The Nelly Bly

According to William Douglas Bray, posting on the Facebook page Wooden Boats – Built in the Shetland Isles

The Nelly Bly took part in the first Sandwick Regatta in 1896 owner and builder unknown. She was acquired and repaired by Walter Duncan in 1956 and sailed at Sandwick with some success until Walter and his brother Peter retired from sailing . She features in Sandwick sailing club centenary book.

Andy Bryce takes up her story:

Having been married in Lerwick at Easter in 1965, I thought that the next thing to do would be to have a Shetland Model boat.  Seeing one advertised in the Times (The Shetland Times), I sent a postal bid of £100, which proved successful. I had her shipped across to St Mary’s Holm in Orkney as Jim was to come north from Suffolk, and we were going to go over on the St Ola for the regatta week

Landing at Stromness, we drove over to Holm and, sure enough, found her, the Nelly Bly, lying on the beach. She looked to have been built for racing rather than as a traditional fourareen crofter’s general-purpose boat, and when we launched her, she lay well over onto her side.

The beach at Holm was stony, so we soon filled some sacks, and with this as ballast, she then floated plum.

Chart showing Pentland Firth and southern part of Orkney Islands

There was not a lot of wind for the races the next day, but we did not do too badly. With her generous sails, she was quite a slippery bit of wood, if not all that stable. The following day was the passage race to The Hope (St Margaret’s Hope), and although it was within Scapa Flow we took the precaution of tying a buoy to a line just in case she capsized and sank. All went well. The Hope was then a splendid place. The known Hugh McKenzie in the Boat Club in Aberdeen came from The Hope, as his father had the watch and clockmaker’s shop there. He was also the shipping and travel agent. Hanging outside the shop was a lovely enamel advertising sign to the effect ‘Book here for P&O to India and China, Union Castle for South Africa and Royal Mail to South America.  The RORA Head, one of the North of Scotland, Orkney and Shetland Shipping Company’s smaller vessels, also called while we were there.

From the sailing at Holm, we had learnt that our chief rival was big Jim Rosie from Swona, where he lived with his brother and sister, the only inhabitants of this island lying on the northern side of the Pentland Firth, now uninhabited except for the descendants of their cattle which were left there when the Rosie’s eventually had to move to Orkney. He sailed in the Falcon, which he had towed over behind his larger Hood (both boats had been home-built, the latter by his father, who had named her after the Battle Cruiser sunk by the Bismark). Jim’s crew was Mac, a local South Ronaldsay farmer. If they were ahead when racing, it was easy to find one’s way as all you had to do was to follow the line of discarded home brew bottles.

Unfortunately, in the main race the next day, we were well ahead on the run back to the finish but had not realized there was an extra mark to be rounded on that leg. When we eventually realized the situation (there had been shouting from the shore), we were well past it. Coming close to the wind, we could only just lay it. Big Jim had also not been aware of the extra mark, but of course, when he saw us haul up into the wind, he realized what was up and was able to run down to the mark quite easily. They just beat us to the finish. (Perhaps I should have bluffed and held my course until he was also to leeward of the mark).

As there had been at Holm, there was a prize giving, a buffet high tea laid on by the wives and then a dance in the local village hall. All very enjoyable.

We eventually went home, and one of the locals, Dr Johnstone, trailed her over to Stromness for me and from there, she was shipped back to Scrabster.

Though we had had a good week’s sailing, the Nelly Bly was obviously not the type of Shetland Model to use about the exposed Thurso Bay unaccompanied. I eventually towed her by road to my parent’s place at Cawood [in south Wales], and she was later sold to a man who kept her at Port Madoc. He wrote sometime later to say that though she was not all that smart at turning down the estuary to the bar, she showed all the other boats a clean pair of heels on the run back home.

Some years later, when I was in Port Madoc, I asked a man I had met when walking along the shore if he knew of a double-ended boat locally, to which he replied, ‘No, but I know of some double-ended steam engines’ referring to the twin Fairlies of the Ffestiniog Railway.

Years after that I saw a small double-ended boat with a cabin moored of Pennarepool. I could not make out if she was the Nelly Bly, probably unlikely but I have often wondered since.

Next: The building of The Aegre

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