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Drifters, wherries and smacks; keels, sloops and the old Billy Boy.

On our cruise around the British coast we have now left the Thames and are heading up the east coast of England through the muddy waters of the Essex estuaries, past the sandy coastline of East Anglia and Lincolnshire to the bleak expanse of the Humber Estuary.

The southern North Sea was a rich fishing ground dominated in Victorian times by the large ketch rigged drifters sailing These operated mostly out of Lowestoft and Yarmouth but venturing as far as Newlyn and the Scottish ports in search of the herrings and mackerel they specialised in. With a loose footed gaff main and stubby masts they had a very distinct profile. The last of them were decommissioned before WW1, replaced by steam powered drifters with residual mizzens, set when lying to the nets.

The wherries (above), on the other hand are still a familiar sight on the Norfolk Broads and ventured as close to the sea as Lowestoft and Yarmouth but very rarely beyond. With a single loose footed main they were particularly well suited to shoot the bridges of the Broads; lowering their mast and sail on the run to clear the low fixed bridges and raising it quickly on the other side while they still had steerage way.

A cod smack is not, as you might think, a slap around the face with a wet fish but the generic name for the sailing trawlers that sailed out of the east and south coasts of England. While there are subtle regional variations, the sailing trawlers or Grimsby, Brixham and the continental North Sea coast were similar in concept and often moved from one fishing ground to the another. Like the drifters they disappeared when steam power replaced sail. Many were sold on to Scandinavian owners as coasters and eventually a few of these, such as Pilgrim in Brixham, have found their way back to the UK to be restored as heritage projects.

If the Grimsby trawlers were the acme of design in the late nineteenth century, the Humber keel was the last of a line that can be traced all the way through the middle ages to the Vikings and before. Bluff bow and round sterned, clench built with broad planks, they carried a large single square sail and a small topsail on a one piece mast that could be lowered or de-rigged to allow them to be towed up canals as far as Sheffield with coal, pig iron, ore or bricks. They were flat bottomed and used small leeboards to help them work to windward on the Humber estuary and associated rivers.

Their close cousins were the Humber sloops, a similar hull form but a bit bigger and heavier They were not generally used in the canals but would round the coast up to Bridlington and Scarborough and down to Kings Lynn and the Wash. They had a single gaff rigged main and boomed headsail a much easier rig to handle and tack. Many had a lifting bow sprit to take additional headsails. The largest, most sea worth of this family were known all around the coast as Billy Boys.

These were ketch rigged with square topsails and a fixed bow sprit They had a deeper draft but still carried leeboards and more importantly, a compass, lead line and chart! Slow and solid they might carry coal from Newcastle or Goole to Plymouth, china clay back to London and cement up the the Humber. They would be out-paced by a Thames barge like Snark and could not sail unballasted but their strong construction and stolid sea-worthiness made them popular and familiar coastal workhorses until the end of the nineteenth century.

I should acknowledge that I am indebted to Roger Finch's book 'Sailing Craft of the British Isles' for many of these fascinating facts and to a random search of the internet for the illustrations.

For more information about Snark's 2022 Cruise around the British Coast and how you can book your place go to

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