Sunday 17 December 2023

Arresting a Ship

I’ve managed to do very little sailing this year, with only one overnight stop, in a favourite spot, which I’ve often posted about, Toberonochy

But in other ways it’s been one of the most fascinating seasons yet.

At the beginning of the summer, Anne and I got a rather mysterious message from Switzerland asking us to keep the last week in July free, with further instructions to come. Then came another invitation, to one of Scotland’s most interesting and historic corners, Roshven, close to Ardnamurchan.

It’s not every day that you get invited to the hundredth birthday of a boat, in fact it’s only happened to me once before, see here, The Story of the Scottie

To celebrate the occasion, I wrote the story behind it. Here goes!

Ceann Tràgha

Kentra is the anglicised form of two Scots Gaelic words. Ceann means a head, while tràigh, here in its genitive form tràgha, can mean a number of things, such as a shore, a  strand or a bay. Thus Kentra means “Head of the Bay” and is the name of a bay with astonishingly large mud flats when the tide is out. This part of Scotland has an interesting history and is known in Gaelic as Na Garbh-chrìochan, “the Rough Bounds”. Not far from Kentra Bay, on a little island, are the ruins of an Caisteal Tioram, “the dry castle”, dating back to the time of the first Lord of the Isles, Somerled, who ruled in the Twelfth Century. 

King Somerled in an angry mood

The castle was burnt and destroyed during the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715. Happily, the area is a safer place to visit today! 

Kentra’s first owner, Kenneth Clark, a member of the Coats/Clark Paisley cotton dynasty, bought the Ardnamurchan estate in 1916, a huge slice of land that stretched from the River Shiel right across to the westmost point of the British mainland, and which included Kentra Bay on its northern shoreline. The estate included Glenborrodale Castle, then quite a modern, late Victorian, red sandstone building, finished in 1901. He lived in slightly smaller accommodation at Shielbridge House, on the banks of the River Shiel and used the castle mainly for socialising, when it wasn’t let out to people such as Sir Thomas Lipton and Sir Thomas Sopwith. His visitors included King George V in his yacht Britannia

In 1916 he provided the local community with the Shielbridge Hall, a community facility, which is still in use. After his death in 1933 the estate was sold. Glenborrodale Castle has since been used sometimes as an hotel and sometimes as a private house, but Shielbridge House was demolished by a later owner in the 1950s, after the government introduced a tax on very large houses and many estate owners decided to destroy their properties rather than pay it.

Kenneth Clark also had houses in the South of England and on the Riviera, which probably suited his busy lifestyle as a sportsman and a gambler rather better than the quiet west coast of Scotland. Was he truly “the Man who broke the Bank in Monte Carlo”? Perhaps not, as it seems that the title should go to Charles de Ville Wells, who died in 1922. 

It must remain a puzzle why such a fellow as Kenneth Clark commissioned a true sea going sailing ship and, of course, we know that he sold her within a year. Perhaps he decided that his health wasn’t up to a round the world trip. Whatever his reason for commissioning Kentra, we owe him our thanks for one of William Fife’s most beautiful creations.

Arresting a Ship

By the time I first heard of Kentra, in the early 1990s, I had been running my law practice in the centre of  Glasgow for many years. Our office was situated in an historic building overlooking Royal Exchange Square, the heart of the old commercial sector. I enjoyed the pleasant working space too much to join one of the bigger law firms, and the autonomy gave me the freedom to decide what work I wanted to take on. 

Because people knew of my interest in ships and the sea, problems with a maritime flavour tended to come my way. These were rarely straightforward, but always interesting. I found myself advising a firm of deep sea divers who had bought the Fairlie Pier and through them I met Archie MacMillan, the final director of the Fife yard, where Kentra had been built. Archie even persuaded me to moor my own yacht, Stroma, at Fairlie for a few years, before the long stretch of mud at low tide eventually made me return to deeper waters.

Stroma at Crinan, 2008

One day my accountant friend, Bill Cameron, invited me to look at a problem that had arisen at the old McGruer yard at Clynder, not far from the Royal Northern Yacht Club base near Helensburgh. She had arrived in Scotland for renovation after a hard working life in the Mediterranean. Her latest owner, said to be a fellow in the olive oil business who lived in the Dakota Building in New York, had apparently disappeared, leaving a squad of skilled craftsmen and the yard’s owners looking for their money. To make matters more exciting, it was even rumoured that a certain Brigitte  Bardot had been sailing on her; one hopes that she would have taken her sharp heeled shoes off when she went aboard. What a wonderful case to land on my desk!

Among the things that attract young people to a career in the law are television programmes showing fantastically clever attorneys defending clients on terribly serious charges and getting them off due to their sheer brilliance, although also perhaps because, of course, the clients are always innocent. My equivalent ambitions, having been obsessed with boats and ships from an early age, were rather different. They included arresting ships by nailing writs to their masts, a  procedure which caused a sailing ship to be kept in port in foreign parts until all her bills had been settled. I never thought that I might end up doing this in practice, although as it turned out in my case, no nails were to be involved; indeed there was no mast on Kentra.

Arrestment is a procedure that has been around for ever and the rules surrounding it form one of the oldest parts of international maritime law. Problems that were first seen centuries years ago are in principle the same as today’s, when, for example, a container ship goes aground in the Suez Canal and incurs enormous charges. 

As I had never arrested a ship before, I started asking around and soon discovered that while an older lawyer friend had spent a lifetime working in shipping law and had occasionally secured an arrestment, the owner had always turned up with a payment to prevent his vessel being sold. With my friend’s help and a visit to the library we got the case started. It seemed that a mast was an essential part of the procedure, but the Sheriff at the court in Dumbarton confirmed that using sticky tape to attach the writ to any permanent part would suffice.

When the owner had failed to respond to various efforts to notify him the Sheriff ordered that Kentra be sold by public auction, to take place in the Commodore Hotel in Helensburgh, rather an appropriately named place. He had never granted such an order before and decided to set out some detailed rules, providing that there would be an upset price of twenty thousand pounds and bids would be throughout in units of one thousand. This was to guarantee in due course rather a long day!

A few days before the sale I had a telephone call from a Swiss gentleman who informed me that he intended to bid. Because of the obvious conflict of interest, as I was in a sense now acting for the court, I introduced him to a good friend, Graham Wilson, sadly no longer with us, who had served in the Royal Navy before becoming a lawyer and who lived in Helensburgh. When I first called Graham, he thought that I was joking, but the next call from Switzerland put him right.

On the appointed day the bidding went quickly up to £28,000, after which a well known local car dealer dropped out, then proceeded, in bids of one thousand pounds, until a major international brokerage firm gave up and Graham’s new client, Ernst, found himself not only with a yacht, but also a slice of heritage that has engaged him and Doris for the last three decades.

The sale produced sufficient funds to clear all the sums due to known creditors, but a few others now turned up and created problems which belong more appropriately to a textbook on insolvency law than here. I was greatly relieved to be able to pay the sale proceeds into the Sheriff Court and leave it to others to sort out who got what.

The new owners decided to have Kentra restored by Duncan Walker and his crew at Fairlie Restorations, who had already returned several other Fife masterpieces to life in their yard by the Hamble. To get her to Southampton was to involve a sea voyage the length of the West coast, round Land’s End, in late autumn. Being an empty hulk, there was no question of her travelling on her own keel. 

The legendary Harry Spencer of Cowes, the doyen of riggers worldwide, was contracted to handle the voyage on a special barge to be towed behind his private tug. The largest mobile crane in Scotland, belonging to Baldwins of Grangemouth was engaged and brought across from the far side of Scotland by Mr Baldwin in person.


Here we see  Duncan Walker, myself and Graham Wilson, on a cold, late Autumn morning, before the fun commenced.

This all took place on what I believe was Harry Spencer’s seventieth birthday in September 1995 and I imagine he was totally in his element, shown standing on the deck of Kentra in this photograph. 

The voyage south took, I’ve been told, a couple of weeks. Bad weather set in and the underwriters insisted on the journey being broken and days being spent in port before the final, risky, rounding of Land's End could take place. One suspects that Harry and his crew will have enlivened things in a few unsuspecting, remote taverns on the fringes of Wales. Happily all went well and Kentra was successfully delivered into the hands of Duncan and his crew at the Hamble.

I have borrowed this great image of Harry from the Cowes Heritage website.

I feel enormously privileged that a legal case thirty years ago has led to lasting friendships. 

The 1998 Fife Regatta

The first Fife Regatta in 1998 was an especially emotional experience for all of us, overshadowed by the loss of Eric Tabarly in the Irish Sea. With only a dozen or so yachts attending, the available spaces, such as the historic Kelburn Castle, had enough space to accommodate everyone as we came to terms with the sense of shock for all of us and personal grief for those who had known Eric. Later events have not quite managed to recreate the feelings of intimacy.

I was happy to be able to help Jimmy Houston with the organising and as a result managed to sign up in the French merchant navy to sail aboard Moonbeam for a couple of days, but the real delight was spending a day aboard Kentra in the Kyles of Bute.

Three days after my return to Argyll came the real surprise, thanks to that pink cap. There it was, bobbing along behind the hedge at the front of our garden, a hundred sea miles from the Firth of Clyde. Without anyone aboard knowing where we lived, not only Kentra, but  Pen Duick as well, were moored in a sheltered bay about a kilometre from our house!

Fearnach Bay, with its ancient pier, a relic from the days when the local industry was making gunpowder, has since become a favourite anchoring spot for Kentra.

A Feature of the West Coast

We are always very pleased to see Kentra and  are amazed at her people's tolerance of our Scottish weather, which often provides four seasons in one single day.

Last summer, I had headed off aboard my new little boat, Mariota, launched in 2019, with my good friends Margaret and Vicky. At the North of the Isle of Seil there is a well known anchorage, Puilladhobhran, “the Pool of the Otter”, which we tend to avoid, as it’s like a parking lot in summer, so we anchor in a more private spot. Once settled, we looked along the shore and, also avoiding the crowd, there was Kentra!

It’s wonderful to see Kentra in spectacular condition as she enters her second century and her present custodians have our grateful thanks for all you have done to bring this wonderful piece of heritage back to life. 

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The Wherrymen

The Wherrymen
Two old friends on the water