Monday, 18 May 2020

The Song of the Shieldhall

The Song of the Shieldhall
Glasgow Corporation had two fine ships taking sewage sludge from the population, then of a million or so, down the river. All of our major cities commissioned similar vessels, which operated until such an activity ceased to be permissible. The Captains of the Shieldhall and the Dalmarnock had to endure daily signals from passing ships along the lines of "Where are you bound? What is your cargo?" in the days before the city ceased to be a great port.
The trips were a great boon for the pensioners of the city, who could get a free trip, a cup of tea and dancing to live music. Many a geriatric romance must have started on board, especially for those without a sense of smell.
Many years ago the Brother and I went to the Deep South on a last visit to our Auntie, who was having her hundredth birthday. We came across the Shieldhall trying to earn her living as an excursion boat on the Solent, a nice legacy from my native city. I resolved to do something for her, not sending money of course but providing her with a shanty, the royalties from which could perhaps secure her future.
From this project I have learned about the difficulties faced by the budding songwriter/singer. You don't just write the thing and sit back to await fame. Writing it was the easiest part, certainly a lot easier than persuading my musical wife Anne to provide a tune.
A group of local women were in the habit of singing in a cowshed on Thursday evenings, but by the time I approached them they had disbanded. Months went by without the song being heard, delaying the anticipated revenue stream endlessly.
The world premiere eventually took place at that centre of the universe, Toberonochy. The song was duly performed by a male voice choir, Charlie, Ken, Bill, John and self, before an invited audience to ecstatic applause. Sadly the event wasn't recorded as Richard, who had the camera, had fallen asleep.
I tried again years later, giving live solo renderings at the Cullipool Ceilidh and later in a shed on the shores of Loch Tummel, but so far I haven’t been invited onto BGT.
The Song of the Shieldhall
The Shieldhall was a sludgeboat and she sailed upon the sea
Her keel was laid at Renfrew in Nineteen fifty three
To Ailsa Craig she'd go, in sunshine and in snow
dropping off her cargo in the deep blue sea
To Ailsa Craig she'd go, in sunshine and in snow
dropping off her cargo in the deep blue sea
The Shieldhall was the finest ship that I have ever seen
Her captain wore a jacket of Corporation green
Her hull was painted grey, she chugged along all day
While the sailors scrubbed the decks and kept them clean, kept them clean
Her hull was painted grey, she chugged along all day
While the sailors scrubbed the decks and kept them clean, kept them clean
Now some ships sail to India and some sail to Tiree
Some sailors meet with sharks and whales and some just see the sea
Those sights are pretty rare, but the best thing I declare
On the Shieldhall you were always home for tea, home for tea
Those sights are pretty rare, but the best thing I declare
On the Shieldhall you were always home for tea, home for tea
From Whiteinch and from Partick and from Yoker to this boat
All had in mind a purpose, to get themselves afloat
And if they did incline, to drink a little wine
Making sure they had a bottle in their coat, in their coat
And if they did incline, to drink a little wine
Making sure they had a bottle in their coat, in their coat
For many years the Shieldhall did sail upon the sea
delighting all, who got a cup of tea
but the finest thing to tell, never mind the rain and smell
for pensioners the trip's completely free, all for free
but the finest thing to tell, never mind the rain and smell
for pensioners the trip's completely free, all for free

Sunday, 17 May 2020

Cold Return to Normality

Today the weather is absolutely dire, low visibility, constant rain, strong wind. Although I’m glad the boat is ashore I’m reminded that such conditions have resulted in some of the most memorable trips.
This is the first time this Century when a group of small boat lunatics hasn’t assembled at Toberonochy on the Isle of Luing, thanks to the Johnson Plague. That weekend is incredibly special, with overtones of return to childhood, challenging trips in small open boats, most of which we have built ourselves, and most of all an extraordinary bunch of people from incredibly diverse backgrounds united by an interest in traditional boat types.
My yellow boat, the Kelpie, was built by me in 2006 specifically for the muster. I wanted something primarily seaworthy that could carry up to four but also be easy to single hand, with an interesting, safe rig and lots of bits of string to keep the crew busy. She’s an open boat, fifteen feet long, with a lot of displacement which makes her stable but a hard pull if you have to row her.
The design is based on an old New England salmon wherry, drawn by Walt Simmonds of Duck Trap Boatworks in Maine. I’ve changed quite a lot, including the rig, which is a sprit sail cut for me in 1988 by the late Gayle Heard of Tollesbury, one of very few with the ability to do it. He’d made it for another New England boat I’d built before, a Swampscott racing dory that had proved to be just too racy. Here's a photo of her under her original rig; the sprit sail tamed her but when the boat went to Angus, seen here, I kept the sail.

Decades later it still sets perfectly. At first the wherry wouldn’t sail properly to windward, something my designer friend Richard Pierce sorted by advising me to move the centreboard forward. Perhaps New Englanders usually sail in reaching winds. Richard also donated a jib, which helps greatly going into the wind.
At the end of the event in 2012 my crew had to go home promptly, leaving me with a single handed trip. The forecast on the previous evening was dire, offering a strong cold North-easterly building up during the day with rain arriving from mid-day. I decided to set off, because if things became impossible that wind would blow me back to where I’d started from and I’d be no worse off. With an escape route available you should always go.
My friend Brice took some photos of my departure, see below. I got the jib up at the start, but it soon had to come back down as the wind freshened. As a result progress was slow, with the Kelpie slamming a lot in the nasty short chop, then the waves gradually got bigger and she really got into her groove, charging along with her rail a couple of inches clear, luffing in the puffs and eating up the distance to windward. In the squalls bathfuls of water would come in over the side and it was tricky pumping it out, a bit like wrestling with an eel while still steering and keeping control of the sail.

After a couple of hours Kelpie and I were well into Loch Melfort when the rig fell down. The sail is tensioned by a long, bendy spar, the sprit, held in place by a line curiously, for Glaswegians anyway, termed the snotter. This had parted during a squall, leaving the rig accidentally scandalised and flapping like mad, quite useless for further windward progress. It would be easy to fix, provided I could make it safely to land to do so.
There was no possibility of rowing up to windward to the safe, North side of Loch Melfort. The South side was quite close, but a dangerous lee shore with waves breaking on the rocks. The exception was one little inlet with a bit of shelter, but I saw at once that it was inaccessible, being barred by the lines of black buoys of the mussel farm, fastened with steel wires along the surface stretching for several hundred metres.
Mussels have never been successfully cultivated there, due to the prevalence of seasquirts, but the Swiss company who “own” this bit of Scotland’s seabed keep the floats there in order to preserve the value of their planning permission. This is exactly the sort of problem some of us have tried time and again to bring to the attention of the authorities who license these things, to absolutely no avail. The general public have the inalienable right to use the surface of the sea for the purposes inter alia of navigation and recreation, but the Crown Estate, who hold the seabed in trust for us, ignore these rights and make money by granting leases of the seabed. Surely the Swiss, with no seas of their own, should stick to tax dodging, cuckoo clocks and occasional sorties into the America's Cup?
Downwind from the mussel farm was another nasty lee shore with waves breaking on sharp boulders. The only course was to run downwind to the shelter of the point at Arduaine, losing over a mile of hard won distance to windward, passing close inshore inside the reef, where there's a deep narrow passage before beaching on a nice sheltered sandy bay, completely out of the wind. There I had something to eat, fixed the problem and tied in a reef to reduce the sail for the return to the fray.
I relaunched and there now followed a hard beat of about three hours into a really cold North-easterly with occasional squalls of sleet, each tack bringing us closer to home and a hot shower.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

The strange habits of the Seilachs

“It's a kind of black market activity, kept under the radar to avoid accidents with inexperienced people sailing boats with no built in buoyancy or side decks, and all the more delectable for the illicit flavour.”

The above quote is from Professor Pedro H Watson, the well known mathematician, naturalist, traditional boat builder, green guru and plague survivor, on hearing that the simple islanders of Seil had put up a sail on their skiff.
We can’t get too angry with those wretched islanders. No state of the art bridge for them, equipped with devices to remove ice, electric signs to warn of escaped wildlife, these primitive folk have to traverse one of the oldest bridges in the World. Not only that, it crosses an ocean, so mostly they stay at home.
They exist in small hovels along the shore, eking out an existence by the manufacture of scarecrows and the staging of strange shows. At times they can be heard singing curious songs composed by one of a family famous for boating songs. From a distance they sound like happy seals.
In the days of sailing ships these islanders were namely for rowing out to vessels in distress looking for plunder. Nowadays, sadly, modern navigational systems have deprived them of this simple pleasure.
In mitigation of their crime we can only say that having seen those ships and their modern equivalent, the sailing yacht, temptation got the better of them when they came across a neat little mast, a sprit sail and a tiny jib. It took them just minutes to make a hole in the forward thwart and off they went.
Through the Cuan Sound they went, admittedly under oars, then up went that sail and North they flew before the breeze.
They had heard of Oban and its world famous tower which jealous folk and jesters have been heard to call a folly. When, ahead, they saw a magnificent stone pile atop a cliff they promptly made landfall, thirsting for strong drink, but found instead a castle that had lain abandoned for several hundred years. Fortunately they also found nearby an extremely nice cafe, where they had a cream tea before returning home. To their delight they found that the skiff went well to windward under those tiny sails.
In conclusion we must stress that although innocent of the ways of the world those islanders were by no means inexperienced in sailing small open boats on the sea. Indeed they had among their number a fine navigator with a curious resemblance to Professor Watson.

Saturday, 9 May 2020

The Log of the Stroma

Summer Cruise 1977
Note: Stroma is a twenty eight foot racing yacht built in 1929, number 4 of the first group of Islanders, designed by Alfred Mylne and incredibly fast as well as seaworthy. They were intended to be sailed by a crew of three, originally had an engine, but Stroma had none. I had bought her the previous September and this was my first serious cruise, also the longest trip I ever made in her and the longest holiday I ever took. I found her log when clearing papers during lockdown. The photo is from 1930.

Crew Ewan and Peter
Day One, 16th July 1977
Wind NNW 2-3, cloudy, showers
Departure delayed due to theft of dinghy from Donald Currie’s shed, reported to Police and new one purchased. Left the Brandystone at 15.45
Passed between Maiden Island and Ganavan, tacked to Lismore,
Passed the Lismore light at 17.10, wind dropped, slow progress up the Sound of Mull.
Ardtornish light at 19.00, wind died away, ghosted to Salen, anchored at 22.25. In hotel by 22.55
22 miles, 7 hrs 10 mins
Day Two
Wind fresh SE. Rain
Left Salen 09.45, rann before freshening breeze up the Sound, past Tobermory Bay at 11.00, wind backing ESE,
Ardnamurchan Light 12.15. Severe squalls and wind strengthening, ran under full sail for a time, then dropped main and doing 3 knots under jib alone
15.00 wind moderated, reefed main, good progress to Mallaig, passing entrance at 17.00, heavy rain, poor visibility.
Wind dropped and went NW. Arrived Isleornsay at 19.30.
Spent evening chatting with Black Angus Nicolson (Aonghas MacNeacail) in the Inn
51 miles, 9 hrs 45 mins
Day Three
Wind light, N, dry, cold
Spent morning checking rigging and repairing various fittings, halliard cleats etc, that had been damaged the previous day.
Left 15.00 wind now NNW 2 - 3.
Passed Kyle Rhea 17.30, Kyle Akin Light 18.45, got forecast of fresh N - NE so decided to go to Plockton rather than Broadford, anchored 20.45
20.3 miles, 5 hrs 45 mins
Day Four
Wind light, NE, heavy rain, poor visibility
Left 10.45, close reach past oil platform, Crowlin Islands passed at 12.25
At Sound of Raasay wind went North, rain squalls for one hour. Porpoises in shoals of fish, gannets diving.
Passed An Tom Point in extraordinary winds, light and all directions, anchored Portree 16.05
21.6 miles, 5 hrs 20 mins
Called on Peggy (my then wife’s sister and a nicer person) and Harry (married to another sister)
Day Five
Very heavy rain all day, wind moderate.
Boat very wet inside, decks leaking. Spent day trying to keep dry.
Met Dick Ede and Jean Inman, dined with them and Peggy aboard off mackerel Dick had caught.
Note about Dick: He was a fisherman who had been working single-handed out of Newlyn, hunting bass in the English Channel, a robust activity, who was up on holiday with his then partner Jean. He had moved up to London and was missing the sea. I haven’t seen him for many years and hope that he’s fine.
Day Six
Very heavy rain all day. Wind strong S to SE
Spent day in Portree, then Dick wanted to go sailing. Went out with him, while Peter and Jean headed off to Tianavaig to visit Danny Sleigh, with intention we would all meet up there. Savage squalls off the Point, turned back, re-anchored and hiked six miles over to Tianavaig. Made fire on shore, ate sausages.
Note: Those squalls still haunt me a bit. They came down over the tall cliffs and pinned the boat down, so that easing the sails didn’t help.
Day Seven
Very heavy rain, light wind.
Dick wanted to go fishing and turned up with two lines, with about two dozen hooks on each. Spent day drifting around while he caught mackerel.
Note: Dick worked the two lines together, hauling them over his shoulders and all the while calling to the fish “come fill up me lines, fill up me lines”. He could tell when all the hooks were taken and quickly stripped off the struggling mackerel. They soon had filled the cockpit, then, as I wouldn't allow them into the cabin, the dinghy and he only stopped when we were knee deep in fish and had no space left to put them. We ferried them ashore and found some fish boxes, gave a lot away to tourists, then took residue to the Fishselling Company at the pier, where the manager weighed them at eleven stone, deducted one stone for “water” and paid us £5. We were being watched by local fishermen and considered it wise to go to the Taigh-osta a Cidhe, put the money on the counter and got out alive.
Day Eight
Wind SW 3, heavy rain
Left Portree 12.25, reached out of bay, wind freshened in the Sound of Raasay, fast run to North of Rona, passed at 14.45, weather cleared and had great broad reach in force 4-5, passed Carra point at 16.15. Anchored in Shieldaig, Loch Gairloch at 17.15
Evening in the Badachro Inn
29 miles, 4 hrs 50 mins
Day Nine
No wind, heavy rain
Went to hotel for breakfast, spent day drying out.
Dick and Jean turned up, having watched us leave Portree and driven round. Dick had found a broken creel and fixed it, also had caught some whiting and cod, which we cooked aboard and ate with them. After dinner baited pot with a Gurnard Peter had caught and set it.
Gale warning.
Day Ten
Gale from North, heavy rain. Recovered pot, got two large crabs and ate them. Evening in hotel.
Note: That pot had been set over a mile from where we were anchored and was a hard upwind against the gale, which Dick enjoyed.
Day Eleven
Wind NW 3 - 4 heavy rain
Left Loch Shieldaig 10.05, tacked down loch, passed Port Henderson at 11.00. The Ballad “Scalliwag” motored up to join us and set sail. Wind veered North, freshened and day cleared. Raced Scalliwag South, Passed Applecross 1.20, Lonbain 13.20. North end of Crowlin abeam at 15.15, gybed onto Port tack and reached down to Kyle Akin, passed light at 15.47, seven minutes ahead of the Ballad, arrived at top of flood tide, then South going stream carried us down, severe squalls between Glenelg and Isleornsay, anchored there at 18.10 just in front of the Scalliwag.
Evening in the Inn
48 miles, 8 hrs, 5 mins
Note: This was surely sailing at its very best, hour after hour at maximum speed before a following breeze, with a strong tide the entire distance.
Day Twelve
Wind light, variable, sunshine
Left Isleornsay 10.20, ghosted down Sound of Sleat, passed Armadale 13.00, wind died and caught mackerel on way into Eigg, where anchor down at 17.15
21.5 miles, 6 hrs 55 mins
Note: We anchored in about two fathoms inside the island that protects the bay. Our efforts at fishing were just as pathetic as our day's sail had been. The fish that swam about under our keel were so small that they had no difficulty in nibbling the bait from our hooks without any risk to themselves. After a walk ashore, when after we discovered that at that time there seemed to be no facilities whatsoever on Eigg we turned in for an early night.
Day Thirteen
Wind fresh NW, bright
Note: At about five in the morning I was woken by Stroma rolling on an Atlantic swell which seemed to be setting in. I took a look outside and noticed that there had been a definite change in the weather. We now had a very clear dry summer morning and there was a breeze. By this time Peter was also awake and after some discussion he agreed to assist with getting the anchor and setting sail, provided he could then return to his bunk to complete his night's repose.
Thus at about 5.45 am Stroma was underway. We slipped out Southwards from the bay and were soon on a close reach in a fresh Northwesterly breeze. I was pleased that I was alone in the cockpit and could treat the bright, sparkling morning as my very own. Actually I was sharing it with various seabirds and the occasional fishing boat could be spotted far off when we rose on the big Atlantic swell.
The Islanders are wonderful boats on a reach, when you really feel the power of the mainsail. Soon the Cairns of Coll started to appear on the horizon and then we were in flatter water as we sailed down the East side of the island to Arinagour.
If you are engineless it is always better to pick a safe spot to anchor where if necessary you won't have difficulty getting underway during the night. I was glad that Peter was now awake as we had some tight tacking to get into the chosen spot some distance from the steamer pier. By nine thirty we were anchored and ready to spend the rest of a lovely summer day ashore. It would have been fun to carry on, but we only had a couple of days left.
20 miles 3 hrs 50 mins
Day Fourteen
Wind SW 3, bright
Left Arinagour 11.10, broad reach to Ardmore Point, wind dropped and caught five mackerel before it returned. Close reach to Tobermory Bay, sailed round the bay to see if any boats we knew were in, left again at 15.30, fast reach to Salen, anchored at 17.10
15 miles, 6 hrs
Back to hotel.
Day Fifteen Wind N 3-4, cloudy, slight rain.
Left Salen 09.15, got spinnaker up and had fast run down the Sound, passed Lismore Light at 11.30, moored at Brandystone at 12.30.
15 miles, 3 hrs 15 mins
We had sailed on ten days out of fifteen and covered about 240 sea miles at an average speed of about four and a half knots.

The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water