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Reviving Essex's Workboats

Discover Essex Heritage Workboats, our next contribution for 'Stories within Our Isles'. Essex Heritage Workboats is run by Gerard Swift and Lyndon March who are boat builders, barge skippers and avid tea drinkers. Explore the following words and photography as they take you through the importance of reviving such historical boats.

Owning and maintaining anything old will always have a financial implication. Strangely, it feels like it’s been a hard lesson for the heritage boat world to have learnt. There was a time when you could pull a forty or sixty year old wreck off the beach, fit her out and go sailing. Time however has marched on, and as the wrecks enter their centenary years, have become too tired for sailing on their original bottoms and rag-tagged gear.

The plundering of the foreshore combined with enthusiastic owners who found the means or ways to rebuild a vessel has left us with an interesting picture. One marked with the survival of ships that eked out their lives as homes or yachts. Some motorised, stripped of sailing splendour and the little oddities that have been in near originality and use for over a century.

That’s what we are left with; a hundred and thirty important but lucky survivors. All unique, all originally built before 1965 somewhere on the Essex Coastline. There are already organisations looking after and categorising these craft, but their remits are limited. With little help for private owners, no organisation of events and a lack of community.

Building a community, handing down skills and invigorating owners is at the core of Essex Heritage Workboats. The fleet, as you can imagine, is diverse. Varying from 80ft Thames Barges, three classes of Fishing Smacks to important pulling boats, skiffs and bumpkins. For the last 30 years the East Coast sailing scene has felt racing obsessed. With this, vessels that aren’t eligible; too slow or too big; have fallen by the wayside, often being sold on abroad.

By building a community which has people and history at the forefront means these vessels have a value away from racing. Insuring people understand how special and important for Essex history their vessel is. This has pushed us down a route of research and discovery, finding in archives not only incorrect facts but forgotten information and a wealth of stories that show the social history of these vessels.

Very much in its infancy and currently slotted in around our full time jobs of building, painting and skippering historic craft, we have high hopes of Essex Heritage Workboats. Already launched is the shackle and splice challenge and our own register. The challenge is a way of engaging with owners throughout the winter and to build links between the various types and sizes of vessels. The register is an on going project and currently lists all the existing vessels. Over time each vessel will gain its own information page.

The wonderful ability of Essex Heritage workboats is being unrestrained by genre, racing or national remit. Therefore it can cater directly to current and future custodians. Our plans are looking at sustainable fishing and transport using our craft, rebuilding infrastructure as well as hosting events and helping owners draw down funding.

Words by Essex Heritage Workboats & Photography by Seamus Masters & Chrissie Westgate


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