The Secret Regatta: Thoughts From A Puffer Skipper, by Nick Walker

Having been born in London, in 1947 and having a Granny who spent the autumn months at Scotnish House near Tayvallich, Argyll, I have early reminisces of Tighnabruaich and her pier.  My parents, two sisters and a black spaniel dog used to board the Scotland bound night sleeper train in London with great excitement.  Our bleary-eyed arrival in Glasgow at dawn was soon assuaged by the further thrill of boarding the early morning worker’s train to Greenock.  Then we hopped on the steamer heading for Ardrishaig, via Dunoon, the Narrows at the Kyles of Bute, Tighnabruaich and Tarbert.  A silver service breakfast was served on linen tablecloths at Greenock and after porridge, kippers, toast and marmalade we made our way to the bow of the boat to witness the clever captain negotiating the buoys at the Burnt Islands.

A quick stop at Tighnabruaich pier whilst we watched the postman collecting the post bags and the newspapers under the eagle eyed approval of the pier master.  Off again with a siren blast from the boat’s whistle and we plough down the West Kyle, rounding Ardlamont Point in fine style and there’s Granny waving frantically on Ardrishaig Pier.  Soon we would be ensconced at Scotnish, learning to row a boat, sail a boat and even capsize one on purpose to discover what might happen.  In order to be allowed to be in a boat on my own I had to pass a variety of tests, including swimming across the loch fully dressed.  Once the basics of learning how to manage a little rowing boat with a small sail had been mastered I was off.  Utter bliss!  This was reality and not an imagination.  I was immersed in the sense of peace, the joy of command and the occasional fluster and drama in a squall.  When capsize was threatened I had been taught how to avert it by taking the correct action, i.e the tiller should be pushed or pulled in the best direction, the sheet should be slackened immediately, the lithe movement of my body weight should counter an upset.  All were a melange of being in heaven on earth.  To learn to sail at the age of six, to appreciate the lapping of the water on the clinker planked bow, to haul in a mass of flapping, glistening mackerel and proudly take them up to the house to be fried in rolled oatmeal was something that Londoners did not do. 

Before I met Rachel, I used to choose my girlfriends very carefully.  It was essential their fathers had nice sailing boats and befriended me enough to teach me the arts of navigation, the skills of racing, the exact moment to tack up to the next racing buoy without losing an inch of ground, how to avoid having all the skin on your hands removed when tackling an errant spinnaker, the art of anchoring off a French restaurant and rowing ashore for a glass of wine and a seriously delicious meal.

I have sailed aboard Arab Dhows, Thames Sailing Barges, Pilot Cutters, (French and British), Junks, and alongside every type of Tall Ship, Dutch Botters, French tunny fishing boats and numerous other types.

We bought our diesel engined tug, the ‘Duke of Normandy 11’ in 1992 and during her restoration, she took us to a variety of Classic Boat Rallies and Regattas all over Europe.  We visited Denmark, Sweden, the Channel Isles, Isles of Scilly, Brest and Douarnenez and numerous ports in Ireland between 1994 and 2008.  Our children, Robert and Alice were young enough to appreciate the joys of travelling with their dear parents and young enough to know that saying, “No” was not an option.

There is a huge difference in admiring a sailing boat stationary to that of one gliding serenely through the water.  I have been to Maritime Museums in Paris, Aberdeen, Mystic Seaport, Douarnenez, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Portsmouth, Exeter and Greenwich.  You can walk around a polished wooden yacht and admire her gleaming hull, the intricate and neat rope work, the polished brass or bronze fittings and her lines inscribed on framed enormous pieces of paper.

But what you can’t do is hear that pounding, that sluishing, that throbbing, that vibration through the tiller, the seas creaming along the gunwales, the urgent panic-striking sail cloth ferociously clapping, demanding immediate attention whilst upsetting the qualms of peace and serenity that will return when you have hauled in the sheets to set the sail and turned the boat onto her correct course.  In a museum you can’t smell the sea, the salt air, the rotting seaweed on the shore, the frying bacon at six o’clock in the morning after a night watch freezing in the cockpit.

I have many happy memories of mooring the Puffer, ‘Steam Lighter VIC 32’ on the pier at Tighnabruaich.  I love walking either to the left or to the right, admiring the Victorian villas.  I imagine all those directors of shipping companies, leaving for the pier and heading on a steamer to their offices in Glasgow on a Monday morning having spent a peaceful weekend with their families.

The thought of a secret regatta is quite funny.  Regattas are normally the complete opposite of secretiveness.  They are the very essence of people being allowed to show off their skills in being extroverts, very ebullient, delightfully noisy, every colour of different nationalities of flags waving with the international code ones adorning boats from the tip of their masts to the length of their booms.  Explosions, starting-gun shots on the start and finish lines, (even the Puffer’s steam whistle toots were to be heard at the last Fife Regatta.)

Anyway we wish the Secret Regatta great success.  What a marvellous idea.  Most of us probably won’t be able to do much sailing this summer and can only wait until the ‘Powers-That-Be’ encourage us to get up and go.  The varnish brush is on hold, the staggering along the pontoon with picnic baskets full of strawberries and champagne is on hold.  Sun hats and sun cream are now reserved for our gardens.  I hope I have played my part in evoking some of the fun, pleasure, terror, skill and camaraderie that all play their part in ‘boating’.

We look forward to seeing you on the water and giving a cheery wave as we pass. Don’t forget to dip your ensign.

Keep safe!      Bunting at the ready!           Puff! Puff!

Nick and Rachel


Reproduced with kind permission of Nick and Rachel Walker.  To learn more about 'VIC 32', book a holiday or day-trip, or purchase their wonderful Puffer Cookbook, which featured at the 2020 Write By The Sea book festival, please click here.

The Secret Regatta will run from 6th until 20th June 2020.  For more details, please click here.