While discussing possible ‘adventure rows’ at the North Berwick regatta in 2018, someone said that they liked the idea of an adventure with a purpose. This resonated with familiar circumnavigation challenges in sea kayaking, some done for fun, some against the clock, all achieving something finite. Later in the year a guy called Steve from Seattle got in touch with Eastern and told us about the SEVENTY48, a seventy mile, 48 hour human powered race on Puget Sound. This sounded awesome.
The idea of a coastal adventure race or challenge around the Firth of Forth materialised pretty quickly from there. A coastline circumnavigation, with a couple of open water crossings and the opportunity to start (and end) anywhere. A real challenge of skill, strategy and endurance on our doorstep.
Playing about with the maps and charts, a pretty obvious 120km circuit taking in many of the Forth’s SCRA clubs soon emerged. 120km seemed eminently doable over two days and comfortable over three. A natural 90km and longer options based around the same basic concept, were also mapped out.
An alternative, 120km ‘inshore’ route was developed a little later after considering the possibility of a future event on a fixed date, on which people could be invited to attempt the challenge at the same time. Taking in more of the Forth’s coastal rowing clubs would minimise the water crossings, advisable only in good weather and sea state.
With one of Eastern’s fundamental aims being ‘to promote exploration and adventure through rowing expeditions and travels’, support for the F120 was quickly gained in principle from the committee in early 2019 and soon several other members showed an interest in participating. Nothing left but to go and do it! How hard could it be to convince the committee and a crew it could be done safely, find a weather window, with crew availability, when the boat was not at a race or needed for race training, in a Worlds’ year….? The biggest mission on the F120 was going to be getting on the water in the first place.
Spoiler alert, we didn’t do the F120 in the end, this year. This cruising log documents the reality for 2019, which was a single day’s trip, rowing the long way home (to Portobello) from the North Berwick regatta. This trip of just under 60km took in both open water crossings of the F90 route and demonstrated that we could comfortably row this distance in one day, even relatively late in the season with limited light.
A pub session with the chart in April generated a reasonable amount of interest. Whilst there were one or two folk thinking that a row of this scale and route might not be sensible, a core of around eight to ten club members were keen. We mapped out the route trying to optimise the timing of legs with tides and light and the more the conversation continued the more feasible and appealing it looked.
The essential kit list was prepared: life jackets, tow line, anchor, flares, paper charts, plastic navigation plan, sighting compass, VHF, electronic chart (Navionics App), emergency lighting, oilskins, split paddle, GPS, head torches, food, repair kit, RYASafetrx downloaded to phones and spare (charged) power packs. We sought advice, speaking to rowers who had done long distance trips or crossed the Forth and spoke to the coastguard and Forth & Tay Navigation Service about what if any information they would want and when. Then we watched the weather and waited and waited and watched…
Aligning the potential crews’ availability with boat availability and good weather was a real challenge and time ticked on through the summer. After two windows of crew availability passed with less than ideal weather the likelihood of the F120 happening in 2019 was fading fast along with our spirits. Luckily a few folk provided the encouragement to herd cats and keep the faith. Alec’s wife Nesh in particular was resolute. She had heard more than enough about this “awesome adventure on the door step…” that he couldn’t get off the ground. So, as long as he came back in one piece, she was insistent he got on with it. Others in the club, some who made it on the trip, some who were not available, were also fundamental to shoring up crumbling faith and helping make it happen.
In the end we came up with the idea of rowing home from North Berwick regatta the long way round. This route took in versions of the F120 open water crossings and was 2/3 of the F90 route. We also managed to get what we had always envisaged, a mixed sex, mixed age group crew. Some were old hands at coastal rowing and for some it would be their first row over 5 km long, but for all five it was the longest distance attempted by some margin.
North Berwick regatta was excellent as usual (with exceptionally warm and unusually calm conditions) and afterwards they kindly hosted our boat and trailer for a couple of days. We undertook some final planning based on the predicted weather (low risk of thunder and fog later in the day) and worked out several points at which we could leave the route early if needed and get home by other means. Early on Tuesday morning we left Portobello to head off into the unknown, and had a giggle when finding our skiff at North Berwick harbour, decorated inside and out with club stickers. With the formalities of coastguard calls and routes logged in various apps on multiple phones, we were joined in perfect early morning weather at the water’s edge by a sliding seat rower who commented on how much they wished they were heading off for an adventure in a crew rather than solo. They say every adventure starts with one step, so one by one we stepped into the skiff ready to begin ours.
Leg #1 North Berwick to Elie
- 8 nautical miles, 14km, 335°
- 07.30 – 09.30
For the first crossing we had flat water with occasional rolling swell, non-stop sunshine, negligent winds, it was very peaceful. For most of the journey there were gannets diving on all sides.
About halfway across, we saw what looked like the back and dorsal fin of a large dolphin appear about 10m east of the skiff. However as it came up again, we realised it was considerably larger than a dolphin and was in fact a minke whale. We were all so stunned by how close and how big it was, that we just kept rowing and watching in awe, rather than reaching for cameras. After checking us out, it swam away towards the SE for 15-20 mins, surfacing every minute or two.
We took a 30 min break on Elie beach making use of the facilities at the harbour – ate, drank & stretched our legs. We were well ahead of our schedule, sadly too early for a planned visit from Helen from Elie & Earlsferry Coastal Rowing Club.
Leg #2 Elie to Kinghorn
- 14 nautical miles, 26km, 237°
- 10.00 – 13.00
We had flat water throughout this leg. The sun shone for the first 2.5 hours and the temperature really rose significantly, necessitating hats, sunscreen and lots of water.
We saw a little harbour porpoise off in the distance towards the shore at one point.
We rowed towards, then past a series of large rigs and commercial vessels. The size of the structures added to the strange sense of scale, with very long stretches where progress seemed incredibly slow, and there were loud booms & horns echoing all around us.
We took a 60 min break on Kinghorn beach, again using the handy facilities at the harbour. Those of us who prepared full packed lunches wolfed them down, while others with spare energy ventured up the hill to buy some hot food.
We chatted with beach goers enjoying the warm sunshine and were visited by Beth from Kinghorn Rowing Club while resting on the slipway.
Leg #3 Kinghorn to Inchkeith (west side)
- 2 nautical miles, 4km, 153°
It had clouded over and the wind had picked up by this stage so the water was much rougher on this leg, with considerable chop and some white caps at times on the more exposed stretches. We maintained the same steady pace (about 26 strokes per minute) though and continued to make good progress.
We saw dozens of seals as we approached Inchkeith, all curiously bobbing their heads up to watch us as we rowed past.
Beside the island, we took a short break on the water surrounded by seals, and shared some high quality cakes to celebrate Sean’s upcoming birthday.
Leg #4 Inchkeith to Portobello
- 5 nautical miles, 10km, 165°
- 15.15 – 17.20
The rough water and white caps continued for the final leg, but we continued with the same pace and rotating pattern as had for the whole day. We came in through some surf at Portobello shore (although not big enough to need the drogue which we carry as standard kit).
We were met by Eastern club members who brought cold beer (thanks Geoff!) & fresh muscles to help us take the skiff back to the yard.
Lessons for next time
So what did we learn?
We learned that a scratch, mixed crew of determined adventure rowers, who maintain a steady pace (except when you let Sean go on stroke just before lunch), can row for 8 hours covering almost 60km, with no injuries, severe discomfort or fatigue. We returned to shore feeling that we could have rowed for longer and that 90km would have been feasible on a day with flat water. So, hearteningly, although we didn’t achieve it this year, we are surer than ever that achieving the F120 is within reach. We learned that it pays off to plan carefully, patiently await a good weather window and make good use of the generous support offered by friends in several neighbouring clubs who helped us in a variety of ways – both practical and social. We learned that the RYASafetrx app is easy to use, tracking our progress as we went and providing a handy log of progress (screenshot with the blue and pink boats above). In fact we used a variety of navigation tools (battery powered and otherwise) to ensure we knew where we were (particularly if that fog had materialised) and could get where we needed to be (with backups for our backup). We also learned that a bailer can be a useful tool on long trips for the secondary emergency purpose of dealing with a full bladder while avoiding public indecency.
The F120 was envisaged as a human-powered circumnavigation of the Forth in daylight hours. We aim to complete it in 2020 – Scotland’s year of coasts and waters. Ultimately though, the challenge is there to be done however different people and crews want to approach it. There are many possible permutations from doing different legs piecewise over time; to doing it in relay fashion; pushing the clock or as a leisurely trip; using a support boat or not, and no doubt someone hardcore will do it solo by sea kayak…
We really hope the idea takes off and that others might join us in trying the full F120 or its variations next year and will be in touch with local clubs to sound out interest and share ideas later in 2019.