Friday, 22 July 2022

Brian Corbett

About ten years ago I was looking out of our house at Loch na Cille in mid Argyll and saw a fellow on the other side of the loch launching a very pretty, interesting little yacht. I soon saw that he was in some difficulty and realised that he was in a spot where the seabed is mud rather than the hard shingle that we have on our side.

After a quick change of clothing I raced round the head of the loch and found a fellow above his waist in extremely cold water faced with a problem that he couldn’t resolve on his own. After Winifred was duly launched and moored and the trailer recovered my new friend Brian came round to the house to warm up. Thus started a friendship that continued on the water, when he visited for events and regattas and also online, as we found that we shared an interest in yachting and boating history.
I was to learn that Brian was a man of wide interests, with an unpretentious confidence in his ability and a belief that we should all try to leave the World a better place. Latterly we were in contact regarding Heritage Harbours, of which Brian was keen to identify a few here on our West Coast, also the Coastal Project and Pericles, a European initiative aimed at sharing cultures across nations.
Brian’s sailing ability requires no comment from me. On his visits to Argyll he was usually single handed and although I was never aboard her I imagine Winifred wasn’t the easiest boat to sail in a breeze. I’ve annexed a selection of images from times here and on the Clyde.

He was a most decent and entertaining man, about whom Anne and I will retain many happy memories.

Thursday, 21 July 2022

A short Summer Trip that ended with some fun

At last there was a prospect of nice settled weather, sunny with gentle breezes, so it seemed a good idea to set off for a couple of days. With a fine crew, The First Mate and her pal, the newly appointed Cabin Girl being both on annual leave we duly left the anchorage in Loch na Cille in light airs and drifted down the loch on a falling tide, the idea being to stop for lunch at Caisteal nan Coin and wait for the Cuan Sound to open its gate for us two hours before High Water Oban. In the event we were there pretty well at opening time and found a gentle breeze as we entered, giving us the required ability to steer, although in the Sound the tide does most of the work.

Not generally appreciated is that the tide is still falling during those two hours. The outgoing water travels West before taking a turn to Port and joining the last of the ebb down past Fladda light. At that point the wind failed us, we rigged the Torqeedo outboard and headed North at a gentle pace to conserve electricity, giving us a speed of 1.5 knots that doubled as the flood came up.

After six miles, when we had hardly dented the reserve in the battery, a nice breeze came up and we were able to anchor under sail in Garbh Airde. We set a tripping line, essential here because the kelp is really growing and there are few visitors to this long narrow cut in the land, with high rock on one side and reefs lurking just under the surface on the other.
Once settled we were delighted to see the lovely, historic Kentra at anchor in a slightly wider bay half a mile away. Beyond her a forest of masts in Puilladhòbhran, basically a parking lot these days and probably too busy for the otters after which it’s named.

Dinner ashore supplied by the CG in the encampment she and the FM had established, venison meatballs in tomato sauce followed by chocolate. Then the Kentras arrived for strawberries, bringing with them an invitation for breakfast next day, which we felt we couldn’t refuse.

Kerrera in the distance


Early Morning, Second Day
I love the Kentra, now in rather better shape than when I first came across her thirty years ago. She triggered one of the most fascinating and complex episodes in my career and was responsible for numerous friendships.

Heading South, the legendary Harry Spencer aboard

I’m always thrilled to see her on her West coast excursions. Named after a bay beloved by her first owner she’s the prime example of the very best of Scottish ship craftsmanship, launched from Fairlie in 1923. She also my favourite Fife yacht by far, designed to take her folk anywhere they choose and weather the World’s worst storms.
We were collected for breakfast and a good chat about the Middle Ages (of the Western World that is, not ourselves), then ferried back to the bay we’d made our base.

With no sign of wind the day was spent walking, reading and exploring the interesting bays along the North coast of Seil in the tender.

Ardfad from the sea

I visited the ancient MacDougall stronghold of Ardfad, confiscated by King Robert the Bruce in January 1313 and given to the Campbells, about which you can read more here: The Campbells

Day Three started calm, plenty of time for breakfast, packing up to leave not a trace onshore, before our planned departure time of 1030, an hour before High Water. The anchor duly dekelped, we drifted round the rocky point and headed South into an extremely unpleasant and increasingly bumpy swell, rocking the minimal air from the sails and unsettling us physically and mentally.
We decided to hold to seaward of Easdale, as to return through Cuan would have deprived us of the fun of the passage down the Sound of Luing. What fun it turned out to be. Just past the shelter of Insh a breeze sprang up and within five minutes had risen massively, accompanied by a strong Atlantic swell, ruling the idea of heaving to to tie in a reef safely.

The clips give a better idea of what the next forty minutes were like. Under full sail Mariota flew, always under control, her buoyant ends coping perfectly with seas that were more blocks of water than definable waves. These were by far the most testing conditions I’ve been in with her since launching her in 2019.

The seas flattened greatly past Fladda and the passage to Ard Luing seemed to take just a few minutes. We squared off for an interesting gybe; the CG took over the helm for the stretch down past Shuna and I settled down for a rest and a drink.

The fun wasn’t quite over. We decided to take in the first reef and while doing so noticed that the cap on the tender’s daggerboard had been lost in the turmoil, with the result that she was rapidly filling up.

The FM and the CG took turns to bail her out and we reckoned we’d make it home before the problem returned. The CG then took us on a close reach down to Arduaine, followed by a half hour’s run back to the mooring.

Monday, 13 June 2022

The Fife Regatta 2022


With the regatta back for the fifth time and the fleet in Rothesay it's timely to share the article I wrote about the "Other Fifes"!

The Fifes of Bute

Saturday, 8 January 2022

The Ferry to Leith


From the Caledonian Mercury, 4th July 1814
From the Caledonian Mercury, 4th July 1814

As some people know, I’ve spent a lot of lockdown researching family history, with results which some day I may be brave enough to publish. It’s full of surprises, one of which was finding that my ancestors had a connection with Tulliallan, where Angus Kennedy and his wife Katherine had arrived around 1785. They had an enormous number of children, the eldest, John, born when she was about 22 and the last one, Alexander, when she was about 43. Angus died in 1811 and was buried there, but John kept the family home going until 1850.
From the early 1800s John was working as a cabinetmaker based in Nicolson Street in the Old Town of Edinburgh, which made me assume at first that he had moved there, but as we all know it was an extremely dangerous and unhealthy place, full of disease. There was no sanitation in the old tenements, which still relied on daily collections of waste. The stink and smoke would have been overwhelming and comparison with the clean air and open environment of Tulliallan compelling. I’m now reasonably sure that John was an early commuter, staying in his workshop during the week, which raised the question, how easy would that have been?
Road transport would not have appealed at all. Tulliallan was a fair distance from the Old Town. From the earliest times there were numerous ferries across the Forth, including a cattle ferry from Kincardine for drovers heading to the Falkirk Tryst, but the Southern terminus at Higgins Neuk was about thirty miles from Edinburgh. The roads were extremely poor and there don’t seem to have been any established coaches.
Until the arrival of the paddle steamers the preferred mode of transport was by way of a trading smack, or a yawl dedicated to passenger transport. There were several such vessels providing a service between Stirling and the Capital, with stops along the way at Alloa and Kincardine. The timetables would have taken advantage of the tidal streams up and down the Forth and the passage would have been relatively trouble free in reasonable weather.
There are indications that towards the end of the Century commuter traffic by way of these boats was increasing. Under the powers believed to have been granted to the Magistrates of Edinburgh under the “Golden Charter” of James VI they had traditionally levied landing dues from all vessels coming into the harbours of Leith and Newhaven, which by 1775 had entitled them to promulgate a table of charges providing that “all passage-boats, ferry-boats and pinnaces shall pay of beaconage and anchorage, each time they come into the harbour, two shillings Scots…” The Magistrates had this updated with new legislation in 1788, with rates expressed in Sterling, presumably to take advantage of the increase in traffic.
It’s interesting to note in passing that in the years that followed sailing ships plying out of the Forth were occasionally attacked by French privateers. The crews on the regular sailings of commuter vessels between Edinburgh and London were heavily armed and there were reports of them occasionally seeing off the enemy. That would have added a frisson to the weekly commute.
A few years later travel suddenly became more convenient and faster with the arrival of the paddle steamers. As we all know, the first seagoing steamer in the World was Bell’s Comet, launched, if we take the word of her engine builder John Robertson and her master Captain William Mackenzie, in July or August 1812. (It seems that Bell’s claimed date of 1811 was optimistic and related to the placing of the order at the shipyard.) We know for sure that in the early Summer of 1813 Bell took his new ship through the canal to the Forth on a promotional voyage to Leith. For a time that summer he ran excursions from Leith to Bo’ness at a fare of 7/6d (37.5p). This probably inspired the same John Robertson to build the Tay, specifically for service on the East coast, that year.
In 1815 the Alloa Steamship Company was formed and commissioned the Morning Star of Alloa from Ralph Rae of Kincardine. Described as a “ferry excursion pleasure vessel”, she was a substantial ship, eighty one feet six inches in length overall and sixteen feet two inches beam, ninetyseven tons displacement. That’s about twice the overall length of the Comet and one and a half times the beam. As Joseph Colin Bain reports in his doctoral thesis:
“The introduction on the Forth, was the Morning Star. She was placed in service between Alloa and Newhaven, as the "Alloa and Kincardine Steamboat", from 14th August, 1815. She undertook a daily round trip, with departure times varying according to the tide. She seems to have generally gone up river in the morning, and back down in the afternoon, but completed two upstream trips on Saturdays, spent Sundays at Alloa, and made only a down river journey on Mondays. This vessel reportedly suffered a bizarre accidental stoppage in September, 1819. It was discovered that a salmon had blocked the condenser pipe.
Only ten days after the introduction of Morning Star, the previously announced sister for the Stirling was introduced. She was the Lady of the Lake, and was noticeably faster than her partner, taking only five hours for the voyage, albeit at the higher fares of seven and five shillings for the best and second cabins respectively. Passengers were to be uplifted and put ashore by boat at the intermediate points of Alloa, Kincardine, Bo'ness and Queensferry. All three vessels appear to have not been exposed to the mid winter weather, but to have resumed in the springtime.”
In March 1820 a Dr Lucas notes in his diary
“Two Steam boats continue to run betwixt Stirling and Leith viz the Lady of the Lake of Stirling and the Morning Star of Alloa.”
Competition meant that the ferry companies vied to make passengers comfortable, with cabins and provisions. In his “Strange Letter of a Lunatic” James Hogg describes his character James Beatman taking “my seat on one of the sofas in the elegant cabin of the Morning Star” and being served ginger beer mixed with brandy. The Ettrick Shepherd was much taken with the ship and even wrote a poem dedicated to The Steamboat of Alloa:
“Oh blessed thing of calm delight,
Art thou a phantom of the night …”
The journey would have taken about two hours and became quicker after The Morning Star was re-engined by Napier in 1818. Thereafter she continued in service on the Forth under various owners for at least another twenty years and was only broken up in 1855.

Monday, 13 September 2021

Rowing from Loch Linnhe to Kilchoan

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.

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.

Post script: We've made it into the Oban Times, fame at last!

Monday, 26 July 2021

Mid Season with Mariota

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”.

Wilson standing next to Udy Russell, aboard Kyla on the Clyde

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

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water