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.