Issue 212
March/April 2020

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Mar 28, 2020

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Skaffi es, Zulus, Fifi es – and Foureens and Sixareens too!

Nick Jones mugs up on traditional boat building terms for his local pub quiz team

Blyth Tall Ship Williams II and Pipeline Laying Vessel. Picture: Nick Jones

STRONG-ARMED into joining the pub quiz team, I protest that I'm a liability – our team has landed the booby prize three times recently.

Luckily the first set of questions is about boats and, surprisingly, I know what Skaffies, Zulus and Fifies have in common, because I've just been to the Blyth Tall Ship boatyard, north of the Tyne, where traditional boat building craftsmanship is being kept alive. They are all luggers, Scottish fishing vessels with a four-cornered lugsail suspended from a spar called a yard.

I'm shown round by lead shipwright John Bell, who has designed and is now building a replica of a "Zulu", so named as the first of them was built in Lossiemouth in 1879, the year of the Zulu Wars in South Africa.

He leads a team of retired engineers, boatbuilders and volunteers, teaching boatbuilding skills to young trainees and unemployed people. The project offers NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications) in Marine Engineering Levels 1, 2 and 3.

Trainees get plenty of experience, not just in building, but also in maintaining, restoring, and sailing different types of boat. It's good to see them still being made by hand. Outside, there's a pile of offcuts – cutting to the right size and shape is tricky.

BTS work with one of the biggest timber yards in Northumberland, who supply wood including oak and larch. The Zulu's keel is greenheart from Guyana. Centuries in the growing, its weight, density, and water-resistance make it ideal for marine use.

Many joints use special dowels called treenails (aka trenail or trennel); and there's another skill, ensuring the different expansion and contraction qualities of different timbers work well together to secure a tight fit despite variations in temperature, stress and humidity.

Boatbuilding demands precision woodworking skills, and an ability not just to envision the relationship between different sections of the hull in three dimensions, but also to appreciate the dynamics as the timbers are exposed to all the pressures affecting a boat moving fast through the water.

And how fast! The Zulu could touch 16 knots under full sail, a great asset when it came to getting the herring back into port, as first in made the best prices.

John's lucky to have experts to hand, including one of the few people who know about traditional rigging. Other boats being worked on include a 'Foureen', designed for four rowers, and a forerunner of the 'Sixareen', based on an old Norse design. Alongside is a traditional coble, flat bottomed for easy beaching, essential given the scarcity of deep-water harbours on the Northumberland coast.

John is 18 months, and some fifty thousand pounds, into the project, and reckons it could be the same again, and then some, before she sails. Funding is an issue. It takes time and effort to find, apply for and then meet the criteria of key supporters like the Heritage Lottery Fund.

An important port since medieval times, this project has helped to revitalise Blyth's quayside, attracting complementary enterprises, even a restaurant.

In the past it was shipbuilding, fishing, and shipping coal that provided work. Today Port of Blyth is a major base for huge support vessels for the north sea oil and gasfields, and, increasingly, offshore wind farms. Also dockside lies "Williams II", a 36 meter gaff rigged ketch, built in Denmark in 1914, that gives the Blyth Tall Ship project its name.

Double-hulled in oak, to withstand icy polar waters, she is similar to the original "Williams" that Blyth's famous Captain William Smith sailed south to discover Antarctica in 1819.

There are plans for "Williams II" to set sail for northwest Scotland in May, and then to sail the Northumberland coast in the summer. Crewed with the help of young trainees, it offers great opportunities for anyone interested in trying their hand at crewing and sailing tall ships.

Interested in joining 'Williams II' for a few days, or longer? Then keep an eye on the website.

Meantime, back in the boatyard, Janice Snowball and Astrid Adams are making sure that the crew will be as warm as can be, in the traditional garment, by organising the hand-knitting of many ganseys. The gansey, or guernsey, using wool retaining natural lanolin, is spun with a hard twist, then tightly knitted, to be as waterproof as possible, repelling rain and spray.

The Blyth Tall Ship Gansey, with its own special design, comes in two colours – navy for sailors, and grey for supporters. Amazingly, over a hundred volunteers from all over the world are knitting away, and, if you fancy joining them, get in touch for details.

Fancy a BTS Gansey? You will soon be able to buy one, at a price that reflects hours of skilled knitting, and to raise funds for the project.

Still wondering what a Fifie and a Scaffie are? A Fifie was developed in Fife to fish for herring using drift nets. The "Reaper" is a great example, and usually docked in Anstruther, home of the Scottish Fisheries Museum.

A 'Scaffie' is a clinker built Scottish fishing boat, lightweight for easier beaching. Not to be confused with the 'Skiff', a rowing boat for pleasure and leisure, which has seen something of a revival in recent years. There are crews in small harbours up and down the northeast and beyond – best seen on regatta days.

Blyth Tall Ship Project: and Scottish Fisheries Museum:


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