I’ve been reflecting that I’ve just completed the longest sustained physical effort to date in my seventy three years on this planet, rowing for a continuous five hours, minus short breaks for a slug of water, against a wind of a good Force Three, perhaps Four at times, with some confused tidal rips added, on our passage from Lochaline to Tobermory on Saturday. My deepest respect and admiration go to our Convenor, who insisted on battling out the entire trip over three days from Loch Linnhe to Kilchoan.
Monday, 13 September 2021
Robbie had created a very full and careful passage plan, incorporating our respectful consensus about the times of the tides, which were just off Springs and didn’t promise to be very helpful, with Low Water on the first day about 1500 and of course progressively later.
The crew assembled at the Linnhe moorings on Friday, where we were greeted very warmly by Paul and sent off in a dreich flat calm, coxed by Robbie down to our first wee stop in a lovely bay at the North West of Lismore. There I took over the coxing for the next hour or so of rapid travel with a big ebb tide, which seemed to follow us round the Morvern shore for another swap over, another slug and a bite of nourishment. We didn’t see much wildlife in the murk, (just one unidentified big thing made a splash behind us), but were glad of the ideal rowing conditions in what my Mother called a wetting rain. Distance travelled 21 Kilometres over four hours.
A very pleasant evening was spent in Lochaline, dining rather well in the Nest, followed by cabadaich agus deoch in the social club, a fine establishment, a little Seventies in style, then a night in the bunkhouse.
As noted above, the second day was quite a challenge. After offering encouragement and support to the local Witches of Morvern we set off about midday and had a fast ebb for the first five hundred metres or so. For the next hour Sue, Adam, Steve and Robbie took on some pretty challenging conditions as I did my best to keep us clear of the worst of the tidal rips and bring us round inshore as far as possible, where we assumed the tide would be slacker. By the time of our first changeover I was glad of the chance to warm up, if apprehensive about the challenge to come. In fact as the day went on the waves became a bit more regular, but the Sound feels very long when you’re travelling up it at about thirty heaves per minute.
Wildlife on this section amounted to one big grey seal, who stuck his head up and no doubt would have scratched it in wonderment had his flippers been long enough. I don't count the hundreds of caged salmon that we passed at Fiunary, the fittest of them leaping incessantly on the surface, the property of the “Scottish” Sea Farms company, in reality like most of the industry foreign owned. Aquaculture Scotland tells me that the site was only stocked in May, but the fish looked mature and may have been shipped in from a problem site elsewhere. Mortalities are currently about four and a half tonnes per month, as we hit maximum sea temperatures and sea lice levels.
We had expected to finish in style with the flood going North through the Diorlinn, but instead had to overcome an adverse stream. Inside we were met by our hosts for the evening, John and Lynne from the Isle of Mull club. Distance travelled 23 kilometres over six hours.
After we secured at the pontoons and rediscovered some ability to walk we were whisked off for hot showers and a great dinner and deoch at Dervaig. Off to bed at nine and missed the tennis!
Day Three was quiet once again. We left at nine, myself coxing again for the first half, accompanied by our hosts aboard their lovely Harrison Butler, surely one of the most practical ships ever designed. This final leg of about ten kilometres lasted just a couple of hours.
James then quickly rustled up some bacon rolls before driving me off to the ferry terminal. I was privately happy to travel back the long way (the van having only five seat belts). I had a chance to sample the delights of The Gallery, carrot and walnut cake and a good strong coffee, followed by Isle of Mull ice cream from the shop on the front, both signs of how Tobermory is increasingly attractive to visitors. The Mishnish still looks great, sadly the Macdonald Arms, once home to the legendary Bert Hall, not so good.
Then, with an hour or so to spare before the bus I found a nice American fellow over here with his father’s ashes, who seemed happy to listen to a few stories. The bus driver was a cheery man who started the chat by saying “I bring you up in the morning and take you back at night” and was a bit thrown when I told him I had arrived in a rowing boat. The bus was packed full, everyone masked up apart from a moustachioed BFB who spent a lot of the trip on his mobile. CallyMac made him mask up to get on the ferry, so he did actually have one.
Monday, 26 July 2021
This Summer has been good for getting to know the Mariota and discovering the extent to which age has diminished my ability to move about the deck on a small boat with confidence since I was last regularly sailing aboard Juni in 2016. Actually building a boat for two and a half years followed by going for government walks during the lockdowns has kept me reasonably fit.
When we launched in 2019 I was quite nervous, but more about me than the boat. It’s well known that amateur builders always overbuild and I always remember that advice from one of the ancients that the time to worry about whether or not you used enough glue is not when you’re two miles offshore and it’s blowing a hoolie. Yes, the boat was strong enough, but I had become a bit chicken ashore, not helped by there being very little sailing last year.
The 2021 Season has started rather well and I’m liking the Kotik design more, the more I venture out. The basic hull shape is extremely sea-kindly, but being beamy and shallow she should be sailed flat, the total opposite of the Stroma, with a tonne and a half of lead beneath her. I've rigged up lots of string and can easily take in a reef in about five minutes without venturing on deck. Sailing on my own in Force 3 is very comfortable with one reef, a good, easily controllable spread. The expression for reefing in Gaelic, by the way, is “cuir ceann a steach”, bring the head in! And white horses are eich bhana! (eech vana)
Last month my new mate the Professor and I went to a socially distanced meet up on an uninhabited island, where a group of suitably eccentric friends came together for the first time in ages. On the Saturday there was a pretty strong breeze from the South west, probably verging on a Force 4, which is a lot for wee boats. Most of us decided to go, as we operate on the flock principle, with the fastest boats herding the others and looking after each other. With two reefs down Mariota felt very safe and steady.
When the Tollesbury wizard was making the sails he announced that he was adding a third reef, as he was sure it would come in handy one day. While I hope not to need it, I’m very pleased that it’s there. I’ve also asked for a storm jib, which will be tacked down a little aft of the roller and hoisted on a separate halliard.
On the Sunday we sailed round to the Castle of the Dogs on Torsa for a picnic, “Caisteal nan Coin” since you ask. Read more about that here: A Voyage Round Torsa
Then the heatwaves started and there have been some lovely days afloat in gentle breezes, most recently down to Eilean na Gamhna, the Island of the Stirks, where the pals took some lovely photos.
The Selkie is of course another of Iain Oughtred’s designs, the community skiff from the Isle of Seil, which I helped to build. My wee tender, the Peigi, is a Nutshell from the board of Joel White. My first build, from 1986. Meeting up with the fellow Selkies was a real bonus, with cuirm -chnuic air an traigh (picnic on the beach. My friend James Fenton took these shots.
Anchored in our favourite spot and there was a huge dod of mud on it when it came up. Cue to use the canvas bucket, that Wilson Thom’s widow gave me thirty years ago when she decided to give up driving and had to clear her garage.
Wilson was one of Willie Russell’s crew in the Seawanhaka Cup races in the 1930s and taught me a lot about sailing nuair a bha mi og . A competitive fellow who exhorted me to overtake when I was learning to drive, shouting “justifiable risk”.
So the bucket could be any age. The great thing is that it doesn’t chip the paintwork, as a metal one would, and of course plastic ones just detach from the handle when full of water and add to marine pollution. Folds away to nothing and back under stern deck until the next time.
Top Image courtesy Richard Pierce aka the Luing Guru
Monday, 3 May 2021
As my seventieth birthday approached I finally parted from Stroma, designed by Alfred Mylne and built by McGruers on the Clyde in 1929. We had looked after each other in all weather for over forty years. These old racing yachts sail beautifully but need a fit, young crew and after a few years on the market she had found ideal new custodians in a young couple of the same age I had been when I took her on. I’m hoping for an invitation to the hundredth birthday party in a few years time.
Over the years I’ve built several boats and have also acquired a number of good friends among some of the professional designers and builders who inhabit the traditional boating community, men and women whom I’ve found universally generous with their time and expertise and whose advice has saved me from potential blunders on projects such as the extensive restoration of Stroma, which took several years. That gave me the confidence to believe that I could safely take on the challenge of building my next cruising boat. The search was on for a suitable design.
The basic requirements were for a boat small enough to be sailed by one person, but with space for a couple of friends, the rig controlled as far as possible from the cockpit and seaworthy for inshore waters among the islands of Scotland’s West coast. Where I live, in mid-Argyll, we don't see big waves very often but our tides are fierce and can set up extremely nasty jabbles that sometimes can’t be avoided. The bonus is the ability to ride on top of a tide and vastly increase your cruising range if you’re prepared to set an alarm. One of our best ever trips on Stroma, about forty years ago, involved setting off from Ardminish on Gigha at about 4 am with a good strong Southwesterly and a flooding Spring tide, and reaching North at eight knots over the ground to moor up at Ardfern in time for breakfast in the old drovers inn.
There were a couple of further considerations. First, auxiliary power. After the first few years I took the little two stroke Vire out of Stroma and sailed engineless from then on. This was for reasons of both practicality and vanity; small petrol engines don’t readily cope with life under a leaking cockpit sole and the weight of a diesel replacement would upset the trim, but also there’s nothing uglier than an outboard bolted on the side or over the stern of a lovely old yacht. What was to be done? Second, handling on shore. I wanted to be free from boatyard bills except if absolutely necessary. This indicated a hull that could be managed on a launching trolley and a mast that could be easily dropped.
Readers will be familiar with the countless discussions on yachting forums about designs and I would only say that there is no such thing as the ideal boat. The list boiled down to just two, Francois Vivier’s Beniguet and Iain Oughtred’s Wee Seal, both very elegant and practical. The former had the advantages of being a more modern concept, lighter and simpler to build, with just sufficient space below. The latter had more internal space and looked more like what the late David Ryder-Turner called a “floaty boat”, but also seemed to my eye too compressed, an awful lot of boat crammed into eighteen and a half feet. Then I heard about Kotik, the result of Mikhail Markov commissioning Iain to stretch the Wee Seal out to twenty one feet. The result was more generous space inside and to my eye a more aesthetic shape.
Over the years I’ve enjoyed studying boat plans. I’ve never regretted buying study plans and occasionally complete sets of drawings for boats that I’ve ended up not building. You learn a great deal from them and it helps today’s designers to keep going. I’ve kept the plans for the Beniguet and may build her some day; that would only be following Mikhail, who now has one of each!
When the Kotik plans arrived I discovered that Iain had drawn a yawl rig option as well as the basic sloop. This gave me food for thought, because thirty years ago I built Sonas, a pretty, very slender gunter sloop designed by David Ryder-Turner and found that she would have been far happier as a yawl. With a large mainsail she proved a real handful at times and we were usually reefed unless it was pretty calm. The idea of dropping the main in a blow and getting home under jib and reefed mizzen became very attractive. Yawl rig, probably with a Bermudian main, would have worked fine, as that design had a counter stern and the rudder post forward in a tube. But the Kotik has an external rudder and I like the positive feel of a straight tiller. There was also the consideration that the stern deck doesn't have a lot of space for extra spars and bits of string, so I stayed with the sloop. Of the six Kotik designs built so far, I think that only one, Ian Milne’s in New Zealand, is a yawl.
A couple of other decisions had to be made. Iain had drawn options for both a self draining cockpit and a deep, traditional one. The former seem almost standard in small boats and they are, I understand, compulsory under safety regulations in some countries. I’ve never liked them and am not convinced that they’re helpful in normal inshore conditions. I believe that if a big wave did come over it would be safer for it to flood into the lowest part of the ship, from where we could pump it out, rather than to have it trapped higher up, which would surely make the ship vulnerable to the following one. I went for the deep cockpit, allowing the crew to sit in comfort well out of the wind.
I also decided to keep the cabin dry with a bridge deck, which also provides extra seating in the cockpit and storage space inside the cabin.
Iain provided several alternative layout suggestions, fitting in up to four berths. I redesigned the space for just one, good sized, berth and the possibility of a second person sleeping under the foredeck. However, in coastal cruising I think it's better for any crew simply to bring a tent and sleep comfortably ashore, which we can do anywhere in Scotland. Here we don’t have a law of trespass and you can set up camp anywhere, as long as it’s not in someone’s garden.
I decided to offset the main hatch to starboard, leaving more space to port for a wide chart table, which has a drawer underneath. This relates well to the centreboard case, which is offset to port, avoiding the problems of casting a slot in the ballast keel.
As I started studying the drawings I also made a couple of changes to the design, in each case following a discussion with Iain, who was always very patient and open to new ideas. Please, never alter a design without the designer’s approval!
First, I increased the ballast somewhat, as Kotik was designed to sail with a crew, while I would be mainly single handed and our weather can change very quickly. I did so by deepening the casting and extending it forward a little, which thankfully hasn’t spoiled the trim. I changed the profile slightly, so that it will be ballast, rather than deadwood, that takes the bump if we ever meet a misbehaving skerry.
Second, I learned from Mikhail that his Kotik could sometimes be tricky to steer, a feature of long straight keels and canoe sterns, which necessitate a raked sternpost. On the theory that it’s easier to cut off than to add a bit of rudder blade later I increased the area and also made it widest below to make it more effective.
A further change came along much later, once I was in contact with the brilliant sailmaker Steven Hall of Tollesbury. He recommended increasing the angle between the yard and the mast, enabling the mainsail to be sewn with vertical panels and no battens. It also allowed more space for the halliard block and the wire span. Space here is a problem with all steep gaff and gunter rigs, leading to innovative solutions, including as a last resort, bringing the halliard through the mast with an internal sheeve.
The construction took two and a half years from late in 2016. I am fortunate to have a wonderful neighbour, who doesn’t use her garage, as a result of which I had a nice dry space over thirty feet long and about three feet wider than the maximum beam. There were no doors, which at least prevented any fumes from epoxy resin causing a problem. Fortunately that winter was mild here and I could work for at least an hour or two most days. The photographs tell the story better than I can, but I’ll mention a few decisions I made that may be of interest.
First, a piece of advice that I got from Richard Pierce, formerly of Ferry Nab at Windermere and now based on the Isle of Luing, one of the historic Slate Islands near where I live, a man who has built more boats than anyone I know. Instead of lining up the building ladder by running a string through the moulds at a low level Richard rigs a tensioned garden wire directly above the centre line of the boat, from which he suspends plumb lines of varying lengths that can be slid along to provide accurate reference whenever needed. This proved its worth with the hull both inverted and upright, making it easy to ensure bulkheads etcetera were true.
To avoid any possibility of rot later I decided to use Accoya, a specially treated softwood that starts out mainly as Radiata Pine, for the stems, hog, floors and deadwood. It was easy to work with, if a little softer than I would have liked. For deckbeams and other parts I used mainly the tried and tested Douglas Fir, readily available and an old friend.
I had heard of Vendia Plank from Finland and decided to use it for the hull. It proved extremely hard, flexible in the right directions and I would recommend it if it could still be obtained. I saved several months by getting Alec Jordan to cut the hull planks and moulds for me, which he did most accurately. I suspect he was relieved when I told him that there had been no gaps anywhere. I cut the scarfs in the garage and then turned part of our house into a production shop in a dry, warm atmosphere which suited the epoxy resin. I would then walk the planks, up to twenty three feet long, along the road to the garage, provided it wasn’t too windy or raining. Robbins Super-Elite plywood was used for bulkheads and decking.
In my view there are no tricks to working with epoxy, just do frequent mixes of precisely the amount needed, measuring it on digital scales protected by clingfilm rather than using pumps. Treat it like the deadly poison it is, cleaning all spills as they happen. In cold weather I help it along with a hot air gun.
Under this system the hull went together very quickly, basically at the rate of a pair of planks every couple of days, held by the usual homemade giant clothes pegs. There followed several months of building up the deadwood, fairing it off, filleting everything and coating the exterior with three coats of epoxy until we were ready to turn over in May 2017.
|The start, Accoya for machining|
|What houses are good for|
|Hull complete, three coats epoxy on|
|About 10 % of the build done!|
As a fan of recycling and keen to keep some references to the past I was lucky to find enough old growth pitch pine to build the cockpit seating and flooring. It is lovely material, which used to be plentiful but is now endangered. It can be found in old buildings throughout my native city of Glasgow and was also used for hull planking in old yachts. The thrust post for the mast started out in life as part of the Ardrishaig Distillery, built in 1831, that my friend John the builder had rescued from the demolition thirty years ago, so part of my new boat came from a tree that would have been growing at the time of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
The biggest worry was sourcing the ballast keel, which weighed about 400 kilograms by the time I had deepened it as described above. I wasn’t brave enough to cast it and decided that it would be an interesting challenge for Ballantines of Bo’ness, now into their third century. They must have done them in the past. The present managing director, Gavin Ballantine, was game if I provided the pattern. I would love to have seen the pour taking place; it's probably better that I didn’t.
|The Designer and his Apprentice|
For the spars I went with the traditional recommendations, Sitka Spruce for the mast, boom and yard and ash for the tiller, the latter made by my friend Pat as a present to the boat, using a piece from a local windfall tree. These parts were the only ones to be varnished, with lots of coats to prevent rot.
|Pat and the tiller|
For standing rigging I decided to go with 4mm Dyneema, incredibly strong of course, but I get slightly spooked when I go forward, as on Stroma there was a comforting trio of galvanised stays to grasp and this stuff doesn’t feel the same.
My intention regarding propulsion was to mount a two stroke outboard, bought years earlier but never used, in a well behind the cockpit rear bulkhead. Then I learned that this might be problematic, as an outboard in a well can choke on its own exhaust. I also learned about electric outboards, which I’m sure are the future. Sadly they swing a propellor too big for the internal well that I had built, so I now had the pleasure of removing it and reinstating the hole I had reluctantly cut in the bottom of the hull. External brackets exert a lot of torque in the wrong places, but Richard came up with a neat solution, a sturdy retractable beam that slides in a secure housing unseen behind the bulkhead.
|The Pierce Bracket|
Final touches were a nice Harris tweed cushion for my bunk and a clock and barometer from Wempe of Hamburg; in a self build you can spend the money you save on nice things. Named Mariota, after the Queen of the Western Isles circa 1380, she was launched in the Summer of 2019.
Friday, 13 November 2020
On the front at Rothesay in June 2003 during the Fife Regatta I made the acquaintance of a delightful and well-informed lady, who turned out to be Miss Jean M Fife, perhaps the last surviving member of the Bute Fyfe family still in Scotland. I arranged to keep in touch with her and she later supplied me with much more information, with permission to publish it as I saw fit.
While she was doing this I researched the old Census records in order to trace the family and their connections with the other Fifes on the mainland, not helped by their habit of changing the spelling of their surname from time to time. There was also a Scottish tradition of favouring just one or two first names, in this case John and William, also of reusing names for later children after earlier ones had died, which doesn't help the researcher.
What follows is based on Miss Fife’s work in local libraries, conversations with local residents and so on, but not least her own memories of her family and a lifetime of holidays on Bute, plus my own efforts on Scotlands People
The starting point for any Fife research is always "Fast and Bonnie", May Fife McCallum’s masterwork. She records that a John Fyfe was born in Kilbirnie in 1743 and moved to the Earl of Glasgow's Kelburn Estate to work as a wright in 1770. He and his wife Janet, nee Fyfe and probably a cousin, had at least six children of whom four sons, John, James, William and Allan followed their father's trade, William becoming the famous William Fife I. She goes on to record:-
"It appears that John Fyfe Junior, the eldest son of John the wright on Kelburn estate was building fishing boats at the beginning of the 19th century. Old customs records list fishing boats built by him at Fairlie and registered at Irvine, the local port of registration at that time. As a youth William Fife, born in 1785, may have been attracted to his older brother John's business, and thus began his introduction to boat building."
Later, relevant to our story, she narrates:-
"A cousin [of William Fife I] John, who was a carpenter in Ardrossan, and his wife, both died about the same time, and an uncle in Ardrossan took care of their three sons. Apparently these orphaned boys were not happy in this household and walked from Ardrossan to Fairlie, a distance of about ten miles, to throw themselves on the mercy of their father's cousin. He took them under his wing and employed them as apprentices. On completion of their apprenticeship they crossed to the island of Bute where they set up a successful boat building business at Ardmaleish."
Nothing more is said of this carpenter cousin John and I was intrigued to confirm that he was indeed the father of the three orphans, whose names I already knew, courtesy of Miss Fife, were John, James and Thomas. I discovered from the 1841 Census for Ardrossan, the following:
This John is almost certainly the father, but we can see that he was an established shipbuilder, not simply a carpenter. A further search showed that he died from jaundice on 14 May 1848. I couldn't find his wife's date of death and it seems the youngest, Daniel, died in childhood. Note that John's brother James is living in the house, so he is “the uncle in Ardrossan”.
A look at the 1851 Census, confirms that they’re still in Ardrossan, John a ship carpenter lodging at number 5 Harbour Street and James with his uncle James next door, still an apprentice. I haven't managed to trace younger brother Thomas, but it’s likely he was also lodging nearby.
This seems to confirm that far from being helpless young orphans the brothers were useful, fully or at least partly trained ship carpenters by the time they moved back to their place of birth in Fairlie, sometime after 1851, and joined the workforce of William Fife I. Nor did they stay there long, for by 1856 a large wooden building had gone up on the shore at Rothesay, the Red Shed, probably not actually red in colour but named for the red rocks on which it stood. See Alexander Wilson's depiction of it:
It seems that there were two James Fyfes building boats in Rothesay in the mid 1850s, described as Senior and Junior, but with only half a generation between them. This suggests that Uncle James (born about 1816) had moved from Ardrossan and nephews James (born 1832), John (born 1833) and Thomas (born 1838) had crossed from Fairlie to join him.
These Bute Fyfes were an industrious bunch and built almost anything that could float, apart from yachts. In his "History of Rothesay and its People" Dr Lawson records:-
"The Red Shed was below the level of the road. What is now the [New Rothesay, later St John's] manse garden was the ground on which the larger keels were laid of smacks of a goodly size. Smacks, fishing skiffs and rowing boats (also small boats with round sterns and one sail) were the craft built by Messrs Fyfe. There would be a number of new boats lined up on the ground on the margin of the roadway extending to the ladies' bathing place (now Isle of Bute Sailing Club). Behind the ladies' and gents' bathing places (the old bathing station) the land was lower than the roadway. This depression was used in winter time for the laying up and storing of small rowing boats."
On 13 June 1857 The Buteman announced:-
"On Wednesday last there was launched form the boat-building yard of Messrs. Fyfe a beautiful craft of the gigger rig, c. 20 tons, property of Mr Thorburn, Farmer, Isle of Muck. She was named "The Islander's Bride" by Miss Richmond, daughter of Mr Richmond, Temperance Hotel-keeper, Rothesay and is intended to carry produce of the isle of Muck to Tobermory, the nearest market port in that district, the owner being the lessee of that isle. She has a very faviurable appearance and, considering the cost she is built for, promises to be a swift sailing craft and a credit to her young and enterprising builders."
This would have been one of the first larger vessels built by the family, but they went on to greater things. In April 1858 the Buteman again:-
"Launch! On Tuesday afternoon there was launched form the building yard of Messrs Fyfe a sloop of c. 70 tons burden, the property of Mr Kelso of Arran. The vessel was name "Catherine Kelso." The launch was conducted with systematic accuracy and the vessel glided down the ways gracefully. We hope soon again to witness the launch of as large, if not larger craft form the same yard."
By 1861 the Census described James as a Master Ship carpenter, John as a ship carpenter and Thomas as a mere journeyman. One can see that they all knew their station.
With the coming of the railways and the Clyde steamers Rothesay entered its heighday as a holiday destination for all classes of society. Wealthier families could afford to build or rent villas along the front, while more ordinary ones went into lodgings for the annual Glasgow Fair. There was terrific business for boat hirers well into the Twentieth century, in fact right up to the arrival of cheap package holidays in the 1960s.
After many years the road along the front at Rothesay was improved and the Red Shed was taken down. The Fyfes moved round to Ardmaleish, where they established their second yard on the site where there now stands a sea-food factory. Thomas (Miss Fife's great-grandfather) didn't join his brothers. Instead he concentrated on building rowing skiffs and in the 1881 Census is described as "boat-builder/hirer (17 boats)."
The remaining Fyfes eventually concentrated on building fishing skiffs and three of James Fyfe's sons were working at Ardmaleish until the 1930s, by which time the boats were getting much bigger and designs were changing fast. Two of John Fyfe's sons were trained there, but George was drowned aged twenty in 1898 and John emigrated to Canada in 1906. Most of Miss Fyfe's surviving relatives are now in Canada and the United States.