Sunday, 30 December 2007

There be monsters

It always gives me a thrill when I spot Chichester Harbour's resident seals, who occasionally swim round the boat, popping their heads out of the water to take a look in, I like to think, a friendly sort of way.
But that is nothing compared to this, taken off Santa Cruz on the California coast. I think that it might cause me some alarm, not to mention an underwear crisis. It is the star picture on the website of the Santa Cruz Rowing Club (thanks to neversealand for the headsup).

Time and Tide

Today for the first time in a couple of years I went out at low tide.
Most of the more accessible public slipways in Chichester Harbour are usable only two hours either side of HT, and I once lost a boot in the mud at Dell Quay trying to get off at low tide which coloured my attitude. The slips close to the harbour mouth such as Itchenor are a bit of a trek to get to and involve paying money to park.
So I have allowed myself to become a slave to the tide tables, going out only when water covers the harbour from shore to shining shore, even though at this time of year this means whole weekends not boating because high tide is before dawn or after dark (and before you ask what is wrong with going out in the dark, the answer is that at this time of year it is bloody cold and a rather dangerous).
But today there was a Dinghy Cruising Association daysail so I nerved myself for a mudbath.
First discovery was that the Ferry Hard on Bosham Hoe extends right out to the low water mark, so launching does not involve lost boots though I had a narrow escape coming back in the other day.
Second was that rowing in the restricted channels may involve extra vigilance but is still very rewarding. The birds are much more plentiful - for them, low tide is lunch time.
So I am going to be a lot less prescriptive about the state of the tide. Which means I should get out more.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

The Lesson for Today: Secure Thy Boat

Went to Langstone today, one of the prettiest villages on Chichester Harbour or anywhere else for that matter, for a meet of the UK Home Built Boat Regatta. The weather forecast was vile, predicting rain and high winds in the afternoon, so only Chris Waite and his partner Ruth were there. They were finishing their lunch in the Royal Oak, a very attractive pub, so I got Snarleyow off the trailer, plonked her on the foreshore halfway between the water and the high tide mark, and popped in for a quick pint of delicious Ruddles County and a natter.
And, of course, time went by. And I glanced out of the window and saw Snarleyow drifting off in the general direction of Emsworth...
I leapt out of the pub, briefly contemplated wading out but decided she was already too far out to avoid a swim, which I really did not want to do. Happily, she was heading due east so she would probably come ashore soon.
Chris went off in pursuit while I went to the car to retrieve that most essential instrument in any salvage operation, my mobile phone. So when I eventually caught up, Snarleyow had come aground after about half a mile and Chris had nobly and valiantly, in the teeth of a bitter sou'westerly, rolled his trousers up and gone in to secure the vessel. His absence from the New Year's Honours list is, frankly, a national scandal.
I rowed back. It was brisk but very enjoyable. I could have taken a spin round the harbour but decided to quit while my luck was still holding.

Friday, 28 December 2007

Rowing and Sailing

I'm so excited. My little brother Nick got me Gavin Atkin's new book, Ultrasimple Boatbuilding, for Christmas and I am in it! Practically at the beginning on page 226! There I am, in glorious black-and-white, grinning stupidly out of the page next to my Conrad Natzio-designed Sandpiper. Conrad himself is on the next page, looking properly sailorly rigging his Oystercatcher.
Gavin's central premise is that building your own boat need not involve a seven year apprenticeship, a lavishly equipped workshop or expensive materials. You too can create a boat to fulfil your own needs in your back garden using basic tools at modest cost, and he shows you how in straightforward language.
I realised he was speaking to my level of craftsmanship when he explains how to create breasthooks (the pieces of wood in the angles of a boat) by tracing round jam jars with a pencil rather than using instruments.
The book has enough information to build several of Gav's own designs including the famous Mouse boat. If you would like to build your own boat but don't feel confident enough to actually make a start, reading this book should give you the impetus to get going.
Just one thing, though.....
In an otherwise admirable chapter on making oars, Gavin falls into a rant against feathering. He believes that "the insistence that rowing with feathering is the only 'real' rowing may be one of the key reasons why we see so few people rowing around harbours and rivers in the United Kingdom."
He makes the entirely valid point that you don't have to feather, especially with narrow blades. Indeed, traditional boats that worked in rough waters, especially surf boats, work on thole pins and cannot be feathered at all.
I don't see any pressure to feather oars. It's not compulsory, and if the rowlocks are the standard circular type it is actually quite difficult to move the blade accurately from the horizontal to the vertical.
But if you have a pair of good sculling blades working in square rowlocks, feathering makes rowing significantly easier and with practice becomes second nature. I actually dislike rowing without feathering - it feels wrong somehow, but that is just the result of feathering since childhood, I suppose.
What Gavin inadvertantly exposes is the difference between rowers and sailors.
Sailors 'sail when they can, row when they must'. As a result, they never get comfortable with not being able to see where they are going, which is why Gavin sees more people sculling with an oar over the transom than rowing. And they never build up the muscles so rowing always feels like hard work.
Rowers, in contrast, use the oars to get places and hoist a sail to go downwind (like having seven league boots, as a New Zealand offshore rower once told me). As a result, we get fitter and, crucially, acquire skills like eyes in the backs of our heads and yes, feathering.
I have been experimenting with a square sail for downwind sailing, steering with one of the oars. Here I am fiddling with the halyard at the Home Built Boat Regatta 2007 (Chris Perkins took the pic). I hope to be able to use the sail in the same way that sailors use oars - as a very useful auxiliary propulsion.
Interest in recreational rowing is increasing. It is just about the best exercise you can get, and gets you out in some of the loveliest places on the planet.
So if you are thinking of taking up rowing, my advice is to get a rowing boat rather than trying to row a sailing boat. You don't have to feather the oars, but if you begin to row any kind of distance, you will soon feel the need to learn this rather lovely skill.

Sunday, 23 December 2007

Rowing by satnav (Part 2)

Another glorious day, the sort of weather that makes paddling in winter one of the greatest activities known to man and swan. A clear sky and not a breath of wind so I had the harbour virtually to myself, apart from two irritating buzzy outboards. I hope they got hypothermia. I had to remove a couple of layers to avoid boiling over.
Took the Satmap satnav out again and learned a good lesson right at the start. If you leave the thing on overnight the batteries will be completely dead come the morning.
The Satmap uses three AA batteries, which adds to the volume but means that you can get a burst of power simply by buying a few more - something you can do just about everywhere in the world these days, from the shores of the Dead Sea to half-way up Everest.
If I start using the Satmap a lot, however, I will invest in a set of lithium rechargables that will make it much cheaper to run.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Rowing by satnav

I celebrated the Winter Solstice by going rowing from my new favourite slipway, the ferry hard at Itchenor. It is close to the harbour mouth and is usable at all times, but its great advantage is that access is closed off to vehicles, so only small boats can launch there. The path to the slipway from the car park is rather long so my new kayak trolley comes in very handy.
The weather was crisp and completely calm, lovely for rowing, and a great day to try out the Satmap Action 10 handheld satnav that I have got to play with.
Most portable satnavs either show just the coordinates and heading, or a basic map. Car satnavs are completely useless when you're not behind the wheel because they don't show anything except the roads. The Satmap has the real deal - Ordnance Survey maps with all the detail. It is mostly aimed at walkers and cyclists but it is useful for boaters as well, because it shows rivers, coasts, channels and rocks.
The unit sits nicely in the hand and the display is bright enough to read easily except in the brightest sun. It is controlled entirely by pressing buttons, not by touch screen, so it can be used with gloved hands.
It is also waterproof, which is a joy. My non-waterproof camera is kept in a lockable plastic bag, and it is a major pain to haul it out every time I want to take a pic.
The electronic compass seems a bit wayward, and difficult to find despite a generally fairly self-evident menu system.
The Satmap leaves a snail's trail of red dots on the map to show where you have been, which is slightly alarming as it showed how much I was meandering over the water. But hell, this is supposed to be fun and the harbour was particularly lovely today, full of wildfowl and almost devoid of boats. The Pilsey Island seals came out to play.
I would have downloaded the track in a .gpx file and put it on Google Earth for you, but I haven't managed to work out how to do that yet.
Just after taking that pic, an attractive fleet sailed past towards the harbour entrance, with sails up but only for show - all propulsion was being provided by the engines.
A great morning on the water, but then I misjudged where to get out and got my boots stuck in the mud. There is nothing nastier than driving home with your boots full of water and muck. Damn.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Rowing in California

David 'Thorne' Luckhardt sails and rows his Chamberlain dory in northern California, the lucky fellow, mostly with the Sacramento chapter of the Traditional Small Craft Association. His picture of the TSCA row up the Big River from Mendocina CA is exactly what rowing is all about in my opinion - fun, delight, fellowship and a bit of exercise slipped in if any justification is needed.
An added element of a good day out on the river is, of course, beer. David is also a keen English Civil War recreationist and pirate fan - this picture is of Morgan's Company (Arrgh!) on Stone Lagoon. That looks like huge fun.
His pages chronicling the restoration of the dory are here.
The TSCA certainly has some nice boats. This is a row on the Petaluma River earlier this year.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Finnish tarboats

Recently I visited Oulu in the Gulf of Bothnia, right at the top end of the Baltic, and we were given dinner in a log cabin in the woods containing an exhibition of the tar industry that flourished there in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The tar was made by burning pine logs in enormous fires, with the air choked off by covering it with turf, like charcoal burning. The tar collected at the bottom and flowed into barrels.
The full barrels were loaded onto shallow draft rowing boats that were drifted and rowed down the River Oulu to the port, where the women loaded them onto ships bound mainly for Britain – the main customer was the Royal Navy.
The river has several rapids that had to be shot, and coming back must have been brutally hard work even with empty barrels. Eventually the rapids were bypassed with canals, but the trade was already in decline with the arrival of iron warships that didn’t need tar.
Today, the Finns race tarboats and so-called church boats, built, I think, to bring the gospel to the back woods. The women, stuck in Oulu loading barrels, believed that the men got up to all kinds of drunkenness and depravity when they were out in the woods boiling tar all summer. Mika Hiironniemi took this smashing photo of a preserved church boat (it's on his Flickr site here).

There is a lovely print showing a tar boat shooting the rapids in about 1930, on eBay here.

Today, Oulu is a science city largely devoted to developing mobile phones for Nokia. The old huts used by the tar exporters and the fishermen have been beautifully restored but are used either as offices or bars. A reproduction (?) Baltic schooner Mystic Wind is tied up at the wharf, with a rather attractive tarred dinghy hanging from davits at the stern. I took these pictures with my Nokia N73 camera phone, which did a great job, I think.

Friday, 7 December 2007


One last post from the Earls Court Boat Show, where I roamed the floor with the Nokia N95 8GB smartphone I've got on test. The images are spectacular seeing as it's a phone, albeit with a 5megapixel image sensor and top-notch Schneider lens.
Three traditionally-styled rowing boats were on display, which graphically illustrate why wood is better than plastic.
Heyland Marine were showing their Duchess skiff, which is quite a nice shape, robust, not very expensive and neatly finished. But the hull is built for strength rather than elegance, so it is not surprising to find they sell most to hire operators.

Those astonishing craftsmen Henwood & Dean showed a traditional Thames skiff that is a delight - a delicate confection of varnished wood set off with the occasional glint of brass and a gold leaf cove line. Perfect - although for you could buy a fleet of Duchesses for the price of just one H&D skiff.
And Adrian Donovan showed his lovely Whitehall, a type of rowing boat that originates from Whitehall Street, New York, rather than London, although the lines are clearly derived from the wherries that the Thames Watermen used to ply their trade. Again, the use of wood gives an elegance, lightness and truth of line that GRP can never achieve.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Those in peril

Just in case anyone gets the impression that rowing across an ocean is just a matter of slogging away until you get to the other side, and if you get a bit fed up all you have to do is press a button to be rescued, the Ocean Rowing Society showed some examples of what the seas can do to man and boat.
Two bits of Britannia II, a strong fibreglass monocoque designed by Uffa Fox and built by Clare Lalow, were on display. She had an outstanding record, being rowed across the Pacific from San Francisco to Australia by John Fairfax and Sylvia Cox in 1971/2, and across the Atlantic in 1974 by Peter Bird and Derek King. Peter Bird then rowed her across the Pacific but ran on to the rocks of Maui.
Also on display is Sector Two, the boat Peter built himself to a design by Nic Bailey for the first West to East, continent to continent crossing of the Pacific. He made several attempts, the last in 1996 ending in disaster - the boat was found floating upside down and empty by the US Coast Guard.
Nautica is a particularly depressing exhibit. At only 22 years old, Andrew Wilson was the youngest person ever to attempt a trans-oceanic row in Nautica, which he had designed and built himself. He set off from Newfoundland in 1980 and was never heard from again - the boat was washed up on the Scottish coast the following spring.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Cracknell and Fogle's transatlantic rowboat

Olympic oarsman James Cracknell and TV presenter Ben Fogle were first across the line in the 2005 Atlantic rowing race, eventually being placed third. Fogle since wrote a book and has been reminiscing on TV and radio about their sunburn, rashes, capsises, thirst, cold, heat, terror, hallucinations and so on until I swear I will never row out of sight of land no matter what. The fact that both rowed most of the way stark naked gets him a huge welcome on chat shows. Their boat Spirit of EDS Energy is on display at Earls Court - a 25 footer designed by Phil Morrison and built by Woodvale.

Transatlantic kayak

Peter Bray paddled this canoe from Newfoundland to Ireland solo and unsupported, in 2001. It took him 76 days. The boat is 20ft long and just two feet wide, which is not big enough to tempt me onto the ocean. It was designed by Jason Rice and built by Kirton Kayaks.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Britannia at the Earls Court Boat Show

John Fairfax was the first to row the Atlantic solo back in 1969, taking 180 days to get from the Canaries to Florida. The boat, a 25ft GRP cylinder designed by Uffa Fox and built by Clare Lallow in Cowes, was called Britannia. It used techniques developed for lifeboats to create a hull that would right itself from a total capsize, and if swamped would drain automatically within half a minute.
All the boats are from the collection of the Ocean Rowing Society, whose website has lots more pictures of the boats in action.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

One of the first transatlantic rows

Sidney Genders rowed Khaggavisana across the Atlantic in three stages (Cornwall-Canaries-Antigua-Miami) in 1969/70.
She is just 20ft long, designed and built by Bradford Boat Yard, but the shape is a classic dory, simple and robust.

Friday, 30 November 2007

Earls Court Boat Show 2007

To the metropolis for the new Earls Court Boat Show, a brave but probably doomed attempt to wrench the boating community back from Docklands.
Amazingly, the show had a special feature devoted to rowing, but it wasn't rowing for pleasure. It was rowing for agony. In short, transoceanic rowing.
I've never been able to understand it. Rowing across an ocean is like a stretch in Devil's Island with worse food. The labour is never ending, the sun relentless, the sores unhealing, the view an unchanging level horizon punctuated by terrifying, trouser-staining tropical storms.
God knows why they do it.
Here's a general view of the exhibit. In the background is the James Caird, famous for Ernest Shackleton's epic voyage to safety when his Antarctic exploration vessel Endurance sank in 1916. More later.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Rowing in Victorian Connecticut

Sooner or later, everyone falls to the temptation to Google their own name. The results are always particularly galling for me because the first two million pages are always devoted to a character from some American sitcom. But googling "Rowing for Pleasure" yielded this little gem, an 1889 article from "Outing" magazine about sculling from Yale in Victorian times. They don't write 'em like this any more - the language is arch and flowery even by Jerome K Jerome standards - but it is an evocation of an age that was truly golden if you were young and wealthy. Not so golden is the description of the waiter who serves them in the seafood restaurant at Savin Rock, which is typical of the casual racism of the period.

Thanks to the admirable LA84 Foundation Library for the text.

Outing Magazine 1889


Or, Rowing for Pleasure.

By Richard M. Hurd,

Yale class of 1888 and author of A History of Yale Athletics 1840-1888

In those good old college days when the sun rose earlier and our hearts were lighter than now, it was not seldom that we turned aside from the graver considerations of mathematical formulas, of logical premises and psychological conclusions, to themes no less dear to us because not included in the curriculum.

How many pleasant hours did we spend, not only in engaging in the various forms of athletic exercises, but in theorizing as to their development, in looking up the fables and facts of their past history, and in collecting statistics to prove beyond question their illimitable value to the race in general. And especially in one branch—the art of rowing a boat—how ardently we discussed the varied styles of rigging and rowing a boat, and how warmly we dwelt upon the power and skill, the pluck and genius of young and old boating men.

How eagerly we studied up the course of the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, the currents, tides and setbacks of the Thames, the system of training of the English University oars, and patriotically announced that Yale could undoubtedly defeat either Oxford or Cambridge. And, again, how patiently we pursued the fate of the two hundred odd Harvard and Yale oarsmen, and showed that, despite the croakers, they did not all die of heart disease within a few years after leaving college.

Few there were, I am sure, more zealous for true advancement, and more devoted “heelers” and backers in general of Yale’s athletic, and especially aquatic, fortunes than the humble occupants of our pair oar.

To say that the Wanderer was a cedar-built, mahogany-trimmed, lap-straked, pair-oared barge, some twenty feet long and twenty-eight to thirty-four inches beam, with two sliding seats and one stationary one, fitted with triple-barred outriggers, would be but a bald and commonplace description. She was the soul of beauty, riding the ardent waves that kissed her sides in homage like the true queen she was. An obedient mistress, quick to hear and answer, a dozen strokes would send her cleaving the waters and throwing off showers of fine spray, while the word “avast” or “hold” would check her impetuous course, like the curbing of a high-spirited charger. What care we that she had “Meaney” slides and “Kerns” rowlocks, or that her footrests were movable and inclined 37½ from the horizontal, when we know that we loved her as a friend to be trusted in, a companion who never wearied us, and a source of pleasure that never lost its zest.

‘Twas in early spring when first we stepped into our pair oar, and, though the sky was a little dark and chill, we donned our rowing suits, loosened our girths, tightened our foot straps, and glided steadily up the Quinipiac. The waves were rolling in gray, with soapy crests from the harbor, but duck-like we rode them, and so gaily kept on past the four bridges to the marshes, where the reeds were shooting up bright green from the brown earth. The clouds floated away one by one, and the sun came out to brown our arms and backs, white with the winter’s covering. On the sunny side of a hill thick with bushes we lolled away our lunch hour, making our meal of a box of crackers, a bag of oranges and a tiny bottle of champagne (from California, be it confessed). And so, on and on, the river winding ever, the salt marshes left behind and the country now a smiling farming land, till the water grows more shallow, the current swifter, and we stop at a farm house on the bank to learn where we are. The sloping sun warns us to be returning, and we swing back in the growing coolness to the boat house, where we meet the ‘Varsity crew ending their day’s pull. Twenty-five miles for the good Wanderer between 12 noon and 6 o’clock and not a weak spot or a cranky touch in all the paces we have put her through! A good draught of ale to the health of our mistress, and long may we swing in her to the tune of “Jolly Boating Weather!”

What so rare as that day in June when we rowed out into the broad harbor where the shining undulating waves were reflecting the deep blue of the sky above. As the shores receded all things seemed melted into a world of blue, sky and sea meeting and blending in shifting tones of light, of pearl gray, of cobalt, of warm and restful blue. Alone, seeming in a world of calm and sweet light and color, with lazy sails in the distance and ducks flapping by overhead, we drifted and dreamed for a brief hour. A plunge in the water from a creamy sand spit and a long, lazy swim awoke us to the realities of life, and it was with sharpened appetites that we sought the little hotel at Savin Rock, famous for its sea food dinners. We will pass by the oysters, raw and broiled; the clams, stewed and fried; the crabs, the lobster, the fish, all served by the blackest and most obsequious of darkies, and retake our seats as we start idly homeward. A glory of the setting sun fills all the heavens and is flashed back and forth from drifting clouds, pink, saffron, pale purple and crimson. The abundant rays bathe the Sound in soft and hazy light and show the sand hills of Long Island, a mirage on the horizon. The water is almost motionless, only a slow and gentle swell’ makes shifting gleams of sunset pink and sea blue along our course.

We throw our heads back, bareheaded, regardless of “form” or “style” in our rowing. We have no sharp-eyed ‘Varsity coach in the stern to remind us to “keep our eyes in the boat,” our “backs up,” etc., ad nauseam, and breathe in the fragrant air and revel in the world of richness and light above and about us. The colors grow warmer and deeper, the shores reflect deep browns and madders and purples, and at length are clear cut in black against the transparent lemon yellows and pale greens of the dying day.

It had been a cold and rainy summer up to the end of August, when the good Wanderer brought us together for a week of life on the water, in which Nature amply compensated for her cool behavior by a lavish bestowal of smiles and caresses. Ignoring as much as possible such dull things as names and dates and facts, let us recall only the sweet essence of this joyous trip, the memory of which comes back to us in our routine life like a parched flower’s recollection of a refreshing dew.

The day of our start was one to be remembered, with life and vim in the air, in which all things stood out strong and clear and real. From the old city of Middletown, down past the wharves where idlers in barges gaze stolidly at us, a two-mile stretch takes our thin rowing shirts off our backs, and it is in working costume that we swing steadily through the winding turns that high hills make in the river. Heavily wooded to the top with beech and maple and birch and walnut, a deep shade is cast on the river, and a sense of rare stillness pervades, where the only living thing is an eagle high in air, or a fish rising with a plash. Pleasant it is to loiter along, enjoying each new turn and vista of the changing views, gazing now at forest trees waving their foliage high in air and now at strips of green pasture nestling in bends of the river—new-made land, perhaps never yet trod by the foot of man. But there is work ahead, and for a few hours the crew sticks to its oars, till a rocky point entices us to a noonday siesta. The Wanderer is tied and two weary oars stretch themselves under the shade of dense hemlock trees. A dip in the river cools their backs where the August sun is already beginning to write a story, and the slender lunch disappears quickly. The first and only accident may here be recorded, which was the totally uncalled for excursion of the patented tin clothing case—waterproof, air-tight, non-sinkable, which slid down the rocks, with the cover off, into the river, breaking a bottle of cooling beer and soaking our entire stock of white flannels, blue blazers, striped belts, etc., in the watery element.

We pass now little villages on either bank of the river, all alike, a cluster of white houses with green blinds, in a bower of elms, with here and there an old white steeple pointing upward. Occasionally also a long narrow island, the gift of the river, with, perhaps, a hay house or a corn field to indicate its human ownership, is left behind.

As the rays of the sun fall more and more obliquely upon us, the long bridge of the Shore Line Railroad assures us that the mouth of the Connecticut is reached and that the work of the day is nearly done. We are well tired, we will confess, and we stretch out to rest on a stony beach, compared with which the bed of San Pedro of Alcantara was a downy couch.

And so in the soft twilight we reach Fenwick, and are not ashamed that it is but slowly that we stow away our boat, for we have put forty odd miles to our credit since 8 in the morning, and we are well pleased with our first day’s work. If it were not that the athlete, the oarsman, is a Spartan ever, and disdains to recount the bodily ills suffered in the enjoyment of his pastime, some mention might be made of sunburnt backs, of cold cream, of intermittent slumbers, but, under the circumstances, we forbear.

We were somewhat lazy, it must be confessed, the next day, and after a fine morning plunge in the salt waves did not get under way till about 4 in the afternoon. It was a glorious time to row, however, the water still and a gentle breeze fanning our sunburnt limbs. And a rare old supper we had, sitting on the bank of the river, some eight miles up, discussing a roasted chicken, a loaf of fresh bread and a bottle of new milk. With beauty ever fresh, the sun, about to end another day of labor, painted the glowing clouds, which in turn reflected their changing colors on the calm river. We lingered on and on, loath to leave, and it was black darkness when we reached Deep River.

Our search for an hotel brought us to what had been evidently in former years a flourishing hostelry, and one that might yet be restored to somewhat of its lost prosperity. “Wal, yaas,” the young owner said, “folks hey bin daoun from Hartford tew look at the house and they talked some of buyin’;” but it was easy to see that with the slow caution of the countryman he mistrusted the glib-tongued city folk.

A solid night’s rest and a swim in the river put us in good trim for breakfast, where we met a number of typical New England women, the relatives of the young owner, peaked and sallow in appearance, jerky and whiny in speech and of an irritating nervous energy. One of them, arrayed in rusty black, told continual anecdotes of her departed husband, and evidently derived much importance in the eyes of the others from her loss.

We were not sorry to settle down to work again under the blue canopy of heaven, with the sunshine playing about us on river and fields and hills. A pleasing triumph of the day’s row was our defeat of a steam launch on a three-mile stretch into Middletown. We smiled with renewed satisfaction in the “Bob Cook” stroke— even though, rowed by duffers—as we saw our adversaries “coaling up” without avail. We will not intrude into that rare old farm house where a college friend entertained us over night. The house itself, a hundred and fifty years old, the wealth of fruit and flowers and vegetables, the horses, the dairy, the poultry—all merit a detailed account beyond the limits of the present opportunity.

After half a day’s rest in Hartford we found our row upon the Windsor Canal the most charming feature of the next day’s experiences. A still stream, six miles long, sixty feet wide and thirteen feet deep, winding high above the rocky, dashing river, along the face of a sandstone cliff, it is surely one of the choicest spots in the world. A low towing path on the riverside reveals a view of wide and varied attractions, while nearer at hand is a fringe on either side of tall grasses and reeds, mingled with daisies and buttercups and clover.

The cliff, once harsh and bare, is now covered with drooping bushes of birch and sumach, while mosses and lichens and maidenhair fern hide the gashes in the rock and show only bits of soft red color. We revelled in the beauty of the scene, the tranquillity of the limpid stream and the absence of human life that lent to our advance all the charm of a discovery.

One more blissful day, down the canal, into the Connecticut, and up the Farmington, and the Wanderer's first boating trip is over. A hundred and thirty miles in six days, no mishaps, no casualties, the best of weather, the best of boats, the best of friends, combined to make up a week that, as the Arabs say, will not be counted in our length of days. Let those who will go to the fashionable hotels to dance and flirt the summer away, or to the mountains to walk, or the streams to fish, or the woods to shoot, but give me a light and trim-built boat, a willing companion, a beautiful river, and the radiant health, the buoyant spirits and the sweet scenes of nature that remain indelibly on the mind will repay one more than a thousand fold for the time and labor spent in manning a “pair-oared crew.”

Saturday, 24 November 2007

Round the back of Portsea Island

A couple of years back I navigated the Hilsea Channel that connects Portsmouth and Langstone harbours, in company with Conrad Natzio, designer of my Sandpiper spritsail boat. He sailed his own Oystercatcher.
Everyone has to do Hilsea Channel eventually because it looks so tempting on the map and forms a 'voyage' (we sailed from Bosham to Fareham) but it is a bit dismal to be honest. The channel is completely canalised and although one side is formed by the grassy ramparts of the Hilsea Lines, built in Victorian times to defend Portsmouth from the French, the other side is the M27 motorway.
The best plan is to start on a rising tide about two hours before HT to allow a decent air space under the bridges. There is no alternative to rowing (sorry sailing types!).
We went east to west, starting from the hospitable Tudor Sailing Club. The first bridge is the Eastern Road, which is not a problem.
We anchored and had lunch, being entertained by a broken-down van being towed off the bridge.
A member of the Langstone Cutters who had done the trip told me that the railway bridge was so low they had to lie down in their seats and hand themselves under it, avoiding threatening-looking ducting with 'High Voltage - Danger of Death' on which must have been alarming but we had plenty of room at this state of the tide.
This is a footbridge with a great big water pipe (at least, I assume it was water...) slung under it. This is looking back towards the railway bridge (rower's viewpoint).
This flying footbridge is not a problem for sailors but we might as well be complete.

Next challenge is the bridge under the Cosham Roundabout, which is actually a pair of bridges separated by a short culvert. Dark and uninviting but not a problem. It is entertaining to note that the older bridge (1920s?) has fancy stone balustrades but the later one, built when the roundabout was constructed in the 1970s, is brutally functional. I don't know which is worse - the half-hearted ornament or the don't-care functionalism.
That is the last of the low bridges. The next problem was that the new lagoon formed by the loop of the M275 didn't have enough water in it. Here is Cap'n Conrad scouring the horizon for a channel.
An inexplicable thing floats in the middle of the lagoon. Is it art, or some sort of beacon, possibly to attract alien spacecraft to Pompey?
The end is in sight when you reach the motorway bridge. It looks as though the traffic engineers have been generous to sailors this time, but the height is really there to provide headroom for the interchanges further down the road. Beyond the bridge on the north is a handy inlet for setting sail before entering Portsmouth Harbour.

A windless winter day

Put Snarleyow in at Itchenor today, and it was cold as charity but mirror-calm. Ideal. Followed the tide up to Dell Quay where I got out for a brief rest. DQSC had a race on, and the sailors were standing up in their boats pumping them from side to side trying to get a bit of speed up - they were working harder than I was!

Thursday, 22 November 2007

What's a skiff?

Sooner or later, every boat forum goes through a controversy over what is, or is not, a skiff. The problem is that every area has a boat called a 'Something Skiff' and local people refuse to believe that a skiff can be anything else.
In America, a skiff is quite a large power boat, and in Scotland the term refers to double-ended fishing boats that can be 40ft or more. Film makers can have some very odd ideas about what a skiff looks like.
In England, and on the Thames in particular, a skiff is always one of these:

Master boat designer Gavin Atkin prompted the thought on his blog by linking to a curious page on the Penwith District Council website giving definitions of all kinds of boats from Abras to Zooms, for some reason. 'Skiff' is defined thus:
"Has been used, to refer to many various types of seemingly unrelated small boats. The word has a complicated etymology: it comes from the Middle English skif, which derives from the Old French esquif, which in turn derives from the Old Italian schifo, which is itself of Germanic origin. The word is related to ship. One current usage of skiff is to refer to a typically small flat-bottomed open boat with a pointed bow and a flat stern originally developed as an inexpensive and easy to build boat for use by inshore fishermen. Originally designed to be powered by rowing, their form has evolved so that they are efficiently powered by outboard motors. The design is still in common use today for both work and pleasure craft."

So a skiff is a little ship! I'll buy that, though I have to say I draw the line at the word skiff being used to describe a high-tech racing dinghy.
Milton, as ever, got it right when he describes a lost sailor anchoring on a whale, thinking it to be an island, in Paradise Lost. Calling the boat a skiff instantly puts over how fragile and vulnerable the poor sinner is:
Leviathan, whom God of all his works
Created hugest that swim the ocean stream:
Him haply slumbering on the Norway foam,
The pilot of some small night-foundered skiff,
Deeming some island, oft, as seamen tell,
With fixed anchor in his scaly rind
Moors by his side under the lee, while night
Invests the sea, and wished morn delays


The best thing I have bought for my dinghy Nessy is a pair of square rowlocks, very like the ones in both the pre-war Snarleyow boats in the previous post.
Round rowlocks make feathering the oar very hit-or-miss, and getting it wrong can result in you lying on your back with your legs in the air, like Ratty. And I have never liked the feel of the round oar wobbling in the round rowlock.
Square rowlocks hold the oar firmly in place, either horizontally or at the correct 6 degree angle to the water, so you can put the power on with confidence.
Nessy's square rowlocks are things of beauty, created by American sculptor Doug Martin. They are cast in manganeze bronze, with nice big flats to take the pressure and horns at the top to hold the oar in safely.
I got them from Duckworks at an incredible $50 the pair. Similar items in the UK are £50 each - at current exchange rates that is four times the price. At the moment, getting stuff shipped in from the US can offer huge savings over your local chandlery.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Memories of Patricia Partridge (nee Wilder) 1924 -2007

My mother Pat Partridge died a couple of weeks back, which is why I was looking through the family photo albums. Cousin John sent me this picture of her getting out of Snarleyyow I, the Norfolk punt used for fishing the Thames at Wallingford. This must have been taken just after the War. I remember it well, though in the 1960s it was replaced by a nearly identical one, called Snarleyow Too.
Behind is the double skiff, Snarleyow III (I think - the numbering got a bit confusing and the name lost a Y as well). And to complete the fleet, here is my uncle Tim in 1949 at the wheel of the magnificent new Andrews slipper launch
The reason my grandparents chose the name is lost in the mists of time. Snarleyyow, or The Dog Fiend is an entertaining book of the sea by Captain Marryat. Snarleyow was a heroic artillery horse in Kipling's poem of the same name. Neither seem obviously appropriate for boats, but it is a strong and unusual word so I have named my small skiff Snarleyow in tribute.

Sunday, 11 November 2007


Another piece originally written for Duckworks Magazine, after a trip to Venice.

I hadn’t realised that not all boats in Venice are gondolas. The Venetians have developed a type of boat for every conceivable purpose, from little personal craft to delivery barges. My first picture shows the contrast between old and new. On the left is a wooden sanpierota, named for the island in the lagoon where it was first developed. Sanpierottas are small work boats, the ‘white van’ of Venice. On the left is a buzzy little plastic motor boat that young people sit in for hours, chatting, while they rev the engine.
Some sanierottas are elegant craft for family transportation.
Everyone’s favourite boat is the sandolo, very small, light and fast. They are rowed standing up, facing forwards, with crossed oars. Every Venetian learns how to do this while we were learning to ride bikes. The complex wooden oarlocks are called forcole, and come in everyday and luxury versions. The everyday ones built for strength and utility, and are deliberately made plain so that no one will steal them! Luxury forcole are works of art, carved in ornate shapes from walnut or wood from a fruit tree, and often decorated with gold leaf. I snapped the young man sculling his sandolo down the Grand Canal, perfectly at ease despite the motorway traffic of water buses, water taxis, phut-phut boats and, of course, gondolas.
The UPS truck of Venice is the topa, a traditional barge that used to be sculled but is now inevitably engine driven. Here is a topa delivering stock to a corner shop in the San Polo district.

When Venetians get the builders in, they arrive on a huge steel barge that forms a floating building site, and, just like builders everywhere, block the road for weeks on end.

I could not go to Venice without taking the obligatory picture of gondolas.

One of the wonderful experiences of Venice is taking the taxi to the airport. The water taxi, that is. Is there anywhere else in the world where you can do this? The sunset picture was taken as the water cabbie opened his engines out and sped over the lagoon at incredible speed. Great.