Thursday, 24 February 2011

Walt Simmons Christmas Wherry

ashore on Right Island
My yellow boat, the Kelpie, is a Christmas Wherry designed by Walt Simmons of Duck Trap Woodworking in Maine. She's by far the most versatile and sea-worthy little vessel for her size that I have ever come across.

I discovered Walt's designs in the pages of Woodenboat around 1979, when an article about his Newfoundland Trap Skiff appeared. She looked utterly nostalgic with her shapely hull - a lovely transom and perfect sheerline, but far too big and complicated for the resources and skills available to me at that time. Instead I went on dreaming for a few years before starting my career as an amateur wood-boat builder with the Nutshell, about which I raved in a previous post. Our American friends have certainly got the knack of drawing pretty boats, although Walt admits that he draws heavily on old English designs that went West with the Pilgrim Fathers.
When the design for the Christmas Wherry appeared I felt that she was just about right for my purposes, something small enough for me to handle easily out of the water and launch and sail easily and safely, whether single-handed or with a couple of friends. I duly got the drawings and built her in about a year of leisurely weekend work, putting on a couple of planks when the weather wasn't right for sailing.

just turned over, inside needs cleaned up
paint improves the look

I kept strictly to the lines drawn by Walt, but departed from his specifications in a number of details. I had some experience of glued clinker planking with the Swampscott dory I built  some years before and also seeing some of Iain Oughtred's designs in action. These boats hang together without frames, because you get an incredibly strong girder effect from the laps. Accordingly I built the wherry without frames, but used good quality 9mm ply and increased the lap width to a full inch (sorry I'm one of those transitional types that's part metric, part imperial). I also built buoyancy tanks into the ends, just in case we got swamped.

Instead of the recommended lug rig I decided to use a sprit-sail that I had got made for the Swampscott and retained when I passed her on. This is a beautifully cut sail of only 70 square feet, so it was interesting to see how it would drive the wherry. In the event it had plenty of power, but the boat was quite impossible to steer and we needed to get the oars out to put her about. Also in any kind of wind we made terrible leeway and ended up miles behind our friends heading for the annual picnic on Right Island.

As usual when I have a problem I called in Richard Pierce. He explained that a sprit sail gives most of its drive close to the leading edge, whereas the lug sail drives from further back. Thus the relative position of the sail and the centreboard was quite wrong, resulting in dreadful lee helm. We shored up the wherry and he took photographs, which he then digitised against the sail plan of his own highly successful Sciurus. Here is the result:-

Kelpie is shown in black and Sciurus in red. Richard's advice was to move the board to the position indicated in blue. In making this modification I decided to replace the centreboard with a daggerboard, gaining a keener leading edge and some more internal space. In our waters it's pretty deep until you're almost on shore, so the daggerboard isn't too much of a problem. The new board is a hydrodymanic shape, which I also copied from Richard's boat.

steering yolk just visible

The modification was a great success and Kelpie proved a fun boat to sail, especially in strong winds. This led to a further modification, because I originally built the rudder to be steered by a yolk, on the theory that this could be useful when single-handed. In the event it proved incredibly hard work and I was quite pleased when we broke the rudder one day, with four of us aboard in a force five. The new rudder has a lifting, hydrodynamic blade and a sturdy oak tiller.

For anyone interested in building the wherry the "easy" way, I noticed recently that Alex Jordan is now producing a kit of parts. He can be found at

Friday, 18 February 2011

To America in Style

For the 1938 British America Cup and Seawanhaka Cup races the Thom family crossed the Atlantic in style, aboard the TSS Letitia. There were only seventeen cabin passengers, including Herbert Thom, his mother Susannah and his son John. A little before their departure in early September Herbert's new six-metre yacht Circe had been craned aboard the Anchor Line's California at Yorkhill Quay. The whole excursion would have cost Herbert about £1,500, massive expenditure for one private individual on a very speculative adventure in international sport.

Letitia was part of the Anchor-Donaldson fleet and had been built at Fairfields in 1924, a replacement for the first Letitia, which had been wrecked in 1917. Driven by  six Brown-Curtis-Fairfield turbines  geared to drive twin screws she had a maximum speed of sixteen knots.


By 1938 Herbert Thom, in common with most people, was convinced that war was inevitable and I would guess that he decided to enjoy what was left of probably the last summer of peace. Letitia had an absolutely massive capacity of 516 cabin class and 1023 third class passengers served by 300 crew, so she seems to have been practically empty for the trip.

A couple of delights have survived from this trip. Captain Baillie clearly had great artistic ability and perhaps time on his hands, for he produced this delightful water colour for Herbert's mother.

I have written up the story of the races in Oyster Bay on my other blog, here. After some frustrating disappointments in the British America races, when the British team didn't get to grips with the technicalities of team racing, Herbert Thom and his crew went on to capture the Seawanhaka Cup and bring it to Scotland.  For the Cup races he had the pick of all the British sailors, who look an interesting bunch.


The team are, from left to right, Sandy Baird, William MacAusland, Herbert Thom,  Murray Maclehose and John Thom. In later life Sandy went on to become the Harbourmaster at Bermuda, Murray, a student at Baliol when the picture was taken, went into the diplomatic service and ended up as the Governor of Hong Kong and John survived an extremely dangerous and distinguished career in the Royal Navy and then joined the family firm. So far I have been unable to trace what happened to William.

The subsequent history of TSS Letitia was incredbly complex and can be read here: TSS Letitia history

She survived numerous collisions, strandings and other escapades and went through reincarnations as the Empire Brent and finally Captain Cook, serving as an armed merchant cruiser, a troop ship, a hospital ship and finally an emigrant ship taking Scots on the famous assisted passages to Australia.

Throughout she was managed from Glasgow and her crew, recruited there, eventually earned themselves quite a reputation. She was broken up at Inverkeithing in 1960.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Bad Neighbours

My last post has stirred up a certain amount of activity in the blogosphere, mainly on and Yachting World's scuttlebutt, raising issues that go well beyond navigational matters at Ardmaddy.

Comment has been equally divided. On one hand I have been told off for being hysterical, that fish farms don't have exclusion zones and that it is easy to power past a salmon farm under engine. On the other hand Adrian Morgan has eloquently expressed his views in a comment on the last post and coincidentally Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has recently been agitating on the whole subject of farmed fish. He can be read online here.

To the charge of hysteria I must say that mild protest rarely works, particularly when dealing with an industry that has enormous financial and political clout. There is much more traffic at the new location than the present one and I will be shouting hard to stop it being blocked for half its width.

On exclusion zones I did write "effectively" a zone, not legally one. In my view it would be insanely bad seamanship to sail within the perimeter of a fish farm, let alone a mussel farm, where the floats are tied together with steel wires.

And not all mariners have or wish to use engines. Loch Melfort is constantly visited by small sailing craft, rowing craft and canoes.Visitors walk and occasionally camp on its shores.

Several comments decried the loss of wonderful natural harbours such as Craobh. A fellow called Quandary used to anchor there in the 1970s and as it happens so did I. I entirely agree with these comments, which only underline the need for proper regulation of the use of the seabed. A quite magical, remote cluster of little islands has been ruined by a garish pastiche of a village.

The comments raised general issues too, and I shall try to address some of them.

The salmon farming industry undoubtedly contributes massively to the national economy, but I have to ask if it really helps micro-economies in places like Argyll, where tourism and leisure are now by far the biggest earners. Would it not be better to locate the installations in places where visitors rarely go?

At a local level the installations generate very few jobs, invariably minimum wage and low-skilled. Living, say, in a remote caravan, tipping processed fish-meal and occasional doses of medicine into the sea is scarcely an appealing career option.  Standing on the hillside above, for example, Degnish Point, one may wonder how many fin-fish and shell-fish farms the area can stand before it loses its beauty and appeal to visitors. Is there not a serious risk that for every additional job on a fish farm another job in a hotel, a boat-yard or self-catering is put at risk?

One comment referred to our seas being massively over-fished. Of course they are, but according to the aforesaid Hugh it takes three tons of fish meal to produce one ton of salmon, so this industry is hardly helping.

Then there is the conflict between the industry and those concerned with the wild salmon. Why are there no wild salmon on the West coast, where the farms are, and plenty on the East coast, where they are not? Indeed why are there no farms on the East coast? The industry maintains there is no connection! There's a current petition before the Scottish Parliament and the briefing notes can be found here.

There's also the potential for conflict between salmon farms and shell fish farms. During my professional life I came across the owner of an oyster farm who was put out of business when his oysters were poisoned by TBT antifouling leaching from a nearby salmon farm.

For those who wish to inform themselves more there's a lot of information on sites such as

Finally, let's have a look at the historical background. The ownership of the seabed in Scotland has been successfully claimed by the Crown as part of its prerogative. For most of our history this probably didn't matter too much, certainly not in financial terms, because the Crown prerogative was subject to certain inalienable rights of the general public, namely to fish (including shellfish but not salmon), to navigate and for recreation.

Matters came to a head in the late 1970s when the Crown Estate Commissioners, a body of London-based gentlemen, decided to levy charges for the fixed moorings laid by boatyards and the result was the well-known case of the Commissioners versus the Fairlie Yacht Slip. The issue boiled down to whether or not the owner of a vessel on a mooring was engaged in navigation. The argument could easily have gone either way, but in the event the Court was persuaded that navigation was what happened only when a vessel was on a voyage, so the Crown won. Since then a river of hard-earned cash has flowed from Scottish boat operators, be they commercial or recreational, to London. Belatedly the Scottish Government has just started to wake up to this.

After winning on the moorings issue the Commissioners quickly realised that further pickings could be made from fish farms. A problem for the general public was that the Crown was not only the owner of the seabed and entitled to rent it out, it was also the custodian of the rights of the public and thus charged with defending them. This conflict of interest was pointed out by the Scottish Law Commission in 2003, but to date no action has been taken to remedy it.

Ten years or so after the Fairlie case a certain Mr Walford bravely challenged the Commissioners when they had leased an area of the seabed between Scalpay and Skye. His first attempt at a judicial review failed, because the Commissioners found a statutory provision that appeared to make their actions unchallengeable (a contention that the Scottish Law Commission later said they didn't agree with). He had another go and lost again. The court held that the public had to tolerate having their rights interfered with, even to a material extent.

These litigations focussed on the right to navigate, but the public also have the right to use the sea for recreation. Perhaps this would have been a better basis to go to court on.

The fact is that regulation is presently in a complete mess. Apart from the Crown Estate Commissioners there are the Scottish Government and the local authorities, and organisations such as SEPA, not to speak of the European Union and proposed marine nature reserves. Ultimately for regulation to work it should be based in Scotland and the revenue must flow here too.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Proposed Salmon Farm at Ardmaddy

The above map shows the location of the latest threat to the enjoyment of our local waters and the health and safety of navigators and our beautiful landscape. Lakeland Marine are proposing to relocate an existing salmon farm further North in Seil Sound to a position off the entrance to the Cuan Sound. The reason for the relocation is that "hydrographic conditions are more favourable" at the new site, which I assume means in other words that the tidal flows at the existing site are insufficient to remove the enormous quantities of waste food and debris produced by this form of industrial production. 

Once again fish farming, the sacred cow of the Scottish economy, threatens the one asset we truly have in Scotland, our lovely landscape, and the tourist and leisure industries that are our major employers. Far more serious however  is the threat to personal safety, as the proposal presents a major hazard to navigation.

When I first looked at the pre-application proposal I couldn't believe the figures. The farm is to contain twelve circular fish cages, each 100 metres in diameter, in two rows of six, tethered to twentyone  mooring buoys positioned in a rectangle in excess of 300 metres wide by 510 metres long, making a total area, per the application form, of 179,800 square metres, or about 45 acres in old money. There is to be in addition a concrete feed barge, presumably similar to the grey monster off the North end of Shuna.

Above is the layout plan, showing the disposition of the cages and moorings. Effectively the area within the red boundaries becomes an exclusion zone for small craft.

And this is a large scale location plan, showing that the exclusion zone extends about half way across the Sound. This is an area well known for strong tidal streams and wind shifts. It's not as if the Cuan Sound is a backwater, in Summer it's one of the major routes North for visitors. Legally the power of the Crown Estate to grant leases of the seabed is subject to the rights of the public to navigate safely. This application is in flagrant disregard of those rights and must be resisted by all those who value our waters and the safety of those who venture out on them.

I will be looking out for formal notification of the application in the press and trust that those who care will be ready to object to it.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water