Sunday, 22 December 2013

Another mystery boat (well, part of...)

This nice rudder turned up recently, having been dumped in a skip somewhere in Argyll. It ended up at the Moleigh for recycling and such is my reputation for the progue it ended up at my door. Sadly the fine rowing skiff to which it seems to have belonged hasn't turned up yet.

It's about 22 inches from top to bottom and looks pretty old, made from two pieces of mahogany glued together and fitted with a pair of hand forged iron pintles. These are not in-line, suggesting an interesting clinker (lapstrake) transom construction in the original boat. The steering yoke looks as if it's been added more recently, cut from a piece of the same material - either part of the original rudder or form another component. I feel that it belonged originally to a fine rowing skiff.

So, what is it? What happened to its mother skiff? Does anyone want it back?

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Kilmory Causeway - cats or careless driving?

A dreich trip back from Glasgow was enlivened by the stories Big Jim put out over the address system. As we rolled past the ancient Clock Lodge outside Kilmory he told us one version of the story of the strange causeway, still visible at low tide across the head of Loch Gilp. According to Jim a former inhabitant of the tower was suspected of kidnapping the Lochgilphead cats and carrying them off for some wizardly purposes, as a result of which he was shunned in the town. To avoid the catcalls of residents he acquired a wooden sledge so that his horse could drag him to Ardrishaig.

Jim’s story is improbable, not least because a couple of tides would have sufficed to erase the tracks of the largest sledge and the story belongs to the century before last. Apart from this why should Lochgilphead be stuffed with ailurophiles while the residents of Ardrishaig, just a couple of miles away, cared nothing for their felines?

What follows is just what I’ve discovered so far and by no means complete, but worth recording as part of our social history. Any comments helping to complete the story will be welcome.

Our story begins on 15 June 1826 when Sir John Powlett Orde, the hereditary second baronet and son of Admiral Sir John Orde, married Eliza Woollery Campbell, then in her early twenties and daughter of the laird of Kilmory.

Admiral Sir John was a prickly chap who readily fell out with colleagues, including John Jervis, Lord St Vincent and Horatio Lord Nelson. In 1805 he was ordered to strike his flag, despite which in the curious ways of the Admiralty he continued to be promoted, ending up as Admiral of the White in 1810, by which time he had secured a shore job as member of Parliament for Yarmouth, which he kept for life.

The second baronet was born at Portman Square, St Marylbone on 9 June 1803, followed the usual path of the English upper class with an education at Eton and inherited his father’s title in 1824 while still a student at Oxford. His marriage to Eliza put him in charge of her affairs, as in those days the husband became the legal guardian of his wife. Three children followed in quick succession and sadly Eliza died during or shortly after the birth of the third, Eliza Margaret in June 1829.

Meantime Eliza’s father had died in 1828 leaving her not only his substantial estate in Kilmory but also a plantation in Jamaica, all of which passed to Sir John on Eliza’s death. This windfall meant that the young widower could now live well on the wealth created for him by literal slaves in Jamaica and virtual ones in Argyll. He was soon rich enough to buy another estate at Lochmaddy. It’s difficult to imagine the gulf that must have existed between Sir John on the one hand and the wretched folk who supplied his wealth, divisions not just of wealth, but culture, religion and language.    

In 1832 Sir John married a second wife, Beatrice Edwards of Harrow, had the original Campbell house knocked down and commissioned the English architect Joseph Gordon Davis to design him an enormous palace befitting his social status. The result was Kilmory Castle, today the headquarters of Argyll & Bute Council. It is described by Frank Arneil Walker  as an

“impressive, residential fortress…ugly and agglomerative…designed with undeniable bravura….No doubt battlemented towers and vaulted halls afforded some symbolic reassurance to a parvenu gentry whose wealth had no historic relationship with the land but had accrued from trade or industry.”

We can add that Kilmory is haunted by a green lady – Eliza’s ghost perhaps?

And a report from the Strathclyde Building Preservation Trust in 2008 noted about Sir John Orde

“An innovator and inventor, curragh racer and scourge of local fishermen, from the time he took on Kilmory he worked to convert it into a smooth running estate embracing up to date farming methods and indeed moving farming forward. He took an active interest in local democracy, sitting on the Police board and taking part in early local government in the area but remained unpopular with local people. His workforce on the estate, which was large and diverse, was well paid but fiercely regimented and his amalgamation of several tenanted farms to put together the Home Farm, meant the removal of tenants at best to waged labour on the farm and at worst to eviction from the land.”

That is the background to what follows, based on local legend and looking more likely than the business with the cats. It seems that one day Sir John was driving through Lochgilphead when some boys held on to the back of his carriage. He struck at them with his whip to drive them off, causing one of them to fall off and die under the wheels. This caused such a lot of resentment that Sir John could not go through the town without suffering abuse. He decided to have a causeway constructed across the head of the loch, for which the Clock Lodge was constructed as a gatehouse.

This expensive, entirely selfish project had the no doubt intended by-product of obstructing navigation rights, there being at the time a fishing fleet of small boats operating from the public pier half a mile above the causeway, which had been built in 1831. There was a massive public outcry which eventually resulted in Sir John being compelled to breach a space in his new construction to allow free passage.

The date of the incident isn’t clear, but there are suggestions that the Lodge is newer than the castle, perhaps dating from the 1850s. It has been on the market for some years and it will be a brave person who takes it on.

PS 21 December

May help to explain the comments below

Monday, 2 December 2013

Now we are three!

This blog has just passed its third anniversary and I thought I'd have a look at the statistics to see where we're now at.

As it says on the cover my idea was to cover everything about boats, more or less in Scotland and it's interesting that there's been a lot of interest from outside our little, perhaps soon to be free, country. In this context it's fascinating to note that there has been an avalanche of hits from Poland on the post I wrote about Don Roberto, which I guess is due to the current interest in Scottish independence. Recently there has been an increase in hits from Spain, I suspect for the same reason.

This being post number 156 means that I've managed an average of one per week throughout. Pageviews are nudging 150,000 to date, about 1,000 per week. Not bad for a non-monetary blog that will not carry commercial advertising.

Recently I've been heavily involved in skiffing and so had less time for research, so there haven't been so many historical posts as earlier. If you're new here please have a look at some of the earlier posts, such as the very first one The Scottie which are I hope still worth reading. One of my favourites is about St Abbs, the little port that had a huge impact on the young me.

Apart from needing to feed a writing habit the main reward from this blog has been the feedback via comments and private emails, resulting in a lot of data being preserved. So, if you have anything to do with boats that you want to share, please let me know.

The image at the top is from a new series of works by Paul Kennedy, prints of which will be available soon. 

Friday, 22 November 2013

A long way to go for a pub lunch

We’ve been lucky with weather for rowing all this year, from the fantastic summer sun over the Skiffieworlds to the calm water for the Loch Venachar sprints a few weeks ago. Last weekend it held up again for the Selkies and their friends the Uisges as both skiffs set off from  Ardrishaig for a long row to Otter ferry for lunch at the Oystercatcher.


We set off mid-morning with a couple of hours of spring tide left to carry us up Loch Fyne. Forty five minutes of brisk warm-up rowing got us to the bays at Castleton for a short break, then we were out into the tide for the stretch across to the spit.

At Otter Ferry we were met by the Tighnabruaich folk, who had trailed their Archie Smith across. 

The pictures show the three skiffs plus mid-Argyll’s wee Orkney-style support boat.

Lunch was enjoyed by the log fire in the pub, then we were off back home with the ebb.

Through Castleton again with the water much lower we had to dodge the shallows to get through and found quite a chop in the short stretch across to Loch Gilp. By that time a South easterly was coming in, speeding us back to the jetty but reminding us how cold and miserable the trip could have been.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Rowing Machines with added Scenery

This year has really opened my mind to the concept of community recreational rowing in all its aspects.

At the start of the year I was involved as one of the builders of the Isle of Seil’s Selkie, but didn’t imagine that I’d get involved in actually going out in her. How wrong I was.

Scottish Coastal Rowing is enjoying an explosive expansion, with 24 clubs in Scotland, about 60 skiffs on the water and a couple of dozen more in build. There could be six on the water in mid-Argyll alone next year and our local waters are much more favourable than those on the East coast.

Last weekend the Selkie was in action for sprint races on Loch Venachar, the closing event of the SCRA calendar. We did quite well, given that our average age was a little more than some of our competitors.

The Selkies, before they stripped down for the race.
An interesting aspect of the skiffing is its appeal to women. Throughout the country ladies teams are out there in all weathers keeping fit and enjoying themselves. The Isle of Seil provided mixed and ladies crews but didn’t manage to put a men’s team on the water.

Our coxes can be male though!
The picture at the top shows that our ladies were putting their backs into the job too. For most of us when we start skiffing our previous experience has been paddling rubber ducks or at best sculling wee blunt tenders, where you can’t stretch out. Those techniques almost have to be unlearned, meaning that folk with no previous experience at all can perform on a skiff just as well or better than old hands.
The super-fit Anster ladies

Occasionally we’ve shipped along newcomers with previous on rowing machines in gyms. Once they’ve overcome their fear of being outdoors they’ve done very well.

On Seil we’ve met some (usually men, I’m afraid) who object to being coached and come up with remarks like “of course I can row, it’s just like walking”. The truth is vastly different. Rowing with a single long oar engages the whole body. After a session newcomers feel it mainly in their upper and lower backs and legs.

In all its numerous aspects, involving communities, promoting healthy exercise, keeping traditions going and just having fun coastal rowing is one of the best things happening in Scotland today.

If you’re reading about skiffing for the first time please visit and

Friday, 11 October 2013

Crinan Again


In the decades since the first pedestrian excursion described in the last post I’ve been through the canal many times in varying weather conditions and with an assortment of boats and companions.

It isn’t great fun in pouring rain and a strong following wind is worst for old yachts with wing engines or outboards, as you can’t slow down at the locks.

On a cool dry day with a group who’ve been through before it can be a nice sociable day. Rope throwers of the one-coil school can add excitement and fun. Either way it’s best to settle down to a full day of enjoying the history and the scenery.

Last month Captain Cormorant offered me a berth on his fine ship and our passage brought a lot of memories back.

We left Loch Melfort in darkness and had a good voyage down under power against one of the neepiest tides in the year. There’s something very special about being the only boat out on a still morning in Autumn, well wrapped up against the cold, drinking hot strong coffee and solving the problems of the world (or maybe just Scotland). In the old days there would have been a bit of smoke around too.

We pushed through against the last of the tide at the Dorus Mor by hugging the Craignish shore and were joined by the extra shore crew, who had driven down after their breakfast and were surprised to find us already in the basin.

There was a slight hiccup after the Captain had checked in to the canal when the engine, which had run perfectly earlier, refused to start. While this was being solved by a process involving prayer, three other boats joined us, making up a good squad with plenty of muscle power and good chat.

There are always some interesting vessels to be seen in the canal, and one wonders if they ever venture out. These do:

Not sure about these:

We started too late to have any chance of making the complete passage, but after a good day’s work the good Captain was last seen heading to a pontoon above Ardrishaig, with only a couple of locks between him and the open sea.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Crinan Canal not quite for me

In 1971 I visited Mr Hain, the manager of the Royal Bank, and asked him for a loan to buy myself a boat. To my shock he instantly agreed and soon after I found myself the owner of the Loch Long Class yacht no 98, Gaudeamus. Once I’d repaid the money Mr Hain told me that had I been looking for, say, a fridge he would have been much more dubious about the idea. He hadn’t understood how important it was for me to get afloat and that for some having a boat is one of life’s necessities.
I bought Gaudeamus from Edinburgh University, one of four boats that they were forced to sell after lobbying by Gordon Brown and others, the Students Association seeing anything called “yacht” as a symbol of privilege.
Although less than ten years old the University’s boats (the others were, of course Igitur, Iuvenes and Dum) were all suffering from the constant hard use and lack of proper maintenance typical of club yachts, especially those made available to students. She had a lot of broken frames and her sails were exhausted. All this made her affordable, with Mr Hain’s help.
Loch Longs are of course technically yachts, but they lack many of the features that one might expect to find, such as a cabin. Doing serious coastal cruising in one is quite a basic undertaking, but that is exactly what I wanted to do.

In late September I set off from Cove with a friend we’ll call Big Jim with the intention of cruising the West coast. We made good progress down the Firth of Clyde and through the Kyles with the intention of making Tarbert our first port of call. But exhaustion and darkness took over and we eventually anchored in Skate Hole, somehow getting in without hitting “the rock which covers at H.W.” according to the CCC Sailing Directions, see image below.


After a rather uncomfortable night we woke to find ourselves in more or less the same spot, in retrospect surprising, given the lack of chain in our anchoring arrangements. We got underway and had a fast run down to Inverneill, where the parents of a university chum gave us breakfast and encouragement, then on to anchor in the shallows off Ardrishaig.
At this point a small element of realism entered our world. We had allowed ourselves just a week for our first trip and had already spent longer than expected just getting to the canal and plainly the traverse would take longer than what was left of day two. The plan to explore a few islands began to look a little unrealistic. It seemed a good idea to do some serious investigations into what might lie ahead and these started off in the hotel, where we soon found such good company that we ended up staying the night.
The following day we walked the canal and spent a pleasant afternoon in the public bar at the Crinan Hotel, which was in those days a friendly place. We ended up quite unable to walk the nine miles back and got a lift back from a nice old fellow in a Land Rover, who turned out to be the Bishop of Argyll. We found Gaudeamus a few hundred yards nearer to Lochgilphead, pitching about in a South-westerly half gale, nasty muddy waves breaking over her bows. So we booked ourselves in for a second night, abandoned plans for the cruise and began to realise that the main focus would be on getting back home.
We left after breakfast on day four, beating into short steep waves thrown up by the strong wind against tide. The little ship coped well, less so the rigid pram dinghy, which constantly filled so that we had to stop and bail it out every half hour or so.
Off Tarbert we passed a tiny plastic cruiser with three aboard, struggling a bit but seeming cheerful, the only other craft we saw all day.
Each long tack across Loch Fyne got us half a mile or so closer to Ardlamont Point, which we rounded as it was beginning to get dark. It had taken many hours of constant hard work to get there. The wind had steadily freshened during the day, but now we had a lee in the West Kyle and flew down on a reach to Tighnabruaich, where we found a mooring. The hotel was full but we persuaded them to find us some space to doss in our sleeping bags. The talk in the bar was about that little plastic cruiser, which had been lost an hour or so after we had passed her, drowning her crew.
Severely chastened, weather-beaten and tired but a bit wiser, we had an uneventful day five spent reaching and running back home. I haven’t seen Gaudeamus for many years but it’s good to know that she is still around. These tough wee boats have a habit of surviving. Big Jim is still around somewhere in the South of England.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

The beautiful wee cutter Frolic is now sold! See update

There's something magical about gaff cutters, something lovely about Ed Burnett designs and something very special about Hegartys boatyard, so here they all are combined in something small enough for one person to handle or a couple to enjoy, in the knowledge that everything is manageable.

Here's the complete spiel from her advertisement on apolloduck:
"The Frolic is a beautiful, traditional, long keel, gaff cutter designed by the highly regarded Ed Burnett and built by Hegartys of Oldcourt in 2005. See design no. 110 at Built and fitted out to the highest specifications at an overall cost of €57,000, she is now priced to sell at €22,000.
The Frolic is built of larch on bent oak, copper fastened and has silicone bronze keel bolts. The mast and spars are solid Douglas Fir. She comes with the following features: 20hp Beta Marine diesel; J Prop variable pitch, feathering propellor; Raymarine tiller pilot; Clipper speed and distance log; Echopilot FLS Bronze forward looking sonar; bronze winches; bronze, Highfields running backstay levers; Wykeham Martin roller, furling gear; sail cover; cockpit cover; cast iron stove; single ring, gas cooker; sink; Koolatron thermoelectric cooler (also has a heat mode to keep food warm); walnut cabin table; leather upholstery; clock; barometer; oil lamp; compass; anchor, chain and warp; boarding ladder. She comes with a purpose built trailer/cradle, towable by tractor, and a heavy-duty tarpaulin She is a very versatile boat with two berths and is easily sailed single handed."

Monday, 26 August 2013

Protesting too much

Protests are the nasty side of racing, featuring committees formed of jumped-up sea squirts masquerading as lawyers, ignorant of the rules of natural justice, revelling in their one day of power and recalling unsettled scores better long forgotten. They rarely produce results that would stand in a proper forum. Sadly a look through the archives shows that it always was thus.

At the start of the Royal Gourock Closing Regatta at the very end of the 1933 season an incident occurred that changed Scottish yachting history, leading certainly to the first and possibly also to the second of the two transatlantic challenges that I wrote about  here,  here and here. The dramatis personae were Herbert Thom’s Gigha, Robert Sharp’s Bernera and Willie Russell’s Sanda. What follows is courtesy of Willie’s daughter and foredeck hand Udy, who has bequeathed to us a careful diary record. On the page for this race we find:

“1st!! Crew Daddy, Harry, Udy, Hamish Ross
Two boats with protest flags flying!!!!
At the start Gigha and Bernera fouled with us in close attendance and we got away and were only passed once by Gigha. It was a very close and exciting race, squalls coming everywhere, we had the spinnaker up hundreds of times and it was terribly tiring but thrilling. We were first round every mark, which was quite a change for Sanda. Southerly wind all the time but it did not carry past the Cloch with much strength.
Gourock Committee disqualified Bernera and gave Gigha her 2nd prize. We think we ought to have been disqualified if Bernera was, so we asked Sharp to go to the YRA. I think he is going.
Results:- Sanda 1st, Gigha 2nd Bernera disqualified.”

Here is Udy’s faithful record of the outcome. First, her own report.

“The Protest Case

Gigha v Bernera and Sanda

At the start of the race Gigha fouled Bernera.

We were to leeward in close attendance. Gigha approached the line off the wind, while Sanda and Bernera approached it on the wind.

Sanda luffed Bernera right into the wind and Bernera responded.

Gigha shouted to us “I’m on starboard tack,” she then hit Bernera near her mainstays. By this time we were well across the line and Gigha had had plenty of room at the mark.

Bernera could do nothing as she was in a sandwich. We just managed to keep clear when Bernera was forced to bear away.

We say in Sanda’s evidence that the boats were converging and Gigha had plenty of room at the mark. She was the weather boat and should have kept clear. She did not shout for “Room” or “water.”

Gigha was going to send in his protest and accuse Bernera and Sanda of being on port tack but Bernera told him we were not so he changed his protest and accused us of not giving enough room.

Gigha brought four witnesses which were heard and Bernera only got one of his two witnesses heard.

The Committee were very muddled and did not know what to think. They eventually took Gigha’s evidence against Sanda’s and Bernera’s. The case may go before YRA as Sanda should have been disqualified if Bernera was.”

The Royal Gourock Committee wrote on 28 September with their findings.

“Decision of Sailing Committee – Bernera disqualified
1                     The foul took place when Gigha and Bernera were passing but had not passed the mark.
2                     From the starting gun to the time the foul took place an overlap between Gigha and Bernera had been established.
3                     When the foul took place all three boats, Gigha to weather, Bernera and Sanda (to leeward) were on starboard tack.
4                     When passing mark, Sanda luffed Bernera, who responded.
5                     Bernera having luffed, Gigha – but for risk of hitting mark – should have responded also.
6                     Gigha therefore was entitled to room at mark.
7                     Gigha contended that in addition to the words used (“I’m on starboard tack”) she hailed for “room” or “Water.” This was denied by Bernera and Sanda and Committee gives this decision to Bernera.”

On 12 October 1933 Robert Sharp of Bernera wrote to the Committee

“Dear Sir

I wish to give you notice that I desire to appeal against the decision of your Sailing Committee in the protest between Bernera and Gigha, as stated in your letter of 28 September, on the following points:-

1             Rule 46 YRA states that the principal or his representative has the right to be present during the hearing of the evidence.

2             It was stated by you as proved that Sanda luffed Bernera. Why is Bernera disqualified and not Sanda?

3             Gigha makes no attempt to avoid a collision but struck Bernera. Rule 30 YRA section B states that windward yacht must respond to luff and protest if she thinks fit.

I shall be grateful if you will arrange for the evidence in this case to be reheard in the presence of Mr Thom, Mr Russell and myself. Mr Russell of Sanda is particularly keen on this being done as he was the winner of the race and feels that his position is most unsatisfactory as the matter stands.

I am,

Yours faithfully


Here is the reply

“R K Sharp Esq

Dear Sir

Protest “Bernera”/”Gigha”

In replying to your letter of 12th inst I beg to report that the Sailing Committee do not see any necessity to reconsider their decision and can only advise you to appeal to the YRA.

As regards Rule 45 YRA this rule prescribes that the principal, or his representative on each side, shall have the right to be present during the hearing of the evidence, but does not say that principal must be present and, of course, you did not ask to attend yourself during the meeting.

Yours faithfully

McGlashan, Sec.”

As the YRA would have had no power to overturn crucial findings of fact Robert Sharp and Willie Russell decided not to take matters further.

The episode left a very bad taste in the mouths of the Sharps and the Russells and I’m not surprised. Herbert Thom was well known for gamesmanship and probably felt he was entitled to shout “starboard” at other yachts also on starboard, but it’s astonishing that he won after being found untruthful about the call for water. I haven’t researched the relevant rule in 1933 about calling for water at the start but clearly the over-riding rule to avoid a collision was in force. Shouldn’t Thom have done this, hitting the start mark if need be, after all these things are designed for it?

For Willie Russell Thom’s shout was a shout too far. He decided forthwith to leave the Scottish Islands class and return to the six metres, commissioning Alfred Mylne to design him a new yacht, Kyla.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Where are we now? Help is at hand, thanks to Antares.

Above is one of the classic Clyde Cruising Club sketch charts that many of us depended on for our lives, sometimes  literally, forty or so years ago. They are still an awful lot better than the proverbial AA road map beloved of many former navigators (and would have helped the commander of HMS Astute, as I wrote a couple of years back, here: Aground in Kyle in Style).

At the other extreme are the ferociously expensive charts produced by the Admiralty and a number of major suppliers, all of which lack the level of detail required by those of us who enjoy our voyaging at a micro level, exploring narrow channels, shallow bays and little remote anchorages that nobody but us knows about.

Now help has arrived in the form of a fascinating project run by Bob Bradfield with assistance from a growing band of enthusiasts. News about Antares Charts is spreading rapidly by word of mouth, which is how I heard about it a few week ago,  but the project deserves a good push forward from scottishboating, so here is Bob’s guest post .
"Antares Charts – Bob Bradfield
As an avid reader of Classic Boat magazine I am full of admiration for people who design, build and navigate traditional craft. I therefore thoroughly enjoyed Ewan Kennedy’s blog account of his recent exploits in an Iain Oughtred designed skiff. Not only was it an exciting adventure but one that took him to some places I know intimately, as I have created modern, very large scale electronic charts of them: the narrow channel between Luing and Torsa, linking the bottom end of the Cuan Sound with Ardinamir Bay, being an example.

I used to own a classic boat – ‘Antares’ carried a gaff schooner rig on an oak-on-oak hull – but my recreation now involves hydrographic surveying and cartography or, put simply, making very large scale charts that can be used in an iPad, or similar device, with its internal GPS. It always struck me as crazy that GPS enables our cars to tell us when to turn left or right, farmers to plough their fields to centimetre accuracy and yet as sailors we also know precisely where we are but lack the charts to make full use of that knowledge. So, five years ago, I decided to try to do something about it with the result that we have now published 134 charts of areas on the West Coast of Scotland that we think might interest users of recreational boats of all kinds: and for next season there will be at least 180 charts. Being electronic they don’t have a scale in the conventional sense but if you think 10 times the scale of the best UKHO chart for an area you will get the picture…
The charts are made available through our website for a nominal charge and are now regularly used by several hundred people: we have had a lot of fantastic feedback. Our primary focus is the owners of cruising sailing yachts with draughts of about 2m but some of our charts are very definitely for people with much smaller craft. And modern electronics means there is now no bar to using them in open boats: an iPad (3G version with GPS – not the WiFi version) or other tablet, or even a mobile phone in an inexpensive waterproof case will run the charts and typically give you your position on them to better than 10 metres. Battery life is fantastic and can be extended by only checking your position occasionally, when you most need it. We are big fans of Memory Map software and apps, which enable our charts to run seamlessly with UKHO charts, all for well under £100.
The motivation for making the charts is that it gives us a great excuse to spend time in some delightful places. It is most definitely not a money making operation! And for this reason we try to pick out not only the places we know people will go to but also those that we think are interesting or exciting. We have quite a list but always want more ideas, particularly for places that people can get to without a month’s voyage but which are challenging without a good chart. So please do email ideas to me: bob[at]" 


Thursday, 1 August 2013

Bilderglug Report - Skiff Cruising works

It was that time of year again, when some of us get called out for service on the Bilderglug Fleet. This time someone had the idea of borrowing the Selkie from the kind islanders of Seil in place of our own ships. The idea germinated into a full-blown weekend of experimentation to see how Iain Oughtred’s wonderful creation would perform under sail and also to test the feasibility of cruising in an open rowing skiff. There was relief all round when the Admiral announced that he had no objection.

There’s a very serious side to what follows, so this post continues with a disclaimer- don’t try this at home!

Rowing skiffs such as the St Ayles are designed specifically for rowing, with slender lines to provide a sleek, easily driven hull. They will not necessarily possess sufficient reserve stability to be safe boats under sail. By contrast a substantial working boat, such as my own Christmas Wherry, will take any amount of wind, sea and bad weather but it’s a tough pull to heave her through the water under oar. We approached the weekend with great care and the knowledge that the Fleet included a couple of engined ships that would never be far away. Secure in the knowledge that our friends would look after us if need be we set up the Selkie with my wherry’s sprit rig.

Purists will point out that the original Fair Isle skiffs, from which Iain’s design was developed, carried a low aspect dipping lug rig and were presumably sailed whenever possible. That’s as may be, but we don’t know the conditions under which they sailed, whether they had a load of fish aboard or whatever. The modern view would be that an unboomed dipping lug is not a particularly safe rig in any small open boat. Sprit rig has a number of distinct advantages over the lug and properly set up is efficient and easily handled. It drives well to windward, but its main advantages come when coming ashore or if a sudden squall approaches, when the sail can be brailed in to the mast in a jiffy. In a really serious situation the sprit can simply be hauled out, so that you’re left with half the area in a cut down leg of mutton shape.

The weekend was to prove that the skiff is certainly able to be sailed under a suitable rig in safe conditions. Winds were light but she managed a tack angle of about 110 degrees and came about easily with the help of the wherry’s little jib.

As far as cruising a skiff was concerned the three of us aboard had plenty of space for our tents, gear etcetera, but had we been five up space would have been a little tight. What follows is a log of the trip.


Day One Friday 26 July, HW Oban 2019 GMT = about 2050 BST in Seil Sound. Crew this day, Topher, Jan, Sue and myself.

Tides were very important in this trip, as the streams are strong locally. It’s often not understood that in Seil Sound the flood tide tracks the Eastern, Ardmaddy side running North until the Sound narrows, then follows the shore down the Western, Seil side Southwards into the Cuan Sound, so that the guide tells us

“The North-going tidal stream in the Sound begins 4 hours 20 minutes after high water at Oban and the South-going stream begins 2 hours before high water at Oban.”

Many don’t appreciate that although the stream direction changes the water level continues to rise or fall up to high or low water respectively. All very confusing but also important.

The effect of this was that leaving at about 1800 BST we could follow the Seil shore down with  the stream and then fork West into the Cuan Sound with an increasing tide in our favour.

With three rowing and one coxing we tramped along in a lovely sunny afternoon and  soon reached the Cuan, closely following the Torsa shore and passing inshore of Eilean Fraoch and Glas Eilean (heather island and grey island) to reach the narrow passage between Torsa Beag and Luing. We were inspected by several members of the local seal families who inhabit the bays and haul-outs in the Sound.

The tide was flowing fast against us in the passage, but it was easily stemmed by some firm paddling and we passed through Ardinamir to rejoin Seil Sound. There followed half an hour or so against the last of the flood tide, enlivened by Topher’s recounting the tales of Emanuel Pyecroft, until at 1720 we beached for the night in Kilchattan Bay.

Total distance rowed was about six miles.

Day Two Saturday 27 July, HW Oban 0831 and 2058 GMT, hence the stream going Northwards from Ardluing from about 1400 BST. Crew this day, Topher, Jan and myself, with coxing by Laurence.


After a pleasant breakfast we had a nice row South with the ebb against a gentle breeze to beach at Bagh na h-Aird (the bay at the point) for lunch and a look at the yachts in the West Highland feeder race from Oban. Setting off about 1330 BST we rowed round to Ardluing, then unbrailed the skiff, hoisted the jib and had our first experience of a St Ayles skiff under sail. The last of the ebb was bringing the stragglers over the finish line off the buoy as we drifted past in what promised to be a hot afternoon.


Despite us all being old sailors we soon decided to return to the oars. With three rowing and Laurence at the helm we got along at a good steady clip, the tide increasing as we travelled North into the swirls between Fladda and the Dubh Sgeir, then across a wide stretch of glassy water past Easdale and on to Insh. We followed the shore line closely to inspect the hermit’s house, built into a cave with glazed windows and a drystane patio perched high on the cliff.

Our destination for afternoon tea and cake was the lagoon in the North of Insh, a place of astonishing beauty that could easily be in the Pacific. It disappears at high tide, when it can become unsafe in the Atlantic swell and any weather, but was idyllic and safe for our visit. We were beginning to learn that skiffs have distinct possibilities not shared by other craft. In the now windless conditions our friends in their Wayfarer had endured a long tow behind the Minna and we reflected that had we been aboard our own boats we would have shared their fate.


After tea we rowed round the North of Seil to Puilladobhrain (pool of the otter), where the skiff could thread her way with care through the reefs and save a mile or so of effort. We beached at about 2000 on Eilean Buidhe (yellow island) near the wreck and in a place far too shallow to be troubled by yachts.

Total distance travelled about thirteen miles, one under sail.

Day Three Sunday 28 July, HW Oban 0909 and 2139 GMT. Crew this day, Topher, Jan and myself.

We woke to pouring rain and one of these days where you are reluctant to leave your tent. Unlike our friends with masts those of us in the skiff had no worries about passing under the Bridge. They on the other hand had to balance having sufficient not to ground on a falling tide with having sufficient clearance and there were worries that tidal predictions are not always quite accurate.

In the event the Admiral had it right. We set off at 0930 BST and all passed down the channel on high water with nearly a metre of clear air above the masts on the Minna and the Back Magician.

Clearly in Calvanist country we shivered in the rain and felt we were paying the price for the previous days of lovely sun. We tried a bit of sailing but the inactivity made us colder and we were happy to beach at lunchtime in the North of Shuna, our chosen campsite.


After a nice hot lunch the sun came out and we introduced some of our friends to the delights of skiffing, making a brisk mussel-hunting excursion to Eilean Gamhna (calve island) just a sufficient distance to bring up blisters in hands unused to rowing. It was good to get the tents and clothing dried out and have time to prepare a nice dinner. 

Afterwards Laurence and Thomas got us all building reed boats, which sailed with varying results.

Distance travelled about eight miles, mostly rowed.

Day Four Monday 29 July, HW Oban 0949 and 2225 GMT. Crew this day, Topher, Jan and myself.

Another wet morning followed, but with a promise of better conditions later. With a Force Two South westerly we tried a couple of hours of sailing before the cold got the better of us and we went back to rowing to warm up.

We sailed enough to discover that the skiff tracks nicely in light airs. Surprisingly she carried a little weather helm and in careful hands could be put about without stalling. She was very stable and we felt that we would be happy to try her in stronger winds. The main thing learned was that she balanced nicely under a modest rig set far enough forward so as not to interfere too much with rowing. There are definite possibilities for skiff-sailing.

image courtesy of the Admiral

We abandoned our sailing experiment to concentrate on the serious business of catching our dinner. We rowed up to the Cuan Sound where we could set a line in the tide and soon had three fine codling aboard, caught each time close to the seabed on our bottom hook.

Our final port of call before returning the Selkie to her station was a sentimental visit to Port na Morachd (port of the big i.e. important people) an historic port of refuge full of history and now threatened by a massive industrial fish farm just offshore, which Argyll & Bute Council has just unanimously consented despite a huge mailbag of objections, including well over 100 from residents of Seil, Easdale and Luing. The main drivers of the local economy here are tourism and leisure and bizarrely the same council is promoting a kayak trail through the Sound.

It felt appropriate to make a last visit to this lovely bay before it becomes out of bounds. Coming ashore we discovered a feature that I had certainly not noticed before, a line of huge stones almost certainly the remains of a Viking or early Scottish boat noust.

This area is steeped in archaeology, with Port na Morachd overlooked by the pre-historic Dun Fadaidh on the mainland and Caisteal nan Con (house of the dogs) on Torsa. I am fascinated by the castle. It is generally supposed to have been a hunting lodge of the MacDougalls and is known to have become Campbell property the year before Bannockburn, to become MacDougall property again in the Sixteenth Century. The MacLeans of Duart also possessed it for a while and as they were known as the dogs their tenure provides another theory about its name. It's probably of prehistoric origin and has been cleverly built into a natural rock outcrop with later modifications including possibly the installation of a chimney, an item only found only in the grandest of Scottish homes until quite recently. Nearby is a lovely sheltered bay, ideal for beaching boats. Sadly none of this counts with the planners.

We climbed the steep hill behind the Port, harder work by far than our earlier rowing, to admire the views out West to Colonsay and North to the Sound of Mull. From our vantage point we spotted the beautiful Fife yacht Kentra, visiting the West coast for her ninetieth birthday cruise.

Finally we scrambled and slid back down to sea level in heavy rain squalls for a brisk row up the Sound, to give the Selkie a good scrub and leave her on her pontoon in time for the club’s evening row.

Distance travelled about seven miles, mostly rowed.

In summary we rowed for over thirty miles in total, dined well and remained friends throughout, altogether a great way to spend a Summer weekend and a clear demonstration after the excitement of the Worlds that our skiffs are not confined to racing.

The charts in this post are used courtesy of Antares Charts, a great co-operative operation that is great value and really worth supporting. 

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water