CRINAN CLASSIC 2009
When the boats come in
Review by Jim Glicrist- The Scotsman - 1st July 2009
THE TRUANT skims across the gunmetal waters of the Sound of Jura, a century-old but a fast and supremely elegant classic of her kind. Leaning gracefully under some 1,200 sq ft of gaff-rigged canvas, her streamlined assembly of elm, oak and mahogany creaking slightly as Crinan recedes behind us, the eight metre class racing yacht is enjoying a new lease of life. As a mere landlubberly passenger, I'm aware of sailing on a stylish piece of yachting history.
Built in 1910, in the Fairlie yard of William Fife III, of the famous yacht-building dynasty, Truant will be among as many as 60 classic timber boats expected to attend the four-day Crinan Classic Boat Festival later this week, when the picturesque Argyllshire village at the westerly basin of the Crinan Canal is given over not just to messing about in classic wooden boats, but to pipe bands, whisky tastings, waterborne games games and ceilidhs.
Now in its third year, the event has taken off well beyond expectations since The Truant's owner, 35-year-old artist Ross Ryan and his friend Mike Dalglish, casually came up with the idea after a good day out on the Sound of Jura.
"We were on Ross's Dad's boat, the Sgarbh, out on the Sound here, late last summer and we thought, 'Let's try and get some wooden boats together,'" recalls Dalglish, a professional boat skipper based at Crinan. "There are events for traditional wooden boats on the east coast and in England , but there was nothing like it on the west coast, which some people regard as some of the best cruising grounds in the world."
They were aware of taking a major gamble, and expected perhaps a dozen or so participants, but, initially sponsored by isle of Jura Whisky, the 2007 event was an unqualified success, with 45 entrants ranging from elegant vessels such as the Glance, an 1894 Bermudan cutter who returns this year, to the Beechnut, a 12ft clinker-built dinghy, as well as Seine netters, Loch Fyne skiffs and even an Irvine-based Chinese junk.
Now with the whisky sponsorship coming from the Islay-based Bruichladdich, visiting vessels will include a similarly intriguing flotilla of sail, motor and rowing boats, including some traditional pilot cutters as well as some of the sleek Alfred Mylne-designed yachts which will be competing in the inaugural Mylne Classic Regatta on the Clyde later in the month. Other distinguished visitors will include Opposition, a recently restored sloop orginally built for the late Edward Heath, and the 12 metre Sceptre, Clyde-built in the 1950s to challenge for the Americas Cup, as well as the trim little Oblio, a Fife gaffer.
Guests at the event will also include two more contemporary (and strictly non-timber) Royal Navy P2000 patrol boats, while the opening Thursday night will evoke shades of Para Handy as the VIC 32, the last surviving steam-driven west coast puffer, will sail into the Crinan Canal basin, bedecked with bunting and bearing the Mid Argyll Pipe Band. Then, of course, there will be The Truant. Originally designed in 1910 for Sir Ralph Gore, commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes, these days she plies Scotland's west coast, owned by Ryan, who inherited the yacht from his late godfather.
Reaction to the Crinan Classic over its first three years has delighted Ryan and Dalglish. "A lot of the competitors have e-mailed us photos and written us letters," says Ryan, "so we'll be seeing a lot of the same crowd again. They felt the event was original, it wasn't too big and they got to know everybody.
"Local feedback's been good too – there was some action in the village again," adds Ryan, who works out of his painting studio in a converted boat house at Crinan, where his father, Nick Ryan, owns the famous hotel and his mother is the seascape painter Frances MacDonald.
From Nick Ryan's point of view, the Crinan Classic can only mean more business for the famous hotel he has owned since 1969. "The hotel keeps busy anyway, but to keep everybody fresh in the hotel and in the village and on the canal, an event like this is exactly what we need.
"It's ducks to water – the people who come here for this are not only interested in good food and nice accommodation, they have another aspect to their lives and that's the beautiful boats they bring here," adds the hotelier, who himself owns the Sgarbh, a restored 1947 ketch, which will be taking part in the proceedings.
The Classic also offers more landlubberish entertainments, including a water-borne Highland games with haggis-hurling from the lighthouse, whisky tastings and ceilidhs including a major fling in the Crinan Boatyard on Saturday night, as well as boat-building demonstrations.
Amid it all, The Truant, it has to be said, cuts quite a dash. "It was William Fife's maxim that a great yacht should be 'both fast and bonnie,'" observes Dalglish, sitting at the tiller during my excursion, "and she is everything that a boat should be."
The century-old yacht underwent major restoration at the Lochgilphead yard of A & R Way, Boatbuilders, a few years ago, when, as can happen with such restoration jobs, the necessary work turned out to be more extensive than had been thought and a third of the hull planking needed replacing. Metalwork at the bottom of the boat had rusted, rotting any timber, frames, ribs or planking, that came into contact with it.
In her Edwardian heyday, The Truant dominated the racing season for four years, wining European championships twice and then beating the Olympic fleet in 1912, says Ryan, who goes on to speculate what the original crew might have thought if they were to come on board now. "I'm sure they'd be busy adjusting everything and laughing at what we were doing. It might take as much as ten years to really get to know a boat like this, adjusting her all the time."
The restored yacht enjoyed much attention at the Earl's Court Boat Show two years ago where she was exhibited alongside the Ierne, a former racing adversary and product of the same inspired William Fife drawing board and Fairlie yard. The Ierne, which won gold at the 1920 Olympics at Antwerp, is owned by Yorkshireman Hugh Jones, who rescued the boat after she had spent 16 years mouldering in a Portuguese farm shed and restored her to her former glory.
The yachting equivalent of the Bentleys which would roar round Brooklands a decade later, The Truant and the Ierne went head to head in prestigious eight-metre events on the Solent, back in 1914. And last year, they resumed their famous rivalry during the Fife Regatta, when classic Fairlie-built boats converged on the Clyde and The Truant came first in her gaff class and also collected the prize for fastest Scottish boat.
She should make an impression once again during the Crinan races, which are held under a handicap system, bearing in mind the engagingly motley collection of wooden vessels taking part. Whatever the result, the event should recall the days when The Truant's creator, the third William Fife, designed such renowned yachts as the Americas Cup challengers Shamrock I and Shamrock III for the tea magnate and yachting enthusiast Sir Tommy Lipton, in the golden age of Clyde yachting.
Further details: www.crinanclassic.com