With some of our keen competitive members still recovering from the Golspie regatta, the baton relay leg from Storehouse of Foulis to Cromarty will be rowed by our more esteemed club members, and one 17 year old to keep them on their toes! Perhaps unique in the Scottish coastal rowing world, Strathpeffer is fortunate in having a septuagenarians group. All participants are over the age of 70, and they are so fit that we adapted our own regatta to require every multiple age race to have an over 70 in the skiff!
Setting off from the Storehouse just before the turn of the tide at 3pm, we use the outgoing tide to assist our row to Cromarty. No one want to row against the incoming tide at the Sutors! We are mindful of the wind speed and direction on launch, as gusts can blow up that will turn the skiff sideways on the slipway in a second. Today, however, is a virtually beautiful summer’s day, and we are prepared with bottled water, sun hats, and copious amounts of sun cream.
Setting off, we turn the bow of the skiff towards our first point of interest, Kiltearn Church and bothy. A popular row for our club the ancient kirk and burial ground of the Clan Munro is a beautiful ruin, with a good beach for landing on. Today we will not need to stop, as our venerable crew are only getting started. A quick row down the coast of the first brings us to the ‘Fishing Bothy’ lastly used, unsurprisingly, as a fishing bothy! Archaeologists amongst our club believe it was much more in times past; the ecclesiastical nature of the architecture and the robust construction with windows lined up away from the salmon highways of the Firth, lead some of us to believe it was a waiting/changing room for the Bishops of Ross, used when the tidal times did not suit the kirking session.
The Bishops of Ross were based at Castle Craig, directly across the Firth from the ‘Bothy’, and this is our next point of call. Castle Craig is a 16th century ruin, standing proudly on the shore of the Black Isle. Difficult to access by land, our club is fortunate to have this within our normal rowing session distances, and landing below this hulking pile of stones reminds you of how visitors to the castle must have been awed by its imposing nature. Currently undergoing restoration and stabilisation work (including archaeological excavations) by the Clan Urquhart society, the castle has many more stories to tell.
Having rowed straight across the Cromarty Firth, the first crew is ready to hand over to the next band of intrepid rowers, but they must cross back to the north shore first. Heading east, the crew centres themselves in the channel of the Firth, and notifies Cromarty Port Authority that they are entering their active port waters. Soon the deepwater pier of Deephaven draws near, and the huge cable ships dwarf our wee skiff. Waves and greetings from the workers on the cable ship and its tender are returned and we paddle along past the enormous vessel, staying well clear of the large spindles the cable is worked around.
Leaving the dangerous area of the pier behind, we notice the company of a couple of seals, who have been following us for some time. Common company on our rows, we no longer shout ‘seal’ and stop rowing (to the consternation of the cox) when we see one.
Alness Point is coming into view, and with it the slipway used by the Sunderland and Catalina Flying Boats in WW2. An area with deep 20th century military importance, the decaying skeletons of Nissan huts and lonely chimneys sit alongside the more ancient ruins of an icehouse, ‘guard’ house and girnal (possibly medieval but unexcavated thus far). As we round the point, our destination comes into view – the Invergordon Yacht and Sailing Club. A great halfway point on our 13 mile trip to Cromarty, we glide onto the slipway in our beloved Grebe, and begin the crew change.
The tired crew is very much looking forward to tucking into the large picnic basket of locally sourced, premium quality Scottish high tea secured in the bow of the skiff. Brought down to the launch as a surprise for the crew, by Quintin and the Storehouse of Foulis, getting spoiled with great food is a perfect reward for their part of the baton relay.
The job is not complete for Grebe though. With fresh arms and legs on our new lot of keen rowers, we return to the Cromarty Firth, conscious that we are entering the busiest area of our journey. Having determined that none of the vast cruise ships are due to be departing or arriving in the next hour, we know that merchant shipping is our only worry.
Heading across the water to the south side, we come upon Udale Bay, and Jemimaville. Udale Bay is a haven for wildlife and people travel from all over the world to birdwatch from its shores. To remind us of this, an Arctic Tern circles our heads, scolding us for being offshore and too near his domain.
This prompts a discussion in the skiff about the potential for Tern as the name for the new skiff. This may help our regatta record if our supporters are shouting ‘Tern, Tern Tern’ at our crew, and the other clubs get confused and begin their manoeuvres early! Reassuring Mr Screechy Tern that we mean him no harm, we ‘tern’ the skiff away from the shore line, to avoid the large mussel farms and their rows of dangling strings of shellfish.
Should we go close and score ourselves a free supper of seafood? Best not, and the cox takes the boat further out into the Firth. The oil industry has been a great boon to Invergordon, keeping the town alive after the military left at the end of WW2. Giant metal rigs straddle the waters of the Firth, awaiting their turn at maintenance or refurbishment. We don’t go too close to these, as they can create currents in the water, but we slide silently near, and remember the last time we were this close to them.
The Cromarty Regatta, held almost a year prior, was a challenging experience, and keeping control of the skiff while rounding these monster hulks was a test of any cox and crew. Thankfully no skiffs capsized that day, although one skiff lost its rudder in a close brush with another. No one will capsize today either, as the weather has remained sunny and calm, with a small breeze helping us on our journey to Cromarty.
With the oil rigs now past us, and our stern to Invergordon, we set our sights on the harbour of Cromarty. Still mindful of large vessels, we adjust our timing to coincide with the Nigg transit of the Cromarty Rose, a small passenger ferry crossing from Cromarty to Nigg in the summer months. Seeing her leave the slip at Cromarty means we are free to cross her well trodden path to and fro places northward.
Rounding the point of Cromarty, we see the broad white sands awaiting our weary rowers, and head inshore. Campers and tents line the grassy foreshore, and a large group is awaiting the baton. Cromarty and Sutor Skiffies have raised their gazebos and prepared the bbq for the local clubs joining the celebration. Our local skiffies are always up for a ceilidh, and the DJ is playing the Golspie song ‘Rowing on the River’ as we land.
The baton is formally relinquished into the capable hands of the Chanonry club from Fortrose, and our happy rowers gratefully tuck into their reward of a Sutor Creek Woodfired Pizza and a welcome pint of something alcoholic!