New skiff ‘on board’ for Christmas

The skiffs are proving popular among women rowers.

History is coming to life at the Hout Bay Yacht Club where a St Ayles skiff is being constructed by Chris Sutton, a yachtsman with several international trips to his credit, as well as several enthusiastic assistants.

In the latter half of the 19th Century and right up until the Second World War, the coastal villages and towns of Scotland had small crews of fishermen who earned or supplemented their living by rowing out to their chosen fishing grounds.

Often they came home with fairly substantial catches of hake, halibut or herring.

These crews had to be hardy because Scottish weather can be violent and there were always days when in order to get home they were forced to row 10 or more miles into rough seas and fierce winds.

Such crews had to have boats that could cope with these conditions and many of the most successful of the early designs were double-ended clinker built four oared skiffs (with a fifth crewman as cox), the prototype for which was the Fair Isle skiff, later to be known as the St Ayles skiff.

This had a raised bow and stern and could be steered with a rudder or an oar. When motor driven trawlers and line fishers took over the Scottish fishing industry, the skiffs were in danger of becoming obsolete. However, a few coastal villages kept skiff rowing alive as a recreational pastime, often organising regattas between rival teams.

In 2009, the Scottish Fisheries Museum, hoping to revive coastal rowing, commissioned a naval architect, Iain Oughtred, to design a modern version of the Fair Isle yoal. Thus was born a boat that has the performance ability as well as the traditional good looks of a true St Ayles skiff.

Built with lightweight plywood, it weighs only 185kg and is 8m long. It has five fixed seats (sliding seats are not encouraged) and is said to be particularly handy in rough weather. The established boat builders, Jordan Wood Boats, were given the responsibility of turning out kits or completed versions of the boat and to their great surprise within the first two years they sold almost 100 of these.

Since then St Ayles skiffs have taken off like wildfire. Here in South Africa, a
St Ayles skiff is now under construction in the Hout Bay Yacht Club. The Oughtred design was in theory simple enough to make the boat suitable for amateur boat builders and Jordan Wood Boats can supply them with a complete computerised designs or a kit.

These enable the builder to set up a frame on which the lightweight plywood clinker planks are laid and then glued together.

This apparently simple process does, however, have its challenges and the Hout Bay Yacht Club is fortunate to have Mr Sutton as the volunteer boat builder on the first skiff.

He has the help of several assistants, including Petra Widmer, a Swiss oarswoman, and Paul Tomes, but he has, in fact, been responsible for 85% of the work put in.

He said that the task has given him great satisfaction, despite its challenges.

The St Ayles skiff, being longer, narrower and lighter than the mini-whaler Billy Boy in which an “old men’s” crew has rowed regularly at Hout Bay, will inevitably be faster and more capable of handling rough weather. The oarsmen in the skiff will each have their own bench and will have oars that are some 300mm longer than those used by Billy Boy.

Mr Tomes, who initiated the skiff project and talked Mr Sutton into taking on the building, says that it is possible that by the end of next year the Hout Bay Yacht Club will have three skiffs, possibly competing with each other.

A healthy percentage of those joining the new coastal rowing club are women and it is expected that most crews will be made up of both sexes.

Mary-Clare Tomes, one of the first to sign on, rowed for her college at Oxford and Ms Widmer gained valuable rowing experience in Switzerland where she was a member of a successful four-oared crew.

Mr Tomes said that in the UK, Scottish skiffs have proved particularly popular with women over the age of 40. He stresses, however, that no previous rowing experience or great fitness are needed and that the average person can pick up seawater rowing skills in three or four sessions.

“This type of rowing is a great way to get out into the fresh air and take exercise. It can also do much to bring communities together. In Northern Ireland, the government sponsored a skiffs programme to bring former Protestant and Catholic adversaries together.”

Mr Tomes said people were attracted to coastal rowing because being on the sea was for many a new experience and the sport could be done on a social or a competitive basis. It is expected that the new skiff will be launched around Christmas time and taken out two or three times a week, affording members the opportunity for regular exercise even in adverse conditions.

* For more information, contact Paul Tomes on 083 399 5533.

The Hout Bay Yacht Club has also made great strides in terms of youth sailing in Hout Bay.

In June this year, Theo Yon was appointed as the club’s full-time sailing instructor, supported by Sue Dalton to manage the Start Sailing programmes.

The goal is to create not just an excellent sailing school but to build a permanent home for youth development sailing in Hout Bay and once again be able to have an intake of disadvantaged youth from neighbouring townships, to progress from learners to proficient sailors and enjoy the sport of sailing.

These youngsters are learning alongside other youth and adults from more affluent backgrounds, also undergoing sailing instruction.

* Tim Cartwright is a new member of the Hout Bay Yacht Club and has been a coastal rowing enthusiast for 40 years.