Beach yawls and punts, sprats and sole, pilots and salvage, sail and oar are all mere words and artefacts left over from a by-gone era in the town of Southwold. Today the quintessential sea-side town on the east coast of England is famous for its heritage, style and exclusive properties. Also, Southwold is surrounded by opulent churches that reveal a history of the town's wealth, generated from a 900-year strong industry of fishing and wool farming.
John "Dusso" Winter, Chairman of the 'Sailors Reading Room', a building reminiscent of a chapel that's situated on the sea front tells his tales to Classic Yacht TV. Told within this little gem of a room, John shares the history of the town’s fishing trade that now, only remains in the form of photographs and artefacts in this glorious meeting place.
This is a glimpse in to a room filled with models, photographs, accounts and figureheads washed up from days gone by.
With England’s thriving fishing trade peaking in the late 1700s, fishing punts were the staple vessel of choice for fishermen and their livelihoods. Later, towns such as Southwold saw an increase of larger vessels, built for the growing demand to salvage ships. Suffolk beach yawls, like the ‘Bittern’ which is featured in this film, were larger vessels being used for salvage and delivery work. Locals would use them to take pilots (navigators) out to anchored ships. Pilots would aid the crew in taking their laden ship up the river Thames to trade.Lowestoft and even up to Great Yarmouth had ‘beach companies’ set up to salvage ships who didn't make it. Shipwrecked off the Norfolk coast, larger vessels, like 'Bittern' would be used to sail and row out to these stricken ships to salvage goods and even save lives.
Towards the late 1800s when the fishing industry experienced a steep and really, a final decline, the East Coast became a haven for regattas – helped by the emergence of trains bringing London residents to holiday in Suffolk, Southwold would then become a destination.
Regattas where significant in reviving Beach Yawls that would be reincarnated and used for racing. They would give spectators enormous entertainment due to their rebirth from working boats into spectacles of fun and competition. Each boat carried an old-fashioned attitude of a commercial spirit, left over of course from fishing and salavage work.
The 'Bittern' was made famous here in Southwold because of her fast design which helped her win many races. John tells me that the old boys recall the helm of the Bittern ‘Winner Smith’ returning to Southwold having raced her in the Kessingham Regatta. “Did you win?” a local asked, “I don’t know, we see ’em when we started, we never see anymore of ‘em, so I suppose we must of done!”.
John makes a point that Southwold locals never boast! This ‘fast’ reputation lasted until it seems, she was beaten by a yawl from Lowestoft owned by the Young Beach Company, this boat was called “Georgiana” in 1892.
With rising competition that spurred on designers to make the fastest boat, The Old Company of Lowestoft took up the challenge by commissioning famous yacht designer G.L.Watson to draw a design to become named “Happy New Year”, the fifth to bear that name. Unfortunately, Georgiana dominated 1st place in races up until around 1910 and Happy New Year who was paid for by shareholders of The Old Company and Mr E.H. Forsberry, a local admirer, did not succeed in their quest to win the crowds over.
Beyond the yawl racing John Winter talks us through the incredible story of how the room was founded – by two women.
We referenced the following books in this film:
‘Inshore Craft of Britain In the Days of Sail and Oar’, Volume 1, by Edgar J. March
‘The Beachmen’ by David Higgins
‘Beach Boats of Britain’ by Robert Simper