Forward Into The Past

Most of our regular readers will know well that I am a dedicated fan of metal boats, so the following post may come as something of a surprise. For although Lou and I chose aluminium for our own voyaging boat, I still retain a love of wooden boats—aesthetically at least—particularly the honest, robust gaff-rigged wooden working boats. And for many years Lou and I have lived in one of the best places in the world to enjoy seeing them, Falmouth in Cornwall.

As the westernmost port of any consequence in the English Channel, Falmouth has an incredibly rich maritime tradition. Much of Britain’s mail to and from the far flung corners of the British Empire was carried in the fast Falmouth Packets, and it would have been a rare windjammer Captain who didn’t have a passing knowledge of the port, staging post that it was for onward delivery of inbound cargoes from around the world—“Falmouth for Orders”. And, of course, there were the dozens of smaller working craft that serviced and supported the big ships—the Falmouth quay punts, pilot cutters and the fishing fleet.

 The Falmouth oyster fleet laid up in the off season.

The Falmouth oyster fleet laid up in the off season.

Surely Those Boats Are History?

Maybe elsewhere, but not in Falmouth. We might not have the square-riggers any more (although many still visit) but we do still have the smaller boats. For example, the River Fal is home to one of the last working oyster fisheries under sail in the world. Many of these engineless boats have remained in the same family ownership for generations, and during the winter months tow dredges for the much-prized native oyster, as they have done for centuries. This is a fishery that survives through inefficiency—when there’s too much wind, they can’t work; when there’s too little wind, they can’t use all of their dredges. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for other fisheries…

There are usually around 20 oyster boats working the river, but quite a number of ex-oyster dredgers now form the backbone of the racing working boat fleet that do battle every week during summer. Some of this fleet are over 100 years old, still engineless and with few mechanical advantages, but under class rules are allowed to set a cloud of sail, making them surprisingly potent in the right hands. And the racing is absolutely the best there is. Not for the faint-hearted, this is real close quarters scrapping between well-matched boats. Sometimes too close if the number of broken bowsprits each season is any evidence.

Falmouth working boats line up at the start of an evening’s racing.

Falmouth working boats line up at the start of an evening’s racing.

New Builds and Restorations

Falmouth is home to a number of locally restored Bristol Channel pilot cutters, and also some of Luke Powell’s exquisite new build Isles of Scilly pilot cutters. Many years ago I saw Luke building the first of these beauties, the lovely Eve of St Mawes, and wondered whether there would ever be a market for such craft in an age of serial production boats. Luke, being a wise man, didn’t give a stuff about my thoughts or such irrelevancies as ‘the market’, and time has amply rewarded him for his wisdom.

Having now hung up his adze, Luke has turned to charter skippering his own Agnes in westcountry waters, so if you like you can join him and hear for yourself from a man who believes that wood is the ideal material to combine beauty and function in a yacht—and who deserves to be listened to. Or buy his book, a wonderfully readable account of his dedication and passion for the sea as much as for his beloved wooden boats.

Across the harbor in St Mawes, you can join Adam and Debbie Purser for a cruise or an RYA course aboard Eve, one of the very few sail training centres to use gaff-rigged boats. Or just browse through their catalogue of traditional charter vessels around the world. Want to go to the Antarctic in a square-rigger? With their help you can. Few people have done more to foster the renewed interest in sailing on traditional vessels than these two, and they have introduced countless people to the joys of the handy-billy, belaying pins and topsails over the years, Lou included.

"Curlew" outside the National Maritime Museum, Falmouth.

“Curlew” outside the National Maritime Museum, Falmouth.

Finally, my favourite. Tucked away in the corner of the harbour below the National Maritime Museum, sits a modest looking Falmouth quay punt. At first glance there’s not much to distinguish her from others in the racing fleet except that she is decked, but a closer look reveals a solidity and purposeful air that sets her apart from her peers. She is Curlew, built here in 1905 and owned for most of her last sailing years by the redoubtable Tim and Pauline Carr. Rescued and rebuilt with their own hands, they then sailed this little beauty quietly and capably from Pole to Pole—without an engine.

Always looking for the ultimate wild place, Tim and Pauline finally settled on South Georgia, in time becoming the custodians of the whaling museum there, which they rebuilt to be a thriving enterprise. You can live a little of this remarkable saga if you can find a copy of Antarctic Oasis, a stirring account of their voyaging life and times ashore in that loneliest of wild places, including some fabulous photography of South Georgia and its wild inhabitants. In 2003 they finally retired Curlew to the care of the National Maritime Museum, who take great care and pride in her; to my eyes she looks ready to go again. Look on her and be amazed at what a sturdy small boat is capable of in the right hands.

Keeping The Flame Alive

Having all of these wooden boats in one place has had other benefits, in that they provide opportunities for the right people to keep some of the traditional skills alive. There’s even one of the few schools of wooden boat building based in the town, supplying a steady stream of skilled men and women to yards in Falmouth and all around the world. Who’d have thought it, twenty or thirty years ago, when wood looked to be going the way of the dodo? And but for some of the people mentioned here, that might well have been the case, and something of real value and beauty would have been lost. None of them did so to get rich quick, either—they simply did what they did because they believed in it, as good a reason as any in my view. Thanks to them, in Falmouth at least, wooden boats are alive and kicking, and being sailed hard too. And while I don’t think we’ll be chopping in* our “traditional” aluminum centreboarder just yet—one day, who knows…?
*West Country for trading in.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • René Jul 3, 2013, 9:44 am

    Dear Colin,
    I have seen those beauties 2 years ago when stopping in Falmouth on our way to Horta.
    When I saw Curlew in the Maritime museum my heartbeat went up. I asked a museum clerk to open the gate to the dock (it was closed that day) just to be closer to the boat and eventually touch it!

    Thansk for the great post.


    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 6:22 pm

      Hi Rene

      Yes, that’s exactly how I feel about her. What a fantastic boat, lucky enough to have found owners worthy of her, who brought her back to life and then sailed her to the ends of the earth. And you know most people don’t even notice her….

      Best wishes


  • paul shard Jul 3, 2013, 9:51 am

    Hi Colin,
    Falmouth is a magic sailing town indeed. Sheryl & I have visited there a few times with Distant Shores and have filmed the lovely pilot cutters. We made a feature in our “Distant Shores” television series and we even interviewed Luke Powell, filming while they were building one of their lovely cutters at the boatyard in Gweek (2007).

    We also filmed out sailing for the weekend on the Jenny Wren. They are indeed beautiful boats!

    Thanks for your article!

    Fair Winds

    Paul Shard
    SV Distant Shores II – Martinique

    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 7:04 pm

      Hi Paul

      Great place isn’t it? And so is Gweek.

      And I’ll bet Luke was a great interviewee. And while he’s no longer building boats, I’ll bet if the right offer came along to build something like a Falmouth pilot cutter, he might just be persuaded to pick up the old adze again – I’d hope so, anyway.

      Best wishes


  • Jim Patek Jul 3, 2013, 12:26 pm

    Hi Colin

    Thank you and thanks for reminding me about the unbelievably beautiful photographs in the Carr’s book that I had the chance to look at while in the library at the maritime museum in Falmouth. Off to Amazon to get my own copy.


    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 7:08 pm

      Hi Jim

      What a book. One of my favourites, and not just for the photography, which is staggeringly good.

      Now out of print, I believe, but not for long I hope. There were a few copies on Amazon US and the National Maritime Museum usually has a few copies. A must for lovers of wild places under sail, even if only from the comfort of the armchair!

      Best wishes


  • Victor Raymond Jul 3, 2013, 2:31 pm

    Hello Colin,
    Another great post. Not sure how you do it. In any case having spent the last year in Port Townsend home to the Wooden Boat Organization as well as an annual wooden boat festival I have come to appreciate the beauty of these old and sometimes new designs. There is one boat in particular “Martha” that in spite of her age seems to win many of the regattas. So time has not necessarily been kind to the new designs.
    Anyhow Falmouth may be the capitol but Port Townsend is a close second.
    Enjoy your summer.

    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 7:16 pm

      Hi Victor

      Glad you like the post – many thanks for the kind words (as always).

      Isn’t it great to live in such places – I love the diversity of interests and passion for the sea in such places – in Falmouth everyone has a link to a boat of some sort and I’m sure Port Townsend is the same. Makes life interesting doesn’t it?

      Best wishes


  • David Jul 3, 2013, 3:55 pm

    Hi Colin,
    We love those old English workboats, and the American versions they’ve inspired in the Lyle Hess designs. Last 5 years we’ve sailed Tigress, a sistership of the Pardeys’ 30′ Taleisin, built in the traditional style. It’s amazing how well the pilot cutters sail, often passing newer boats of the same size, yet feeling solid and in control in the rough stuff.

    Here in the San Francisco area we have the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center and the Arques wooden boat building school dedicated to preserving the ways and skills of traditional boat building.

    David & Elena

    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 7:23 pm

      Hi David & Elena

      They’re great boats indeed, and there are even a couple of those Lyle Hess boats in Falmouth – there was a lovely one called ‘Cloud’ as I recall.

      And they do sail well, if you know how to get the best out of them – which means unlearning much of what you (think) you know. And places like these form a great repository of knowledge, as there are so many of these gaffers being actively sailed – and well.

      Wooden boats do seem to be undergoing something of a renaissance, all over the world – maybe it’s a reaction against the tyranny of series production!

      Best wishes


  • Marc Dacey Jul 3, 2013, 5:19 pm

    Colin, thanks for bringing back good memories. About 18 years prior to getting my first boat, I cycled as a university student on holiday around Britain, of which Cornwall and Falmouth in particular was a distinct highlight. Although at the time I was more interested in consuming rather more in the way of scrumpy and female art students that was good for a lad trying to maintain his bicycle balance, I do recall the “near warmth” of swimming in the Channel and the beauty of Falmouth Harbour which then, as now, had a significant number of working sailboats and related craft visible from the surrounding heights.

    By the way, my late father was a whaler for a couple of years in the late ’40s and I have a sperm whale tooth from South Georgia in my possession, along with a Solingen sailor’s knife he won in a card game while in Antarctic waters…so a double-tap on the memory bank!

    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 7:29 pm

      Hi Marc

      What with the scrumpy (that’s west country cider to anyone wondering) and the arts students it’s amazing you ever left! Many haven’t….

      Best wishes


  • John Rushworth Jul 3, 2013, 5:22 pm

    Hi Colin,

    What a nice reminder. I spent some months living on a mooring at Mylor Creek, prior to sailing North to Oban – so the working boats were part of my daily life. It amazed me to watch one chap tacking down the creek in 20 knots of wind and dodging all the moored boats so expertly. I was lucky enough to bump into him one day, when ashore and he gave me a postcard of his boat. He told me he hadn’t started his engine since last year!

    For a time I also lived aboard at Penryn and met some other working boat skippers. It was then I was introduced to the local beer to go with the Oysters. I guess I was lucky to escape back to Scotland, before the place and nautical ways got totally under my skin. All in all a great area to be about boats. Indeed the mooring I had at Mylor belonged to a BBC chap that worked on the Donald Crowhurst film, but that is another story as they say.

    PS Electric conversion working great on my yacht. 350 miles now of day and weekend sailing.

    PPS We just had all the Fife boats here on the Clyde for the 2013 Fife Regatta. Such beautiful wooden boats and they were moored 200 yds from my flat window, at the weekend. Scotland isn’t so bad after all 😉

    Thanks for the memories.

    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 7:35 pm

      Hi John

      As I remarked to Marc above, falmouth is a sailors flypaper – many arrive, believing they’re just passing through, then five years later they’re still just passing through – and why not?

      Watching the working oyster boats heading out from Mylor or Restronguet on a bitter winters day is a good reminder though this is real life, not some tableau vivant for the tourists. It’s good to be amongst real people.

      Best wishes


      • John Rushworth Jul 4, 2013, 2:48 am

        Hi Colin,

        Beautifully put. In fact were it not for a change in health, in my needing to come ashore and to be nearer family, I would probably still be based there living on my boat.

        Real people indeed. Some real cradle to cradle boats too, not cradle to grave ones, sucking up and wasting planetary resources at a high carbon cost.

        Also the level of resources for boaters around Falmouth seems to me, to be one of the best in the UK. I suspect the boat ownership per capita in Falmouth has something to do with it and is higher than the general UK figure of 1:107 and closer to the Norwegian figure of 1:7. Ref Digressing again eh 😉

        • Colin Speedie Jul 4, 2013, 8:07 pm

          Hi John

          Thanks for the great link – what a resource.

          And I think you’re right about the numbers – Falmouth must be amongst the highest levels of boat ownership per capita in the UK – or anywhere, for that matter.

          If you love boats – it’s never dull.

          Best wishes


  • Ken Page Jul 3, 2013, 6:44 pm

    Spent 3 months there in the winter of 2000 working on the last wood hull J-class, “Shamrock V” at Pendennis Shipyard. 29 to 30 days a month work, 10 to 12 hrs a day, I didn’t get much time (none of us did) to visit with the little guys, although we all wanted to. I loved Falmouth, even with just a couple of weekly night visits to the pubs and 3 days of playing tourist while my wife visited. And it was pretty awesome sailing Shamrock V out for a couple of shakedown day sails! A good couple of weeks or more in that area is on our bucket list, we loved it! ( At the time I was living in Falmouth, MA)

    • Colin Speedie Jul 3, 2013, 7:42 pm

      Hi Ken

      It’s always a pleasure to look out of our window overlooking the harbour, and guess the identity of the latest beauty to adorn the moorings – Velsheda, Shamrock and so many others arrive to re-fit at Pendennis.

      The skipper of one of the big classics was in for a long term re-fit and bought and campaigned one of the gaff-rigged working boats, so it’s entirely possible to integrate – all are welcome!

      Glad you enjoyed your time in Falmouth. I’ve also visited Falmouth (MA) and liked it too.

      Best wishes


      • John Jul 4, 2013, 8:54 am

        Hi Colin,

        Would that Skipper have been John Bardon and the boat the “Jenny Wren”. (I think that was the name of the boat, but could be wrong.) I knew John years ago when he used to come through Bermuda and I was sailmaking, although I have lost touch in recent years. John’s an incredible seaman and I seem to remember he sailed “Jenny Wren” across the Atlantic.

        • paul shard Jul 6, 2013, 8:41 am

          Hi John,

          Jenny Wren is very lovely, and for some years was owned by dear friends of ours, Pete & Trish. We filmed Jenny Wren out sailing for Distant Shores (episode #59) and she was fantastic! We felt very privileged to stay on her for the weekend as we cruised Falmouth area.

          Paul Shard

        • John Bardon Jun 14, 2014, 3:17 pm

          Hi John,
          I bought Jenny Wren in Antigua in the Spring of 77 with the thought of sailing her to the West coast of Ireland. Circumstances changed, the stern was rotten and she returned to Antigua for some work. Instead I sailed her to the Falkland Islands and back to Antigua with my brother David and Jan Miles ( Now Capt. of Pride of Baltimore) We did 12,00 miles in six months. I sailed her and lived on her in Antigua until John “Bulldog” Drummond sailed her to Mallorca. I was skipper on America by that time. I sold her in 1983 as by then we had almost finished Jessica( now Adix) and it was unlikely I would have time to sail her again. She was a great little yacht.

          • John Jun 15, 2014, 9:25 am

            Jo John,

            How wonderful to hear from you after all these years. Now you mention it, I have a foggy memory of hearing about your voyage to the Falklands. Must have been quite an epic, particularly at the time when so few yachts were going there.

  • faivet Jul 4, 2013, 3:47 am

    Un siècle de traditions qui s’ en va, réanimé par des passionnes de la voile a l ancienne
    Que nous réserve le monde nouveau ,?……

    • Colin Speedie Jul 4, 2013, 5:18 pm

      Hi John

      I’m not sure, although I think I recall the boat – maybe Paul (above) can help?

      Best wishes


    • Colin Speedie Jul 4, 2013, 5:21 pm


      Et la meme esprit qui existe a Douarnenez, ou a Brest, avec les grands festivals des vieux gréements.



  • John Jul 4, 2013, 8:46 am

    Hi Colin,

    A lovely post, beautifully written, that brought back many fond memories of my time at school in the West Country where I spent many a happy weekend looking at traditional boats in Dartmouth and Brixham. That was the limit of the range of my bicycle, so I did not get to Falmouth much.

    So true about “Antarctic Oasis”. I was given a copy by good friends when it first came out and it is truly an exceptional book.

    • Colin Speedie Jul 4, 2013, 5:26 pm

      Hi John

      Brixham still has a couple of the sailing trawlers (Leader, Provident) and the ‘yacht’ types that were derived from them (Regard, Golden Vanity), whilst Dartmouth was at one time the centre for restoration and repair of traditional boats.

      There used to be a real beauty up the river on the moorings at Noss by Phillip’s yard called ‘Airy Mouse’ (old west country for bat), which I coveted every time I went by her.

      Best wishes


  • Giancarlo Jul 5, 2013, 12:54 pm

    like many of you i also spent some time in Falmouth waiting for a weather window to cross Biscay and i very much enjoied the classic pilot cutters sailing along and the pubs…
    Following the tradition of the classic pilot cutter some of my favourites yacht designers(naval architects) Reichel- Puig ,Hoek and Djkstra are proposing modern hulls with the classic long sterns overhangs and straight bow,and i love them

    • Colin Speedie Jul 5, 2013, 2:32 pm

      Hi Giancarlo

      Falmouth has that effect on people – the weather’s not perfect, so time for another pint of Doom Bar in the Boathouse – and there’s always someone to talk boats with.

      And, yes, the straight stem seems to be making a comeback, albeit in a more modern idiom – funny how things come round again, eh?

      Best wishes


      • Giancarlo Jul 5, 2013, 5:39 pm

        Ciao Colin,
        you perfectly pictured both the weather and the party- boat mood in Falmouth.
        for more on traditional and new age pilot cutters
        Buon vento

  • David Kent Jul 5, 2013, 2:03 pm

    Good article. Several years ago I sailed in Isle of Skye waters aboard “Ezra”, a Luke Powell built Pilot Cutter. What a treat! Later Hurricane Ike did a number on my Lyle Hess designed Bristol Channel Cutter; I brought her back with a gaff rig and Dynemma standing rigging. As you say….. “Forward into the Past”. If you care to have a look at recent photos:

    David Kent

    • Colin Speedie Jul 5, 2013, 2:37 pm

      Hi David

      Many of Luke’s boats have gone into charter, and I used to see Ezra around in the Hebrides from time to time, but not for a while.

      You’ve done a fantastic job with your restoration – better than new by the look of it. And I like the idea of going over to Dyneema for standing rigging. We used galvanized rigging (parcelled and served) on the big gaffer I used to skipper, and later more and more boats moved to stainless to reduce maintenance and windage. So why not modern fibres? Seems like a good idea to me.

      Best wishes


  • paul Mills Jul 7, 2013, 5:48 pm

    Hi Colin,

    I have sailed on Eve and loved every minute. Falmouth working boats are just lovely – I even have them as my screensaver and visited one for a ‘dram’ a few weeks ago at an Old Gaffer event I crashed, near Oban…. one day I hope to own a ‘gaffer’ again, and still often think of my lovely Pretender – an old memory class.
    We have just arrived in Scilly and looking forward to exploring; but… over supper our youngest (7) was very keen that we leave time to visit Falmouth on our way by… and the maritime museum; obviously he’s been indoctrinated already 🙂


    • Colin Speedie Jul 7, 2013, 6:49 pm

      Hi Paul

      I’m not surprised you enjoyed sailing on ‘Eve’ – she’s a lovely boat run by some really great people. And you know a thing or too about gaff rig – when we first met you were skipper of one of the last big Brixham sailing trawlers, ‘Provident’, so our careers have a similar arc, albeit many years apart.

      Hope you have a fantastic time in the Isles of Scilly, a perfect place for your Ovni and family. And your son is obviously a chip off the old block!

      Best wishes


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