All posts by Ian

Bad times

Well what with one thing and another it seems that we won’t be completing the row this year.  Its a great shame but the project isn’t dead in the water and I hope to have some news on how it’s going to progress very soon.  Frazer wrote a nice bit for the facebook page so being the proactive blogger I am, I have copied and pasted it below the video.

On the plus side you can now watch the pitch video that the wonderful girls and guys at Maverick made, which will undoubtedly cheer you up/make you giggle/make you shout irately at the lubberly talk.  I look forward to all the ‘feedback’ about our performance at the next regatta 😉

It was, as Frazer says, a real pleasure working with these folks and the lovable crew. It felt pretty surreal at times and I’m glad the shower scene was left on the cutting room floor (at least I hope it’s on the floor) but overall it was great fun.

Fear not though, Puffin is ready for action and we didn’t do all that work for nothing!

Frazer writes…

“Dear Rowing friends
An update on the ‘Skiff Around Scotland Adventure’….
Apologies for the lack of updated information over the past weeks, I am sad to say the adventure won’t be taking place in 2015, for a number of reasons the voyage will need to be done another time.
It has taken me a good few weeks to wrestle with aspects of disappointment, frustration and irritation with regards the realisation that we won’t have the opportunity to row together around Scotland, an opportunity to achieve something meaningful as a collective, sadly missed this year.
I would like to thank all those that have supported the initiative, those with warm words of encouragement and those of you that shared their expertise and experiences. I have learnt a lot, met inspirational people and enjoyed the process of making a TV Documentary Pilot with an excellent production company …(Take a look at the attachment, copyright Maverick TV)
I am sure the adventure will be met in the future, Puffin is prepped and capable after all
Ian and I have really appreciated your interest and the time you’ve taken to support the adventure. We will hopefully meet many of you during the regatta season and beyond.

Take care, row hard and keep-in-time,

Warm Regards

waiting waiting…

It occurred to me that we’ve gone a bit quiet on the blog and facebook page and I thought I’d better update you all on what’s been happening in the background.

Puffin is looking great – in the last few weeks Frazer has got the new oars done and I’ve finished and fitted the new rudder and tiller and varnished the gunwhales about a billion times.  The swallows in the shed are doing their level best to redecorate the new paintjob with many small, post-modern additions and so we’ve moved her to Norman’s shed to fit the buoyancy bags and finalise the seating.

The main hold-up and reason that we’re going nowhere fast is that the production guys that have been filming us for the last wee while have been pitching their taster video (which I hope to be able to upload here soon for you all to enjoy/laugh at us) to a couple of channels to see if they want to commission a programme.  They’ve done a fantastic job and have generated considerable interest but that inevitably means lots of extra work for them and a bit of a nightmare in terms of planning for us.  I think we’ll get some news either good or bad in the next week or so which I’ll share with you without delay dear reader.

Our initial plan was, of course, to start at some point in May but given the level of winds that we’ve been experiencing in the last month I’m actually a bit relieved that the TV element has pushed back the start!  I’m looking forward to the Mediterranean Summer that’s bound to start any day now…..

scottish summer

RNLI training

Given how much we learned and experienced on our Sea Survival course at the RNLI college in Poole today I suspect that this post is going to be a long one, so for those of you who prefer to skim this blog here’s the summary – being tossed around dark waters in a small inflatable with 6 people trying to keep their lunch down is more fun than you’d think…

We were given the fantastic opportunity of visiting the RNLI’s state-of-the-art training college in Poole to join real lifeboat crews for the first day of a week-long course on sea survival.  Not knowing what to expect I foolishly watched the Youtube video below and, having changed into a clean pair of pants, phoned Frazer to find out exactly what we’d signed up for.  It turned out that alongside a lot of theory and classroom time we would indeed be spending the afternoon in their hugely impressive simulation pool.


Following a fairly troubled sleep we arrived bright and early to the modern facility on the quay and were ushered into the college bar with 60 or 70 capable looking lifeboat crew and lifeguards who would be taking a variety of courses in the building. There seemed to be a wide variety of crew in attendance from those who were in their first months of volunteering to some with years of experience who were back to polish up their skills.   Every single one of them was friendly and curious about our challenge and my worries that they’d treat us as crackpots who would have to be rescued all the time faded as we chatted about the difficulties of the trip.

I don’t want to get too mushy about these individuals who volunteer to put their own lives in danger to save others but as the first presentation of the day moved along I found my respect for the RNLI growing into out-and-out awe.  The talk was designed to remind these guys what their role involved and pulled no punches in terms of the effects that being a lifeboat volunteer might have on them.  The speaker showed us videos and post-rescue interviews from around the country and made it clear how much the charity values these guys.  There were sections on how the RNLI spends its money and what plans are being put in place for new stations and equipment. Overall I felt like I’d been privy to a very detailed thank-you.

Before the theory started we were given our PPE for the afternoon’s exercises, which included a yellow jacket and salopettes, and some fashionable yellow wellies. I was disappointed to hear that because we wouldn’t be wearing dry-suits there was no need to have a “woolly bear” which is RNLI code for a really cool onesie.

I’ll not go too deep into the subsequent theory session, lead by a really impressive and confident young man called Nevs, but suffice to say after an hour of pretty harrowing videos and case studies I was fervently promising myself that I’d never go to sea again.  The aim, of course, was not to scare the crap out of us but make everyone aware of how quickly things can go wrong even if you have all the right kit.  Despite having the attention span of a sugared-up 5 year old in my university days, I had absolutely no problem giving Nevs my full attention as he talked us through the drills we would be using in the pool session and crucially what not to do in an emergency. We were then taken through and allowed to handle various pieces of safety kit before being taught how to pack a lifejacket.

I was glad to hear that I was not alone in feeling some trepidation for the practical session and much of lunch was spent listening to the crews swapping stories that principally involved vomit and it’s effect in a cramped life-raft.  Levels of worry increased as it was pointed out that we’d be relying on the very lifejacket we had (in my case rather inexpertly) packed that morning.


We trooped into the pool building in our PPE gear and having watching as life-rafts were deployed into the water it was time to get wet.  The order was given to get out of our safety gear and line up by the side of the pool where a row of red suits that looked like early attempts to design Tinky Winky were arrayed.  These immersion suits, as used by off-shore workers in an emergency, are basically very thick wetsuits with built-in hoods, gloves and boots.

The challenge was to get yourself into one within 60 seconds then swim a length of the 25m pool.  Unfortunately when the designers of these suits say “one size fits all” what they actually mean is “this size is bound to fit someone” – that someone being around 7 feet tall and 25 stones if I’m any judge. This meant much ungainly waddling and a swimming style that required the wearer to lie on their back and use both arms in a windmill action that, from the poolside, gave the impression of a teletubby suffering a particularly athletic seizure.  For reasons best known to himself, Frazer decided to add a sort of balletic spin as he stepped off the side and was roundly told off for entering the water the wrong way round – you can remove the boy from the dance, but apparently not the dance from the boy.

The exercise was repeated in our PPE gear without lifejackets then it was time to do some jumping.  For the purposes of the course, Nevs told us, we were only required to jump from a height of 1m into the water but he felt strongly that 4m would be much better.  So now wearing our helmets and the lifejackets we had packed ourselves we were lead to a metal grid on the second floor and invited, after assuming the correct bracing position, to step off it.  Only one person screamed (wasn’t either of us) and mercifully everyone’s lifejackets inflated properly so we were then able to get into heat-retaining huddles then try out the reverse-conga that is group crocodile-swimming. After proving we could individually right an upside-down life-raft in the water it was time to get out and prepare for the big simulation.


Having been split into three groups, each of which would have a life-raft, we were told that the weather was going to deteriorate and our ship was going down.  Very quickly the blinds on the windows started to roll down, the wind machines kicked in, the waves started getting bigger and with a flash of strobe lightning, thunder crashed out of the sound system as the rain began to fall.  The crews all struggled into the life-rafts (hard enough to do when you don’t have an inflated lifejacket on) and we went through the drills we’d been taught, all the while bailing out and avoiding the jets of water being aimed at us by the instructors.  Once inside the object was to keep morale high which we achieved by singing Celine Dion at the top of our lungs.  In the dark we only caught glimpses of the lights of the 2 other rafts lurching around us and when we heard the sound effects of planes or helicopters flying overhead we scrambled to get flares and torches to attract attention.  It felt bloody realistic.

I don’t know how long the exercise actually lasted but it felt like forever (it’s billed as 45 mins in the video). I can’t imagine having to endure that for hours on end and keep morale up when you don’t have an instructor to turn it all off.  There were a few green-looking faces towards the end and I was starting to feel decidedly queasy when the wind began to drop, the blinds began to let sunshine back in and we were ordered to paddle our rafts to the scramble nets at the poolside and get everyone safely out.

A short debrief to cement the lessons of the day and to talk about what the guys would be experiencing for the remainder of their week gave me time to reflect on the day and the impact it will have on our challenge.  We have always been conscious that safety of our rowing crew is paramount but I now feel far more confident that we have the resources we need to put together skiff-appropriate procedures should the unthinkable happen.

Having gone into the day with a bit of apprehension I left feeling the unique euphoria of those who, when put to the test, didn’t blow chunks. But as I mentioned earlier my overriding feeling was one of awe for the work done by everyone in the RNLI.  There can be very few charities where volunteers are required to drop whatever they’re doing to rush out into a risk-laden environment to save others.  As one of the lecturers said, “When it’s blowing a gale, the waves are getting higher and everyone else is coming in, we ask you to go out”.  I know there are many demands on your wallet from a wide range of worthy charities but if you are someone who enjoys getting out on the water like us why not follow the link in the sidebar and give a donation to what is a voluntary emergency service.

P.S. Huge thanks to Sarah and Lindsey for organising this and to Rick and Pete for moral and comic support.


a bit of carpentry…

Been spending lots of time getting puffin back in prime condition.  This week it was the turn of the gunwhale rot which proved an easy fix. The rot was restricted to the area around the pin-hole which is covered by a mahogany plate.  I kept cutting until the worst of the rot had been removed then epoxied the living hell out of it before inserting a piece of marine ply which was subsequently sanded flush.  There were a couple of hairline gaps so I made up a quick filler using the marine ply sawdust and got it all looking sweet. Shame it’s going to get covered with a plate after all that! One more of these to do then the gunwhales can be oiled and varnished.


In a hilarous turn of events, Frazer and I both decided to do private projects that we kept secret from one another (fortunately they weren’t the same projects or there would have been trouble!).  After our many lengthy discussions about using ash for the oars, Frazer decided that the best way to convince me was to build a prototype and I must say I’m impressed. Forgot to take a photo of it but his solution to the weight problem (ash is heavier than the douglas fir I was championing) was to drastically reduce the dimensions of the cross-section to take advantage of the strength of the timber.  This has yielded an oar that weighs about the same as the NB oars but is much more slender.  Photos to follow.

In the meantime I built a replacement rudder and tiller.  The core is made of a high density plastic so we don’t have to worry as much if it gets knocked.  The shape is a cobbling together of a number of designs that our club engineers have been toying around with which should hopefully give us an effective rudder that is half the weight of Puffin’s original one.  See ‘arty’ video below. I actually changed the two top sections from plastic to ply to reduce the weight still further.  The tiller (no pics yet) is made of laminated 18mm ply and looks like you could do someone a mischief with it!


Haar haar haar

We had a salutary lesson from Mrs Nature last night when the fastest haar I’ve ever seen rolled in as we were setting off for an hour’s row around Craigleith.  The haar is (I think) mainly an East coast phenomenon although I’ve seen pictures of it affecting areas in the West.  It’s a very dense, cold fog caused by warm air meeting the cold North Sea and it can roll inland for several miles and ruin an otherwise beautiful day.

We were lucky last night that someone had forgotten an oar in one of the two skiffs heading out so we were delayed a little bit whilst a runner was dispatched to retrieve it.  The other skiff waited out in the West Bay for us in beautiful sunshine.  We got underway and almost immediately got a call across the VHF radio that the haar was coming in very fast and sure enough Craigleith (over a kilometer away) was already no longer visible.  The decision was made to practise some drills in the bay but within the space of about 3 minutes the fog had descended on us, visibility was reduced to 50m or so and North Berwick was totally shrouded to the extent that we could only see the harbour and the houses nearest the beach.

It was amazing and scary how quickly the fog had moved from Craigleith to our skiff and highlighted the need for all the safety measures we use.  Had we been halfway to the island it would have engulfed us and it would have been very easy to lose bearings trying to get home.  Fortunately we had a compass, VHF radio and anchor on board and luckily had not got far from home but it was still a pertinent reminder of the potential risks involved in going out to sea.

It also reminded me of the recent incident off the North East coast where two men in a small fishing boat were lost in the haar and despite a wide-ranging boat and helicopter search no trace of them was found.  Miraculously they were picked up by a passing ship 4 days later sitting 45 miles off the coast with just a small bottle of water and two biscuits to keep them going.  The skipper had no VHF, no phone and no working compass and admits that they are extremely lucky to be alive.  He’s right.

Keeping an eye on the weather forecast is always important for planning an outing but I’m going to be even more vigilant when the fog icon turns up and make sure that our safety kit is in good condition and fully charged!

We’ve got our annual North Berwick Tiger Cup tomorrow where names are drawn from a hat to make up scratch teams that take turns trying to set a blistering time around the Craig before heading to the local Indian for a well deserved feast. Can’t wait! (mainly for the food!)

Port Seton Regatta

We headed along to Port Seton today for the first regatta of the season and a little light espionage.  The races are probably the shortest in the coastal rowing calendar comprising lung-busting, head-to-head sprints between the two adjoining harbours with a couple of buoy turns thrown in for good measure (see my earlier post for a video of these races).  There’s also a longer relay event which takes the boats out onto the open sea and involves a crew change at a neighbouring harbour which is great fun.

This year Boatie Blest (Cockenzie and Port Seton Rowing Club) decided to mix things up a bit and rather than have clubs competing against each other draw names from a hat and randomly assign rowers to boats and crews.  This was really good fun and meant we got to know our fellow rowers from around the country a lot better.  The main advantage for us is that we got to try out different boats and see how their oars and oarlocks compared to the NB ones that we’re used to.  Both Frazer and I got to row in Queensferry’s “Ferry Lass” as well as our own “Skiff John B” and I got to stroke  Anstruther’s “St Ayles” on the final leg of the relay.  I would have taken some photos of the setups but it was a packed programme of events so didn’t have any time.

It’s amazing the difference the oars make in terms of weight, length and oarlock.  Ferry Lass has fairly short but extremely light oars (made of douglas fir I think) which took comparatively little effort to pull through the water. They were well suited to the thrashing, high stroke rate required in the sprints but I need to ask Frazer what he thought of them on the open water in the relay.  One aspect highlighted by Ferry lass was space between seats which is much smaller than our NB boats and causes much hitting the rower in front of you. Longer oars would be no good in this situation as the length of stroke is limited by this seat layout.  The oars each had three possible gears depending on which hole of the beautifully crafted oar plate you hooked over the gunwhale pin – simple and effective.

St Ayles was a very comfortable skiff to row thanks to fixed cushions on the seats! In the rough stuff it felt smooth and strong which makes sense given the number of medals they’ve accumulated over the years.  The oars had just one gear in their plates but to me felt a better length and weight to deal with choppy waters.  We didn’t have time in the relay to muck about with footrests but for just jumping in and getting going St Ayles felt great and we won which is surely an endorsement!

Of course we’re well used to our own Skiff John B and getting back in after trying other boats I was reminded how much work our bosuns have done to make her so nice to row.  The new element for this regatta was the oars.  A new set of oars had been made over the winter which are a foot shorter than our other sets with the idea that they might be a better gearing for some of the women’s crews (although they’re more than capable with the big ones!) and for sprinting.  They’re made of douglas fir and were certainly lighter though I felt, as with Ferry Lass’, that I don’t get as much power through them as our big ones, particularly at stroke position.  Having said that they felt really nice on the sharp buoy turns and we got up a good turn of pace in the Mixed Open.  Frazer’s a fan but we agreed that we’d prefer a longer oar for the long slow stretches we’ll be doing where efficiency is king.

Well that’s quite enough of that for the moment but lots to think about!

Media Interest!

Those of you who were at Port Seton Regatta on Saturday can’t have failed to notice some professional-looking media types (identifiable by leather jackets and expensive kit) asking awkward questions, making you sign your life away and filming the races.  We’re really excited that a production company are undertaking some test filming to see if we’re interesting enough to follow around Scotland (I may have to push Frazer out of the boat every so often to maintain drama levels and we might have overplayed the likelihood of octopus-attack a bit).  It’s by no means a done deal and we’ll hear in the next few weeks whether the project ticks the right boxes or not.

We’ve had a couple of days of filming with them and they are a really lovely bunch of people who have been very gentle with us.  Thanks to the Boatie Blest regatta organisers for letting us bring them along and to all the rowers who said nice things about the challenge in their interviews.  We were really chuffed with the positive feedback and are delighted that so many of our rowing friends are keen to take part at various stages of the route.  Some of them got over-excited on camera and promised to row hundreds of miles with us.  We’re going to hold them to that :-)

Hull top coat

Despite the season’s best intentions it was a pleasant Spring day yesterday so we made the most of the ambient temperature and got the first of the two top-coats onto Puffin’s hull.  There’s so much more to focus on than the change of colour (which we’re really happy with) but seeing her in her new outfit makes it feel like Puffin has undergone a bit of a rebirth.  We’re not perfectionists about the painting – she’s going to be hauled up on beaches and slipways and this invariably means scratches and scrapes – but we do want to make a good job of the finish and so there are a few runs and dribbles that will need sanded off before the final coat.  The yellow strip below the gunwhales will be white when we’re done and hopefully the combination with the deep blue hull will evoke a Saltire-ish feel.

For the purposes of practising video documention (but mainly to avoid the lion’s share of the painting) I filmed a few bits and pieces and stitched them together with some redneck music – it felt appropriate.

GoPro skiff

The weather was far too horrific for painting yesterday (the paint tin suggests temperatures of at least 15 degrees C and the horizontal sleet suggested otherwise) so we spent a bit of time on timber sourcing for the oars and I nipped down to the gym for a spell on the ergo with Dangerous Dave from NB rowing club.

We’ve got a regatta coming up at Port Seton on the 18th of April which is a short but lung-busting sprint between harbours and I remembered that there’s a great GoPro video of the Men’s Open winning their race there last year. Fortunately Dangerous Dave knew exactly where on Youtube to find it, probably because he’s stroking in this crew and is therefore the guy at the front.  It’s a fast and furious race and unlike any of the other races we have during the season.  We’re going to be using GoPro cameras on the trip so it’s good to see that they stand up well to the action of the boat.

He also found a longer video of us getting our Silver medal in the Men’s Open at the World Championships in Ullapool.  A much longer race over 2km with a 180 degree buoy turn at halfway it took around 12 minutes of hard slog to get over the line.  Unfortunately the young guns of Coigach pipped us to the post but we’ll be going to the next World’s which are tipped to be on Strangford Lough in Northern Ireland next year.

Skiff Racing

Found this great wee video that Katya has made using footage from a wide range of regattas over the last few years and some really nice shots from the World Championships in 2013.  As you will see conditions can often be challenging but that doesn’t really stop us getting out and racing – that’s the beauty of coastal rowing!

The footage from the World’s shows the number of clubs that travelled to Ullapool in 2013 from all over the world. The next Championships are next year and with all the new clubs that have formed I suspect it’s going to be massive!

Of course if this sparks your interest in joining the world of coastal rowing visit where you’ll find a wealth of information on getting involved, find a club near you or even how to form your own club and build your first skiff.