The Skiff Rowing World Championships
Kindly sponsored by Josh Talbot
Safely home to Ullapool from the border what better way to celebrate than by swapping paddles for an oar to spend a few days rowing! The village was abuzz with excitement, flags fluttered in the gentle sea breeze along a shore front dashed with colorful arrays of team shirts. It was a perfect day for the worlds first Skiff rowing world championship.
Teams had arrived en masse from as far as Holland, the USA, Canada and even Tasmania. The normally quiet shingle beach at Ullapool point was transformed with thriving crowds, markee tents and countless rowing boats.
The culmination of an incredible organizational effort largely headed by Topher Dawson and the Ullapool Skiff community had seen hours of hard, dedicated work finally pay off. By sheer luck or perhaps divine intervention they had timed the week to coincide with five of the warmest sunniest days of the year so far.
Tess and I had arrived late into the event which begun on the Monday. Paddling in on wednesday night we were just in time to watch the sprint races along the shorefront. And what better way to do so than sitting on the sea wall with a cold, crisp pint. We laughed about how Tess had fallen into the sea from intoxication after just one pint as we had arrived home….no capsizes along 120km of the rugged west coast but straight into the sea in a calm harbour the one time she was in front of a crowd…oops.
Every few minutes two beautifully crafted boats rowed gracefully into position at the “wee pier,” with a BANG a pistol would fire breaking the silent tranquility of the evening with a roar of team camaraderie which echoed across the town. It was matched by the exerted screams of the 5 crew race teams which between them would almost match the lively cheer from the large spectating crowd. 20-30 seconds of chaos later the cheers would diminish and the gentle bustle of pint fueled banter would resume.
Tess and I wandered down to the small crowd at the sailing club to join in with the race starts. Before long I was holding the boats into position at the pier and Tess was standing between with her arms raise in wait to signal the start at the gun. The larger than life Phil McCann beckoned instructions with her characteristic humour and glaswegian cheer over the racket, I wondered why we bothered with a starting gun and didn’t just let Phil shout go!
We watched as my parents raced their heats with viking like roars and stiff determination, Tess and I yelled ourselves hoarse in encouragement from the pier.
Tess and I had been back in Ullapool for barely a few hours but had already sunk into the infectious spirit and cheer that the championships promised for the days ahead. It wasn’t until late in the evening that we finally retired to the house, knackered and a little tipsy we relished the comfort of real beds, warm food and a shower! I had my very own bed to look forward to, after all I had to rest well…tomorrow I raced!
Filled with a fried breakfast fit for a champion Tess and I wandered to the point early in the morning light. Paul had long since sped off on his bike in a bustle of commotion far too energetic for the morning hours.
We arrived and settled down onto the already warm shingle. It was quiet and pristinely beautiful with every skiff tied up peacefully at the still waters edge. In a few hours they would be rocked into action at the hands of many a friendly competitive rower.
By 9am families had arrived and set camp on the shore, a myriad of colorful blankets and picnic baskets dotted what spaces were left between markees and boats. “GOOOOooooood MORNING!” A lively and enthusiastic voice boomed through a megaphone “And welcome to the fourth morning of the inaugural St.Ayles skiff world championships.” And what a morning it was!
With a huge ice cream in one hand and a smiling Tess sunbathing beside me I couldn’t have been more relaxed! The first race was lining up in a perfect curved arc in front of a familiarly spectacular mountain backdrop….this was the life!
“THREE…TWO…ONE” A siren fired from the megaphone and a booming cheer erupted from the beach. Cheering for our team we screamed “COME ON LOKI” as loud as we could! Out at sea the cacophony of oars on water and heaving screams to rival those of wimbledon scattered across the water.
As the boats grew smaller in the distance toward the turning markers across the loch the shouting died, only when they returned to the point did the screams build once more. As each boat reached the final 50m the sound was deafening…each team roaring to their rowers behind the shores own erupting chorus “COME ON!!!”
I was signed up to race at 2pm, it was 1.30 and I had yet to row with my team. Paul handed me a crisp while shirt with “LOKI” emblazoned on the back and I wandered over to meet my companions. Our team was Struan and Shona Reeve, Bethany Nairn, and I rowing and my sister Emma as Cox.
Grasping an oar I was placed in third position in the boat. We had 10 minutes to practice. From the cox’s sea Emma shouted ok lets do race starts.
“HALF! HALF…FULL!” Emma screamed dipping the oars into the water and heaving backward the boat reared up from the sea and lurched forward. Pulling as hard as I could to the time of the oar in front I hauled with legs, arms and back all working together in unison with the others. We shot forward for 20m and stopped, turned and aimed for the start….”That’ll be our practice then” I thought with amusement. The pressure to finish in the top 7 out of 11 boats begun to rise, if we succeeded we would race in the finals.
Holding onto the start the adrenaline begun to course through my veins, looking left and right boats strung out in the sea around us lined the view, each crew member leant forward arms outstretched and ready for the gun. This was it!
The gun fired! “HALF! HALF! FULL!…STROKE…STROKE…STROKE” yelled Emma a cacophony roared from the beach each rower replied with deafening screams and grunts, it was muted with the thump of my own heart as I pulled every ounce I could muster into long powerful strokes forward. We were a good team, our oar work synchronized and fast paced at a whopping 34 strokes per minute.
Unlike a kayaker the rower faces the stern of the boat, watching the bobbing heads of my team mates, the roll and splash of the oars I had to put my faith in the cox to steer our course. As we approached the far side of the bay and the turning mark I had begun to break a sweat “COME ON” Struan yelled behind a grunt, we were rowing hard and could see boats behind us. “Pick it up!” I shouted “lets row harder!”
An offshore fetch lapped at the sides as we wheeled round the mark. “Home stretch” I thought through the thump of my racing heart, my arms burned and lungs wheezed.
Ullapool point appeared, the last 100m. Rowing like our lives depended on it we summoned what energy we had left to pick up the pace, all I could think was “Just keep time, keep rowing! Nearly there!”
The finish line soared past and a bellow of applause emanated from the beach. Emerging from 15 minutes in a different world, a focused world where only the oar and energy mattered I could at last look up and enjoy the spectacle of boats on the water.
Red faced and exhausted we landed triumphantly on the beach, we had respectively come 5th and would row in the final! I staggered up the shingle to join Tess who lay on the beach smiling and enjoying the sun. Collapsing on the stones I lay panting in the heat, only after the race did I notice how hot I had become.
* * *
With another ice cream melting in our hands Tess and I spent the remainder of the afternoon laying on the beach to watch the races. In three hours I would return to row for the finals.
2pm – The team assembled once more, “My arms still hurt” Bethany sighed, I think she spoke for us all. Back in the seat behind the oar we awaited the gun once more.
Another shot, another 15 minutes give or take of heaving for all it was worth and we arrived panting and tired back at the finish line. Tired from the morning row we were slower this time, to our delight however we had managed to finish 7th, a respectable time for the team.
Back on shore I could at last relax, well at least until the ceilidh that evening.
* * *
Kilted up and set to dance Tess and I joined the gathering at the markee on the pier. An evening of merriment and chaotic dancing ensued, dizzy from Strip the Willow, The Dashing white Sergeant and waltzes we staggered back to the house. The “Warm up ceilidh” had introduced Tess to the Scottish dancing with pipes and pints, the next day the big ceilidh would round up the rowing celebrations.
* * *
Back on the beach in the morning sun Tess and I waited for dads cousin Rick. We had decided to hike up Beinn nam Ban (The mountain opposite Loch Broom) so that we could enjoy watching the rowing from above.
As we waited I enjoyed scooting around the bay in a small motor boat, I acted as the ferry for the professional camera team and upon instruction weaved along side the boats mid race to grant them photo opportunities.
Rick arrived and with life jackets thrown on the three of us roared across the loch in the little speedboat. Landing straight on the far shore Struan who was behind the wheel sped back off to Ullapool. We were on our own for the morning and free to climb from the humid air to cooler ground high above.
Slapping clegs, and crunching through dried peat we soon ascended toward the summit. Even from 400m up we could hear the roar of the crowds and rowers alike as the wrestled for position around the course. To my amusement my dad’s bellowing voice could clearly be heard grunting above the others during their sprint.
A quick amble along the sandstone pavements brought us to the summit, after a quick view of An Teallach and Little Loch Broom where Tess and I could enjoy looking back to where we had paddled from we returned to shore.
Waiting on the beach and watching the rowers approach, turn and row back to Ullapool we marvelled at a friendly otter which played in the sea below, I was rather surprised to see it so close to the commotion.
Sage arrived in the little orange dingy and with a short blast back to town we were once again relaxing on the shore just enjoying the commotion…in the bustle and excitement of the races this was Ullapool’s community spirit at its best.
As evening arrived Tess and I prepared ourselves to enter into the sprint races. After quick pre row pint on the wall while watching the other rowers it was our turn.
Our team was Tess, Struan, Jonathan Osborne and I, Sandy Osborne (Jonathan’s father) was cox. Having never rowed a skiff in her life Tess took position on the third oar. Under the careful instruction of Sandy we slowly practice rowed along the shore and back. With a clunk Tess dipped her oar too far and was catapulted backward from the seat much to our amusement…it is a common mistake for beginners.
10 minutes practice later and we were lined up at the pier. To our left the Dutch team “Groot & Grut” lined up “Drag Race’ style. “Forward!” Sandy called, we lent toward him oars in the water, quickly glancing back to check Tess looked happy I dipped my head and prepared for the gun. Absolutely silence drifted across the boats, anticipating the shot.
A BANG fired and we reared backward into action. “STROKE, STROKE,STROKE” Sandy bellowed at the top of his lungs, we hauled with all our might. I was the front oar, with each stroke I tried to up the pace…we were going to go as fast as we could manage. With each pull I prayed “Don’t slip Tess!” over and over, she rowed like a pro.
23 seconds later we crossed between two sails tied to flagpoles on the pier and shore, the finish had already arrived, the roar of the water and screams from the pubs faded into the golden evening light. We had beat the dutch!
In the 23 seconds of burst energy I felt more tired than the 13 minutes open race earlier in the day, clearly I am more suited to endurance than sprints. None the less we decided to try again, we swapped Tess with Brian Wilson who as far the strongest member took the primary oar.
Another burst another heave and we shaved two seconds off our time to a respectable 21 second sprint along the shore.
Happy with our time we disbanded for another cold pint on the wall, it was important to save some energy for an evenings ceilidh dancing!
With the sprints over all the teams from far and wide lined up for one final team photo, it marked the end of the races but also the onset of one last great party.
* * *
That evening Tess, Beth I and the family returned to the tent on the pier. The superb band Skippenish (perhaps better pronounced Skiff-enish for the evening) played the house down, chaotic ceilidh dances including a strip the willow (nicknamed the “Dizzy dance” due to lots of spinning) which ran the entire length of the tent. We joined together in cheers as Coigach lass won the beautiful trophy as the overall winners and ended with every rower in line mimicking rowing to the sound of the pipes.
Late into the evening laughing, staggering and hobbling home to bed we all collapsed exhausted into the house. It had been a perfect week in every sense of the word.