There were fewer boats than usual at Tarbert on Loch Fyne, perhaps 100. In its heyday, the event was second only to Cowes – at least in Great Britain – for attracting yachts. They would come from all over the UK and Ireland for four days of racing, and 250-plus boats would fill the harbour, ranging from small cruisers up to the big, expensive, racing yachts.
Until recently, you could rely on great sailing weather at the end of May. Regulars say that they could expect warm sunshine and just enough wind to make the races exciting without being dangerous. Not this year.
The trip across to Tarbert from Rhu, just beyond Helensburgh on the Clyde, set the scene. There was supposed to be a weather “window” on the Wednesday, but that must have gone through more quickly than forecast. It wasn’t a howling gale, but the wind was blowing stiffly, the waves causing our yacht Tico to pitch and roll. Conditions grew steadily worse as we made our way down the firth until our skipper, Graham Crawford, decided to take shelter at the marina in Inverkip. We considered spending the night there but it started raining, heavily, and that seemed to settle the wind.
We set off again shortly after five in the afternoon, advising Clyde Coastguard that we expected to reach Tarbert around 11pm. The route would take us down the river to Toward Point, opposite Wemyss Bay, then round the Kyles of Bute before finally turning into Loch Fyne.
In good weather, this can be one of the most beautiful trips in the world. But this wasn’t good weather. The rain was beating down on the canvas-covered cockpit. The hills of Argyll were cloaked in a murky, mysterious mist. We could just see the Maids of Bute, two painted standing stones made famous in the Para Handy tales. The stories claimed that he himself had been the first to paint them, “chust for the towerists”.
With Arran hardly visible in the distance, we turned into Loch Fyne and the wind picked up again. Even the skipper admitted that things were “lumpy”, in characteristic understatement. The yacht was tossed around as waves seemed to come at us from the side as well as from behind. The harbour lights at Tarbert were a very welcome sight.
The Scottish Series is one of the highlights of the sailing year. Run by the Clyde Cruising Club and sponsored by investment managers Brewin Dolphin, it’s designed to test the skill of the crews in a range of conditions. Few were expecting this year’s conditions to be quite so testing.
As unseasonal Atlantic lows chased each across the Mull of Kintyre, it made for treacherous sailing. Crew members talked of their yachts broaching – a sudden change in the wind causing the boats to roll dangerously, possibly tipping over on their sides with their keels almost out of the water and facing a real risk of capsizing. Others described how a crew member got his lifejacket was caught in the rigging, only to lose it completely when he tried to untangle. To many, it was a relief that there were fewer entrants – in a crowded race, that would have been very risky indeed.
This may have been a four-day event, but only the first and last day’s races could be completed. On the Saturday, the winds grew steadily through the morning and, shortly after lunch, race organiser Johnnie Readman toured the loch on a RIB (rigid inflatable boat), visiting the committee boats and finally deciding to call off the rest of the planned events – to the consternation of some but the relief of many.
That was the cue for the assembled crews to enjoy a little boisterous celebration. The rain stayed off for most of the organised firework display and there were impromptu parties on many of the boats, late into the small hours.
Sunday morning broke with an eerie, ominous silence. At 6:30am, only the cries of seabirds disturbed the peace. But 15 minutes later, the collective rigging began first to sing and then to howl as yet another front screamed in from the west. By nine o’clock, as we left the shelter of the harbour, the wind gauge on Tico was registering over 40 knots – around 46mph. Few boats braved the gale.
Those which did faced conditions of both wind and wave which tested courage as well as skill. Only the largest boats were allowed out. As they turned around the course, their crews were hanging precariously over the side to prevent their yachts from tipping too far over. One boat lost its mast. Another withdrew with damaged gearing. A third lost its helmsman overboard – he was gallantly picked up by one of the following yachts, thankfully unharmed apart from some bruises. As that first race ended, one of the work boats reported that its gearbox had failed. Nothing else would take place that day – apart from a prizegiving in the evening.
But late afternoon on Sunday, the machines that deliver paper copies of the marine weather forecasts chattered into life. They reported that gales further to the west had ceased and that fairer conditions would spread across the country. Those messages acted almost as a talisman. The winds calmed down almost at once. The pennants and flags fell limply down the masts. The rain started falling.
On Monday morning, the sun shone. A relatively gentle breeze blew across the waters, enough to fill the sails. It meant that day’s racing programme could go ahead. The yachts sped around the various courses throughout the morning. Enough of the races throughout the four days had taken place to make competitors feel it had been worthwhile coming.“The general consensus of the competitors that I’ve heard is that they enjoyed the conditions,” said Readman. “Those who didn’t want to go sailing didn’t. Those who wanted to challenge themselves – that is why we all participate in sport – came back having got fresh air and exercise and saying it had been worthwhile.”
Pointing out that there had been a man overboard and that a mast had broken, Readman acknowledged that “it is one of the risks of sailing that you can do material damage. There were also many flapping, shredded sails to be repaired, which is all good news for the local sail makers. The man who went overboard was picked up safely and returned to his boat. The important thing is that no one was hurt. You can always replace a sail; you can’t always replace a crew member.”
This is the twelfth year that Brewin Dolphin (formerly Bell Lawrie) have sponsored the Scottish Series. Director Fraser Gardiner saw no reason for this to stop. It was a good way for them to meet existing and prospective clients, but there was also a degree of personal self-interest as well.
“With any of our sponsorships,” Gardiner said, “there has to be a personal interest in the sport or event. Many of us, myself included, sail. But it’s not just about being sailors. We have to be prepared to get involved with the events, even with some of the fine detail. It’s all part of our commitment and making sure we’re closely involved with what we’re doing.”
Both he and Readman were keen to dispel the idea that sailing was either elitist or expensive. They pointed to the youngsters sailing their tiny boats around Tarbert harbour, dinghies that, second-hand, would cost tens rather than hundreds of pounds. They weren’t boats that you would want to see outside the safety of the harbour, but they are great training vessels for quite young children.
“You simply pay for what you plan to do,” said Readman. “If you want to go in for ocean racing, that’s expensive. But that’s not what most people want to do. They just want to get out on the water and enjoy themselves. You can buy small boats on eBay for hundreds of pounds or even a small cruiser for a few thousand.” That’s less than many people would pay for a car.“Even if you don’t want to own a boat,” adds Gardiner, “you can get in touch with your local yacht club and offer to crew. The owners will teach you what to do. All you need to pay for are some waterproofs.”
That was proved by some of the participants in the Scottish Series. They included a woman who worked in a bookshop, a refrigeration engineer, a retired manager from an insurance company and a retired engineer from BT. For them all, it was a passion that took them away from their everyday world.
Last weekend’s events confirmed the skill and courage of the people who take to the water, sadly far from the public’s gaze. Tarbert is a long way from the main centres of population. An event like the Scottish Series won’t attract widespread public attention here, but the organisers and sponsors alike believe it should stay.
“It’s hard to find a harbour like it with enough space for the yachts and all the facilities you need within a short walk,” said Readman. “Most of the marinas on the Clyde are full and couldn’t cope with all the extra boats. This is a glorious location which the competitors all like. That’s not to say that we won’t speak to them about alternatives – we fully intend to canvass their opinions. But until they say otherwise, this is where we’ll stay.”