Salcombe Yacht Club
Will Salcombe Harbour change as much in the next 50 years as it has in the last 50 years?
22 March 2014
The sailing tradition in my family comes through one of my grandfathers, who was one-time Commander of a First War patrol boat – in the days when the second officer was the local judge and the navigator the local headmaster – a decorated lifeboat crew member and Commodore of his local Yacht Club.
My grandfather was always helpful to sailors, especially beginners. And, famously in our family, he once saw someone sailing with what seemed to him to be a strange rig. “Your jib is upside down” he called across the water. Back came the reply “I like it this way”.
“I like it this way” is what, I suspect, many people would say about Salcombe Harbour today. No need to change anything, just leave it as it is, thanks.
But I chose my title carefully. We know that the Harbour has changed significantly over the years. At one time it was completely surrounded by woods – which survive today really only at Halwell Point and Heath Point. Many of those trees were cut down to build warships and I believe Salcombe sent a ship against the Armada.
Only about 100 years ago that Salcombe was a significant shipbuilding port. Over the last 50 years, there have been many changes virtually none of them planned or managed. Equally, I suspect, the change over the next 50 years will be just as extensive and just as unmanaged. But I don’t like to think we are simply passive victims of circumstances: we can take decisions, make policies, encourage some things and discourage others, even govern the Harbour properly, which is my interest.
We have, of course, seen a number of important changes in the Harbour simply over Ian Gibson’s splendid eight years as Harbour Master – new residents’ and visitors’ pontoons in Coad Cove; dredging Batson and Kingsbridge; new pontoons at Frogmore, Batson, Whitestrand and Normandy; and, this year, Kingsbridge and Victoria Quay. Alongside this there is the new speed limit, new buoyage and marks, showers on Whitestrand, and a posh Fish Quay.
The 50 years is, of course, arbitrary. I could equally well have taken 20 or 10 years. I make no claim to know what will happen in the future. I simply aim to rehearse what I see as some of the potential major influences on the future shape of the Harbour, under four main headings:
- Demographics – who is going to be living in the South Hams
- Economics – how wealth or resources might affect the Harbour
- Environmental issues, including climate changes
- Changes in boating
Both the economy and the demographics of the South Hams are interesting although any analysis can be controversial. It is difficult to run a business here, not least for logistical reasons and even companies which do not have to shift goods, like high-tech firms, can struggle to get suitably-qualified staff. Online shopping threatens real shops. Wages are not high, although they are generally higher in the South Hams than in the rest of Devon, and the main employment sectors – hotels, the public sector and finance – have real problems of their own. Farming and fishing together account for less than 3% of employment.
Much debate about the area is focuses on second homes and affordable housing – although my view has always been that jobs should be the starting point. First homes are homes where the job is and, if there are good jobs, housing becomes affordable.
Instead of real jobs in Devon it can be said that, broadly speaking, much of the wealth of the area, and particularly of Harbour users, has been earned elsewhere and imported. It is imported through two main routes: (i) during a career lifetime, by people buying, converting, enhancing a second home and spending money when they are here; and (ii), later, and often the same people, retiring to the area and bringing with them their accumulated fortune. This is what puts the South Hams in the top 100 UK boroughs with the highest per capita wealth: its per capita disposable income of around £16k is exceeded only by London, the South East and East Anglia. The South Hams is not badly off by national standards.
This is a big part of the picture for Harbour users. Significant proportions of South Hams residents are retired. But two questions arise: what will be the effect of the retirement age increasing, as it has; and will there continue to be in future a plentiful supply of retirees with well-funded pensions? Personally I expect the average age of the local population, both resident and visitor, to continue to increase over the next decades.
Even now, there aren’t a lot of younger Harbour users and this may be a trend which will continue. We can see in our local paper, the Kingsbridge and Salcombe Gazette, how so many of the area’s brightest go off to university and now live far away. The emigration of youth from Ireland, Scotland, Wales and rural England happens also from Devon, particularly in respect of those who leave home to go to university. We are exporting our young people, not only throughout the UK, but abroad as well. Moreover the Island Sailing Club’s historic ship Egremont, which has introduced so many young people to boating, and so many to sailing in this area, may not last forever.
The (latest available) 2008 population pyramid of the South Hams shows that the area has a large number of older people, relatively few children, and a real dearth of those of working age. I am told that traditionally people should have yachts as long as their age: this means that there should be rather more 70ft yachts in the Harbour than there are! A Harbour with older, rather than younger users, will have different boats, need different mooring facilities and be run in a different way than if it is buzzing with teenagers.
It is notable that the new pontoons at Kingsbridge have been welcomed by so many users who say they “are no longer as young as they used to be”. But then the whole process can become circular – the facilities become adapted to an older population, so do the towns and the shops and facilities in the towns, and the whole cycle goes on. So I pose three questions: how many younger people will there be using the Harbour a few years’ hence; will there be anything much for them; and should we be thinking about that?
My next main heading is economics. We have been going through a banking crisis for five years but it is still a long way from being over. It looks likely to redistribute wealth even less equally than before. Those without much money are paying proportionately more for the effects of the banking crisis than those who had lots and precipitated it. This will hit all parts of the UK outside London: for only around London is there any significant up-turn.
Stepping aside from the resentment this causes, this is likely to mean that that places like Devon will become even more dependent on imported wealth, possibly from significantly wealthier people who may spend significantly less time in their properties here, so possibly significantly less money in total.
Meanwhile, the local economy does not seem to me to be likely to boom of its own accord. Across the country, people with jobs are likely to have less, not more, free time. The 400-mile round trip from London or Birmingham, with increasing traffic, could become less attractive. There may well be a growing crisis over travel. I don’t think anybody is expecting fuel for cars to drop in price. The fragility of the rail link at Dawlish has demonstrated how susceptible infrastructure can be. Both Devon and Cornwall could seem to become progressively increasingly remote from the population centres of the UK.
I appreciate that, fortunately, there will always be brave and inventive local initiatives to buck the trend, and I am happy to be surprised by the brilliance of individual examples of that. But it is clear to me that local employment and pay will continue to struggle. Indeed, I suspect the area could gradually become more focussed on the all-the-year round retired rather than the holiday maker.
But, as I have said, there is a question whether pensions in future will be good enough to sustain a reasonable standard of living; or whether people will choose to move to Devon simply because housing is cheaper and more pleasant here than in the Midlands or London where they worked. So I think we could see boating scaling down rather than up.
- Climate changes
Like most people with an interest in environmental matters, I have been watching the deteriorating climate with mounting despair. But I am going to steer clear of whether climate change is caused by human consumption, is simply a matter of a climate cycle, or is the result of giants squabbling. This is a debate which is not helped by talk of “saving the planet”. There’s no need whatever to “save the planet”. The planet will be fine. It’ll be here long after the human race is gone. The issue is how long the climate will be able to supply us with the water and food that we need and a climate which is not dangerous to human life. It is humankind which needs saving.
It is undeniable that the climate is changing. We used to refer to this as global warming, which was a sort of cuddly term: indeed, some people thought that a little warming might even be rather welcome. But over the last few years we have seen almost exactly what climate scientists have been predicting: warmer, wetter winters; more extreme conditions; sometimes scorching hot spells in summer; sometimes persistent poor weather – all of which we see as unseasonal.
- Jet stream
Obviously, there are a number of influences at work here. One is the jet stream, six miles above us. For our traditional weather, the jet stream sits north of Scotland and acts as a glass wall with the Arctic. When that happens the UK is classed a part of Europe and we have the temperate climate we learned about at school.
However, for much of the last few years, the jet stream has been pushed by a warming Arctic to a position south of the UK. This makes us an extension of the Arctic or one might say that this means that England has a climate more like Scotland’s.
- Greenland ice sheet
A furter potential influence, which is already being felt, concerns the Greenland ice sheet. We know that the Arctic ice is melting more and more each year. This is what is making the Arctic Sea increasingly available to shipping, oil exploration and Greenpeace protests.
Whether the Arctic sea ice melts or not, may not have that much of an impact in the UK. It is ice in water which becomes water, so is no big deal. There is a question whether the melting ice will interfere with the gulf stream and it has shown signs of doing so, and that could end up giving us colder, snowier winters.
But the Greenland ice sheet, which sits on the land mass of Greenland itself, is between one and two miles thick. That is an immense body of ice and this ice is melting: not fast at the moment although one day in 2013 the whole upper surface of the ice sheet was melting for the first time since records began. In 2012 a 46 square mile lump broke loose and slipped into the sea. Very recently one of the more stable parts of the ice-sheet, the north east corner, was discovered to be melting at the rate of 10 billion tons a year. And, because we are having warmer winters, the ice sheet is not making up again over the winter.
It is extremely uncertain how fast the Greenland ice sheet will melt with climate changes. Now and again alarming discoveries find things like a lake of water underneath the ice sheet – we don’t want the whole thing to slip into the sea as that would raise sea levels by 30 metres or so. But enough Greenland ice sheet melt to raise the average sea level by more than half a metre within our 50-year time span is well on the cards and it could be much more. This is much larger than the comparatively small tidal surges which flooded Kingsbridge and Salcombe in January and February. So we are almost certainly looking at a redesign of parts of Salcombe and Kingsbridge and, to a lesser extent, Frogmore and South Pool, with rising sea water levels.
- Sun spots and the Maunder minimum
A yet further complication is the emerging possibility of a Maunder minimum, named after the Irish astronomer and mathematician, Annie Maunder and her husband, Walter.
For centuries sun spot activity has followed an eleven-year cycle, increasing and decreasing gradually but predictably. But it is possible that this cycle has recently become broken in a way which would match the 70 years between 1645 and 1715 when sun activity seemed to stop completely. In one 30-year period a total of only 50 sun spots were observed, as against the usual 40-50,000.
The 17th century Maunder Minimum coincided with the middle part of what is called The Little Ice Age during which Europe and America had very cold winters: those were the days when the Thames used to freeze over. If it is the case that we are entering a Maunder Minimum, then that is another climate issue to be reckoned with – one which is, of course, completely independent of human activity.
Taken together, these climate changes mean that we are progressively losing the Goldilocks quality of our weather – not-too-hot, not too-cold. As the seas get warmer, the winds get stronger, so the waves get higher and the coastal damage increases. As the jet stream moves south, we get more cloud and rain in the summer. Although the average world temperate is warming, and the Arctic is warming quite fast, it is still not good news to be bracketed with the Arctic by the jet stream, rather than with Europe.
These weather changes make yachting that much more difficult, more hazardous and less pleasant. Some people have already bought bigger yachts to tackle the rougher weather we are getting. But I think the overall impact will be down. Motor boats will toss about too much and sailing boats will become too hard work for many.
- Water quality
The future of the Harbour is obviously bound up with boating but we should never overlook the fact that probably the largest group of Harbour users, and economically the most important, are people who use the beaches for swimming, snorkelling, canoeing and surfing. I suspect that many more of them fill up the bed-and-breakfasts and the local restaurants, and buy from the local shops, than the boating public – although there are obvious overlaps between these groups.
That is why one of the Harbour’s major environmental concerns is maintaining its water quality. This requires, and has taken, quite a lot of effort – negotiations with South West Water; cleaning up Egremont; introducing pump-out facilities; installing a scrubbing grid on Batson; keeping cattle out of streams which flow across beaches; and so on. But this has paid off: South Sands beach has qualified for its iconic EU Blue Flag for four years running. That is something which is good for the Harbour.
Although the bathing water quality on the Harbour’s golden sandy beaches is excellent, the water quality on some of the higher creeks – Frogmore Creek, for instance – is not good enough to allow the safe growing of shellfish, like oysters. This is most likely because of the high levels of phosphates in the upper Harbour and phosphates give rise to a poisonous red algal bloom – the so-called red tides. We also have problems in the upper Harbour with nitrates fertilising the green algae which grows on the mud flats outside Gerston, thriving on the nitrogen from the water treatment works. It is nitrate algae which blocks up the water pumps of motor boats.
With deteriorating weather, opening up fishing within the Harbour is a good thing. We need water quality which can sustain oysters and, personally, I would like to see it possible once again to farm eels here, as was the case 100 years ago.
A few years ago I had fun surveying the Harbour and assessing how it had changed over the last 70 years. I did this without getting my feet wet or, indeed, venturing from the comfort of my drawing room. I happen to have inherited my grandfather’s 1933 chart of Salcombe, before Batson creek was dredged. I compared this with a modern chart.
Broadly speaking, in 70 years, over most of the Harbour, the depth has decreased by about a metre, although there are some places which are deeper now than in 1933, particularly round Snape. The Harbour Master and I mused over how long it would be before we could cover the whole Harbour in tarmac and make it into a car park.
This loss of depth should not surprise us. Firstly, because the Victorians knew how to keep the Harbour channels clear: their paddle steamers dragged chains when going up to Kingsbridge on a falling tide. But, secondly, much of this is down to the invention of four-wheel drive tractors. The Harbour is surrounded by slopes so steep that they could not be ploughed by horse or early tractors. Only when four-wheel drives came along could those slopes be ploughed. And, as soon as you plough a steep slope, there is run-off into the Harbour. The colour of Frogmore Creek after a downpour demonstrates that.
I’m not sure whether we are past peak ploughing yet. Many local farms now concentrate on sheep and cattle and don’t put as much land under the plough as they used to. We must be grateful for that but, without a river like the Dart flowing through, silt will gradually reduce the usability of the Harbour. Whilst rising sea levels may offset some of this, if rising sea levels come with much heavier rain, will the run-off increase further? There are many imponderables.
Fortunately, as you know, we are now water-injection dredging parts of the Harbour, principally the Kingsbridge basin, Batson Creek and Winters’ Yard.
So where does all this leave us? I come to my final heading.
Changes in boating
We have all seen changes in boating technology over the last decades: from wood to fibreglass, giving birth to lasers, toppers and windsurfers in the 1970s; to the development of maritime labour-saving devices, like GPS, in-mast furling and self-tailing winches, which have made it possible for much bigger yachts to be handled by much smaller crews. Indeed, the gradual increase in yacht size has maintained the Harbour’s income in the last few years when the number of yachts has been falling.
And then there are jet skis, sit-on kayaks and now paddle boards. It would have been difficult to foresee these innovations and it is equally difficult to see what may lie ahead. But what can we say might happen with an ageing population, a possibly declining economy, and a deteriorating climate?
One possibility might be that boats won’t go to sea as much – but sail, motor, cruise whatever within the Harbour, which could become much more attractive than braving the waves. With higher winds, sailing dinghies might have smaller sails. There might be more with multi-hulls. Perhaps there will be some racing craft like the America’s Cup yachts if not quite 70 ft long? This could mean a shift of focus towards Kingsbridge, as a centre and as a destination in its own right. As it happens, this is what is happening already in respect of paddle boards where Kingsbridge is making its name as a national centre.
As far as motor boats are concerned, with fuel so expensive, will today’s thirsty outboards be replaced by electric motors? There are already relatively powerful electric outboards. The Royal Barge, Gloriana, designed in Totnes, may set a trend for bigger electric boats which charge themselves through the rotation of their propellers by the tide or current as they lie on a mooring. All this might ease one of the banes of Salcombe Harbour for me, which is the aggressive wash from boats travelling too fast.
In short, it seems to me that we could well see more activity inside the Harbour and less going to sea. Does that mean we stop using the Bag as a parking lot to make space for sailing? With fewer cruising yachts, that may not be a problem. However less going to sea means that there would be fewer visitors to the Harbour – yet they currently provide a significant element of Harbour income.
We need also to take a look at the next generation. At the moment, we do not seem to be doing much to encourage them. For instance, our schools or youth clubs should have sailing boats, rowing eights or gigs, perhaps even a squadron of canoes or paddle boards. But first we need to ask ourselves what can we do to make Harbour more youth and family friendly.
And the Harbour facilities may to be adapted more towards coping with more, smaller, vessels and fewer larger vessels and an older clientele. Because activity within the Harbour is tidally-constrained, people will want to get afloat and come off the water all at the same time.
Some might welcome a Harbour which is less wealthy and possibly quieter. As long as the Harbour can pay its way, that will be OK for the Harbour: but this may not economically sustain the local community as well as it does now.
For me, the focus should be on growing a new generation of Harbour users – of all sorts – and, as I always say, jobs, jobs, jobs. Nobody owes the area a living and we must create it ourselves. We need to retain more young people and families here. There must be good work for them. We must maintain the skills that we have – like boatbuilding – and possibly add on trades that fit with them, like furniture making.
We must add value whenever we can. For an area which has so much tourism, it is surprising that it does relatively little food preparation. For instance, we could prepare seafood here rather than sending unprepared seafood away for others to earn their living preparing it. I know some of this goes on, but the reality is that there will have to be more. Perhaps there is a future in making an opportunity out of a necessity and providing high-value facilities specifically for the retired. However, the retired population in turn will need to encourage local industry and jobs rather than tending to resist them.
The man who called across the water to my grandfather “I like it this way” reflects my own view of Salcombe Harbour. But it may require some care and thought on our part, and some effort, to ensure the Harbour develops in such a way as to meet the challenges which it and the surrounding community are likely to face in the years to come.
Hugh Marriage OBE is a member of Salcombe Harbour Board
but this paper expresses his personal views and not necessarily those of the Board.