A Register of Interest
PUBLISHED: 14:32 18 August 2010 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013
A National Small Boat Register has recently been launched by the National Maritime Museum. In this December issue, we find out what it is all about.
You can see history withering away before your eyes in creeks and rivers, on mudbanks and in harbours all over Cornwall. The rotting skeletons of once proud boats take years to decay into the mud, colonised by barnacles and limpets, seaweed, crabs and invertebrates. Eventually the mud claims them and they are no more, and as they go, so we lose a part of our heritage.
The same thing is happening in waterways all over the country. Great ships are not easy to ignore and have loyal supporters. Although expensive, several have been saved for future generations. Funds were quickly raised for the restoration of the Cutty Sark, which was almost destroyed by fire. The SS Great Britain is another model of conservation, while the Mary Rose was actually reclaimed from the sand.
The poor relations are generally boats too small to be noticed and yet infinitely more closely associated with individuals, especially in a county like Cornwall where boats have played such a large part in the fishing history of the community.
Happily, things have been changing in recent years. Traditional boatbuilders have spent as much time repairing and preserving boats as they have producing new craft, keeping alive the skills and traditions of their area of the county. A boat from Truro may not be built the same way as a boat from Falmouth, any more than a Sennen craft is the same as one from St Ives.
The archetypical preservation story is the rescue of the three veteran pilot gigs by Newquay Rowing Club. Newquay, Dove and Treffry all date from the first half of the 19th century, but thanks to the work of the club, and boatbuilders like Ralph Bird, they are still afloat and still active.
But what should we be preserving and why? Which boats should we be working hard to save and pass on to our children, not only in Cornwall but across the country?
To a family, the beloved Mirror or Topper dinghy in which all the family learned to sail, and which bears the marks of years of enjoyment, is a treasured possession: the scar where the boat hit a rock one wet day; the limpet scrapes where someone pulled it up a beach; the dent in the bow where someone came ashore too fast or dropped it in the driveway... Treasured but not necessarily of national or regional importance.
The matter becomes less clear when one considers, let's say, a small crabber. How should we distinguish between which is worthy of preservation and which should be allowed to decay. Or perhaps it is better re-used as a flower trough, being too rotten to go to sea? Usage down the years leaves its marks here too: the scuffed gunwale where the pots were hauled in; the rough wood added to hold an outboard motor; the wear on the woodwork where ropes rubbed the wood as the sails powered the boat through rough seas. A Cornish boat is not naturally a pristine boat; it is a boat which has been used and, one hopes, loved.
The National Maritime Museum Cornwall is now trying to answer some of these questions. Each year we get offered treasured family boats which have been loved and cared for and perhaps left in a garage for a few years. Some turn out to be unexpected gems, such as the early OK dinghy we were recently offered. This was a class which had played an important role in the history of dinghies, and it is a good early example.
It is not always this easy to accept boats, however. We do not need (or have the space) to take one of everything. If the museum in Liverpool has a good example of an important class then we can always borrow it if we want to display it. Our task is to make sure that someone is collecting the major classes, either in museum collections or in private hands on the water where others can see them.
But where are all the important boats? We recently put online our new National Small Boat Register (NSBR). It is a simple concept - a database of all the nationally and regionally important boats in the country. Our aim is to collect details of all the important boats we can to help ensure that our maritime heritage does not disappear forever. Including a boat on the Register helps us to keep track of it, to know that it is safe. The information also helps us compare and contrast, too. If we are offered a boat then we can look at the database and see if there are others already being preserved or whether this boat, like the OK dinghy, is just what we are looking for.
And we need your help. If you know of a boat that should be preserved, either because of its national or regional significance, or because of some great feat it has performed, or simply because of its age, send us the details. Provided the owner agrees, we will then post its details on the web. Using a simple scoring system we will then rate its importance and this could, one day, ensure that it receives help and survives for others to enjoy it as you have.
This is only a start, of course. In the future we hope to make the database interactive so that you can add pictures of boats, comment on the histories or record anecdotes. We want to make Cornwall an exemplar for this work; after all, the boats are on our doorstep.
So, get out there and find the historic boats of our coast - cove boats, luggers, toshers, crabbers, drivers, gigs and punts - and help us to record them by downloading the entry form from our website.
The National Maritime Museum, Falmouth 01326 214546, www.nmmc.co.uk