Tuesday 31 January 2012

Rowing for Pleasure reader Nick Vowles is a member of that fine body of sailors, the Dinghy Cruising Association, and posted some interesting thoughts on their Yahoo forum the other day. He said it had been 18 months since he asked for the forumite's advice on buying an outboard for his Tideway dinghy Baggywinkle. Everyone was rather dismissive of outboards, so he decided to go for a year without one and see how he got on.
Now he writes:
In that year we managed about 15 day sails and three weekend cruises and cannot recall once wishing we had an engine on board.
Thank you to Oliver for the encouragement to try and tack up the narrow creek we launch from at Saltfleet. We managed it several times with the wind bang on the nose and a little current against us. When the wind was not strong enough, rowing was the easy and enjoyable solution.
It has been a strange transition in mental attitude from thinking of rowing as a chore best avoided if possible, to rowing being our other reliable, effective and enjoyable form of propulsion.
For the first time in my life I went on the water this past Sunday knowing full well I would have to row, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience.
I used to think there was no point taking the boat out if there was no wind - I now know differently.
I know there are situations where having an engine might suit, but I am now sure for us, where we are and the boat we have, sail and oar is ample.
As you can see in the picture, all the Vowleses now row including daughter Elsie who is clearly giving it some welly and enjoying it. Fab!

Saturday 28 January 2012

A last word on punts

This delightful little cupola is on the boathouse of Riverside, the house in Wallingford that George Dunlop Leslie had as a country house shortly after he had written Our River. It was later split into three, my grandparents owning the central part but not, to my regret, the boathouse which was 'next door' to us.
Today, most punts are hire boats for the hordes of tourists in Oxford and Cambridge, but I think the classic punt would make perhaps the perfect canal boat.
Rowing is difficult and tedious on canals because they are narrow and winding, so the sculler must look behind almost continually and the spread of the oars makes navigation difficult when a narrowboat approaches.
A punter, on the other hand, looks forward and the boat is so narrow it can squeak past any barge. The water is not deep, there are no unexpected holes in the bottom, and a speed close to the speed limit of 4mph can be maintained with little effort. The huge internal space makes camping a pleasure.
The only possible drawback is that the bottom of every canal was sealed by a process called 'puddling', lining the bottom with mud. Does that make punting difficult? There was a punt hire business on the Regent's Canal in east London but it didn't last long - was this because there is no market for punting in the land of the Cockney or was it because punters were getting their poles stuck in the mud all the time? Please let me know, otherwise I might be building a punt for canal cruising soon. Paul Fisher does some nice plans....

Thursday 26 January 2012

Queen's Diamond Jubilee Pageant

I had a little rant the other day about how nice it would be if Her Maj was rowed down the Thames in a suitable State Barge for her Silver Jubilee Pageant, and now we find that one is indeed under construction.
Gloriana is nearly 90ft long and rowed by 18 oarsmen, 17 of the Royal Watermen and Sir Steve Redgrave.
The boat is gilded from end to end and the carvings include a mermaid and a sea serpent. The planking is sweet chestnut from the Duchy of Cornwall estate owned by Prince Charles. A discreet engine is fitted, which goes against my puritanical instincts but is probably a wise precaution.
The Queen won't be aboard on the day - apparently it will be used for heralds and trumpeters - but it is expected she will use it in future events. The royals will be aboard the specially decorated pleasure boat Spirit of Chartwell.
More on the build process here.
Further details of the procession have been released. It seems that Langstone Cutters' boats Bembridge and Mabel will be in the first section, so we should get a jolly good view of Gloriana.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

The Lore of Punting

G.D. Leslie compares and contrasts the benefits of punting against rowing at some length in Our River. Punts are the simplest boat you can devise, capacious, agile and easy to push along, he points out.
They are slow, he concedes, but "the person who shoves a punt has many advantages over the rower; the extreme monotony of the work of rowing, after a long spell, becomes very tedious, the hands get blistered, and the body cramped; if you are sculling without a coxswain the constant twisting your neck around to look ahead proves irksome, and if you have a coxswain, it is ten to one that altercations will be continually arising as to errors of the steerer."
Err, I recognise a lot of that, especially about the often fractious relationship between cox and crew. But then Leslie goes on to discuss the finer points of punting in a deep and wide river like the Thames, and gets very interesting.
Rowers may have to twist their necks to see where they are going, but punters are totally blind to the surface that is essential to progress - the river bed. However, there are many hints at the water's edge for an experienced punter.
"When the bank is low and flat, and the edges fringed with sedges, mud is certain to be found, as is the case also where where floating persicaria or water-lilies are seen, whilst round rushes and steep cliff banks generally indicate that the bottom is gravelly and the stream swift," he writes.
When punting upstream it is best to hug the inside bank of a bend where the current is smallest, though Leslie warns of the danger of being dragged out of the punt by low branches, like Absalom from his chariot.
Another tip is that great big holes are often encountered near bridges, where material was dredged out to build the bridge and its approach roads.
Leslie also greatly enjoyed the ability to collect passing flotsam simply by leaning out of the punt and picking it up. He would collect firewood, bottles, old boots even, on one occasion, a 'No Trespassing' sign: "I kept it as a trophy, on account of the dislike I have to these eyesores on the river."
Hear, hear!

Monday 23 January 2012

Sailing a punt

One of G.D. Leslie's eccentricities was sailing his punt. "I never saw any other punt but mine with a sail," he writes in Our River. I'm not surprised as it strikes me as a good way to get a soaking, but Leslie claims "by using the lee-board when the wind is across the river, a punt sails even better than a rowing boat."
A likely story. I am reminded of Philip Bolger's mystification when people said "that's a nice rowing boat, let's sail her", and that applies to punts with knobs on.
The rig is appealingly simple, however. A loose-footed lug sail with plenty of area high up, needed for water that is mostly sheltered by trees. Steering is done with the pole, and when the wind is abeam the passenger uses a floorboard as a makeshift leeboard.

Saturday 21 January 2012

Bee construction starts (again)

Construction of my Bee restarted this week with the assembly of the bottom and side boards the right way round (though I am still comparing them with the plans every five minutes or so, just to check).
I am learning more about epoxy all the time. The joints on the bottom plank had lots of air bubbles, the same problem that I had with Nessy, but this time Geoff the bosun, who is restoring Langstone Cutters' new arrival in the same shed, lent me a wonderful corrugated roller that squeezes the air bubbles out and creates a really good adhesion between the wood and the tape. I used it for the sides and it works a treat.
Next step: getting the bits together into a hull shape.

Monday 16 January 2012

How to Punt

G.D. Leslie poled his punt all along the upper Thames, but was mainly based in the area from Maidenhead to Henley. Punts are rarely seen be seen below Oxford these days, and Leslie's poling style has practically vanished as a result.
In Oxford, punts are propelled by 'pricking'. The punter stands in the stern on the sloping part, lifts the pole and pushes in the right direction, correcting the course by moving the pole like a rudder between strokes. This method has the advantage that the punt can be filled with indolent passengers.
Leslie, however, 'ran' his punt in the old-fashioned way by walking forward to the middle of the boat and pushing the pole with his whole body until he reached the stern again, a much more powerful action that he claimed was less tiring than pricking because the legs provide most of the power rather than just the arms.
Leslie also advises practicing poling on both sides of the punt because it is often necessary to hug the bank to keep out of the main current, something Oxford punters don't have to worry about so much.
Leslie completely ignores the deviant practice of punting from the till (the flat area of decking) that one sees in Cambridge.
The picture shows his punt at St Patrick's Stream in Shiplake.

Sunday 15 January 2012


Punting is a great way of navigating a relatively shallow, slow-moving stream such as the Thames. The Victorian artist George Dunlop Leslie, a member of the St John's Wood Clique, was an avid punter and described the joys and vicissitudes of punting in his book Our River, published in 1881.
The book is again available by the miracle of modern technology, both as a free download and as a print-on-demand volume from the British Library. I came across this lovely book by chance - I was researching Leslie as a previous owner of my grandfather's house, Riverside in Wallingford.
The picture shows G.D. Leslie in his own punt, built in Maidenhead where, Leslie claimed, the best punts came from. The book is a treasure-trove of punting technique, river lore, boating advice and rants on the steamboat menace. More over the next few days.

Thursday 12 January 2012

Gig Rowing on the Telly

Caroline Quentin, who used to be quite funny, has been reduced to making tourist videos for Cornwall, where she claims to have family roots. Most of her programme Caroline Quentin in Cornwall was a canter through the usual vineyards, tea rooms and so on, but one section made it worth recording and skimming through to get it without all the fluff. It followed Devoran Gig Club as they prepare for a race in drag with worryingly professional-looking makeup. They were clearly there for the beer, a very laudable attitude I say.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Boat Construction Starts

Construction of my new Bee started on Sunday. I epoxied the bottom planks together.
Today I examined the joints to find that the epoxy had set perfectly. But the planks were the wrong way round.
I sawed them apart.
Construction restarts when I calm down a bit.

Saturday 7 January 2012

London Museum Docklands

Thinking about State Barges recalled my visit to the Museum of London Docklands last year. The museum has several models and pictures of the barges of the Guilds or Livery Companies, and the shallops operated by the rich and powerful.
Picture quality is fairly rubbish, I'm afraid, due to everything being behind glass. If you want to see better, go and see them! Now!
The model to the right is the barge of the Company of Fishmongers, built in 1773. It was 75m long and had gilded figures of St Peter and various mercreatures including mermaids, mermen, boys riding on dolphins, and merhorses or hippocampi.
Shallops were smaller and plainer, operated by the livery companies to attend their ceremonial barges on big occasions such as the Lord Mayor's Show, and by aristocrats as water carriages.
Watermen were dressed in the uniform that is still familiar from the Doggett's Coat and Badge prize. The scarlet cap, tunic and knee breeches must have made a splendid sight. I think the outfit ought to be compulsory for all oarsmen at the Olympics this year.

Friday 6 January 2012

Queen's Diamond Jubilee Pageant

I'm so exited - Langstone Cutters has been invited to send two boats, the Solent galley Bembridge and Clayton skiff Mabel, to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Pageant, a flotilla of a thousand boats going down the Thames from  Richmond to Tower Bridge on June 3.
Time to break out the bunting that was last used to dress my grandparents' launch to celebrate the Coronation.
It looks set to be a great occasion, bringing rowers together from all over the country including Ullapool Coastal Rowing Club who will be bringing their St Ayles Skiff Ulla from the north of Scotland. It will be great to meet up with them.
The Queen will be riding in style in a Royal Barge converted from a pleasure boat, the Spirit of Chartwell, decorated to a design by film and TV designer Joseph Bennett. This caused raised eyebrows in the stuffier papers, but there is a precedent - the most lavish and impressive Royal Barge in history was designed by William Kent, not a boatbuilder but a sign painter before turning to furniture design and architecture.
His State Barge is preserved in the National Maritime Museum.
The ideal Royal Barge for the Diamond Jubilee would be a new rowing boat, designed by Lord Linley with Iain Oughtred, and crewed by the Royal Watermen and Doggett's Coat and Badge winners in their regalia, but there would be tedious security objections. The Spirit of Chartwell will have to do.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Evening Row

Well, we did get out rowing briefly last night. Many frustrated rowers went out for a lunchtime bike ride, and the wind declined during the day. There was just enough time between the arrival of water at the Langstone Mill slipway and sundown to get out for a quick bash round the harbour.
As we returned, a shadowy presence of a single rower in a Teifi skiff was seen under a rather dramatic sunset.
In the pub later, we got to discussing what the two stars we could see actually might be, and one of our number flashed his iPhone and demonstrated a star chart application that showed them to be Jupiter and Venus. It really is a wonderful app, all you do is point the phone at the part of the sky you are interested in and it tells you exactly what you are looking at. So I have downloaded Google Star Maps for my Android phone, and now I am an instant expert.

Monday 2 January 2012

Winter Rowing

What with the tides and the weather, rowing is very hit and miss at the moment. High tides right now are before dawn and after dark, and a line of fronts rolling in from the Atlantic has brought rain seemingly on most of the times when the tide was in and the light on simultaneously.
On the last day of the year, there was a window of opportunity at the end of the day so I went out in Kittiwake to Marker Point, a sticky-out bit of Thorney Island. You can tell it is Marker Point because opposite is this great big post, which has 'Marker' on it in big letters.
As I rounded the post I heard a distant voice. Someone on shore was hailing, but I couldn't see who it was or hear properly. I think it was Steve - if it was you, why weren't you out rowing in your Alden, eh?
Today, the plan was to row to the Isle of Wight from Lee-on-the-Solent and meet Henley Whalers for lunch. Unfortunately, the low tide means we are restricted to the slipways that go all the way, and all of them are blocked by banks of shingle. And the wind is predicted to be an easterly F4/5 right onto the slipways, which will mean launching will be wild and wet. So it is all off. Today I will go and photograph all the mass dials in Sussex.