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Open Boats of the British Coasts

The combination of the boat-builder’s art and the seaman’s skill has produced a wide variety of open boats. Each is adapted to the particular conditions with which it has to contend, and many of the most primitive types still survive

YORKSHIRE COBLE on the beach at Whitby

THE YORKSHIRE COBLE on the beach at Whitby. The chief characteristics of these boats are a high, powerful and deep bow, and a shallow, keeiless stern. The bright bands of colour painted on the broad planking are also a distinctive feature. Similar cobles are found on the coast of Northumberland and as far south as Yarmouth, Norfolk.

THROUGHOUT the course of the long maritime history of Great Britain there have been many instances of long voyages in open boats upon the high seas, and we have rightly admired the courage and endurance of the men who made the voyages. There was, for example, the feat of Captain Bligh in the Bounty’s launch; and, more recently, the wonderful story of the Trevessa’s boats. But most of these voyages have been undertaken, not voluntarily, but by men who, through some misfortune, have found themselves adrift in a small, open boat, far from land and often ill-supplied with gear and provisions. Their courage is undoubtedly of a high order, and lesser men might well despair and give up the struggle when faced by such tremendous odds, since an open boat is so small a refuge in the open sea.

No less than theirs, however, although of a different order, is the courage of the men who, for hundreds of years, have put out in open boats to earn their living from the sea round the British Isles; for here is the courage of choice. No law compels them to earn their living thus, save that strange law of Nature that draws some men so irresistibly to the sea. And although they may make no sensational voyages, to be remembered as history long after they are dead, they have made those other and more famous voyages possible, because of the part they have played in perfecting the open boat as a craft that can swim in almost any sea, and in developing the seamanship that will enable her to do it.

The management of an open boat under oars in a calm river is a comparatively simple matter. To handle one safely under sail in an angry sea, however, calls for an able boat and a practised crew. Only a few frail planks, skilfully bent and fastened, separate the sailor from the sea. The gunwale is at most only a few inches from the surface. When the boat is hard driven under sail, as the safety of her crew may depend upon her being driven, the gunwale may be pressed down almost level with the water. But the sea is not level, and the danger in rough water may well be imagined when there is no deck or protective covering to keep out the angry tops of breaking waves. An Elizabethan author, writing of the fishermen who put out to sea in the little cobles of the Yorkshire coast, pays tribute to their courage in words which have lost nothing of their truth with the passage of time.

“Truly yt may be sayd of these poor men that they lavish theyr lives who will hazard twenty or forty myles into the sea in a small trough so thinne that the glimse of the sunne may be seen through yt. Yet at eleven or twelve o’clock in the morning when they come from the sea they sell their whole boates ladening for four shillings or if they do get a crowne they suppose to have chaffered fayre.”

The many types of open boats to be found round the British Isles to-day represent the perfect combination of the boat-builder’s art with the seaman’s skill. The experience of centuries has produced craft that are particularly suited to the districts in which they have to work. As conditions vary on different parts of the coast, so the boats themselves vary according to these conditions.

Some of the boats are of extremely ancient form, because, in spite of the advance of knowledge and the introduction of the marine motor, the oldest type is often still the best. Thus it is that the most primitive of all European craft, the Irish currach, still survives in the Aran Islands, Galway Bay. The currach is shaped in the fashion of a long, shallow trough, with a rounded bow and square-shaped stern. The framework is made of light interwoven laths of thin wood. In ancient days, this was covered with hides sewn together. But the modern craft is covered with tarred calico or canvas.

PROPELLED BY ONE MAN, a currach used for communication between Aran Island and the mainland

PROPELLED BY ONE MAN, a currach used for communication between Aran Island (Co. Donegal, Ireland) and the mainland. These currachs are of a different type from those used in Galway Bay. They are about 9 feet long, 4 feet in beam and 1 ft 9 in in depth, their framework being made of American elm. In addition to passengers and goods, sheep and cows are transported to and from the mainland in these primitive but sturdy craft.

Such a craft is extremely light and easily carried to and from the water’s edge. This is an important consideration on a rock-bound coast, devoid of good harbours. The interwoven structure also is extremely strong, because it is flexible. A wicker basket will withstand a heavy blow or a good hard squeeze, yielding readily and springing back again into shape, where a wooden box would be shattered. So the currach, landing on a rocky slope in a heavy sea, will suffer no damage, although a wooden boat would be instantly smashed with the shock.

The crew leap swiftly out and raise up the currach, so as to get her out of the way before the next sea has time to reach her. Then, having inverted her and having placed their heads and shoulders inside, they carry her up the shore, the general effect being that of some immense water beetle struggling over the rocks. Should a jagged splinter of rock tear a hole in the canvas covering, a temporary repair can always be effected by stuffing an old (and preferably greasy) rag into the hole. A permanent repair is made by cutting out a patch from an old shirt or even an old pair of trousers, and sticking it on with hot tar.

The currach is generally rowed by three men, one man having two oars, the others one oar each. The oars are of special pattern, and do not work in a rowlock or between thole-pins in the usual way, for they are fitted with a flat piece of wood attached to the loom, and in this there is a hole which fits, over a single thole-pin in the gunwale of the currach. It is not possible, therefore, to feather the oars. But this is a small disadvantage, as the blades are narrow, and there is not much wind resistance as they swing back when the rowers swing forward. On the other hand, there is the great advantage that, as the thole passes through the loom of the oar, the oar remains attached to the boat and is not liable to float away in the flurry of a difficult landing.

ARAN ISLANDS CURRACHS are among the most primitive of European craft

ARAN ISLANDS CURRACHS are among the most primitive of European craft. The modern form of the currach is made of tarred canvas, stretched over a light basket-like wooden framework. It is extremely strong, light and easily repaired. Natives of the Aran Islands (Galway Bay, Ireland) land their craft by leaping out and raising them out of the reach of the waves. The boats are then inverted and carried up the beach, where they are secured by stones to prevent their being blown away.

The currachs are so light that they bob about on top of the seas as if they were corks, never shipping any water. And although they need skilful handling, they can live safely in heavy seas. In tine weather a tiny sail is set on a short mast stepped well forward.

On the Donegal coast, farther north, another form of currach is to be found, of rather different shape. It is used as the principal means of communication between Aran Island, Co. Donegal, and the mainland. A typical specimen would measure 9 feet in length, 4 feet in beam, and 1 ft. 9 in. in depth. The framework is made of American elm, the fore-and-aft strips being 1½ in. wide, ¼ in. thick and spaced 1 in. apart. The thwartship pieces are 1½ in. wide, ½ in. thick and 6 in. apart. Where they cross at the interlacing, they are copper-fastened. The skin is composed of two thicknesses of tarred calico, with brown paper between. Such a craft is a remarkable sight in a big Atlantic swell, and she is propelled — even in a lumpy sea — by one man, who kneels on a pad of straw in the bow and paddles with a curious spade-shaped paddle. Not only persons and goods, but also sheep and even cows are transported to and from the mainland in these primitive craft. They survive because they are perfectly suited for their work — launching and landing on rocky ledges, where an ordinary wooden boat would not survive a week.

Another old type is a properly built open boat, with a lineage that goes right back to the days of the Vikings. She is found, with slight local variations and under different, names, in Northern Ireland and in Shetland. In considerably modified form she exists in Orkney, and the famous “Fair Isle skiffs” are of the same general model.

In Shetland, where the largest boats of this general type are to be found, the shape is spoken of as the “Shetland model”. The original boats of this build came from Norway, and about a hundred years ago they were imported in the form of shaped boards and frames, all ready to be erected. The building of the boats was done in Shetland, but all the parts had come from abroad. As there are no trees in Shetland all timber had to be imported.

Clinker-built Sixerns

Thus boats could be brought to Shetland and erected more cheaply than they could be built of imported wood. Afterwards, when wood could be brought in more cheaply, the Shetland builders improved on the older shape and developed the Shetland model.

The largest of these boats were the sixerns, so called because they rowed six oars. They are now unfortunately extinct, save for a few which survive to be used exclusively as “flit-boats” — that is, they are employed in meeting the inter-islands steamer Earl of Zetland when she comes into the anchorage, and in ferrying goods and passengers to and from the shore. But in the old days these were the boats that were used to go away to the “haaf”, or deep-sea fishing. They had therefore to be the magnificent sea-boats that they were.

These boats were built with a generous sheer, with sloping curved stems and sterns, the sternpost fairly low. Thence the line of the gunwale — after a preliminary drop aft, so that the freeboard there should not be too great for convenience in hauling lines — sprang up in a splendid swinging sweep to a high sea-kindly bow. The big sixerns were about 38 feet in length, and were clinker-built, that is, with the planks overlapping. The planks were wide and few in number, and the frames likewise were few, but exceptionally strong, being sawn from the solid, not bent to shape. The oars had what were called “slates” fastened to the looms, making them square where they passed over the gunwale of the boat. The oar was rowed against a single thole-pin, and was not feathered. It was prevented from sliding away on the swing forward by a loop of cowhide through which the oar was slipped.

Each sixern carried a squaresail on a mast stepped almost vertical and right in the middle of the boat. The sail had to be lowered and shifted from side to side on every change of tack, in the same way as a dipping lug-sail. It was reefed up to the yard, because the Shetlander does not like a heavy bunch of wet, unmanageable canvas along the foot of his reefed sail. A primitive form of bowline was used to stretch out the “luff” or leading edge of the squaresail when sailing “on a wind”. This is a tackling found in the ships of the Middle Ages.

The “fall” of the halyard by which the yard was hoisted was fastened to the yard to act as a down-haul; and, when running before a heavy sea, it served an important purpose. Next to the helmsman, who was the skipper and the most experienced member of the crew, the most important man on board was he who sat by the main halyard. It was essential that the boat should not run too fast, sliding on the crest of a following sea, lest she be driven under and broached-to.

Therefore the main halyard man sat braced in the boat with the sole of his foot on the garboard strake (that is, the plank next the keel). He was able to tell by the feel of the plank when

the trembling and vibration showed that the boat was running too fast; and he would ease away the halyard and pull the sail down with the downhaul, hoisting it again when the moment of danger had passed. This careful lowering and hoisting of the sail when running in a really big sea was necessary also because in the troughs the boat would be partly becalmed, whereas on the crests she would be almost overpowered by the force of the wind.

The boats that went away to the “haaf” generally made two trips a week during the season. They were ballasted with stone, which could if necessary be thrown overboard to lighten the boat when she was carrying home a really heavy catch. The equipment consisted of a wooden bread-box for food, a water beaker, an iron cooking pot and a supply of peat for the fire, which was simply an open fire on top of the stone ballast With this simple gear, and the ordinary tackling of the boat, they would go away to the eastward in search of fish, some forty miles, until the tops of the Shetland hills just disappeared below the horizon. This was called “land dipping”. When the wind could help them, they would sail. In a head wind, or calm, they thought as little of rowing the whole distance as the Vikings would have done.

In the sudden gales of those northern latitudes, they would sometimes be caught without any warning, and would either have to run for home, perhaps at night, before a mountainous sea; or else, forty miles to leeward of the land, they would set themselves to pull valiantly into the teeth of the gale to win their homes, until, as so often happened, they were completely exhausted, and the sea added to its long score of victims. In the great gale of 1886, for example, the sixerns were caught away at the “haaf”, and of a great many that were then at sea, only six returned to Shetland.

Fast, Seaworthy Craft

It is now many years since the sixerns went away to the deep-sea fishing, for which they have been displaced by larger decked boats; and the few that survive no longer carry sails. But a smaller class of boat, on the same Shetland model, still exists in considerable numbers. These craft are known as fourerns, because they row four oars. They are rigged with squaresails, as were the old sixerns; and are fast, seaworthy and extremely pretty little boats. But the squaresail of the Vikings is dying in Shetland. For some years many of these boats have been fitted with standing lug and jib. The year 1935 saw for the first time the Bermuda mainsail on a Shetland model.

A smaller type, still on the same model, but setting no sail, is called an “eela-boat”. She is used for certain inshore fishing, and as a dinghy.

SHETLAND FOURERNS still exist in considerable numbers

SHETLAND FOURERNS still exist in considerable numbers. They row four oars, and are fast, seaworthy and extremely pretty boats. In many ways they resemble the famous sixerns, which were originally imported from Norway and were extensively used for deep-sea fishing. The Viking type of sail is now disappearing, and many of these craft are fitted with standing lug and jib. A smaller type, on the same model, but setting no sail, is called an “eela-boat”.

In Northern Ireland, from Donegal round to Rathlin Island and the Glens of Antrim, is to be found a craft somewhat similar to the fourern. She is known variously, according to her district, as a Greencastle or Skerries yawl. Another name for her is “Drontheim”. No more suggestive evidence need be given of her descent than these names; for “yawl” is derived from the Norse word jol, used of a similar small double-ended boat, and “Drontheim” may be traced to the time when, about a hundred years ago, these boats were, similarly to the Shetland craft, imported from Norway. “Drontheim” is an alternative spelling of Trondhjem, the town in Norway from which many of the boats of this model had been imported.


THE SKERRIES YAWL, known also by the names “Greencastle yawl” and “Drontheim”, is found on the coast of Northern Ireland, from Donegal to Rathlin Island. . The name “Drontheim” may be traced to the time, about a century ago, when these yawls were imported from Trondhjem, Norway.

The Irish builders developed the type in a way rather different from that of the Shetlanders, and built the boats up a couple of strakes either side. The Skerries yawl has more and narrower planks, and considerably less sheer than the fourern. Moreover her keel is longer in relation to her overall length. Her rig, however, in no way resembles that of the fourern, for the Skerries yawl has a hole for stepping a mast through each of the first three thwarts from the bow. This enables her to have alternative rigs. She can either step two masts, in the bow and third thwarts, on which she generally sets a sprit foresail and gaff mainsail, sometimes with a tiny jib; or she can step one larger mast in the second thwart, on which she carries a standing lug and a rather larger jib. For racing, she rigs a short temporary bowsprit with the single-masted arrangement. The old rig, however, which is that of the schooner, is still to be seen at times, although it is almost extinct. But the craft thus rigged has the distinction of being the only schooner-rigged fishing craft of the British Isles.

Grace Darling’s Boat

The Yorkshire cobles are dealt with in the chapter on “Vanishing Coastal Craft”; but since they are among the most remarkable open boats that have ever been devised, it is impossible to avoid mentioning them when writing of the open boats of the British Isles. The high, powerful and deep bow, with the shallow, keel-less stern, are noteworthy features. The cobles of Northumberland strongly resemble those of Yorkshire, exhibiting small differences, certainly, but such as only the local expert can tell. The boat in which Grace Darling and her father performed that heroic rescue which won for her so high a place among the nation’s heroines was an ordinary small Northumberland coble, of a type which is to be found to-day all along that part of the eastern shores of England. The coble used, by Grace and her father in 1838 has been preserved.

The Elizabethan author already quoted has this admirable description of a coble and her landing in a heavy sea:

“The boat itself is built of Wainscott for shape exceels all models of shipping: two men will easily carry ytt on land between them, yet are so secure in them at sea that some in a storme have lived aboarde three days. Their greatest danger is nearest home, when the waves break dangerously but they acquainted with these sea’s espyinge a broken wave reddy to overtake them suddenly oppose the prowe of the boate to ytt and mounting on top decend as it were into a vally hovering until they espy a whole wave coming rowling which they observe commonly to be an odd one: where upon mounting with their coble as it were a great furious horse they row with might and mayne and together with the wave drive themselves ashore.”


THE SHERINGHAM CRABBER is a familiar type of beach-boat in Norfolk. Fishermen beach these boats by sailing straight for the beach, the helm being put hard down at the moment the boat is about to touch. This brings her parallel with the shore, which she strikes broadside on. The sail is lowered at the last moment, the crew leaps out, and the sea breaks under the the seaward side of the boat, which is left to “knock-up”.

The coble type is found as far south along the east coast as Yarmouth; but here she is only an emigrant from her northern home. The Norfolk type of beach boat is that chubby, rounded, high-sided craft, sharp alike at stem and stern, which is known generically as the “Sheringham crabber”. These boats are clinker-built, as are all the double-ended types so far described. They carry large dipping lug-sails, and are ballasted with bags of shingle which can easily be emptied out when the boat is to be drawn up on the beach.

An interesting feature is the way in which the oars work through holes cut through the gunwale. The reason for this will be apparent when the method of landing is considered. For the Sheringham crabber is beached broadside-on. She is sailed straight for the beach and, at the moment she is about to touch, the helm is put hard down, bringing her round parallel with the shore, which she strikes broadside on.


THE SENNEN CRABBER, a carvel-built boat from Sennen Cove, near Land’s End, Cornwall, is among the prettiest of small open boats. These crabbers ply their trade off the rock-bound coast, open to the Atlantic gales, and are well adapted to the particular work that they have to perform.

The sail is lowered at the same moment, a bag of ballast is thrown across into the inside bilge, so that the boat heels towards the land, and the crew leaps out. The sea breaks under the high seaward side of the boat, and she is left to “knock-up” as the fishermen say. Then, when the sea can no longer help or harm her, the stout oars are passed right through the oar-ports so as to project on the far side of the boat; and six stout men manning them, are able to walk the boat up the beach.

It is obviously impossible in a single article to deal with all the many types of open boats round the British coasts, and only a few of the most interesting can here be mentioned. It is a sad thing that the splendid Norfolk and Suffolk beach yawls, the fastest open boats in the world, should now all have vanished; and likewise that, of the magnificent luggers that lined the beach at Deal, not one is left. One or two of the smaller class, the galley-punts, still survive, fitted with motors, and altered almost out of all recognition. The galley-punts were of two classes, the first class being fine powerful craft, able to live in almost any weather. The second class were smaller, and resembled a rowing boat with a sail — although a good big sail at that.

In addition to these there were the galleys; long, lightly-built craft, meant chiefly for rowing, although they could carry sails in light winds. These were used in calms or in fine weather, for they could get off the beach and out to a ship quicker than a galley-punt could sail in such conditions. On the other hand, because they were so fast, they were used also for smuggling, and it was not unusual for one to be rowed across the English Channel to bring home a valuable cargo that never paid duty. A solitary survivor of this class may still be seen in a four-oared galley on Deal beach. So lightly built were these craft, for speed, that they used to wring in a lumpy sea; they lost their shape so much that a galley was never seen with both sides alike.


A NEWLYN PILOT GIG resembles the St. Ives gig but is somewhat smaller. St. Ives gigs were extensively used for smuggling and the type still exists, although it is now used for lawful purposes. Despite their long and narrow form, they are good sea-boats, well able to cope with the big seas off the Cornish coast.

A type of craft much used by the Cornish smugglers in the old days, which survives to-day and is still used, though for less nefarious practices, is the St. Ives gig. She also was a long and fairly narrow pulling boat, with a narrow tuck stern. She was clinker-built with narrow planks, and, being more stoutly built than the Deal galley, she was able to carry sails regularly, although from lack of beam she was naturally not stiff.

A Favourite with Smugglers

A somewhat similar type of craft existed also in the Scilly Isles. Being fast under oars and sails, they were invaluable for smuggling, and were extremely hard to catch.

Another famous type of beach boat still surviving is to be found on the Chesil Bank, Dorset. These are double-ended boats, called “lerrits”, which are now used for fishing off the beach. The Chesil Bank is a most remarkable formation of stones, ranging in size from pebbles at one end to large boulders at the other; and, being completely open to the south-west, is exposed to a terrible sea in gales from that quarter. The lerrits are said to be the only boats that can get on and off the beach in bad weather, and some amazing feats of salvage have been performed by them in the past. A distinctive feature of the lerrit is the fact that her sternpost is extended upwards for some distance above the gunwale. On this post is hung in a coil a rope called a “start-rope”, of which one end is fastened to the after end of the keel of the lerrit; the other, gradually reduced in diameter, is used as a heaving line. When landing on the beach, the lerrit is allowed to drop in gently stern first, her powerful bows fighting the seas. Her crew wait for a chance to land, until, on the first possible “smooth”, the boat is backed hard on to the beach and the startrope thrown ashore, where it is seized by a crowd of helpers who quickly rush the lerrit up beyond the reach of the surf.

Gradually the old types of open boats are being displaced by more modern craft with motor engines. But it is strange that among those types most likely to survive are to be found some of the most primitive; as, for example, the Irish currach. The reason for this is that these craft are still, even in the twentieth century, as well able to do their work as they were 2,000 years ago ; and they are better able to do it than anything else man has so far invented. They are cheap and they are efficient, and it is possible, even to-day, for the currach and the speed-boat to exist side by side, each conquering the sea in her own way, each playing her part in the coastwise story of the British Isles.

A Shetland sixern at Whalsay, Shetland Islands

LOADING DRIED COD into a Shetland sixern at Whalsay, Shetland Islands. These craft, which are of pure Norse origin, have almost disappeared. They were about 36 feet in length and were exceptionally strong, being built on frames sawn from the solid wood, not bent to shape. On deep-sea fishing expeditions these boats were ballasted with stone, which was thrown overboard when the boats were carrying home a heavy catch. They were rigged with a single squaresail, but their crews thought nothing of rowing 40 miles when necessary.

You can read more on “Great Voyages in Little Ships”, “Romantic Sailing Coasters”, and “Vanishing Coastal Craft” on this website.