Outdoors: Rowing

It is over 50 years since homemade rowing boats were seen on the Firth of Forth, but now a fascinating venture is set to herald their return. The Scottish Coastal Rowing Project is supplying self-assembly boats for just over £1,000 to interested parties keen to revive inter-community regattas.

When mining boomed in Fife and the East Neuk fishing industry was still viable, weekend rowing races were common. Miners, with the help of cash from local shops, would build their own craft and race each other or the neighbouring pit or fishing village.

Sadly, the decline of the industry meant the decline of this pastime and, with fishing failing too, many coastal communities turned away from the sea.

That is why those behind the idea, the Scottish Fisheries Museum and Fife boat builder Alec Jordan, have been astounded by the level of interest in boat-building.

Since launching the project, boat kits have been purchased, from Ullapool to North Berwick. The idea has set in motion a nationwide boat-building race, with progress (or lack of it) charted online in blogs and videos. With only a few months until the maiden regatta, to be held in Anstruther, towns and villages are working their fingers to the bone to have their 22ft St Ayles Skiff launched and ready. Perhaps the most interesting by-product of this return to the sea has been its effect on community relations.

In sheds and bothies, in the glow of rigged-up lights, skilled elders are again at work teaching the dying art of traditional boat manufacture to local youngsters.

On the remote Coigach peninsula, in which Achiltiebuie is the centre, the construction of Coigach Lass has become something of a crusade for the 300 inhabitants. Hearing of the project through a clipping in an Ullapool newsletter, school teacher Leslie Muir thought it might be worth a punt to place a poster in the local pub. At this stage, the Coigach Lass was merely a creation of her imagination. The kit of Scottish larch, costing 1,150, was still sitting in a Leven workshop.

Within two days, however, she had 30 interested individuals of all ages, "from cabin boys to ancient mariners".

When the decision was taken to raise the money for the kit within the community, businesses and artisans were falling over themselves to ensure Coigach's boat cut the water.

Curry and karaoke nights, auction donations from local artists, and contributions from Michelin-starred hotels, a fish farm and a sailing school on Canna, helped bring the money in.

The kit was then unwrapped and has been the focus of young and old since, with construction taking place in a disused former hydroponicum – or, as Muir calls it, a "posh poly-tunnel".

"I think anything which brings people together with a common purpose is a great thing," adds the teacher, who says that financing the build has been a galvanising experience.

"We have a photograph of one of the young boys, who is six, watching one of the older men building the boat. There has been a tremendous process of watching and learning."

Fife boat-builder Alec Jordan, who is supplying the planking and moulds, reckons the build process takes "between 600 and 800 hours" to complete.

"It seems a lot but, if you have four people involved, it works out about two hours per night," says the keen seafarer, who started rowing in Aberdeen.

When all the materials for construction are accounted for, above the basic kit, it is estimated that each boat will enter the brine for approximately 3,000 – many thousands less than it would cost if you were to buy one.

The first regatta is expected to attract around eight complete boats but further dates in the diary for Portsoy, Portobello, Isle of Cumbrae and North Berwick will see numbers soar. The old regattas, and their spirit, are returning. "These boats are becoming objects of community pride," says Jordan. "We hope the young will start to take an interest again, not just in the rowing, but in the building of them, too."

For more information on the Scottish Coastal Rowing Project or buying a kit, see http://scottishcoastalrowing.org

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 27 February 2010

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