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Fowey registered "Fairwind", FY822, anchored in Polperro harbour
Description of the boat registration system
In September 1786, the Ship Registration Act became law, requiring all commercial fishing vessels to be identified by an Alpha - Numeric code to be displayed or painted on either side of the bow. In 1987, this was standardised under EEC legislation.
Fowey was once the principal port of Cornwall, (between 1786 and 1939, nearly 1,100 ships were registered there), with several Home Trade shipping companies having their offices in the port. Although its prominence has declined and the shipping companies gone, it remains the premier commercial port in Cornwall and is still the Port of Registry for locally built boats and the prefix F.Y. is seen on the bows of many of the boats working out of Polperro today.
Boats are bought and sold and move to new ports. In the past it was quite common for a boat to be re- registered in its new port, but the cost of this today precludes most owners from doing so, most boats now retain their original registration numbers throughout their working lives. This makes for some interesting "boat spotting", and you can see quite a varied selection in Polperro.
In general the Alpha prefix consists of the first and last letters of her port of registry, but to avoid confusion there are exceptions.
Take a walk down to the harbour, sit and enjoy a Cornish Pasty and while you are contemplating your navel, or fighting off the seagull that has taken a fancy to your pasty, see if you can identify any of our boats.
A list of Polperro boats
Changes to the Fleet
Since this page was set up, there have been quite a few changes to the boats working out of Polperro. Saturn, Stormchild and Isabella have been sold on to new owners for fishing and left the harbour. MCB has been sold to new owners and de-registered, but remains in the harbour and is now called Keynvor, Cornish for “Open Sea”. Ohio and Kessenyans are both now working out of Looe.
Dawn Raider was owned in Plymouth, but was skippered by Ray Jordan and worked out of Polperro. She had engine problems and returned to Plymouth only to be bought by “Beaver” Thomas and Neil Harman, the previous owners of Stormchild and MCB. and brought back to the harbour. She is the only catamaran working out of Polperro.
Sumita , which has lain idle in the harbour for several years has been bought by Ray Jordan, who is getting her equipped and ready to finally put to sea. Viking Girl, and Ester Jayne are both new boats to the harbour, as is the Kingfisher which arrived this year. Owned by Andy Bracewell, she was bought for tripping, but is now registered for fishing as well.
There are two boats owned by Lankford and Son’s of Plymouth, but skippered and crewed out of Polperro. The Kathleen, which they also own, has gone to Looe and the Faith, skippered by Phil Courtis came in exchange. The Hope, skippered by Scott Govier, was a new building two years ago from the yard of Alan Toms in Polruan. Yes there will be one called Charity, she is currently being built at Alan Tom’s yard, but is expected to fish out of Looe.
In the days of sailing fishing boats, each area of the country developed their own design of boat suited to the local conditions and the type of fishing that they prosecuted. This was true of Cornwall, where there were many different designs of boat that evolved over a period of time. Looe and Polperro are only five miles part, but the design of the Polperro Gaffer and the Looe Lugger are completely different, although they fished for the same species, they evolved to suit the local conditions at each port.
Polperro has long maintained a fishing fleet which, at the turn of the century, was engaged in line fishing, principally for whiting, ling and cod. From August through to October, the boats then went netting for pilchards.
Several severe storms devastated the fishing fleet over the years, but a severe gale in 1891 caused havoc amongst the fleet in the harbour. These boats were large open, clinker built boats, spirit-rigged, with topsail and lug mizzen. After the storm they were replaced by, gaff rigged, carvel built boats from the yards of Pearce and Oliver in Looe. These new boats were referred to as 'gaffers'.
They had a small cuddy in the bows, with the mast stepped in the keelson, and a substantial beam. The deck was little more than a narrow waterway about eighteen inches below the gunwale, and amidships a bulkhead divided the net room from the fish hold; a further bulkhead separated this from a raised platform for the helmsman. A wooden roller spanned the full width of the hull, over the fish hold, which was used for scudding the nets as they were hauled.
The gaffers were about 25 ft. overall with a 9 ft. beam, the widest point being just aft of amidships. The wide transom stern was raked aft and they drew about 6 ft. aft. They had a steep midship section and were fitted with legs to keep them upright when they dried out. The mast was kept as short as possible, because it could not be lowered as they lay to the nets or lines, and in a swell a tall mast had a pendulum effect, which increased the tendency to roll. The Polperro men however managed to cram on a large sail area by augmenting the mainsail with a large yard topsail, rove through a block on the gaff, and by setting a jib topsail with the tack rope rove through a block on the end of the bowsprit. The mainsheet was rove through two double blocks, one hooked to the sail and the other working across an iron horse in the transom. This unconventional sail plan and the niceties of setting it to the best advantage were a source of pride to the Polperro fisherman. When the wind failed a long sweep was used and a sculling notch was cut into the transom to accommodate it. It was not uncommon for these boats to be sculled out to the grounds and back again, a round trip of maybe thirty miles or more. During the First World War motors started to be fitted to the boats, which enabled some of them continued fishing out of Polperro until the 1950's, when they were replaced by larger, shallower draft boats with a cabin.
Sadly there are no gaffers left in Polperro now, but there are several known to have survived and in use as yachts.
Gaffers known to have survived:
If anyone knows of any other genuine gaffers still afloat, or the fate of any of the others, could they please contact us on this site with the details, we would be delighted to hear from you.
Visit the Heritage Museum, and see a superb model of FY8 Gleaner,
once owned by Charlie Jolliff, made by local model maker, Ron Butters.
Tony White, © 2000
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