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Vanishing Coastal Craft

Round the shores of Great Britain there are no fewer than 200 distinct types of coastal craft which are rapidly disappearing before the advent of the modern motor vessels



THE MOUNT’S BAY LUGGER, with her characteristic pointed stern































THE MOUNT’S BAY LUGGER, with her characteristic pointed stern, no longer depends on her sails, for all surviving luggers of this type are fitted with engines. Above are shown a lugger at the end of the nineteenth century (right) and an old West-Country trading smack of a type that has disappeared. The Mount’s Bay luggers are exceptional sea-boats and one was sailed to Australia in the last century.




IN the twentieth century we live in the Age of Power, and we have become accustomed to the rapid advance of modern inventions making sweeping changes in old familiar things. Nowhere, however, have the changes been more devastating or more complete than in the small coastal craft of the British Isles. This has been due, almost entirely, to the invention and development of the marine motor. Whereas a few years ago British coastal waters were alive with the sails of the little fishing boats and coasters, to-day, save for the white canvas of the yachtsman in summer time, it is becoming a rare thing to see a sail.


It must be recognized that the days of sail and oar round the coasts of Great Britain are over, as far as commercial craft are concerned. Now that the old types, which have behind them a thousand years and more of seafaring history, are disappearing so rapidly, they are inspiring an interest far greater than they ever did in the days of their prosperity.


On July 22, 1936, an exhibition was opened at the Science Museum, South Kensington, devoted entirely to the old types of British fishing boats. A few years hence, most, if not all, of the craft displayed there will have disappeared.


It is not generally realized that in the British Isles alone there are no fewer than 200 distinct types of coastal craft. Among them are many whose fascinating history can be traced right back to Viking times.


Whatever may be the advantages of the marine motor — and that they are great no man will deny — its introduction has meant the extinction of the older boats. These have either been driven ofi the seas altogether by the new competition or, with cut down sail plans, are being shaken to pieces by thumping engines for which they were never designed. Modern motor craft, with the improvement of communications, have tended to become standardized. The little old-time coves and creeks are more and more deserted as the years roll on; for the motor enables boats to cover a far larger area of sea, and they can therefore work from good harbours, which may be some distance from their fishing grounds.


The old forms of hull, which had been evolved through the centuries by the experience of generation on generation of hardy coastwise mariners, were peculiarly suited to their particular work, and to the beaches or harbours from which they put to sea. But they were not suitable, in most instances, for motor propulsion, where the shape of the boat is governed by other

considerations than those which apply when her movements are controlled by sail and oar. We see to-day, on the coasts, not only the death of commercial sail, but also the end of its golden age. A thousand years of history produced the sailing boat in her most perfect form, but it was the last stage before her extinction by modern methods.


In 1934 the Society for Nautical Research, realizing that the fishing and cargo craft were vanishing, appointed a sub-committee to investigate their history, and to secure from the boats themselves such complete constructional plans that it might be possible in future ages to rebuild a perfect replica of any one of the old types of craft. A preliminary survey showed not only that they were rapidly disappearing, but also that they had left behind them no permanent record of their shape and build and the ways in which they were handled.


Big ships were built from plans, which have been preserved. The vessels were commanded by men of education, their log books were written and full records of them were kept by the firms to which they belonged. The position of the coastal craft was different. Built by eye, sometimes from rough wooden models, by men who could do anything with a saw or an adze, but were baffled by a pen, rigged and manned by horny-fingered sailormen, skilled in seamanship but not in writing, what chance was there that the old traditions, the old craftsmanship and skill should survive unless it were collected and preserved in permanent form? There are two main influences which have governed the building and design of the fishing craft of the British Isles for more than a thousand years, and these influences can be clearly traced.


The Viking influence is seen most strongly marked all along the east coast of England, and in parts of the English Channel as far west as Portland (Dorset). It is also apparent in the Orkneys and the Shetlands, round the north and west coasts of Scotland, and some way down the Irish Coast, on the east and on the west. Its general characteristic is a double-ended shape of hull (both stem and stern being more or less sharply pointed) and a hull that is clinker-built, that is, having the planks laid with one edge overlapping the next, as in weather-boarding. These boats also have a good sheer, springing fore and aft in a generous curve, low amidships and rising at the ends.


Viking or Breton Hulls


The other influence is that of the Breton craft. This extends up the English Channel and into the estuary of the Thames, overlapping the Viking model for some distance. It extends also round into the Bristol Channel, up the west coast of Wales and northwest England, to the Isle of Man and to all coasts of Southern Ireland. Its characteristics are carvel-building, that is with the planks laid flush, edge to edge, often a transom or square stern, a rather straight sheer, and generally a good draught of water alt. Such craft are the famous Mount’s Bay or Penzance luggers, the Mevagissey luggers, and the Manx “nickies”. The first and last of these, however, have pointed sterns. The Viking form of hull, modified by local requirements, was naturally to be expected on all parts of the coasts where the Viking raiders were most active. The Breton form would be found in those parts of the British Isles which are nearest to the coast of Brittany. It must be remembered how close was the connexion of people and language among the Bretons, the Cornish, the Welsh and the southern Irish.


Although one or other of these influences may be traced in most coastal craft of the British Isles, that is not to say that the same form of hull or of rig is to be found in every place within the area of the Viking or the Breton type. The essential thing to remember, when studying the developments of British fishing craft, is that the original form of hull was modified by two important considerations. Of these the first was the purpose for which the boat was required. Was she to carry cargo, to fish — and if to fish, then with drift-nets, with trawls, with hand lines or in other ways — or was she designed for salvage purposes, as were the Deal luggers and the Norfolk and Suffolk beach yawls? The next consideration would be the local conditions of the harbour, creek or beach from which she was to work.


Two of the finest, but now extinct, types of beach boats were used for salvage work. In the old days of sailing ships the two greatest roadsteads, where ships lay at anchor, were Yarmouth Roads, and the Downs, off Deal. It is no exaggeration to say that several hundred ships might be seen at anchor at one time waiting for a wind, in either of those places.


If, while they were there, an on-shore gale should blow up, a scene of horror quickly arose, with ships dragging their anchors, breaking adrift and driving ashore. In such circumstances the need for immediate help arose, and for the urgent services required, involving as they did great risk to the life of those who put off in open boats, high payments had to be made. The class of men who earned their living by salvage services to ships in distress on those parts of the coasts went by the name of “hovellers”. There was an old saying to the effect that “the ship master’s distress was the hoveller’s opportunity”.


THE BRIXHAM TRAWLER is one of the best-known types of coastal craft








THE BRIXHAM TRAWLER is one of the best-known types of coastal craft existing to-day. The Revive was built at Brixham, Devonshire, in 1922, and is typical of the ketch-rigged vessels. She has a registered tonnage of 42.










The boats used for this service on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts were known as beach yawls. They were the direct descendants of the Viking longships, and were themselves long and narrow craft, adapted for rowing and for sailing. This was because the beach shelved down into shallow water, and the boats were run down and rowed off through the surf, straight out to sea until they were clear of the breakers, when sail would be set.


These craft reached an overall length of no fewer than 60 feet, and with three lug sails, in later years reduced to two, they are said to have attained a speed of 16 knots with the wind abeam. They were the fastest open boats in the world.


The Deal luggers, on the other hand, were boats of much heavier displacement, much more rounded, deeper, of greater beam but shorter, and having a transom stern. They were, however, clinker-built, as were the beach yawls. The Deal luggers carried a dipping lug foresail and standing-lug mizen. They were magnificent sea boats, and there is no question that they were the finest beach boats that the world has ever seen.


The beach at Deal is extremely steep and the luggers lay on top of it, with their bows pointing downwards towards the sea. If a ship should part her cables and make signals of distress in an on-shore gale, a spare anchor and cable, which might together weigh as much as 7 tons, were loaded into a lugger to take off to the ship. The crew got on board, the sails were reefed ready for hoisting, and greased planks, called “woods”, were laid in the fashion of railway sleepers between the lugger and the sea. A single chain, passing through a hole at the after end of the keel, with a slip hook which could be instantly let go, was all that held the lugger in position.


The Yorkshire Coble


The master of the lugger watched the sea breaking on the beach, until he saw a “smooth”, which would give him a chance to launch. He then shouted “Let go!”. The chain was slipped, and the lugger, with all the weight of crew and ballast and cables on board, slid with increasing speed down the beach. She took the sea with a mighty crash, but the impetus of her launch sent her out through the first line of breakers, and as she went the sails were hoisted. If things had been timed properly she was already sailing and clawing off shore before the next big sea hit her. If the launch had been badly timed she was thrown back on the beach to be smashed and pounded by the sea, and probably was doomed to lose half her crew by drowning. Yet so powerful were these craft that the weather was never too bad for a lugger, when properly timed, to get off the beach, even in an on-shore gale.


There were also smaller types called “cats” and first- and second-class galley punts. These boats were used, not for salvage services, but for tending the ships lying in the Downs, taking messages, goods and the like to and from the shore, or carrying off pilots. The boats were small and open, carrying a single lug with mast stepped absolutely amidships.


Another distinctive type of beach boat, still surviving, fortunately in considerable numbers, is the Yorkshire coble. Although the fact might not be readily recognizable, this boat is a descendant from Viking days. Her shape is unlike that of any other boat in the world. Her bow is high and bold, finished with a knife-like stem and projecting comparatively deeply into the water. Her stern is shallow and flat and ends in the normal type of sloping transom.


The Brixham trawler Vigilance































ALONGSIDE THE WHARF AT LOW TIDE. This photograph of the Brixham trawler Vigilance provides an interesting comparison with that of the Revive. The details of the Vigilance’s carvel-built hull can be clearly seen, with her shapely counter stern. Built in 1926, the Vigilance is of 39 registered tons.




She has no keel proper, but is built upon a ram plank which serves the same purpose. This is similar in shape to a knife on edge at the forward end, and gets broader and flatter farther aft, until it resembles a thick plank laid flat. She is clinker-built, with wide planks, which are painted in bands of brightly contrasted colours. The reason for the particular shape of the coble is that she is always launched bow first into a big sea rolling in from comparatively deep water. The high bow is meant to punch that sea. The flat stern is for ease in getting off the beach.


When returning to the shore the coble is brought in stern first. When the flat stern lands on the beach, the heavy ram plank takes the shock of beaching. There is no keel to dig into the sand, but the coble slides up, stern first, in the same way as a sledge. To give a grip of the water aft when sailing, the rudder is long and narrow, and projects down underneath the boat similarly to the blade of a partly open penknife. Properly handled, the coble is an exceptionally able sea boat. But the art of coble sailing is so difficult and so unlike anything else that one must be brought up to it from childhood.


Herring Luggers


Among other beach boats there are also the fine big Hastings luggers, of which a number still survive with auxiliary motors. They are to-day the biggest beach boats in the country. Another type is the Portland lerrit, which was designed for working, both for fishing and for salvage, from the famous Chesil Beach, Dorset. Various small seine boats worked, too, from coves in Devon and Cornwall.


Among the fishing craft that worked from harbours were the herring luggers of Scotland and Cornwall. The Scottish luggers were of three types, all with pointed sterns. First, there were the scaffies. These were comparatively broad, shallow craft, of which the distinctive feature was that stem and stern posts raked at an angle of forty-five degrees. Then there were the fifies, which were deeper, and in which stem and stern posts were vertical. Both types were rigged in the same way, with a large dipping-lug foresail and a smaller standing-lug mizen.


The third type was called the Zulu, because the first boat of this kind was launched at the time of the Zulu War (1879). She combined the straight stem of the fifie, which gave that type power and speed to windward, -with the raking stern of the scaffie, which by reason of her shorter keel was handier in “stays’’ — that is, in tacking. The rig was the same as that of the two other types, but the Zulu rapidly displaced the scaffie, being much faster and more powerful. The high-peaked lug sail of the Zulu, with her clean lines, made her one of the most powerful, as she was the fastest, of the fishing craft in the British Isles. It is a tragic thing that only three big sailing Zulus survived in 1936.


The Isabella is a two-masted Lancashire type schooner


SAILING INTO NEWLYN HARBOUR, Cornwall, in a fresh breeze. The Isabella is a two-masted Lancashire type schooner of 97 tons gross, registered at Barrow. Her stern is of the type peculiar to the Irish Sea schooner. The Isabella was built at Barrow by T. Ashburner in 1878. She has a length of 88 ft. 6 in., a beam of 21 ft. 3 in. and a depth of 9 feet.





The luggers of Cornwall are of two types, the east Cornish and the west Cornish. East of the Lizard the square transom stern is in general use. West of the Lizard the pointed stern is the common type. Both types are rigged with lug sails, a big dipping-lug foresail and a smaller standing-lug mizen cut, however, to the shape of the foresail. The reason for this is that, as a rule, the Cornishman reduces sail not by reefing as does the Scotsman, but by stowing his big fore lug, shifting his mizen to his foremast and setting a smaller mizen. This process he repeats as necessary until the smallest sails he has on board are set. In this practice he differs from the Scotsman, who has no fewer than eight rows of free points in his big foresail, all of which are meant for use.


The reason for the sharp stern being found west of the Lizard is that the harbours there were small, artificial and drying. It was therefore necessary to fit as many craft as possible into a small space. If a tin of sardines is opened, it is clearly seen that if they had been designed with transom sterns, it would not have been possible to get as many of the fish into a tin.


Another reason is that with a pointed stern, the planks are laid edge to edge, one above the other on the stern post. When a big swell runs into the harbour as the tide falls, this form of building is less liable to suffer damage from bumping on the hard bottom than when the planks are splayed outward as in transom-sterned craft. Where, however, as east of the Lizard, there are natural harbours with plenty of room, the same considerations do not apply with equal force and the additional room on deck afforded by the transom is of considerable advantage.


Many other types of fishing craft are rapidly disappearing. The Yarmouth sailing drifters have completely gone. Of 300 Brixham trawlers existing immediately after the war of 1914 18, fewer than a dozen first-class trawlers, a few “mules”, which are trawlers of less than 40 tons, and no “mumble-bees” — that is the smallest class — survive. The Lowestoft trawlers, splendid ketch-rigged craft, once so numerous, will in a few years be no longer seen.


The Thames bawleys and the Whitstable and Colchester oyster smacks are being replaced, when they are replaced at all, by modern motor craft. The passing of the deep-water sailing ship, which brought about the extinction of the Deal lugger and of the Norfolk and Suffolk beach yawl, will likewise mean the end of the famous Falmouth quaypunt. The Clovelly herring boats are no more, and the Manx “nobbies” are almost extinct.




THE MANX “NICKIE” is a carvel-built boat with a rather straight sheer and generally a good draught of water aft. In common with the Mount’s Bay lugger she has a pointed stern, but she differs in that she often sets a mizen staysail as a regular sail. On the left is the Honey Guide, of Castletown, I.O.M., in Balta Sound, Shetland.





The tale can be continued indefinitely. But for the efforts now being made to preserve them historically, these interesting types might vanish, leaving no trace behind them but their name. As with the beach boats and fishing craft, so with the sailing coasters, dealt with in the chapter “Romantic Sailing Coasters”. The introduction of modern small motor-ships, which can carry their cargoes with greater regularity, speed and independence of weather, is displacing schooners, ketches and other old-timers all round the coast. Some of the most interesting types have disappeared already, as for example the Yorkshire “billyboys”. The original billyboy was derived from the Humber keel, and the latter type survives in considerable numbers on the River Humber and on connecting canals and waterways.


The Humber keels are the only purely square-sailed craft left in the British Isles. In their form of hull and in their rig they bear a strong resemblance to the medieval coasters. They are of direct

Viking descent, even to the name; for it was in three ceolas that Hengist and Horsa were said to have landed to found the kingdom of Kent in A.D. 449.


The keels are double-ended craft, rounded in bow and stern, flat-bottomed with a sharply-rounded bilge. They carry a single squaresail, with a shallow topsail above it, set on a mast stepped amidships. To-day the sails are controlled by little winches, and the mast is made to lower for going through bridges. Nowadays these keels are confined to the estuary and inland waters, but there is strong evidence that at one time they were sea-going craft. It is known that they traded to Ely (Cambridgeshire); and a Humber keel which once came to London was entered by the Customs as a “one-masted brig”.


In 1822 a vessel was discovered under the bed of the River Rother in Romney Marsh, Kent. She cannot have been dated later than 1287, when the course of that river was changed in a great storm. The shape, construction and apparent rig of this craft were exactly those of the modern Humber keel, and her dimensions coincided within a few inches in length, beam and depth.


11th Century Survival


It is often said that the Humber keel of to-day represents a survival of the ordinary coasting vessel of the Middle Ages. But she goes even farther back than that. Take one of the ships carrying William the Conqueror’s troops across the English Channel, as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry, cut off the high stem and stern, and fit her with a topsail above the single squaresail, and you have a craft which resembles in a remarkable way the Humber keel still to be found to-day.


The billyboy was the more modern development of the Humber keel for sea-going purposes. In hull she was much the same, save that she had bulwarks added. In rig, in the early nineteenth century, she was a cutter, with a squaresail and topsail. In the latter part of the century she was turned into a ketch, as her size increased, for greater ease of handling. The real old billyboy was clinker-built, and it has been said that she was the biggest clinker-built boat in Europe. She was often a family ship, run by her skipper-owner with his wife and children as crew. She was one of the most picturesque craft to be seen round the shores, but now she is gone.


THE HASTINGS LUGGER is remarkable for her lute-shaped sternThe schooners and ketches are also disappearing because they cannot compete with the modern motor coaster. And even the Thames barge is slowly being driven off the sea. The days of coastwise sail are over.






THE HASTINGS LUGGER is remarkable for her peculiar old-fashioned lute-shaped stern. There are still numbers of these craft in existence, mainly fitted with auxiliary motors. The Hastings luggers are the largest beach boats used in Great Britain to-day.








You can read more on

“Auxiliary Sailing Vessels”,

“Romantic Sailing Coasters” and “Thames Sailing Barges”

on this website.