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Romantic Sailing Coasters

Until recently, one of the commonest types of craft to be seen round British shores was the sailing coaster, which has played an important part in the development of merchant ships


THE COASTING VESSEL BROOKLANDS. This three-master was built in 1859 at Dartmouth, Devon, and has a gross tonnage of 138. Her length is 99½ feet, beam 21½ feet, and depth 11¾ feet. She was originally employed on fruit trade routes, particularly between Great Britain and the Azores.

FINE as the tall ships were, and fascinating as is their story, the little matter-of-fact sailing coasters which worked in their hundreds round the British coast until comparatively recently have a romance of their own. There are many students of sail who find them even more interesting than the ocean-going vessels. Although they are still occasionally to be seen, they have almost disappeared before the improvements in the steamer and the motor vessel. The country is the poorer for their loss, and especially for the loss of the men who worked them.

Numbers of little sailing vessels of different types and sizes were grouped under the title “coaster”, but it must not be thought that they kept to the coast. The Continent between the mouth of the River Elbe, on the North German coast, and the island of Ushant, off the coast of Brittany, was regarded as being within coastal limits. When they ventured outside these limits, which they did regularly, they were supposed to have a certificated officer on board. Often they did, but it was generally a man who had been given a “certificate of servitude” when the Board of Trade tickets were introduced. Such an officer was regarded more or less as a passenger.

The coaster skippers were magnificent seamen, and seldom at a loss even when they were well outside their usual waters, so that the certificated “sailing master” was often regarded as being nothing but an encumbrance. It is to be feared that with a good charter for a foreign voyage in view, many of them would get round the regulations altogether by going to a foreign port within coasting limits and clearing thence for any destination that suited them. There was, of course, the chance of trouble when they came home again, but they were willing to take the risk.

The mainstay of the British coasting trade being the coal business, which was a seasonal one before the days of public utility companies, the coasters would employ their summer months on a number of trades. Among their most popular activities were voyages to Scandinavia to fetch ice for domestic use and for the fishing industry; they went to the Baltic for hemp and timber until they were driven out of the timber trade by the deck load regulations.

The coal trade was always the most important. In its prime, before it had been broken by railway competition and the advent of the steamer, it employed an astounding number of sailing vessels. When this trade was really established is difficult to discover. In spite of various enactments against the use of coal in London, the coal trade began to flourish at an early date, and employed a number of curious little vessels whose customs survived until recently. In the fourteenth century Tyneside coasters were taking coal across to Flanders, and the famous Dick Whittington included the coal trade in his various money-making activities.

In the early days, unfortunately, records were imperfectly kept, so that it is difficult to say just how many ships were employed; but in the nineteenth century the numbers were astonishing. During one day in December, 1837, after a spell of head winds, no fewer than 741 colliers arrived in the Thames. The veteran shipowner, Lord Runciman, who began his sea career before the mast in a collier brig, has recorded that he has known as many as 300 sail held up in Yarmouth Roads by a head wind. When a fleet of this size got under way again, it is easy to understand that the colliers wanted most of the river, and were unpopular with other ships using the port. Unfortunately the casualties among them were heavy; in twelve months of the years 1865-6 no fewer than 535 loaded colliers and 140 in ballast came to grief in one way or another.

Until well into the nineteenth century most of the colliers were square-rigged; they could not be considered beautiful, for the majority had straight stems and square sterns, across which a boat hung under davits. But until the fall in freights gravely affected their business, they were loftily rigged, setting studding sails until a late date, and they were well found and maintained.

The West Country ships, which seem to have introduced the curved clipper stem into the coasting trade, were always conspicuously clean and smart on deck, with their white paint and the burnished funnels from the galley and the cabin stove. During a slack period in the West Indian trade a number of West Indiamen were chartered for the coal business. Bigger and better than

the ordinary coasters, they set an example which led to a great improvement in the design of the collier. But hard times were ahead. The railway began to carry coal to the Metropolis, the steamer could make so many extra voyages that she was always favoured in port, and a number of Scandinavian vessels entered the coal trade at cut rates when the Baltic was frozen over.

The “Rib-Breakers”

The “Geordies”, as the North Country vessels were always called, thus found it difficult to keep going, and their condition rapidly deteriorated. At the same time, the necessity of economizing in crews led to the brig falling out of favour and to its replacement by the brigantine, barquentine or schooner rig. Brigantines, barquentines and schooners could be worked with smaller crews, but were not as sure of staying as the old brigs.

Many of these coasters had tiller steering, even when they were fairly large ships - the Whitstable schooner Flirt, of 240 tons deadweight, is an example. They were known as “rib-breakers”, although a gun-tackle purchase was always shipped on the weather side to take the kick of the tiller, the helmsman standing on the lee side.

Although coasters were frequently transferred from one trade to another, the different districts had their own fashions of building. On the North-East Coast, and in the Whitstable and some other areas, the forecastles were generally below deck forward, although in many of the Kentish and Welsh vessels the crew all lived aft. The forecastle was used also as a store in many ships, as in modern power-driven craft; nearly all the “Geordies” had their sail lockers right aft over the counter, but many others stowed their canvas and rope in the forecastle. The smell was too much for many a first voyager, but it was the privilege of the senior able seaman to sleep on the sail canvas.

THE DUCHESS, a trim coasting vessel of 110 tons built in 1878 at Connah’s Quay, Flintshire, North Wales. She was broken up in 1935 after having run ashore near Liverpool.

In many areas the men slept in hammocks, man-of-war fashion, but in the Welsh schooners from Portmadoc, for instance, they were always in berths with sliding shutters to prevent their being shot out by the lively motion of the ship while they were asleep. These berths were death-traps if the ship went down. A few of the later coasters had iron-framed bunks hinged against the ship’s side. Anything resembling elementary comfort in the forecastle of a coaster was practically unknown and leaky decks over the seamen’s accommodation were the rule rather than the exception. The coaster’s pumps were generally fitted by the mainmast and they seldom became rusty for lack of use. Whitstable shipmasters made it a regular routine to try the pumps at midnight whether the ship were obviously leaking or not. This precaution was generally found to be advisable. Not only were these ships strained by the manner in which they were driven down the coast with their heavy cargoes, but they were also constantly taking the ground on foul berths. A “Black-wall caulk”, popular with economically-minded masters, consisted in letting the ship take a muddy berth when loaded, in the hope that some of the mud would be forced between the planks where the oakum ought to be. But every opportunity was taken, when she was left high and dry, to put all the spare hands on to caulking.

Although the great majority of these colliers were small, the bars at the entrances of many of the North-East Coast ports made it necessary to load outside, completely clear of the bar. They loaded from keels, as the North Country barges were, and still are, called. Thus the coal capacity of the keel was used as a standard measure for taxation, port dues and the like, but it was not long before such a rule was evaded.

There was a big coal trade oil the West Coast as well. Maryport (Cumberland) maintained a big fleet to deal with it. All rigs were included, but the majority were schooners. For many years the coal was always brought down to the dock in panniers slung on either side of donkeys, but eventually the coal trade was displaced by the pig-iron business, which grew to large proportions and took Maryport ships all over the world.

A Water-Ballast Experiment

In addition to the coal trade, the stone trade kept a number of ships busy. It was, however, exceedingly unpopular, for it was a terribly hard cargo both on ships and on men. Broken stones or kerb stones from France or the Channel Islands provided a return cargo which was invaluable, the broken stone always being known as “Guernsey fruit”. China clay from the West Country was another useful return cargo, but it made everything dirty, was heavy for the ships and was immediately damaged by a comparatively slight leak.

Thus most of the colliers returned to the North in ballast, which cut deeply into the profits of their owners. All sorts of experiments were tried to overcome the difficulty, one of the most interesting being that in the brig Benton, in 1851. The Benton tried carrying water ballast in rubber bags, which would stow away in a small space when she was loaded with coal. These bags would keep her upright when she was empty, and when her journey was over could be started one by one and the water put over side by the pumps. In many ways the experiment was successful, but the rubber bags were expensive, and the experiment was soon abandoned.

The three-masted Jane Banks leaving Liverpool

MAKING SAIL. The three-masted Jane Banks leaving Liverpool. She was built in 1878 at Portmadoc, Caernarvonshire, and has a gross tonnage of 176, a length of 102 feet, a beam of 24 feet and a depth of 12½ feet. Portmadoc was formerly a famous centre for coasting vessels, and many of the small sailing ships that left this Welsh harbour often accomplished long overseas voyages.

So the colliers had to look after their safety by shipping solid ballast. Stone or sand was unsaleable, and it cost a good deal of money to remove in the Tyne, where there was an ancient horse crane that had been in use for centuries when it was finally abolished in the ’sixties. The ballast was then shovelled into tubs and landed by cranes on shore, but the captains would dump as much as they dared into the sea when they were approaching the port, the crew being paid extra money for the work. The port authorities strictly forbade the dumping of any ballast within their waters, for it meant that they would have to dredge it up again.

The schooner Snow FlakeWhen there was an opportunity of shipping chalk as ballast it was another matter. For many years the owners had regarded chalk as any other ballast, but the skippers were not long in discovering that the lime works in the North Country would buy it for one and threepence or one and sixpence a ton. A tip to the foreman of the Thameside wharf at which they were loading this ballast would enable the skippers to carry nearly as much chalk up the coast for safety as they did coal down the coast for their owners’ profit. In one coastal town several houses built by an old coaster captain have their official street name, but locally they are still invariably called “Chalk Row” - a name that tells its own story.

IN MOUNT’S BAY, Cornwall. The schooner Snow Flake is of 109 gross tons and was built in 1880 at Runcorn, Cheshire. Her length is 88 feet, beam 21¾ feet and her depth 7½ feet.

As a rule the colliers discharged their cargo at berths in which there were no proper cranes, so that the crew was employed “jumping” or “whipping” out the coal with a block slung on the yard-arm. A portable framework with three or four steps was fixed on deck, and the whip by which the coal was hoisted was divided into four or five tails, one to each man. When the empty baskets were lowered into the hold the hands climbed to the top of this framework. When the full baskets were hooked on, it was one - two - three - and then jump, the weight of the men bringing the coal up with a run. The slightest mis-timing in the jump led to a painful accident - possibly a broken jaw. For “jumping” coal one or more extra hands were generally engaged from the shore, the standard pay being three-half pence for every ton moved. This does not seem to be much, but it must be remembered that fifty or sixty tons a day was a normal performance with this primitive gear.

The West Country vessels generally divided their time between the fruit trade and the coasting, finishing their days on the coast altogether when they began to leak too badly for a fruit cargo. These little vessels had an advantage on the coal trade, because their finer lines and fore-and-aft rig let them sail sufficiently close to the wind to get down to the Thames while the square-riggers were being held up on the coast by contrary winds. The china clay trade employed a large number almost exclusively. The coasting trade between the Clyde and Mersey, carrying large quantities of iron and steel products, was covered by the “ranter-pikes”. curious little vessels in which the topmast was fidded abaft the lower mast. Barrow-in-Furness (Lancashire), Chester, Connah’s Quay (Flintshire) and various ports in the Bristol Channel also maintained fleets.

The Vicunia is a sailing barge plying on coastal routesOn the West Coast the most famous centre of all was Portmadoc, in North Wales, a small community which existed entirely for and by its little sailing vessels. They were not purely coasters, for they did an immense amount of overseas work in addition to their coasting trade. A favourite round voyage was to carry slate from Wales to Copenhagen or the Baltic, and to bring bottles back to Great Britain. Another was from Cadiz to St. John’s, Newfoundland, with salt for the Grand Banks fishing fleet, and then salted fish back to the Roman Catholic countries in Southern Europe. If the fish cargoes went into the Mediterranean, they would often pick up a return freight of Greek currants or Italian marble.

BUILT AT EAST GREENWICH in 1912, the Vicunia is a sailing barge plying on coastal routes and taking aboard various cargoes such as brick and timber. Her registered tonnage is 75.

Most of the Portmadoc fleet were three-masted double-topsail schooners with a topgallant set flying. They were generally manned by a skipper, mate, two A.B.’s, an ordinary seaman and a boy, but some of the smaller ships had even fewer. They were well-built, sheathed vessels, many of the later ones being conspicuously fast.

You can read more on “The British Coast”, “Standing and Running Rigging” and

“Thames Sailing Barges” on this website.