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.