Part One: Leith to Portobello East
Row Porty grew out of Portobello Sailing and Kayaking Club, a seafront charity, set up by local water sports enthusiasts to encourage people to get back on the water. In 2009, a character called Robbie Wightman pitched up at one of our meetings to discuss an idea for re-introducing coastal rowing on the Forth. By 2010, we had our first boat and number 4 in the fleet, Ice Breaker. The boat was named following a competition in the local primary school to write a story about a boat and how it got its name.
Our second skiff, number 15 in the fleet, is called Jenny Skylark. A naming competition in the local community newspaper resulted in numerous suggestions of The Skylark, in memory of the local 1950’s and 1960’s pleasure boat. However, our second skiff was built in a derelict workshop, with no power, so we had to rely on a small generator (the ‘genny.’) The workshop was on dark waste ground and in the making of this second boat, we unbelievably had two generators stolen. So, we added the forename ‘Jenny’ in their memory.
Row Porty’s boats have creamy white hulls with a peppermint green sheer-strake. Despite the official colour of this being ‘arsenic green’, the inspiration actually came from the shade which is found on our seafront landscape.
With the baton carefully stowed, our first challenge is to navigate the foreboding Black Rocks, on which many vessels have fallen foul over time, including the Experiment, a schooner, registered in Peterhead. In 1824, the Experiment ‘experimented’ a bit too close to the Black Rocks, resulting in it getting stranded and subsequently wrecked. Thankfully, all crew and its cargo, 40 casks of oil, were saved.
Keen not to meet the same fate, the crew of Icebreaker gave the rocks a wide berth. There is another reason to bypass the Black Rocks as swiftly as possible – they are close to the modern day sewage works at Seafield. So, we filled our lungs with oxygen, upped our stroke rate and never drew another breath until safely past both.
On approach to Portobello, we were greeted with sheltered water and an uninterrupted sandy beach to our starboard side, separating us from a row of ugly industrial buildings lining the Promenade. We reminisced about the time when this was home to the magnificent Marine Gardens, built in 1909. A Victorian sea front parade, complete with the Empress Ballroom, the biggest in the city at the time.
As well as the famous Bostok’s Circus, Marine Gardens hosted a side show, not unusual for that era – the human zoo. In essence, a troupe of 70 Somalian Natives were shipped over from Africa and made to ‘perform’ daily. This suffering in the name of ‘entertainment” seems absolutely unthinkable today.
Row Porty are more used to the roar of the crowds as we power up to the finish line, but in 1931, the roar would have been reserved for Celtic football team, who played to a crowd of 20,000 fans – right here – at the Marine Gardens.
Rowing was a popular past time in Portobello, well documented on old postcards, so Marine Gardens would have been some spectacle, when viewed from the water.
Anyway, no ‘roar’ for us just yet as we’ve procrastinated and are nowhere near the finish line. Cranking up the oars again, we continue on our way.
However, the water is busier than it has ever been and we have to navigate our skiff through stand up paddleboarders, kayakers, sailors and, of course, open water swimmers. As we practice our port and starboard turns to dodge the bobbing heads, we remind ourselves that it was in these waters that another Porty legend, Ned Barnie, honed his skills which allowed him to be the first Scot to swim the English Channel in 1951. Ned was also the oldest person at the time to have done so.
It’s been a great and thankfully uneventful row along the coast. Although it’s sad to have to write about the Victorian splendour in the past tense, coastal rowing, as we all know, has totally re-invigorated our waters and sea fronts. Who knows how our seaside towns will develop in the future.
We slow the oars down, keep a beady eye on those waves and cox the boat beautifully, gliding gracefully on to the beach, baton in hand, ready to be met by the crew from Eastern. Our job is done.
What we love about rowing:
There’s something magical about being out on the water, in that open, endless space, that’s constantly moving, constantly changing, waves breathing in and out …. It just makes you feel alive.
Rowing out from the shore lets you observe the world you live in day to day. The further out you row, the more that view evolves and whole cityscapes appear in a way and with a perspective you couldn’t experience any other way.
Part Two: Portobello East to Fisherrow
The two clubs, Eastern and Row Porty, set off together to row to Fisherrow, a short row of three miles. The four skiffs are joined by picnic boats, one father-and-son crew representing both Eastern and Row Porty. The skiffs pull close and we share cake and a dram to celebrate long- time Row Porty member Ian’s 75th birthday.
As we reach the eastern end of the beach, we enter the time tunnel and tumble back 320 million years; the dinosaurs have not yet come but first we pass through the shallow marine coastal environment laying down limestones, and move further eastward into a riverine environment with sandstones from the channel and mudstones from the floodplains.
Further still, and fast forward in time, we enter swampy riverine areas laying down sandstones and coal eventually emerging back out of the time tunnel 300 million years ago and racing forward, closer to the present.
The scene is industrial, coal is being extracted from ‘Klondyke’, the seams laid down 300 million years ago and being used to power the production of salt – both only finishing in the mid 20th century.
Blinking back to the present day, we are joined by our friend the swordfish. The boats are nearing Eskmuthe on this short row; the tide is up allowing access to the harbour and we plan to join them for a row before handing over the baton.
Row Porty and Eastern share this wide sandy beach a few miles out of the city. The ancient rocks sit at the eastern end of the beach. Further to the west is the port of Leith. During lockdown the water has become busy, not with the four resident skiffs, but with kayaks, sea swimmers, surf skis and paddle boards.
Row Porty’s boats, Icebreaker and Jenny Skylark, are green and white; Eastern’s skiffs, Skelf and Sprite, are grey, cream and yellow. It’s a huge bay here in Portobello but we are often close enough to wave to each other.
Being on the water means all that is on the land is left behind. It’s a chance to recalibrate, to focus differently, to get the endorphin levels up and to share the magic and challenge of coastal rowing.
Eastern was set up in 2015; the skiffs are based at the back of a now community-owned church. They get trolleyed to the beach and we launch pointing the bow towards Fife. Last summer, a crew rowed across the Firth of Forth, along the coast on the ‘other side’ past other communities that also share a love of coastal rowing, returning tired but happy to Portobello’s sandy beach after a 60 km round trip.
Adventure rowing as well as developing training and racing are what Eastern was set up to do. Both Eastern and Row Porty have many members across many decades, from nearby and further across the city. Youth rowing is important too for Eastern, with a thriving U19 section.
Although there’s no actual baton to pass on in 2020, the baton of teaching new members to enjoy coastal rowing will continue beyond COVID.
Coastal rowing might not be as old as the rocks at the beach’s eastern end but our human connection with the sea continues and is itself a baton passed from before, to now, and on to tomorrow.