A Brief History of the St Ayles Skiff

St Ayles Skiffs are rowing boats for four rowers and a cox and are built for rowing at sea, as opposed to on rivers. They are 22 feet (6.7 metres) long, have a beam of 5’8″ (1.73 metres), weigh 155kg (24 stones and 6 pounds) and upwards and are constructed from clinker plywood from a kit.

The story started in early 2009 when the Scottish Fisheries Museum approached boat kit manufacturer Alec Jordan to run a boat build in the museum’s boatyard with students from Adam Smith College. During the conversations regarding the project over the eventual use of the boat to be built, Jordan raised the possibility of trying to revive the coastal rowing regattas that had taken place in the mining villages in the East Fife coalfields until the early 1950s. The miners built their boats themselves from timbers “liberated” from the collieries, then raced them on their Gala days.

With the kit built boats, the cost of a community building and racing their own boat is much reduced, and it would be realistic to expect communities to raise the £3500 or so that would be needed to buy the kit and complete the boat. With this in mind, the Museum commissioned the internationally regarded boat designer Iain Oughtred to design a replica of the Fair Isle Skiff to be built from a plywood kit that Jordan was to draw up from Oughtred’s plans.

Immediately that the plans were available, the first kit was designed and cut, and Jordan, assisted by Chris Perkins and various other volunteers, built the prototype in the space of seven weeks. The prototype took to the water on Halloween 2009, in brilliant sunshine, with a large number of onlookers from Fife and various locations along the south side of the Forth, largely thanks to Robbie Wightman’s efforts in publicising the project there.

Over the next few months, Alec Jordan took the prototype to various places around Scotland for clubs and other groups to have a try nearly all of them decided to build. Within a few weeks, Jordan Boats had received orders for several boats, and the race was on to see who could get their skiffs launched first. The skiffs were built in a surprising array of locations, from leaky cowsheds to a leaky fishermens hut to the relative warmth and space of a very large disused Hydroponicum (a glorified polytunnel).

Six skiffs made it to the first regatta at Anstruther in May 2010, and since then, there has been a constant stream of new skiffs being ordered and built at various rates. More regattas followed over the summer, and by the end of the first season, 33 skiff kits had been sold in Scotland and one in England. The design was also picked up in the USA, with WoodenBoat magazine sponsoring the Building And Rowing Challenge which is designed to encourage schools to build and race the boats. Others in the USA followed, with the first all-women build taking place in Portland Oregon. The kits are cut under licence in the USA. The scene switched to Australia (also cutting kits), where another women’s build took place at Franklin Tasmania. Kits were also cut in the Netherlands; the international expansion continues with potential licencees in the Caribbean, Brazil, and South Africa. Kits have also been sent to New Zealand and Spain, and there are an increasing number being built in England.

In July 2013, Ullapool in the North West Highlands hosted the first Skiffie Worlds, with crews attending from the USA, Australia, New Zealand, Netherlands, and England. It promises to be fantastic event, with the proceedings being opened by HRH the Princess Royal.

It is hard to say what anyone’s real expectations of the St Ayles Skiff were in 2009 when the prototype was launched. It is certain though that what has been achieved in such a short space of time is well into the “Wild Dreams” end of the spectrum.

© Text courtesy of the Scottish Coastal Rowing Association and Jordan Boats.

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