In October 2009, six members of the Loch Broom Sailing Club, Adrian Morgan, Topher Dawson, Richard Weekes, Mike Connor, Sue Evans and John McIntyre, together with local boatbuilder Chris Perkins signed cheques to form the Ullapool Skiff Syndicate, as it was originally called.
When people ask “How did it all start?” the club can be proud to say that “It was us wot (mostly) did it.” And now look where we are?
Not many people know, however, that the germ of the idea of starting a syndicate to build and row a Scottish Coastal Rowing St Ayles skiff came from Joe Hayes, boat builder and now oyster farmer, who at the time, in October 2009, was building his house at Cambeltown. “Have you heard of this Scottish coastal rowing thing?” was the gist of it. “Vaguely,” I replied.
That same day, googling uncovered more about this ambitious project to revitalise coastal communities through communal rowing, first by building, then racing skiffs designed by Skye designer Iain Oughtred. The prototype had been built in Anstruther under the guidance of Strathkanaird's Chris Perkins, in honour of whom it was named, from kits developed and produced by Alec Jordan.
The Friday before the seven met at Topher’s house, a small notice, with a drawing of the skiff, had appeared in the Ullapool News inviting anyone wishing to join a rowing syndicate to get in touch. The meeting was short, and by the end, all had written cheques for around £170 to fund the cost of one of Alec’s kits.
It would be only the second boat built.
Next Friday’s Ullapool News on 16th October, carried this notice:
SCOTTISH COASTAL ROWING PROJECT
A Skiff is born
Ullapool rowing team formed
An Ullapool rowing team has been formed to build and race a 22ft St Ayles Skiff, one of several being built nationwide as part of the Scottish Coastal Rowing Project.
Responding to a letter in the Ullapool News, seven members have now signed up for the first skiff, which will be built locally, and on the water early next year. The cost will be around £250 per person.
The double ended, lightweight clinker/epoxy skiff, based on a Fair Isles design by Skye small boat designer Iain Oughtred, requires four rowers, and a coxswain.
The first Ullapool boat will be used to showcase the project. Anyone, young, old, male, female, fit or unfit, will be welcome to have a go.
At least five teams around the Scottish coastline will be building identical boats, with a view to racing next year in a series of regattas around the Scottish coast.
Loch Broom is an excellent stretch of water for sea rowing, providing healthy exercise and the chance of competition with skiffs from other coastal communities.
Rowing is a great way to keep fit. And once a regatta circuit is established, Ullapool can compete against, and socialise with, rowing teams from around the Scottish coast.
The aim is to host a Scottish Coastal Rowing Regatta in Loch Broom, with teams from all over the country taking part.
However, to be competitive, Ullapool needs at least two boats.
The current team consists of Adrian Morgan, Topher Dawson, Chris Perkins, Sue Evans, Mike Connor, Richard Weekes and John Mcintyre.
The nucleus of a second team is already in place.
Fiona Macdonald, Marcus Macdonald, Rory Ross and at least three others are keen to build a second Ullapool skiff (which should be even cheaper than the first).
Anyone who wants to sign up for a second Ullapool team should contact Adrian Morgan.
The kit arrived and was delivered to Leckmelm, where John, Dan Johnson and I had a workshop. Topher and I were soon after interviewed by Radio Scotland, standing by the pile of plywood on its pallet.
Construction began under the leadership of Chris, who had built the Anstruther prototype boat, and Topher, teacher and renowned professional boatbuilder. All members, however, had a hand in gluing, planing, scraping, clamping , bevelling and painting, with the exception of Adrian who was busy building boats to order close by. He did, however, fashion the distinctive arrowhead stemhead late one night.
Ulla at Anstruther
Ulla’s mixed team, Topher, Adrian, Dan, Charlotte, Jan, Laura and Sue may not have covered themselves in glory at the opening regatta in Anstruther, but their skiff was certainly admired for its build quality and quirky details – the Viking steerboard being the main attraction. Laminated breasthooks and dowelled gunwales all came in for close scrutiny, as did the extreme length and weight – 28lb apiece – of the oars.
The consensus among the opposition was that, either we were right, or very wrong. But we knew we were here to find out. As it happened, there wasn’t much in it, no matter what was wielded. Pin oars, cheap Finnish oars, long oars and short oars – even mixed oars flailing at random – seemed to perform much the same. Ulla can claim to have looked by far the most elegant of the half dozen skiffs, with a rowing technique that was as good as it gets after half an hour practice.
The men’s team won their opening bout outside the harbour with the Coigach Lads (sweet victory) and progressed to the finals inside the breakwater where they were beaten by an oar blade’s width by Port Seton(?), while the women’s teams struggled in the rising wind and waves to master their unusually long and heavy oars, going down womanfully. The mixed team fared little better. Jan steered throughout and from a nervous start very soon was heard encouraging her team in language hardly fit for the wife of a pillar of the Ullapool academic establishment.
Highlight of the day was the appearance of our master builder, Mr Dawson, and his japanese saw with which he lopped a foot or so off each of the oar blades. The discarded pieces were forthwith attacked by a gang of beach dogs which made off with them, to the cheers of the crowds of Ansthrutherians and holidaymakers thronging the beach.
The racing was close, despite wildly differing styles of rowing. Length and weight of oar and rowing techniques seemed to count for little. The skiffs reach their hull speed after a few strokes and a law of diminishing returns prevails thereafter. This makes for good competition, with no skiff streets ahead of another.
Ulla’s crew thoroughly enjoyed themselves, and Alec Jordan’s organisation proved near faultless. Heats got off promptly and the schedule kept to time, despite the changing of crews, some of whom had to be rustled up on the spur of the moment.
While crews struggled on the sea, a BBC Scotland broadcast team buzzed about overhead, catching the action from a microlight. And miraculously, the sun shone on the Scottish Coastal Rowing Project’s opening regatta throughout.
When in 2010 Fiona MacDonald and her friends Bev Macgregor, Kaz Foot, Kathleen Mckay and Sue Evans (aka The Golden Girls) formed their legendary team with cox Mcintyre, races and medals were soon being won regularly. Moreover fund raising went ahead apace, with raffles, cake stalls and every kind of ingenious way to wheedle cash from Ullapudlian purses.
With this injection of much needed enthusiasm, cash and energy, Ullapool Coastal rowing was now thriving, and has never looked back.
Under Topher’s guidance, Ullapool coastal rowing has continue to prosper. Villagers both young and old have taken to rowing with a vengeance, largely thanks to his leadership. His ingenuity, drive, enthusiasm, organisational and boat building skills have helped turn an idea into a phenomenon, both in Ullapool and worldwide.
Of the seven members of the original syndicate, only two remain. But it is fair to say that without the confidence of those original seven putting their own money on the table, and building the skiff, it would never have happened.
See also Chris Perkin’s article in the July/August 2013 issue of Watercraft.