Sailing the St Ayles

Now before I start this article, a wee disclaimer. The St Ayles skiff is  a rowing boat.  SCRA is about rowing boats.  The organisations does not recommend, condone or encourage the use of St Ayles skiffs for sailing.  And now we can begin……

In the build up to the East Lothian Yacht Club Traditional Boat Muster, 5th Edition, 2011,  I was chatting to Norman Thompson, the lead foreman on the community build of St Baldred and Skiff John B. , North Berwick’s St Ayles skiffs.  The muster clashed with the date of Ullapool Regatta, where Skiff John B had gone in search of glory.  St Baldred therefore did not have another skiff to race with at the muster.  My two boats, Paragon and Tula were both allocated to other skippers.  Norman’s Ness Yole was tucked away at the back of his garage.  It all stacked up to be the right time to experiment with putting a sail on St Baldred!


We decided to use the mainsail and mast from Norman’s Ness Yole.   This is normally a balanced lug, but in the spirit of adventure we decided to rig St Baldred as a dipping lug.  All spars fit easily inside the boat, and without stays on the mast it should be a relatively simple rig to fit, if not to sail.  Norman made a few measurements the weekend before, and manufactured a mast step.   Firstly he had a rack which was braced between the thwarts for bowman and number two, so that the mast would slot in at thwart height.  Next he fabricated a small metal fitting which takes the foot of the mast.  This is screwed into the hog and when not in use the metal fitting is hidden beneath the bow man’s floor boards.  Those boards are removed for sailing.


We felt we needed a crew of three to handle the rig.  Luckily we intercepted Medium John when he was out walking his dog on the Thursday before the muster, and press ganged him into a sail in the gloaming.  We went out as the dinghy racing fleet came in. We felt a bit naughty!  We rowed to the fairway bouy, where we tied up to raise sail.  The mast is unstayed.  We had two lines from the tack to the front of the bow thwart.  The leeward one is pulled taught, the windward one, runs round the back of the mast ready to tack.  For tacking we had a small line attached to the forward end of the yard which was pulled to bring the yard round from one side of the mast to the other to tack.  Rather than lowering the sail when going about, we simply swung it from one side to the other.

We have quite a small rudder on St Baldred.  If the boat was to be sailed seriously I would want a bigger and deeper rudder.  As it was we kept weight towards the back of the boat to help the rudder maintain the grip that it had.

We took a sail out towards the Craig, and then horsed back in, cackling with laughter.  She sailed like a witch.  Well like a rowing boat, with witch like qualities, and a reluctance to go about.  Back to the shore, with one or two minor alterations to make before the muster.

The breeze on muster day was a good force four, so we kept a reef in as precaution.  We also brought in Johnny as a fourth crew member.  Although the plan was to have one  crew member on each tack line and one to pull the yard round when we tacked, in reality one crew member did all the work at the mast, one did all the helming and the other two stood by the oars to pull her through the wind, and to provide movable ballast.  She would not tack without the help of oars (perhaps not surprising given her long straight keel with no rocker……  she is designed to go in straight lines).

It was a cracking breeze, and we got over 5 knots on the GPS.  We were trying not to press her too hard.  We had safety cover on hand, but had no wish to require it.  She feels so much more tender under sail than she does under oar.  Rowing you have a tight rope walkers advantange of 12′ arms to help you balance.  Handling was fun, but certainly required some caution.

We were overhauled by an Albacore dinghy, but otherwise were amongst the swiftest of the fleet (with the wind abaft the beam).  We were able to reach fairly effectively, but did not make much to windward when close hauled. We did make a bit, and were more than holding station when tacking back and forth, but without a daggerboard or lee boards any serious windward work would be best done under oar power.

These boats are designed and built as rowing boats, and that is what they should  principally be used for.  Rowing is a much simpler concept for beginners to grasp, and there is an equality of effort and result from the whole crew which cannot be replicated in a sailing craft.  I do not believe that SCRA would have taken off in the way it has, if it was a movement for sailors – who tend to be slightly less community orientated sportsmen.  The nature of the sport of rowing has helped to bring in community members who are new to the sea, and would not have been as likely to jump aboard, had it been sailing boats that were in use.  Sailing a St Ayles is not a job for novice sailors.   Those with more time and a bit of resource will improve on our slightly Heath Robinson rigging, and maybe make the sailing performance a bit less entertaining.

For a bit of fun, and perhaps as an auxilliary power when cruising a St Ayles, I suspect that some others may experiment with sails from time to time.   But don’t keep the boat away from rowers for long!

Robbie Wightman,  North Berwick Rowing Club

(Thanks to Derek Braid for Muster Photos.)

  1. #1 by Adam on 15 September 2011 - 9:27 pm

    Shame on you, spoiling the look of something magnificent with an ugly sail.

  2. #2 by Babshaggis on 16 September 2011 - 10:49 am

    Sorry Adam, cannot agree , wish I had been there.  All I have sailed the StAyles with was our flag on a paddle at the tall ships.  Didn’t get 5 knots but gave the girls a rest and a laugh.  Sounds as though they have a Heath Robinson hidden in their club

  3. #3 by Ewan on 5 December 2013 - 9:37 pm

    Very interesting article, just read two years on. On Selkie we fitted the mast in a partner fixed on the thole pins (we have a spare hole on the side opposite the normal one) and crewed a wee plywood block into the hog for the heel of the mast. The jib helped her to go about. We didn’t have as much wind as you did but Selkoe certainly moved along fine and made just to windward. Our main problem was getting cold and bored without the rowing. Ewan

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