Setting sail on Shemaron: “Sometimes in life you just have to shut your eyes tight and jump”
UNTIL her husband one day bought an old wooden fishing boat called Shemaron, Fiona Malkin had never been interested in sailing. The couple embarked on adventures and a major restoration project which she has chronicled in a new book ‘Shemaron : A Beautiful Endeavour’.
Did you have a settled life before Shemaron arrived?
Life was settled in the usual way of working and bringing up a family. In my spare time I enjoyed traveling round Northumberland and the Borders with my husband on his motorbike. I loved this aspect of travel it was so exhilarating. As a family we enjoyed cottage holidays in beautiful places, sometimes we went abroad. There was a sense of comfortable adventure that surrounded this but it was nothing like the adventure that followed our involvement with Shemaron.
What was your reaction when your husband told you he’d bought the boat?
There is a gentle eccentricity about my husband coupled with a drive and determination to make things happen, even so I never really expected him buy a boat. Sometimes in life you just have to shut your eyes tight and jump, this was one of those occasions. Once I had recovered from the initial impact I began to think it might be an exciting project but still not one that I saw myself participating in. My interest in boats stemmed from the romantic; during our bike trips we had often followed the coast, and we often came upon a wreck of a boat somewhere along the way. I was drawn to the incongruity of these wrecks they looked so awkward out of the water. There was an air of sadness about them too, they had been strong boats, their return to nature and their path to decay was slow, and I thought, quite beautiful.
Had you always been interested in sailing and did you intend at first to get involved with its renovations?
I had never been interested in being on the water in any way. I had been on a few passenger ferries but was always worried about feeling seasick. In the event the only times I have felt seasick on Shemaron have been sorted by a change of direction or engine speed. As far as getting involved with the renovations I never saw that coming at all. For a long time I was happily ignorant of the amount of work that the renovation would involve.
How did you get involved and how has it been frustrating?
I got involved very gradually, Shemaron had taken us to some beautiful places, the feeling of solitude when anchored in some of the bays of Western Scotland reaches deep into the soul, I found the whole experience of sleeping and traveling in an old wooden boat utterly fascinating. My frustrations came from an inequality in the work versus enjoyment ratio. The effort this project has demanded of us far outweighs the easier moments we have enjoyed onboard. Shemaron stays in Campbeltown at the end of the Kintyre peninsula this is a six hour drive from Newcastle where we live. We often arrived and the weather was not suitable for working or taking her out. It is not at all unusual to plan, purchase and organise for an urgent job to be completed only to find that a more urgent situation has developed in the mean time. We literally take three steps back to every one step forward. Despite these frustrations there is something about being on the sea that gets into the blood.
Has Shemaron brought you closer as a family?
I think we have always been close as a family although like all families we have had our share of ups and downs. Finding time for Shemaron worked well at a time when our teenage daughters reached a stage in their lives when they were ready for more independence. They usually preferred to stay at home rather than spend time on a rusty old fishing boat, although they hold lovely memories of our Scottish holidays. As far as Chris and I are concerned I would say that Shemaron certainly filled a void. Approaching 50 years of age (at the time) I was starting to think about spending more time travelling and how this might be put into practice. I have always found the idea of an open ended trip, i.e. travelling without an end date, incredibly enticing. As it turned out Chris had entirely different ideas of how our life should develop after the age of 50 wanting an alternative life on some Scottish island. Our impasse carried on for a few years because we never managed to find a workable compromise. When Shemaron entered the equation we did start to draw closer together, and became united in our venture.
Where was the first place you sailed to on her?
We originally kept Shemaron in Tarbert on Loch Fyne, at first we took small trips out round the loch, but the first place we actually visited across the sea, was Gigha a small island off the west coast of Kintyre. It was such an adventure! We went through the Crinan Canal and spent a night in the Crinan Basin. This is an incredibly beautiful part of the country with has the added interest of being at the heart of the ancient Scottish kingdom of Dalriada. I liked being on the water in such a place it seemed to cross the time barriers somehow making it easier to connect to the past. I will never forget the first time we emerged from the close walls of the canal into the open sea. It was a gloriously sunny day, we hadn’t actually decided where to head for and at that point it was as though we held the world at our fingertips – we headed for Gigha.
With white sandy beaches and crystal clear waters Fiona Malkin loves the Scottish island of Gigha.
What are the high/low points of living on a boat while travelling?
The high points are undoubtedly spending nights in remote and beautiful places off the west coast of Scotland, being able to watch the sun go down or listen for the tide turning is so much more inclusive from the deck of a boat. Being close to the wildlife is fantastic too we have seen minke whales, porpoises, basking sharks and plenty of seals. The conversion to ‘boat time’ can be quite difficult, everything moves at a slower pace, making a cup of tea is a 20 – 30 minute job instead of a 3-4 minute one. I wouldn’t describe this as a low, once we have relaxed into it all the slower pace of life is definitely a plus.
The simpler lifestyle demanded whilst onboard means no hairdryer and carrying a bar of soap is much less hassle than carrying numerous bottles of cleansing product. Washing my hair with a bar of soap and leaving it to dry ‘au natural’ is an experience that I have found quite liberating!
One of the harder things to deal with is food; because we have no fridge we can’t keep fresh food for very long. We have a water tank so we carry fresh water but we have to watch how much we use if we are on a longer voyage. Shemaron is an old herring boat, she was a working boat, there are no home comforts onboard, and the only soft places are the bunks so we can’t plonk down into a soft chair, which would be nice. We are usually against a harbour wall, if it is cold and damp it can be difficult getting up the harbour ladders especially if we are tired after a long trip.
How do other sailors/fishermen react to her?
It seems wherever we are Shemaron attracts passers-by, be it holidaymakers, sailors or fishermen. People are always happy to stop for a word if the weather is pleasant. It is stories from the ex ring net men that have brought Shemaron’s history to life. Shemaron has enjoyed a long fishing career. It is one of those special things about that her during conversations with ex- fishermen she can carry us back, on a wave of nostalgia, to the days when she was a well known member of the Scottish herring fleet. Most people enjoy reminiscing about their fishing days, remembering particular incidents and also particular characters all of which breathes life into Shemaron’s story.
Why was it so important that she was preserved?
So many boats have been decommissioned, literallybroken up; others have come to other sad ends. Shemaron is one of the few purpose built ring net boats still surviving she represents a whole changed way of life. Because of this regrettable situation the last few remaining boats have become important to our heritage.
Shemaron sits right at the point when fishing began to change from a reliance on ones skill at reading the natural environment to a reliance on technology; as a way of finding fish. Shemaron is still very much in her original state. During her fishing career she only had two owners, she has been well loved and cherished. We feel that she can still have a vibrant and positive role to play in society.
The Ring Net Heritage Trust has been set up to help promote the ring net story and help preserve boats like Shemaron. The trust hopes to develop Shemaron as a museum, taking her to places where she used to fish.
Where have you visited with her?
During our time with Shemaron we have visited the Hebridean Islands of Coll, Islay, and Gigha also the lovely Rathlin Island off the north coast of Ireland and Ballycastle. We have spent many nights around Loch Fyne and in the small quiet bays on the Kilbrannan Sound. We have also taken Shemaron to more social occasions such as harbour days and festivals at Tarbert, and Carradale on Kintyre and Maidens on the Ayshire coast. In 2014 we were part of the Commonwealth Flotilla that went up the Clyde to mark the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. During our research we discovered that Shemaron had followed the herring along the Northumberland coast, we found photographs of her in Whitby and Seahouses during the 1950’s. It would be lovely to make the same trip one day.
What adventures have you had along the way?
As you might imagine we have had many adventures along the way some more dramatic than others! We had a particularly scary trip round the Mull of Kintyre one time …
“Our concentration levels rose as we dipped into the waves. The ocean began to roil around our decks and water foamed all around us. We moved into a trough and watched as the next wave rolled towards us. Disbelief gnawed at my stomach as the moving mountain of water continued to roll towards us and rose high above our bow. We were travelling into a wall of water at 9 knots. Various instructions fought for an ordered sequence in my head, throttle back, never hit a wave head-on – but our deck was already 45 degrees to the sky, wherever the sky had disappeared to, all we could see was a wall of water. I have failed to find any description that comes close to that raw and terrifying moment. Our decks rose, we crashed about the wheelhouse trying to brace ourselves somehow against the walls. We were stunned into silence.”
Shemaron: A Beautiful Endeavour
Has Shemaron given you a sense of wanderlust and a taste for exploring?
Absolutely, It has also made me recognise the power of the sea! My favorite times are the quiet days when the sea is still like glass, on days like this it is a privilege to be able to be out on a boat. The weather can change quickly round the isles of Scotland so every trip may be different even when you are travelling the same stretches of water. I will always be fascinated by the way a coastline changes as one passes by and the way the tide pulls the sea. The thought of the simpler way of living one must adopt whilst on board is a soothing tonic in the hectic world in which we live.
Do you ever wish your husband had bought a campervan instead?
When I am stretched out on my stomach on the engine room floor and up to my elbows in oily bilge – yes I have had this exact thought!