Boat Stories from Orkney

Last update 23 April 2021.

Lena Holm Sailing club's safety boat with crew Brendan Fletcher and Bruce Johnston.

Rosebud Old Rescue boat for Holm Sailing Club, with Alfie Flett and Billy Sinclair


Jock Simpson 1949-1955
Jackie Drever 1956-1959 (Finstown)
Jack Foubister 1960-1961
Billy Scott 1962-1964
Ralph Hill 1965-

Jock Simpson was born in Flotta and worked as a joiner at the rockworks. He saw plans for a sailing boat in ‘Rudder’, an American yachting magazine. Ronnie Aim made his garage (behind the post office) available to his friend for construction of his boat. This was to be Orkney's first Snipe.

Ronnie, well known for his musical talents in Orkney, became an enthusiastic supporter of sailing in Holm; acting as secretary to the club in it’s earliest days and ensuring that all events had comprehensive coverage in the local press.

Capsizing was not uncommon and many a laugh was had at the problems associated with the extrication from the sea of those unfortunates, and the loss of spectacles, cigarette lighters, pipes, bonnets, etc.

Jack Foubister had no experience skippering a boat, so Jock Skea who had sailed yoles in Sanday, offered to go out some evening. One fine Saturday evening they set off with Jack at the helm. There was hardly any wind and after a time the wind died away completely. While they were relaxing a puff of wind came along and upturned the boat. Panic set in as Jock could not swim and Jack was wearing heavy rubber boots. This was before the days of lifejackets. After no sign of him for what seemed like minutes he eventually surfaced no distance away. Jack grabbed him and used a jib sheet for support in the cold water. It was not long before they spotted John Wylie and Leslie Johnston coming to the rescue. They had been out fishing in Rosebud.

Jock Skea still had hold of his coat, when asked why he had bothered to hang onto his jacket he said his time sheet was in the pocket; no time sheet, no wages. Jack ordered a new boat from Willie Ritch in Deerness. After the new boat joined the Holm Fleet Zephyr was sold on to Billy Scott but Jack retained H1 for his new boat Erma.


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In the 50s a group of Estonians fled their country in a small yacht. The refugees, seven men, five women and four small children, sailed the boat through the Baltic and across the Atlantic in an epic journey. Their yacht was called Erma and a book was written about their trip.

Jack Foubister, inspired by the story, decided to build his own Snipe.

Erma was a strong very well built boat constructed of oak and marine plywood and if anything was on the heavy side but sailed very well. Jack's crew for the first couple of years was William O'Hagan before he immigrated to New Zealand, followed by Jackie Rendall, Linda Foubister, Brian Aim, Derek Rendall, son Neil Foubister, and daughter Lynn Foubister.

In the days of the St Margarets Hope regatta, Eric McLennan was towing Erma over in the morning, as he was to use the same boat trailer to take Teeack across later, as he was travelling along the shore side road the trailer unhitched from the car and Erma took to the air and finished up-side-down with a fence stab sticking up through the hull. Duncan's boatyard had a new panel fitted in time for the next regatta.

Another calamity took place in Stromness a few years later when Jack was launching near the Pole Star pier when the mast hooked a mains electricity line and broke. Apart from the usual dismasting, broken rudder, tillers, rigging etc, she has been reasonably trouble free.

In the winter of 1994 Jack decided to upgrade Erma to the more recent snipe dinghy specifications to see if it was possible to compete against their fibre-glass cousins at the Stromness Sailing Club. A great deal of technical assistance was received from George and Sara Mees from Kent, and Gary Lewis and John Love from Budworth. First step was to rip off the old plywood deck and the heavy centreboard box. Luckily the main oak frames were sound, some of the deck framing had to be replaced and extra framing was added to support the plywood that was to be used in the making of airtight buoyancy tanks at both sides, also fore and aft. The position of the centre plate was slightly altered and a small centreboard box was fitted to accommodate the new aluminium dagger plate. The new lighter plate and box save approximately 50 lbs.

Framing completed and new positions for the mast, stays, halyards etc, was in order, then the inside of the hull was thoroughly sealed and painted before the fitting of the marine plywood deck. Deck completed and splashboards fitted, an extra wide two piece beading was fitted to act as both a spray deflector and handles. Hull completed all that remained to do was varnish and fix fittings in new positions. Luckily some minor fine tuning was required whilst afloat, there was however a tremendous improvement in Erma's sailing capabilities, especially going to windward.

This showed the way for the rest of the club with Kontiki, Valhalla and latterly Viking receiving major overhauls and the rest of the older boats in the fleet acquiring aluminium spars and reconditioned sails and so on.


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Alfie Flett sailing Viking, 11th June 2004.


Many thanks to Ian Garriock for providing this article.

Alastair's garden in Finstown ran down to the seashore, therefore it was probably quite natural that the sea and “messing about with boats” always had a calling for him.  He had put together many types of floating devices such as tarry-barrel rafts and flat-bottomed boats as his degrees of skill grew over the years.  Alastair followed the coverage given in the local papers of the sailing scene and thought back to seeing regattas held in the Bay of Firth just before the war.

His brother-in-law, Jackie Drever, along with Marshall Walter had bought Zephyr from Holm and this gave him renewed interest in having a Snipe of his own.  In 1956 plans were received on loan, and these were drawn out full size on Jackie’s upstairs floor, fortunately empty at the time due to renovation work.  The oak for keel and framing were obtained from Baikie’s Woodyard and the Parana pine for the skin was ordered by them and arrived soon after.

The family car was set out in the ravages of the elements and the bench from the tiny garage removed to make way for this big new venture.  All the angles for keel, chine and sheer were transferred from the drawn plans on to a piece of tea-chest plywood and the frames made up in the work shed ready to affix to the keel assembly.

The whole boat grew, having to overcome many problems on the way, the extreme lack of room being probably the worst.  The plywood for decking was ordered from a supplier in Aberdeen and was slow to arrive, as was the cotton sails from Jackells of Norfolk.  On hindsight parana pine, although a nice ‘clean’ wood, had been badly advised to Alastair, and was more suitable for making varnished coffins than boats.  This timber didn’t soften well to steaming procedures and all holes had to be drilled, even for the smallest of nails, to avoid splitting, which also took place with vengeance when introduced later on to wet and dry conditions.  All the blocks, sheaves, and other fittings were made from brass at lunchtimes in Rossland Garage where Alastair worked, these all being nickle-plated locally by Allie Kirkpatrick.

Alastair sailed the boat in Finstown, but eventually did all his sailing in Holm due to the handiness of launching and hauling these quite difficult shaped brutes, and the friendliness and camaraderie which existed in the club there.  During Alastair's time in Holm, he had as his crew the late Donald MacKay and Harry Kerr, as well as Ian Garrioch, and then Alastairs wife Rosina.

Water Music was more often in the rearguard than the vanguard, a phenomenon due to Alastairs inability to put enough commitment and real effort into detail associated with competitive sailing, settling instead for excuses and a general laid-back approach.  Whilst discussing the poor performance Alastair was experiencing one regatta day at St Margarets Hope, Mac Rosie from Swona gave the hull an experienced rub with his hand and pronounced “You should give her a coat o’ gloss paint, that’s as coorse as me palm”.  So much for Alastairs thinking that it had a supierior finish to many others’ hull surfaces.

Terylene sails soon began to come into vogue, so Water Music proudly displaying H13 were first tried out at Stromness with its many squalls and short dirty seas but with little improvement in performance.

With increased family commitments, Alastair found it becoming extremely difficult to devote enough time to take part in weekly points racing, so the decision was made to sell the boat.  John Brown of Stromness bought the boat but since there were no other Snipes there at the time to install interest in the competition, he must have basically given up and not bothered too much with it after a while.  The boat was broken up due to it being deemed that it was suffering from rot, especially the oak components of the structure.  Who knows, probably some of the brass-work or stainless steel may be in use on some other craft today, whilst the name plate may be in some place of honour.

I'm Alone

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SCAPA FLOW has witnessed many interesting and soul-stirring incidents from the days when the old Norsemen of adventure sailed their flat-bottomed boats into some of its more secluded bays to modern times when it harboured two of the greatest navies in the world.

An event, which will go down in the annals of the Flow, took place at the West Shore of Holm, when the long looked-for and talked-about launching of Willie Allan's Snipe took place.

When we arrived at the shed, which housed the vessel, sounds of tremendous activity met us. Inside, last minute finishing touches were hastily being made. Two men were busy at the bench completing final work on the rudder. One man inside the boat was wielding a hammer while another outside was holding against him. Two outside were working on the mast, and a third was busy splicing wires.

A short distance from the door a tractor and trailer waited impatiently. Cars began to arrive and over the hill, in twos and threes, people congregated as if they were coming to a Covenanters' meeting.

At length the cry went up "She's ready!" and twenty willing hands raised her from the floor and eased her gently through the door and on to the trailer. A long, arduous and twisted trail to the beach was quickly covered, and by this time the crowd had increased to over fifty. Men of many summers were there to see this boat of which they heard so much and women too from far and near. Magnus Wylie, Dave Marwick, Peter Isbister were there, and others too numerous to mention.

Gentle hands eased her off the trailer and ere she took the water a bottle of champagne was broken over her bows by Miss June Crowther, who named her "I'm Alone".

Willie himself was in his element. This was his night of triumph, and rightly so, for he is a farmer, noted far and wide for his grand good nature and readiness to lend a helping hand to anyone. None ever appeals to him in vain and, in spite of the multifarious jobs he has to do at his own farm, he is always ready to help others. Thus it was that he has been two years in completing his craft, built in his spare time and not always with the best of tools.

Quickly the mast was erected, the stays fixed, and a mighty cheer went up from the crowd of spectators as she took the water. But she wasn't still quite ready for away! Some small adjustments had to be made to get the rudder to fit and then sails were hoisted. By this time it was getting dark and rain was threatening. Spectators were getting impatient, but at last Willie shouted "Let her go" and as he tightened the sheet, the wind heeled her over nicely and she rose to the waves like a bird.

8th August 1951 - Orkney Herald

Vital Spark

Edwin Flett had a snipe called 'Vital Spark', named after the stories of Para Handy by Neil Munro.

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The name Kontiki was made famous by Thor Hyerdahl when he built a raft and sailed it across the Pacific Ocean. Thor Hyerdahl was a Norweigan anthropologist and his Kontiki expedition was put together to prove that navigators in the distant past would have been able to travel great distances in reed rafts. He proved his point and wrote a book about his epic journey.

In 2009 Neil Foubister aquired a snipe, to be refurbished over the winter and sailed as Kontiki. The boat was brought up to Orkney by John Love of Budworth Sailing Club.

The original Kontiki was built and sailed by Norman Johnston, which was to inspire his sons to follow in his footsteps. Bertie building and sailing Tyro and later in the mid 1960s Fred taking over Fleetwing. Leslie joined the fleet in the 1970s making the impressive record of father and three sons skippering their own boats. Norman retired in the early 1970s, handing over Kontiki to fourth son Kenny, a proud record indeed for one family.

Norman, like son Fred, started his sailing career as a crew with Alfie Flett when Sam Aim was unavailable to sail due to farm work.

It was Stromness Regatta day but Norman and Alfie decided to hold a little regatta of their own in the Holm bay. The wind was strong and water was oozing in on the lee side of the boat, tilted by the wind. You may think Norman is lying but he somehow managed to keep his feet dry.


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At the time of the Stromness snipe class formation in the early 1980s, they joined in with the Holm fleet in the annual Port-to-Port race. The wind was to freshen but nevertheless the decision was made to sail by the majority of the club. It wasn't long before the first victim was claimed, Gordon Hill in La Rocca only making it out past the Holm pier before capsizing. The rest of the boats soldiered on but when reaching the point of Hunda, it was obvious that the wind had got the better of most of the boats. Bertie Johnston, abandoned his boat to go and help others as Tyro had broken up on the shore of Hunda. Fred Johnston had made it around the point of Hunda with his son Graham as crew and reached in for the needle and the Hope pier. He then had the unique experience of saving his namesake, Fred Johnston of the Stromness Club in his snipe Eldorado, as Fred had noticed his boat up-side-down.

The wind had risen from 18 to 25 knots and the waves were sharp and short between which filled the boats quickly. The rescue boats were working full time and weren't able to attend Fred at that moment as several boats had got into difficulties, so Fred took Eldorados crew aboard Fleetwing. By this time, Bertie Anderson in a rescue boat came to their aid and started to tow the two boats. There was a problem as the rescue boat seemed to be standing on end so Eric Sutherland in another rescue boat took control and towed the boats.

The Flotta Marines arrived on the scene and took the pair to dry land in Flotta. Folk on the Hope pier grew frantic as the lack of boats arrived, Leslie Tait in Dr Broadhursts Wynora arrived first. For many this had been a long day.

On another occasion, Fred with crew Alan Donaldson, were chosen to represent Holm in the 1999 Orkney Challenge. Fred was in Kevin Mansons boat 'Vendetta' and was coming down to the first barrier buoy. The next stage was a run back to the pier but Fred made a mess of the jibe and the boat ended fully up-side-down. Fred swam to the stern and grabbed hold of the rudder, which came off in his hand and struck him on the forehead, which required four stitches on Fred's brow. Erlend Flett was his saviour and helped him by means of his motor boat 'Orcades'. The mast of Vendetta had broken and after only one race, the competition was cancelled.


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Eric McLennan, Jack Foubister and Mac Rosie set off from Sandwick Bay in South Ronaldsay early one morning in Mac's 18-foot long Yawl hoping to find a snipe in Thurso that would suit Eric. The crossing to John O'Groats only took about three-quarters of an hour as the Firth was like a mill pond. A minibus took them into Thurso where they found a suitable snipe named Kittiwake belonging to John Shearer. A deal was done and John agreed to tow it to John O'Groats for a 7pm departure. However it was 8pm before the set off in thick fog. Jack at the helm as he was suitably clad in oilskins, with the snipe in tow and following Macs compass settings they luckily cleared the fog bank after 10 minutes. A Russian factory ship was bearing down from the West and just before the towing party altered course the factory ship altered and came across their stern. It was noticed that the Russians on the bridge were waving but whether in greeting or anger one will never know.

Conditions were getting a bit choppy and it was not long before Teeack broke away, the allow mast swinging across her deck like a see-saw. However with boat retrieved and mast secured again they made their way safely back to Sandwick Bay.


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Lady Midnight

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Horse Gowk

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John Love gave Lynn Foubister's dad, Jack, a phone to say that there was a snipe for sale on the Wirral and he would have a look to see what condition it was in. A price was agreed and Alan Long kindly towed it north. The condition of the boat was not too bad but previous owner Mr Mellor had no idea what snipe it was or builder - in fact he had no details and had only used her for the odd sail.

Jack replaced the very heavy pivot plate with a new aluminium dagger plate plus a few alterations. A second hand set of sails was gifted by Don Elliot, which added to make Horse Gowk a very competitive snipe again.

John and Margo Love were lent Horse Gowk for the 50th Anniversary Holm Regatta. They didn't have to worry about spreader settings, there weren't any! They soon more or less got the hang of sailing without jammers though the clothes prop of a whisker pole did lead to some domestic disharmony when it trapped the mainsheet at a critical moment. All in all, Horse Gowk seemed quite competitive in the lightish wind.

They made a good start and led round the windward mark but were gradually overhauled on the reach by Cobra, only to hit the leeward mark and watch four boats creep past whilst they struggled to do a 360 turn in a vanishing breeze. In due course the leading boats tacked into the middle of the bay while John held on along the shore to be rewarded by a new breeze, which swept him up to the finishing line.


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You may be forgiven for thinking it is a new boat - er well it is nearly. The base is Snipe 10070 built in Denmark. Her plywood hull was made around 1958-60 when plywood took over from the original planking. Graham Campbell acquired her in 1993 with no fore or aft deck. Graham had already been involved in the restoration of two other wooden snipes.

He stripped out the centreboard casing, which was designed for a pivoting plate and put in a trunk for a dagger board. The ribs were replaced and Gabon marine plywood was used for the re-decking, before the hull was finished in Spinnaker Yacht varnish. It took at least two years of steady work to get it to its finished stage. Now this old dinghy has been given a second chance, faring well against the modern GRP Snipes at the championship and pointing well with its new Sidewinder mast and Hood sails.

Cobra was awarded the Gunfleet trophy for the best looking snipe at the 1995 National Snipe Championships.

Magnus Bain started his sailing with the Kirkwall club where he sailed a laser dinghy for seventeen years. The connection with the Orkney Sea Cadets allowed Magnus the opportunity to sail on behalf of Scotland in the junior championships.


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Moonstone (24152) was bought in 2001 by Andrew Leslie and has competed at many of the local regattas, she was taken down to Bridlington for the UK Snipe National Championships in 2006, and also competed in the Orkney UK Snipe Championships held in 2017.


Alan Donaldson crewed for Magnus Bain in Cobra for a few years then started helming and bought Hassfang. Hassfang was given the number H20 and Alan managed the boat fairly well. In 2008 Chris Moore (Stromness Sailing Club) acquired Hassfang and sails her with Harvey Dunnett with some success; in 2010 Chris and Harvey won the Allcomers at Longhope Regatta.


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Njord, sailed by Richard Lambert and John Williams at Holm Regatta 2004.


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Neil Foubister sailing Nemo 11th June 2004. Nemo was sold to James Stockan of Stromness Sailing Club in 2007.

Go Quickly Red

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Go Quickly Red, belonging to Malcolm Tipler, has had some success at most of the local regattas. In 2006 Malcolm took GQR down to Bridlington for the UK snipe National Championships. With his son Peter as crew they managed quite well in the breezy conditions. Peter also has a snipe, Go Faster Blue.


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Saga was built by Billy Clouston in Stenness (Waithe Haven) in 1949. Saga is a Redwing, designed by Uffa Fox in 1939 for the Looe Sailing Club in East Cornwall (not to be confused with the Benbridge Redwing designed by Charles Nicholson in 1897). The Looe Redwing is still an active class in Cornwall. Willie Groat had great success at local regattas with Saga in the early days. Willie Groat was also well known for managing the 'Otter Bank', a floating bank serving the Isles of Orkney. Willie Groat died in 2013 after which Saga was unused for several years. In 2018 the Orkney Historic Boat Society took on Saga as a restoration project.


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Thanks to Raymond Grieve for the information below.

Raymond Grieve named his Albacore (number 6670) Corona. She was originally known as 'My Highland Queen' by the previous owner David Urquhart who took her over to Canada for the World Chamionships in 1979. His employer assisted in getting the boat to the event. David was a sales rep for Matthew Gloag & Son in Elgin. Highland Queen is a blend of Speyside whiskies, so some form of sponsorship was involved.

The boat was renamed Corona as a tribute to John Laird who raced one of the original Rockets in Orkney. In the early days there were three Merlin Rockets: First Attempt (Owned by Dan Grieve and built by Dan and his brother in law Leslie Wylie in the Girnel), Freya (owned by Ronnie Drever) and Corona (owned by John Laird). These boats were clinker built, copper nailed with an alloy centreboard. They were very heavy compared with Rock n'Roll and Tyste which came later.

My Highland Queen was built by Knight & Pink, the same builders of Mizpah. She had a wooden hull which at the time was stiffer than a GRP version. The image below shows the sales brochure.

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