Summer and the Boat Slip

You know I can never understand why youngsters nowadays say they are bored. In my childhood in the late 1950s early 60s there were never enough hours in the day for all we had planned. I believe it was the influence of television and computers that has created this boredom and the inability to use their imaginations.

In the summer months there were adventures in the "Hydro Woods" which lay behind our house. I don't know what the real name was but all the locals called it that after the Kyles of Bute Hydropathic, which lay behind this. It was, as I recall, disused but it had been a magnificent building where guests could stay and take "the waters". During the war it was requisioned by the Royal Navy renamed HMS Varbel, and used as a base for the midget submarine training. The building has now been demolished and awaits planning permission for some new development or other. Anyway this was a good stretch of woodland going all the way to my father's bus garage in Ardbeg. Together with my brothers and our friends, we built dens and had our "battles" there with rival gangs such as Henry Deighan's Gang. Henry died quite young and I remember the shock of coming across his grave at Croc an Raer Cemetery, whilst on a visit to the island. When I talk of gangs, don't be alarmed we are talking about bows and arrows made from branches and twigs, and no one ever got hurt!

There was also the "Pinee Woods" which was a large pine tree forest stretching for some distance towards Rothesay. These were deep dark woods and somewhat creepy to us kids and in which you never ventured alone. In the middle was a small clearing which had a small brick dome about two or three feet tall and it had a small iron door on it. We never knew what it was and quite frankly none of us wanted to meet its occupant.

Life in the summer months was idyllic and certainly not just confined to the woods. Along from our house was a boat slip owned by Harry Stewart (no relation). It was home from home for most of my childhood. In the summer I could be found there from early morning till sundown. A favourite trick of mine was to escape the house without being detected and collared for some chore. I would pull on my clothes, rattle the bathroom door handle and then sneak out of the front door. Harry Stewart along with Arthur Robertson and his wife Isobel ran the boat slip. Isobel had been in the Army with my mother and had also been a Military Policewoman. The boat slip hired out wooden rowing and motorboats as well as servicing local and visiting yacht owners. In the summer months Kames Bay was a haven for yachtsmen and it was very difficult to get a mooring, especially when any of the big yacht races were on, such as the Tobermory or Ailsa Craig. One of the better-known yachtsmen was Ian Nicolson who was and still is a renowned yacht designer and whose grandfather was, I believe, involved in designing the Cutty Sark. My grandfather had a book Ian has written called "The Log of the Makem". This was about his sailing of that boat across the Atlantic from Canada. I remember him well when he used to turn up at weekends with his young family to go out to their boat, a real gentleman.

There was also a large motor yacht called "Judy of Bute" which had been built at Ardmaleish Boat Yard and was owned by James McKelvie, who ran Volvo Scotland. I was friends with his son Jimmy, who was about the same age as me. We would mess about on his father's tender (a boat used to ferry people to the main boat). I remember it had a very powerful Evinrude outboard engine, very smart. I also used to go with him and his family when they sailed the "Judy" round the island. It could be very lonely for some of the yachtsmen's children if they didn't have any friends with them, so we made life easier for them. Apart from the McKelvies, there were the Craigs and the Pearson families who were regular weekenders. The Craigs had a yacht called "Bow Tow" and I used to crew for them.

Arthur Robertson was a tanned and weathered man who would probably have shocked skin doctors today. He was an excellent teacher, with a good wit. He took me under his wing and taught me a lot. He taught me to shell mussels for bait without slicing my finger off and where to get the best mussels and at what level of tide to do it. He taught me how to splice and make ropes and moorings. On the other hand Harry Stewart was more laid back, not always of the best of health. He did have a sense of humour and delighted in sending us na´ve kids to the local shop for an "ounce of boar's dung and honey" which you would eventually find out was Gallagher's Tobacco! Like Arthur, Harry always wore a "Bunnet" (flat cap). If you didn't watch out or did something stupid, either of them could give you a "dose of the bunnet" which consisted of a whack on the head with the soft part. You would probably be arrested for doing that sort of thing today, but we accepted adult chastisement even from non-family members. They always looked out for us and my parents never worried about what we were up to. I remember when Isobel found out that I couldn't swim. Imagine that living on an island by the sea and not a swimmer! Anyway off I was sent to the local swimming baths in Rothesay where I learnt to swim under the watchful eye of Mrs Ferrier and eventually gained my swimming proficiency certificate.

The rowing boats all had female names (as befitting a boat). There was Jean, Iona, Elizabeth and Rona to name a few. There was also the "Punt", an unnamed boat, which was used to row out to the mooring buoys and bring in the boats each morning. The boats were moored offshore by rows of rope moorings with cork floaters to keep the rope from sinking. One of the morning's tasks was to row out to the boats armed with a scrubbing brush to get rid of the seagull mess — a seaside problem! In the evening the procedure was reversed and boats were secured to their moorings with an anchor hitch rope knot. After each boat was secured Arthur, or sometimes Harry, came past in one of the motorboats and picked you up. Arthur didn't believe in slowing down as he came abreast of the boat so you had to grab the gunwales (side) of the boat as it passed and hop in — you either made it or you didn't... simple! Certainly mooring the boats late on a summer's evening as the sun was going down was a special time of day.

Another "show off" trick usually tried in front of females was to push the boat down the jetty and jump in at the last by placing your knee on the gunwales. Unfortunately, one time I missed and fell into the water getting soaked from head to foot much to Arthur and Harry's amusement but at least there were no girls around.

One of the many duties you had was the tendering of the yachts. Most of the sailors were weekenders and would arrive on Friday nights so we would ensure that their boats were ready for them. We would clean down the hulls and ensure that canisters of water were placed on board as well as other sundry items. I used to enjoy this part as I was left to do it on my own and enjoyed being out on a yacht, even though it didn't go anywhere. There were some beautiful yachts with a variety of names for example Vanduara, Erica, Periwinkle, Judith, Nan of Clynder, Seonagh. Yachts had the port of origin on them as well as the initials of the club they belonged to e.g. C.C.C. (Clyde Cruising Club). Summertime saw the bay full of yachts but when there was a race on like the Tobermory then you couldn't move and all spare moorings were gone forcing yachts to use their own anchors. There was no finer sight than to see twenty to forty yachts sailing past the bay with Spinachers bellowing out in the wind.

I was never able to take part but in addition to going out on Bow Tow with Fraser Craig, I used to crew regularly for Ronnie McAllister. Ronnie was a Major in the Army REME and had an American sailing dinghy. I used to love sailing with him but one of the downsides was that he always took the helm and I was up for'ard handling the sails so when we tacked into the wind I got all the sea spray and a soaking.

John Stewart

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