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.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water