Traditional seamanship on an oyster smack

Toby Heppell heads to the East Coast to sail a traditional oyster smack and put his dredging skills to the test

Sailing skills: traditional seamanship on an oyster smack

The muddy rivers, tributaries when good seamanship could be the which I was told would be followed difference between life and death in the cold North Sea, or fetching an acceptable price for your cargo in London.

I grew up in the Essex town of Brightlingsea and, though I raced dinghies and yachts very different to these tan-sailed old girls, I have fond memories of waking early each September to watch the start of the annual Smack and Barge Match.

It was something of a town tradition where sleepy- eyed families would sit and watch the preposterously over canvased boats set off from the Pyefleet River.

Despite these memories, as a youngster this was as close as I came to the boats and, even after my parents elected to sell their cruiser/racer and purchase one of the remaining oyster smacks years after I had left home, I had still spent little time familiarising myself with them.

With endless sails to set on an oyster smack, there is plenty of work for the crew

With endless sails to set on an oyster smack, there is plenty of work for the crew

This year, however, a planned trip back east was set to take place during the weekend of the Smack and Barge Match, and estuaries of the UK’s East Coast provide the perfect breeding ground for any number of bivalves, but oysters are the foodstuff for which the area has long been known for.

The traditional fishing fleet around the Essex coast was long made up of a plethora of oyster smacks.

In truth, these boats didn’t just fish for the oysters now prized the world over, their crew instead filling their ship’s bellies with a variety of fresh fish and racing up the Thames to be the first to deliver their catch to London.

Many different boats fished the Essex estuaries and further out into the North Sea, and some still survive today.

In addition to smacks you also have the famous Thames barges, but there are the smaller bawleys, shrimpers and others besides.

Though their professional fishing days are long since over, those that survive continue to sail on the East Coast, keeping traditions alive from the days on the Sunday by an Oyster Dredging Match.

The jib topsail (top right), a free-flying sail, is set from the bowsprit to the topmast. The topsail (far top left) is set between the gaff and the topmast

The jib topsail (top right), a free-flying sail, is set from the bowsprit to the topmast. The topsail (far top left) is set between the gaff and the topmast

I jumped at the chance to step aboard for the weekend, packed my dirtiest sailing waterproofs – for this would be muddy work, I was told – and set off with a view to steeping myself in the traditions of my home town.

My parent’s boat, My Alice, is one of several oyster smacks still racing regularly in the region.

As with many old boats her history is a chequered one.

When she was no longer able to fish under sail, her rigging was removed, she had an engine stuck in her, her transom removed, a wheelhouse added and spent several ignominious years trawling under motor.

Finally, she was run down by a commercial ship and left to rot, as so many of the traditional East Coast fleet were.

That was until boat builder Jim Dines faithfully restored her.

He had his work cut out, however, and the project took him nine years.

He completely replanked her, one plank at a time, copying what was there; her keels, sternpost, deadwoods, keelson and stem were all rebuilt in massive West African opepe.

Her sawn oak frames were all restored or replaced, also in sawn oak.

A new deck was fitted using two layers of glass-covered ply.

Dines also managed to track down the original sail drawings and managed to keep as much as possible of the original so the boat remains predominantly the same one that was drawn up by Charles Kidby in 1907.

A world of canvas aboard an oyster smack

For those of us used to a Bermudan rigged yacht or dinghy, oyster smack rigging can be disorientating, with mast and mainsail being the only familiar words.

This is a world where canvas is king, so in addition to the gaff-rigged mainsail, there is a topsail, working sail, jib topsail, stay sail, water sail and, really, any number of others that can be variously flown either from spars or free-flying.

My Alice’s history is not an unusual one and though now there is significant interest in keeping these old boats alive, years of neglect for most have seen rebuilds to varying degrees.

This all begs the question: how traditional should a traditional oyster smack be?

Oyster smack, Maria, here well heeled, will almost certainly have her leeward rail in the water

Oyster smack, Maria, here well heeled, will almost certainly have her leeward rail in the water. Credit: Colm O’Laoi

The smacks, along with their bigger sisters, the Thames barges, are known for their tan sails, for example, but back in their fishing days, when they were raced for sport as well as necessity, many think they would have used white sails and only tarred them to give them their tan colour to help with longevity either when they were tired or set to be used exclusively for fishing.

As such, it could be considered to be just as traditional to race an oyster smack in the modern era with white sails if you wish but this is frowned upon.

And this is just one small glimpse into a world you soon discover is fraught with minor controversies.

The fleet’s aim generally is to sail as close as possible within the traditions of their forebears, though concessions to modernity are accepted in many cases.

Ropes and purchase

Modern ropes are accepted but there is a tacit understanding they are not brightly coloured.

Their higher breaking strength does make for something of a safer (and easier on the hands) experience.

Blocks are almost all still wooden, though most use a Handy Billy – a series or purchases with attachments at either end – for hauling in those last few inches of sheet, which are, more often than not, modern blocks.

Balancing act

With a great deal of sail in the sky, a full-length keel and relatively small rudder, balance is everything in the oyster smack world.

To the untrained eye, the mainsail looks vastly overpowered and with the boom sitting some feet over the stern, this single sail alone creates significant, overwhelming weather helm.

However, a 22ft bowsprit from which two headsails can be flown helps balance things, as does a working sail, essentially a jib or genoa, which is also placed forward of the mast.

Even with three foresails flying, the boats are still liable to rounding up, with the gaff rig further exacerbating the problem by keeping a good portion of the mainsail well aft.

To counter this, most smacks set up with the mast raked forward in an attempt to get the peak of the gaff, its highest point, and so the centre of effort, further forward to provide better balance.

Oyster smack Peace sails past East Mersea Stone on the River Blackwater in Essex, watching by a crowd of spectators

Oyster smack Peace sails past East Mersea Stone on the River Blackwater in Essex, watching by a crowd of spectators. Credit: Colm O’Laoi

In order to achieve this, there is a system for hoisting the mainsail (I quickly learn there is a specific system for everything).

The gaff is raised in line with the boom until the jaws are at their highest point before the gaff peak can be fully raised.

These are simply made off at the mast and then a hardener – purchase systems, one for each halyard, eight in total, which run down the rigging on either side of the boat – is used to provide tension.

It all takes some time to achieve and that is before you move on to hoisting the other four sails, which are typically used for upwind sailing.

Each must be hoisted in order, made off and tightened on its own hardener. It is tiring work.

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With so much weight, I quickly discover that the boats hold their way extremely well.

So it is better, even when racing, not to rush a hoist but to get it set right.

The difference between a sail being up for an extra minute is tiny in terms of hull speed but the likelihood of something going wrong in a rush, with so much rope, so many systems and so many sails is high.

Although modern ropes are used where safety demands, nods to tradition keep many of them as close to traditional as possible.

As such, once all sails are flying the next task is to keep sneaking tension into a variety of halyards and standing rigging.

This is all amongst the usual sail trimming and runner adjustment – two of these per side, one for the main mast and one for the top mast from which the jib topsail and topsail are flown.

Courses may be long for the Smack and Barge Match with legs of several miles, but the distance is eaten up in the hoisting and tightening of sails until a mark is reached and it is time to set off again, changing the sail plan and hoisting yet more new sails which seem to endlessly appear from below decks.

In the end, our race was difficult with a fault in the topsail on My Alice preventing it being flown, leaving us at least one sail down.

This was something of a blessing towards the end of the day when some serious gusts saw many of those carrying a topsail well over on their ear, but did not help with speed, and we finished the day a respectable third.

The art of dredging

I had raced these kind of boats once before the weekend and, as a racer at heart, knew broadly what to expect from the day.

The oyster dredging to come was sure to be something of a novelty, however.

Dredging the seabed under sail sounded like it would be a true test of seamanship and I was certainly moving into a totally new territory here.

The annual dredging match takes place off East Mersea and appears to be awash with rules and tradition.

We set out from Brightlingsea early Sunday morning (with a few sore heads from the match prizegiving the previous night) and got straight into the now familiar practice of hoisting sails as I’m taken through the plan for the day.

A dredge on an oyster dredger waiting to be thrown over the side

One of the two dredges waiting to be thrown over the side

There are two criteria by which all boats are to be judged.

Firstly, there will be exactly two hours within which to dredge for oysters.

Each boat’s haul will then be examined, with only native oysters counted, any other detritus or rock oysters need to be discarded.

As such, a key (and deeply mucky task) is to sort through each dredge haul and return anything that is not a native back from whence it came.

Happily, we have something of a ringer aboard in the form of Bram Haward, whose family owns the beds we will be dredging.

His ancestors have been seeding the beds and dredging oysters on the coast for generations.

The second criteria by which all boats will be judged is seamanship skills and how well an oyster smack is sailed – something much more in my wheelhouse… or at least something I can better understand.

Sorting native oysters from rock oysters in a messy job

Sorting native oysters from rock oysters in a messy job

The dredges used vary from boat to boat, but are broadly metal framed, with a net on the frame and another metal pole to hold the base flat.

Essentially you have an inverted wedge surrounded by net within which to catch your haul.

The dredging takes place within a specified area, defined by four buoys, one for each corner of the ‘box’.

There are judges on the water to determine how well each boat is being sailed and to police the boundary and make sure no one is dredging outside the specified area.

The box is set broadly perpendicular to the wind so theoretically it is a beam reach in either direction.

With the number of boats taking part and a small area within which dredging can take place, the task is to dredge in one direction, raise your haul and then hot-foot it back across the box while sorting the oysters.

Dredging may only be done in one direction and this is determined by the ‘lead’ boat – one entrant who is selected to decide which way they think is favourable for dredging.

Hauling in a dredge filled with oysters, slipper limpets, starfish and much more besides

Hauling in a dredge filled with oysters, slipper limpets, starfish and much more besides

As with many things in this fleet exactly how this works is vague at best, but the lead boat does have an identifying flag so it is a question of waiting for them to set up their dredges.

The rest of fleet must then follow by setting them up on the same side.

Shortly before the match is set to begin, we see the lead boat setting their dredges to starboard, thus dictating we will also be sailing on starboard tack for the dredging.

There are several tricks to dredging under sail.

Boat speed needs to be kept to a constant of roughly 3 knots; too fast and the dredges will bounce over the bed, too slow and you will not make enough forward motion to keep way on the boat and remain in control.

You also need to consider that the dredges set on the windward side act as a kedge and so will rotate the boat into the wind.

It’s fairly light for the dredging match itself so we are carrying a full main.

In normal circumstances this would necessitate plenty of sail forward of the mast; however, with limited hands on sail trim and the need to quickly turn around and get back to the other side of the box between each dredging run, fewer sails enable you to be much more nimble and so more efficient.

Dredging under sail is all about controlling boat speed

Dredging under sail is all about controlling boat speed

There are several different techniques employed by the different teams but all broadly follow the same principle.

A jib is set from the bowsprit and cross sheeted onto the windward side of the boat. This helps to both force the bow away from the wind and slow the boat.

The mainsail is then used for power, filling and spilling to control speed and prevent luffing. It’s in effect a heave-to setup, but the skipper must fight to keep the oyster smack footing to maintain some way and prevent a dead stop which would see the boat slipping to leeward.

It’s a fine balance and, with the box set with a slight bias so starboard tack is a tighter reach much of the fleet find themselves struggling to reach the end of the boxed area, instead slipping out of the leeward boundary.

With the boundary reached it is all hands to the ropes as dredges are quickly hauled in, the contents deposited on deck and the sorters, under Bram’s watchful eye, get busy identifying natives from rocks.

For those not in the know, a native oyster is usually smaller than a rock, with one side of the shell flat and the other domed, where Rocks have a more pronounced dome on either side and can grow very big indeed.

Natives are the most highly prized for their flavour and are very season dependent – the season starting in September hence the date for this traditional match.

This identifying might be an easy task in the fishmongers but amongst the mud and debris and often with various barnacles and limpets attached to their shells, it’s no mean  feat sorting the catch.

Slowing the oyster smack down

Happily, after being found wanting in the identification department, I’m put to work sailing.

With three crew forward, the trick is to tack or gybe onto the jib, hoist the working toesail and hot foot it back to where we began before quickly dropping the toesail and tacking onto the jib for a second run.

With plenty of tension in the flying jib, she sets relatively flat, which works well in the conditions but as the wind builds many start to ease the halyard for their jib causing it to become fuller and so work harder to pull the bow downwind and do more to slow the boat’s forward progress.

All of this counters the power developed by the mainsail.

Back to the future

I thought I would gain respect for the fishing skills of traditional fishermen, but what I came away with was the realisation that to be a skilful fisherman at the turn of the last century was to be a skilful sailor.

Indeed, it was from these East Coast fishermen that many of the J-Class yachts drew their crews.

The skills to get the boats to London in good time are one and the same as those needed to land a good haul.

These smacks are less forgiving than modern yachts, but as such, they really bring home the importance of working with, rather than against your canvas.

Getting a balanced sail plan, especially when reducing sail, with the right halyard tension, sail depth and sheet trim will make a big difference to the amount of heel, weather helm, speed and comfort on board.

Get these out of kilter and you’ll be fighting the helm and sailing slowly.

The Essex Smack

Every boat is different to sail but sailing an oyster smack requires some specific skills that are increasingly lost on a more modern craft.

So sought after were the skills of these sailors, they were often called up for racing duties by rich owners elsewhere.

Many were relied on as key members of crew on J-Class yachts during the heady days of the early 20th-century America’s Cup.

Anyone who has sailed a long-keeled boat will be familiar with the particular skills required to sail one.

With their very deep full-length keels, relatively small, shapeless rudders hung aft of the keel, manoeuvring a heavy smack under steering alone is a very tricky thing indeed.

As such, a great deal of skill and understanding of sail control and balance are key in order to enable the boats to sail well.

Lines of My Alice

The lines of the oyster smack, My Alice

This control comes from understanding setup and balance.

When looking at the boats beam-on the first thing you notice is how far forward the main mast sits – not to mention how short the mast seems.

But the sail plan needs to be looked at in the context of all spars.

Typically smacks have a bowsprit that extends almost half the length of the hull again.

As such, My Alice is around 46ft bow to stern but her length over spars is nudging over 70ft.

The gaff-rigged main means the centre of effort for the mainsail sits much further aft than a Bermudan rig would.

It does not take that much thought to realise that with significant sail forward of the bow (at least two sails are usually flown from the bowsprit upwind) and the mainsail sitting over the stern that balancing these forces is the key to ensuring the boat sails in a straight line or is able to turn.

Interestingly, however, these overhanging spars make a long-keeler much closer to a fin-keeled modern yacht than you may imagine.

In essence, when sailing a fin-keeled yacht, you can easily use foresails and the mainsail to get the boat to pivot around the mast and keel on the sails alone.

What the overhanging spars do is provide a greater amount of sail fore and aft of the keel, despite it running the full length of the hull.

All this is necessity in a smack where low speed manoeuvring under sail was key when they were being used for fishing or dredging, and enables the boats to be manoeuvred with little way on, despite the rudder doing very little at low speeds.

Source: Yachting Monthly

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