Log of Bolivar 1979 – Summer Cruise to the River Tay

Summer Cruise to the River Tay

Thursday 2nd August 1979

Katie was three months to the day as we cleared Blyth at 07.55 heading North, hopefully for Perth up the Tay, and Johnshaven and Gourdon, the three main targets, but hopefully many additional places as well.  The anticipation, planning and dreaming is half the fun of cruising!

We had a foul neap tide until 12.00, and the light westerly dropped to nothing off Newbiggin.  We motored for 20 minutes, then a light North Easterly gave us a sail.  Passing salmon nets off Cresswell we were thrown a mackerel by the Margaret Jenner from Newbiggin.  The light wind faded a little and headed us so at 12.45 we admitted defeat and started the engine about 1½ miles South of the Bondicar Buoy.

The sea was glassy all the way and the sunshine bright.  Passing close under the cliffs of the Inner Farnes, we noticed that several tripper boats were still using Scarcar Gut although it was near low water, so there must be some water through it!  A flotilla of International 14s were being towed from the Farnes back to Beadnell.  It remained glassy all the way to Holy Island where in the fairway Bolivar made a most impressive wash which glinted in the evening sun.

We attempted to use Tom Bell’s mooring, but it proved impossible to bring up the chain, so after inflating the dinghy we warped onto Roger Pollard’s and rowed ashore.  It being a beautiful evening we enjoyed quiet beers outside the Crown and Anchor and the Northumberland Arms, and repaired back on board at 21.15 to supper and an early night, both of us being very tired.


06.20 forecast:North – North West 4-5 •  Straight back to sleep as the tide is foul until noon or so.

Up at 09.15 and straight off to clear the Castle Point by the Hole Mouth.  The wind was Northerly force 2-3 but going light at times, and in a long and lumpy sea we beat out the Plough Channel taking a long board of about 2 miles out to sea to avoid salmon nets.  When we came about we could lay St. Abbs Head which raised morale, but the wind steadily went lighter and when about 2 miles South East of Berwick after the 14.00 forecast which offered light variables, we started the engine.

Before Burnmouth we passed 2 yachts running South, Leander and Mizuga, both S.Y.C., and then Rowena returning from a windless cruise to the Tay, only ghosting along with spinnaker set.  We later found out they made Holy Island by 22.00.  Shortly afterwards we met a R.N. Minesweeper on ‘salmon poacher’ patrol; we dipped our ensign, but they only waved from the bridge – not like the old days!

St Abbs Head

St Abbs Head

There was still a rolling swell although it was glassy and off Eyemouth the sun appeared and it turned into a fine afternoon with splendid views of the spectacular cliff scenery of St. Abbs Head.

Carrying a fair tide the measured mile took only 13 minutes and the very clear visibility allowed us to see not only the top of the Bass Rock but also Largo Law and the hills of Fife.  May Island was spotted surprisingly late.

Off Barns Ness a South Easterly wind steadily filled in but not enough to justify sailing, and we entered Dunbar at 19.55 with a large ground swell foaming around the off-lying rocks.  Incidentally in strong onshore conditions it is usually better to enter between the westerly rocks, Half Ebb Rock and Wallace’s Head and cross the seas instead of risking a broach on the leading line.

Sue took the boat in, meeting a yacht in the narrow spectacular entrance and we moored alongside a fishing boat below the castle ruins, to the accompaniment of the usual kittiwake chatter.  I estimated we would not take the bottom although the fishing boat would, so slack lines were necessary and as there was quite a range working in (Dunbar seems to magnify any outside swell) we banged about considerably.  After a quick tour ashore I repaired on board for a supper of sausage and mash and early to bed, having difficulty staying awake.  I was however up three times in the night with the range, and by morning Bolivar lacked a little paint.


Up at 08.15 and ashore for water, stores and petrol, which is a long hike away, and clearing the harbour at 10.10 we again met a yacht in the entrance.

With a good force 2 South Easterly it was a most pleasant sail to May Island, en route, hopefully, for the Tay.

There was unfortunately too much swell to enter Kirkhaven so after a close inspection we bore away close under the very impressive cliff on the West side of the Island, where, out of the wind, it was very warm and pleasant.

Kirkhaven, May Island

Kirkhaven, May Island 1978. The moorings at the pier dry at LW.

Kirkhaven, May Island 1978

Kirkhaven, May Island 1978. This small pier is almost halfway down the haven.










Still reaching we cleared May Island at 13.00 and steered to pass halfway between Fifeness Beacon (Balcomie Briggs) and the North Carr Buoy then set a course for the Middle Buoys off the Tay some 11 miles distant. Here comes a rather shameful confession and a good illustration of the perils of casual navigation!

Cliffs at May Island, Susan at the helm.

Cliffs at May Island, Susan at the helm.

After 1½ hours I was concerned nothing was in sight.  I knew we hadn’t allowed for tide, assuming it to be roughly with us, and I knew we had steered well to the east of the course as the wind freshened and the helm pulled rather more.  Even so the Abertay Light Float should have been visible.  Not surprisingly we couldn’t see it as in summer it is off station} being replaced by a normal buoy.  A quick fix showed us to 1½ to 2 miles East of the Tay Bar so the course was amended and sure enough, immediately, the buoys appeared on the nose.  It was lumpy on the bar with the fresh breeze and a full ebb, but once past the Abertay Sands the water flattened.  We made good time — 1½ hours from the Middle Buoys to Tayport against the ebb, and we overtook, to leeward, a plastic 22 footer called Solon.

Off Tayport at 18.15 where there was no water to enter, so we went over to the Broughty Ferry side and picked up a club mooring below the Royal Tay Yacht Club.  As we moored we were hailed by Fay-A, Graham Rabbitt and Family from Coquet as she sailed off to Tayport.  The Club stands high above the fine estuary and offers good facilities.  We were made most welcome, even offered the loan of bicycles if we were to stay, but we were warned off the next stage of our plans, to go up-steam to Perth, particularly as we did not have the Chart published by the Tay Estuary Research Centre.  Another early night, much needed, at 23.00.



Up at 08.00 and an hour later off the moorings, one hour or so after Low Water to catch the tide up river.

The very light South Easterly was inadequate for sailing so we motored all the way.  Not long after we passed the railway bridges a drizzle set in which became heavy, steady rain to last until mid-afternoon. The inclement weather did not detract from the pleasure of penetrating the estuary and river with a fair tide.  The scenery is splended.  Past Balmerino the South shore is closely followed.  It is steep and well wooded and the distant North shore is backed by the Sidlaw Hills.  Past Flisk Point the estuary narrows and there are a number of salmon lodges on the South bank.  These proliferate further up river on both banks and are all basically the same, a cottage, a boat and a winding winch to pull back the salmon net after it has been rowed out by the boat.  When fishing they do of course block the river, but on both directions we had a clear run.

The Forth Yacht Clubs Association Pilot is generally a sound guide to the River and if common sense is used the Tay Research Chart is not really necessary although it would be helpful and probably allay anxieties.

The only time we left the channel, which is generally well buoyed and marked, was just before Newburgh where we mistook an orange dan for a dinghy racing mark (there is a sailing club).  It was, of course, a starboard hand marker.  Newburgh is an untidy industrial town with a smelly lino factory, but it is here that the most ‘interesting’ part of the navigation begins as Mugdrum Island narrows the river considerably. There are extensive reed banks on both sides of the river here and in several places onwards, a reflection that the upper reaches of the Tay are steeply graded and it therefore carried a large load of silt and sediments which are deposited in the delta.  The Forth, by comparison, has much less.

At the mouth of the Earn the navigation problems ease and from here, with a narrow river, one only keeps mid-stream.  The navigation was not always so easy.  Perth has long been a port but in the early 19th century its growth and prosperity was seriously threatened by the difficult navigation on the Tay.  Fords and natural volcanic dykes restricted the size of vessels to less than 150 tons.  Because of the barrier of the Sidlaw Hills behind Dundee, Perth was the natural outlet for the trade of Strathmore and also had a thriving weaving industry. Newburgh was for a time used as an outport with larger ships unloading there into barges, but in the ten years following 1834 £53,000 was spent on river improvements, a new tidal dock at Perth was built, boulders were removed, the channel deepened and islands joined to the mainland to increase the scour. Afterwards ships of over 400 tons could use the river.


Approaches to Perth – Kinnoull Hill

The river is beautiful, approaching Perth the massive Kinnoull Hill dominates to the North and on both banks are numerous birds including several herons engaged in fishing.  A mile before Perth we passed an entrant from a raft race, from a Rugby Club, paddling furiously through the rain, and also the massed dinghy fleet beneath the new motorway bridge.

We berthed at 13.00 in the dock which was empty of commercial shipping.  On advice that no vessels were expected we lay on the west wall leaving long slack lines to allow for the fall of tide.  I set off into Perth about ½ mile away to buy a Sunday paper and on returning I found a coaster, the Hammersberg of Bergen berthed opposite and Susan a little distressed.

Perth Dock

Perth Dock

The ship had reversed into the dock, little over twice its width, and with only about a foot under its 11ft draft.  This had churned up the whole dock, pulled Bolivar away from the wall, heeled her over until water came into the cockpit, slammed her into the stern of the vessel and then the quay, and in all this Susan, holding the baby, felt quite powerless.  There wasdirty debris from the dock floor still floating around and black paint on Bolivar’s rigging.  Not a pleasant experience.

It fared up during the afternoon and we had a quiet walk along the river banks and spent the evening on board.


We’d looked forward to finding a bank and a launderette to wash and dry the baby’s clothes.  The second was found at the far end of town and took most of the morning, but it was a Scottish Bank Holiday, the 1st Monday in August.

Tay Railway Bridge

Tay Railway Bridge

We left to go back down river at 12.45 2½ hours before High Water, but there was little tide against us in the top reaches.  The weather again deteriorated.  Southerly gales were forecast and began to be felt as did heavy rain.  By Inchyra there was a strong flood against us and shortly after just before the Mouth of the River Barn the engine chose to go onto only one cylinder.  We hoisted sail while it was remedied, only to be flattened by the wind.  Fortunately the engine was quickly re-started and the main lowered although the genoa was kept on to give extra speed which it certainly did!  We were beyond Newburgh, nearly at Jack’s Hole, within two hours of leaving Perth and began to pick up a fair tide which rapidly increased.  Under motor and genoa and with the tide our progress was most impressive, particularly the passage through the bridges, no despite the slow start we returned to Tayport in 4 hours, the same time as it had taken to go up river.  A very pleasant excursion to be much recommended.

In Tayport we found Graham Rabbitts and family aboard Fay-A and we heard their story.  They too had tried to get up to Perth but ran aground a couple of times so gave up and spent the night at Newburgh. They admitted they were well out of the channel.

Tayport is an agreeable harbour, its old name of Ferryport on Tay reflecting its history. Before the Tay Rail bridge was built the trains transferred passengers into ferries to cross to Broughty Ferry. It is quiet now and receives little trade, only occasional coasters.  A small salvage firm was bringing ashore machinery of a 1914-18 warship from the Bell Rock; great rods and cranks, most impressive.  We lay ahead of Fay-A on the East wall and dried out into very soft mud.  We were afloat 1½ hours each side of low water, entertaining the Rabbits on board in the evening.  The line of entry for best water given in the Forth Pilot is not quite accurate; it is best to keep close along all the east quay wall.


We were up and off by 06.00 to catch the last half of the tide. The forecast had promised South Westerly 5 but it was very light, in fact we often lost steerage way as we drifted down on the tide, leaving Fay-A at the Abertay Buoys, Bolivar heading North East while Fay-A went South. They had tried this the previous day but had to turn back with the weather.

The morning was bright and sunny showing the Tay Estuary at its best, but drizzle began at Budden Ness which steadied to the usual solid rain.  The wind gradually tailed off and by Red Head we started the engine. The original intention had been to go to Johnshaven, but we changed the plan to Montrose (a) because of bucking a foul tide with no wind and (b) to find a bank.

We passed Scurdie Ness as we heard the forecast and moored alongside the top end of the quay outside three small fishing boats at 14.25. Amazingly it stopped raining and eventually became a pleasant afternoon.



Montrose is a thriving port. They attribute their booming trade to being non-unionized, but whatever, the wet lock and the new long quay are constantly busy.  There were four shipping movements in the time wewere there.  A German ship we followed in left later that night!  On the Ferryden side of the river is a busy North Sea Oil terminal.  The town of Montrose is well set and provides all the facilities of a prosperous market town, and petrol is available by the bridges.

It was interesting that Bolivar and the small fishing boats were moored outside the Lifeboat.  At low water, it now being spring tides, we all took the bottom in soft mud.  If there had been a call-out at this time it would have been interesting!  We dined on a Chinese takeaway and enjoyed an evening walk around the town.


The tide really moves in and out of the South Esk which forms the harbour as Montrose Basin empties and fills, and we planned to leave at 09.00 to clear the fairway before the flood started in earnest, but we were hard aground, and not clear for another hour.  We found, however, that even 1½ hours after low water there was no appreciable flood.  This I assume is due to the fact that the Basin in effect has a ‘sill in the form of the shallow river at the bridges, and only when this covers, as it may do all the time at neaps, does the tide come in at any strength.  The same effect does not of course apply on the ebb.

It was a fine sunny morning and motoring out we passed the Snow …..? of Copenhagen in the fairway, moving very close to the rocks on the South side to do so.  We noted that the Tod Head Fairway Buoy in the R.N.Y.C. Pilot is marked rather far to seaward.



We used a force 2 Easterly until off Johnshaven, where we motored in at 12.15.  It is a small fishing harbour with a very narrow ‘hole in the wall’ entrance and dries out.  When we arrived 2½ hours before high water there was 6 feet of water halfway up the dock.  We went ashore for a quick look round. It is a very quiet, small place, but has a pub and a couple of shops and is most attractive.  It is not a good place to try in on-shores of any weight and as the Forth Pilot says it offers indifferent shelter in bad weather’.

We were off at 14.45 and sailed all the way and into Gourdon Harbour, right up into the West Harbour, rounding up against a fishing boat on the West quay at 15.40.  We were made very welcome by the Harbour Master, a retired fisherman called Alec Walsh, and also by many other fishermen. It turned out that we were the twelfth yacht so far that season, which was a record.



Gourdon is most attractive, about eight boats fish from it and the dock is closed off each tide by gates to stop any surge, although it still dries out.  In winter the boats all lie to large mooring chains in the centre of the harbour when conditions are bad.  There are two pubs and the one at the end of the quay is most interesting, not only for the hours kept and the warm welcome, but also for the plain, traditional bar which appears to have escaped the brewer’s hand of progress since the turn of the century.  On the quay are smokehouses where an immense quantity of smokies were acquired for the sum of 60p.

While Sue cooked these for tea, I patronised the pub mentioned before, Jack Walker’s ‘Harbour Bar’, returning to find the boat leaning rather conspicuously and the angle rapidly increasing as we slid under the bilge of the fishing boat.  I had seen the boat down but did not expect this.  The soft mud just pushed away into a great mound outside the keel.  With great haste (really panic) I let off all the rigging while fishermen tied the chainplates up to the fishing boat which took the weight and arrested the slide before we lost the mast.  Bolivar was well heeled over and as things started falling around Sue passed the baby out to a fisherman to hold.  Katie, of course, had to be a little damp at the time, not that the fishermen seemed to object as they passed her around. It was a lucky escape and not one I would like to repeat.

As the boat was dry for four hours from 19.00, and the evening was fine, we explored the harbour and village.  At the North East end of the houses were some large blocks of granite, all roughly cut, which had been recently salvaged from a sailing ship wrecked nearby in the 1880s.

Also the Coutts Rock was only too visible.  This is a reef which runs from the shore out across the leading line, and is not mentioned in either the R.N.Y.C. or the Forth Pilot.  Entering, the leading line should not be picked up until the isolated farm buildings on the shore to the South of the village bear 320°.  In other words keep east of the line until well up.  They are a real danger on the bottom half of the tide. Bolivar rose, safely, at 23.00.


Departed Gourdon, under sail, at 06.50 to beat the falling tide, hopefully bound for Crail.  We had a foul tide for nearly four hours and a light North Easterly, and progress was slow as the set of the tide took us steadily away from the land.  Eventually at 13.30, some 3½ miles off Lunan Bay the steadily lightening wind caused recourse to the engine.

It was a pleasant motor (as pleasant as it can be with the constant row) across the Tay, doing 5½ knots over the ground, and passing 1½ miles to the West of the Bell Rock (measured by running fix).  The visibility was very clear, particularly around the Tay, and while still North of the Bell Rock the high ground behind Dunbar was picked up, to be immediately mistakenly identified as St. Abbs Head.  Mot an unusual error, but the smoke from the cement works soon brought back rationality.



We were overtaken by another yacht Vennine of Lerwick, actually from Aberdour, and the single-hander on board had a chat as he passed.  He had at one time negotiated with Henry Bell for Wispaw.  He left us 1 mile North of the North Carr Buoy.  Just afterwards the engine faded and stopped twice, due I think to dirt in the jet, as it responded to treatment. The tide was still strongly with us off the Buoy, but had turned at Fife Ness, and in bright sunshine we motored up close inshore to avoid the tide, entering Crail at 17.55.

The only berth left for Bolivar was against the East wall which was actually the berth of some R.A.F. lads who had a converted whaler.  They were very cross when they came in and had to lie outside us (I don’t really know why they should have been, and they weren’t popular with the other harbour users) but there was no choice. Bolivar was already aground!

Crail is a picturesque harbour, and noted for the large stone blocks of its quay walls.  These proved useful as there were no ladders and access could only be gained up the quay by swarming up mooring chains.  Susan found this difficult being still weak from having and feeding the baby, so we borrowed a dinghy.  When the tide was out, revealing a very flat mud bottom, Sue could pick her way along firm going at the foot of the quay to the ladders.

On entering the harbour it is best to be prepared for a virtually 180° right turn into a narrow entrance.  This entrance has a stone sill which explains the negligible grade of the harbour bottom.

Despite the attractions of the harbour we did not find the village so attractive.  It seemed to lack the working lived-in look of other fishing villages, as if it were conscious of its holiday pretentions. It certainly compared unfavourably with Gourdon.


May Island

May Island. Looking into Kirkhaven.

Up for the forecast (Westerlies 2-4) and off at 07.00 with no less than 3 feet under our keel.  A very light West South West wind filled in very quickly up to Force 4 and we romped off, over-pressed at times, passing close to the East of May Island.  A plot at 10.00 showed 14 miles in 3 hours, and a foul tide, and only 13 to go to St. Abbs, our intended next harbour.  At this rate we would be too early on the tide!  Such fears were, as usual, optimistic, as the wind gradually fell off until at 13.00 when still some 6 miles short of St. Abbs Head, the engine was started again.

We passed close under the rocks of the Head and at 14.30, near high water, we moored alongside two fishing boats on the East wall.  When we went ashore on a shopping expedition we found that the grocery store had been closed for several years.  Mrs. Bird, a club member who has a house at the harbour offered to buy the required disposable nappies in Eyemouth and Susan and I, complete with strapped—on infant, had a circular walk to Coldingham; there by the Haven, and back by the Creel Path.  The smell of grass and fields is always overpowering after the fresh sea smells.  After a quiet evening we turned in at 22.00.


We cleared St. Abbs at 10.00 on a fall, and therefore foul tide, and did our best to use a fading North Westerly wind.  After an hour we were still off Coldingham Bay and another yacht from the south came up and spoke to us.  He commented on fog patches, and the visibility was not good with the Head obscured in low cloud, the fog signal moaning constantly. The engine was started and we motored close inshore against a strong spring tide.  Off Berwick the weather and the visibility cleared considerably to the South and we laid a visual course for Emmanuel Head.  By the time the Island was reached we had a fair tide; passing through the Goldstone Channel the Buoys were lying over and foaming.  Passing just to the East of the Megstone and close by the Inner Farne where there were large overfalls and ‘whirlies’ in the water (despite no wind), we entered Seahouses at 17.00 and moored alongside the main pier.

After a quiet evening, largely spent looking around the harbour we saw the boat down at 22.00 after which I repaired to the Ship Hotel. Earlier when Susan was on board alone a motor boat, the Elizabeth II belonging to one of the Scrap Shepherds’ people came and lay alongside. He claimed we were in his berth, but assured Susan that his boat would take the bottom alright.

I returned from the pub after half an hour to find Sue asleep and the Elizabeth leaning heavily towards Bolivar, bending her stanchions and disappearing under our bilge.  He ended up breaking his stanchions and bursting in a wheelhouse window.  The harbour watchman helped me try to arrest the fall, but to no avail: we were too late.  Bolivar’s rail was damaged and the topsides marked, although not seriously.

The next morning the Harbour Master came around to inspect the damage and showed great concern at the damage.  The Elizabeth should not have been moored there at all, and when she did she was usually facing the other way, so as to lean out.  When Mr. Shepherd arrived the Harbour Master spoke rather harshly to him, which although it gave me some satisfaction, did not seem to impress him at all.  Apparently this sort of thing had happened to him before.

As we saw little point in bucking a large foul tide all day we dried out and spent the day in Seahouses.  The tide went out a long way and quickly.  A group of speedboat lads were a few minutes late in reaching their boat, she was just aground.  By the time they had heaved and pushed for over half an hour she was 20 yards from the water.  Despite the crowds and noise it is always surprising how pleasant Seahouses can be when on a boat, despite the goggling from the pier at every domestic happening and function on board.

As soon as we were afloat, at 15.45 we sailed out, only to hit the pier again (gently) as we ran aground again and the head blew round. Out at the second attempt we had a fair tide but a rather unreliable Westerly wind, fresh at times, but tailing right off, so we motored virtually all the way, entering Blyth at 21.00 (29 miles in 5 hours = 6 knots) to find the Vega Mistral lying on our mooring, so we had to move the boats around with the help of Gordon and John Timms.

We had set off to have a gentle, easy-going cruise, but in fact had been to a different harbour every night.  The total distance covered was about 300 miles, the only disappointment was that only 100 of these had been sailed.  Even so we had extended our cruising ground and had some very fine cruising.