Our Scout group was principally a labour force. We didn’t go in for knot-tying, campfire-chanting, or saluting the Queen - but we were an effective money-making operation. After school, dense waves of children would fan out like termites through village cul-de-sacs, leaping over hedges and fences: bringing free newspapers and unsolicited junk mail to the people of Fife.
In the winter-time we administered the Christmas post, a kid-run rival to the Royal Mail. We guaranteed delivery within seven working days, unless we lost the cards somehow or dropped them in puddles. In the summer we rented out a large marquee for wedding receptions and Gala days. Each May we supplied a miniature army of logistical support to the baggage handling operation at the Edinburgh marathon. Pretty much the only time we wore neckers and woggles was when packing bags and making small talk with old ladies at supermarket tills. All for a small fee.
I missed out on certain basic skills thanks to this hustler-cum-worker ant approach to the Baden-Powell tradition. Beyond shoelaces and neckties, my knots are improvised at best. My navigational skills are patchy and do not always survive contact with mist. I cannot light a fire with two sticks. I do not know Morse code.
There were compensations: caving weekends in Yorkshire, ski trips to Sweden, a jamboree in Japan. Easy access to camping equipment. And we had a hovercraft.
You may wonder why a small village Scout group came to own an air-cushion vehicle. The best answer is: because we could. This was pre-2008, when austerity was a characteristic ascribed to elderly characters in Victorian novels and not a watchword of government policy. A hovercraft for a Scout group? Sure, that sounds like an appropriate use of public money. It didn’t hurt that Callum, our leader, worked for the grant department of the local council and knew a thing or two about funding applications. Anyway, the hovercraft was the crowning glory of our equipment arsenal. We liked to use it and we liked to boast of it.
I can tell you; it feels good to have a hovercraft.
One Saturday morning in October, I went to Burntisland with my friend Richard and a boy called Gary to take the hovercraft out for a hurl over the enormous flat beach while the tide was out. We lumbered it off the trailer onto the sand and let the engine tick over. Richard took it out for a spin, Gary had a shot, then it was my turn.
The thing was a flying carpet! I floated over the earth; my scarf airborne. It was my first time at the wheel of the hovercraft and I felt joy tempered with a degree of surprise. The main surprise being that the thing had a turning circle as wide as the Hudson river. I scanned the beach lazily, all smooth sand, when I noticed a rock looming up in the foreground. The whole point of a hovercraft is that it blows air down under the hull so it can glide over small obstacles. But it would be naive to think it could float over a tombstone, and I should never have strayed so close to this boulder.
“Hold on tight Gary!”
I turned down as hard as I could to the right, but the only effect was to pivot the craft slightly so it careened into the rock sideways-on. The thump was considerable. Gary, who had been sitting in the back, was catapulted onto the sand. My shoulder slammed into the steering column but the bulk of my weight carried into the soft portion of the sidewall. I escaped with a few grazes and a cut lip.
Richard was relieved to have sat this one out.
The hovercraft looked ragged: the skirting was torn, the fiberglass on the edge of the hull cracked. But the basic structure was intact. The engine started. I splashed water to clean my new complement of injuries and ceded control of the vessel.
Richard took the helm and powered the craft to the end of the long shore, which at this lowest ebb extended a half-mile into the firth. The cold brightness of the autumn sun lit up the lapping waves and the hovercraft floated over the water and we wove between sand and sea. I was relaxed again, feeling confident to be riding shotgun with Richard who was not clumsy, not unreliable, not accident prone. I exhaled and let the cut in my lip crack open as I bared a smile.
Then the engine failed. It sputtered a few times. The propeller rate faltered. Richard banked left to bring us off the water and onto the sand before it cut out entirely. We shuddered to a halt at the edge of a spit of sand. The nose sank in. We got out to inspect the damage.
When I say we inspected the damage, what I mean is that Richard inspected while I peered. My mechanical skills are almost non-existent so I gazed on with all the insight you would expect had my place been taken by a fatted goose. I could discern only that the engine wouldn’t start and that it was not responsive to cussing, a gentle kicking, and whatever tinkering Richard was subjecting it to. Turning the ignition off and on again also did not work, though the goose was pleased with his suggestion.
“Well boys, this isn’t ideal.” I stated the obvious.
“What’re we going to do?” Gary’s voice plaintive - he was still nursing his left arm from the collision with the rock.
“We don’t really have a choice, do we? We’re going to have to drag the bloody thing back to the car park.” Richard Broome - man of action.
This proved a real bugger. The hovercraft was a deadweight. It was designed to pass over things, not be dragged. The best we could do was heft the thing a little off the ground, stagger forward a few paces, then dump it down again.
None of us carried a mobile phone but in the distance Callum could see something was amiss. He put down his bag of Sports Mixture, wrinkled up his nose, and shook his head wearing his trademark expression of weary but still faintly amused exasperation (at least that’s what I imagine he did, having observed his travails on behalf of the often feckless youth of our district over many years).
“Better see what those clowns are up to.”
He set off towards us.
We settled into a rhythm. Heft, stagger, drop, rest. Heft, stagger, drop, rest. Look at the blisters welting into our hands. Heft, stagger, drop, rest. Look toward land. See it still far off.
We laboured in the milky light. Took off our jackets and kept ourselves warm in our wellington boots and shirtsleeves by ceaseless exertion. We inched up the beach.
We paused to gather strength and wipe sweat from our tiring eyes. We looked back to survey our progress but the water was only fifty yards away. Our brows furrowed. Then we realised the tide was coming in.
This was happening faster than we could move the stricken hovercraft. This spelled trouble. By the time Callum reached us the situation was plain: we needed reinforcements.
Callum hit the phone lines. He called all local scout leaders, all volunteers, all hangers-on, and all the big lads in the Explorer section. The response rate was limited. He took decisive action:
“I’m going to get help.”
He ran off in the direction of his Land Rover.
The water lapped at our ankles. Fear and the ocean spurred us on. We joined in bleak chorus, shouting into the evening:
Through a tunnel in the sea-wall beneath the railway line the Land Rover reappeared and the rescue party ran down the ramp to meet us. Callum had hammered back to West Fife and gone door-to-door rounding up conscripts to retrieve the fallen hovercraft. By the time they arrived the water was past our knees and we were out of time.
Their intervention saved us. With a few fresh arms the work eased and we lugged it up the ramp into the waiting trailer just as night fell and fractionally before the sea clutched its fiberglass victim.
Ten years later I shuffled into my kilt and set out to Linlithgow for Richard’s wedding. I tucked this letter into my jacket pocket. Many are the twists of fate.
Guest blog by Dr Adam Boggon