Monday, 13 July 2015

Rowing with seals: a Scottish alternative to swimming with dolphins

Back around 1968, when leisure activities in some circles was focused on peace and love, a visionary, benevolent and – crucially – wealthy member of the Royal West of Scotland Amateur Boat Club (an excellent, if not entirely accurately named organisation, but more of that later), commissioned a rowing boat for the club, on condition that it was used annually, for "a long row".

Not having specified exactly how "long" a row this had to be, the club played "safe", and decided that, to be certain they were meeting their moral obligations, "long" should be defined as at least 50 (statute) miles. In other words, trips firmly in "expedition rowing" territory, or perhaps waters: my favourite thing! But in wellies...

One boat good, two boats better
Well actually, it was more like "two coxes good, four coxes better". Here's why. In the years after the first boat arrived, the young men of the club used her enthusiastically, rowing in various directions from their base on the Firth of Clyde, just west of Greenock on Scotland's west coast (THAT bit of the club's name is highly accurate). However, with space for four rowers but just two coxes, the young bucks found that there wasn't enough room for all of the young ladies that they'd like to take with them on their outings (only one each, you understand, but even so), and so a second boat was built, with the rowing seats nearer the bows, allowing a U-shaped coxing seat that could accommodate everyone they wanted to take with them.

Swapping the coxes in rough-ish conditions
The Plan
Through a family contact, eight of us from Thames Valley Skiff Club were lucky enough to be the guests of five "Westies (including two gents pushing 72, and a 14 year old), to do a three-day round trip, rowing out from Greenock, round the island of Bute, then on to Cumbrae (home to Britain's smallest cathedral), and then back up the coast to home.

But it turned out that we weren't the only ones with Bute on our travel plans that week: when we arrived in Greenock, whaddya know, Roman Abramovich's ("yon chappie whit owns Chelsea FC") superyacht was moored in the bay, having been over at Bute the previous weekend so that the oligarch could indulge in a spot of cycling. Bute was clearly 2015's must-see destination! 

Expedition rows often seem to present an unforseen social discovery or experience: this time, it turned out to be a series of noteworthy boats, of which the ridiculously large "Eclipse" was only the first. 

Day 1: Mostly windy. Then rainy.
A bedraggled "Highland Goat"
Having packed dry clothes, enough snacks to feed... well, 13 rowers, and some spare blades into the two boats, and attached what someone claimed to be a "goat" (in case something needed to be sacrificed to the weather gods) that one of the Westies immediately rumbled as "a Highland Coo", and my plastic duck, we headed out into the open seas, or at least what felt like them to those used to rowing on the inland Thames. The tide was with us, but in the contest of Wind vs Tide, wind was making short work of tide's batting order. 

Impressively, we all faithfully stuck to the 3rd "Rule" of Expedition Rowing and didn't draw attention to how long it took to get past various salient features on the shore.

We were joined for some of this stretch by a couple of sea kayakers from the club, whose low, light boats moved a lot faster than our high-sided "heavy fours" (not my judgement, but what the club calls them). And talking of sea kayaks, it's time to sort out the mild inaccuracy in the Royal West of Scotland Boating Club's name. Unlike most rowing clubs in Britain, it is a boat club in the broadest sense of the word, with rowing, sea kayaking and sailing sections, much more on the continental model. Given such inclusivity, it's perfectly reasonable that there's an open-water swimming section too: it's just the pedant in me that would have renamed the club the Royal West of Scotland On- and In-water Activity Club. Less catchy, though.

Anyway, after several hours battling the conditions we literally turned the corner, and headed up the east coast of Bute where it was calm enough to observe both the 1st "Rule" of Expedition Rowing (thank goodness for Mars bars), and a muckle big sailing yacht heading in our direction. This turned out to be Drum, originally owned by Simon Le Bon (given he was the lead singer of Duran Duran, you'd think he might have called it Microphone, but maybe that's just me being pedantic again). 

Soon, the Scottish weather made sure we got the experience we had all expected, i.e. it started to rain heavily. Still, these boats are as easy to row whilst wearing a large waterproof and a lifejacket as not, and our spirits were not at all dampened (unlike our bodies). Rounding the top of Bute, I waved waved cheerily at a couple of yellow cagoule-clad hillwalkers, only for the locals in our boat to explain that these were the "Maids of Bute", – two large painted rocks. I didn't take a photo: it was raining too hard.

Day 2: An uninhabited island (with its own website) and a lot of seals
With flat water and "light airs", the rowing consitions were excellent as we left the Kyles of Bute ("kyle" being a Scottish term for a straight).

Thoroughly into our rhythm now we changed the two coxes every 20 minutes, which meant rowing stints of only 40-minutes, that felt a doddle compared with the 2-hour shifts on my favourite long-distance race round Lake Geneva. But then, as the septugenarian in our crew pointed out, in his wonderful Scottish burr, "This is a pleasure row". 

And indeed it was, with stunning scenery; changing light as the sun made spirited attempts to peep round the ever-moving clouds; and much to our delight, the odd seal popping up behind the boat, intrigued at the unusual sound of oars.

Around lunchtime, we landed on the uninhabited (by humans – there were loads of "coos") island of Inchmanock where those who cared were amused to find the best mobile reception since they'd left the clubhouse. #cattleonline? 

You don't get an island to all yourselves
on most expedition rows...
As we pushed off, four of five curious heads popped up out of the water, staring, but not rudely, at the funny-coloured upright things clambering clumsily into the big lumpy wooden things. Some came close enough that we could see their bushy whiskers, and further down the shore there was a small colony with pups being instructed by their parents about the mystery of rowing boats ("look, don't touch"), before flicking their tail flippers and disappearing below the swell again.

OK, so the colour palettes are a bit grey compared with all that swimming with dolphins in Florida thing, but being blade-to-eye with wild seals was a rowing experience I'd certainly not had before!

The day was scheduled to end on the small island of Cumbrae, home to the Cathedral of the Isles, Britain's smallest cathedral. 

We were met about a mile out by members of the local coastal rowing club in their St Ayles skiff (a new type of craft that's literally gone from zero to hero in abut five years with boats built by communities all round the Scottish Coast). 

After being unable to resist a little bit of a race in, we landed on the beach, amid the jellyfish (yet another new rowing experience), which is guarded by the Crocodile Rock (they do seem to like their rock-painting in these parts).

Day 3: We couldn't resist
By now, our crew was like stilton. And yes, all that rowing in wellies was possibly taking its toll on our socks, but what I mean was that the longer it went on, the better we were, and we now found ourselves ahead of the others, no matter which combinations were rowing,and despite the fact that our boat continued to leak fairly substantially such that we had to bail at every swap. Of course, that's old wooden boats for you, but we entirely understood why we had been advised to wear wellies for the whole trip!

Wellies, water and one-size-fits-all footplates.

For those of you wondering how wellies worked with the type of footplate found in your average touring rowing boat, it wasn't like that. Your feet rested on a wooden bar (which was no help at all if you got stuck in at the finish owing to the pesky water having moved at the relevant moment, and there were a couple of humorous "boots in the air" moments), and if you were a bit shorter in the leg than the boat was designed for, you could "adjust" by placing a chunk of wood in front of the bar. Or even 2 chunks of wood. Several were carried in the boat for this purpose. Which didn't actually make a material difference to the weight of the boat in the slightest.

Anyway, the day passed quickly with more seals, wind turbines, and avoiding the ferries that are so essential to keeping these island economies going (and despite the short crossings, they must be busy as most of them operated in pairs, going in opposite directions like cable cars do, though without the weight-balancing necessity, I rather wondered if it wouldn't have been cheaper to have just one, larger ferry, but I'm sure there's a good reason for the way it's done).

We decided to pull into the beech by the ferry terminal at Wemyss (pronounced Weems) Bay for lunch, and having waited a little before this for the other crew to catch up, it once again turned into a race to the shore. Sat at bow, our septugenarian called that it was "100 or 200 yards to the shore". Stupidly thinking of the usual 10m a stroke you get on an ergo, I started giving it some beans. Hmm. 130 strokes later, he called "Wind down". By then I was definitely ready for my "Scotch pie".

Ducky (in a blue waterproof)
On our final stretch in, we were treated to see the Waverley, the the last operational sea-going paddle steamer in the WORLD, before it was time to get on with some serious "connect and send" for the last 4km or so in. We benefited greatly from the local steering knowledge of our septugenarian, who urged us on mercilessly, though nearly ruined the whole thing by reminding us, "This is a pleasure row!". Fortunately, my body didn't have any effort to spare for the giggling my brain considered appropriate. The other boat couldn't get past us, and the Scotch Pies stayed down: job done!

Oh, and the bedraggled "coo" was given to our hosts' daughter brushed the salt out of its fur and took a hair dryer to it after which it looked much better. Though still not much like a goat.

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