The youngest member of Crail Rowing Club receives the baton from the oldest member of St Andrews Coastal Rowing Club on Kingsbarns beach. Both crews had to row to this handover point from their home harbours as there’s no good option to launch a skiff at Cambo Sands.
The coast is mostly rocky with skerries and submerged rocks reaching far offshore. There is no safe harbour between Kingsbarns and Crail so it’s a good 5nm non-stop row which is only possible in the calmest of conditions (i.e. you can count the suitable days on one hand). The first half to Fifeness is fully exposed to winds from the north and east. The second part to Crail is against the prevailing southerlies and westerlies. On top, strong tidal currents swirl around Fifeness, and Crail is a tidal harbour only accessible for around three hours either side of high tide.
Regardless of obstacles (social distancing included!), the crews of Crail and St Andrews are highly motivated and set off from the beach at Cambo Sands in style.
We don’t have a support RIB, but we have spotters along the coast to monitor the crew’s safe progress. The first check point appears after about 1.5 nm. We’ve already rowed past Kingsbarns Links followed by some craggy coastline, before we make out the manicured green of Balcomie Links on our starboard side. Our onshore support party is enjoying G&Ts on the clubhouse panorama deck but they have also spotted our red skiff Partan sliding into view thanks to the crew’s T&G rowing (that’s Tough and Gnarly, in case you wondered).
The cox carefully steers Partan over the skerries of Balcomie Briggs with the North Carr beacon a good distance off to our port side. The nautical chart warns us to stay well clear of the shore, but this was not always the case. It is hard to imagine that, from the 16th to the 19th century, Fife Ness had a harbour near Balcomie Beach. This was first used by fishing boats, then to ship stone from the nearby Craighead quarry, and later even to construct a stone beacon to mark the treacherous North Carr Rocks.
As we row around the eastern most point of Fife and the Lochaber Rocks we get clear views of the Fife Ness lighthouse and the nearby coastguard station which was in operation until 2012. We now have to call Aberdeen coastguard in case of an emergency or to log our trip report – but we already did that before setting off, so we’re all good.
Fife Ness is also famous for the misplaced landing of Marie de Guise-Lorraine, the future mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. After her proxy marriage to King James V, Marie de Guise set foot into Scotland near Lochaber Rocks (of all places!) in 1538. This was (clearly) not the intended landing spot but her fleet captain had mistaken Balcomie Castle for that of St Andrews. King James V arrived the next day to collect his new wife and take her to St Andrews for the confirmation and nuptial blessing in the cathedral, and well, the rest is Scottish history….
As we row Partan around Fife Ness we also keep an eye out for ‘air traffic’ – this easternmost point of Fife is a haven for bird watchers. Gannets elegantly soar past us on their commute between their North Sea feeding grounds and their famous colony on Bass Rock just off North Berwick (where the baton will get to at the end of the month). As we’re doing this section in August we might still spot the last of the Isle of May puffins and their pufflings on their long migration towards the open sea. We might also see another marine star – bottlenose dolphins. These are the same dolphins that the crews from the Moray Firth or around the Tay might have already encountered, and North Berwick and beyond might also get to spot them. These dolphins really get around the length of the Scottish East coast, and unlike our skiff, seem to move about with ease in the strong tidal currents.
We now row south-west for 2nm along the Kilminning Coast, most of which is a Nature Reserve with the Fife Coastal path running through it. We spot the distinct formation of Kilminning Castle Rock, and then gain sight of Sauchope Links Park with its extensive site for tourers and lodges. The idea of a wood-fired hot tub outside one of those posh glamping pods sounds very appealing to our slightly achy muscles, but we’re not there yet. We first have to get through our own little ‘Bermuda triangle’ where skerries, currents and swell tend to pile up waves out of nowhere, and many a novice rower (or cox) suddenly found the going a little scary. It’s only a short rough patch though, and we’re into Roome Bay, and with that, officially in the Royal Burgh of Crail. We slalom our way past the creel buoys and towards Crail harbour.
Our experienced cox picks up the leading lights almost on autopilot, and ensures that we’ve got a clear line between the skerries. As we reach the outer harbour wall dating back to the 16th century the stroke, out of old habit, picks up the rating for a few final sets of ‘Power Tens’ to the beach.
As Partan gently slides onto the sand, the cox instructs the crew to ‘do the Oar Thing’ – which is our Club’s signature move to stow away the oars without clubbing each other on the heads or clashing blades. For a wee demonstration of ‘the Crail Oar Thing’ in reverse, visit the CRC facebook page:
Mission accomplished: Partan and crew are safely back home, and fun was had – certainly on plenty of previous outings. For an impression of what rowing in and out of Crail harbour really looks like see this video:
“And so this is our wee hobby, we think it’s pretty braw,
It’s given us a lot of joy though it’s left our bums quite sore!
We take away the souvenirs of the medals for which we’ve rowed
But it’s the memories and friendship that’s been the real gold.”
From ‘Fare thee well Crail rowers’ written by Dawn Hollis; for a full rendition watch the youtube video of Partan with the song performed by Dawn to the tune of ‘Drumdelgie.’
Passing the baton
Despite the virtual everything, we manage to meet up with an intrepid ladies‘ crew from St Ayles Anstruther who’ve ventured to Crail to receive the baton to take it on its next leg to the clubs of the inner Firth of Forth. Here’s Crail (in red) handing the baton to Anster (in blue) at Crail Harbour beach – we all enjoyed getting out those under-used club shirts.
We had hoped to celebrate this handover with a BBQ on the beach, but that’s got to wait for a bit longer. In the meantime, after a rather damp photo shoot we all enjoy a brief socially distant catch up and Dougie’s homemade cakes. Community & Spirit – that’s what skiff rowing is all about!
About Crail Rowing Club
Crail Rowing Club was formed by a handful of keen residents (and mostly non-rowers) in November 2010. We’ve always been a small club, with around 20+ active members. Partan, our shiny red skiff, built and maintained in various locales around Crail, was launched in May 2012 – and lo and behold she still floats! For those who’ve wondered about the name and the less than streamlined crab adorning Partan’s bow, this is in homage to Crail’s signature creature – the crab [Partan], Cancer pagurus – caught in creels off the coast and available freshly cooked or dressed at Crail harbour during the summer. But we don’t claim ‘catching a crab’ as our speciality!