Sea History 029 - Autumn 1983

Page 49

"The French approach ... appears to involve drinking a great deal of wine and much lusty singing." With the Old Gaffers Races we seem to be steadily putting the clocks further back because every year more boats appear back under sail. Types of working sailing craft which have not been seen under sail for decades are suddenly resurrected. The Essex smacks never actually died out. The West Mersey smack Our Boys was still dredging oysters under sail for a few seasons after World War II , while the little Maldon smacks Joseph T and Polly were using sail right into the 1950s. However the number of smacks sailed for pleasure has been steadily rising. Notable restorations include the complete rebuilding of the 1808 built Boadicea by Michael Frost and the 42ft Charlotte Ellen , rebuilt twice for John Rigby, once when she was converted back to sail from a power craft and then again after she was wrecked in the Thames Estuary. It was hoped that the Charlotte Ellen would beat the ADC in the Old Gaffers and Smack Races but she has never quite proved to be a champion. Now John Rigby is having the 49ft Sunbeam rebuilt by Johnnie Milgate at Peldon Creek, Essex. No one remembers the Sunbeam, which was probably built back in the 1870s, actually sailing, but legend has it that she was the fastest Essex smack ever built. The Thames Estuary bawleys, which were shrimpers and had loose footed mainsails, were all converted to power craft by the mid-1930s . It was a great thrill in 1980s Old Gaffers Race when two bawleys, the Doris and the Helen & Violet appeared in their original sail plan . Both

The Charlotte Ellen lazes across the finish line wirh easy grace, winning the Caine Race of the year before. The spritsail barge Ardwina of 1909, last sailing barge built al Ipswich,follows on; it's not her weather.


of these bawleys had had a major rebuild to get them back under sail. The Rochester bawley Thistle which appeared the following year, had had even more of a rebirth as she had been submerged in the upper fresh water Thames for several years before being rebuilt. In 1982 it was the turn of the King's Lynn smacks, which again had all been motorized since the 1930s, to reappear under sail. The 36ft Lynn smack Mermaid, built in Norfolk in 1904, raced in immaculate order. Some of these craft are rebuilt with such love and attention and good quality materials that one is left wondering if they are not better than when originally built! The Lynn smack Lily May also appeared on the East Coast. She has an open weil (or cockpit), a feature of some Lynn cockle boats, while most East Coast work boats were decked . The OGA cannot take the claim for the return of all these craft being back under sail because it has been the work of individual owners, but the Association provides the only races where every type of gaff craft can compete on a handicap basis. When afloat the OGA fleets look very picturesque with an odd assortment of everything from Baltic schooners to open day boats, but ashore in the informal get-togethers afterwards, the members prove to be the same types of people. It doesn't mean that OGA members agree about everything. In fact it is the exact opposite. The owners of gaff boats have chosen to be different from normal yachting circles and are inevitably found to be

rugged individuals with lively views. In the opening years of the OGA , thrilled by the success of people joining in quite large numbers, we saw ourselves as the centre of an international brotherhood of gaff boat owners. It has not quite worked out like that, but one of the great successes was between the gaff boat owners on the English South Coast and those in Brittany in North France. Now at a national level , British and French political leaders have for centuries disagreed with just about everything, but when it comes to traditional boats, the English and French owners have had some friendly rallies. The French approach to racing appears to involve drinking a great deal of wine and much lusty singing. Language proved no barrier when it came to sailing and restoring boats. Strictly speaking the OGA doesn't have a headquarters of its own, but meets in various friendly yacht clubs. The rise in bar sales usually guarantees our return . The French now have their own separate gaff club, but remain on very good terms with the British-based OGA . The Germans have also formed their own Friends of the Gaff Sail , modeled on the OGA . Learning from what has happened in the past it would seem that the OGA needs branches in each country. There are quite a number of OGA members in America , but no central body-as yet-to organize events . .t Mr. Simper, renowned student of sailing vessels great and small, is President ofthe Old Gaffers Association.

''Handsome is as handsome does'' might be the mouo of the small short-rigged oyster smack Katie sailing homeward happily enough after the race.