Thursday 28 February 2008

A sculler's grave

Brompton Cemetery in west London is a riot of extraordinary Victorian graves, and one of the oddest, but also most affecting, tombs is that of the champion sculler Robert Coombes.
It is a chest tomb about seven foot high, guarded by a carved figure of a waterman at each corner. Coombes’s boat lies on top, upturned on shore, with his traditional waterman’s coat lying across it as if abandoned.The inscription reads:
This monument was erected by public subscription
by the warm friends and admirers of
Champion Sculler of the Thames and Tyne
Born in 1808, Coombes was a London waterman, a member of the guild that for centuries had ferried passengers on the Thames. Watermen had always raced, particularly for the prestigious Doggett’s Coat and Badge, a fabulous rigout consisting of a scarlet waterman’s coat with big silver buttons and a saucer-sized silver badge embossed with the horse of the House of Hanover and the word ‘Liberty’, worn on the left arm. Two of the guardian figures are thus arrayed.
In the mid 19th century sculling was really big, attracting huge crowds that bet enormous sums of money at races mainly on the Thames and the Tyne. As the sport was adopted by the universities and schools, watermen found profitable employment coaching the upper classes – Coombes trained the Cambridge crew for the 1852 Boat Race.
But the watermen’s days were numbered. When Coombes was born there were only three bridges on the Thames in London, so crossing the river often meant employing a waterman. By the time he died in 1860 there were seven (I think), and the ferrying business was over. The railways finished them off as London’s water taxis.
The grave is remarkably lavish for a working man who was almost illiterate and died in an insane asylum. But it is now in a shocking condition - wind and pollution have erased most of the inscriptions, and the heads and hands have fallen off the statues. It must be restored – what are the chances of a public subscription to save this remarkable monument to a remarkable man?

Tuesday 26 February 2008

UPDATE: Scandinavian style rowing boat on eBay

A flurry of bids in the last five minutes of the auction took the price to £100. Sold! Was the late interest prompted by this blog, or simply a function of eBay's powerful automatic bidding feature? If you are the winning bidder and you saw it here, I would love to know. Email me on the link over there ----->

Monday 25 February 2008

Pilot gig model on eBay

The description of this item on eBay reads: "CARVED FROM ONE PIECE OF WOOD, A RATHER NICE 11" LONG MODEL ROWING SKIFF".
In fact it is a model of the Scilly Isles pilot gig Nornour, built in 1971 by Gerald Pearn. It looks rather nice, and a snip at a tenner. I might put in a bid myself.
A leading light of the Pilot Gig World Championship (held every May bank holiday on the Scilly Isles) recently told me that they win regularly because they go out in all weathers, unlike Cornish crews who "see a few white caps and go back in again".
Here is a great pic of Nornour out in a lot of white caps - look at the wave running down her side. The image is from scillywebcam's Flickr site.

PS if anyone is interested in the Scandinavian-style skiff I mentioned last week, bidding is stuck at £50 and the reserve has not been met. It must be worth more than fifty sovs. The auction closes in a few hours so hurry if you are interested.

Friday 22 February 2008

batana di rovigno

batana di rovigno
Originally uploaded by claun_zompetta
This batana was snapped in Rovinj. What a great picture - I must go there.

James Joyce's 'needleboats'

I have been searching the web for a possible original for the 'needleboats' that James Joyce watched on the Adriatic at Trieste in his poem 'Watching the Needleboats'.
The top suspect is the Venetian sandolo, because it is one of the most needle-like boats you can actually stand up in, but I understand it is used only in the lagoon, not the open waters of Trieste.
The standard boat type in the Adriatic is called the batana, which might be a needleboat although it is a rather beamier dory-style hull wiht a tombstone transom.
In Rovinj, further down the coast in Istria (Croatia) the batana is cherished.
The hull may be a familiar shape but the rigging is extraordinary.
The boat is usually rowed standing up facing forward, the oars working in thole pins on the ends of a cross beam that forms a pair of outriggers. Most boats seem to have Venetian style forcoli as well, so they can be rowed like a gondola.
The mast is set almost in the centre of the boat, with a balanced lugsail decorated with a symbol signifying the family that owns it, so the wife can put the kettle on as soon as her old man's sail is spotted coming into the harbour.
There is a splendid description of the batana on Istrianet, and there is a rather spiffing museum in Rovinj devoted to it.
Most villages on the Istrian coast will have batanas for hire, apparently, but Virtual Tourist has a stern warning about checking their seaworthiness before setting off in a boat hired at Porec:
"In case you wont to rent local type of rowing boat, you better check its conditiones before. If there is a long period of sunny and dry weather and you find the bottom of the boat is wet just quit of renting it. In case you don't trust to my advice, this is what might happen to you."

Thursday 21 February 2008

Surf boats at Newquay

Rescue 2010, the Surf Lifesaving World Championship is coming to Newquay, Cornwall. It promises to be a spectacular event, with surf paddling races, running on the beach (on the sand - crippling!) and races hauling blowup 'drowning victims' in a temporary Olympic-size pool behind Fistral Beach.
But the most amazing bit of all is the surfboat racing.
Local photographer and Times contributor Andy Cox sent me these great pictures of surf boating on Fistral.
Boats with four oarsmen and a cox who also steers by oar start knee deep in the water, leap into their boats and row for the breakers. If they manage to build up enough speed, they break through and continue to a buoy.
Getting back involves teamwork that river rowers can only gasp at. When they crest the wave, the crew has to leap to the stern to hold the boat horizontal as it surfs down the wave.
The tiniest miscalculation can lead to disaster, as this picture shows.
If they really blow it, the bow can dig into the sandy bottom and come to a sudden stop, pitchpoling the boat over and throwing the crew into the drink. If the prang is really good, it ends up on U-tube, thus:

(The commentary on this is a bit strange. Either he was being extremely insensitive or it is in fact less dangerous than it looks).
What really appeals to me about surf lifesaving as a sport is that it is designed to hone the skills of volunteers who make our beaches safer rather than just provide a platform for people to expand their egos. More power to their elbow, say I.

Tuesday 19 February 2008

Get out and do it!

This from the Bellingham Herald in Washington State is a story of a woman who lived in a house overlooking this but for 16 years failed to realise that if you bought one of these, the sensation of taking the one out on the other would be life-transforming. Of course she is an addict now, rowing four times a week.

Monday 18 February 2008

Scandinavian style rowing boat on eBay

Here's an interesting skiff for sale on eBay. It is said to be in a Scandinavian style, 15ft long by 4ft 6in beam.
One curious feature is the pair of lengthwise slats forming a seat, presumably allowing rowers to sit wherever they feel comfortable. I have to say it looks as though it might be a bit of a fundamental pain after an hour or so. Only one stretcher is visible, which I imagine can be adjusted to bring the oarsman into the correct relationship with the rowlocks. It is a bit difficult to see but there appear to be two pairs of rowlocks, one either side of the centre frame - why?
The other unusual feature is the small motor well, set to one side towards the stern. Its position would make it a little difficult to steer with, I suspect, but even a small engine should propel the long, slim hull at a reasonable lick, in a straight line at least.
The initial bid is £50. If I wasn't already approaching my unspoken but inviolable domestic limit on boat numbers I would be tempted.....

Saturday 9 February 2008

Out with the Dinghy Cruising Association

The weather on the South Coast of England was fabulous today, and I went out at Emsworth with the Dinghy Cruising Association.
It is difficult to judge how to row with a bunch of sailors. Arrive too early, and you are on the water before the sailors have got their boat covers off. A brisk paddle and you are ready to get out and go the pub, whereas the sailors are only half way out.
So I got to the slipway two hours after the time, to find the last boats leaving. The weather was delightfully calm so I got a good bit of speed up, but even starting late I was ready for lunch before anyone else.We met to eat on Fowley Island, an artificial lagoon off Emsworth apparently built for the oyster industry. Afterwards I rowed manfully down channel and was just congratulating myself on the speed I was maintaining when I glanced against a post, caught up on the rigger and propelled myself straight on my back. How embarrassing. Haven't done that for years. Paddled cautiously back to the slipway, arriving second.So the secret seems to be to arrive late and go early, with a superior feeling of having got much more exercise than anybody else. But it may be even better to invest in a boat with a bit of beam and a small downwind sail, to allow breaks from work and let everyone else catch up.

Tuesday 5 February 2008

What is a Needleboat?

I have come into possession of a rather wonderful book, The Joyce Book, published in a limited edition by Sylvan Press before the War. Sylvan Press was owned by my uncle Charles Rosner.
It is Joyce's Pomes Pennyeach, with settings by such composers as Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss and Herbert Howells.
One of the pomes is
Watching the Needleboats at San Sabba
I heard their young hearts crying
Loveward above the glancing oar
And heard the prairie grasses sighing:
No more, return no more!

O hearts, O sighing grasses,
Vainly your loveblown bannerets mourn!
No more will the wild wind that passes
Return, no more return.
San Sabba is a suburb of Trieste on the Adriatic. When Joyce lived there in 1912 with Nora, sullenly drinking while he tried to get The Dubliners published, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
But what is a needleboat? I've wasted most of the evening googling and am none the wiser. Is it like the Venetian sandolo? Any ideas?

Sunday 3 February 2008

Flashboats (again)

People keep on pointing to Paul Gartside's design for a 15ft rowing/sailing boat 'Bob' as one of the shapes they love the most, and it is indeed comely. Although based in British Columbia, Paul was born in Cornwall and based 'Bob' on a Cornish flashboat.
She is a bit short for a flashboat but is a only a single- or double-hander - a flashboat carries up to four plus cox. Bob can carry a small lugsail for downwind, and Paul has sensibly omitted a centreboard which is a horrid obstruction and is only any use in going upwind when you should be rowing anyway. He has also omitted the nasty and dangerous boom, suggesting instead that you pole out the sail with an oar when running before the wind.
This picture from Paul's website is a peach.
Interested in racing flashboats? Penryn Rowing Club has a full schedule of races both in flashboats and pilot gigs.