Friday, 31 July 2009

Rowing on Lac Leman

Brian Pearson has been learning to row an Echo recreational rowboat on the lovely Lac Leman in France (or Lake Geneva as it is known over the border in Switzerland). He writes:
Hi Chris
Just back from a great holiday in Meillerie, just along the shore from Evian.
I loved the Echo, just so well resolved. Light enough to carry and launch singlehanded. Easy to launch from the beach, in thigh deep water. Just sit on the gunnel, the hull and deck have enough buoyancy to support you, and swing your legs inboard.
Feels tippy at first, in the same way a kayak does for the first ten minutes, but then ok. So much to learn to row smoothly. Improved each day, though usually worse to begin with at the start of each row. By the end of the holiday I was finding skimming the blades along the surface on the recovery stroke helped keep things much more balanced. Hooked!

Lots of other rowing going on as well. Meillerie had it's rowing regatta on the 18th July. All the local villages compete during the summer. They use just two boats, 10m long gigs with 8 rowers and a cox, and share them between all entries. They have a schedule of timed starts all evening long, the men do two figures of eight and ladies just one figure of eight. They were still racing in the dark. Terrific sight flying past the start platform at hull speed, full on shouting and grunting - just the men, ladies much quieter.

A neighbour had bought a lovely Flashboat, strip planked by a New Zealander in Cornwall. Super boat and very quick. Here is a pic as they arrived back from the Swiss shore, with Alinghi in the background, the new 90' Americas cup boat out on sailing trials. So, a great rowing holiday!

You do look a bit nervous in that picture, Brian, but you seem to have learned fast. Top tip: never let go of both oars at once!
The Meillerie gig looks fabulous and judging by the number of outriggers can take twelve oars, which should make it move a bit. The flashboat looks great too. Thanks!

Thursday, 30 July 2009

James Renforth, Champion of the Tyne

The last of the great trio of champions rowers of the Tyne was James Renforth, and his story is both a tragedy of a life cut short in its prime and of a rivalry that was transformed into friendship.
James Renforth was born in Gateshead in 1842, and started work as a foundryman before joining the army and serving abroad, which was clearly uncongenial because his father bought him out. He returned to the Tyne and became a waterman, ferrying workers out to the old Newcastle Bridge which was being demolished.
In 1868 Renforth became Champion Sculler of the World by beating Londoner Henry Kelley on his home waters, the Thames at Putney.
Renforth was a giant of a man with a huge lung capacity and was regarded as unbeatable - it had a severe impact on his income, as nobody was willing to race him.
Rowing was becoming international in the latter half of the 19th century, and Renforth was invited to put together a four to race a champion Canadian crew on the St Lawrence River in 1870. The crew was split over which boat to use, and when he wass challenged to defend the title he called on his old Cockney rival Henry Kelley to turn out.
The race was held on the Kennebecasis River in 1871. The Tyneside crew started well, according to the Newcastle Daily Chronicle:
"At the third stroke the Tyne crew showed three feet ahead, and as they gradually settled down to their work, and pulling in their usual grand style, at less than two hundred yards they had increased their lead to fully half a boat’s length. A few strokes after, to the practised eye of any one familiar with boat-rowing there was manifestly something wrong with Renforth. He appeared to falter and to pull out of stroke. The other members of the crew held gallantly on, and for the next two hundred yards they, notwithstanding Renforth’s irregular rowing, maintained their lead of half a length. By the time this point was reached Renforth’s condition had told its tale, he was swaying from side to side of the boat. The St. John crew were soon level, and pulling their usual short, rapid stroke with great regularity and precision, they began to forge ahead, and by the time the boats had gone half a mile the Tyne men were nearly three lengths behind.At this point Kelley called on Renforth to make an effort, and the gallant fellow rowed on with great resolution, but evidently in a sinking condition, till one mile and a quarter of the course had been covered. The oar then dropped from his hand; turning to Kelley he said ‘Harry, I have had something,’ and then fell backward into the boat. Kelley held the poor champion, while Percy and Chambers rowed the boat to Appleby’s Wharf."
James Renforth died shortly after. He was just 29 years old.
There was a lot of money riding on the race, so there were accusations that Renforth had been poisoned in some way, possibly by smearing the oars with some noxious substance. However, he was an epileptic and may have had congestion of the lungs as well.
The news came as a great shock to Newcastle. Local songwriter Rowland Harrison wrote:
Ye cruel Atlantic cable
What's myed ye bring such fearful news?
When Tyneside's hardly yeble
Such sudden grief to bide.
Hoo me heart it beats - iv'ry body greets,
As the whisper runs throo dowley streets,
"We've lost poor Jimmy Renforth,
The Champien o'Tyneside."
He is commemorated by a touching monument in Gateshead, showing him expiring in the Kelley's arms.
Remarkably, a pair of Renforth's sculls were rediscovered in Boston a little while back, together with the port oars from the 1871 Tyne crew including the one used by Harry Kelley.
Made by Ayling, Renforth's sculls have a painted belt with the inscription 'Champion of England' and JR in the middle.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Shipyard School Raid 2009

The Shipyard School Raid takes place in the rugged and beautiful scenery of British Columbia, with names like Jedediah Island and Desolation Sound. This year it was blessed with great weather, with none of the rain for which the region is famous.
Two interesting rowing boats entered.
Bus Bailey is a 1930s handliner, a sleek double ender. Owner Colin Masson rowed her to victory in one leg and an overall second place, demonstrating that you don't have to sail to win.
Tuvaak is an umiak, a skin on frame boat built by Sea Scouts in Kent, Washington, helped by kayak guru Corey Freedman. The 26ft boat can be rowed by a crew of up to twelve, though the Raid crew consisted of seven youths and two adults, so it could be sailed as well as rowed. She came fourth.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Morning rowing

Ted Major sent this atmospheric shot of a sculler on the Black Warrior River in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, early one morning.
There is nothing lovelier than rowing through the mist as it burns off the water at the start of a brilliantly sunny day. I must do it again soon (if we get a brilliantly sunny day any time soon, of course).
Thanks, Ted.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Search for a rubbing strip

My sliding seat skiff Snarleyow is finally being refurbished. I have stripped off several layers of paint and taken off the outer gunwales. They were perfectly sound but the little pine strips between them and the inner gunwales had rotted in several places.
So now I have to find some long (16ft) strips of thin (three-quarters of an inch square or so) meranti to replace them. This is proving more difficult than I had anticipated.
The problem seems to be that the equipment in local sawmills is so hefty that adjusting them down to such small dimensions take time and does not even guarantee the size. It would be easier for me to buy a plank and cut it down with a table saw, but as I don't have a workshop I don't want to invest in a table saw that will sit in a shed most of the time and rust.
So does anybody know of a timber merchant near Chichester, Sussex, that might have some long thin bits of meranti (or equivalent) hanging around?

Monday, 20 July 2009

Indian Ocean rowers arrive at Mauritius

The first wave of boats in the Indian Ocean Race have arrived at Mauritius.
First across the line was Aud Eamus (above), but that did not win because it was not actually in the race - the boat has a crew of eight and does not comply with the rules - it was entered to set a record for the event which they duly did (scrutineers permitting).
Next in, and claiming first place, was Bexhill Trust Challenger.
Third to arrive was the all-woman crew of Pura Vida (right) but one of their number fell and injured herself, and the boat was blown north of the official finishing line. They did, however, pass the longitude of the line unaided to become the first female team to officially row the Indian Ocean.
As a result of these confusions, the fourth boat to arrive, Rowing for Prostate, came in second.
The two pairs boats are still more than 500 nautical miles from the finish line.
One of the fours, two other pairs and both solo attempts had to retire from the race.
All the details and lots more pictures are at

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Boat Mags

I gave up buying Classic Boat a few months ago. It's boat porn. NTTIAWWT but it doesn't cater for my particular perversion. Shoe fetishists don't buy bondage mags and there is nothing for rowers in Classic Boat.
OK, I'll move on from that analogy now.
I have from today given up Wooden Boat as well. It is really great for people who get their rocks off on yachts and cabin cruisers with acres of varnish, brass, gilded lettering and natural fibres, but small boats in general and rowing boats in particular are almost totally absent.
But there is a demand. Every month, the 'Launchings' section dominated by small boats, and a rowing boat appears on nearly every page. This clearly indicates that Wooden Boat is failing to cater for many of its readers.
This month, no rowboats are featured in the editorial (don't even think about claiming the wheelbarrow boat as a rowing boat - it may have oars but it is a tender to a large, varnished yacht and no more. Ingenious though.)
But hidden away in the launchings section, where the real people live, are Bruce Elfstrom's Raider, Ed Einboden's Penobscot 14 and Jonathan Minott's Adirondack guideboat. This shows that there is a demand for rowing content that Wooden Boat is failing to address.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Rowing in the Rockies

A great post on Duckworks Magazine this morning. Mike Shannon in British Columbia built a 14ft dory to John Bell's Blackberry design. He and his wife row it on the Columbia River with the spectacular backdrop of the Rocky Mountains.
The Blackberry is designed to be more stable than most dories so it can be comfortably used for fishing and so on. Plans are available on John Bell's website.
Key quote from John: "[Rowing is] great exercise in that it’s so much fun that I hardly notice it is good for me."

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Cape Ann Seine Boats

Seine fishing boats are still raced at Gloucester, the old fishing port at Cape Ann, Massachusetts, but they are very different from the inshore boats used in the Teign estuary.
Gloucester seine boats were designed to be carried on the deck of a schooner to hunt mackerel in the St Lawrence Gulf and Cape Hatteras, up to fifty miles offshore, so they are much longer at 38 to 40 feet. They were double-ended, rowed by ten oars, double-banked, and steered with an oar in rowlock on the stern.
The method was much the same as on the Cornish coast. A lookout in the rigging would cry 'School-oh' when fish were spotted, and the boat would set off with the net, often with a dory to tend to the other end. When the net was secure, the schooner would come alongside and the fish would be bailed into the fish hold for salting, or, if the voyage was nearly over and a port was close by, put on ice.
The pictures are from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration archive.
Seine fishing boat races are a big feature of the annual St Peter's Fiesta at Gloucester, held on the weekend closest to the saint's patronal festival on June 29. Three boats, Santa Maria, Nina and Pinta, are enthusiastically raced over a mile long course.
This year competition was intense, as captured by local blogger Jay Albert. Jay has lots of extremely atmospheric shots here, plus pictures of the other great attraction of the fiesta, the greasy pole.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Seine boats on the Teign

The seine boats of old mentioned in Monday's post are still raced in, I believe, just two locations in the world.
One is the River Teign in the Devon, where fibreglass copies of an original boat were made by a boatbuilder called Alan Chaney. The boats are now owned by members of the River Teign Rowing Club, who run a punishing agenda of races through the summer.
The seine boats are rowed by four oars and a cox and competition is fierce, as you can tell from the length of the crew lists. The names are most inventive. My faves are the Busty Rollocks (Senior Ladies, would you believe) and the Up Y'oars (Men, and Vets so should know better).
The boats are 17ft long and built for carrying lots of fish rather than going very fast, so they are hard work to row as many of the pictures show. But just as rewarding when you win.
The picturesque River Teign couldn't be matched as a place for rowing. Or can it? I'll post the location of the other seine boat racing hotspot tomorrow.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Sliding seat madness

Boatbuilder supreme Chris Perkins writes:
Hi Chris,
found my solution to boaty activity without risking the water:,544.pdf. A stumbled find when looking for Barrett rowlocks for the Rangeley! One of those sites you just get sucked into - another hour wasted when I should have been clearing the shed!
Cheers Chris
This is it - a sliding seat bicycle:This frightening machine was invented by one Louis S Burbank from Worcester, Massachusetts in 1900. Looks as if it could go fast - can't see any brakes, though.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Scottish Coastal Rowing

The Scottish Coastal Rowing Project aims to promote traditional fixed seat rowing north of the Tweed, where apparently it has rather languished in comparison with the huge popularity of such boats as the Cornish Pilot Gig, the Celtic Longboat and the Thames Waterman Cutters and the like.
So the aim is to produce a standard design of pulling boat that will encourage competition, and can be constructed by groups or communities, at reasonable cost and involving achievable woodworking skills. The design is a corker, a double-ender designed by Iain Oughtred but based on a model of a Fair Isle Skiff in the Scottish Fisheries Museum at Anstruther, one of the backers of the project.
The boat will be called the St Ayles Skiff, after the building in which the museum is housed. It is 23ft long by 5ft 7in beam, which is rather short by Pilot Gig standards but should be very seaworthy. There will be four rowers and a cox.
What makes the project different and interesting is that the boat will be available in kit form from Alec Jordan, and schools, youth clubs, villages, sports clubs and even pubs will be encouraged to build their boats themselves. This should build community spirit like little else. The kit will cost about £1,350 and the total cost including epoxy etc will be about £3,000, a relatively affordable sum.
The first boat will be built at the Fisheries Museum this winter. It is to be hoped that a fleet will come together fairly quickly if the class is to become established.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Seine fishing

Seine fishing must have been one of the most arduous of ways to make a living out of rowing. The seine net was a gigantic curtain that was wrapped round a shoal, the net being held up by floats at the top and held down by lead weights at the bottom. When the whole shoal was in the net, it was dragged bodily into shallow water so the fish could be transfered into boats and taken ashore.
In the old days, the net would be carried out on a seine boat rowed by six oarsmen and steered with another oar. The boat would row round a shoal directed by a 'huer' on a tall building or cliff ashore, yelling through a megaphone.
Seine fishing for pilchards off the Lizard in Cornwall is vividly described by James Cliff at the brilliant St Keverne Local History site.
It could be another universe. Today, seine fishing boats are huge diesel jobs that can haul the net and catch bodily out of the water and into the fish hold.
Smaller seine fishing boats used in estuaries are still raced with enthusiasm in two places in the world, however - more on that later.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Onawind Blue heads south

Ben at the Invisible Workshop has taken his Gavin Atkin-designed boat Onawind Blue to Ibiza, a long offshore voyage that required rowing a lot. A vivid description of the trip is here (the picture above was taken on an earlier adventure - Ben promises photos of the Balearics trip soon).