Summer 1893. Paisley ‘thread baron’ Stewart Clark’s rakish c200ft GL Watson-designed steam yacht Vanduara poses with engines stopped, somewhere on the Firth of Clyde. Clearly seen hanging in her starboard quarter davits is no ordinary ship’s boat.
She is Clark’s son, J Stewart’s extreme, fin-and-bulb keel half-rater racing yacht Nita, built that spring to GL Watson’s design (no. 279) at Rosneath, Dunbartonshire – from lightweight cedar for the hull and manganese bronze for the keel fin – by one of Watson’s favourite builders of fine small boats, Peter MacLean.
Given that Vanduara‘s function in life is pure pleasure, Nita adds an extra string to her bow in sporting possibilities; a diversion from one of the main functions of a Clyde-based steam yacht – easy access to the lochside hunting estates.
It’s just possible to discern Nita’s lead bulb here, slung low from its bronze plate. A challenging build for MacLean, just as it would have been for her designer – to engineer a strong enough but still lightweight hull shell to cope with all that lead hanging from a very narrow base. Fascinating, ground-breaking times to be a yacht designer, and a yacht builder.
Note that launching is by well padded slings to Vanduara’s mainmast’s boom, with the davits merely keeping Nita securely attached to her mothership.
Peter MacLean’s boatyard lay just inside Limekilns Point, at the western side of Rhu Narrows, the tide-swept entrance to the Gareloch, which is best known nowadays for its nuclear submarine base at Faslane. MacLean made his living from a combination of boatbuilding and as sometime landlord of the nearby Rosneath Ferry Inn.
Remarkably for the Clyde, the site of MacLean’s yard is still very much involved with the yachting industry, but no longer in the building of new yachts. After MacLean’s time, it was taken over by an employee, James A Silver, who still lends his name to the present, much more recent and unconnected business – despite him being active there for only a few years before the first world war. In the early years of that war, the shrewd employment of yacht designer John Bain as yard manager saw Silvers become highly successful pioneers, then leaders in the modern marketing of series-produced, yet high quality wooden motor yachts from the 1920s into the 1960s.
It’s that marketing skill which brings us back to Vanduara and her sporting combination.
The steam yacht Vanduara was GL Watson design no. 115, launched from Meadowside Shipyard, Partick, Glasgow, by D&W Henderson & Co on 6 April 1886.
After active requisitioned anti-submarine duties during the first world war, she began a varied commercial career, including time as a Liverpool pilot vessel.
Peter MacLean was one of a select group of Firth of Clyde boatbuilders favourited by Glasgow-based yacht designer to the world, GL Watson (1851-1904), to build his small to medium-sized sailing and powered yacht designs, and ship’s boats for Watson’s magnificent, large sailing and steam yacht designs – more often than not built at neighbouring shipyards.
My previous blogging experience was working for Peggy Bawn Press 2012-2015 in support of Martin Black’s astounding biography of Scottish yacht designer GL Watson. There’s a varied body of work there loosely based around Watson’s career, and the sailing waters he knew best – the Firth of Clyde and the West Coast of Scotland.
By far the most popular post was this one from October 2013 about the 1968 edition of Clyde Cruising Club’s once legendary Tobermory Race – partly, I imagine, because its subject is within living memory for many readers yet recalls a style of yachts and yachting now long gone. And there’s something about the performances by Magnus Magnusson, Ian Nicolson and David Rombach that just enchants – not to speak of cameo roles from a mouthwatering collection of yachts.
Updates at the original post have been incorporated within the text here, and I’ve taken the opportunity for a mild tidy and links check.
This is not a classic yacht regatta. In the late 1960s, the elegant, bespoke, mostly locally designed and built yachts seen in the beautifully planned, filmed and paced documentary below were the norm on the Firth of Clyde and West Coast of Scotland.
The Clyde Cruising Club’s Tobermory Race was once a huge annual draw for competitors – and spectators for the Crinan Canal transit – over the Glasgow Fair Weekend: the beginning of the annual trades holidays, when – unthinkable nowadays – the wheels of industry would close down for two weeks.
In 1968, for the first time in the race’s history, over 100 yachts took part, with 105 starters for the first leg from Port Bannatyne (Isle of Bute) to Ardrishaig (Loch Fyne).
Spare half an hour to go back in time with a youthful Magnus Magnusson, and then read on for director Louis Miller’s delightful “storyboard” on how it came about: the difficulties involved in making what was, on reflection, groundbreaking yacht racing footage from pre-digital days, when, as Ian Nicolson remembers, fourteen individual pieces of technical equipment, a cameraman and a sound recordist were placed aboard the 35ft ketch, St. Mary.
And finally, a boat-spotters guide: can you contribute to improving it?
The Tobermory Race – The Story of the Film
by Louis Miller
A light breeze rippled across Kames Bay, dispelling the last of the night. The water sparkled in the early morning sunlight, reflecting the tall masts of a hundred motionless yachts, and the rhythmic tapping of a halliard carried clear across the water.
It was not yet six o’clock on the fair Saturday morning, but already there were stirrings of life throughout the assembled fleet. The splash of a bucket, the creak of a hatch, a shrill young voice, the ‘putt-putt’ of an outboard heading shorewards. With a big race ahead, there were many who wanted plenty of time to get organised.
… it was the first time he had ever set foot on a racing yacht and the stark simplicity of an eight metre is not calculated to inspire a feeling of security!
Donald McIntyre’s launch came alongside Christina of Cascais and Dick Johnstone climbed gingerly aboard. He stood very still for a moment, his knuckles gleaming white as he gripped the shroud, his face expressionless. As we transferred his gear, cameras, lens boxes, magazine cases, stock boxes, etc., he took a long hard look at the narrow deck under his feet. I don’t know what his thoughts were, but I do know that it was the first time he had ever set foot on a racing yacht and the stark simplicity of an eight metre is not calculated to inspire a feeling of security! We left him to the tender mercies of the still sleeping Kenny Gall and his hung-over crew. Looking back we could see him knocking very tentatively on the coach roof.
The sun climbed higher in the sky as our launch threaded its way through the wakening fleet. Charles Tookey and Peter Powell were already filming the increasing activity around us, while Derek Anderson was busy recording the hundred and one sounds that make up the music of small boats. Winches clacked and rattled, anchor chains clattered and clanked, halliards creaked and groaned. Disembodied voices floated across from boat to boat, hearty laughter, half a sentence, a string of curses. The single-mindedness of preparing a yacht for a race.
Jib hanks clicked against forestays and big genoas filled and breathed deeply.
We came alongside St. Mary. Alex Pearce and Nigel Wake went aboard. I didn’t know it then, but Nigel had his pockets and his stomach stuffed with ‘Marzine’. He was taking no chances!
There was even more equipment to be transferred this time. In addition to Alex’s camera gear, there was Nigel’s recording apparatus which included a selection of microphones (gun mike, radio mike, personal mikes) the recorder, a walkie-talkie, and assorted cables. Ian Nicolson and his crew Donald and Sandra McSween, were already awake, and helping to stow the gear. We headed next for Silver Sula.
Jean and John Stenhouse welcomed us aboard with the best of all welcomes, the smell of frying bacon. The launch departed taking Peter and Derek across to the commodore’s yacht Arcturus to film the starting gun, and Charles and his sound recordist Lex McDonald set up their equipment on Silver Sula to film Magnus Magnusson, our commentator, describing the start of the class one boats.
The whole bay was now filled with boats under way, some making last minute tuning adjustments, some making trial runs at different ends of the starting line.
Minutes only to the starting gun, Silver Sula circled closely round the back of the class one yachts as they made their last run for the line. The seconds ticked away.
‘Reducing speed, there’s the marked dinghy about a hundred yards ahead.’ The leaders are closing with the line. A little more throttle, 75 yards, 60, – ‘run camera, mark it’, Tobermory Race, scene B 12, take 1’.
The race was on, and four cameras were eating up film at a frightening speed. So, with the eights leading class one into the east Kyle, Dick Johnstone, trying to find his sea-legs on Christina (and taking some of the finest sailing pictures I have ever seen), Magnus enthusing over the breath-taking beauty of the scene, and classes two and three preparing for their starting guns, I think this is an appropriate point to fill in some of the background to the filming of the 1968 Tobermory Race.
I suppose it’s only natural that the idea of filming the Tobermory should have been uppermost in my mind for so many years. Being in the film business, and a keen sailor, the two had to come together some time!
In the last ten years or so I have had a variety of boats including a Wayfarer dinghy, an ex-International Star, a 19/24, a beautiful little twenty-foot clinker job, a Silhouette, and one or two I would rather forget! It was in the year of the 19/24 that I first wrote up a proposal for filming the race. I intended to enter my own boat carrying a film crew, and I had some preliminary discussions with the Clyde Cruising Club secretary, Geoff Duncan in Alex Pearce’s house in Helensburgh.
However, it was not to be. We were committed to the limit in the film unit that year, and the camera crews were just not available.
Some years and some boats later I met Ian Nicolson. We met under very appropriate circumstances, although in a sense we were on opposite sides of the fence. Ian had been asked to do a survey on a boat I was selling (that beautiful little clinker job), and in a hopeless attempt to distract his attention from minor things like wood-rot, nail-sickness, and deck-leaks (which he seemed to be obsessed with) I chatted away to him about my ideas on filming the Tobermory Race. He waxed eloquent with enthusiasm.
‘It would make a marvellous film,’ he said, lifting a nail out with his finger and thumb. ‘All these lovely boats crowding through the Narrows, spinnakers billowing, superb scenery.’
He waved the nail about in the air, his eyes glittering behind his spectacles. ‘The Kyles, Loch Fyne, the Dhorus Mhor, there isn’t another race like it in the whole world.’
‘The Tobermory is unique!’
I was delighted to find such an enthusiastic supporter even although his survey report knocked a hundred pounds off the price of my beautiful little clinker job.
But my colleagues in the film unit were much less enthusiastic.
‘Yachting isn’t a spectator sport, people would get bored.’
‘You cannot possibly hold the average viewer’s interest in a lot of boats sailing for half an hour.’
‘It takes more than pretty pictures to make a film.’ And so on and on and on. There was much sense in what they said.
It would be only too easy to make a film which would delight yachtsmen, but this film would be seen by people who had no special interest in boats, and somehow it would have to be made both interesting and entertaining to the layman.
So I started to work on a script.
It may seem odd to start writing a script for something as unpredictable as a yacht race, but it is this uncertainty which makes a working outline all the more essential. A strong framework must be laid down first which will ensure the final shape of the film, a framework which is still sufficiently flexible to accommodate the unexpected, because very often it is the unexpected that makes the real story.
The basic outline was fairly straightforward.
The first leg of the race would be treated in the style of an outside broadcast, with the commentator describing the progress of the race rather like a sports commentator, but for the second leg, he would go aboard one of the competing yachts, and in a sense become part of the race himself. Thinking of the non-sailing viewer, who would only be confused by the handicapping system, I decided to set up a private contest between two evenly matched boats so that regardless of their eventual placings, the viewer could follow the progress of these two boats within the overall race.
In contrast, it would be essential to have a camera on one of the fastest boats, preferably an eight metre that was determined to win.
Ian Nicolson had already agreed to take a film unit on St. Mary, so the first problem was to find a suitable ‘opponent’ for him.
I arranged a meeting with the C.C.C. committee, and we got together to thrash out some of the many practical problems which had to be solved. I am indebted to the committee for their invaluable assistance. I must especially mention Cdr. Mowatt, Ralph Dundas, Ian Young, Geoff Duncan and Robin Taylor. Their many helpful suggestions went a long way towards the ultimate success of the film.
When I asked for a possible candidate to race against Ian Nicolson, several suggestions were made and rejected for one reason or another, and then someone said, ‘What about David Rombach? He’s got a fine bearded face, easily recognised, and a good contrast to Ian, and his ketch Lola will be about the same handicap.’
I don’t know who first thought of David, but I am convinced a casting director couldn’t have done better!
Getting a camera on board an eight metre was going to be more difficult, but Robin Taylor said: ‘Leave it with me. I’ll see what I can do.’
I also wanted a very large motor cruiser to make a steady platform for another camera unit and our commentator during the first leg of the race. Again Robin said: ‘Leave it with me.’
Within a few days he was on the phone: ‘Hugh Stenhouse will take your crew on his cruiser Beambrook and Kenny Gall is agreeable to taking one cameraman on his eight metre Christina. Hugh Morrison is going all the way to Tobermory in his launch Jinji and will make himself available should you need a very fast boat.
The phone rang again: ‘This is John Stenhouse. Hugh tells me you are filming on Beambrook. You would be better on my boat Silver Sula. She has a deeper bite in the water and is less inclined to roll.’
I tried to persuade Kenny Gall to take a sound recordist as well as a cameraman, but he remained firm.
‘Christina will be one of the fastest boats in the race. She will be competing with identical, equally fast eights and even one extra bod on board is going to be a handicap. In any case there just won’t be room.’ As I was just as keen as he was that Christina should be first boat into Tobermory, I had to concede that he had a point!
The original plan of filming a close race between Lola and St. Mary was knocked abruptly on the head when St. Mary hit a brick in the Kyles.
The original plan of filming a close race between Lola and St. Mary was knocked abruptly on the head when St. Mary hit a brick in the Kyles. And then again on that dark Monday morning at Crinan, as though determined to prove that the first grounding was no mere fluke, St. Mary well and truly planted herself on that long, shallow spine that projects from the Black Rock. However, the double misfortune made Ian Nicolson all the more determined to push St. Mary to the limit.
The race looked slightly different now from the point of view of our three competitors, so a slight adjustment had to be made to the shape of the film. The emphasis was now on one boat out in front (Christina), fighting hard to stay in front, another boat away astern of the fleet (St. Mary), striving to get back into the race, and somewhere in the middle our third boat Lola with that relaxed philosopher David Rombach thoroughly enjoying his cruise, and incidentally, passing on to Magnus something of the magic of sailing.
The weather throughout the race was almost too kind to us. Not a drop of rain from start to finish, hazy warm sunshine, ideal for colour filming, making our job much easier than it might have been. But I must confess that I was slightly disappointed by the weather conditions! I would have welcomed a bit of variation during the race. A little more wind, perhaps the tide a bit nearer springs, some rain (not much, just a little). In short, conditions a little more typical of the West Coast, the varying conditions that make the West Coast what it is. Having said that, I have a feeling that if I ever film a yacht race again I will regret that I said that!
(From Clyde Cruising Club Journal, 1969)
The Herald newspaper’s obituary for the film’s talented producer, Gordon Menzies – who passed away aged 87 in November 2014 – reveals that The Tobermory Race was Scotland’s first colour TV outside broadcast, that he would later produce the long-running popular comedy show Scotch and Wry, starring Rikki Fulton, and that his golf videos with Peter Alliss became best-sellers.
THE BOAT-SPOTTER’S GUIDE
Following the dimensions = designer/ builder. Interestingly, we believe only two glass reinforced plastic boats featured, at least in the film.
It would be wonderful if additions and corrections could be added in the “Leave a Reply” box below.
The main cast:
Lola, sail no. 200C, bermudan ketch, owner David Rombach, 30ft lwl, 38.7ft loa, J. Paine Clark/ W. King & Sons, Burnham-on-Crouch, 1925.
St. Mary, 169C, bermudan ketch, helmsman Ian Nicolson, 25ft lwl, 35ft loa, Ian Nicolson/ Arden Yacht Co., Helensburgh, 1961.
Arcturus (ex The Cruiser), “Commodore Vessel” (Committee Vessel), owner Ian Park Young, O.B.E., 33.8 lwl, 43.5 loa, A.E. Gardner/ Williams & Parkinson, Deganwy, 1935.
Baltic style sloop (45sqm Blink? Or Ivanhoe – see 03:10.)
Pale green hulled sloop. ?
A Vertue setting ensign, with interesting sloop or cutter to starboard probably not taking part in the race.
The William Fife International 8-Metre, Vagrant II, rafted to Dirk II, Fife Sr?? (II)/ built Kiel, Germany, 1921.
Light blue hard chine sloop (?) with red/white striped jib.
White hulled sloop under power (identified by her present owner, Keith Clark, as the Honeybee Class, Crunluath, designed by A.K. “Sandy” Balfour, and built by Boag of Largs in 1965) concealing very low freeboard dark (green?) hulled boat at anchor, which is revealed at 01:28 (15sqm Vixen?), with white double ender behind.
White International 8-Metre, ?
Very low freeboard dark hulled boat at anchor again, and revealing the white double ender behind as 829C, the Gauntlet Class, Isla Rose, H.G. May/ Berthon, Lymington, 1949.
International 8-Metre, K16, Christina of Cascais‘s mainsail being raised.
Green sloop or cutter (info to follow).
On board Vagrant II rafted to Dirk II and probably the International 8-Metre Cruiser/RacerTinto II, Archibald MacMillan/ Fairlie Yacht slip, 1957.
Ian Nicolson (of St. Mary)
David Rombach (of Lola)
On board Christina.
The apparently leading boat = V18, Ivanhoe (info to follow).
Back aboard Christina.
Light blue hull (6-metre?).
On board the Committee Boat, Arcturus with behind: Judith(ex Rowan II, tan sails), Ewing McGruer/ McGruer & Co Ltd., 1929; 106C, Elina (ex Kyrah), 21.5ft lwl, 29.1ft loa, John A. Lay or Ley, Scarborough, 1952.
Right to left: 1044, Boomerang, Brittany Class, 25.2 lwl, 33.5 loa, J. Laurent Giles/ Hugh McLean & Sons Ltd, Gourock, 1955 ; 7CR K4, Norella, Int. 7-Metre Cruiser/Racer, Maitland H. Murray/ Morris & Lorimer Ltd., Sandbank, 1967; white GRP boat probably Siolta (40C), Excalibur 36 (GRP). E.G. Van de Stadt/ Southern Ocean Supplies Ltd., Bournemouth, 1966 ; International 8-Metre, N34, Turid II (ex Fröya), Bjarne Aas, Fredrikstad, Norway, 1939.
Red International 8-Metre, Severn II of Ardmaleish (ex Severn), Mylne/ Bute Slip Dock, 1934; green spi with two yellow stripes = International 8-Metre Cruiser/Racer, 8CR K18 Altricia, James McGruer/ McGruer & Co, 1965; red spi with two white stripes = 8CR K7 Tinto II (qv).
International 8-Metre, 8 N26, Silja, J. Anker/ Anker & Jensen, Asker, Norway, 1930.
07:24 = Wye spi trouble.
Internationa 8-Metre, Turid II (qv).
Tinto II from Christina.
206C, Minstrel Maid (qv) (followed by Vixen?)
Isla Rose? (qv)
444 = ?
14, T24 ClassCaitlin, 21ft lwl, 24ft loa, Guy Thompson/ DC Perfect Ltd., Chichester, 1968 (GRP).
“I sometimes wish, mysel’, I had taken to the yats… it’s a suit or two o’ clothes in the year, and a pleasant occupaation. Most o’ the time in canvas sluppers.
Dougie (the Mate).
Among the Yachts from In Highland Harbours with Para Handy by Neil Munro, 1911.
A little-known yarn about a crew of specially selected seafarers from the Firth of Clyde’s maritime communities – which 129 years ago became one of Scotland’s first international sporting teams – will be spun at the New Hall, Strachur from 7.30pm on Saturday 13 February, when yachting historian Iain McAllister presents his great-grandfather’s story:
STRACHUR’S FIRST INTERNATIONAL SPORTING HERO: professional yachtsman Archibald “Pierie” McNicol and the quest for the America’s Cup.
Helensburgh-born Iain, who has strong Strachur roots, hopes his profusely illustrated presentation, part of Strachur and District Local History Society’s open winter talks series, will encourage other descendants of the crew of Thistle, the Royal Clyde Yacht Club’s 1887 challenger for the America’s Cup – yachting’s holy grail – to share handed-down stories and memorabilia.
In spring 1887, when 23 year old Archie McNicol (with pale complexion, 2nd from left seated on a cushion in the above image) eschewed the herring fishing, instead leaving his family’s St. Catherines maritime croft to sign-up for a season of well-paid yachting adventure aboard the 108ft long Thistle – newly built of steel and teak under great secrecy at D&W Henderson’s Partick, Glasgow shipyard – could this son of a Lochfyneside fisherman and fish curer possibly have imagined featuring in the New York Times by September, being fêted at Manhattan gala evenings by exiled Scots?
Great hopes were built up around the Firth for Thistle’s success; everything seemed set in place for nothing less than wrestling the ‘Auld Mug’ back across the Atlantic to defend it on the Clyde.
The Hunter’s Quay-based challenging club had rapidly grown from the Clyde Model Yacht Club, gaining Royal patronage along the way to becoming the world’s largest yacht club in number of members and tonnage of yachts owned.
The challenging yacht was owned by a syndicate of some of Glasgow’s most successful industrialists, including the Paisley, New Jersey and Rhode Island-based ‘thread barons’, the Coats and Clark families, and brothers James and William Bell, quietly intent on dominating the world market in shipping chilled and refrigerated meat. All had something to gain from the venture, commercially and in esteem.
Thistle had been designed by young Glasgow naval architect, George Lennox Watson, rapidly becoming dominant in the creation of successful yachts powered by wind or steam. It wasn’t just the challenger that Watson had drawn, but also the mothership that would accompany her across the Atlantic, John and William Clark’s sumptuous 700-ton steam yacht, Mohican.
And Thistle’s crew was chosen by Gourock-based skipper John Barr: the pick of the Clyde’s professional yachtsmen. They were:
John Barr, Master (Gourock); William Craig; John Crawford (Carpenter, Fairlie?); John Fyfe (Bute?); John Graham, (sailmaker); John Graham; William Griffin (Bute); Alex Hill (1st cook); William Holmes; Hugh Howat; James Hughes; Angus Kennedy; (Captain) Donald Kerr (Navigating Master); Alex McDonald (1st officer); Archibald McIntyre; Daniel McKellar (Bute?); Daniel McKenzie (2nd Officer); Archibald McNicol (2nd cook, St. Catherines); James Shedden (Portencross); James Wilkie; William Wright (steward).
Thistle was soundly beaten in America, but for Archibald McNicol it was just the beginning of a professional yachting career aboard big budget ‘superyachts’ that would leave him comfortably off for the rest of his life.