Canal Festival Featuring SCRA Skiffs

Rowing Clubs came from far and wide to join in with a flotilla in late May 2019, crossing Scotland in celebration of the re-opening of the Forth and Clyde Canal to navigation after a lengthy closure due to maintenance issues. Clubs taking part were: Renegade-Ayrshire, Sutors Skiffies-Cromarty, Eskmuthe, Elie, St. Andrews, Lochcarron, Dunbar, Cockenzie and Port Seton( with 2 skiffs), St Ayles (Anstruther) and Andres and his sister in their picnic boat from Portobello.

On the Wheel – Pic Chritine Mincher, Dunbar

Friday afternoon started well with the weather gods smiling. The basin at the Falkirk wheel was almost full of canal barges and steamboats puffing around with wisps of smoke everywhere. Seven skiffs and a picnic boat meanwhile arrived, launched into the basin and paddled away to a pontoon through the back where they have the giant plastic balls and you walk on water. Cars, RVs, tents, trailers all somehow moved into car parks or on to the end of tomorrow’s row. The wheel, the only rotating boat lift in the world, slowly turned and the commercial boats had their turns until half past five. It was empty. At 17:30 the steamboats went into their gondola and away up to the top, the second gondola opened for skiffs and in they went.

Skiffs and Steamboats in the Falkirk Wheel

Bob Fleet of Dunbar writes: “Just imagine, 8 boats in a gondola going up into the sky. Halfway up, the wheel was stopped and the skiffs gave an oar salute, the steamboats tooted and the dragon belched steam. They actually stopped the wheel for us, there’s fame. Meanwhile there was a piper playing from the platform in the centre of the wheel. My favourite story of the weekend; his father took him through the axle and shut the door behind him. Then his dad had to walk around inside like a hamster when the wheel turned. Isn’t that how they power it anyway? Then it was back down and on to the food and drink.”

The Canal at Falkirk Wheel

Saturday dawned fine and we’d decided to shortcut our way out of the basin.The canal and steamboats had no option, they had to go through the exit lock. Meanwhile the skiffs took a shortcut…. back out at the slipway, across the grass and down the bank into the Forth Clyde Canal. Thanks for all the willing helpers and the use of Renegade’s launching trolley.

Several boats arrived on Saturday and they too went straight down the bank. There was a bit of confusion while we either flotilled or formated and were to lead off the core group. It was a great opportunity though to see the boats with their fancy dress and bunting. Well done all. At some arbitrary time (canal time seems different and skiff time different still) the fleet set off. Bliss, herons sitting beside the canal and peace and quiet, just the sound of the oars. Two boats launched a bit late and followed on, however they were punished for it, by being held up with the large number of boats passing through the canal.

In a Lock- Pic Chritine Mincher Dunbar

First stop-the bridge….. surprisingly at Bridge Street in Bonnybridge. We chevronned up along the pontoon, the bridge opened and off we went. Lock 17, 18 then 19, under the M80 motorway and on to lock 20. After the first lock we knew the drill and took the same positions in the following. Bob Fleet in the Dunbar boat writes “We were next to the skiff with the six month old baby and a dog, and in front of the one with the other dog. Record set for youngest member of the flotilla by Elie. At the first lock we found out that we could only get eight of the nine boats in. Poor Navaho got left out but there were a few other boats so we knew they’d be up not long after. Subsequently we found out that they came up in a lock to themselves each time…….. there’s posh but if we’d known we could have split the group into two.

“Through lock 20 and on to Auchinstarry across Dullator Moss. A long straight row into the wind. Parts are SSIs and there are reed beds and lots of nesting sites so our birdwatchers twitched as we rowed along .It would be a great place to put a few Mile/Km markers so you could do a wee timed dash (unpowered craft only) or calibrate your speedo if powered and speed limited. It was getting damp now but around a few bends and Auchinstarry Marina. As boats arrived we took most out onto the bank so there’d be a wee bit of room for 70 boats arriving. Some clubs left and the rest headed into the Boathouse for soup or coffee or anything hot. We caught up with each others’ tales and adventures .

The skiff fleet was still two boats short. At long last-very long last they arrived. As the main group of skiffs had passed they were held up at the first bridge to let all the steamboats through,then at the locks they had to let everyone else through so sat for three quarters of an hour, then an hour waiting. They’d have caught up if they’d been released and given a can or RedBull each. A bit harsh but there’s a moral in there somewhere. Lesson to us-should have had the radios at front and back so we knew what was happening. Prize giving, hog roast and ceilidh in the marquee finished the evening

Unfortunately by this stage it was very wet indeed and some clubs decided that rather than pitch tents, they would head for home (after a bit of food and dancing).

Three boats were left to represent Scottish Coastal Rowing on the Sunday: s St Andrews, Cromarty and Renegade.  At 10.15 the mini fleet were sent on their way.  Apart from the weather the row went well, being able to pass under the 2 low bridges without them being raised or swung.  This did mean that they were well ahead of the rest of the fleet, but arrived at 12.00, the published time.   Thankfully locals were on hand to direct us to the ‘Puffer’, where tables had been reserved.  Returning to the marina, still no sign of SC staff, so we just set off, again doing our own thing when back at Auchinstarry.

On the Monday, after a leisurely start a further reduced fleet rowed back towards The Wheel.  Rotating the crew meant everybody had 80 mins of rowing and 20 of resting or coxing.  An hour out took the micro fleet nicely to the first lock, where the fleet turned and retraced puddles to Auchinstarry. Having got the boat on the trailer and hitched for towing, the remaining crew had a pleasant lunch, sitting out on the decking of the Boathouse, before making their way home.

Overall this was a very enjoyable non competitive event.  Members from different Clubs helping each other to manhandle the boats was invaluable and highlighted the ethos of Coastal Rowing.  Staff from Scottish Canals were always friendly, helpful and encouraging, so thank you to them, and to all the organisers of the event, and particularly Bob and Dunbar for liaising on behalf of the SCRA clubs.

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