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Sailing Sea Canoe


 What does a barrage balloon have to do with a sailing canoe?  


During World War II most all of the merchant ships that plied the waters of the Firth of Forth, for self defense from low level attacking German dive bombers, had a barrage balloon.  The balloon  was attached to a deck mounted winch and was tethered to it by a steel cable. In fair weather the balloon was let out to fly at a good height straight above the ship. If the winds at sea blew too hard the balloon became unmanageable and had to be winched down to deck level.  If this operation was left too late the balloon whipped in the wind to the point that it became uncontrollable and a hazard. When this happened the steel cable had to be severed and the balloon cut free from the ship. Rifle fire deflated such balloons and these descended into the sea. One washed ashore on to the beach at Earlsferry right below our house. Being near by it was easy for me to cut it up into pieces of a size that I could carry home.


More raw material for the "makins pile!"


The fabric of the balloon was very fine, multi-layered, linen that was silverized for UV protection and was rubberized between the layers. The shape of the balloon was controlled by numerous multi-stranded rubber bungee chords.  As I surveyed this windfall it wasn't long before I had several uses figured out. The first use was to tie several of the bungee chords together until I had a length of it about two hundred feet long. With my pal Jems we attached one end to the front of my bike and the other end to the back of his bike. In front of Viewforth, my home on the Earlsferry High Street, we set up our bikes so that the chord between us was extended. At the word "Go", we both pedaled full bore to get up to speed.  At a call of "Now", the one on the back bike clamped on the brakes and the one on the front bike pedaled furiously until the rubber chord stretched to about double its original length. When the one in the front could no longer pedal he clamped on his brakes and the one at the back let go. Whoosh.  It was like being fired out of a cannon, as at great speed the back biker shot ahead. It was great fun.  We took turns doing this until one fateful day. On this occasion I was at the rear. About the very moment that the chord was fully extended it detached from Jems' bike at the front. Like a bullet the chord came flying back where it hit me on the inside of my right thigh.  The chord hit me so hard that I could hardly walk and I was very black and blue there for over a month.   So ended our game of "catapult."  It was fun while it lasted.


As I looked at the balloon fabric I saw what a wonderful material it would be for covering the framework of a canoe.  I'd always wanted to have a canoe with sails and I saw that the fabric, being very strong and light weight, it would also be a perfect material for the making of sails. My brother John went to work and designed the boat for me.  It would be 17 feet long, 3 feet wide, have a 16 foot mast, a 2 foot long truncated slot for a dagger board drop keel that when dropped would extend 2 feet below, 50 sq. foot main sail and a 25 sq. foot jib. The rudder would be operated by means of an under the arm push/pull bell crank rod. Push backwards to go to port, pull ahead to go to starboard.


John soon had the framework completed. My first task was to find a waterproof glue to cement all of the overlapping joints and the seams that there would be as the fabric was applied to the frame. There was no adhesive cement available that I could find. The answer was right under my nose. One day as I looked at the rubber bungee chords it occurred to me that if I could dissolve the rubber strands into liquid form I would have the ideal cement. The answer for the solvent to dissolve the rubber was petrol.  Perfect.  At no cost I had a copious supply of rubber cement.  I used a lightweight aluminum tube for the mast and a 3/16 thick aluminum plate for the dagger board keel and the rudder. With help from John the two of us made all of the necessary fittings and rigging.  I sewed the sails on my mothers treadle Singer. A St. Monans relative let me use his small metal turning lathe to make the  sheaves (pulleys) for the raising and the lowering of the sails. When the canoe was finally completed I painted it Valspar sea green. With the green of the canoe and the silver sails it was beautiful. The last thing was to hand letter the name to  give it its identity, "Curlew". Of all the shore dwelling birds, while the Arctic Tern is a wonder of creation, I most identify with the Curlew.


My first venture to sea with Curlew almost became my last.





 The day on which I said that I'd make my maiden voyage turned out to be windy. With help to get aboard I set out from the Cockstail Rocks on the beach at Earlsferry. The wind was blowing from the west and I should have known better than to go that day.  Before I got in I'd set the sails to the degree that I thought would be about right. Immediately Curlew took off like a scalded cat and heeled over to an alarming angle. There was no way I could come about or make a fast enough sail change and immediate action was of the essence. All I could do was to lie flat out and hang on as I cut the ropes to drop the sails that then trailed overboard. Luckily for me my North Sea fisherman grandfather had hammered into me, "Never go to sea without a very sharp knife in your pocket." On this occasion it may have saved my life (one of them).  I was now at the mercy of the wind and the waves.  Had the wind been a little more to the north I would have been blown right out past the lighthouse and into the open firth. As it was I ended up by being blown ashore on to the beach inside the Elie Harbour.  I lay flat out and bailed all the way on this half mile nightmare  trip.  I was soaking wet and very cold. As I just cleared the point of the harbour and ran aground on to the beach in the shelter of the harbor there was Wilson the Bobby wading into the surf to help lift me out of the canoe and get me on to dry land.  I was never so happy to see him. He really did watch over me.  He was my guardian angel without a doubt.  He'd been watching me from a distance as I'd set off from Earlsferry.  When he saw me get into difficulties he raised the alarm for help.  He walked and trotted the shoreline to keep me in sight as he followed me along the curve of the bay to the harbor.  He said there were times when I disappeared down into the troughs of the waves that he thought I was a goner. He could have railed at me for my stupidity but he didn't.


From this I learned that there is no such thing as a mistake. This word is meaningless. Every thing that we do at the moment in time that we do it we think to be the right thing to do. When the outcome proves otherwise what happens is not a mistake but a valuable learning experience.


Many times in this life every one of us falls afoul of Murphy's Law. In the school of hard knocks it's a plus not a minus.


A week or two later I got Curlew afloat again. This time it was on an almost windless day. I was amazed to find that even on such a day the sails filled and Curlew moved right along. Slowly I learned the art of sailing and the capabilities and limitations of my vessel. For safety and to achieve positive buoyancy I stuffed the fore and aft covered ends with beach balls.  Several times I came close but never once did Curlew get swamped. The large square footage of the dagger plate drop keel was a winner.


I learned that in going to sea on the Firth of Forth the all important thing is to use the tidal flow to your advantage. Never buck the tide. Always make sure that the tide, whether it's ebbing or flowing, is moving in the same direction that you're going , especially when you're heading homewards.


The most ambitious sail that I did with Curlew was to go east from the Earlsferry beach to the May Island and back. This was a round trip of more than twenty five miles---- alone and out on the open sea.  


I had always wanted to see the lighthouse on the May Island.  There's been a light of some kind on the island since 1635 and the island was renowned for being the home of numerous sea birds.   In earlier times a brotherhood of monks lived on the island.


As Curlew was essentially a fair weather boat, to venture to The May, every condition for going to sea had to be met.  First, there had to be a good weather pattern of several days duration when the sea was calm and there was but steady, light, on-shore air from the south.  It should be a time of high tidal flow in order to get the maximum speed of the tidal current, which occurs around the days of the full moon.


Also since this would be an all day trip, the height of the high tide had to occur about six or seven in the morning so that from then till about one o'clock in the afternoon the tide would be ebbing and flowing out to the east in the direction of the island.   From one o'clock onwards the tide would then turn and be flowing in and to the west in the direction of home.


If such conditions happened my plan was the set out from the beach at Earlsferry and head for the Elie lighthouse on the Elie Ness, go around the Lady's Tower on Sauchar Point and keep inshore, passing St Monans and Pittenweem.  After Pittenweem and when I could see the Anstruther lighthouse, I'd cut the corner and angle over to get into the traveled boating lane from the Anstruther harbor to the island. Once I got into this boating lane I'd follow along to the landing at the lighthouse on The May. This last outward leg would be the most difficult. This same leg on returning should be a breeze.  One day, in mid-summer, all conditions said, "Today's the Day," and  I set off at about seven in the morning.


All went as planned and I spent about an hour on the island. The Stevenson lighthouse was of considerable interest and there were  many species and great numbers of sea birds, some that I'd never seen before.  At about six o'clock as I lifted the dagger board plate back up in its slot Curlew grounded back on to the beach at Earlsferry.  It had been a long day. 


I did have some anxious moments but it was a day that I've remembered and relived many times.  I'm sure as sleep overtook me that night there was a smile on my face.


That day turned out to be "one for memory lane." 


Curlew II

Quite a thrill when a pod of Orca killer whales comes charging by within inches on either side of you and looks you over.

At our front door in Westcott Bay near Roche Harbor on  San Juan Island in Puget Sound in the northwest  State of Washington. This is a bought canoe that I modified by adding a fiberglass trunk, a dagger board drop keel, a mast, a  push-pull, bell crank  rudder. a 50 sq. ft main and a 25 sq. ft. jib which I made from lightweight, green, four ounce rip-stop nylon. ----- Almost a replica of my Earlsferry  Curlew I.