Distance: 10.5 miles
About Boatie Blest
It was in 2009 that semi-retired fisherman, Archie Johnson, chaired a meeting in the Auld Kirk Hall at Cockenzie seeking helpers to build and to row a community owned boat. The desire had grown from an initiative by the 3 Harbours Arts Festival, focused on the fishing heritage in the village and specifically the many beautiful and well-loved model boats that had been built by local fishermen and boat-builders. The perseverance and enthusiasm of that small group has changed the village (actually twin villages) and the lives of many who live here and in the surrounding area. Boatie Blest was essentially their creation.
Our unique, and slightly unusual, club name comes from one of those model boat builder’s own stories: when asked about his family heritage he said that he had been doubly boatie blessed, as his father had been a fisherman and his mother’s family were involved in boatbuilding. The phrase stuck a chord and was adopted, as Boatie Blest, by Yvonne Murphy for the first exhibition of model boats and for her book, which documented the exhibition. It was a natural step to carry the name over for the St. Ayles skiff build and new rowing club. The exhibition also grew and has been held, again in the Kirk Hall, every year since until 2020.
The Boatie in question is a reference to an old song, The Boatie Rows. This was traditionally associated with the fishing fleet heading out to sea and was, and still is on special occasions, sung by the wives and families of the fishermen as they wave them off with white handkerchiefs. It has become Boatie Blest’s anthem and we might sing it from time to time when crews do particularly well, often waving our hankies or regatta programmes.
Our club colours, maroon, black, white and yellow, are derived from the local fishing boats too. That is not all however, as the same colours are shared with our local primary school and secondary school, Preston Lodge, where the third boat in our small fleet was built. Our local rugby club, also Preston Lodge, also plays in these colours.
Boatie Rows took to the water at Port Seton on 8 May 2010, the first community built skiff to be launched. This was long before the St. Ayles skiff had gone global and the people who gave their time and skills to build the boats back then were hopeful but by no means certain that they would see much use. We all have them to thank for their efforts and many of them still support the club as it starts it’s second decade. A quick estimate of the distance rowed in Boatie Rows, alone, now amounts to over 10,000 miles.
The Auld Kirk and it’s rickety timber hall (donated by a member of the congregation after he won The Irish Sweepstake in the 1930s and where that first meeting was held) sits close to the shore, just above the rock line. As Eskmuthe approached from the west they will have passed it just a few hundred meters before turning into Port Seton Harbour.
Virtual rowing will never quite cut it when compared to being out on the sea in a small boat with friends. The sooner we are able to all get back out in our skiffs the better for us all and we have instead shared a few pictures and anecdotes from previous trips to North Berwick. The first time we made this trip was in 2011, with Archie’s cobble, Crystal Sea, accompanying us and acting as a support ship. Twelve miles was deemed a bit of an expedition then and we still take the journey seriously and plan ahead for it now.
Boatie Rows has made this trip several times, often accompanied by Boatie Blest, her sister who was launched in November 2010 and carries register number 10. For last years trip, however, it was Boatie Lodge, skiff number 50, that made the trip in idyllic conditions. Every trip we have made to North Berwick has been as a prelude to their regatta and this would have been the case today.
Port Seton and Cockenzie harbours can both dry out at low tides and, although it is just about possible to launch and recover a small boat at almost any time if you are prepared to risk getting stuck in the mud, we usually row from half tide onwards. To coincide with the tides in North Berwick this usually means setting out at dawn on regatta day and this was the case last year. It was well worth it though.
The passage along this stretch of East Lothian’s north coast is varied but mostly over shallow waters. Immediately east of the harbour mouth we encounter rocks, the appropriately named Wrecked Craigs and then The Long Craigs. This band of Dolerite forms a wall that seems almost man-made, stretching along the coast to Gosford Bay. It’s a popular ground for local creel fishermen but best avoided in a skiff, particularly at high tide when the dyke slips below the surface, including the Annet rock, which sits slightly higher than the main string.
Our course is normally straight over Gosford Bay taking a bearing off Greencraigs, a distinctive white house perched on the rocks and named after a tiny low tidal island lying in a sheltered bay just to the north. It is then possible to see Gullane Point and we adjust course slightly as we pass Aberlady Bay. This broad shallow sandy bay once held a harbour serving as port for Haddington but now well silted up. More recently the Port Seton fishermen used the bay as a sheltered anchorage for their larger summer boats and it features in another popular local song, Aberlady Bay. It is also the final resting place of two second world war XT midget-subs, which can be visited either by skiff (as we may have done in 2019) or at low tide, on foot.
Passing Gullane Point, another adjustment in course is needed and we head for the gap between Archerfield and Eyebroughy. This is a slightly risky strategy, not just because the small island of Ebris is completely unrecognisable from it’s actual spelling on the chart, but because it is, like Greencraigs, connected to the land by a chain of rocks. On some of our passages we have taken the option of passing to the north, but in 2019 we reached the island in good time, allowing us to pass inside while we watched as the surface bubbled and broke as the tide pulled through the narrow gap.
Fidra is the next island we pass to port and it is a clearer passage, although again the island is less than 500m from the rocky shore. Fidra also has a long history of habitation, with a chapel, lighthouse, grave-yard and castle all packed onto its small profile.
Not much further to go and the next island we would pass is Little Lamb. It’s not an especially memorable island, with no buildings, cliffs or even the sheep that you might expect. Oddly, however, it was purchased by spoon-fankler Uri Geller a few years ago, apparently on the basis that it was in some way connected to the pyramids at Giza. Each to their own I suppose.
The approach to North Berwick from the northwest is certainly not the easiest and our choice has always been to pass well to the north, close to Craigleith, which has been the oversized turning buoy for every North Berwick regatta since 2010. From there it is a clear row in toward the Fairway, passing the harbour mouth before landing on the arching sandy beach with its occasional rocks ready to catch out visitors.
After the relatively slow and measured row from Port Seton, with it’s banter, buns and bird watching, it seems unnatural to then be shaken into race mode for a few hours. It has however become something of a ritual: a literal right of passage. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of our first non-virtual rows sees us heading east to visit friends in North Berwick in less confrontational conditions. Perhaps we will round the Craig at a gentler pace and take time to watch the wildlife without eliciting shouts from an irate cox, keen to take advantage of the opportunities to pass other boats as they tangle with the many creel lines.
The club’s founders felt that they were also doubly boatie blest in 2010, as the new club went from strength to strength uniting the community and the weather was near perfect for rowing. We all hope that those blessings will return, perhaps in 2021?
From our Members
How do you feel when you are out on the water?
When I’m out on the water, being on the water is the only thing that matters. I’m in a pause from the rest of life; other worries, preoccupations, anxieties retreat. My attention is focused on what I’m doing and my head gets a break. — Lucy
For me as a new rower I love how meditative it is – I think it’s the rhythm of it and being in a small group together sometimes feeling at one with nature and sometimes feeling like we’re battling it. As a carer, I find it a great way to completely turn off my brain and live in the moment. — Alison
Concentrating on the steady rhythm of rowing makes me feel calm and exhilarated. — Liz
Who or what got you into Coastal Rowing?
I got myself into coastal rowing; I knew the boat was being built and so once circumstances allowed I got in touch and turned up. I was hooked the first time. — Lucy
I got involved after seeing everyone returning one evening whilst having fish and chips at the harbour. Helen was so welcoming and being told to just pop down tomorrow at such and such a time made it so easy and left me with no excuses! — Alison
Archie Johnson got me into rowing. — Liz
What do you love about these coasts and waters?
I love this coast because I live here, it’s not wilderness, it’s still working water. Being able to get out onto the water and see my village (rather than being in the village looking out) is special. — Lucy
I love how the coast is always different – the sea itself and the sky and watching the bird life, too.” — Alison
I love how the sea can be different each time. Calm or rough, it’s something I never tire of watching or being out on. — Liz
And from Anne; her answers came in on a postcard: