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By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA

Workboats Then and Today - Part One

Part 1 - Part 2

When I was but a mere lad, my Dad took me from Tampa to Tarpon Springs, FL for a fishing trip. We got up before dawn, like we were secretly getting out of the house before my mother could see my unmade bed. We drove down to Tarpon Springs, down the west coast of Florida by the Gulf all the way. When we came close to the docks I saw Greek-American fishermen come in from a night of hard fishing. They came in on 40 foot double enders, wood planked, with power and short sails. They were hearty men with beards, deep burnished skin, and muscular arched backs. Some had a finger missing, scratched skin, teeth gone. They were odd because they had no desire to better themselves in America; all they asked was the freedom to fish and sell. What they did was difficult, smelly work with the reward not in money but a day worked to the full.

I think they felt the day. It would have been a greater shame to be lazy with the day they'd been given than to commit a crime. Integrity was a rough pair of hands and laughing at tragedy. After all they were Greeks. Peering eyes were painted on each side of the bow, the ancient legend that the eyes would see over the edge of the world in time to warn the crew.

I can still remember the ships, colorful paint cracked, sides etched with the marks of nets dragged full of fish squirming, glinting in the sun. The ships were seam batten construction, with the joint between planks protruding in an angle - heavy, creaking, rollicking with the sea ships. Working ships and men. John Hanna lived on Tampa Bay, making a meagre living designing ships and writing for Mechanics Illustrated. He couldn't stand the Herreshoff yachts which were long, slender, racing machines drawn under the rule for racing yachts of the day. Hanna was committed to a safe ship that would get you home against the worst the sea could imagine. Francis Herreshoff said Hanna's designs were fat little tubs, Hanna returned with sarcasm. In 1935 John Hanna then created Tahiti Ketch, so named to fire the imagination of the backyard builder into flights of fancy. And it did. Many plans were sold, many Tahiti ketches took to the ocean. They were heavily built, safe and steady ships that always came back.

Hanna's design rivals always said he simply took the Tarpon Springs fishermen's ships as the model. They may be right. Seaworthiness was the lifeline of these fishermen. They had no use for anything on deck that didn't help them get their catch to market. They needed a ship that could get them to the fish, hold its own in a seaway, and get them home soon. These lines are the updated lines for Tahiti Ketch, but you can see the original Greek ship still here.


The Greeks have been fishing off their shores for a long time. The first known reference is a painting in a captain's home on a Greek island depicting a ship called the Thera ship. This painting was made around 1700BC. The ship is double ended, with the bow and stern rising high with overhang. There is no keel, so the ship must have been one for a processional, possibly the return of a captain to his homeland after a successful battle or expedition. The Thera was what we would call a pilot ship. It has one square sail, forward of the overall midpoint. When these ancient ships have rows for oars, the sail is usually to balance the ship in heavy weather. If you see a picture of an ancient ship carrying a sail wider than it is tall, the sail is balancing the movement forward; if the sail is taller than it is wide, the sail is moving the ship with oars rowing to windward. What I have below are approximately the lines of the Thera ship.


Well north of the Greeks, the Baltic Sea has always supported the sailing life. Along the Baltic coast great stands of live oak trees grow. These trees were the keel and backbone timbers of the great British ships of the 17th, 18th and 19th century. And on the north side of the Baltic, the great successor to the Greek ships is Norway with their Viking ships. Thomas Gillmer explains it like this:

Two-thirds of Norway's populations live on the coastline; 90% of its' commerce is carried out on the water. The influence of Norwegian maritime knowledge is most currently evident in modern ship design. The great tankers, cargo carriers, naval vessels, yachts and even tugboats of the world bear the mark of Norwegian designers (from A History of Working Watercraft, 1994).

Here are the lines of a Nordland ship, which plied the waters of northwest Norway. The similarity with the Thera boat is here:

Today the quintessential Norwegian boat is the faering, which means 'four oared.' The designer Ian Oughtred specializes in these three planks to the side masterpieces. If an alien commando from the Krypton Galaxy invaded earth to land on a Norwegian beach, he would say upon seeing a faering, 'Well now, buckaroos, that's a ship!' It spreads open like a native dugout canoe, the ends rise like an ancient ship, and the planking is lapstrake in elemental form. For me, it just looks right. The faering was the transportation and cargo boat for the islands and northern coast of Norway. It can be beached, it is more stable as it is loaded, it can carry 6-8 people if built 14-20 feet, and a sail can be adapted to it. A faering doesn't require much wind, so the sails for authentic faering are usually low, sprit rigged sails with a jib and centerboard.


The Netherlands coast produced some of the most original ship designs ever, and some of them are still built today as pleasure or historical craft. Three of them are the botter, hoogar, and boieir. What all three have in common is a dead straight flat bottom. Philip Bolger was once asked if all boats had to have rocker. He said, with his knowledge of ship design, you could built a straight bottom if you have enough flare to the sides. The Dutch seemed to know this. With a straight keel, the rest of the ship can be build solidly and quickly. You can imagine the Dutch building up a perfectly level pad upon which to set in place a huge square keel of live oak, put in place to be beveled. Then the stem and stern bolted and joined to the keel to prepare for the frames and planks. No stronger base could be imagined to build right side up. What the Dutch ships have in common with the Thera ship are the upswept ends. They are lapstrake planked with plenty of flare to the sides. These ships sit somewhat deep into the water. Much of the Netherlands lays below the sea level The sea charges in, takes what land it wishes and retreats to deeper, colder waters. The Dutch had to develop shoal draft ships for the tides and the shallows. The bows are full and wide, with great beam before amidships so the run could be smooth and flat to the stern. This suppresses the bow wave rather than dividing it, causing a muffled crunch sound with little disturbance. While these ships are not racing machines, they create shallow waves regardless of the speed of the vessel. It's the classic codfish shape with a flat bottom, more like a small craft than a 30 footer.


Meanwhile, in the warmer waters off the coast of France, the French fishermen developed their own style. In ocean racing today the French rule. However, two world wars have destroyed so many craft native to certain waters along the northwest coast of France. One such design which has been revived is the chase-maree. The name itself means, sea hunter, 'mer' being the French word for the sea. The word came from an expression for wholesale fishmonger on the Channel coast of France. This fishmonger would buy off the fishing boats in the ports, sell to the markets inland. Chase-maree became the name for the cart he used to rush fresh fish to market. When pirates used three masted luggers to get out of ports, local fishermen built their own three masted luggers for speed. So the word for the fishmongers' carts was attached to these luggers. The fishermen would catch the fish, bring them to the beaches on high tide, land their fish and make deals with the fishmongers. La merre now means, 'the tide.' Chasser means, 'to drive forward' or 'to chase.'


On the other side of the Channel, Vikings had invaded England. Even though they were finally repelled at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, they left the legacy of lapstrake wood ships. The fishermen of northern England didn't always see fishing as a great industry. They were local men providing for their family or a community of families in thatched huts. They built lapstrake undecked boats, more like Norwegian skiffs than anything else. After all, sailing to Norway was a shorter trip than sailing to London. But the rise of herring fishing put the English in conflict with the Dutch. As a result, larger craft were needed to gain control the herring schools. At first, the English merely imported Norwegian skiffs, enlarging them with one square sail to leave plenty of room for the catch, the Shetland yole.

But then the Scottish, seeing they would be protected by the British in exchange for supplying fish to England, built longer ships with two masts, lug rigged. The Shetland yole became the North Island yole. They were not finely built, but rough and ready for ocean work.

And the yoles became the Scottish fifie. As the Industrial Revolution brough more people, harbors had to be enlarged to receive larger ships with more goods and materials. The fishermen responded with the fifie, a two masted yole. It had a nearly straight sheer, vertical stem and stern, and two lug sails. They were not pretty as yachts go, but they brough home the goods. A further development of the fife was the zulu (named because of the Zulu War in South Africa at the time), with its raked sternpost. They could be as long as 80 feet. Zulus were faster than fifies, more maneuverable. They performed their rough and tumble duties so well, the first motorized trawlers and fishing vessels were simply fifies or zulus with a motor and small sails.

Further south, at the Thames and Medway, barges hauled almost anything. These gentle giants usually aren't classified as sailboats or yawls, they're just barges. Flat-bottomed, they could use high tide to come up on the shore. When the tide retreated they sat on the 'hard' to dry out. They had no internal ballast, no keel, and according to one historian the mast could sail the barge forward or backward (I have never seen this in a photograph). They carried 3000 to 5000 square feet of sail on a sprit rig with head sail and relatively tiny yawl for steering. Their leeboard allowed them to make progress against the wind, even in shallow water. Sometimes the barge would have to sail somewhat close to a tree line, so the leeboard enabled the captain to keep his line in shallow water and slight winds. The work was hard, the pay low. Often young boys who signed on would never be seen after the first stop.

Part Two next month...


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