huge lead slug about was no fun.

Mr Holmes, great help throughout

Discussions with Steve Hall, the wizard sailmaker, resulted in the gaff being lowered a little, shortening the spar and perhaps bring the power aft a little. The idea was to make the sail easier to peak. Time will tell.

For comfort I've built a deep, traditional cockpit and for safety a bridge deck. the area under the stern deck is open and looks good for storing ropes, fenders, sail covers etc.

The companionway hatch is offset, providing a really big chart table, food preparation space to port and a single berth to starboard. A second person can sleep under the foredeck, just (that'll be me!).

Two practical tips.

First, everyone building upside down puts a line through the moulds just above the building floor to ensure a straight boat, but of course it gets kicked about and ceases to be of use once the hull has been planked a bit. Richard Pierce advised me to use instead an overhead cable with plumb lines of varying lengths suspended.

Second, being an idiot I failed to seal round the centreboard case and have had to fix several leaks. Had I built it into the hull when upside down that would not have been a problem, as everything would have been visible and easy to do, working downwards. Something kit makers should bear in mind! My excuse is that working with only a few inches of clearance between floor and hull things were difficult for an ancient person.

Problems of building in a tight space

By the end of year two much of the internal woodwork was done and I was starting on the deck structure. In May 2018 we had a nice visit from Iain, accompanied by wee Faith.

The Sorcerer and his apprentice

Soon after, cabin beams

Things like the rudder take a lot of time. My friend and neighbour Pat Delap made a lovely tiller from local windfall ash.

I wanted a nice traditional interior. The compression post is from the old Ardrishaig Distillery, that came down over thirty years ago. Like the beams and trim all recycled old growth pitch pine, an endangered species nowadays. These trees were growing at the time of Admiral Cochrane!

The old shipmates transferred from Stroma

Earlier this year we had the second visit from the Master

And a week ago the launch party was a happy affair, with local help, whisky barrowed down by Anne and just a few pals watching.

I haven't sailed the Mariota yet. Although the weather is lovely the winds are strong and gusty, not ideal for a first trip. Meantime I've found a great spot for drying out for repairs, repainting etc, or just showing off the lovely lines.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

The First Loch Awe Adventure

The event was well named, because visiting Loch Awe is indeed an adventure.

Coastal Rowing is quickly spreading inshore, and this event has shown one
again what close competition you can have on tideless waters. Conditions last
Sunday were ideal, with totally still water during most of the event.

The arrival of skiffing on Loch Awe is entirely due to the efforts of Gordon Leveratt
and his wife Maggie, making what I hope isn’t too stressful a journey from an organised
world to the wonderful anarchy of the skiffies. Having built the lovely Mingulay, he
established the KIDS (Kilchrennan, Inverinan and Dalavic CRC) and they already
have sufficient numbers to justify a second skiff.

Last Summer Gordon invited some local skiffs for a visit, and we rowed down from
Kilchrenan to explore Kilchurn Castle. We didn’t know that we were a trial for greater things!

image courtesy Richard Pierce, Luing
image courtesy Richard Pierce, Luing

Dalavich had always been a bit like Brigadoon for me, a place I wasn’t quite sure existed,
although I’ve lived nearby for over thirty years. I can confirm, as can fifty tired rowers,
that it not only exists, but offers one of the best bases for a skiffing event that you could
wish for. There’s plenty of space for parking and unloading, a huge level campsite, cabins
available for those who want some luxury, including hobbit rooms, a community centre with
a proper hall for ceilidhs and nearby the Wild Rowan Cafe with great home baking.

Gordon had laid on everything for a safe, happy, competitive event, including even a towing buggy
to the launch site.

I missed the Friday arrivals and the musical evening with Martin McLaughlin on the bagpipes.

Saturday morning was a bit dreich and rainy at first, but soon cleared to allow a lot of social rows
and “try a row” sessions, also some great trips to the dreaded prison island of Ardchonnel and some
of the twenty two local crannogs. While I was out with North Queensferry we saw the local osprey take
a fish back to her treetop nest, worth the trip for that alone!

We had a great meal in the hall in the evening, followed by the ceilidh hosted by local group
All About the Cake, locals Laura Neville, Jane Wilding, Jeannie Holles and Andre van Well
playing out of goodwill. The fear an tighe, Guy Neville, managed to get about forty skiffies up
to dance a passable Reel of the 51st Division.

image courtesy Chris Mitchell, Kinghorn

Sunday was much brighter, with almost still water.

I had agreed to hold one end of the starting tape, always quite nerve wracking when there’s
a biggish fleet on a transit. Despite our general dislike of discipline skiffies do rise to the occasion
and the fleet lined itself up straight for a perfect start. All I had to do was pull the trigger, then off for
banana cake and coffee while ten crews battled it out.

image courtesy Chris Mitchell, Kinghorn

Being a land based event the distance was 7.4 statute miles from Dalavich to Taychreggan, then a crew change and an individual start for the race back.

The outward race was astonishingly close, with Sandbay from St Andrews covering the distance
in 1 hour 16 minutes and 8 seconds, followed by Arran’s Seabhag 22 seconds later, five boats within
the next 12 minutes and finally the KID’s own Mingulay on 1 hour 37 minutes.

It’s a great tribute to the Renegades that they made the whole trip without a crew change and achieved
times of 1 hour 25 out and 1 hour 39 back.

The fastest boat on the return trip was Seabhag with a run time of 1 hour 19 minutes, followed
by six boats in the next twenty minutes, then Blue Bay, Mingulay and finally St Moluag on 1 hour 48.

Combined results made Arran’s Seabhag the overall winners, then Sandbay from St Andrews
and Yolande from Kinghorn.

We had a good shore crew working on the times, Heather writing them up and Nigel making sure
that the right boats got the right times!

It all ended with a cheery prizegiving and some beautiful trophies.

Here is the complete list of the times:

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water