Portencross Castle to Largs – Section 3 | Day 4

Origins of Cumbrae CRC

The Cumbrae Coastal Rowing Club was established in 2011 following the actual launching of the skiff, Cumbrae, in 2010. The skiff was built on the island by a dedicated group of locals, the late Sandy Morton, Jimmy Lochridge and David Connell, with assistance from other members of the island community. Originally Chris Nichol of the National Water Sports Centre Millport had paid for the kit from which the skiff was constructed and the Island later raised the necessary funds to secure it for the Club.

Braving the cold, rough seas and blustery winds, a select team of Millport folk, young and not so young, ladies and gents, take to the seas around the coast of the island or within the changeable waters of Millport Bay, getting to grips with the dancing craft, her oars and rudder in preparation for battle against the invaders from the neighbouring island of Great Britain, (the Clyde coast parts anyway).

With varying success in the initial years, the Club’s first proper season of competition began in August 2013 when the local Sail and Oar event, well attended with skiffs from around the Clyde and even from Anstruther in Fife, took place off Millport. The weekend saw CCRC take part in a number of races with mixed crews, men’s, women’s and youth and had mixed results with no prizes taken, but an enjoyable day nonetheless.

The 750th anniversary of the Battle of Largs was celebrated in great style in September 2013 during the Viking Festival and CCRC took part in a set of relays in Largs Bay with four other skiffs. The CCRC skiff, Cumbrae, rowed over from the Island early on a considerably choppy, wet and windy morning, returning later in the afternoon in similar conditions. Later that year, in September, CCRC took part in the inaugural Exciseman’s Chase organised by the Carrick CRC at Maidens in South Ayrshire and has attended this great event ever since. CCRC did very well coming in in third place, despite having only two pairs of fresh arms in the crew for the return leg against a heavy swell. And in 2014 we and other skiffs welcomed the Queen’s Baton Relay for the Commonwealth Games.

Since then, CCRC have participated in the C2C event three times, regattas at Largs, Arran and Prestwick, the fresh water races, and of course, the Worlds at Strangford and in 2019 at Stranraer. Seldom does the Club come away with medals or other such fripperies, preferring the participation and social aspects to the competitive ones. CCRC have also hosted several regattas including a very successful one in 2018, Folk ’n’ Row at which 8 other skiffs attended.

The VRAS Route

Preparatory leg: Kames Bay, Hunterston, Portencross – c. 6km
First leg: Portencross to Wee Cumbrae Castle – c. 3km
Second leg: Castle to Wee Cumbrae lighthouse – c. 2.5km
Third leg: Lighthouse to Millport Bay and Tan Buoy – c. 3.5km
Fourth leg: Tan Buoy to Fintry Bay – c. 4km
Fifth leg: Fintry to the Hush-hush and the Monument – c. 3.5km
Sixth leg: Monument to Calmac ferry slip, Sportscotland and Largs Marina for baton exchange – c. 4km
Home leg: Marina to Lion Rock, FSC Keppel, Kames Bay and Newton Bar – c. 5.5km
Total – c. 32km
First leg to end of sixth, c. 20 km

Preparatory leg:
Kames Bay, Hunterston, Portencross – c. 6km

It is 9 am on Wednesday morning, 22nd April and two days after Fergus celebrated his 62nd birthday. The tide is flowing towards a high at midday. Kames Bay is a stretch of beautiful wide sand and the water is still a long way away from the Prom. We race down the beach eager to launch and Cumbrae, our skiff seems as eager. Fergus is at the tiller, Angus stroke, Dana in No 3, Moira at 2 and Niki in his usual place, the “lazy” seat in the bow. It is a beautiful morning, the sun is trying to shine though the overcast sky and there is a brisk north-easterly breeze, though here it hardly ruffles the surface of the water. The tide, however is against us as it flows strongly up the Firth, between the Wee Cumbrae and the North Ayrshire mainland. Portencross is our target – the castle the rendezvous where we will take the Baton from Troon. The houses along Marine Parade salute us as we pass and we row strongly into open water, Fergus calling out his usual mantra “Long and Strong, Long and Strong” as we move into choppier water. The Hunterston bubble where the sea water used to cool the nuclear reactor spews back into the Clyde beckons and passing this, we are soon in a bit more shelter, coasting along the shoreline, past the murder house where a woman was shot dead in 1913, a mystery still unsolved to this day, and on to the great grey square tower at Portencross. It is about 6km from Kames Bay to Portencross and everyone has a bit of a sweat on. Alongside, Patrick in “Caprice” ensures our safety as he motors lazily along on our starboard side. The tide is filling the small harbour as we arrive and we pull in and rest. From the rocks below the restored castle we spy Troon and their flotilla not far off having come north, passing by the three towns, Stevenston, Saltcoats and Ardrossan and soon we are exchanging greetings and taking charge of the Baton, ready for our leg of Section 3.

First leg:
Portencross to Wee Cumbrae Castle – c. 3km

Pulling out of the harbour we head slightly north of west towards the castle on Wee Cumbrae, a citadel of ancient times, where Robert II, King of Scots is said to have often stayed to have sport with his hawks on the island. It is a relatively short haul across the channel to the island but we are rowing against the seas, but after a good strong pull we have beached under the shadow of the castle. The big house is empty and there is no yoga retreat on at this time, so we take a short rest here and the relief crew limbers up for the next stage. The cacophony of nesting birds is the only sound breaking the silence and it seems as if the velvety sheen of the bluebells shimmers over the whole surface of the island.

Second leg:
Castle to Wee Cumbrae lighthouse – c. 2.5km

Angus is cox, with Patrick stroke, Gayna in 3, Morna in 2 and Austen takes Niki’s bow thwart. This stretch is a long one, heading into the tide still as we head southwards, passing all the curious seals which bob up to have a look at us as we pass. Fergus is in Caprice as mother hen and, with the wind behind us for a while, the long row takes Cumbrae round the south end of the island and the beginning of the long haul northwards in the lea of the island. In the distance Arran’s peaks look glorious, Goatfell, topping the others and we fancy that the Arranachs are waving to us from those dizzy heights. We think back to the scariest of rows when a group of six skiffs, including Arran’s, row into the teeth of a huge swell with a strong southerly wind, during one of our regatta events. The wind and seas had come out of nowhere as we were passing the lighthouse, which today, in contrast, gleamed white in the brightness of spring despite the clouds efforts at masking the sun; it is one of the many Stevenson family constructions scattered around Scotland’s coast, no doubt more will be mentioned.

Third leg:
Lighthouse to Millport Bay and Tan Buoy – c. 3.5km

We rest on our oars for a bit, lazily rocking on the slight swell, though the open sea westward that fills the area between Arran, Bute and Cumbrae, (the ABC islands) is looking rough and the rowers gaze south towards the distant pyramid of Ailsa Craig in the far south. On we go, encouraged by Angus’ calls and we head along the north-western coast of the Wee Cumbrae, and then pull out into the Tan. The tide has turned though and although we will beat the main strength of it as it races out through the Tan it is still a good pull especially as we are now heading into the wind. Beyond us the houses and shops that encircle Millport Bay encourage us on and we head steadily on towards the Tan Buoy, a yellow and black marker, one of our regular stopping points when out on the water and passing this we turn more to the north and begin the long pull to Fintry Bay where another relief crew will be waiting. Luckily again, we are in relatively calmer waters in the lea of the Great Cumbrae.

Fourth leg:
Tan Buoy to Fintry Bay – c. 4km

After Westbourne, there are no houses or other buildings on the west coast until Fintry where there is a tearoom, formerly the site of a lemonade factory famous in the days of “Doon the Watter” as a watering hole for weary cyclists looking for a refreshing drink and an ice cream. The tearoom now is still a place to stop when doing the circuit of the island on two wheels and refreshments are on hand, once we’ve pulled into the shore. The tide is in full ebb now so the rowing is getting harder as we battle into its southward stream, but on we go and we have a good rhythm going.

Fifth leg:
Fintry to the Hush-hush and the Monument – c. 3.5km

And so, on we go, now with Mungo, one of our juniors as cox, though he is more often seen lounging in the bow as ballast. Dana takes over as stroke, so that she can keep a maternal eye on her cox, Luke and Rosie who are doing their placements from Uni at the Field Studies Centre take over the 3 and 2 slots and Lesley, our Clubhouse boss (well, the owner of the Newton Bar, which serves as our clubhouse) is in the bow. To starboard the Indian Face stares across the fields from the raised beach, looking forever westwards, over Bute, his eyes fixed on the far horizon, and further on, as we begin to turn a little more eastwards we approach the Hush-hush, where during the second World War there was a look out for enemy submarines trying to sneak past the booms into the upper reaches of the Firth. Les and Jo are there to wave us on, and Jo will be in the crew for the last legs later. Along this side of the island the dense masses of gorse are dazzling in their bright golden yellow raiment. Now we are beginning to see more of an eastern aspect as the north end of Largs emerges beyond the point on which a Monument stands and the seas are heavier as we row into the wind and against the tide. The Monument is a memorial to two Midshipmen from HMS Shearwater who were drowned when their little boat foundered and sank in a squall in 1844. Their bodies were never recovered. We also recall the day we waited here to escort South Queensferry towards Largs during their epic row from Oban.

Sixth leg:
Monument to Calmac ferry slip, Sportscotland and Largs Marina for baton exchange – c. 4km

Rounding the point we can see the full stretch of Largs but we are not ready to cross the channel yet as we have tide and wind astern of us and we keep hugging the coast, heading south to the Calmac ferry slip where the Loch Shira is just leaving to head back to Largs, her wash bounces us up and down as we hit the churned up water and for a moment or two we lose our rhythm, but Mungo soon has us back on course and in time, and shortly after, having dodged several learner windsurfers, we pull in to the Sportscotland pontoon, where we change crews again. Behind us is a small mound within a red sandstone wall, where local legend has it that King Haakon stood watching his Vikings being massacred by King Alexander’s Scots across at Largs in 1263. Now the end of the official leg is in sight and we are joined by the FoCCRs two skiffs, Thistle and Saltire for the short row across to the Marina near the Pencil, the battle of Largs monument, where Cumbrae will hand over the Baton and it will rest there till tomorrow. Fergus comes in as stroke, with Jo No.3, Charlie No 2 and Eileen No. 1. Mungo’s sister Maja takes the tiller and we are soon speeding across the water escorted by the FoCCRs. The wind is across us and the tide is still against us but its strength is lessening and it is still a beautifully dry day. As we pull in between the rock breakwaters at the Marina and turn in to the pontoon we feel proud of our achievement and look forward to hearing more from the rest of the sections to come. The Baton is ceremonially presented to the FoCCRs and Gavin coming in for the homeward stretch at No. 3, Fergus takes the tiller, Jo takes on the stroke position, and Charlie and Eileen stay where they are, with Maisie coming in to assist as a second set of arms and as ballast.

Home leg:
Marina to Lion Rock, FSC Keppel, Kames Bay and Newton Bar – c. 5.5km

And so we head south west again, crossing past the almost wholly demolished cranes at the Hunterston iron ore terminal that became a coal terminal and now is to be – well, so far no-one really knows what. Across to the Cumbrae side we pass by the port side marker buoy where Kylie the dolphin lives and she plays alongside for a bit to say hello, we cross the tail end of the Lion Rock, the FSC and Keppel Pier where the Waverley now puts in during the summer season and rounding Farland Point we are back to where we started, Kames Bay and beyond that the Newton Bar where refreshments are waiting. During the last few hundred yards the strains of “Son of a Bitch, Give me a drink” the club anthem, peals across the water and we pull all the harder whilst, just for Dana, we do a short sprint at the very end and Cumbrae’s keel grinds gently into soft island sand. The only problem is, the tide is fully out, it being after 5 and so we have a long trek up the beach pulling the skiff on the launching trolley and back to Grove House where she stays. But, tired and happy we are all hoping that in the not too distant future we will be actually rowing again rather than virtually. A drink or two are quaffed inevitably and the Newton Bar resounds to rowdy singing and crazy games of Skiffy Pool.