Today it is the Findhorn club’s turn to take the baton on the next leg of the RowAround! Our skiff Joppa (the name that local loons and quines called Findhorn) was launched in May 2015 and was welcomed into Findhorn Bay by skiffs and crew from Ardersier, Avoch, Burghead, Portsoy and Collieston rowing clubs. Club members range from 16 years old to our oldest member, so far, at 83! The club has a rowing shed between the Kimberley Inn and the piers. We try and get out on Joppa as often as we can, most Wednesday evenings and most weekends, but RowAround is a whole new adventure!
We have been watching the weather forecast with some trepidation as this is a row which could only be done in settled weather; the conditions around the bar at the entrance to Findhorn Bay can be unpleasant with a swell and breaking water when the wind gets up. Luckily it is overcast, with a slight drizzle, but there is no wind to speak of and conditions look calm. It is about 11 miles from Nairn to the mouth of the Findhorn Bay (depending on how straight our cox steers us, of course!) We are aiming to get to Findhorn around slack water, just before the high tide at 8pm, as the River Findhorn can be a particularly strong current to row against, especially after a long row.
Leaving Nairn and heading northeast, we pass the Nairn Bar which encloses a large bay, a favourite destination for the Nairn club. It can catch out the unwary as the tidal surge can be fierce; in 1953, a local family of nine were drowned here when they became disorientated in a sea haar. The high cliffs at Nigg are clearly visible on the far side of the Moray Firth.
A few miles further on, we row past The Gut, the old outlet of the River Findhorn. It has beautiful sandy beaches and is very sheltered. Behind is the famous Culbin Forest, once known in the early 20th century as the Culbin Sands. Over the years there have been numerous vessels grounded on the foreshore primarily in the days of sail. Then we pass the Official Old Bar, known to all Findhorn sailors. The forest reaches right down to the shoreline; many mature trees have been claimed by the sea and during northerly gales the dunes are being constantly eroded.
The whole forest was once a vast area of shifting sand dunes, but was purchased by the Forestry Commission in the 1920s for reforestation following WWI. Some of the inland area had been fertile farmland and for many centuries people lived and farmed there. However the sands had a reputation for shifting, due to removal of marram from the dunes for thatching; the roots helped to hold the soil together. In 1694 a terrible storm forced the last inhabitants to abandon their homes, which are now buried beneath the sand.
We have detailed navigational guidance from the sailing club with us, but negotiating the entrance to the Bay from the Moray Firth is definitely not for a novice cox! While the sand on the north shore and on the tip of the Ee (the spit) moves quite a lot, the general configuration of the approach to Findhorn changes remarkably little from year to year. Findhorn Bay itself has remained almost unchanged for 500 years although the course of the river through the marshes and the southern part of the bay has varied over the years. The sandbar or horse in front of the south dinghy park moves east and west a little from year to year but, contrary to popular myth, significant changes to the bay and its approaches are a once in 200 years event.
There are two choices for entering the bay – follow the river bed, or take the western entrance behind ‘Seal Island’ via the red Bar Buoy. The latter may not be quite as deep as the river bed, but is plenty deep enough for a skiff and provides much better protection from the swell.
Findhorn ‘Bay’ is not a true bay, but a large tidal basin, draining the River Findhorn and the Muckle Burn. At the head of the bay are tidal mudflats which are an RSPB reserve and an important habitat for wading birds; at least 10,000 pink footed geese roost here in the winter. There are colonies of grey and common seals. The wooden poles were erected to prevent glider landings during WW2.
As well as our rowing club, there are usually sailors from the Royal Findhorn Yacht Club and windsurfers active on the water. There are many very fine hostelries within Findhorn and of course the Findhorn Foundation has a large prominence in the area. The foundation was first formed in 1962 by the Spiritual Community at Findhorn Ecovillage. One of the largest international communities in Britain, it has hosted thousands of residents from more than 40 countries.
In the 17th century, Findhorn was the principal seaport of Moray and vessels regularly sailed to and from all parts of the North Sea and as far as the Baltic Ports. Changes to the narrow and shallow entrance to the bay created obstacles to navigation and as the size of trading vessels increased, so the volume of trade to the village declined. During the 19th century fishing predominated.
Anyway, we are home. We ‘put Joppa to bed’ then head to the Kimberley Inn, well satisfied with our evening’s row!