by Ewan Kennedy – Oct. 2020
I was first in the Royal Northern clubhouse in 1960, when I managed to persuade two of my father’s friends to take me out with them, because despite my best efforts he refused to buy us a yacht. To the twelve year old me these fellows were human dinosaurs, with their heavy Harris tweed jackets, faded checked cotton shirts, the frayed collars held together with thin regimental ties, wide bullet-proof corduroy trousers and ancient brogue shoes. Decades later, I learned that one of them had been on a foredeck in Oyster Bay in the Thirties as one of the Scottish invaders.
Going sailing in those days the only concessions to normal clothing were the addition of tattered yellow oilskin jackets when the seas started coming over, a yachting cap and of course the shoes. The latter got changed for faded canvas deckshoes bleached through years in the open, with treacherous “non-slip” soles guaranteed to slide you over the side in an instant. In order to leave all grit and sand behind the shoes only got changed in the tender as you rowed out to the mooring. Looking back, these survivors from a former age, who addressed each other by their surnames and referred to me as “the boy” were probably approaching fifty. They were co-owners of a pre-war racing machine, which lay half a mile offshore from the clubhouse at the entrance to the Gareloch, twenty miles from Glasgow. I have forgotten the name of the yacht, but from that day I was totally hooked. It’s wonderful that thanks to the wave of restorations the spirit of those days is being saved, although with better clothing and even lifejackets.
The story about that first trip is for another day, but the memory of the fabulous clubhouse, a sort of palace of yachting, made a huge impact on me. Every room opened to a new display of wonderful things, be they paintings of ancient yachts and regatta scenes, or walls completely hung with half models, everywhere polished panelling, in the hall the tiller for a giant, as if the building was really just a huge yacht, waiting to be taken to sea. I was totally awed and unable to speak, a feeling which has returned on visits over the years.
My old chum Iain McAllister innocently set about persuading people that I knew the waters of the upper Clyde “like the back of my hand”. Knew them, yes, but last sailed on them around 1975. The result of this deception was a berth on the Ayrshire Lass as one of two superannuated hands and the ship’s navigator.
The Ayrshire Lass has been around the Clyde since 1887. Through a good bit of the last century she was the command of the astonishing Liz Todrick, shipwright at McGruer & Co, who lived in a cottage overlooking the Gareloch with no electricity and a goat for company. She often sailed single handed and could sometimes be seen on calm nights towing the Lass behind her dinghy for miles back home to her mooring. Advancing years overtook both and Liz couldn’t be rebuilt, but her yacht could be and was, in Ireland by Michael Kennedy, courtesy of Paul Goss. Liz lived long enough to go out on her former yacht in its reincarnation. In her nineties and blind she was able to steer by feel and sense required corrections to the sheeting.
Paul wasn’t around at the event, which was of course a pity but perhaps as well, as a couple of old lawyers, Martin Black and myself, would perhaps not have been his first choice to crew a Victorian racing cutter. Getting out of the deep cockpit onto the foredeck was perhaps more of a challenge than staying on its varnished surface once up there. The rest of our complement were the lovely Theo Rye, now sadly no longer with us, and his friend Andy.
Our race was enjoyable and because of a serious mistake by our navigator we took a sort of scenic route from the start line at Rhu past Rosneath and then along the shore almost to Kilcreggan as we inspected various buoys looking for the right one to turn. At the back of my mind was the idea that the mark was painted red, so it was a surprise to find eventually that it was green. Fortunately, word of my local knowledge had spread and most of the competition followed us, adding a good couple of sea miles to our track. It was excellent sailing and nobody was in a mood to complain.
Theo and Andy were incredibly polite about my blunder, also wonderfully fit and competent, giving Martin and myself an excellent day out and a blast of fresh air away from our respective dusty law books. There was no real damage done to the result, there being only ten seconds on handicap between the Ayrshire Lass and the other Fife taking part, the Tringa, a more modern design from 1902, now reincarnated as a “one to one scale model” by Helmut and Gisela Scharbaum of Germany.
Ewan Kennedy is the author of the long-standing and well-known blog Scottish Boating: everything about boating, more or less in Scotland, a treasure trove for those interested in boating traditions.