Row the Minch Expedition – from Stornoway to Ullapool

After the epic row around Rubha Reidh yesterday, the (virtual) wind went round to the NW and was blowing hard, so was no good for one or possibly two days of rowing. The section pilot, Topher from Ullapool, uses the down time to reminisce about another epic row last year – from Stornoway to Ullapool.

Five members of Ullapool CRC planned and executed the 50 mile row in the skiff Cul Mor on Monday 12 August, in aid of the MS Society. MS is more common in the west coast and the Highlands than elsewhere. Most people here are related to or know at least one sufferer.

The row was in the planning for more than a year, both to get the maximum publicity and to build up fitness. The crew did long rows in the rowing machine and built up to 20 miles in rowing trips. They had an average age of 57 so were not in the first flush of youth. There were two women and three men, and they rotated places every 45 to 60 minutes.

To get the best weather window, they chose a nine-day period during which they were all available. Although Saturday 10 August was their ideal day for publicity it had poor weather, but Monday 12 August, the Glorious Twelth, had a favourable forecast of gentle westerly winds and good sunshine.

On Sunday 11 August they crossed on the ferry from Ullapool to Stornoway. The skiff had previously been sent over. It was a lumpy crossing in the ferry with many passengers being sick, and the support boat, Lady Nicola, also had a very rolly crossing in the northerly swell left over from several days of northerly winds. The Lady Nicola was crewed by its owner, Andy Holbrow, together with Topher Dawson from UCRC with its regular crew Mike joining by ferry on Sunday night. He reported that many ferry passengers had been sick.

The trip can be thought of as three parts. The first five miles are sheltered by Stornoway harbour and then by the Eye peninsula. Then it is into the open Minch for about 30 miles, followed by 15 miles of increasingly sheltered water among the Summer Isles and into Loch Broom.

At 0400 on Monday it was dark but streaks of light were just apparent in the sky, and in a glassy calm, the skiff left Stornoway in the company of two other skiffs, Madadh Ruadh from Stornoway and the West Side skiff, Fir-Chlis, plus two locally owned yachts. The Lady Nicola led the way through the harbour buoyage. Cùl Mo`r had port, starboard and aft navigation lights, which were LED powered with dry batteries. They were on a short mast behind and above the cox, so as not to dazzle him or her. The batteries lasted the whole trip of 14.5 hours.

Outside the harbour, the escort said goodbye and the skiff led, navigating by a small plotter bolted to the gunwale. As they left Lewis behind there were no waves or wind but a 1.5m swell from the north. The crew said that three of them began to feel seasick at this point.

They made good progress at about 4.2 knots. A small wind from the south sprang up and slowly built, but the waves were at first small and did not hamper the skiff. This wind was forecast but the forecast was then for it to go to the SW and W which would have been a tail wind. Instead it built up to 15-25mph from the S, which directly opposed the northerly swell, and from halfway over the open Minch to the first shelter the going became increasingly difficult. The waves built to about a metre which piled against the swell to make confused and irregular crests, some of them breaking. They were on the beam which is the hardest to row in. Some slapped the skiff and sent spray into the boat, so the crew had to bail for a few minutes at every changeover.

It was during this 15 mile stretch that the support boat crew and some of the skiff crew wondered if the skiff could make it unaided, and the support boat closed up to about 100m aft of the skiff. We were aware that the skiff crew were seasick and although Topher was available as a spare rower it would have been a good feat of seamanship by Andy to transfer crew without damage to the skiff or crew. We did have a diver lift at the aft end of the Lady Nicola which could be lowered and raised from sea level to deck level. If we had needed to assist, but did not want to transfer crew, we would have thrown them a rope and towed them to shelter. It would not have been fun but it would have been straightforward to do. In the event no people or gear passed between the skiff and the support boat, so the skiff did it entirely unaided.

Amazingly the skiff crew plugged on and at the 35 mile mark passed into the shelter of the outer Summer Isles. We were all relieved. Coigach Lass came out of Eilean Dubh to join us, and an Ullapool motor boat and a Coigach yacht.

As the flotilla progressed into more shelter, additional boats joined, and the Calmac ferry gave us a hoot. We had an escort of three skiffs, two other rowing boats and six motor boats by the time the skiff landed on the beach with about 100 people clapping. It was a great welcome. And in total £30,041.23 had been raised for the MS Society.


  • Having several days to choose from is a way to get the best weather available;
  • However forecasts are not always right even if settled for days;
  • Seasickness can affect skiff rowers even if experienced;
  • In the open sea it is possible to become disoriented, whether using a compass or a plotter, and point the boat in the wrong direction. Distant landmarks are useful;
  • Crew transfers between boats in wavy conditions are hazardous. In previous trials we used an inflatable yacht tender as a stepping stone between skiff and support boat. The skiff was tied bow and stern alongside the support boat, squashing the dinghy which acted as a big fender and as a safe place to catch crew. We should have taken a dinghy this time, in retrospect;
  • Due to seasickness one of the skiff crew only had six sips of water and no food for the whole trip. She was fine as soon as she stepped ashore;
  • The skiff carried two VHF radios which worked well but not all of the crew had practiced radio procedure. This did not matter much as they soon learned and there was no other traffic on the chosen channel;
  • Support boats need to go very slowly to stay with a skiff and at these low speeds they tend to roll badly, plus they have exhaust fumes. Thus the support crew also need to be resistant to seasickness;
  • When the skiff was not being rowed she lay beam-on to the seas and drifted slowly downwind. The turbulence left upwind of her kept waves from breaking, a skiff safety feature I have often noted. While being rowed she did not drift so much and so waves did break against her windward side.

I have a lot of admiration for this crew. They kept rowing while seasick in very poor rowing conditions, I’m not sure if I could have done what they did. 50 miles nonstop has raised the bar a bit for skiff cruising!

Text by Topher Dawson

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