SPECIAL SECTION – Upper River Tay | Perth to Wormit

The first of several ‘Special Sections’ of RowAround Scotland was due to take place this Saturday, linking clubs along the Upper Tay, as well as a row of the length of Loch Awe further south, in Argyll.

Andy Rendle, the safety officer for RowAround, and from the St Andrews club, was to have collected the baton, Spirit, from Wormit and driven it to Oban to put on the Barra ferry ready for the Western Isles section. Here is the (very clean) batonmobile.

The Arran club have rowed very strongly and had good weather so have already arrived at the start of Section 4, so here is the log of the virtual row down the River Tay to savour in lockdown.

Whatever is the old saying about the Lord looking favourably upon the righteous, the members of Wormit Boating Club’s rowing section, official title Catalina Rowing, have clearly done something right. Maybe top cox Jock’s political correctness chip has finally kicked in, or perhaps they’ve all been extra kind to animals. Either way, the fact is that after an unseasonably balmy, dry and settled April, the last few days of the month had seen a return to the more usual cold, damp and windy weather, just as the planned date for the Wormit skiffies’ contribution to RowAround Scotland 2020 hove into view. Brows had been furrowed, weather forecasts incessantly consulted, the dryness or otherwise of seaweed assessed, and nails bitten as the big day approached with its looming imperative: the Baton must be handed on.

But thankfully, and with gratitude due to whichever is the saint charged with looking after Scottish Coastal Rowing fixtures, here it is, warm, sunny and with just enough of a westerly breeze to provide a bit of tailwind assistance to the skiffs as they prepare to set off from Perth Sailing Club on their valiant voyage along the River Tay. Pretty much perfect.

From here it’s down to Newburgh for the first crew change, then onward – seaward – towards Balmerino for another change of personnel and thence, finally, downstream to safe harbourage at Woodhaven, the home of WBC and, in the dark days of the second world war, of the Norwegians’ Catalina flying boats – or ‘amphibians’ for the purists (and yes, seaplanes are different again) – after which the rowers’ section of the Club and both of their skiffs have taken their names.

And, it must be said, Skiff Catalina and Skiff Flying Boat, her slightly racier younger sister, are looking particularly bonny this bright, chilly morning. As too is the impressive flotilla of their cousins from no fewer than eight other clubs. With paintwork gleaming and fussing coxes chivvying them into position for the start are the skiffs of locals Perth and Newburgh, Broughty Ferry from further down river, fellow Fifers from St Andrews, Kinghorn and Pittenweem/Elie, friends from Eskmuthe and welcome arrivals Troon, schlepping all the way from the west coast. Indeed, all are more than welcome. All are also anxious for the off.

On the dot of 0830, following words of encouragement from the Perth Harbour Master and the mandatory safety brief from Catalina’s ancient mariner and stickler for correct procedure David, the blare of an airhorn confirms that Leg 10 of the Round Scotland Row is well and truly underway. As cautioned by Greta, daughter of fisher-folk on this river and with brine in her veins, it soon becomes clear that the westerly breeze is a fickle mistress; as the skiffs begin to spread and space themselves apart the crews are encountering unexpectedly choppy conditions and blustery crosswinds, some skiffs seeking the shelter of the tall reeds whose beds line this stretch of the Tay.

Others, including the East Neuk contingent for whom anything less than a half-metre chop is essentially a millpond, surge forward mid-stream, their ‘You call this weather?’ expressions firmly in place.

After a testing but highly enjoyable eleven kilometres of mostly unfamiliar water under their keels, the skiffs begin to arrive at Newburgh jetty, having diligently kept the flat-topped feature of Mugdrum Island to port and are directed through the narrow channel to demonstrate their boat-handling/mud-avoidance skills and to swap crews.

Beachmaster Andy does a sterling job of conjuring order from chaos in the ensuing melee, retaining his composure and much of his hair, and soon the flotilla, now strung together as loosely as the beads on a flapper’s necklace, shrink away as they embark on the next, 15-kilometre, stage down to Balmerino. The falling tide provides welcome respite for the crews, aided also by the now-steady push of the westerly breeze, as they hug the southern shore to avoid the huge acreage of sandbanks revealing themselves northwards on this stretch of the Tay. Notwithstanding that they are now well into their second hour at the oars, the current crews are enjoying the constantly changing views. The wooded prominence of Flisk Point beckons on the starboard bow, then slides past to reveal the ruins of abandoned salmon fishing stations and the gravestone-grey eminence of Birkhill House.

Onward towards Balmerino, most discreet and self-effacing of Tayside hamlets, for the next crew change. As the skiffs come aground, the efficient reception committee is quick to replenish flasks of hot water and trays of home-made bakes (the fixtures saint perhaps having been influenced too by the top-quality comestibles produced by the Catalina catering collective of Ruth, Gail and legion other compulsive cooks).

The skiffs’ arrival attracts curious locals (as it seems many of them are): ‘You should have waited till the tide was higher’, they observe, ‘Then you wouldn’t have to carry each other up the beach’, an indignity endured by those shod for firmer footing than the expanse of silt and stone now revealed by the receding river.

Respectively refreshed and cajoled by the local denizens, the skiffs and their crews set off on the final leg of this riverine relay; destination Woodhaven slipway, Wormit Boating Club.

Pressing on, the skiffs encounter first the heron-sentried wreck resting in the small cove known as Jock’s Hole – different Jock (we think) – then the sandy sweep of Wormit Bay as it unfurls on the starboard quarter.

Here, memorial stones stand as silent sentinels to the ill-starred, ill-fated, ill-everything really, Tay rail bridge, predecessor to that which now dominates the coxes’ view as they gaze forward towards their final destination.

The original bridge will shortly reference itself in the toothy stumps, all that remain of its once substantial – though not substantial enough – pillars, glimpsed as the skiffs surge beneath the steelwork many metres above. No time today to extract with waving hands the regular toot of acknowledgement and greeting from the train that now crosses above them and which the Wormit crews regularly receive in payment for their efforts. Another time.

‘Here they come!’ Excited voices are raised as those with sharp eyes, or binoculars, or lucky enough to have both, spot the approaching armada.
Here already are those crews who rowed to Newburgh and to Balmerino, to be joined shortly by their colleagues on the final leg.

As a jewel in the crown of its local community, Catalina Rowing prides itself on its friendliness, inclusivity – all are welcome – and its competitive spirit, recently rewarded by actually winning some stuff. But it also deploys some serious culinary credentials. These are proudly on display today, front and centre, with pots simmering and plates laden: nobody gets out of here with less than two bowls of soup inside them. And cake.

Were the success of any Scottish coastal rowing event determined by the up-to-eleven volume of après-skiff conversation, as tales are recounted, experiences shared and gifts exchanged, this probably counts as a result.

As Catalina Rowing’s contribution to RowAround Scotland, we hope that it has passed muster. The Baton is handed on. We will do this again.

A postscript – The Perth skiff

The Silvery Pearl was built with Duke of Edinburgh Award students from Perth High School, in conjunction with Tay Landscape Partnership in 2016/2017. The skiff was named by Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex.

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