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Our Fishing Heritage
Chapter 18. Fishing Boat Design


Oyvind Gulbrandsen was a fine Norwegian naval architect I was privileged to know and to work with in Italy, Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines. He was a practical small boat designer who could also build and operate these vessels. Before he would dare to suggest any improvements or modifications to a traditional boat, he would go to sea with the fishers and see how the boat handled, and how the fishermen sailed the vessel and operated the fishing gear. But what impressed me most about Oyvind was his aesthetic side, - his eye for a beautiful boat. For there is something about the design of a fine seaworthy vessel, whether a yacht, schooner, steam drifter, motor trawler, ring net boat, or canoe; - something that strikes the trained eye of a designer or navigator, as truly graceful and seaworthy. You just know by looking at its lines that the vessel will perform well at sea. The same is true of gliders and propeller driven aircraft. The old book of Proverbs mentions a number of wonders that had a mystical side to them which was beyond Solomon’s wisdom or power to explain. Two that he mentions are, ‘the way of an eagle in the air’, and, ‘the way of a ship in the sea’.

Oyvind and I were wandering along the mangrove covered beaches of north Java with their covering of fine black volcanic sand, and stopping occasionally to examine the chompring prahu canoes of the area. Oyvind trained his architect’s eye on the teakwood planked boats, from stem to stern. They were brightly painted, and had high carved prows and stern posts. Their cotton sails were laced to bamboo spars that were swung up at an angle, from a short post set in one of the forward thwarts. Their hulls appeared to be precise replicas of Viking ships, - beamy planked boats, double ended, and with good sheer fore and aft, that increased their displacement when loaded, and improved their stability as they rolled gently in a swell. “Tayvid”, explained my Scandinavian friend in his lovely Norse accent, - “that is bee-yootiful ! You simply cannot improve upon that as a design for a sailing canoe in this region. It is excellent; - the result of centuries of use and development.”

I gladly echoed Oyvind’s sentiments having been brought up in a community steeped in nautical traditions. As boys we made and sailed small boats in the rocky coastal pools, and as we grew older we debated like old men, the relative merits of each new boat that entered the local fleet. Under our elders supervision we gained some experience handling and rowing the wooden lifeboats that were standard on most of the fishing boats until the late 1950’s. We had also enjoyed the model making pursuits of young teenagers in the post war years, putting together paper-covered balsa replicas of WW2 planes and gliders, and constructing wooden-hulled sailboats. Aircraft that fly well, have to look good, - their aerodynamic shapes similar to the fine underwater lines of the hull of seaworthy or sea-kindly boats.

Scotland’s east coast had more than ten good builders of wooden boats in the 1950’s and 60’s. There were three Buckie yards, - Herd and MacKenzie, Jones, and Thomson’s (no relation). Then there were yards at Lossiemouth, MacDuff, Sandhaven, and Peterhead. South of Aberdeen boats were built at Arbroath, St. Monans, and Eyemouth. Each had their own particular style which we could tell as easily as we could recognise cars or aircraft. Yet all the Scots boat builders followed the traditional design of straight stem, cruiser stern, cabin, engine, and wheelhouse aft, and fish hold amidships. That suited the trawlers and seiners, but ring net boats were arranged differently with cabin forward, engine and wheelhouse aft, and fish hold midships. Beamy and seaworthy, few Scots boats would ever ship green water over the side or stern. Most of the boats performed equally well heading into a sea or running before it.

My father’s boat, (the third of three he skippered), was built at Tyrrell’s yard in Arklow, Ireland. Scots boats were mostly made of larch and oak, but the Kincora was constructed of pitch pine. All of Tyrrell’s boats had yacht type hulls. They were less beamy than Scottish boats, and had beautiful fine stems that cut the water gently, and added a touch of speed. On the negative side, they tended to be ‘wet’, i.e. to ship a lot of spray, and to roll violently when lying broadsides or towing across the wind. But then few fishing boats of that size are much different in this respect. Tyrrell’s boats were not good ‘carriers’, - they tended to go down by the head when loaded with fish. The best ‘carrying boats’ were in fact the little 50 foot ring net boats which could hold up to 200 crans (800 x 7 stone baskets or approx. 36 tonnes) of herring without losing their trim. I have seen these boats come into the harbour with their decks almost awash, they were so laden with fish.

All over the world we are in danger today of losing those marvellous boat-building skills that put together North Sea seiner-trawlers and ring-netters, French tunny boats, Portuguese, Canadian, and American schooners, Arab dhows and houris, Japanese long liners, Greek sardine seiners, Philippine bancas, and Indonesian sailing canoes. Perhaps the poorer and less developed lands will continue traditional skills longer, but in my own country the boat builders I knew have all retired, and there few apprentices taking their place. The lobster boats of Maine and Nova Scotia may also continue to be built, as the fishery they serve has been able to maintain greater stability than those for demersal fish and herring. The skill of the boat builder was eloquently described by the poet Longfellow :

Build me straight, O worthy Master,
Staunch and strong, a goodly vessel,
That shall laugh at all disaster,
And with wave and whirlwind wrestle.

Day by day the vessel grew,
With timbers fastened strong and true,
Stemson and keelson and sternson knee,
Till, framed with perfect symmetry,
A skeleton ship rose up to view.
And around the bows and along the side
The heavy hammers and mallets plied …

The demand for bigger and more powerful boats led most of our yards to move over to steel construction. The spread of stern trawling with its need for more space on the after deck, led to the replacement of cruiser-spoon sterns with square transoms. To this day I find them ugly and too utilitarian. The Scots preference for accommodation and wheelhouse aft was ignored at times in favour of wheelhouse and accommodation forward designs. While these may suit larger ships, they can be very uncomfortable for the crew on boats of less than 90 feet. But marine authorities often embraced the changes, assuming that the new designs and layouts were ‘modern’, and therefore to be promoted. One of my cousins tried for years to get WFA approval for a new boat he was to build in Scotland. They refused his application on the grounds that he just wanted another ‘traditional’ boat. If he would only agree to a boat of ‘modern’ design (meaning with square transom stern and wheelhouse forward), they hinted that his application would be approved. But Alex refused to budge, and eventually had the vessel of his choice built to his specifications, at the boatyard in Campbeltown, Argyll.

Overall, the British White Fish Authority had an extremely poor record in vessel design. It was an area they should have stayed out of, there being plenty competent fishing boat naval architects in the country. But no, like any bureaucratic organisation that acquires some power, it took it upon itself to design and advise on vessel types. The power they wielded stemmed from the assistance they were authorised to give in the form of loans (and sometimes grants) towards the cost of a new boat. The results were derisory at times. Several WFA designed boats sank, and few remained long in service. Some designs they approved of without proper stability tests, were lost with all hands at sea. Arguments continue to this day over who or what was to blame in several of those cases. Whatever the real causes, the truth is that when the changes came in fishing boat size, power and design, more boats and more men were lost at sea than in the years before when the vessels were smaller, simpler, and less well-equipped.

The organisation also made similar poor decisions on boat design in its development work. Personally I do not approve of a government agency, supported by taxpayers money, also engaging in private sector work in competition with professional firms. But the WFA did just that and attempted to get into the overseas fisheries consultancy field. It was awarded contracts in places like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia. The Saudi contract was to improve fish supplies and fish quality in that country, but the Arab government complained after 3 years of the consultancy all they had to show were ‘pieces of paper’, instead of fish in their markets.

In West Sumatra, Indonesia, the WFA were given the task of designing a forty boat fleet to prosecute the offshore waters for tuna. The local fishers used trolling lines to capture the fish outside of the Mentawai islands. The long distances and light catches meant that they needed a low-cost, easily propelled, economical boat to operate profitably. So what kind of vessel did the WFA design ? Sadly, it was a typical North Sea trawler, - heavily built, beamy, slow, needing a powerful engine to drive it, and large fuel tanks to contain sufficient diesel oil for the long voyages. In short the new boats were expensive to buy and operate, and too heavy and slow for the trolling line operation. But the boats were built despite protests by the fishers who were not listened to. So, forty new expensive boats lay rotting against the pier because no sensible fisherman would buy one – even on generous loan terms, and another expensive aid project foundered on the rocks of stupidity and stubbornness.

However, in case any think I am too critical of my own country’s bureaucratic and technical failures, perhaps I had should mention some nautical blunders in other parts of the world. In Northern Rhodesia, later to become the independent state of Zambia, the fishermen of newly formed Lake Kariba, required fishing boats to replace their dugout canoes which were suitable only for shallow swamps and sheltered river waters. We had a fine naval architect and boat builder in Dick Heath of Littlehampton in Surrey where he had worked on a variety of craft for the English Channel, including yachts and fishing boats. After considering the needs of the huge lake fishery which could face choppy weather at times when the prevailing winds blew up and down the lake, he opted for an Irish design. It was not his first choice, that being the American dory as used on the Grand Banks by U.S., Canadian, and Portuguese fishers. But the dory required some familiarity and skill for its use, and the Africans felt it was too unstable for them. So Dick adapted a west Irish boat form for the Zambesi valley lake. He turned to the “curragh”, - a light seaworthy craft made of a wood frame and tarred canvas skin, that was rowed out into the Atlantic swells by Aran Islands fishermen hunting for basking sharks which they caught for their oil.

I had fished alongside these amazing boats during my early years on the family boat. It was the sheer or angle of the hull at its high stem and along its length, that interested Dick. The lake fishermen needed a boat that was easy to paddle, or to power by a small outboard, and that could carry and adequate number of men and nets, and weight of fish catch. So he designed a 24 foot clinker built canoe incorporating the lines of the curragh, and had it constructed of iroko wood with copper nails and galvanised bolts. The boat was an instant success and within months was being built and used all over the country. The Batonga fishers nick-named it the “banana” boat because of its shape. I have handled these boats in the fairly rough waters of the open lake, and found they performed superbly. The fishermen soon learned how to set and haul gill nets over the side, since it had a very narrow transom, and when they were fortunate to have a 5 hp outboard motor, they could travel to and from the grounds at remarkable speed.

But, not to be out-done, the Provincial Administration thought they also would design a boat and have it mass produced. They had a metal box manufacturer construct little dinghies which looked like matchboxes with a pointed end. They were built of steel and were heavy, clumsy and difficult to paddle or power. Some sank when choppy waves spilled over the side and filled the boat. To protect the fishermen from that, buoyancy tanks were welded fore and aft which left little room for nets and fish. Then it was found that the steel corroded and the bottoms of the metal boats rusted out in 2 years which gave the fishermen a problem since they had bought the boats on a 3 year loan.

To a fisherman, a boat is much more than a piece of property. It becomes part of his soul, part of his life. Some boats, it is true, do not live up to expectations and may be discarded with little regret. But a boat that serves a fisher well for most of his working life, becomes a thing of affection. Years of struggle against the elements, season after season of fishing and harvesting, times of peril and times of pleasure, are all intimately linked to the fisherman’s boat as he goes through his professional life. That is why shipwrecks are so sad, - and worse than these are enforced scrapping of fine vessels which have many years of productive life still in them. That is what the heartless EC CFP decommissioning scheme did. As graphically portrayed in the BBC film “Gutted !”, skipper-owners were obliged to take their beautiful boats to the scrap yard and see them torn to pieces to satisfy the bureaucrats determination to reduce fleet size (after they had increased it in the first place). The boats could have served abroad and some skippers wanted to gift them to poor countries. But that was not allowed.

I was personally involved in two attempts by Scots skippers to have their boats complete their useful life rather than go to the scrap yard. Under EC MAGP rules (multi-annual guidance programme which governed vessel decommissioning), they had little option but to see their vessels destroyed to conform to the fleet reduction recommendations. A group of west coast and island fishermen wondered if it might be possible to sell their boats at reasonable prices to developing country fisheries. Some of the Scots skippers and crews had also offered to deliver the boats and to remain for a period assisting the new African owners to operate the boats and market the catches. I suggested there might be some possibilities in southern Africa, and was sent there for 2 weeks by the HIDB (IHighlands and Islands Development Board), - a regional part of Scottish Enterprise, the government development agency. I travelled to Namibia first, to Walvis Bay and Luderitz, and then from there south to Cape Town and the fishing ports north of the Cape, on the western or Atlantic coast.

At each of the locations I discussed the possibilities of purchasing Scottish boats in working condition, at very reasonable prices, and to get some technical assistance from the former owners. The idea appealed to a number of fishermen’s cooperatives in Cape Province, and to several small companies in Namibia. In both cases, following changes of government, fish quotas were available to ‘black’ and ‘coloured’ fishermen who had been largely excluded during the apartheid years.

So I returned to Inverness to report that I had found 36 prospective buyers who wanted Scots creel boats, prawn trawlers, ring netters, white fish trawlers, one purse seiner, and one hake freezer trawler. Each of these types were available for sale in Scotland at the time. Imagine my surprise when the HIDB later informed me that the UK government had told them to bury the report. I enquired repeatedly for some explanation, and the nearest thing I got to one was the silly remark, “If we allow our men to sell their boats to Africa, what is there to stop the Africans from selling them back to Scotland” ! (How that could possibly happen when the boats would no longer carry a UK fishing license, and neither party was interested in a reverse trade in vessels, the nameless bureaucrat failed to inform us). So 36 African fishers were left without the boats they needed to pursue their professions in the new South Africa, and 36 fine Scottish boats were decommissioned and sent to the scrap-yards.

My second attempt to have the third world benefit from the use of a Scottish boat happened just after the dreadful tsunami disaster of December 26 2003. I was called to a meeting in London early in 2004 to discuss what help the government and fishery sector of the UK might be able to mount quickly to assist the devastated fishing communities of Banda Aceh, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Fishing industry representatives from Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England, attended the meeting. All were eager to do what they could to help, but the government reaction from DEFRA and DFID was like a huge wet blanket. One Scots skipper offered to donate his steel refrigerated stern trawler for use as a relief supply vessel in Banda Aceh or Sri Lanka. The other Scots fishers offered to fill the boat with ropes, buoys, netting, twine and floats from which the Asian fishers could construct their own types of nets and traps. They would fly a crew in from the stricken areas, and help them sail the boat out, and to train them on the way on the operation and maintenance of the machinery and electronics.

But the British government said “No”. The boat in question was one of those scheduled to be scrapped under the EC MAGP programme (though it was in splendid condition and could have served for another 25 years). But the government would rather see it go to a scrap-yard than be offered to the stricken coasts of SE Asia. When I later informed the fishery authorities in the three countries concerned, they were appalled that the UK government had not even consulted them on the possibility. British officials said publicly that such fishing boats were inappropriate for the area, - knowing full well it was offered, not for fishing operations, but for delivering supplies to the needy areas, and to take fish catches from there to the markets since the roads and bridges had been made impassable. The Chairman of the Scottish Pelagic Fishermens Association, Alex West, told me personally that his member boats would gladly donate the delivery funds, and ordinary people were then giving millions for tsunami aid through the government. Yet officials admitted to me they were afraid some of the expenses of sending a boat out (like insurance costs) might have to be met by the UK treasury!

The UK government gave £64 million for tsunami relief, and pledged some additional funds, but in some cases the writer had personal knowledge of, handled the money with remarkable indifference to the need, and to the sacrificial giving by ordinary people in the UK. In addition to what the public gave through churches and directly to groups like Red Cross and Tear Fund, ordinary people donated £390 million to help the distressed victims. This money was distributed by the Disasters Emergency Committee, an umbrella organisation for British charities. Working through 12 of the larger UK charities concerned with overseas relief, the DEC was able to deliver help to 1.3 million households over a three year period, mainly in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India.

One can but imagine the emotions of the skipper of the Veracious (truthful), as he sailed his vessel across the North Sea to the breakers yard in Denmark, when he knew that it could have performed humanitarian and food relief service to the tsunami stricken coasts, but for the obstinacy of the British government and the EC Fisheries Directorate. There was absolutely no financial advantage to himself in the proposed arrangement, - rather it would have cost him substantially in the gift of gear and equipment he was prepared to make with the vessel.

The emotional attachment of a fisherman to his boat was well expressed by a renowned musician and song writer in Newfoundland, Otto Kelland, who I worked alongside in the College of Fisheries there. The college had hired him for his skills in making model boats, but he was more renowned for his musical talents. All who know Newfoundland will be aware of its rich heritage of sea shanties and folk songs, mostly with an Irish lilt to them. Otto’s finest production was Cape St. Mary’s, written in 1945. The music which is truly moving, you will have to locate elsewhere, but I cannot resist the temptation to include a few verses here. The last line of each verse is repeated in the song.

Take me back to my western boat, let me fish off Cape St. Mary’s
Where the hag-downs sail, and the fog-horns wail,
With my friends the Browns and the Cleary’s,
Let me fish off Cape St. Mary’s.

Let me feel my dory lift, to the broad Atlantic combers
Where the tide rips swirl and wild ducks whirl.
Where old Neptune calls the numbers
‘Neath the broad Atlantic combers.

Let me sail up Golden Bay, with my oilskins all astreamin’
From the thunder squall when I hauled my trawl
And my old Cape Anne a-gleamin’,
And my oilskins all a-streamin’.

Let me view that rugged shore, where the beach is all a-glisten
With the capelin spawn, where from dusk to dawn,
You bait your trawl and listen,
To the undertow a-hissin’.

Take me back to that snug green cove, where the seas rolls up their thunder,
There let me rest in the earth’s cool breast
Where the stars shine out their wonder
And the seas rolls up their thunder.


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