In 2014, groups living along the County Down coast of Northern Ireland – in the villages of Kircubbin, Ardglass, Killyleagh, Donagadhee, Strangford, Portaferry, Dundrum, Ballywalter and Portavogie – all built their own St Ayles Skiffs from kits. Their aim was to develop national and international coastal rowing races on Strangford Lough, an area of outstanding beauty and very suitable for rowing competitions. In July 2016, the Strangford Lough and Lecale Partnership, the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association, local councils and these rowing clubs, hosted Skiffie Worlds 2016. The event attracted 50 clubs from Scotland, England, Northern Ireland, USA, Canada, Tasmania and our own Watersportvereniging Woudrichem from the Netherlands.
Woudrichem is a beautiful small medieval fortified town just south of the centre of the Netherlands, near the great rivers Maas, Waal and Merwede, the rivers we row upon. In 2013 we built our first St Ayles Skiff, Groot en Grut 1 – which means big and small or adult and child – and finished her just weeks before the first Skiffie Worlds at Ullapool in Scotland – see W102. We were quite unprepared but we enjoyed ourselves tremendously – we even won a prize for the Best Overseas Club – and decided then that we had to be back for Skiffie Worlds 2016.
In the meantime, we built our second St Ayles Skiff Groot en Grut 2 which was baptised by Alec Jordan of
Jordan Boats which makes the kits. Alec came from Scotland especially for this ceremony because it turned out that G&g2 was the 100th St Ayles Skiff, even more reason to celebrate the event with abundant Scotch whisky.
Two days before Skiffie Worlds 2016, around 25 of us, rowers and their families, from Woudrichem gathered for the journey to Strangford Lough; quite a trip with ferries across the North Sea and the Irish Sea. It got worse when a tyre burst! We replaced it quickly – excellent teamwork! – but still it looked as if we were going to be too late for the Liverpool-Belfast ferry. A telephone call from one of the our crew asking the ship to wait for the Dutch cars and was enough to make the ferry depart later then scheduled! It was as simple as that.
From Monday to Friday, we raced from morning until late afternoon. Every half hour there was a 11⁄4 mile (2 km) race against 14 other boats and the first five boats in the heat went through to the finals. The age range of the rowers was wide – under 17, under 20, 20-40, 40 +, 50+, 60+; the oldest particpant was 83 years old! – with races for men, women, mixed and open crews. We had great and less great rows, especially our youth team who rowed so well they won silver medals twice. The weather was excellent for rowing, not too warm, although sometimes a little more sunshine would have been welcome. We rowed between seals who looked totally relaxed and probably wondered what all the fuss was about.
As in Ullapool, we were impressed by the organisation of the whole event and also by the sportsmanlike behaviour of the other rowing crews. It is so good to find that we have already made many friendships with the other crew members, some of whom we knew from previous times.
After the prize giving – again we won the prize for the Best Overseas Club! – there was a smashing party sponsored by Peter and Caroline of the Cuan. The music was great, we stayed till late and even managed to introduce the Polonaise, which was immediately adapted in an original Northern Irish manner. The next day we were all sad to leave; we will miss the other crews and the welcoming people of the villages. The second Skiffie Worlds was a tribute to the many hard working people who made the event a success. Be sure we will be back in 2019!
ROBERT GRAHAM FROM THE DUNDRUM COASTAL ROWING CLUB IN NORTHERN IRELAND WRITES...
St Ayles Skiffs were introduced to Northern Ireland two years ago by the SLLP with a project to give communities around Strangford Lough the opportunity to reconnect with their boatbuilding heritage. Local amateur boatbuilding teams rose to the challenge of completing the skiffs ready for the first regatta at Strangford Lough in 2014. The excitement generated by these races encouraged many local people to become involved and each community was soon hosting fiercely contested competitions. As well as competitive racing, clubs were also organising adventure and leisure rowing for their members. When the SLLP announced
it would be organising and hosting the second world championships on Strangford Lough in July 2016, it was a dream come true for the local coastal rowing clubs.
Our local club, Dundrum, laid out a championship course in Dundrum Inner Bay to practice. With male, female and mixed races in seven age categories it was a logistical nightmare, first trying to find sufficient rowers and then set up a training schedule for 21 crews. Rowers were coached on their technique and performance and encouraged to provide feedback on how the skiff could be improved. One clear message was that rowers needed to feel comfortable and have confidence in their equipment in order to give their best performance. Before Skiffie Worlds, there was much fine tuning of the skiff; some of which worked, some of
which didn’t. The main improvements centred on the weight, balance and gearing of the oars, the rowlocks, the foot stretchers and the seats. The rowing style was also developed to optimise the stroke and breathing rate. Racing starts and 180 ̊ turns around a buoy were practiced until they became second nature.
Despite months of preparation, we felt like underdogs going into the Skiffie Worlds because we could not match the times posted by the competitive Scottish crews at Ullapool. Many felt that if we could qualify in the heats and get through to the finals we would be doing well and if we won Best Local Boat that would be a major success.
The Dundrum rowers arrived at the Skiffie village on the first day with a mixture of nervous apprehension and excitement. The first day was particularly nerve wracking but by the end of it, the Dundrum team had secured a silver medal, followed by a bronze on Day 2. On the third morning, it was decided to risk tweaking the gearing of the oars and two more golds and a silver medal were added to the tally. The Dundrum crews were getting into their stride by qualifying comfortably in the heats and their team mates were providing the loudest vocal encouragement from the side lines! By this stage there was a buzz in the team camp that maybe something really special could be achieved.
On Day 4 there was another gold, silver and bronze medal in the bag and the atmosphere in the team camp was electric. Dundrum had crept into the lead for the overall championship by a margin of 6 points but with fourteen races still to be decided, it was all to play for. On day 5 Dundrum’s closest rival, North Berwick piled on the pressure and reeled the lead in to 3. The final day was very tense as another Scottish club, Eastern, put in a very strong performance but Dundrum managed to hold on and lift the overall championship trophy with a one point margin. It is a testament to the competitiveness of the racing teams that the top 4 clubs were separated by only 6 points.
Dundrum is a small village at the foot of the Mourne Mountains in Co Down and to be able to win the Skiffie World Championships was a very emotional triumph and exceeded everyone’s expectations. In 2019 Dundrum hope to be defending their World title and the planning needed to do that is already well underway.
The concept of communities coming together to build a St Ayles Skiff has enormous benefits from a social, health and well-being perspective and the potential to improve people’s lives cannot be under-estimated so the proliferation of St Ayles Skiff builds and the resulting benefit to their communities is to be welcomed.