Monday, 27 September 2010

The yacht on the church - a mea culpa

image courtesy of the Church website

The lovely yawl Latifa is one of William Fife III's finest creations, but she certainly wasn't around in 1929 when the first batch of Islanders were racing. She was launched at Fairlie in 1936 and is still sailing, having been restored some years ago in Italy.

The finial with the fine scale model dates from 1951 and was dedicated to the late Mr Fife.

The map will have to go back to the drawing board.
Such are the perils of relying on ones ageing memory!

The 1929 Racing Season, Part 3

By mid August Clyde yachtsmen were into the end of season closing matches. The first of these was on Saturday 17 August at the Clyde Corinthian Yacht Club at Hunters Quay.

"In light and fluky winds the courses were shortened." 

I don't know what the courses were, but can imagine a frustrating drift in the tide and gentle little puffs of air in the triangle between the Holy Loch, Kilcreggan and Gourock. The results were:-

Cara        2 hrs 22 mins 20 secs

Westra    2 hrs 24 mins 24 secs

Stroma    2 hrs 25 mins 51 secs

Sanda      2 hrs 29 mins 3 secs

Bernera    2 hrs 29 mins 39 secs

On Saturday 24 August the Royal Gourock Yacht Club held its closing matches.

There was a strong Westerly wind with bad squalls off the Holy Loch and rough seas. The course from the start off the clubhouse at Gourock was a hard thrash upwind to Hunters Quay, then a helter skelter dead run down to Rosneath Patch, then another hard beat back to Gourock, a total of 11 3/5 miles. The results were :-

Westra    2 hrs 17 mins 35 secs

Sanda     2 hrs 19 ins 42 secs

Stroma    2 hrs 21 mins 34 secs

Bernera   2 hrs 29 mins 10 secs

"Cara gave up", said the paper, or rather her crew did, because the boat usually handles the weather better than the mere humans aboard.

The Royal Northern Yacht Club regatta at Craigmore on Saturday 31 August closed the season.

The course was from Craigmore to the Skelmorlie Bell to the Gemlyn Bank and back to Craigmore, then again to the Gemlyn Bank, then to Toward and back to Craigmore, a total of 13 miles. (Right now I don't know where the Gemlyn Bank was, so help please.)  The results were:-

Bernera     3 hrs 36 mins 35 secs

Sanda       3 hrs 44 mins 55 secs

Cara         3 hrs 47 mins 5 secs

Stroma     3 hrs 48 mins 12 secs

Westra     3 hrs 50 mins 22 secs

Bernera has achieved her first win and by an outstanding margin of 8 minutes 20 seconds! Class champion Westra is nearly 15 minutes behind.

I have found no evidence of an overall prize being awarded so early in the history of the Class and have attempted my own analysis of the results.

In my estimation Westra was the leading yacht, with six wins, seven seconds, three thirds and finishing unplaced twice. I noticed that often Thomas Dunlop Junior was on board and his experiences no doubt caused him to ask Mr Mylne to build him Jura for the 1930 season.

I would place Sanda second, with six wins, five seconds, two thirds and three unplaced finishes.

Cara comes third with five wins, three seconds, six thirds and one unplaced finish.

Stroma comes fourth with two wins, five seconds, three thirds and two unplaced finishes.

Bernera comes fifth with two wins, six thirds and five unplaced finishes. Her late discovery of form bodes well for her future however.

What is most impressive is the closeness of the finishes throughout the season. The racing must have been incredibly exciting and would have proved what is absolutely the best feature of one-design racing, that it's all down to the helmsman or helmswoman and crew. That everyone won at least a couple of races would have demonstrated to all that winning was always possible. It also suggests of course that all the owners were already seriously competent.

The 1929 Racing Season, Part 2

On Saturday 29 June Clyde Fortnight started.

The Glasgow Herald reports that all five Islanders have turned out. At the end the paper reports that the Islanders have produced very close finishes. The final positions are:-

Starts       1st    2nd    3rd    Total

Sanda        9    5    3    0       8

Cara          9    2    1    3       6

Westra      9    1    3    3       7

Stroma      9    1    2    0       3

Bernera is not mentioned in the report, but by a process of arithmetic she must have achieved a total of three third places, as these totals add up to 24 rather than 27 and all the other prizes are accounted for.

Saturday 13 July

Royal Western Yacht Club

Four of the yachts took part in the handicap race from Hunters Quay to Tighnabruaich. The results haven't been reported. Sunday was a lay day and on Monday 15 July there was the Tighnabruaich Regatta with a race over 8 miles in sunny, calm, fluky conditions. The results were:-

Stroma        6 hrs 1 min 3 secs

Westra        6 hrs 1 min 38 secs

Sanda         6 hrs 10 mins 11 secs

Cara gave up

Saturday 20 July

Holy Loch Sailing Club

Good racing took place in a fine sailing breeze. The results were:-

Cara         2 hrs 59 mins 17 secs

Stroma     2 hrs 59 mins 45 secs

Bernera    3 hrs 0 mins 50 secs

Westra     3 hrs 3 mins 59 secs

Sanda      3 hrs 5 mins 38 secs

Saturday 27 July

Gareloch Yacht Club

"The Islanders have already a well established reputation for close finishes....Cara had a long lead that looked like a runaway victory...but was caught by Sanda and Stroma." The results were:-

Sanda      4 hrs 7 mins 8 secs

Stroma    4 hrs 7 mins 44 secs

Cara        4 hrs 8 mins 33 secs

Bernera   4 hrs 21 mins 30 secs

Saturday 3 August

Clyde Corinthian Yacht Club, Hunters Quay.

There was a storm and racing postponed. On Monday 5th there were light winds and a nice bright day. The results were:-

Bernera       3 hrs 34 mins 30 secs

Westra        3 hrs 35 mins 20 secs

Cara           3 hrs 36 mins 7 secs

Sanda         3 hrs 36 mins 37 secs

Stroma       3 hrs 40 mins 43 secs

Saturday 10 August

Largs Regatta

There was a South westerly wind, a good breeze. The course was from Largs to the Gemlyn Bank, to Fairlie, back to Largs, back to the Gemlyn Bank and back to the finish at Largs.

"Westra won by 3 minutes 1 second, an unusually large margin..."

The results were:-

Westra      1 hr 59 mins 9 secs

Stroma      2 hrs 2 mins 10 secs

Sanda       2 hrs 3 mins 46 secs

Cara         2 hrs 4 mins 58 secs

Bernera    2 hrs 5 mins 29 secs

Bernera had been over the line at the start and was recalled, so if we assume that it cost her a minute the five boats had sailed about thirteen sea miles within six minutes of each other.

My next post will cover the remainder of the season.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

The 1929 Racing Season, Part 1

As soon as the railways and fleets of steamers were established the Firth of Clyde became the playground for the people of Glasgow, rich and poor alike, who would go "doon the watter" to resorts such as Dunoon, Rothesay and Largs.

In the illustration above a party of cheery souls from Paisley in a charabanc are about to descend the Haylie Brae into Largs for ice cream and folly.

Meantime a fellow on his motor bike is zooming North from West Kilbride towards Fairlie, where his boat is moored, while his pal from Glasgow has just passed the Cloch Lighthouse in his red sports car.

An elderly lady is being taken out for a drive from Dunoon down to Toward Point, while a young couple have hired bikes to cycle round the Big Cumbrae and a local worthy is sculling off the North of the island.

A family on holiday at Port Bannatyne are out in a rowing boat off Ardmaleish Point. My late father recalled that on such a summer's day in the 1920s a whale appeared alongside the boat and alarmed the family, until my great-aunt, recently returned from her exploits in South Africa and quite fearless, sang to it and made it go away.

Most important and certainly more relevant to this post the five original Islanders are engaged in close competition between Cumbrae and Bute.

The Firth of Clyde must be one of the finest stretches of water anywhere for tactical yacht racing. It contains a network of sea lochs and some lovely islands against a mixed backdrop of hills and coastal towns. While relatively sheltered the Firth has to be treated with respect, as the hills cause plenty of wind shifts and squalls, while the tide creates interesting sea conditions and has been responsible for many races being won and lost.

By the 1920s the racing season was well developed, with the organisation shared among a number of yacht clubs based at the main centres. The racing was a spectator as well as a participant sport and many of the folk who went doon the watter would have known as much about the yachts as present day fans know about footballers.

The Glasgow Herald newspaper (it had not yet started to pretend it was a national daily and dropped the "Glasgow" in its name) reported on the racing in all the classes and what follows has been compiled from its archives. 

The sailing season started formally on 24 May 1929, but only Westra, Cara and Bernera were ready, so they decided to wait for Sanda and Stroma before inaugurating the Class.

The following weekend Sanda and Stroma were still not ready. Maybe they were trying to get their new Watermotas to start. In any event the others went ahead on 1 June 1929 at the Royal Gourock Yacht Club.

The paper reports:-

"The new class replaces the 19/24s, whose first race was exactly 32 years ago at Greenock...Westra, Cara and Bernera turned out....Westra won by 1 minute 26 seconds from Cara.

They impressed as smart, roomy and desirable little racing cruisers. The two other boats, Sanda and Stroma will join the Class very shortly....On the opening stretch to Hunters Quay Westra opened up a promising lead from Cara and Bernera, but down wind to Rosneath Patch Bernera ran past both leaders and Cara also overhauled Westra. In beating back to the home mark Bernera did not do so well and Westra soon worked into the lead again and showed the way to Cara to the finish."

On Saturday 8 June these three boats met again at the Clyde Corinthian Yacht Club regatta at Hunters Quay. There was a nice Southerly breeze. The paper reports:-

"Cara got her first premier flag, beating Westra by 3 minutes. Bernera was badly tailed off."

The course was from Hunters Quay to Inverkip, then to Cove, back to Hunters Quay, then to Kilcreggan and back, a total of 14.5 miles.

On Saturday 15 June four of the boats were at Rothesay for the Royal Northern Yacht Club regatta. The course was from Rothesay to the Gemlyn Bank at Skelmorlie and back, then to Toward Black Buoy and back, a total of 13 miles. The results were

Westra 2hrs 34 mins 27 secs
Cara 2 hrs 34 mins 47 secs
Stroma 2 hrs 36 mins 21 secs
Bernera 2 hrs 36 mins 50 secs

Thus less than two and a half minutes separated the fleet after 13 miles!

On Friday 21 June the racing was back up the Firth at the Holy Loch Sailing Club

Only two Islanders appeared and Mr W Bergius' Tringa, "the only one of the old 1.75 rater class forward" was invited to join them. The results were:-

Tringa, special prize 8 hrs 15 mins 38 secs
Westra winners prize 8 hrs 15 mins 40 secs
Cara second prize  8 hrs 18 mins 26 secs
 I was interested to note that the prizes for these races were in cash, usually a first place made £4, second £2 and third £1. Most of the yachts would have carried a paid hand, so these prizes would have financed his bonus for winning.

My next post will describe the mid-season events.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

A mystery yacht

My friend Jim Robb came across this photo some years ago on the East coast, but it seems equally possible that it was taken on either the Clyde or the Forth. In any event it is a rare shot of one of the old racers in action, at a time when it would have been very difficult to keep a camera operational at sea.

Years ago in a pub at Bowling I met an old fellow who in his youth during the Great Depression had made a little money hauling a yacht through the Forth and Clyde canal after Clyde Fortnight. The job took two days and in addition to his fee he was given the fare back West, but of course just walked home. He told me that the Grangemouth boys did similar work at the start of the Fortnight.

Looking carefully at the background we can just see some substantial buildings of a seaside town to starboard and a similar, more distant, row ahead, in each case with a backdrop of low-lying hills. My bet is that this picture was taken off Gourock with the yacht reaching in a good South-westerly breeze.

The rig suggests one of the old Clyde classes from the turn of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Perhaps she is a Clyde 30, which were gaff-rigged originally and about fortytwo feet overall, thirty on the waterline.

The iron tiller was a hallmark of William Fife III, so perhaps she is one of his creations.

She is flying the owner's racing flag, but in a race on the Clyde surely the owner would have been at the helm? The powerful chap on the helm, wearing a heavy fisherman's smock, is clearly a paid hand. The fellow balancing on the whisker pole, who also wears a smock and rubber wellies, may be a second hand. He must have been confident that the pole wouldn't break. The chap sitting to leeward is certainly the owner, with his nice oilskin jacket and yachting cap. The girl standing in the weather rigging is also sensibly dressed. Has she gone up to pose for the photo, or is she concerned about the second hand's heroics?

The yacht is bigger than an Islander, but the image gives a feel for what a typical day on the water was like about a hundred years ago. The normal Islander crew comprised owner, friend and one other, who was often a paid hand.

Answers or polite suggestions on a comment, please.

Sunday, 19 September 2010

A few additional bits and pieces

I'm pleased with the progress of this blog so far. It's heading for 700 pageviews and I've had a number of encouraging messages.

I'm really keen to gather all available information about the history not only of the Islanders, but also of our boat-building tradition in the West and of the yacht racing that took place around the Clyde. There was a great deal of interest in the latter, with the races being regularly written up in the Herald and Scotsman and the yachts being featured in postcards such as the above.

Perhaps the tradition of different hull colours facilitated a bit of gambling on the results. It would be fun to know.

In the meantime I've discovered that of the first five boats, numbers 1 and 2, Westra and Cara, opted to have no engines, while Bernera, Stroma and Sanda had Watermotas.

The sailing season started formally on Friday 24 May 1929, but only Westra, Cara and Bernera were ready, so it was decided to postpone the inauguration of the Class. On Saturday 1st June these three went ahead regardless, at the Royal Gourock, as the others were still not ready. 

I've also come across a copy of the new Constitution and Rules that were adopted in 1999, so here they are:-


These rules were intended to be sufficiently flexible to encourage the construction of new boats in the Class, while preserving the main things that matter. So far only the indefatigable Martyn has risen to the challenge and the result is his beautiful Shona, engineered and built by Richard Pierce. Richard still has his drawings and calculations, should anyone be interested.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Stroma's 2010 Season Part 2

Gigha, courtesy of the island's Heritage Trust

My log for 1979 contains the following entries for the Glasgow Fair Weekend:-

"Self and PS

Saturday July 14 HW Oban 09.42 BST, pressure 1030, cloudy, rainy wind S force 2

Departed Ardfern 09.00 wind increased to SW 4/5 had quick beat down to Craighouse. Becalmed off Nine Foot Rock and had slow sail through Small Isles Bay. Got anchor down at 18.00.

Sunday 15 July, pressure 1035, bright, light W wind

Departed Craighouse 08.45 wind backed SW force 3 had pleasant reach across to Gigha, anchored in 11/2 fathoms in Ardminish Bay (white sandy bottom) at 12.20.

Monday 16 July HW Oban 11.21 BST North going stream in Sound of Gigha starts 02.44.

Departed Ardminish 05.20, visibility very bad, pouring rain. Wind SW 5/6. Tied in one reef as didn't know what seas would be like outside.

At McCormaig Isles wind moderated, day cleared, shook out reef. Had very fast reach and kept tide till past Crinan. On mooring Ardfern 13.20."

In a typical Fair Weekend (i.e. rain and wind) we had sailed about 80 sea miles, allowing for tacking, in just over 20 hours.

Peter sent me this post card to celebrate our trip, he does this sort of thing.

1916 postcard

My memories of Gigha were of a fairy tale island blessed with exotic plants, incredible white sand and a tide that moved fast but didn't seem to go in or out. It was also an incredibly quiet place with the large old-fashioned hotel the only place to visit and no other facilities.

Since 1979 the island had suffered under various somewhat colourful owners before being taken into community ownership. By 2009 I was keen to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the trip, but the attempt ended when we were becalmed in thick fog and it became dangerous to go on. After an anxious hour or so the weather cleared enough for us to feel our way into Crinan.

Just before midsummer 2010 we had better luck. Peter couldn't make the trip, but his son Ken (not born in 1979) came with me and our old friend Ken Campbell, who often sailed with us in the 1970s. The only lesson from the trip was that if you don't want everything done twice don't sail with two men of the same name.

The problem with this trip is that you have much less tide going South, as it turns progressively earlier the further you go, for example Gigha is three and a half hours ahead of Oban. Coming back North the opposite is true, so timing doesn't matter so much.

To avoid an unseemly early start we set off from Kilmelford on the Friday evening, June, and sailed round to  Toberonochy.

Kilchattan Bay is a favourite spot of mine, soaked in history. King Alexander II anchored his fleet there on the  night of 7 July 1249 on his way to meet with Ewen of Argyll, who controlled the inner isles at that time. Ewen had been pursuing a diplomatic balancing act between the Scottish and Norwegian crowns for some years  and had been trying to persuade Alexander that it was possible to owe allegiance to two masters. The King was not buying this and set off with his fleet.
Alexander's trip was not a great success, as he was stood up. Ewen of Argyll had gone to Stornoway, taking with him the ten year old prince of the Isle of Man, for the boy's protection and also no doubt as a bargaining counter. The following day Alexander died at Horsehoe Bay on Kerrera, leaving his kingdom to his own ten year old son, who became Alexander III. I have read a lot about this period and have never come across any suggestion of foul play, so it seems likely that Alexander II was already stricken with some deadly illness and made his trip in an attempt to obtain some control for his successors over this part of what he claimed as his realm. His son was crowned just a week or so later at Perth, which suggests that the Court had the arrangements already in hand. Of course the Western Isles weren't to come under the control of the Scottish kings for many years after that.

The walls of the old kirk at Kilchattan bear graffiti that may have been done by Alexander's marines during their visit. We can tell that the graffiti depicts Scottish ships as they have rudders. The graffiti doesn't photograph well, so here is an image from a tomb slab showing the typical shape of a Scottish vessel.

image courtesy of unknown memorial sculptor

She has short ends and a centrally hung rudder, as opposed to the Viking ships, which had the long ends suited to open water passages, but required a steering oar, slung of course over the starboard side. This difference would have given the Scots an advantage in our narrow inshore passages subject to strong tides and the Vikings an advantage offshore.

Luing is full of haunting reminders of an industrious and sometimes turbulent past, when the islands were the centres of all sorts of activity. Visitors will find everything apart from shops, including prehistoric duns, an old water mill haunted by elves, who demand a hair as a tribute, curious religious messages carved by a madman whose hobby was making his own gravestones, and the scars left behind by the unremitting slog of the slate industry. They will also find a population of more hares (the other type) than humans, a special herd of cattle and a landscape like that of the Outer Hebrides.

We set off from Kilchattan Bay the following morning with about three hours of tide against us, to get the best use out of the South-going ebb later, carrying one reef in the main, destination Ardminish if the wind held and Craighouse if it didn't. We were lucky that a Westerly Force 3 to 4 held all day with bright sun. For hour after hour Stroma reached along, as always light on the helm, at maximum hull speed. Passing Skerryvore we decided to go for Gigha as we still had a few hours of tide with us. We were anchored in Ardminish by late afternoon, about seven and a half hours after setting off.

The following day there was a yachtsman's gale from the North, so we had a day to explore Gigha and for the older Ken to re-discover his childhood haunts from holidays in John McMillan's cottage more than fifty years ago.

The Isle of Gigha today, after several years of community ownership, has to be the finest example of what wonders can be achieved once the iron grip of the traditional Highland landowner is broken.

For a start the visitor moorings were all occupied, mainly by visiting Irish boats, for whom Gigha is an easy destination, but also at least one by a crew from across the Atlantic.

On shore there is a welcoming quayside restaurant, the hotel is jumping and there are various craft and other attractions to be added to the famous Achamore gardens.

There is a lot of building activity, in an attractive style that respects our traditions, while maximising solar gain and modern materials. There is an element of uniformity that I found pleasing.

In summary, what was virtually an economic basket case has become a vibrant, self-sustaining community with a great sense of purpose. The Isle of Gigha Heritage Trust website can be viewed here.

We left early on the Sunday morning with the wind still a strong Northerly and after a few hours of being flung around in the lumpy seas thrown up by wind against tide we decided not to go on and settled for a fast, bumpy reach across to Craighouse, where it was a relief to hook up to a visitor mooring.

We didn't see much of Craighouse, as we had an early start next day, but there seems to be a big contrast between Gigha and Jura, the latter not having moved on very much in thirty years and still belonging to a few rich owners.

The next morning we got away very early, in very little wind, with the younger Ken towing us out behind the trusty Peigi, which went with us everywhere this Summer.

Outside the Small Isles we picked up a gentle Westerly, which came and went all day, part sailing, part drifting on the tide, until we just got past Crinan. As the tide started to turn against us we picked up a new wind from the North west, which gave us a fetch to Asknish Point and then a reach home.

We had covered about 90 sea miles in about 28 hours under sail.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Stroma's 2010 Season Part 1

We were launched at the beginning of April, so by the end of September will have managed a full half year afloat, the longest for some years. Mostly we have enjoyed short day sails with old and new friends, but there were a couple of longer trips that are worth a mention. This is the first of them.

The Royal Highland Yacht Club is both one of the oldest and the one of the most modern in the World. The oldest because it dates from 1881, the most modern because it is now well on the way to being a cyber-club, which should ensure a thriving membership.

I have a nice memory from years ago of an oldish well-dressed couple from one of the South coast "Royal" clubs, on the front at Oban asking for directions to our clubhouse, to exercise their rights of reciprocity. They were about fifty years too late. Members of the Club are scattered all over Scotland, with many further afield, so it makes perfect sense not to have a fixed base. Instead we meet at various musters and other events, in and outwith the sailing season, the Summer ones being in well-kent anchoring spots. This gives a perfect opportunity to make a short trip, knowing there will be a convivial event at the end.

The Opening Muster this year on a May weekend was in Loch Spelve, where we enjoyed a mussel feast courtesy of the farm there.

Peter and I set off in Stroma on the Friday, to make a longer weekend. To get more of a sail we went South round the Isle of Luing and carried the tide up past Scarba, the Grey Dogs to the Pladda Light.

Fladda ahead, Mull beyond (image Peter)

Easdale on starboard bow (image Peter)
North of the Isles of the Sea, (image Peter)
An Easterly wind of about Force 3 gave a flat sea and we had a pleasant short voyage to Puiladobhrain (Pulldoran), which we have often made and countless others have been making since yachting began. You can't really beat Pulldoran as a safe spot from which to jump off on a cruise, a lovely safe lagoon about five minutes hike from the Tigh an Truish and its legendary seafood.

Safe in the pool of the otter (image Peter)

A great bonus this year was meeting up with our friends Hal and Iain and their pals on the Molly Ban. They anchored outside the lagoon, as at nineteen metres the Molly Ban would have blocked the entrance.

Molly Ban (image courtesy of
One of the great delights of hopping around our inshore waters is that our sailing tender the Peigi goes with us. She was my first attempt at boat-building, a Joel White Nutshell design courtesy of Wooden Boat and still going strong after twentyfour years. Of all the tenders I have come across this must be absolutely the best, incredibly sea-worthy, easy to row and able with care to carry a load. Best of all is the sailing rig, set up in a couple of minutes, enabling one to explore the corners of remote anchorages. I had some worries about her a few years ago, when we towed her through the Dorus Mhor on a reach at far above her design speed, but she came through without shipping more than a few drops.

Peigi gets rigged to go for coffee (image PS)
Early on the Saturday I set up the rig and sailed over in Peigi for coffee, then a shot on one of Hal's geodesic canoes, which he launched from the sort of hanger in the stern of Molly Ban. I was pleased to get back without a swim.

At about midday we set off for the sail to Loch Spelve, a fast reach in a strong Northerly wind, the sun dancing on a sparkling blue sea, a panorama of little islands to the South, far beyond the normal range of vision.

The Islanders are fantastic on this sort of beam reach, light on the helm while approaching maximum hull speed of about 7 knots. And this stretch of water, framed by the hills of Mull, Kerrera and the upper Firth of Lorn and the Isles of the Sea is small boat heaven.

The entrance to Loch Spelve is long and winding, past the rows of buoys for the mussel ropes, which severely restrict one's sea-room (but of course enable our nice hosts to exist). We were safely anchored by mid afternoon and had a great feast later.

I lost count of the number of tacks getting out on the Sunday, but here are some shots of us leaving, courtesy of Chardonnay.
images by Diana

Once clear we had a good run down to the Cuan Sound. Our arrival was timed about right, as we were just at the start of the South-going stream, which is about two hours before High Water. In other words the water level is still rising when it is going South, something to remember if one ever gets stuck.

The Sound is a useful passage to Loch Melfort and is perfectly safe. In particular I don't believe it would be possible to get stuck on the Cleit Rock even if you tried, such is the water pressure around it. The only time we experienced any problem was on a calm day a few years ago when we were buzzed by a powerful RIB, whose bow wave turned Stroma round and we lost steerage way. We had to proceed sternwards for a while, until we could get out of the strongest of the tidal stream and gybe ourselves round in a little bay.

This year we had no problems and were safely moored at the head of the loch in time for tea.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Shona, yacht no 12

photo by Richard Pierce
Shona is the new boat, built by Richard Pierce for Martyn Webster and launched in 2000. There is quite a bit written about her elsewhere on this blog. Here in Martyn's words is her naming voyage:-

"In the Scottish Islands One Design Class a condition of the individual yachts being "in class" is that they should each be painted a separate distinctive colour;  also that the name of each boat should be the name of a Scottish island ending in the letter "a".   Yet how many of the class have actually visited their island namesake?   Some of the islands are relatively close to the river Clyde, where most of the fleet are moored, but some are more remote and would require a special expedition to visit...I am thinking of Stroma and Fidra in particular.

The book written by Hamish Haswell Smith "The Scottish Islands" (Canongate, 1996) has fascinating details about most of the Scottish islands and it was this book that I consulted when deciding what I should call the newest yacht in the class, built by Richard Pierce in Cumbria and launched in 2000.   I decided on "Shona", partly because I liked the name, partly because I knew a beautiful girl called Shona and partly because I wanted to visit the island with the yacht.
I have been privileged to own a few Scottish Island boats.   "Cara" I owned for a decade and visited Cara, the island, with her on several occasions.   As a colleague once told me, the island of Cara is difficult to avoid, it being the one that you run into in the mist after having rounded the Mull of Kintyre.   "Isla" and "Bernera" I owned only briefly - enough time to start the process of restoration before handing them on to their present owners, who as far as I am aware, have not yet ventured out of the Clyde in search of their named island.
In 2001, encouraged by Ewan Kennedy, at that time still restoring "Stroma", I decided to take Shona to visit Eileen Shona which sits at the mouth of Loch Moidart, just North of the Ardnamurchan peninsula.   Ewan and I set off from loch Melfort and easily reached Tobermory the same day, experiencing an interesting tide rip off Duart point, which with the wind in the opposite direction succeeded in soaking us thoroughly.   The relatively small freeboard does result in quite a lot of water coming aboard, but none of it got inside which remained snug and dry.  Anchoring in Tobermory bay that evening we  went to visit the fleshpots of that town which still existed then, before Ballymory, the children's television programme, turned the place into a juvenile touristic venue.   I found that Ewan was well known in the Mishnish bar and I set about trying to establish myself as a worthy Mishnish patron.  The result was that the next day, on setting a course to round Ardnamurchan, it was not just the sea that was covered in mist. . . my own head took some time to clear.
The seas off the peninsula are well known to be frightening, but we were lucky to have relatively good weather with a light breeze.   Nevertheless the waves in that area are considerably larger than those in the more sheltered waters of the Clyde estuary.  Shona behaved impeccably, taking a little water over her bow, but shedding it before it reached the mast.  We had less trouble here than we had had the previous day at Duart.
Once the peninsula was passed and the mist had lifted we could make out the not very distinctive shape of Eileen Shona and set a course for her.  Anchoring a couple of cables offshore we landed in the inflatable dinghy and scrabbled about on the barnacled rocks, picking up a few rounded rocks and a sprig of heather which we took back to the boat.   We photographed each other, the boat, the island, the rocks and the heather and made the necessary introductions between the island and the yacht.
The heather didn't last, but the pebbles still sit at the base of the mast, to remind Shona where her spirit comes from."
launching day

Isla, yacht no 11

Isla was built by Bute Slip Dock Company in 1959 she was first owned by Mr and Mrs Peter Simpson, who had previously owned Bernera, and originally painted white. By that time Canna and Iona were  no longer white, because the Rules did not permit two boats to be the same colour at the same time. Here is the report of her launching.

Isla eventually spent about fifteen years shore at Kilcreggan before being bought by Martyn Webster, who had her restored and sold her to Peter and Heather Wylie in 1996. She is now based at Gourock.

Canna, yacht no 10

photo by Clive Brown
Canna was built by Bute Slip Dock Company in 1938 for J D Cochrane.

She was owned by J Herbert Thom from 1948 to 1963. Originally painted white, she became varnished after 1954, as Herbert Thom preferred this and took a lot of trouble to establish that a varnished finish was a "colour" in terms of the Class Rules, which were in the early days incredibly strictly enforced.

From 1963 to 1968 she belonged to Mr and Mrs W Turner. I have a gap in my records from then until she was in the ownership of the Roberts family in the 1980s, by which time she had a folkboat cabin and a cut-down rig.

She became pretty well derelict and eventually she passed to the Balvicar boatyard, where she lay for many years, while they started work on the more serious problems.

Salvation arrived when she was bought in 2001 by Paddy Shaw of Taynuilt who restored her in the space of one heroic winter, working in a disused farm shed with one end open to the elements. She is now based in Loch Etive, which is her base for Paddy's numerous adventures in her.

Gigha, yacht no 9

Gigha was built by Bute Slip Dock Company in 1931 for J Herbert Thom she had a varnished hull in common with his other boats. He fought the other owners for this privilege, as some thought that varnished wood was not a colour. Subsequent owners included:-

            1938 W N Newall
            1960 Miss L C Edwards
            1978 A H Mowatt.

During Mr Mowatt's ownership she spent many years laid up in the open on the shore at Kings Cross on Arran and became derelict. Eventually her restoration was undertaken by the well-known boat-builder and now model-maker David Spy. After a complete rebuild she emerged almost unbeatable in races on the Firth of Clyde.

She is now owned by Scott Raeburn and based at Troon.

For anyone interested her hull colour is now a special light blue/green, which Scott prepared himself.

Iona, yacht no 8

from a photo by Ian G Gilchrist
Iona was built by Bute Slip Dock Company in 1931 for James Buchanan and she was originally painted white. Later she was registered to the following owners:-

            1935 J B Whyte
            1938 G N Lyall
            1948 R R Boyd
            1951 G Forman
            1953 Mr and Mrs J H Christie
            1963 J G Mowat
There is a rumour that Iona was destroyed deliberately around 1980, for what reason and precisely how we do not know. Some reports are that she was towed out past Hunterston and scuttled, others that she was broken up on shore. I would dearly like to know anything further about her. Apart from Westra she would be the only boat that no longer existed.        

Fidra, yacht no 7

Fidra was built at Bute Slip Dock Company in 1930 for William Wordie OBE TD, of  52 Cleveden Drive, Glasgow, a member of the Royal Northern Yacht Club from 1924, who also owned Fiumara the Mylne designed Aux Ketch and Froya an eight metre.

Mr Wordie sold Fidra in 1935 to Mr A R Keith Thomson. After his death she remained in Mrs Thomson's ownership until 1978, making one of the longest continuous period of one family's ownership to date.

Throughout she conformed to her original plan and her hull was painted red.

After being purchased by Walter Brown in 1978 she was converted for cruising at McGruers and her rig was modernised. 

Since the 1980s Fidra has belonged to renowned double-bassist Rick Standley.

Jura, yacht no 6

from a photo by Ian G Gilchrist
Jura was built by the Bute Slip Dock Company in 1930 for Thomas Dunlop Junior, Member of the Royal Northern Yacht Club since 1919, 50 Wellington Street, Glasgow and the son of Sir Thomas.

In 1934 she was bought by Mrs Bergius, passing to Adam Bergius in 1946. See his greetings post for some of his experiences aboard Jura.

By 1978 she is shown as registered to Allan Foster. For many years thereafter she was based on the Forth and sailed there latterly by Alan MacKenzie.

Adam Bergius had her successfully converted for cruising by Freddy Mylne and she still has this configuration, but is in need of a rebuild. She awaits a new owner at Lowestoft Boatbuilding Training College.

Sanda, yacht no 5

from a photo by Ian G Gilchrist
The first five boats were built together at McGruer's yard at Clynder and launched at the end of May 1929.

Sanda's first owners were W & T E Russell, who raced her successfully until the end of 1933, when they sold her to James Buchanan, member of the Royal Northern Yacht Club from 1929, of the Govancroft Pottery, Glasgow, who raced her up to the War. Mr Buchanan originally owned Iona, one of the newer Bute Slip boats, and one can speculate that he maybe felt the McGruer boats were faster.

She is shown as registered to R K Sharp in 1951 (but why did Mr Sharp sell Bernera and then buy another Islander?).

By 1977 she belonged to Mr and Mrs C P Kingston of Penarth.

Now in Yorkshire with Huw Jones, who found her near Mallaig in 2009.

For those who are interested her hull colour was originally dark blue.

The image shows her starting at Hunter's Quay in the Tarbert Race, just ahead of Dragon no UK 26. This Dragon, Argee, was built by Robertsons in 1937 for Miss Sheila Leitch, so we can approximately date the photo. (I suspect she may have been a member of the famous Tarbert sailmaker's family.)

Stroma, yacht no 4

photo by Richard Pierce
The first five boats were built together at McGruer's yard at Clynder and launched at the end of May 1929.

Her first owner was George Nisbet, a Glasgow shipowner, who bought his first tramp steamer, the second-hand SS Greatham, in partnership with John Calder in 1905. Nisbet, Calder & Co lasted until 1913, then George Nisbet & Co operated as ship owners and managers, forming a number of companies such as Clydesdale Navigation Co Limited. There was eventually a substantial fleet of ships with names starting with Blair. Their record is a history of the suffering of the British merchant fleet through two world wars, with in addition a number of tragic losses in storms at sea, such as the horrendous fate of the 26 man crew of the Blairgowrie, which sank in a North Atlantic hurricane in February 1935.

George Nisbet campaigned Stroma until 1937, when he sold her to John Buchanan. She is shown in the Registers as belonging subsequently to:-

            1938 F P Rankin
            1939 W S and C R Dobson
            1949 W A Caldwell
            1956 T O Buchanan
            1960 J H Lang
            1963 Henderson and Smith

By the 1970s she belonged to Ron MacLachlan, who was a well-kent figure around the Clyde and cruised her extensively. Ron sold her to Alexander and Keith Neilson, who sold her to John Thomson, a roofing contractor from Ayr, who moored her in Ayr Harbour and raced her successfully, winning the Southern Cross, a night race round Ailsa Craig which took place in near gale force conditions.

Since September 1976 she has belonged to me. I kept her at various locations between Oban and the Clyde, then in 1989 I was persuaded to lend her to Scottish Maritime Museum (Irvine), on the basis that she would become a working exhibit and be progressively restored to first class condition, serving as a teaching aid for carpentry apprentices.

What happened subsequently will be the subject of a separate post. By 1995 she had become a wreck and I spent the next eight years restoring her.

Since 2003 she has been berthed at Kilmelford.

For those who are interested in such matters her original hull colour is not confirmed, but soon after her launch she was grey, then light green, then she went through a white period and is currently, following her restoration, light green again.

Bernera, yacht no 3

photo by Clive Brown
The first five boats were built together at McGruer's yard at Clynder and launched at the end of May 1929.

Bernera was commissioned by Mr W M Dunn, but it seems he hardly sailed on her, if at all, because within a year she had been bought by Robert K Sharp, who owned her from 1929 to 1950, one of the longest periods of continuous ownership, with just a short break. During the War Mr Sharp served in the Dover Patrol, an extremely dangerous exercise. By 1944, having become very stressed and convinced that he would not survive, he sold Bernera, only to regret his decision immediately. He approached her purchaser, who agreed to sell her back to him. 

Here is an image of Bernera alongside the King's yacht Britannia on the Holy Loch during a Clyde Fortnight in the early 1930s.


In 1950 Mr Sharp sold her again and once again regretted what he had done. Fortunately Sanda was on the market, so he was able to buy her. Bernera remained in the ownership of her new owner D H Taylor until 1956, then she belonged to Mr and Mrs P Simpson until 1959. By the 1960s she belonged to Mr R E Pender, then she was converted for cruising by Terry Wade in the late 1970s. Eventually she was bought by Martyn Webster and reconverted to her original configuration by John Hill at Renfrew in 1997.

Martyn sold her to Arup and Mary Ray, who had further extensive work carried out and she is now berthed at Kilmelford.

Arup Ray and Bernera at Kilmelford
For those who are interested in such matters she had a light green hull originally, subsequently grey, then went through a white period like most old boats and is now light blue.

Cara, yacht no 2

photo by Kevin O'Farrell
The first five boats were built together at McGruer's yard at Clynder and launched at the end of May 1929.

Cara's first owner was J M Christie and by 1938 she is shown as registered to R Armsden.

By the 1970s she belonged to Will and Margaret Rudd who were very successful racing her against much more modern boats. My experiences as one of the crew in those years convinced me that I should get my own Islander.

Around 1978 she went to Wales, from where she was eventually rescued by Martyn Webster, who had her restored by John Hill of Renfrew.

Martyn sold her to Richard and Judy Metcalfe, who based her at Rhu. They had her redecked and in 2007 sold her to Kevin O'Farrell, who now sails her very happily around Heir Island, where the above image comes from.

She is believed to have had a dark green hull originally and is now white.

She was written up in Classic Boat Magazine in 1994 but be warned- the article contains many inaccuracies, stating for example that the boats had iron keels!

Westra, yacht no 1

photo by Ian G Gilchrist

The first five boats were built together at McGruer's yard at Clynder and launched at the end of May 1929.

The first owner of Westra was George Jackson, who possibly carried on business at 14 Royal Exchange Buildings, Glasgow and had joined the Royal Northern Yacht Club in 1919.

In 1934 she was purchased by the legendary J Herbert Thom, whom you can read about in subsequent posts on this blog.  He bought Westra in order to put paid to rumours that his previous and newer yacht Gigha was faster than the others. He proved this with a vengeance, becoming class champion in Westra in 1934, 1935 and 1936, winning 83 flags from 110 starts. By 1938 she is shown as registered to J Buchanan.

She had a varnished hull and thereby hangs a tale, because Herbert Thom preferred his boats to have varnished hulls and came into conflict with the other owners over whether this was allowed by the Class Rules, which required the hulls to have a colour. There was some logic in Thom's preference, because he wanted to avoid the accumulation of layers of heavy paint on the topsides. Many years ago I heard a suggestion that the matter had gone to some form of adjudication, but I don't believe that it extended further than some mild mutterings from some of the other owners.

In the Autumn of 1940 a German bomber that had got lost on its way to blitz Clydebank set fire to Munro's boatyard at Gairletter on Loch Long and Westra was one of the yachts destroyed, along with three Dragons, three Loch Longs and one of the Pleiades. I haven't been able to discover any more details about this, but numerous tales went about and I remember being told of a river of lead from the keels, which seems highly unlikely.

Blue Books and Blue Ensigns

When the Islanders were built it was normal practice even for small yachts to be entered in the Register of British Ships and obtain the Blue Book, now much coveted by restorers of ancient classic yachts. When I bought Stroma it never occurred to me that this was so and it was several years before I discovered that technically she still belonged to Ron MacLachlan, several owners before me. After quite a bit of research I traced the intervening owners and everyone co-operated in my obtaining documentary proof from the Registrar of British Ships at Greenock that I now owned all sixty four shares of the Sailing Ship Stroma, the eighteenth vessel registered by him in the year 1929 with the Official Number 161770.

This practice of owning ships in sixty-fourths goes back certainly to Roman times and probably to ancient Phoenician times as well. It must have been seen as a convenient way to legislate for multiple owners and of course each sixty-fourth share could itself have a number of owners, so the possibilities were endless.

A lot of the romance has gone out of this nowadays of course, since we have to obtain a computerised certificate from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, for which they levy a charge every five years. Another example of intrusive Government activity making us pay for absolutely nothing, just as we are charged for having our moorings on the sea-bed.

Once your vessel is registered and if you happen to belong to a yacht club that is "Royal" you can go a step further and obtain an Admiralty warrant for your ship to wear the Blue Ensign. As I am not a great monarchist I was in two minds about this until the late Captain John Campbell, who went through the War in the Merchant Navy in charge of a troop ship, told me how offended he was to see tiny little pleasure boats sailing about under the Red Duster. Of course detractors whisper that the Blue signifies you must have bought your yacht on hire purchase, as your ship requires to be registered before you can put a mortgage on her.

In our West coast waters you can be pretty sure that when you see another Blue Ensign on the water you are meeting up with another member of the fine old Royal Highland Yacht Club and that gives one a good feeling.

Class Rules

It seems likely that the first ever one-design racing boats in European waters were the Water Wags of Dublin Bay, devised in 1886 and still going strong today. The idea caught on, for reasons that were expressed by H C Folkard twenty years later as follows:-

"The introduction of a one-design class is the result of the uncertainty and dissatisfaction occasioned by rules of measurement and rating of the Yacht Racing Association as applied to small racing yachts, the frequent alteration of those rules, and the facilities afforded for evasion, whereby unfair advantages have been gained, coupled with the expense attendant on the short career of a racing-boat under such rules, involving the building of a new boat nearly every year." 

By 1927 Lloyds Register of Yachts was able to list over sixty one-design classes and by the last edition of the Register in 1980 there were 250 of them. There is an inherent problem with one-designs however, going to the very root of human nature - everyone wants his or her boat to go faster then everyone else's. This applies whether or not there is a good commercial reason, such as a fishing boat wanting to be the first to land her catch, a tea clipper chasing the London market or a pilot boat looking for the richest of the incoming client ships. Who among us can honestly deny that the blood stirs when another sail appears during our pleasant afternoon on the water? And with one-designs success and failure are ostensibly down to the helm and his or her crew, so that it becomes much more personal than with cheque-book yachting.

Because everyone has an incentive to maximise performance the rules become more and more prescriptive. At present I haven't found a copy of the original rules of the Islanders. They were rewritten in 1958 after the conversion of Jura and here is a copy:- 

 One can easily see the amendments that would have been necessary in 1958 and we can assume that these rules follow the original ones pretty closely in other respects. The image above is of a Brunton two-bladed folding propeller and I suspect that very few of the boats have one fitted today, whether or not connected to a 3 hp Watermota.

The first racing in the Class took place at the end of May 1929 among Westra, Cara and Bernera, with Stroma and Sanda following the next month. From then until war stopped racing the yachts raced often and keenly. Their exploits were written up in the yachting pages of the Herald and Scotsman newspapers but constructing a narrative from those records would be very time-consuming and not make for interesting reading. I'm hoping that this blog will generate comments from those with memories or family records of those years to add some colour to the bare facts.

Over the years I have heard various stories. I was told that when the Class decided to order a new sail the Secretary would obtain prices from an agreed list of sail-makers on the basis of a multiple order, and the sails when delivered would be drawn by lot, as indeed did the first five owners select their boats in this way. I have also heard of surreptitious visits to boatyards in winter to weigh the masts of the opponents' boats.

Herbert Thom had a lot to do with this and won consistently, but also regardless of whether he was sailing his own or one of the other yachts. He deserves a biography as one of the most successful British yachtsmen of all time. Again perhaps this blog will result in memories of him begin recorded before they are lost forever.

The very strict rules were no doubt a reason why the Islanders eventually ceased to race. By the early 1960s there were plenty of state-of-the-art racing machines available, with opportunities for sail-trimming, tuning and tweaking within their rules that went far beyond the pure helming skills that Islanders depended on. It's a tribute to the pitch pine used in their construction that so many hulls survived, sometimes laid up for many years in the open, sometimes as shoe-string cruisers, to become restoration candidates.

In February 1997 at a cheerful meeting in the Glasgow Art Club the owners of most of the boats came together and agreed to re-establish themselves as group. The initiative came from Martyn Webster, who had decided to build a new boat. He was concerned that Mr David Boyd of Sandbank would only have been able to supervise her construction in some metaphysical way. The owners amicably agreed that they should not exclude a new yacht built with modern methods, provided matters such as weight distribution would be essentially unchanged. Since then there has been friendly co-operation among the owners and encouragement to new owners to keep the original external appearance and configuration, without the strict application of a rule book. I suggest that this happy attitude is more likely to encourage the survival of the boats among owners who appreciate the sheer joy of sailing a truly thoroughbred traditional yacht.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Building the boats

image courtesy of

Much has been written over the years about the McGruer dynasty, narrating how they got started, building small boats at Glasgow Green before moving down river, and the subsequent exploits and achievements of this most talented and inventive family. I thought it would be interesting to put together some notes about the methods which they used and the workers involved. Over the years I have met many former employees, indeed it was suggested by a friend who lived in Helensburgh that formerly most of the local craftsmen were   trained at McGruers.

It was a tragedy that latterly there were no younger people coming forward to be trained, or possibly the company was not offering apprenticeships, just when there was a world-wide resurgence of interest in wooden yachts. When the original company finally went into liquidation at the end of 2001, having not built any new wooden boats for about ten years, they were the last of the famous Scottish yards to shut down. (That company is not to be confused with a new company of the same name, which carries on surveying and other services.)

When the McGruers moved from Tighnabruaich to Hattonburn at Clynder in 1914 to establish themselves for the first time in their own yard an attraction was said to be the burn with its running water, which gave the power for a mill to generate electricity. Whether or not this is so, by the time the Islanders were built the yard was served by a steam donkey engine driving a wide range of electric tools. Early on the family had realised the benefits of electric power. They had purchased not only powered saws, but more specialised devices such as electric screwdrivers. Some of these came from abroad, France being one place where there were specialist manufacturers. Some were invented and made locally by engineers working in the various industries in the Glasgow area.

Having access to powered hand tools slung from overhead cables must have made the work less arduous and uncomfortable. One of the most useful tools was a spindle cutter set in a workbench, on which planks could be cut out conform to a pattern. This was operational when the yard started to build Dragons about 1926. They would cut complete sets of planks for a Dragon, three copies of each plank, so that they were always left with patterns for the next boat. The hulls were of course planked up on standard moulds, so truly what      was going on was an early version of mass production. The safety aspects of such installations before such things were fully understood would be an interesting subject for further research.
The family did appreciate the dangers of making large lead castings and only the smallest keels were made on site. Normally a pattern would simply be sent to one of the numerous shipyards in Glasgow, Port Glasgow or Greenock. Latterly Morris & Lorimers were casting most of the keels. There was a master pattern for each type of keel, Dragon, Scottish Islander or whatever.
There were also plenty of local blacksmiths and engineers to turn out the required metalwork. When the Islands Class boats were built the practice was to use iron bolts, even thought these were incompatible with lead keels. Probably this was because the local blacksmiths could not work with bronze, which is usually turned rather  than forged. When eventually the company started to use aluminium bronze, which is easier to work, they made their own. McGruers did operate various steamboxes, latterly using a twenty foot long tube with a double boiler. 
Although innovative, McGruers did not try building boats upside down, which is much easier than right way up. Indeed this seems to have been pioneered by American rather than European builders. Shadow moulds would be set up in traditional fashion, the hulls planked up, then the stringers and any steamed frames put in. 
When the order was received for the first five Islanders in the winter of 1928 the possibilities for mass production were fully exploited. The hulls were quickly assembled from standard moulds and patterns and the boats then finished side by side. They were all ready for their new owners to select their boats by lot in time for the 1929 season.
At just over twentyeight feet Islanders were the largest boats that could be built from continuous planks without joints. The hull shape is so easy that no steaming was needed. Conform to the traditional Scottish (and Scandinavian) practice there was no garboard. The planks were allowed to taper forward to a feather edge as they met the wooden keel. There was no fuss, stress or complicated joinery work such as is needed with boats built to the Anglo-American tradition with a wide garboard strake. The topsides were planked first, the planks slightly wider forward to meet the stem nicely, then the bottom was planked up simply as one would build a brick wall. The only disadvantage of this method that I am aware of is that the feather edge can be easily damaged when the plank has to be removed to allow subsequent repairs. The method lends itself, of course, to the use of narrow planks such are harvested in the North of Europe.
A variety of timber was used in building the Islanders. The keel, stem and stern -post were of oak, the horn timber of teak, the hull planking of pitch-pine and the timbers American rock elm. The transom, cabin-sides and furniture were  of mahogany, the decks planked with tongue-and-groove yellow pine. The large components would be difficult to build today in the same materials. For example the transom has a radius of almost three inches and would have been chopped from a massive slab over four feet long by eighteen inches  deep. It is interesting to note that Isla, built thirty years after the first boats, has a flat transom, which would have been much more economical.
Old-growth pitch pine was imported from Canada up to 1939, when supplies stopped for the War and did not resume thereafter. It is excellent for hull planking, there being several examples of boats still afloat after well over one hundred years. Enormous teak and mahogany logs, up to four feet square, would arrive by sea and would be rendered into workable boards at Gilmour & Aitken's yard in  Jamestown, Alexandria. They still supply excellent timber.
The hulls were fastened up with a mixture of metals, suggesting that the yard had little understanding, or more likely little concern about the effects of this in salt water, and of course the boats had no electrics. The major components were held together with iron drifts, the bolts in the lead keel were also iron, while the hull planking was secured with copper nails, bent over rather than rooved. This practice is again consistent with the Scottish and Scandinavian rather than Anglo-American tradition. It leaves the timbers cleaner and neater, is easy to do as well as lighter and cheaper. The deck planking was held on with iron nails driven into deck-beams which were not dove-tailed, but simply nailed into notches in the shelf. The chain-plates were simply bolted through the shelf, unbelievable given that the boats were to be raced hard.
Comparing the boats as built with Alfred Mylne's plans shows a  number of variations. For example the front corners of the cabin were drawn curved, but were built square. Alfred Mylne and the McGruers worked together constantly, indeed at the time the yard mainly built to his designs, so one can assume he approved of what they did. The Islands Class plans were cleverly drawn for cheap construction and perhaps Alfred Mylne was having a little joke with the corners.
Certainly it was touch and go with the Class getting built at all, because McGruers had said they needed seven orders to hold their price and they only got five. By using what metals could be got and doing without dove-tails etcetera they were trying to preserve some profit.
By contrast with the other metal- work, which was made locally and was somewhat agricultural the rudderhead fittings were skilfully cast and fabricated from bronze. It would be interesting to know how and by whom this was done.
Around the time the boats were built the workforce would have numbered about thirty permanent workers, local residents and usually the family of older employees. In Spring local painters and labourers would swell the ranks to deal with fitting out the fleet of racing and cruising boats that wintered at the yard. Many of these were paid hands on the yachts.
Most of the tools used in boatbuilding are special and the workforce had to make their own, many of which of course passed down within families. These included shaped planes with wooden soles and various jigs and gadgets.
Although conditions must have been hard, working through the winter in sheds only partly protected from the weather, the workforce is reputed to have been extremely happy. I was told by a long-retired boatbuilder that when a boat was reaching an interesting stage everyone would be desperate to get in to work in the morning. Of course at the same time ship-building in the Clyde yards was going on entirely in the open, so perhaps McGruer's men felt themselves lucky. Both types of activity involved exciting creative work which sometimes had to substitute for proper pay. McGruers' workforce could also reflect that they worked for one of the best-known yards and even in bad times there would be a reasonable order-book and job security for the permanent employees at least. At one of the smaller yards in the area it was not uncommon for there to be no wages at the end of the week and the local publican had to offer an informal banking service.


Wednesday, 8 September 2010

The designer unconstrained

half models by David Spy at
As is well known the major challenge for any designer of racing yachts is exploiting the rating rule. Whether we are talking about America's Cup boats or small restricted design classes whichever yacht goes faster through the water will have a better chance of the gold. Such boats can have great disadvantages, sometimes being quirky and even unsafe. Once outclassed, as they inevitably are, they may have little residual value.

It must come as a welcome relief, therefore, to be asked to design something that is unconstrained by a rule. The designer can then apply his creative ability and experience purely to achieve the requirements of his client.

The picture above shows examples of the work of the three greatest Scottish yacht designers (in my opinion) of all time.

At the top is Thistle, George Lennox Watson's 1887 design for a syndicate of members of the Royal Clyde Yacht Club to challenge for the America's Cup. She was the only one of the three to be built to a rule, the YRA rule of the same year, which was intended to encourage greater beam to produce stiffer yachts than previously. She was 86 feet 4 inches on the waterline.

The designers of the other two did not require to comply with a rule.

The middle yacht is Rosemary IV, designed and built by William Fife III of Fairlie in 1928, when his yard was without an order, to keep the workforce busy. She is 36 feet on the waterline. Having no client to please allowed Fife even more freedom and the design is in my view one of his best, having significantly shorter overhangs than his normal productions.

The yacht at the foot is Alfred Mylne's Islander, also designed in 1928. Not only are the ends much shorter than the designs that Mylne did to a rule, she has much firmer sections than either of my other examples.

When the Clyde Clubs Conference were considering a new design in 1928 Alfred Mylne would have been extremely keen to get it. There was a general recognition that existing classes, such as the 19/24s, whose rules had resulted in some pretty extreme boats and several accidents, should be replaced with a new more wholesome design.

The Conference considered various existing designs, such as Westmacott's Sea View Mermaid and Solent Sunbeams and Alfred Mylne's own Belfast Lough River Class of 1921, before deciding to commission a new Mylne design.

The Conference would have been aware of the success of the Rivers Class and wanted something slightly larger, probably because of the better opportunities for short cruises on the Clyde and the Scottish West coast. The Islander would be 20 feet on the waterline as opposed to the Rivers 18, with the same overall length of 28 feet 6 inches. The sail area would 420 square feet, against the River's 350.

In February 1929 The Yachting Monthly reported that

"The new class has one feature which is a sign of the times, in that the boats will be fitted with auxiliary power and side propellers, those owners who do not wish to carry an engine being required to fit the engine and carry a weight equivalent to that of the engine."

The view was also also expressed that

"fitted with auxiliaries the new boats will not be very fast, particularly in view of their moderate sail spread..."

There is no doubt that with modern sailcloth the boats are nowadays not under-canvassed. The seas are timeless and the short overhangs, buoyant ends and firm sections are still as valid for safe sailing in a small boat as they ever were.

Ace Marine now own the Mylne archives and further information about Alfred Mylne can be found at A Mylne & Co

Alfred Mylne also has an entry on wikipedia here

Alfred Mylne in his prime