Thursday, 29 September 2011

Autumn Visitors

Most of the local boats are laid up now, Stroma included, sitting safely under her winter cover. The moorings are of course still out, so this has always been a good time for hardy souls to do a bit of late-season cruising. Not that the people aboard this lovely stylish motor yacht will exactly be slumming it in the cold and wet.

This interesting and quirky cat came in last night and obviously didn't need to lift a mooring.

A little later ...

Later still. Ladder vital equipment.

Another interesting visitor was the lovely yacht Mat Ali. Her owners, Charlie and Mary, invited me to a day out with them as they neared the end of their first major cruise. They had been living aboard for a month and there are very few boats on which that can be done in comfort.

Mat Ali's origin could have been written by Joseph Conrad. She was commissioned by a veteran of the First World War, who had obtained the grant of a tract of land in Malaysia to operate an oil plantation. There was an enormous tree on the land, of an extremely hard oriental hardwood, which he eventually had cut down and milled to provide his yacht, built in 1935 by a local builder named Mat Ali to a Harrison Butler design. On completion she was shipped to the Mediterranean and then sailed home by her owner to Cornwall, where she remained until recently.

I took these images after we had spent an interesting and educational day. With a wind of Force Four to  Five we ran out through the Dorus Mhor with the tide, then spent the day basically beating back against it. Despite her robust look and at twelve tons a heavy boat for her thirty two foot length this is one fast yacht. In the stronger winds she was easily making seven and a half knots and in five hours we covered twenty six nautical miles through the water, mostly tacking back and forth over the same piece of landscape. It was fascinating to compare our perceptions of where we were heading with our actual track as plotted on the sat-nav. At the end of the day our course was a tangled cats cradle of crossing lines.

My next shot is of a fine wee visitor from the South, an English Nutshell built by her proud owner Tom, who has been a regular visitor here for many years. Like many others he has been appalled by the threat to our local sailing waters from the fish farm menace.

Finally a picture of the Hebridean Princess, which I took from Mat Ali the other day. She had a career as a Calmac ferry until a previous government found an excuse to sell her off, following which she has become an extremely luxurious holiday ship, specialising in short cruises on the West coast. When I took this shot she was on her way to one of her favourite anchoring spots, Port na Moradh, which just happens to be exactly where Lakeland are proposing to establish their massive new industrial fish farm.

It's terribly important that all who care about the threat to our scenic landscape and the local, visitor-dependent, economy should register their views with Argyll & Bute Council. Full details of the campaign, including how to object, are on the dedicated website,

Friday, 23 September 2011

Another Buchanan and some Olympic Nonsense


John Buchanan was born on New Years Day 1884 into a family of fabulous wealth. His father Francis C Buchanan described his employment in the 1891 Census as "living on own means" and at that time the family were living in a seventeen-roomed house in Rhu. Further back in history the family belonged to that elite group of Glasgow merchants whose fortunes were founded on the tobacco trade, slavery, shipping and finance. They lived in a massive townhouse on Blythswood Square opposite the Smith family whose lovely and dangerous daughter Madeline famously charmed a jury of Edinburgh gentlemen. It's possible that Buchanan Street was named after a distant relative. I don't think John would have had to work very hard, if at all, and he certainly devoted most of his life to yachting.

Like his fellow, near namesake but unrelated, yachtsman James Buchanan, John was a joiner, being a member of the Royal Northern, Royal Clyde, Royal Western, Clyde Corinthian Yacht Clubs and the Loch Long Sailing Club.

At the age of twenty four John Buchanan was part of the crew aboard Sir Thomas Glen-Coats' twelve metre yacht Hera taking part in the 1908 Olympics. This yachting event or match, as it was termed, was a little strange because there were only two entries, so everyone was guaranteed a medal, be it gold or silver. Further, both entries were British, so they helped the country's tally regardless of how well they did.

There was a slight international flavour, as the other entry, Mouchette, came from Merseyside, although her owner Charles MacIver was also of Scottish descent. The teams decided not to bother going to the South of England and on the toss of a coin the match took place on the Clyde. Hera duly won, helped a little when Mouchette found the way ahead blocked by the moored steam yacht Hebe.

John Buchanan owned a number of yachts during his sailing career, including the 19/24 Shireen, two big old boats called Llygra and Pallas, then the Fife eight metre Falcon, before buying Stroma from her first owner George Nisbet in 1937.

Hirta, formerly Llygra, in Argyll 2011

In his first season John Buchanan managed only one win out of twenty three starts. He did a bit better in 1938 with three firsts out of a total of ten places, but was plainly disappointed and decided to blame the boat, because at the end of that season he sold Stroma and bought Herbert Thom's old Westra. He did rather worse in 1939, managing just one win and no places at all from 13 starts. He doesn't feature in our story thereafter, because racing stopped for the War and he died at the end of 1943.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

James Buchanan of Govancroft, potter and yachtsman

An enthusiastic supporter of the Scottish Islanders was James Buchanan, the owner of the Govancroft Pottery, which he founded in 1911. It was situated at 1855 London Road in the extreme East End of Glasgow.

He was born in June 1889, so was only twenty one when he set up the pottery. I am reasonably certain that his parents were Duncan Buchanan, a builder from Kilmichael Glassary in Argyll, and his wife Lilias. The 1911 Census has the family living in a substantial house at 199 Onslow Drive in the East End and James is described as a wright and builder, working for his father and his place of birth is given as Largs.

In the early days the pottery made nothing but utilitarian stonewares with a Bristol glaze and in 1922 was described by one rival firm as having almost cornered the market in jam jars. During the 1920s there were vicious trade wars among the Glasgow potteries. J & R Tennent the brewers had established the Possil Pottery to produce bottles for their beer, mainly for the Chilean export market, but that market collapsed and thereafter there was serious over-capacity, with the result that the potteries were often selling their wares more or less at cost. The General Strike and the Coal Strike of 1926 caused severe retraction in the industry with many companies going out of business and by 1929 there were only three significant Scottish potteries left, Possil, Buchans of Portobello and Govancroft, with the third doing best.

No doubt as a relief from the commercial stresses James Buchanan found the time to take up sailing and acquired the six-metre Sunshine, built by Fife in 1926. He then commissioned Alfred Mylne's Bute Slip Dock to build him an Islander and Iona was launched at the start of the 1931 season.

As is well known, even in a one-design class people get the impression that there are differences in boat speed. We saw this in my post about Herbert Thom, who sold his new boat Gigha and acquired the older Westra to prove a point. James Buchanan went the other way. In 1931 he managed just one win out of six places, while William Russell's Sanda ran Herbert Thom's Gigha a close second. Something similar happened in 1932 with Sanda again second  to Gigha and Buchanan managing two wins out of nine places and again in 1933 when Buchanan's total went up to three wins out of eleven places. When at the end of 1933 William Russell put Sanda up for sale James Buchanan immediately bought her.

1934 was Herbert Thom's first year with Westra and unsurprisingly he became class champion in her. Sanda was again runner-up, but under her new owner's flag. In 1935 the same thing happened, Sanda getting four wins out of twenty three places. By then Mrs Bergius was on the scene with Jura and was to provide very stiff competition, actually winning seven times but losing out on total places. Again in 1936 the winning order was Westra, followed by Sanda with Jura close behind. By 1937 Herbert Thom had moved into six-metres and the Glasgow Herald reported:-


Mrs W M Bergius's Jura, sailed by the youngest crew on the Clyde, is the champion in the Scottish Islands class. The members of the crew are Messrs Walter and Cecil Bergius and Miss Margie Bergius, sons and daughter of the owner. With her total of 29 flags Jura shares the distinction with Froya of having won the largest number of prizes during the season. As was the case last year, Mr James Buchanan is the runner up with Sanda. Mr R K Sharps' Bernera and Mr A R Keith Thomson's Fidra have had the most successful season of their careers, with 24 and 20 flags respectively to their credit."

And here is an extract from the Glasgow Herald's review of 1938:-

"The Scottish Islanders as usual provided keen and interesting racing. Mrs W M Bergius's Jura again tops the class, but this year only by a very small margin from Mr James Buchanan's Sanda, which had 4 wins more than Jura, but 4 fewer flags. Mr R K Sharp's Bernera is again in third place, close to the two leaders and well ahead of the other Islanders."

Finally in 1939 James Buchanan got his reward and became champion with fifteen firsts out of twenty seven places, followed closely by Mrs Bergius. By this time he was living at Ferness in Largs and Uffa Fox recorded that he was a member of the Royal Northern, the Royal Clyde, the Royal Largs, the Royal Western etcetera. (I don't know if the etcetera was added by Uffa Fox to save space or if James Buchanan had forgotten which other clubs he belonged to, or felt them too unimportant to mention. There's nothing like taking your sport seriously!)
Racing then stopped for the War and in fact the rose bowl donated to the Class by William Bergius remained with the Buchanan family from 1939 until 2004, when they returned it to me as the class secretary. We had the idea that the surviving boats should compete for it in that, their seventy fifth year, during West Highland Week, but in the event only three boats turned up and we thought it more appropriate to return the bowl to Adam Bergius. The image at the head of this post, taken by the professional photographer Tim Wright, shows the three contenders no 4 Stroma, no 3 Bernera and no 12 Shona.

In 1946 racing resumed and Adam Bergius recalls that  
"from then on after the Saturday race Jura would be off down the Firth with her crew and out of this came the islander’s annual race to Colintraive, with first prize an oil painting of the winner by the accomplished painter James Buchanan of Sanda. Second prize was a 40oz decanter of whisky to be returned empty! I still cherish James’ painting of Jura bowling down the Holy Loch on an evening race with straining spinnaker and crew in their red sock caps. These were jolly occasions when  most  competitors slept in Colin Rae’s hotel but the Juras had to slum it aboard."

Before 1946, Govancroft's wares are the most ordinary of commercial and domestic stonewares. But from then on the range was massively expanded.  Ordinary stoneware, particularly for the kitchen, continued to be made but a series of bowls, pitchers and baskets was designed, often with dabbed colour under an opalescent glaze. It was as if, having seen his pottery from its foundation through the difficult pre-War years, James Buchanan now felt he could indulge his artistic abilities. Through the fifties and sixties the pottery would continue to innovate, producing ranges of decorative items for the tourist trade and some highly successful decorative flagons for the whisky industry, including coincidentally for the distillers Buchanans. I believe that the pottery eventually became so successful with this line that it was taken over, sometime possibly in the early 1960s.
Govancroft Teaset

Meantime James Buchanan continued to race Sanda until the end of 1949, when he sold her to Robert K Sharp, the long-time owner of Bernera. This was the second time Mr Sharp had sold his boat and immediately regretted it; the first time he had been able to buy her back.

Of James Buchanan's boats it seems that Iona no longer exists. There was a rumour that she was destroyed deliberately around 1980, for what reason and precisely how we do not know. Some reports are that she was towed out past Hunterston and scuttled, others that she was broken up on shore. It's unlikely that anyone would have sunk nearly two tons of precious lead. I would dearly like to know anything further about her. Apart from Westra she is the only missing boat.

Sanda was found in Mallaig a few years ago and has been acquired by Huw Jones, who recently informed me that he is looking for someone to take her on.
Start of the Tarbert Race at Hunters Quay
This image, from a photograph by Ian G Gilchrist, shows Sanda  just ahead of Dragon no UK 26. This Dragon, Argee, was built by Robertsons in 1937 for Miss Sheila Leitch, so we can approximately date the photo. (I suspect she may have been a member of the famous Tarbert sailmaker's family.)

Friday, 16 September 2011

More on the Scottish Islanders

Because the boats in a one-design class are identical, or at least supposed to be, researching their history is interesting only because it becomes truly a history of the people who became involved with individual boats. One-design racing appeals to a certain type of person who would rather win races through helming and crewing competence than by spending money.

The Scottish Islands Class attracted a diverse group of individuals to its ranks. Some, like William Wordie, about whom I wrote a post recently, didn't stay in the class for long. In his case I guess that the pressures of running a haulage empire pretty well excluded sufficient time to excel on the water, although I'm sure he didn't lack the competitive spirit. Others stayed with their boats through thick and thin, enduring lean years where few if any trophies were won in the hope of an eventual triumph. The skill and dedication of J Herbert Thom ensured that for some this remained something of a dream.

The Islanders went to lengths to avoid anyone getting an advantage. The original five hulls, built side by side by McGruers in an early form of mass-production, were allocated to the first owners by lot. If you didn't want an engine you had to carry the equivalent weight and have a dummy propellor fitted. Sails were ordered by the class secretary after he had obtained suitable quotations and a vote had been taken, the new jibs or mains then being allocated by lot. The boats could only be hauled out for scrubbing at certain times, to ensure they didn't become too light or unfairly weed-free. Each hull had to be a distinctive colour, but the original owners didn't bargain for Herbert Thom's preference for a varnished hull, which was allowed after some mutterings. He argued that he liked the colour brown, but in fact he was aware that a painted hull would gather weight as succeeding coats were added, whereas he would have had last season's varnish scraped off each winter.
Despite all these efforts owners still felt that some boats were faster than others. It is always possible, indeed likely, that two wooden boats from the same drawings but different builders will not be identical. The yachts from number 6, Jura, onwards, were built by Alfred Mylne's own Bute Slip yard, so suspicions naturally arose. Thus we find owners sometimes selling one Islander and buying another.

Herbert Thom owned three of the boats during his time in the class. He commissioned number 9, Gigha, and immediately became class champion in 1931, with 29 prizes in 33 starts, including 18 firsts. In 1932 he had 27 prizes including 21 wins. By 1933 the competition was hotting up. Gigha won only 14 times with William Russell's Sanda, number 5, barking at her heels with 10 and actually more places overall.

Despite Sanda's success discontent within the class was now at a height, with much rumouring about Gigha being simply a faster boat. George Jackson's Westra, number 1, had now missed two seasons and he put her up for sale. When Herbert Thom heard that she had been sold to someone on the Solway he persuaded the purchaser to accept his Gigha instead. The Field correspondent reports:-

"On the relative performance of the two boats the exchange may seem somewhat surprising. There is only one explanation I can think of. Allegations were sometimes heard that the success of Gigha was accounted for by her out-size. Remeasurement more than once showed that there was no foundation for these statements, but Mr Thom is a good sportsman and I expect that he has taken this course to remove any unpleasantness, no matter how unjustified."

This comment proved correct and in 1934 The Field commented:-

"As before, Mr J H Thom headed the Scottish Islands class; he won with Gigha last year, and this time has repeated with another and older boat, which shows that it is the man who counts."

And the Glasgow Herald:-

"Mr J H Thom scored a success in Westra, with which he tops the list in the Scottish islands class with 29 flags in 38 starts. His prizes include the Bryce Allan Cup and the No 2 Tarbert Cup."

Herbert Thom and Westra triumphed again in 1935 and 1936, but by the following year he had moved into the six-metres with Circe and the other owners began to get more of a chance. Westra was sold and then lost during the War, but post-War Herbert Thom was to return with his third islander, Canna, number 10.
Canna just after JHT acquired her, hull still white

I've written extensively about the Islanders in my other blog , where those with an appetite for data will find the pre-War and post-War racing results in some detail. That blog has now become more or less an archive of information about these yachts, which occupy a unique place in our sailing history. While researching that history I became aware that the people involved concerned themselves with other yachts as well. Further, they had interesting personal histories of more general interest, so it makes sense for these to be recounted on this blog. I shall be recording some of those histories in further posts.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Trouble with Old Boat-builders

Lisa von Luebeck
Adrian Morgan has just posted an interesting article on The Trouble With Old Boats, bemoaning the lack of profit in traditional boat carpentry, which he fears is partly caused by competition from colleges of boat-building taking on restorations as cost-subsidised teaching aids. His post ends with the words

"Ultimately it's the likes of us, unfunded and unsubsidised what's trying to make a living from building boats, and a craft that can't scratch a living is irrelevant and deserves to die out".

Some of the comments are reminiscent of the complaint by my wife's friend Pat, a now-retired professional opera singer, who would sometimes be approached after a performance by patrons asking "And what do you do during the day, dear, when you're not singing?" It's terribly easy for those on the outside looking in on what appears to be simply an enjoyable activity to forget that there's actually a lot of skill, self-discipline and time involved.

Actually I suspect that the competition from the colleges isn't sufficient in terms of size to make a significant impact on the rest of what is admittedly, in the UK at least, a cottage industry. I suspect that the total number of precious old boats awaiting the enthusiastic attention of the cohorts of recently-retired professionals and others attending the courses is quite small. The client of such a college looking for a cheap job has to be prepared for a long wait, as the colleges by their nature have a head start in attracting business and will start the most profitable jobs first. It's not in the nature of the wealthy, successful businessman wanting to create an impression on the "classic" circuit to be patient. He's more likely to send the work abroad, as happened a few years ago when a very high-profile yacht, now well established on the international circuit, was restored in Burma of all places.

A few decades ago almost all traditional boatyards here had either gone to the wall or converted to fibreglass. The survivors were extortionate and well beyond the capacity of any client other than the most wealthy. In line with this apprenticeships had become unknown. It's a wonder that wooden boat craftsmanship didn't die out entirely.

That there are now training courses, albeit available at a price, is entirely due to a slowly-growing awareness that good craftsmanship is something to be treasured. In the United States the stirrings started with the coming of Woodenboat magazine in September 1974. The first concrete indication that anything was happening here came with Iain Oughtred's book "Wooden Boatbuilding in Britain" published in 1986. (Iain had come from Australia in 1964, probably the very worst time to start up as a boat designer and builder, but he's a tenacious fellow.)

We are very far behind our neighbours in the rest of Europe, however.

Ten years or so ago on a visit to Luebeck I called in on the Hanseschiff project and saw a swarm of youngsters working on a massive outdoor construction. Lisa von Luebck is now complete and I quote from her website:-

"About 350 people built the ship over a five year period (1999-2004). 240 were between 19-25 years old, previously unskilled young adults who had taken up a one year course in wood and metal-working. Since the ending of the original project in March 2003 about ten municipal workers have worked to complete the ship. They have been supported by many unpaid volunteers from the city, who have given freely of their time to keep the ship going."
On the same visit I called in on the yard of Krause und Wucherpfennig, whose shed was packed with restoration projects of all sizes, from twelve metres to small commuter motor launches. One of the partners Andreas Krause, Henry Rasmussen's grandson, assured me that they had work for the foreseeable future and numerous apprentices taking up the trade.

Our German friends have certainly got the message that beautiful traditionally-built boats are to be cherished. Perhaps underlying this is the relative shortage of old yachts, since so many were pinched by the British forces after the War (and, by the way, not only those owned by the German State; a lot of private ones went too).

Developments of this sort are exactly what should be happening in Scotland, given the current concentration in our cities on encouraging awareness of our maritime heritage, the availability of brown-field land in places like Clydeside and a young generation facing an uncertain future.


Monday, 12 September 2011

Crinan Classic Boat Festival - Part II

The Crinan Classics attract an interesting fleet of yachts and this year there were several old favourites including two of the boats in our Class 2, Macaria and Zaleda.

Macaria is a lovely old yawl designed by Peter Dickie and built by his yard in Tarbert in 1922. The design shows the very strong influence of Albert Strange, who had been a close friend of the Dickie family and designed several yachts that were built by them. Macaria at 34 feet is a little larger than Cherub III, Strange's own yacht built by Dickies in 1910, smaller than Quest II, a 44 foot Strange design from 1907 and about the same size as Sheila II from 1910. All are comfortable, canoe-sterned cruising yachts with a surprising turn of speed.


I had seen Macaria around the West coast for years before I ended up doing some yacht restoration at Renfrew and found myself alongside Macaria when the late Gordon Findlay had her. I got a good chance to see her at close quarters and marvel at the quality of her build, in particular the internal joinery work. Later a modern near-replica of Macaria was built, but failed to capture the Strange-inspired magic and reach the level of the Dickie's craftsmanship.

Zaleda was designed by James McGruer, built by his firm and launched in 1966. The Seven Metres emerged after the Cruiser Eights were proving too expensive to attract clients, but being built to the same exacting standards and still quite big at 35 feet plus they were also expensive and proved to be the last of the "class" boats built without regard to economy. Only five were ever built.


Zaleda's first owner was Douglas Nisbet, whose father George was the first owner of my Stroma. Douglas's nephew Bill Hogg acquired her a few years ago and had her perfectly restored at Silvers. Stroma was of course built by a previous generation of McGruers, being launched in 1929, so the boats are related.

Zaleda in a breeze

Friday was a bright sunny day with little promise of wind, so we were spared a long slow beat North into Loch Craignish and given instead a short one from the start at the Black Rock to Eilean nan Coinean (Coney Island) off the entrance to Loch Craignish followed by a short reach South and then a run back to the start, followed by another short turn round two buoys nearer home. In the event it was so calm after the start that the course was shortened to end after the run.

Zaleda got off to a great start and sailed faultlessly round the course, easily saving her handicap over the rest of us and carrying off the prize.

As often happens the wind increased after the course was shortened and as we crossed the line the Truant flew past and challenged us to a mini-race round the second circuit. Foolishly we accepted and so were beaten twice, while everyone else was only beaten once.

We consoled ourselves by reflecting that we had enjoyed a lovely sail, reminding ourselves that it's no loss what a friend gets and that, anyway, you take part in these things for the joy of seeing beautiful boats in action.

One of the best things about the Crinan Festival is the social atmosphere. This year to the pipe band aboard the puffer VIC 32 and the splendid traditional ceilidh in the cowshed were added the delights of the Madrigirls from Glasgow University, who sang throughout the weekend. The well-known and talented model-builder David Spy entertained some of us with an illustrated biographical talk about his art and how he graduated to it from full-sized boat building. Added to all this of course is the joy of talking about boats endlessly in one of our prettiest and most historical spots.

We had arranged to be joined for the next two days by Mary Ray, who with her husband owns Stroma's sister Bernera. During one of the social events of the evening our complement grew even further, promising a very congenial crew for the Saturday race.

arrival of new crew Fiona

Saturday was again lovely and sunny, with little wind. The start was delayed a bit, partly to let boats lock out of the canal, but this was to cause problems for some later as the committee failed to also delay the tide. We had a moderate start and then a gentle drift to the West to turn a mark laid off Eilean na Cille, the "island of the little (monk's) cell" about two miles into the Sound of Jura.

Salty sea dogettes Jude and Fiona
As we neared the mark the wind failed and we could see the boats in front getting caught in the North-going flood. They included Macaria, which had been sailed  brilliantly for a heavy boat in a calm. We all kept still and quiet, sails nice and loose and keeping the boat heeled gently, as we stemmed the tide and made it into the shallow water inshore of the mark, with less tide. The problem is always - when to tack? Too soon and you join the others drifting North on the wrong side of the mark; too late and you let others through. We probably got it about right and started to breath again when we cleared the mark. It was nice to admire Zaleda's nice varnished hull shining in the sunshine behind us. We had a long broad reach back to the Black Rock, then some triangular circuits closer to Crinan to do.

The skipper tries to concentrate
The wind now started to fill in and we made it into a ruffled belt on the water, where we were soon careening along at a couple of knots. Of course Zaleda soon had her spinnaker up and cruised past us.

Handicap racing in calm weather is unfair on the faster yachts, because while everyone is sitting in the calm and hardly moving the slower boats are clocking up time. Zaleda had a lot to do to overcome this and didn't quite manage, although she was first over the line by a good distance.

On the Sunday, for the Ladies Race, we had more wind, but another sunny day. Was this really the West of Scotland? The only sad thing was that the salty sea dogettes had had to go home for a party!

Sunday's crew

Mary gave us a perfect start and cleared us away so well that when we tacked onto port we were able to clear the entire fleet. Behind us there seemed to be tense scenes as boats on starboard were closing the boatyard shore and calling for water. There was quite a bit of shouting, which all proves how competitive ladies can be.

The wind kept up all day and we had a pleasant, relatively stress-free day, Mary keeping us out of trouble while John and I crewed the ship. Zaleda crossed the line first, making it a hat-trick, but once again she didn't quite save her handicap. Mary was given a nice framed poster for her trouble.

The Festival was now at an end, but the forecast suggested that we could look forward to a good sail home on the Monday, promising a brisk South-easterly. It was good that Mary's husband Arup could join us for the sail home, as Bernera has been out of commission waiting for her new mast after the last one broke.

Just as for the trip down we had a single reef, on the grounds that it's easier to shake one out underway than to tie one in. In the event the reduced sail was just right for the conditions and we had a fast reach home, this time with wind and tide in harmony.

rolling home in a breeze

Crinan Classic Boat Festival Part I

It's been a pretty mixed season for the Stromas, as we have had some pretty awful weather and when it's been nice and sunny there's usually been too much wind for social sailing. The storm in May had an unsettling effect and maybe we have not really wanted to be far away from our very secure hide-out at the head of a sheltered  little sea-loch. As I write this we're waiting for yet another blow and Poor Little Tam, the poet, has just sent a message "woe that ever I was born, to suffer the horrors of ex-hurricane Katia." And Stroma is still afloat, waiting patiently to be taken out. She was a bit happier in the picture above, waiting for a little Danish Oil to freshen up the toe-rails.

What we missed on quantity was made up for in quality however. Sometimes one grabs a few days of utterly idyllic sailing in perfect conditions of wind and sun, beautiful scenery and good company and such an episode makes the whole business of looking after an old boat worth while.

This happened for us in early July, when we went South to the fifth Crinan Classic Boat Festival, organised by Mike Dalglish and Ross Ryan. I was in two minds about going, because the previous four events have taken place in conditions that verged on survival at times. Last year's event was a horror. Given a bad forecast Stroma was left on her mooring and we took the Kelpie down by road, only to take her home a few days later after managing less than an hours sailing, or more accurately hanging on for dear life and frenziedly bailing.

This year I didn't have my usual crew, as they were all attending a wedding. Young John Wilson, who hadn't come along since 2006 (see An Innocent Pursuit), managed to prize himself away from wife, son and horse and come along. (He's not so young maybe, since we have been sailing together off and on since the early 1980s, but at least he's a bit younger than me.)

Thursday 30 June was a lovely day with a blustery West-north-westerly. It was too good a day to waste waiting for the tide, so we got underway in the late morning. I reasoned that it would take us a while to get down South against the tide to the Dorus Mhor and if there wasn't enough wind to push us through once we got there we would just have to sail about until slack water.

Under one reef in the main we had a fast but comfortable sail South and arrived at the Dorus Mhor even earlier than expected. We could see our destination a  couple of miles away on the other side of a mass of water boiling up against us. After a quick conference we decided not to hang about for slack water but to chance going through. Soon we were charging into the channel on an extremely broad reach on Starboard tack.

We were now presented with a tricky choice. Holding to the North side, near Craignish Point, would keep us out of the main stream, but ran the risk of a tidal eddy grabbing Stroma and giving us an accidental gybe, but keeping a safe angle to the breeze would soon bring us into an adverse stream running at about five knots. The solution was to go on towards the edge of the stronger stream, then gybe and reach back to the North side. Gybing in a breeze, when the skipper steers and issues commands, one hand hauls in the main-sheet, another tends to the running backstays and someone else looks after the jib-sheets is really quite easy. It's less fun when there are only two of you on board. Making sure you don't lose the mast is the priority, so our efforts weren't tidy. A few minutes later we had to gybe again, as we were now closing the Craignish shore at a great rate and it was obvious that we couldn't clear the point into Loch Craignish. Invigorated by the gybes and minus some pride and a couple of slides from the sail-track we were then clear of the worst of the tide and running fast to our favoured anchoring spot.

By late afternoon our ship was sitting nicely a hundred metres or so off the entrance to the canal and we were looking forward to the Festival's delights, not least of which are meeting old friends, making new ones and sampling the fine Bruichladdich that is a feature of these events.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Blue Books, Blue Ensigns

In older times it was normal practice even for small yachts to be entered in the Register of British Ships and obtain the Blue Book, now much coveted by restorers of ancient classic yachts and a document with sometimes more monetary value than the rotten remains of the long-abandoned hulks that are sometimes recovered from mud berths to start projects.

When I bought Stroma it never occurred to me that she might be a "British Ship" and it was several years before I discovered that technically she still belonged to Ron MacLachlan, several owners before me. After quite a bit of research I traced the intervening owners and everyone co-operated in my obtaining documentary proof from the Registrar of British Ships at Greenock that I now owned all sixty four shares of the Sailing Ship Stroma, the eighteenth vessel registered by him in the year 1929 with the Official Number 161770.

This practice of owning ships in sixty-fourths goes back certainly to Roman times and probably to ancient Phoenician times as well. It must have been seen as a convenient way to legislate for multiple owners and of course each sixty-fourth share could itself have a number of owners, so the possibilities were endless.

A lot of the romance has gone out of this nowadays of course, since we have to obtain a computerised certificate from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, for which they levy a charge every five years. Another example of intrusive Government activity making us pay for absolutely nothing, just as we are charged for having our moorings on the sea-bed.

Once your vessel is registered and if you happen to belong to a yacht club that is "Royal" you can go a step further and obtain an Admiralty warrant for your ship to "wear" the Blue Ensign. As I am not a great monarchist I was in two minds about this until the late Captain John Campbell, who went through the War in the Merchant Navy in charge of a troop ship, told me how offended he was to see tiny little pleasure boats sailing about under the Red Duster. 

Of course detractors whisper that the Blue Ensign signifies you must have bought your yacht on hire purchase, as your ship requires to be registered before you can put a mortgage on her!

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Young Alfred Mylne

Some months ago Martyn Webster kindly shared this image and the text which follows, which I published on I'm not apologising for giving it wider publicity, after all the original dates from 1904.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The McGruers of Clynder

drawing by Paul Kennedy
Much has been written over the years about the McGruer dynasty, narrating how they got started, building small boats at Glasgow Green before moving down river, and the subsequent exploits and achievements of this most talented and inventive family. I thought it would be interesting to put together some notes about the methods which they used and the workers involved. Over the years I have met many former employees, indeed it was suggested by a friend who lived in Helensburgh that formerly most of the local craftsmen were   trained at McGruers.

It was a tragedy that latterly there were no younger people coming forward to be trained, or possibly the company was not offering apprenticeships, just when there was a world-wide resurgence of interest in wooden yachts. When the original company finally went into liquidation at the end of 2001, having not built any new wooden boats for about ten years, they were the last of the famous Scottish yards to shut down. (That company is not to be confused with a new company of the same name, which carries on surveying and other services.)

When the McGruers moved from Tighnabruaich to Hattonburn at Clynder in 1914 to establish themselves for the first time in their own yard an attraction was said to be the burn with its running water, which gave the power for a mill to generate electricity. Whether or not this is so, by the time the Islanders were built the yard was served by a steam donkey engine driving a wide range of electric tools. Early on the family had realised the benefits of electric power. They had purchased not only powered saws, but more specialised devices such as electric screwdrivers. Some of these came from abroad, France being one place where there were specialist manufacturers. Some were invented and made locally by engineers working in the various industries in the Glasgow area.

Having access to powered hand tools slung from overhead cables must have made the work less arduous and uncomfortable. One of the most useful tools was a spindle cutter set in a workbench, on which planks could be cut out conform to a pattern. This was operational when the yard started to build Dragons about 1926. They would cut complete sets of planks for a Dragon, three copies of each plank, so that they were always left with patterns for the next boat. The hulls were of course planked up on standard moulds, so truly what was going on was an early version of mass production. The safety aspects of such installations before such things were fully understood would be an interesting subject for further research.
The family did appreciate the dangers of making large lead castings and only the smallest keels were made on site. Normally a pattern would simply be sent to one of the numerous shipyards in Glasgow, Port Glasgow or Greenock. Latterly Morris & Lorimers were casting most of the keels. There was a master pattern for each type of keel, Dragon, Scottish Islander or whatever.
There were also plenty of local blacksmiths and engineers to turn out the required metalwork. When the Islands Class boats were built the practice was to use iron bolts, even thought these were incompatible with lead keels. Probably this was because the local blacksmiths could not work with bronze, which is usually turned rather  than forged. When eventually the company started to use aluminium bronze, which is easier to work, they made their own. McGruers did operate various steamboxes, latterly using a twenty foot long tube with a double boiler.
Although innovative, McGruers did not try building boats upside down, which is much easier than right way up. Indeed this seems to have been pioneered by American rather than European builders. Shadow moulds would be set up in traditional fashion, the hulls planked up, then the stringers and any steamed frames put in.
When the order was received for the first five Islanders in the winter of 1928 the possibilities for mass production were fully exploited. The hulls were quickly assembled from standard moulds and patterns and the boats then finished side by side. They were all ready for their new owners to select their boats by lot in time for the 1929 season.
At just over twentyeight feet Islanders were the largest boats that could be built from continuous planks without joints. The hull shape is so easy that no steaming was needed. Conform to the traditional Scottish (and Scandinavian) practice there was no garboard. The planks were allowed to taper forward to a feather edge as they met the wooden keel. There was no fuss, stress or complicated joinery work such as is needed with boats built to the Anglo-American tradition with a wide garboard strake. The topsides were planked first, the planks slightly wider forward to meet the stem nicely, then the bottom was planked up simply as one would build a brick wall. The only disadvantage of this method that I am aware of is that the feather edge can be easily damaged when the plank has to be removed to allow subsequent repairs. The method lends itself, of course, to the use of narrow planks such are harvested in the North of Europe.
A variety of timber was used in building the Islanders. The keel, stem and stern -post were of oak, the horn timber of teak, the hull planking of pitch-pine and the timbers American rock elm. The transom, cabin-sides and furniture were  of mahogany, the decks planked with tongue-and-groove yellow pine. The large components would be difficult to build today in the same materials. For example the transom has a radius of almost three inches and would have been chopped from a massive slab over four feet long by eighteen inches  deep. It is interesting to note that Isla, built thirty years after the first boats, has a flat transom, which would have been much more economical.
Old-growth pitch pine was imported from Canada up to 1939, when supplies stopped for the War and did not resume thereafter. It is excellent for hull planking, there being several examples of boats still afloat after well over one hundred years. Enormous teak and mahogany logs, up to four feet square, would arrive by sea and would be rendered into workable boards at Gilmour & Aitken's yard in  Jamestown, Alexandria. They still supply excellent timber.
The hulls were fastened up with a mixture of metals, suggesting that the yard had little understanding, or more likely little concern about the effects of this in salt water, and of course the boats had no electrics. The major components were held together with iron drifts, the bolts in the lead keel were also iron, while the hull planking was secured with copper nails, bent over rather than rooved. This practice is again consistent with the Scottish and Scandinavian rather than Anglo-American tradition. It leaves the timbers cleaner and neater, is easy to do as well as lighter and cheaper. The deck planking was held on with iron nails driven into deck-beams which were not dove-tailed, but simply nailed into notches in the shelf. The chain-plates were simply bolted through the shelf, unbelievable given that the boats were to be raced hard.
Comparing the boats as built with Alfred Mylne's plans shows a  number of variations. For example the front corners of the cabin were drawn curved, but were built square. Alfred Mylne and the McGruers worked together constantly, indeed at the time the yard mainly built to his designs, so one can assume he approved of what they did. The Islands Class plans were cleverly drawn for cheap construction and perhaps Alfred Mylne was having a little joke with the corners.
Certainly it was touch and go with the Class getting built at all, because McGruers had said they needed seven orders to hold their price and they only got five. By using what metals could be got and doing without dove-tails etcetera they were trying to preserve some profit.
By contrast with the other metal- work, which was made locally and was somewhat agricultural the rudderhead fittings were skilfully cast and fabricated from bronze. It would be interesting to know how and by whom this was done.
Around the time the boats were built the workforce would have numbered about thirty permanent workers, local residents and usually the family of older employees. In Spring local painters and labourers would swell the ranks to deal with fitting out the fleet of racing and cruising boats that wintered at the yard. Many of these were paid hands on the yachts.
Most of the tools used in boatbuilding are special and the workforce had to make their own, many of which of course passed down within families. These included shaped planes with wooden soles and various jigs and gadgets.
Although conditions must have been hard, working through the winter in sheds only partly protected from the weather, the workforce is reputed to have been extremely happy. I was told by a long-retired boatbuilder that when a boat was reaching an interesting stage everyone would be desperate to get in to work in the morning. Of course at the same time ship-building in the Clyde yards was going on entirely in the open, so perhaps McGruer's men felt themselves lucky. Both types of activity involved exciting creative work which sometimes had to substitute for proper pay. McGruers' workforce could also reflect that they worked for one of the best-known yards and even in bad times there would be a reasonable order-book and job security for the permanent employees at least. At one of the smaller yards in the area it was not uncommon for there to be no wages at the end of the week and the local publican had to offer an informal banking service.

Update: After this post appeared at first my attention was drawn to the fact that the Classic Boat articles about the yard had been posted and can be read online at

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Reflections on the Scottish Islanders

Setting out on Shona, image by Richard Pierce
It is unlikely that the current Scottish Islands Class owners will ever recapture the spirit of friendly competition and daring enjoyed by the original bunch, but at least in recent years there have been serious attempts to resurrect the Class and return the surviving boats to their original configuration.

Butterflies on the Clyde, image by Ian G Gilchrist

This process was started by Martyn Webster about twenty years ago when he brought Cara back from Wales and had her professionally restored. Having found a new owner for her he repeated the exercise with Isla and Bernera. During this period David Spy recovered Gigha from the shore at Kings Cross on Arran, where she had lain for many years, and restored her to perfection. My own boat Stroma was on loan to the Scottish Maritime Museum for a time, as she had become unseaworthy and I did not know what to do with her. By 1995 she had deteriorated further and it was clear that the Museum had no resources, so I started what was to become an eight year restoration. Then Paddy Shaw took on Canna and restored her, incredibly, over just one winter. In the meantime Martyn, having sold Isla and Bernera, commissioned a new yacht, Shona, from Richard Pierce, formerly of Windermere and now of Luing. As a result of all this there are now seven boats in Class and the Association has been reformed with a new constitution.

There is an enormous volume of material available to those who wish to undertake yacht restoration. The problem is that much of it is contradictory, being invariably written by persons in one of a number of camps and often with no actual experience of such projects. Some believe that old vessels have a soul that will be destroyed by restoration. They expect their boats to leak through decks and coachroofs, through the hull when at rest but especially if they ever sail in winds above the most gentle. Some will glue a new glass skin to an ill-prepared old hull, stiffen the interior with girders, fit a new, highly-stressed rig and take on the racing circuit. It is very difficult nowadays to find a traditional six metre yacht that has not had this treatment.

A third and very much smaller, but high profile, group believe that restoration must be done precisely in accordance with the original plans and specifications, using original materials and methods. The obvious problem with this approach is the cost involved. Less obvious are the difficulties in complying with modern safety requirements, requiring non-original engines, navigational and safety equipment and so on. Authenticity is fine for those who want and can afford to pay for it, but for most ordinary people it is not an option.

The obsession in much of the yachting press with this last group, typified by the extensive coverage of events in the Mediterranean, only encourages elitism and must frighten off many who would otherwise see the acquisition of a traditional yacht as a viable option.

When I started the restoration of Stroma I had no clear idea about how this should be done. I wanted only to do the best job possible within my means, which did not extend to employing specialist ship-wrights. On the one hand I have always  liked and respected traditional ways. It is reassuring to know that something works and with new methods you can never be sure. On the other hand I had seen yachts beautifully restored using traditional methods that after a couple of years had reverted to their previous condition. This was probably always so, because racing yachts were not built or adequately maintained to last indefinitely.   I think that the expense of maintenance was accepted as a fact of life by owners in former years.

It seemed to me that if the structure could be kept together better and water excluded properly the future costs would be kept down. I had built a few small boats using epoxy saturation techniques and they had held together pretty well. I read a great deal about the various methods and became even more confused.
Some of the literature suggested that it was a bad idea to have a rigid hull structure. On reflection however, the important consideration is to keep flexing within the elastic limit of all the materials and coatings used in the structure, and this vital consideration is well illustrated by the frequent failure along planking lines of the paint on traditionally constructed yachts.  Once the paint skin film breaks, water enters the planking, and a downward spiral of deterioration starts.

I became convinced that the main reason why owners would have William Fife build them a new racing-yacht every year was not just a search for a faster boat, but because a new yacht being stiffer would always beat an old one. When an old vessel with loose fastenings strikes a wave she shudders and slows as the energy dissipates through the structure. After two or three such waves she will have lost a proportion of her kinetic energy.  The stiffer vessel will punch her way through and maintain her speed.

The end result was that Stroma was restored using a mixture of old and new techniques. Woods such as mahogany and teak are too scarce to be used in quantity. Even if they could be sourced it seemed to me that I should have hang-ups about using them in great quantity. To give one example the original transom was hewn from a solid block of mahogany about four feet by eighteen inches and, to get the radius, about six inches thick. To replicate this went quite against my principles, let alone levels of skill. The new transom was laminated from marine plywood over a building jig.

I was lucky that friends gave me wood including an ancient mahogany log and some church pews from which by careful use I was able to make all the visible woodwork around and inside the boat without conscience problems.

I do not regret having sheathed the hull in epoxy/glass internally and externally. When Stroma was relaunched in September 2003 she floated perfectly, disproving at least the moaners who predicted she would be weighed down with all the glue and cloth I had added.  In fact I think the weight added is probably about equal to the weight of the water which she no longer absorbs. She no longer displays cracks between the planks but otherwise looks as she did before.

The project was to consume about five thousand hours of my time. Being spread over eight years the cost was easily affordable and of course I saved the cost of a social life during that period.

Stroma at Crinan, image by Clive Brown
The other restorations have been done in a much more traditional manner and have been entirely successful. Clearly there are various options which will work. There seem to have been no significant differences in boat speed on the occasions when the new and restored boats have met.

Shona, the new boat, is of monocoque woodstrip core epoxy glass construction, which can be quite light.  Because the yacht was required to demonstrate traditional sailing properties Richard Pierce kept the weight distribution as original by increasing the scantlings, which resulted in a massively strong hull. He has confirmed that she took 3400 professional man-hours to plan and build from scratch, excluding spars and rigging. The result is a beautiful powerful boat combining traditional looks and the lack of maintenance of a modern yacht.

The Islanders are now virtually the only surviving indigenous Scottish one design class. I hope that these recent developments show that they remain ideal for their intended purposes of round the buoys racing and occasional short cruises on the West coast. With two or three candidates for restoration still available as well as a set of drawings for new construction there are opportunities for anyone interested.

If  you want to find out more about the Scottish Islanders  please visit my dedicated blog,, where this post first appeared a year ago.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water