Saturday, 24 December 2011

Festive Greetings to one and all

A Happy Christmas, Merry Solstice or whatever to everyone who bothers to read this stuff,or happens to stumble on it in a forage through the blogosphere.

It's pretty wet and miserable in Argyll today and I wonder how the ancestors coped, kippering themselves with peatsmoke, maybe just a cow or a few pigs to keep them warm, or perhaps just the heat of a doctrinal discussion. As an old professor said, the Scots like philosophy because it's free and heats you up in a metaphysical sort of way. But then there's the cratur too, and that was free too, if you had a wee copper still hidden away.

Right now it's hard to believe that the above image is from around here, actually it's of Erraid taken more years ago than I'd like to work out.

And that reminds me, given that the papers are full of highfallutin books to read, there should be a recommendation for holiday reading, so scottishboating recommends RLS's Kidnapped and Catriona. If you haven't read them shame on you and if you have, well, read them again. The ship went down just outside this island.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The magical Isle of Gigha, nice memories for horrid winter days

My log for 1979 contains the following entries for the Glasgow Fair Weekend:-

"Self and PS

Saturday July 14 HW Oban 09.42 BST, pressure 1030, cloudy, rainy wind S force 2

Departed Ardfern 09.00 wind increased to SW 4/5 had quick beat down to Craighouse. Becalmed off Nine Foot Rock and had slow sail through Small Isles Bay. Got anchor down at 18.00.

Sunday 15 July, pressure 1035, bright, light W wind

Departed Craighouse 08.45 wind backed SW force 3 had pleasant reach across to Gigha, anchored in 11/2 fathoms in Ardminish Bay (white sandy bottom) at 12.20.

Monday 16 July HW Oban 11.21 BST North going stream in Sound of Gigha starts 02.44.

Departed Ardminish 05.20, visibility very bad, pouring rain. Wind SW 5/6. Tied in one reef as didn't know what seas would be like outside.

At McCormaig Isles wind moderated, day cleared, shook out reef. Had very fast reach and kept tide till past Crinan. On mooring Ardfern 13.20."

In a typical Fair Weekend (i.e. rain and wind) we had sailed about 80 sea miles, allowing for tacking, in just over 20 hours.

Peter sent me this post card to celebrate our trip, he does this sort of thing.

My memories of Gigha were of a fairy tale island blessed with exotic plants, incredible white sand and a tide that moved fast but didn't seem to go in or out. It was also an incredibly quiet place with the large old-fashioned hotel the only place to visit and no other facilities.

Since 1979 the island had suffered under various somewhat colourful owners before being taken into community ownership. By 2009 I was keen to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the trip, but the attempt ended when we were becalmed in thick fog and it became dangerous to go on. After an anxious hour or so the weather cleared enough for us to feel our way into Crinan.

Stroma and Peigi
 Just before midsummer 2010 we had better luck. Peter couldn't make the trip, but his son Ken (not born in 1979) came with me and our old friend Ken Campbell, who often sailed with us in the 1970s. The only lesson from the trip was that if you don't want everything done twice don't sail with two men of the same name.

The problem with this trip is that you have much less tide going South, as it turns progressively earlier the further you go, for example Gigha is three and a half hours ahead of Oban. Coming back North the opposite is true, so timing doesn't matter so much.

To avoid an unseemly early start we set off from Kilmelford on the Friday evening, June, and sailed round to  Toberonochy.

Kilchattan Bay is a favourite spot of mine, soaked in history. King Alexander II anchored his fleet there on the  night of 7 July 1249 on his way to meet with Ewen of Argyll, who controlled the inner isles at that time. Ewen had been pursuing a diplomatic balancing act between the Scottish and Norwegian crowns for some years  and had been trying to persuade Alexander that it was possible to owe allegiance to two masters. The King was not buying this and set off with his fleet.
Alexander's trip was not a great success, as he was stood up. Ewen of Argyll had gone to Stornoway, taking with him the ten year old prince of the Isle of Man, for the boy's protection and also no doubt as a bargaining counter. The following day Alexander died at Horsehoe Bay on Kerrera, leaving his kingdom to his own ten year old son, who became Alexander III. I have read a lot about this period and have never come across any suggestion of foul play, so it seems likely that Alexander II was already stricken with some deadly illness and made his trip in an attempt to obtain some control for his successors over this part of what he claimed as his realm. His son was crowned just a week or so later at Perth, which suggests that the Court had the arrangements already in hand. Of course the Western Isles weren't to come under the control of the Scottish kings for many years after that.

The walls of the old kirk at Kilchattan bear graffiti that may have been done by Alexander's marines during their visit. We can tell that the graffiti depicts Scottish ships as they have rudders. The graffiti doesn't photograph well, so here is an image from a tomb slab showing the typical shape of a Scottish vessel.


She has short ends and a centrally hung rudder, as opposed to the Viking ships, which had the long ends suited to open water passages, but required a steering oar, slung of course over the starboard side. This difference would have given the Scots an advantage in our narrow inshore passages subject to strong tides and the Vikings an advantage offshore.

Luing is full of haunting reminders of an industrious and sometimes turbulent past, when the islands were the centres of all sorts of activity. Visitors will find everything apart from shops, including prehistoric duns, an old water mill haunted by elves, who demand a hair as a tribute, curious religious messages carved by a madman whose hobby was making his own gravestones, and the scars left behind by the unremitting slog of the slate industry. They will also find a population of more hares (the other type) than humans, a special herd of cattle and a landscape like that of the Outer Hebrides.

We set off from Kilchattan Bay the following morning with about three hours of tide against us, to get the best use out of the South-going ebb later, carrying one reef in the main, destination Ardminish if the wind held and Craighouse if it didn't. We were lucky that a Westerly Force 3 to 4 held all day with bright sun. For hour after hour Stroma reached along, as always light on the helm, at maximum hull speed. Passing Skerryvore we decided to go for Gigha as we still had a few hours of tide with us. We were anchored in Ardminish by late afternoon, about seven and a half hours after setting off.

The following day there was a yachtsman's gale from the North, so we had a day to explore Gigha and for the older Ken to re-discover his childhood haunts from holidays in John McMillan's cottage more than fifty years ago.

The Isle of Gigha today, after several years of community ownership, has to be the finest example of what wonders can be achieved once the iron grip of the traditional Highland landowner is broken.

For a start the visitor moorings were all occupied, mainly by visiting Irish boats, for whom Gigha is an easy destination, but also at least one by a crew from across the Atlantic.

On shore there is a welcoming quayside restaurant, the hotel is jumping (well, not lierally, but we were by 3 am) and there are various craft and other attractions to be added to the famous Achamore gardens.

There is a lot of building activity, in an attractive style that respects our traditions, while maximising solar gain and modern materials. There is an element of uniformity that I found pleasing.

In summary, what was virtually an economic basket case has become a vibrant, self-sustaining community with a great sense of purpose. The Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust website can be viewed here:-

We left early on the Sunday morning with the wind still a strong Northerly and after a few hours of being flung around in the lumpy seas thrown up by wind against tide we decided not to go on and settled for a fast, bumpy reach across to Craighouse, where it was a relief to hook up to a visitor mooring.

We didn't see much of Craighouse, as we had an early start next day, but there seems to be a big contrast between Gigha and Jura, the latter not having moved on very much in thirty years and still belonging to a few rich owners.

The next morning we got away very early, in very little wind, with the younger Ken towing us out behind the trusty Peigi, which went with us everywhere this Summer. You won't see yachts being towed by their crews very much these days, but it was common a hundred years ago and is much more reliable than having an engine.

Outside the Small Isles we picked up a gentle Westerly, which came and went all day, part sailing, part drifting on the tide, until we just got past Crinan. As the tide started to turn against us we picked up a new wind from the North west, which gave us a fetch to Asknish Point and then a reach home.

We had covered about 90 sea miles in about 28 hours under sail, a slightly slower average speed than I managed in the same boat over thirty years earlier, but then we're both getting older.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Tramp Steamers

SS Harmodious by John Gardner

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
  Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
  With a cargo of Tyne coal,
  Road-rails, pig-lead,
  Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays. 
(John Masefield, 1902) 
The tramp steamers are mostly no longer around, at least in British waters, but in their day they encapsulated a type of romance of the sea that led countless youngsters to seek adventure, see the world (or maybe just a wee bit of it) and generally escape from the threatened drudgery of work in an office or factory. The reality was a life of extreme boredom seasoned with occasional terrifying incidents, and an ever-present risk of injury or death. Despite or maybe because of these conditions lifelong friendships were formed among the seamen and many developed loyalties to the company under whose flag they sailed, despite the eccentricities of penny-pinching managements.

An old friend, who did his time in the immediate post-War period, recalls going off duty with the ship steaming into the teeth of a Mediterranean gale and returning on deck eight hours later to find that she was now several miles behind where she had been when he went off.

And, trawling online in the course of my researches I found this quote from a Scottish old-timer,
“joined the Blairspey on Saturday 14th July 1956 as a catering boy at Northfleet Paper Mills, done three trips in her, to Seven Isles in Canada, loading pulp. Most of the deck cargo was washed overboard on the trip home. I can’t be quite sure but I think it was either the Queen Mary, or the Queen Elizabeth, passed us three times on the last outward trip that I made in her with a message, ‘Keep Going Blairspey You Will Make It’. That last trip the outward voyage was rough as the best she could do was two knots backwards…..”
I’m sorry he hid behind an online alias, as I would like to thank him for his contribution.

The late Nineteenth century and the first half of the Twentieth were amazingly profitable times for those adventurous enough to become involved in shipping, provided of course you stayed off the actual ships and confined your efforts to buying them, dealing in them or just managing them. The Blairspey was part of the Blair line founded by George Nisbet, with whom I share an affinity, as he was the first owner of Stroma and I am the ?th.

The story of the Nisbets is very typical of many of the period and illustrates the great social mobility that resulted from the rapid development of Glasgow as a major industrial centre. Around 1843 John Nisbet and his wife Patricia left Ireland and came to Glasgow, where he established himself as a baker in Bridgeton. His son James followed him in the trade and moved into Tradeston, then a mixed area of factories and housing, to a flat in Gloucester Street, where as it happens my ancestors also lived at the same time. James and his wife Ann had about eleven children, of whom George was one of the youngest, born in 1876.

Our next sign of George is in the 1901 Census, where we find that he is now a ship broker, aged 25, the owner of a substantial house in Maxwell Road, Pollokshields, living there with his now widowed mother, four brothers and sisters and some domestic servants.

In 1905 George Nisbet and John Calder went into partnership and bought a second hand tramp steamer, the Greatham, joined in 1907 by the Etona and in 1909 by the Benedick. At the end of April 1913 the partnership dissolved and George continued on his own, operating as an owner and broker under the names Clydesdale Navigation Company Limited and George Nisbet & Co Limited, by which time the ships were being given "Blair" names.

George Nisbet was a fairly active buyer and seller of ships during the First World War, a period when losses were extreme and prices escalated, luckily managing to sell most of his ships before they were torpedoed. At the end of the war he owned only one ship, the first Blairmore, which he sold in 1919. He then took a few years out before going on a massive buying spree from 1922 with Blairadam, Blairbeg, Blairlogie, Blairholm and Blaircree, then commissioning his first new-build, the ill-fated Blairgowrie, followed by many others and an occasional second-hand purchase. 

The loss of the Blairgowrie in February 1935 must have been a shattering blow to the reputation of the company, who were extremely lucky to have the Board of Trade find that "no wrongful act or default" was shown. The report is available online and I warn readers that it is one of the saddest and most distressing things I have read in a long while,
Report of the Board of Trade Inquiry 
By the start of the Second World War the fleet comprised nine ships, which went into war service and to which the government added another eight for the company to manage, eleven of the total being lost. George Nisbet himself died during the war and  the company was run thereafter by Douglas R Nisbet, who eventually sold the fleet and wound up the companies in 1961.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

"The best bilge pump of all is a bucket in the hands of a frightened man".

Butch Dalrymple-Smith at the helm

A Guest Post from Theo Rye

I must have quoted this a hundred times; it's a great example of a near perfect aphorism for sailors. It contains enough truth and humour to bear repeating to the novice as well as the experienced, and at worst you'll get a wry smile.

If you Google it, you'll get a lot of similar quotes, usually prefixed by something along the lines of "Someone once said..." and "It's an old sailing tradition that...". I must admit I'd always assumed it was a traditional saying, dating back into the distant past; Nelson had surely heard it as a midshipman. It really should be as old as sailing itself, shouldn't it? Or, at least, as old as bilge pumps and buckets.

Re-reading Adlard Coles' "Heavy Weather Sailing" the other day though, I came across the expression in print. For those of you who don't know Coles' treatise, it is dedicated to a series of studies of yachts in heavy weather, their tactics, the metrology and outcomes. His style is as serious as the subject; it's not totally without humour, but it is decidedly not frivolous. It's rather like reading an Admiralty pilot; it makes you wonder why you ever go sailing at all. The chapter headings give you a good clue; "Pooped for the First Time", "Twice Rolled Over", "Survival Storms"; it's not a light read. The photos are black and white and often rather out of focus, (and these days can easily be eclipsed by two minutes searching You-Tube), but are still fascinating (and occasionally horrifying.)

In the chapter "Heavy Weather Conclusions", Coles discusses tactics in the Southern Ocean, and relates the story of the capsize of Sayula II in the Roaring Forties in November 1973 during the Whitbread Race. One of the crew, Butch Dalrymple-Smith, wrote an article for Yachts & Yachting and Adlard Coles subsequently made contact and got more information from him. In the conclusion to the article, Butch says "the best bilge pump of all is a bucket in the hands of a frightened man". Coles does not appear to be a writer who would bother to repeat a truism, and in quoting this he seems to be passing the comment on in all seriousness.

Sayula II

Butch happens to be a friend of mine and, intrigued by the story, I gave him a call. To the best of his recollection, he was relating the incident to Bob Fisher in Sydney after the leg, and in the course of the interview just came out with the unforgettable phrase. Again, as far as he can recall, he wasn't repeating anything he'd heard previously, but he does allow that it was a long time ago and it is possible that (perhaps subconsciously) he was. It certainly wasn't a well known phrase to him or Bob Fisher, and nor (it seems) Adlard Coles. (Sayula II, you may be interested to know, was a standard Swan 65, and went on to win the race despite her capsize. Butch recently wrote two amusing articles about it all for the Volvo website, accessible here:-

So, there is the question; did Butch Dalrymple-Smith coin this immortal phrase? It wouldn't surprise anyone who knows him if he did, but if you know of an earlier use or reference, I'd be very interested to hear.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Hurricane Bawbag and the Daftie Seagulls

Compared with last Spring's storm this one wasn't so appealing visually, but round our way it scored wind strengths of 102 mph in the gusts. There were few boats afloat and they all survived, including the schooner Hippo, to the left in the image above.

At the height of the storm in the early afternoon of 8 December I shot some footage and didn't notice the antics of the seagulls until editing this later.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Unique Boardroom Table by David Ryder-Turner

I am selling my boardroom table designed by well-known yacht designer the late David Ryder-Turner of Helensburgh and built by the professional cabinetmaker Jane Wright of Kilcreggan.

The table is a unique work of art, built to the highest standard of craftsmanship. It was made as a special commission from me and as an entry in a woodworking competition, which it duly won. It is oval in shape and measures 92.5 inches by 45 inches.

The top was made from a single log of Huon pine that David had brought back from Tasmania, to which a mahogany inlay was applied. The base was laminated from mahogany and sycamore.

The table is now surplus to requirements and is offered for sale at £2,000 (no VAT), but I will be happy to negotiate if it goes to one of David's friends. It can be seen in central Glasgow, from where the buyer would collect it.

If you are interested please contact me on

Friday, 2 December 2011

Another Westra and a little more local history

Gisela Scharbaum recently sent me this image of another Westra, from the Royal Northern & Clyde collection, and asked if I could help to identify her. A quick trawl through the internet showed that she was the second of two raters of that name drawn and built by the genius of skimming-dish design, Charles Sibbick of Cowes.

The Charles Sibbick Interest Association have kindly allowed me to share the following notes, which they sent following my request for information:-

"First of all there is no known official registry of Sibbick Boat Plans/Drawings and not even a list of the building numbers of his boats.
However, we have managed to trace  the names of nearly 300 of his boats with type and building year. We have spent some years on this. We know for a fact that he built over 300 boats until his death in 1912. There are also some enthusiasts, not so many, but are really into Charles Sibbick. We are all sitting with variable information from different sources. There are probably some boat plans in private ownership here and there. We have a lot but unfortunately none of Westra which was originally a 5 Rater measured over to 36ft Linear Rater in 1897. At the time her rig was altered from a Sloop to a Cutter and Jib and Bowsprit were fitted to her. The reason for the change was probably for Westra to fit in with the First Linear Rater. She was, as most of Sibbicks boats, extremely fast and was mentioned in several articles in the New York Times in 1896 and 1897.
In 1902 she was in the Yacht Register listed as a Lugger, with sails from Ratsey & Lapthorne (1897). Her Length was 36 ft (Linear Rater 36.03). A Beam of 9.8 and the Owner in 1902 was Sir R.H.Williams-Bulkeley, Port, Beaumaris.
N.B. There was also another Sibbick Rater called "Westra" but that was originally a one Rater, later converted to a 24ft Linear Rater.
What has happened to Westra, we are not sure about but when the International Rule came in 1906/1907 several Sibbick boats were measured over to fit the new formula for example 8mR.
We know for a fact that Sibbick was still registered as a Naval Architect with the address on Albert Yard , Cowes in 1905 and he continued building and repairing yachts, although not in such a large scale, but he had from time to time financial problems and the International Linear Rating Rule obviously caused him major problems, even if the new rule was not especially popular in the UK at the beginning. It was mostly in Scandinavia where those boats became extremely popular at once.
Sibbick had a lot of influence and was building a huge amount of boats, one designs and restricted classes for Europe and the United States and many other parts of the world. He was still active until his tragic death in 1912. (comment from me - It seems that Charles Sibbick eventually became depressed and drowned himself)
We can also tell you that J C Connell of Glasgow put his boat Westra, who was champion of the season, up for sale in 1897. Westra finished the season with the biggest record of a class and an explanation from Mr Connell was awaited as to why he was selling his boat!"
John C Connell was a member of the famous family of Glasgow shipbuilders of that name. When he owned Westra he was in his early twenties, so she was rather a nice plaything for him. That she had no accomodation would not have troubled him unduly, as the records show that in 1895 the family firm built two steam yachts for their own use, SS Moneira and SS Athene. I haven't found details of the Athene, but the Moneira was eightyfive feet long, of 57 gross tons and her build cost was £2,150, information courtesy of

Charles Connell & Company was founded by John's father in 1861, when he resigned from his post as head foreman shipwright and latterly yard manager at Alexander Stephen & Sons of Linthouse. The Stephen company history records:- It is amusing to find that although Alexander Stephen, commenting on Connell's resignation, writes: "I do not think he will succeed," a pencilled note on the opposite page, inserted many years later, states that "Connell died in 1898 leaving over £300,000."
Actually Connell died on 14th February 1884 at his home in Broomhill Avenue in Partick, leaving an estate in excess of £250,000 and a well-founded shipbuilding concern. His eldest son, Charles B. Connell, succeeded his father and ran the yard with various brothers and half-brothers.

The family were close and built themselves a twenty two-roomed villa, Caol Ruadh, at Colintraive near to the Kyles of Bute Narrows, absolutely in the centre of Clyde yachting. Here is their 1901Census entry:-

You can see that brothers William, John and Arthur are described as shipbuilders, while younger brother Allan is "living on own means" and they have a butler, a valet, a cook and three domestic servants. The family gamekeeper Alexander Gillies lives next door in a one room cottage.

The 1911 Census shows John C Connell aged 42 and his brother William C S Connell aged 47 both living at Carston House, Ayr with their (half?) brother Alfred H Connell, aged 30, Alfred’s Irish wife, a valet, a groom, a cook, two housemaids and a French maid. Alfred was at the time an officer in the Royal Scots Fusiliers. John and William are both shipbuilders and employers. Later on Alfred became a ship owner and broker in Liverpool. He seems mainly to have owned small tramp steamers.

Carston House, Ayr
The development of Scotland’s heavy coal and steel industries and the ship-building industry that followed created astonishing opportunities for people with skills and initiative. It also created conditions of enormous inequality between the workers and the bosses. Tens of thousands of workers lived in crowded tenement flats within walking distance of the yards, where they toiled in the open for slave wages, regardless of weather. From my own childhood in the west end I remember the distant noise of battering as millions of rivets were banged home, throughout the daylight hours. The contrast beween these conditions and the lifestyle of the Connells could not be more stark.

There is a good website with information on the old Clyde yards here:- It reports that:-

The last ship built at the Scotstoun Yard under Connell family management was the 12,011 tons cargo liner BENSTAC for the Ben Line of Leith, which was launched on 20th of November 1967 and completed in the spring of 1968. The Connell family, however, remained in business as Ship-Owners and Ship-Managers.
The Connells were regarded as one of the superior shipbuilding families of the many Clyde based shipbuilders, introducing many new techniques and investing their private wealth back into the business. More than most, Connell saw the benefits of maximising on standard production and prefabrication techniques, and were leaders in pioneering these new methods.
The fast cargo-liners produced by Connell for the Ben Line of Leith were regarded as amongst the finest examples of this Yard’s superiority in designing the best ships to fly the Red Duster of the British Merchant Navy, setting standards of excellence in naval architecture that were emulated throughout the international maritime world.

The 1934 Royal Northern Yacht Club handbook lists three Connells, Charles, a member since 1924 and probably son of Charles B., Arthur, now living at Douglaston, Milngavie, a member since 1895 and John, now living at Craigallian, Milngavie, a member since 1891. Arthur and John are joint owners of Westra, a 1934 12 metre yacht K4 designed by Charles Nicholson.

Arthur died at Dougalston in May 1949 aged 77, having been Connell’s chairman since 1937. He had been a member of the Thistle syndicate 6 metre yacht for the  Seawanhaka Cup but she wasn’t ready in time and didn’t compete. He had owned or part owned six twelve metre yachts.

If we add in Herbert Thom's famous Westra, about which you can read elsewhere on this blog and on we've now traced four Westras, none of which still exists, the Twelve and the Islander having been destroyed during the War.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water