2013: Portland Women Row in St Ayles Skiff Worlds

How Novice Crew Built Their Own Boat     Copyright P. Marsh

ADX womans boatbuildingWhen I first visited the Wind & Oar Boat School early in 2012 at the ADX workshop in SE Portland, a team of women aged ages 23 to 60 was learning the art of plywood & epoxy boatbuilding while constructing a 22′ Nordic-style rowboat. This was the first project for the women and a new direction for the school’s director Peter Crim. He founded the organization to provide the community the opportunity to learn new handcraft skills, and experience the satisfaction of creating a beautiful functional vessel inspired by traditional working boats.

The plan was for the women’s team to take ownership of their new St Ayles skiff, launch it in the Willamette River, learn to row it safely and efficiently, and eventually develop into a real “crew.” I don’t think Peter could have imagined that a year later, he would have two teams and two boats in the water, the first called Rosie, the second Doineann. The second boat has the number US 08, and is the eighth American boat in the St Ayles class launched. The crew is co-ed, but with the same goals; the two boats were out practising several times a week.

St-A-Skiff rolloverBut that is just one small part of a remarkable international story that really began in 2009 when the Scottish Fisheries Museum in Anstruther commissioned the renowned small boat designer, Iain Oughtred, to design a traditional-looking boat based on the traditional Fair Isle Skiff. The prototype was launched in October 2009 and everyone concerned agreed they had a wonderfully sleek hull 22′ long and 5′ 6″ beam, suitable for coastal rowing by a crew of four plus a coxswain.

Like the Fair Isle skiff, the St Ayles skiff is “sharp fore and aft” with a dish-shaped hull that is very easy to row. It is named after the former St Ayles chapel where the fisheries museum is based. Despite the historical roots of the project, and the designer’s resistance to computer use of any kind, the promoters took full advantage of modern technology. They digitized the plans to allow super-accurate CNC-cutting of marine plywood to make kit-building of identical hulls possible at a low cost.

St-A-Skiff-barehullNote that the use of computers did not make the boats simple to build, since lapstrake planking with six plywood planks per side requires careful fitting and assembly. But it did allow novices to set up the frames and backbone, and perform all the gluing and clamping, with an expert making or closely monitoring the plank and frame bevels.

The result is a wooden hull that looks quite authentic but is free from the risk of splitting and cracking that often occurs in older lapstrake boats built from clear lumber. The epoxy and fiberglass coating will preserve it for many years of service and greatly reduce the chance of rot developing. Since most “wooden” boats built today in the north-west use this system, which is better called “wood-composite, ” there is no explanation for what happened next.

skiff rowing after launchInitially it was hoped it would be picked up by former fishing and mining communities along the Firth of Forth, to revive a traditional sport that was once central to Scottish fishing communities. But right round Scotland entire coastal communities decided to join in building new boats, and in using the sea for fitness, friendship and competition.To use a popular expression, this humble Norse rowboat “went viral” among coastal communities in Scotland, then overseas.

Crew come from all walks of life, most with little or no previous experience. I checked the website of the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association, only formed in 2010, which lists the remarkable growth spurt in less than four years: 54 boats built, another 50 underway in Britain, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand , with inquiries coming in from many other countries.

The American involvement began when Wooden Boat magazine selected the skiff for its supported boat building program in Maine schools. The idea soon spread and schoolchildren in Maine have built several boats.” At present, Portland appears to be in the lead when it comes to American teams actively training.


skiff champs posterThe logical next step in Scotland was to hold a gathering to bring together as many of the far-flung teams as possible. Ullapool on Scotland’s rugged NW coast was selected as the location for the inaugural World Championships. I’m sure that no one involved with Wind & Oar, or an observer like myself, would have guessed that five of our indefatigable local novices still learning to row on the Willamette River would be ready and willing to fly to Scotland in July to compete in the first “Skiffie World Championships in Ullapool, Scotland.”

The event was officially opened by Princess Anne, the Princess Royal. Then the entire town welcomed crews from many nations, most of whom were borrowing boats from clubs that have two or three available. The Rosies were hosted by the Queensferry Rowing Club, who loaned them their second rowboat, the Ferry Lass. All events took place on Loch Broom, a long narrow fjord. The first day was a long-distance race, women rowing out to Isle Martin, lunch, then men rowing back. The next four days were regatta-style racing over the standard Olympic long sprint course of 2000 meters.

St-Ayles-SkiffsAgainst strong competition, the Rosies scored one third place medal in the women’s over 60 race. Overall, the Rosies did well to overcome the challenge of Loch Broom, whose waters are exposed to a strong ocean swell, quite different from the relative calm of the Willamette River. The team appreciated the Highland hospitality and friendly competition that is the part of the coastal rowing movement.

Coastal Rowing keeps a low profile in the sporting world. In the US it consists mainly of sliding seat boats rowed by one or two crew. In SW England, Ireland and Brittany a wide range of traditional boats are rowed in competition, ranging from authentic Irish skin curraghs to the Cornish pilot gigs, six-oared boats 32′ long with a beam of under 5′ and traditionally built.

st ayles fem crew


About seamarsh

Still trying to find the answers to life's nautical questions.
This entry was posted in Nautical History, NW boats and boaters, Sailors & Yachts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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