Coastal Rowing as a Catalyst for Social Cohesion




For years now, I have been promoting my view that the practice and context of coastal rowing is a valued and cost-efficient method of developing sustainable social cohesion in complicated or precarious community conditions.


I feel that urban communities along the coastal fringes of socially precarious regions like Basra (Iraq), Mogadishu (Somalia), Aden (Yemen) Port-au-Prince (Haiti), Beirut (Lebanon) Latakia Syria, Abidjan (Cote d’Ivoire) …etc, would benefit from modest yet far-reaching initiatives like a coastal rowing project. A project that could provide struggling coastal neighbourhoods the means to co-construct, connect, care, and compete in a setting where boats and oars made from the same kit are a catalyst for change.

This is a view inspired by Scotland’s successful social initiative called the Scottish Coastal Rowing Project. A boat building project built on a tradition in the 1950s when miners from the collieries in East Fife would use timber from their respective coal pits to build themselves a rowing boat to race and represent their community in regattas held during gala days along the coast.


The Scottish Fisheries Museum, inspired by the tradition, revived and adapted the process as a practise-based project to encourage boat building, rowing, and racing of timber ‘skiff boats’ around the Scottish Coastline. Together with an experienced boat builder and a renowned boat designer, they develop a boat-building kit. A kit that could be purchased off the shelf at a reasonable price, to be fabricated, rowed and raced by coastal communities. The result was a plywood boat building kit based on the miner’s boat design and the Fair Island Skiff, a contemporary iteration known as a St. Ayles Skiff.


These modern iterations of boat building, rowing and racing are reliant on a collaborative effort, to source the timber, plan, house, fabricate and race the boat. The collaborative aspect of the project is recognised constantly within the activity of rowing which is fundamentally based on a crew of five acting as one, trusting in the direction and seamanship of a coxswain, rowing together in time, and sharing the effort required to make way. The Skiff’s crew learn to be highly attuned to the sea, the elements and each other. There is a bond of trust and connection between a crew and their community amplified when underway out on the sea inside a boat and pulling on oars that they and their fellow rowers helped make and maintain.


The boats certainly galvanise those that join the community in many ways and there is a palpable sense of a Scottish coastal rowing collective locally, nationally, and internationally. The boats appears to be the conduit that channels collaborative behaviour and develops a positive attitude to social cohesion.


Each boat, the oars and the well-being of the participants are the primary focus of the rowing communities in Scotland, the members collectively care, repair, and respect their equipment. All boats are given an official build number and named by the community that built them. Each boat is recognised, logged, and monitored by the association of coastal rowing, the boats are all fondly acknowledged concerning their name, condition, and location.


There are more collaborative aspects to the project, the boats need a place to be stored, the people to tow them to and from regattas and expeditions. The boats cannot be launched or landed alone and the boats need to be built flexible enough to allow for the different categories that row them, oars and the boat need to be designed with various settings to suit all that row in them.


“The skiffs were built in a surprising array of locations, from leaky cowsheds to a leaky fishermen’s hut to the relative warmth and space of a very large disused Hydroponicum (a glorified polytunnel)” (Wightman, 2013).


It is informative to observe the socially cohesive impact of the boats and the communities that own them, not just from tangible a perspective but from a nontangible one too. An example can be found in the community’s conversations, stories and gossip, the boats and the rowing of them generate shared vocabulary that helps connect the participants from each community. They speak of tholl pins (pins that connect the oars to the boat), keels (bottom of the boat), thwarts (seats), clinker-built(overlapping lengths of timber planks) skiff repair, contests, tactics, rowing terminology are only a few of the common terms, shared experiences and subjects of conversation in communities, in boats and during regattas.


It is also interesting to note that, "one year after the launch of the prototype, the first six skiffs were built and raced in their first regatta at Anstruther, Fife. After a further ten years, there are over 200 clubs with multiple skiffs around the UK and many more in Ireland, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Holland and France". The Scottish Coast Rowing convener, Mr Wightman goes no to write, “[t]housands of people new to these activities are enjoying the teamwork required to build and race these skiffs. As well as making new friends within their communities, participants meet and learn about the other communities who are participating” (Wightman, 2013).


Image credit : North Berwick Harbour Trust Association