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Cornwall's seafaring legacy: weaving community bonds for a sustainable future

Written by Rob McDowell, Cornish Maritime Trust

I was born in Malawi, where three generations of family trampled the dusty paths before me. Looking back over the decades, I feel privileged having had opportunities to live in and explore wild places, often with mentors and conservation visionaries along this journey. My roots are Southern African, however, the wilds of Cornwall now flow through my blood, where community, the ocean and old wooden boats capture a new spirit of adventure. There’s an old saying down here in the south, that translates into something like "give a friend a fibreglass boat and an enemy an old wooden boat"! But perspectives are changing, as history is ingrained into the weather-beaten fabric and knots of these pieces of living history, capturing the lives and souls of past generations – lives that we should not forget!

Walking the bowsprit of the traditional lugger, Barnabas. © Rob McDowell
Walking the ‘mizzen boom’ of the traditional lugger, Barnabas. © Rob McDowell

Kernow a’gas dynergh - Welcome to Cornwall When people imagine the UK, they might conjure up images of antiquated seaside towns and perpetually overcast skies. However, there's more to its coasts than meets the eye. Picture instead crystal-clear waters, imposing cliff faces and the wild fury of our south westerly storms. This is Cornwall. As I write this in Mousehole, (a harbour village that dates back to around the 1280s and pronounced mow-zel) we are facing the wrath of Storm Ciarán. This is a weather bomb that’s gusting 85mph and conjuring offshore waves that measure 15 to 20 meters. It’s during times like these, that I think about the sailors of old, bravely navigating treacherous headlands with limited navigation. Or of fishermen, who built an industry based on their own observations of nature and inherited skills, rather than relying on machines. Cornwall's cultural marine heritage weaves a rich tapestry that has profoundly shaped communities in the UK.

Connecting with this heritage is a way to establish a profound link with the ocean and the myriad of ways it has touched people’s lives for centuries.

Luke Powell, Cornwall’s boat-building luminary, is a seaman who epitomises free-spirited sailing with the conviction that wooden vessels are living, breathing creatures that sculpt our lives and community. To walk barefoot on the deck is to experience a pure connection. In a conversation with Rick Stein, the renowned chef and restaurateur, Powell once said that "traditional boats are about love and passion, not money and maths". Eat in any of Stein’s award-winning coastal restaurants and you’ll find the same passion and love that underlies the cyclical connection between clean oceans, sustainable fishing, and the proud, hardworking community emblematic of Cornish coastal life.

The crew cooking dinner on Barnabas. © Chris Yacoubian
The crew cooking dinner on Barnabas. © Chris Yacoubian

However, as links to our roots are gradually forgotten or replaced, we feel there’s a cost that needs addressing. As our coastal community diversifies to adapt to the pressures of demand, our cultural landscape is rapidly eroding away. Sit in a coffee shop, drive through the fishing village of Newlyn, look at the cars and the properties being renovated and this change is easy to spot. We cannot slow down ‘progress’, however, we are in a position to try and do our bit to manage it. The essence of sailing Today, traditional sailing vessels stand as guardians of history, narrating stories of our forefathers while inspiring curiosity and wonder. Tanned sails above a black hull will always attract the attention of passers-by and plant a multitude of questions in the minds of seafarers and land-lubbers alike. Listen to discussions on the quay as these vessels ghost by, and the overheard murmurings may go something like: ‘Have you ever seen sails like that before?’, ‘Where has she come from?’, ‘Look at the size of those oars!’, ‘How old is she?’, ‘What’s her history?’, ‘How do they store the catch?’, ‘I bet she leaks and costs a fortune to upkeep’. Here, we’re talking of our lugger Barnabas. Built on a beach in 1881 as a St Ives mackerel driver, she’s a double-ended dipping lugger, 40ft long, has two masts, weighs 15 tons and is the flagship of the Cornish Maritime Trust.

Barnabas sailing. © Chris Yacoubian

Vessels like this once formed the livelihood of most Cornish fishing communities, as familiar as a bus or a tradesman’s van. A century ago, a fleet numbering in the thousands navigated our coast, harvesting our waters with nets and longlines. Today, Barnabas stands as the sole original survivor from this era. Our charitable trust has the privilege of owning three of the oldest, rarest and most traditional of Cornwall’s fishing fleet. These vessels represent three diverse styles of working rig, capturing a cross-section of maritime history in the form of lug, gaff and spritsail rigs. From one point of view they are all museum pieces, and many suggest they should be preserved (and viewed) out of the elements and under cover. For us, that would miss the point. The heritage and soul of these vessels are in their timber, canvas and crew, but even more so, the tradition is working the vessels purely under sail. In essence, sailing with no engine – just the wind and elements guiding us.

But what is the cost of our maritime heritage? This is a question we regularly debate. Without dedication (to preserve), enthusiasm (to sail) and notably maths (to cover costs), the foundation to sustain these vessels and keep them sailing diminishes. Each season, as sharp teeth snap at our budgets for maintenance costs, sailing expenses and educational outreach, we find ourselves grappling with the same questions: is it all worth it? How long can we go on? Toby Floyer, the Trust’s chairman speaks for us all,

"To skipper or crew one of these vessels is more than worth it. It’s an honour that is gilded by the actions of our forefathers."

The crew ‘dipping the main lug sail’ on Barnabas. © Chris Yacoubian

Putting the past into perspective In 1969, while most were fixated on a moon landing, HRH The Duke of Edinburgh and a select few founded the UK’s National Maritime Trust, aiming to recognise and save a fleet of vessels for the nation. Our trio of vessels made the cut. Despite the passing of several decades, these vessels are miraculously still afloat and educating a nation through traditional sailing.

The memories and history captured by these vessels are not just intangible reflections; they are palpable treasures.

On Barnabas’ 140-year celebratory sail in 2021, emotions surged and tears rolled down Sharon’s cheeks as she helmed Barnabas for the first time. Sharon is a direct descendant of the vessel's first owner Barnabas Thomas, and this was a dream come true.

Barnabas at sea.
Barnabas at sea. © Chris Yacoubian

Just recently, the oldest surviving relative of Barnabas Thomas made contact with us. He shared a few poignant memories from his St Ives childhood during the 1940s. On one occasion, he was referred to as a ‘little git’ and sternly told to 'bugger off' the boat. The 'fish room' below deck apparently brimmed with the last catch, so the crew were frantically gutting away, in order to offload and meet the next tide. However, his nostalgic recollections also paint a warm picture of Barnabas seated in an old rocking chair, pipe in hand, as he carried a stone hot water bottle up to the old fisherman's bedroom. An old scene remembered

Before Barnabas (the vessel) stopped fishing in the mid-50s, she was seen coming alongside the quay in St Ives, Mr Thomas Snr on the tiller and Barney (his son) with a long oar sculling. A snippet of banter captures the conversation of two local fishermen looking on at the scene:

"She ‘amben bin caulked from the garboard up for 81 years." "My, 81 years, a but owlder than you but not so owld as me." "Es, but she’s in better condition than both a we."

Simply translated, the garboard is the first plank laid on the boat’s hull and caulk is a mixture of cotton and oakum (hemp) fibre that is driven into the wedge-shaped seams between the planks around the hull to keep the water out. These two "old boys’" are implying that after 81 years, they are leakier than Barnabas! Looking to the future. Preserving our maritime heritage goes beyond safeguarding history; it's about ensuring the lifeblood of our communities continues to flow.

Reliving and cherishing our history are not mere reflections on the past; they are threads that weave through the present, keeping communities vibrant and alive.

Preserving the past is what we do, but right now the future is our focus. The question is "How do we honour Cornwall and its maritime history, culture and community while also preserving the heritage and skills that keep these vessels recognised and importantly, shipshape?" We believe the answer is to sail them, to gain wider interest and exposure. In doing this, we also importantly relive the experiences of our fore-bearers, understanding the challenges they faced and the skills they honed. It's about more than keeping wooden hulls afloat; it's about navigating our shared past and creating a sustainable future. There’s a "Red list of endangered craft" classification now. I’m told, our vessels, their types of rig and the skills to sail them form part of the endangered and critically endangered red list categories. It’s hard to appreciate what we often take for granted, until it's at risk of being lost. If traditional vessels stop sailing, we won’t just be losing a sailing vessel, but a complete heritage experience from our community. This is the extinct category. Over the next three years, our charitable trust will work towards raising money for the boat’s restoration and training young sailors to help the cycle continue. We ultimately need new masts, sails and electronics, but the list is long! We have recently partnered with an RYA-affiliated training centre in Newlyn, just 200 metres from our moorings. Here, we link theoretical courses with practical seamanship on our vessels. It's an exciting endeavour, and recent donations include a 22ft lugger solely for the education programme. This Sennen Cove Crabber is now used as a stepping stone, for crew to gain vital experience, confidence and leadership skills. Our ultimate goal is for certified graduates to skipper and crew traditional vessels or to secure jobs in the maritime industry. By fostering a sense of pride and ownership in the community, we believe this is the key to sustainability. This can be achievable through educating a new generation with the skills and desire to preserve our maritime heritage on land or at sea. In doing so, we’ll all play our part in helping to strengthen the community and importantly, preserve the vessels bestowed on us over a century ago.

Our living history isn't a static relic but a dynamic force that shapes the present and the future. Understanding this force is the key to how we can continue to thrive as a coastal community.

When the decks are sprayed with saltwater and our bow ploughs through the swell, it’s at times like these that the crew physically experience real-life aboard. They aren't just voyaging into the past; they're proactively participating in the continuity of our maritime heritage.

Aboard Barnabas.
Aboard Barnabas. © Rob Mcdowell

We have an exciting 2024 season ahead, which includes sailing to north west Scotland to make and fit new masts. We felled three Douglas fir trees last month in preparation for this community event! From here, we will head to Cork for an oyster festival, the Scilly Isles for their wild beaches and then to Falmouth, Mousehole, Brest and Douarnenez for traditional boat festivals. Together, by cherishing and understanding our history and coastal waters, we aim to keep our community not just alive and sustainable, but thriving. If this story has caught your imagination, you’d like to sail with us or would like to contribute to any element of the project, we’d love to hear from you. Dreckly! (Cornish for ‘at some time in the future…’)

Where else can we bare our soul, if it’s not out on the ocean!

The heritage vessels - Ellen (1882), Barnabas (1881), Softwing (1900) © Cornish Maritime Trust

The Cornish Maritime Trust Registered charity: 1037745

Barnabas: is a 40ft 1881 twin masted St Ives dipping lugger. She’s classified as a class 1 mackerel driver and is the last one sailing world-wide. Crewed by five to 10 and tightly sleeps seven. She is based in the Old Quay, Newlyn, Cornwall.

Our Aims: The aim of the Cornish Maritime Trust is to help preserve Cornwall’s maritime heritage by maintaining and sailing working vessels from the days of sail. As volunteers, we try to educate community about our maritime heritage, and in doing so, train people in the skills associated with traditional sailing.


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