There’s a sign in our utility room the Redoubtable Mrs F asked me to have made for her a few years ago. It asks: ‘When was the last time you did something for the first time?’ The answer is, usually, too long ago. In other words, it’s a good question, so when I was offered a rowing lesson the other week, I knew what my answer would be.
Given that I’ve lived all of my life within 10 miles of either side of the Forth Estuary, it is perhaps surprising that Thursday past was only the second time that I’ve been actually on the river itself. The last time was probably in the early Seventies when I was a kid, in a sailing dinghy off Largo beach.
However, that’s not to say I’ve had no involvement with the estuary over the years. For starters there’s the old Forth Road Bridge, opened on my second birthday, which was until a couple of years ago the means by which we Fifers got to Edinburgh – unless, of course, we were using the iconic Forth Bridge (no need to use rail in its title; it’s just the Forth Bridge). Every time we go to Queensferry I take another picture of the latter, of course. It’s like the law. You have to.
Going back to the Road Bridge though, I have also in my time stood at the top of it: in 2012, part of my job at the Council was to act as clerk to the Bridge board, and the Bridgemaster thought it would be a jolly wheeze to take the newly-elected Board members – and me – on a tour.
Yes, that’s me, at the top of one of the towers. Look of abject cowardice model’s own. As I’ve probably told you if I know you in person, the really terrifying bit was the inspection gangways underneath, where you could see the waters waiting to swallow you many hundreds of feet below.
(In the picture on the right, front right is the Bridgemaster in question, Barry Colford. One hell of a good guy, but boy, how I hated him that day!)
Come to think of it, I tell a lie: I’ve actually been on the water three times, because in 2007 one of my other part-time gigs (which lasted for twelve years) was to clerk SEStran, the regional transport partnership for south east Scotland, including, of course, the Forth. They and others had the wizard wheeze that a hover ferry could be just the thing for commuters instead of getting snarled up in the Bridge traffic: unfortunately that plan was scuppered, but I did get on the maiden voyage with some other officials, politicos, and BBC Scotland reporter Louise Batchelor (photos I think courtesy of SEStran, or possibly Fife Council)
Around the same time as the cross-Forth ferry trials, however, there was another set of proposals which I played a small part in scuppering, much to the relief of most people on either side of the river. This was the application to carry out ship to ship transfers of crude oil in the Estuary. Had it happened, it would have involved humungous amounts of crude being transferred from supertankers, known in the business as VLCCs – Very Large Crude Carriers, to Ultra Large Crude Carriers. These things could carry 2 million barrels of oil.
The proposals got initial approval from the (UK) Maritime and Coastguard Agency. As you can imagine, no amount of technical reassurance could convince anyone that the risk of a spillage from one of these things was a risk worth taking. A coalition of local authorities and the RSPB, led by Fife Council, managed to create such a noise about it that, eventually, the proposers backed off.
My part was on the legal side, trying to sort through the tangled set of regulations and responsibilities between UK and Scottish Governments to get QC’s Opinion on how we could stop the idea in its tracks, but much more credit has to go to others, including politicians like Tony Martin and Mike Rumney, the RSPB’s Richard Evans, and Fife’s then Head of Transportation Bob Mclellan.
Anyhoo. That was a long time ago in another working life, and the waters were literally much calmer on Thursday when I took to the water in my friend Chris’s rather spiffy if surprisingly small fibreglass boat. Apart from a bit of fun in un barquito on the pond in Madrid’s Parque del Buen Retiro, I hadn’t rowed before, literally, like, at all. It wasn’t too hard, although I did discover a tendency to swing to the left – geographically, as much as politically: strange, because with my dominant hand being the left, it should’ve been the opposite.
This was mildly annoying when I went one way along the bay, as I kept heading back to shore, and mildly alarming when I went in the other direction and started heading out of the bay altogether, particularly as some kayaking friends of Chris’s (one being another ex-colleague) had encountered minke whales earlier on further out in the river.
But I had a brilliant time. Chris is a patient teacher, and by the end, I had sort of got the hang of things. As I said to him, it’s a bit like golf, in that your body isn’t used to that combination of movements happening all at once, and it’s always a mistake to hurry anything.
Later, after an excellent lunch with Chris and his wife Liz, we took coffee in their lounge with its picture window overlooking the river, and they told me about all the wildlife that is colonising the Estuary now. Time was that the only whales you saw in the Forth were individuals that had got lost and, sadly, would end up beached. However, there’s evidence now of not just minke, but humpbacks coming up to feed as far as Kinghorn; add to that dolphins, seals, porpoises, otters, and of course all sorts of birdlife.
In other words, we share the Forth with a whole load of other species. I’m so glad we fought off those oil transfer guys. It was the first time I had to look into that obscure area of law to help build a case. Let’s hope it’s the last.
On the other hand, it’s definitely not the last time I’m going on the river surface.