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Old Gaffers

Dave & I had always admired the traditional gaff rigged boats that sailed the waters around the Essex coast and on a ride out on the Bandit one Sunday afternoon, we discovered a 36' Thames Bawley called Jacqueline seemingly abandoned on the Walton Backwaters.

She was in a bit of a state but we saw potential and as Dave was already tiring of Hula Kai and wanted something bigger. We left a note asking her owners to contact us and after about a month, we got a call saying she was for sale. Dave did the deal and we motored Jacqueline down from Walton on the Naze to Brandy Hole near Hullbridge and had her taken out ready to become another one of our projects. We heard later that the guys at Brandy Hole, on seeing the state of her, collectively decided that here was ‘another one come to die’ and that would be the end of that.

Surprise! Surprise!

By the following weekend I had stripped the hull and cabin top back to bare timber. Over the next eight weeks Dave and I repainted her inside & out and had her back in the water ready for the Maldon 2000 Barge Race. Over the next season we raced her in many of the Old Gaffers meetings both in Essex and in Kent and gained experience in sailing this type of craft.

After a year with Jacqueline we realised that she was never going to be competative. Small bawleys are not the fastest of gaffers but she was further hindered by the fact that she was build in 1949 primarily as a motor fishing boat and as such, had a shallow keel that did not grip the water when she was later converted to sail. With her 60 foot mast, in light airs she was fine but as soon as the wind exceeded Force 4 she heeled over and went sideways. We did have a great time with her though (as this page illustrates) and we learnt a great deal in sailing gaff rigged boats. The decision was taken to sell her and look for an Essex Oyster Smack. She was eventualy sold and we did our last trip with her and her new owner to Dover where we left him to finish her lourney to her new home on the River Dart.

Of all our boats, Jacqueline was my favourite. Her lines were exquisite to my eye and when she carried full sails plus tops'l, she was a picture. It was therefore very disappointing to receive an email many years later asking for information and telling me that Jacqueline had been sold on and had been abandoned in Brora, Scotland, just north of Aberdeen. The person who contacted me had tried to buy her but it appears there were two people laying claim to ownership and purchase was refused by both. Very sad but hopefully not the end. She deserves better.

After a bit of rooting around, Dave came across the oyster smack CK428 Fashion laid up over the back of Leigh Creek. He contacted her owner Robbie Bush, a deal was struck and we became the custodians of a Victorian Oyster Smack constructed by Robert Aldous of Brightlingsea in 1884.

To all intents and purposes, Fashion's hull shape indicated that she should be a fast boat but she never delivered. The first time we took her out in a decent wind we had such a massive bow wave I crawled out along the 17 foot bowsprit and hung off taking photos. In a very short time, we came to the conclusion that it 'weren’t big and it weren’t clever'. If the hull is trying to push all that water out of the way, we are not going to get much in the way of speed. After a bit of research we came to the conclusion that she was sitting too low in the water and a fair bit of her concrete ballast had to be removed. Guess who got the job? Over the next week I sat crouched in the bilge armed with a hammer and chisel hacking lots of concrete out. I have no idea how much I removed but it made a substantial difference. She now rode much higher in the water and resisted burying her head in a blow.

We entered every match going over the next two years but again, never had any real success. In light airs she was very sluggish but over Force 4, we got going. Unfortunately for us, there was never enough wind on race days when we need it.

We picked everyone’s brains and they all kept coming up with the same thing. The ratio between length on deck, mast height  & mast position is critical and ours apparently was wrong.

The ideal is the mast should be the same height as the overall length on deck and it should be 33% back from the bow. We measured it and it all added up. A 34 ft mast on a 34 ft deck and 11ft 4 inches back from the stem post. It didn’t make sense until Dan Tester sussed it out. Her counter was two feet short.

Fashion was originally 36 feet long on deck, with a water line length to match, but sometime during her life, her counter had got the rot, had been removed and her stern squared off like a Bawley.

Years later in the early 1990’s, Fashion was bought by Robbie Bush of Leigh on Sea who rebuilt her counter. As there were no exact measurements to guide him, Robbie did his best but built it two feet short making the overall length 34 feet instead of her original 36. We had further confirmation years later when a descendant of her original owner, Ted Pitt, appeared in the yard and confirmed her original length as being 36.

That meant that the mast should be 36 feet high and stepped 12 feet back from the stem. Dan Tester also said that the boom should also overhang the counter and ours was way too short. The cut of the mainsail was wrong as well resulting in a gaff that could not be peaked high enough.

We now knew the reason she never reached her true potential. Her rig was way out of balance.

Her hull shape was right but everything else was wrong.

We now had a dilemma. Do we put her right at great expense with no guarantees or do we move on. We did speak with a sail maker in Faversham who had a theory that suit of sails should be cut to make all three into an integrated aerofoil shape rather than cutting each sail individually. In practice, this meant a full stays’l, a bit less in the jib and an almost flat main. This was in complete contrast to our main which was blown out and had a hook in its leach. Only in a blow would our sail flatten out and release the air cleanly giving us a bit of performance.

This seemed to make so much  sense to us but to prove it correct, it was going to cost Dave somewhere in the region of five grand for a new set of sails, plus all the expense of extending and repositioning the mast, a new boom and a new gaff.

This seemed to make a lot of sense to us but to prove it correct, it was going to cost Dave somewhere in the region of £5,000  for a new set of sails plus the expense of extending and repositioning the mast, a new boom and a new gaff. In the end it was too much money to justify throwing at a Big Boys Toy, especially as Dave was now thinking in terms of looking for something that was more family orientated, something he could take the grandchildren away in for a few days.

The smack was a great boat but with its low gunnels and lack of railings, it certainly was not a boat suited for families or children. Not only that you will never see a smack with a crew wearing life jackets, it just doesn’t happen. These boats are sailed exactly as they were in the Victorian age and wearing life jackets would get you laughed off the water. It probably sounds dangerous but unlike plastic yachts that buck & lurch in rough weather, a wooden smack will telegraph well in advance, exactly what it’s going to do in adverse conditions and any crew worth their salt will respond accordingly.

And so Fashion was put up for sale and Dave went on the mooch for a replacement which turned out to be very far away. Two boat yards up from ours to be exact and so the story continues back on the Sailing Page