4th of July Whimsy: Bring Back Working Sail!


For this post today, I thought I would talk about a subject that has been fascinating lately: the resurgence of the working sailboat. Since I had my first taste of sailing, I have been fascinated with ships. And not just any ship, but ships that seem to call out to me. The tall ships, wooden ships from a bygone era of shipping and fishing. Working ships, or ships that the common man would take out for work, and come home as quickly as possible.

Wooden ships seem so old fashioned today, but those that have survived have done so for hundreds of years. Those that haven't were generally neglected or broken up for fence posts or firewood. It's only through the magic of modeling that we know much about these magnificent, often simple, craft that were so common in harbors around the world.

Of these fabulous boats that range from the Frigates of war to the schooners, skutsjes and baldies, and yes I'm biased, the Scottish fishing fleet of herring drifters have most fascinated me. Their lines, wide decks with fading reminders of the Viking longboats, and the interesting use of lug rigs that seem so simple, yet so effective. They were built for the rough seas of the North Atlantic, and recently a lugger from Cornwal made it to Australia using the same basic designs and lugsail rig.

So why this class of boats instead of a sleek sloop, a majestic schooner, or a modern multihull? Well, a lot of it has to do with the history. This class of sailboat didn't become famous for racing, world traveling or pirating prowess. They were average working boats, running after herring and other fish. The larger of the class, decked Fifies and Zulus, carried their men in relative comfort while providing plenty of room for the "silver darlings" that made their trade.

As a boat they were flexible, able to do line fishing as well as drift net fishing, and the lugsail design gave plenty of deck room for working, unlike modern sloops which use the deck room for cabin space. Crew would be housed generally either in the forecastle or the stern, with the middle of the ship dedicated to holding the cargo. The keel had no centerboard for convenience of beaching on the smaller Skaffies, and because the larger Fifies and Zulus would sit in harbors of highly fluctuating tides that regularly would place the bottom of the boat in the mud.

The ships were well built for speed, cutting through the waves with their nearly 90 degree bow and the huge sail area with their lugsail rigging. They could race into the port with up to 80 tons of fish in the hold plowing through the rough seas of the North Sea and into the small harbors of Scotland, Ireland, and England.

So why don't we see many of them now? Well, Skaffies have seen a resurgence in smaller craft of late, with Drascombe Scaffies being built for day sailing. Few of the old ships remained because when steam engines and eventually diesel extended the range of ships, the sailing fleet became financial burdens. Many were left to neglect, some have even salvaged from lakes. Many were converted to steam and then diesel, but as the herring trade in Scotland began to diminish for various reasons, even these boats started their decline. The few surviving Fifies are maintained by national trusts.

It's a shame really, because they are such versatile ships, but with the decline of sailing to none but the leisure sailer, it looks like they may never come back. Instead they are relegated to small day sailers in the Skaffies, and historical relics in the Reaper and the Swan.

But then, I read an article about a couple in Mendocino County that made their sailboat pay for itself while fishing. In their case, it was fishing for salmon, and it got me thinking. With our current focus on sustainable fishing in the US and the rising costs of fuel, is it possible that sailboats could again become a profitable and sustainable method of commercial fishing?

At least one blogger, fisherman, and sailor doesn't think so, at least not in the English Channel. John Pedersen on his blog Commercial Fishing from a Sailboat has had little to no luck sustainably fishing in the Channel, and finally had to give it up. He was fishing from a 30 foot Catamaran, trying both line fishing and long line fishing. His experiences are worth reading, and shed quite a bit of light on the experiences of becoming a commercial fisherman.

But why even bother? Because sailing reduces the cost of fuel for a fisherman, and even the cost of crew. Less fish caught than a monster fishing vessel motoring through the ocean doesn't have that much of an impact because costs are less. Still, it doesn't protect the sailboat fisherman from the ups and downs of commercial fishing.

What about shipping? Shipping by sail has been more or less considered dead, the large frigates, schooners, brigantines and clipper ships have all made way for reliable steam and later diesel ships that don't rely on the whims of sail to deliver their products. But there is an apparent resurgence of shipping by sail in small markets that are bringing in premium prices because they are more eco-friendly. Provided you have the right market, the right product, and the right ship, shipping could become a profitable sailing venture.

So I started looking into different commercial freighters using sail, just to see who is doing it out there. Apparently one company, Fairtransport (Dutch, interestingly enough), has not only started shipping with a 35 ton cargo sailboat, but has plans for a modern sailing freighter that would move cargo at much the same rate as modern motor cargo freighters. A quick scan and several web searches failed to produce a Green Cargo company in California or the West Coast. Would it be a potential market here?

So the future of sail looks very bright. Perhaps with the desire to be more ecologically friendly, more of the majestic sailboats will start to emerge, such as the Fifies and Zulus of Scotland's proud herring fleets. After all, they would have made great freighters too!

Happy Forth of July everyone!