SPECIAL SECTION – Bristol

The Bristol and Portsoy skiffs are rowing in company tomorrow from Kilchoan, as there are no clubs to connect on this stretch of the coast north from Ardnamurchan, through the Small Isles until the brand new skiff on Skye is reached – and they are making an expedition of it! The section pilot is Topher, from Ullapool.

“My chance first encounter with a St Ayles – Ullapool 2013 – my grandson is also called Loki!” – Tim Down
Today’s log is by way of introducing the Bristol crew to Scottish Coastal Rowers. It is written by Tim Down, who you will all know as the voiceover on the SCRA coaching videos.

Our motley crew from Bristol is flying the flag of convenience of AllAboard (AAB) Watersports. In fact, most of us do have some connection either as volunteers, rowers or coaches at AAB although there are one or two from further afield – for instance, West Cornwall.

The skiff we are are bringing is, however, not one of AAB’s skiffs but Roxanne complete at long last – but still to be launched. Roxanne was built at Merchants Academy as a construction project; this school is situated in one of Bristol’s most deprived areas. The funding for the build came from Sport England, a local business and a couple of interested benefactors. She is currently sitting on the banks of the Avon at Ariel Rowing Club (Bristol’s oldest sports club) awaiting her first outing. She was built over a two year period by a small team of pupils supervised by an apprentice from Bristol Classic Boats for whom this was his first ever start-to-finish build. During the final stages of sanding and painting a number of ‘Summer Winers’ (apologies for stealing that phrase) joined in and effectively made it a multi-generational project.

‘Roxanne’ was the only person never present during the build. All that we know about her is that she is the sister of one of the former pupils at the school. But we like the name…
Some of the build team



The view at half tide of the pier at Clevedon
As rowers we have the opportunity to row in all weathers on the 3km of Bristol’s sheltered, non-tidal harbour. However, once we enter the Bristol Channel we encounter the world’s second highest tidal range – over 14 metres on springs and a paltry 9 metres on neaps. Any mistake with timings can prove extremely embarrassing! Our silt-filled Bristol Channel water is completely opaque and never, ever blue. We see some interesting wildlife, notably peregrine falcons on a regular basis but all of our party have a hankering to row along the Scottish coastline and enjoy the wildlife, the turquoise seas, and the shimmering white/golden sands… In particular, one of our number is desperate to visit Morar and Arisaig – locations of his favourite film ‘Local Hero’. We do have spectacular views when rowing on the Bristol Channel- to the north the Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons and to the West Exmoor and the Quantocks.

One of the best urban adventures in the country can be had by locking out of Bristol harbour and travelling down our famous gorge and underneath Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge. It is truly awe-inspiring and as a fairly experienced cox’n who has experienced some fairly dramatic seas it is the environment in which I most feel the fragility of the boat. I wonder what it will be like rowing in the shadow of mountains ten times the height of our gorge?

Passing through the Gorge
Locking into Portishead at the mouth of the Avon



Our group has amassed a wealth of experience rowing Cornish pilot gigs, Montagu whalers as well as the St Ayles, and have rowed in events as far away as Tasmania, Brittany and Holland. For some of us there is an annual pilgrimage to the Isles of Scilly for the gig world championships which is an extraordinarily colourful event with up to 150 gigs taking part. The start line for the mass seeding races is approximately 2km long which is as long as the course itself! Gigs are finer in the beam than the St Ayles with a length of 10 metres. They are rowed by six oarspeople and are faster than the St Ayles though not nearly as manoeuvrable; they are also heavier and a good deal more expensive. They can only be built by specialist boatbuilders. The Cornish rowing style with one hand over and one under is idiosyncratic and the subject of some heated debate – don’t start me…

Gig World Champs on the Scillies
Gig World Champs on the Scillies



One of the great things about a trip such as this is the planning and for our party it would be not only organising the transport up to Scotland but also the accommodation and the need for co-ordinated shoreside logistics. Just as we were about to organise a full shore-based reconnaissance trip the lockdown took over and all that anticipation of a great upcoming adventure goes into suspension.

Lockdown whimsy … Tim Loftus, boatbuilder of Ullapool formerly of Bristol, with his wooden bike
Lockdown whimsy continued …I honestly did not realise this lady was an amputee until she told me her leg had come off..
From an earlier expedition – the Thames Barrier