Maria: The Last Norfolk Broads Lateener


By JOHN PERRYMAN
For me it was a true ‘Howard Carter’ moment, standing at the open door of an ancient collapsing boatshed deep in the heart of the Norfolk Broads in the closing gloom of a summer evening in 1969. There, as the last rays of the sun flickered through the web-woven windows, lay the hull of the ancient and venerable Maria, the very last of a once proud indigenous fleet of lateen-rigged racing yachts.
I eased my way into this tottering, tumbledown boatshed, itself of an age of centuries, and cautiously squelched my way over the waterlogged earthen floor toward my quest. The proud stem and clinker planking peered out like a giant tortoise from under a blanket of rotting rat-eaten canvas. Dare I touch her or would she, like some cursed mummy, disappear in a pile of dust at the caress of a finger? No, she was hard, very hard, as I tapped my knuckle here and there. I squelched and squeezed my way past countless years of boatshed ephemera to the stern. There, by light from a broken window, I could see the perfectly formed lute stern of this exquisite Georgian racer. Surely the rarest example in the country of the skills of the early 19th-century boatbuilders, I mused.
Maria was Broadland’s best-kept secret. Many old timers knew she existed but none would say where. Indeed, I had started my quest on no more than a hint from the assistant harbourmaster, Bill Solomon, at Oulton Broad. “She’s up there somewhere, but I ain’t a tellin’ you where. If you want to see har you’ll hatter foind har yu’self,” he said.
It had taken a holiday cruise into waters where no self-respecting hire boat should go, ending up in the last spit-and-sawdust pub in Broadland, buying pints all round to get one man to break the oath of mystery. “I’ll tell y’u where to goo, but I doubt y’ull not foind har,” he concluded. But I did.
Here she was and had been since the outbreak of war in 1914. She had sat chocked up on just two cradles all through the First World War, the following depression, the Second World War, austerity and thereafter until that evening in 1969.
But that was only her lay-up period. She had been built in 1827 and for the first 87 years of her life had been a race winner nonpareil, the very doyen of lateeners. And now I was facing confirmation that she had outlived them all.
Maria – her history
John Bellamy Plowman was a merchant adventurer with an estate at Normanston Hall, Lowestoft, and shares in the first four-masted full square-rig ship L’Invention, a captured French privateer with which he traded across the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean. He also had a son, Richard, and a daughter, Maria.
His Lowestoft estate adjoined the stretch of pastoral water known as Lake Lothing, which in turn connected with the Norfolk Broads. Young Maria liked nothing better than messing about on the lake in various boats and for her 21st birthday in 1827 her doting father had one of these newfangled lateen racers built.
Under her original twin-lateen rig Maria raced with success at every match on the Broads in those early years. Her first cup was at the Lowestoft regatta of 1829 and she went on to win many others with, one would like to think, Miss Maria at the helm.
Miss Maria was courted by William Gilbert, son of the squire of Cantley, and they were married in 1829 when Maria was 23 years old. They continued to race Maria until, sadly, Maria Gilbert died in 1834. A heartbroken William Gilbert sold Maria to Sir Jacob Preston of Beeston Hall, Norfolk, in 1837.
From there on Maria was campaigned on the racing circuit of the north rivers and Broads with astonishing success. Indeed, at one regatta at Wroxham, it is reported that other boats refused to sail with her. Accordingly she was refused entry and another lateener, Hornet, won the cup. As these boats had at least one paid hand on a share of the prize money, this did not go down well on Maria and a fight ensued and scores were settled.
Maria passed through the lineage of the Preston family, always being sailed at every opportunity until that fateful day when the world changed forever and the First World War commenced. On 4 August 1914 Maria was laid up in her boatshed and there she remained until 1969 when I turned up.
The Lateen rig
The graceful triangular lateen rig is not associated with boats of English waters, more the pirate Xebecs of the Barbary Coast, Venetian war galleys or the graceful craft of the Nile. English galleons of Samuel Pepys’ time sported lateen bonaventure mizzens to aid manoeuvrability, but the sail fell out of use in favour of the gaff rig.
Just how and why the lateen rig should appear on the Norfolk Broads in the early 19th century is not recorded. The first mention seems to be on the Waterwich, a lateener built by R Etheridge at Norwich in 1818. On the tortuous waterways of the Broads, the rig had advantages to windward over the standing and dipping lug and many were built for the sporting gentry.
The open longshore beach boats of the Suffolk and Norfolk coast – often referred to as ‘punts’ – were rigged with a high-peaked dipping lug mainsail, with a small standing lug well aft or on the transom – a rig not uncommon in various forms on other coasts, although locally the dipping lug was much higher peaked. It is a reasoned argument to assert that the early Broads ‘lateeners’ were ‘punt’ rigged where the line of the yard continued as the luff down to the tack of the sail. The resulting triangular sail was later fitted with a boom to save having to dip when going about in the narrow waters of the Broads. Dixon Kemp records this type as a “Lowestoft lateener”.
However, engravings also show that a two-masted loose-foot lateen was quite common. Indeed, Robert Pike, the Great Yarmouth sailmaker of that period is on record as saying that Maria was originally rigged as such. It was clearly soon discovered that the lateen sail would handle off wind and stand to windward even better if the foot of the aft sail was laced to a boom. The result was a very curious arrangement whereby the boats were technically schooner rig with a lateen on both masts and, of all things, lateen topsails to fill in the gap between the upper yard and the heavens.
One feature common to lateeners worldwide, including the Broads, concerned reefing. Reefing from the foot of the sail upwards would not work easily without a loose luff to be gathered up, the luff being a spar down to the tack. The result was a triangular reef along the yard with the narrow end at the tack.
The very competitive racing at the various ‘frolics’ – as the regattas were called – provided impetus to vary the rigs. It was soon discovered that two lateen sails was not the best way to maximise the sail area potential on this near-schooner rig. The mainsail became gaff rig and the size of the lateen foresail increased to fill up the space now available on the foreside of the mainmast.
Many boats retained the triangular lateen foresail with the yard meeting the boom at the tack and using the triangular reefing method. Others opted for a lateen lug rig where the yard terminated a few feet short of the boom but the sail was still triangular.
This arrangement allowed for the reefs to be parallel to the boom, but encouraged the sail to twist at the luff when very close-hauled and gave some loss of drive. Maria and possibly others went for the best of both worlds in that her foresail was triangular as a true lateen but fitted with reef points parallel to the boom. This ensured a straight luff at all times. To reef, the lower end of the yard was unlaced to take up the slack and the spars crossed like scissors.
Maria’s foremast is actually stepped to the stemhead and secured in place by nothing more than an iron semi-portable strap. The heel sits in a notch in the lower breasthook – nothing else; no shrouds, no runners, nothing. The only standing rig is on the mainmast where, as a forestay is not possible (it would foul the foresail boom) the shrouds are required to secure the mast in all directions. The single shrouds lead down to an eye and a bifurcated tackle to spread the load along the deck. Otherwise the mainsail’s running rigging is standard for a gaff rig.
The lateen, however, required a special approach and a legacy of the rig is the Broads high-peak lugsail. Maria’s lateen was hoisted on a four part tackle with the upper block fitted to a crane iron. To prevent the yard from swaying about where it crosses the mast, a rope brail was fitted, a single line with a hard eye at one end. The eye was secured to the yard – at the point where the yard crossed the mast – by a clove hitch, with the eye just clear of the knot.
The long tail went round the mast, through the eye and down to belay. The geometry of the sail precluded the use of an iron traveller for this purpose. Similarly the boom was secured to the mast where it crossed by a short line made up on the boom with a clove hitch, both tails passed around the mast and tied off with a reef knot. The boom was secured against the pull of the halyard by a chain or wire to the mast or deck. Photographs show that Maria had a fore topping-lift from the masthead to the tack of the boom and another to the aft end of the boom, both serving to hold the boom clear of the deck when lowering.
The Secret of Maria’s hull
Maria’s beautiful Georgian lute stern that so caught my eye was characteristic of the period. It was only a few years later that yacht designers were discovering the enormous speed advantages in extending the stern into the rule-cheating waterline length-increasing device called a ‘counter’. Increased waterline length meant a longer wave form and a higher speed potential. Counter sterns were built to ridiculous lengths where the rudder was effectively amidships.
Hitherto handicapping on race boats had been based upon the length on the ‘ram’, the length at the deck from the fore side of the stempost to the aft side of the sternpost; anything abaft the sternpost was not counted. Inevitably, rules came in whereby the length of the counter stern was included. The Broads had their own version, which served to curb the excesses of design. Lateeners, including Maria, reigned until the 1860s when the all-round handiness of the cutters found favour.
In 1933 William Maxwell Blake, the noted East Coast yacht designer and historian, found his way to Maria’s lair deep in the heart of the Broads and lifted her lines and details. It is Blake’s typically meticulous draughtsmanship that allows a close study of Maria’s form to be made – a study that reveals a very curious secret and not something that would be expected.
It would be reasonable to assume that, as she was built at Great Yarmouth, she would have many, if not all, of the characteristics of other craft of the area. However, Mr Blake’s eye for the lines and his careful plotting reveal one principal difference from local craft. The great beach yawls and lesser luggers all had to work off the beach and were consequently flat-floored in order that they should sit upright. Maria’s midsection, however, is nearly semi-circular.
She could not work off the beach. From there the lines are drawn out to hollow ends below the waterline with buoyant fore body upper sections and that neat little lute stern. It is little wonder that Maria was fast with her fine ends and shallow floor. Her windward performance had to be good with her ample lateral area to lean on. Going about would require a technique known locally as ‘sailing through’ a tack: easing the boat up to wind and keeping way on as you bear away. The surprise comes when Mr Blake’s lines are transposed, scale ignored, over the lines of a French lugger or Chasse Marée by the name of Le Coureur. They are identical! But for an upright sternpost and a slight rake to the stern, one could be the other.
Did this mean that Mr Plowman, with possibly his French connection by way of L’Invention, had sound experience of the speediness of the French luggers as privateers and smugglers? Did he perhaps have a chance to acquire the lines of Le Coureur, as drawn by Admiral Paris and published in Souvenirs de Marine? Did he then present them to Mr Brown, the accredited boatbuilder at Great Yarmouth, and say: “Build for me the lightest hull that your skill will allow exactly to these lines but scaled down to 25ft overall and omit the bulwarks”? Mr Brown did exactly that and probably used a simple diagonal scale to lift the dimensions off the drawing. His only change was to ease the sheerline such that the lowest point was amidships and to give her an upright sternpost. In all other respects Maria is a scaled down Le Coureur.
Mr Blake, with his usual attention to detail, worked out her displacement as 3.4 tons and a midsection area of 9.4sqft giving her a prismatic coefficient of 0.53, which could not be bettered.
Maria has yet another surprise: she is built on a full-length cast-iron keel – in 1827, years before external ballast was the norm. Another ancient document available to Mr Blake showed that between 1826, the start of her build, and 1829, well into her third season, there were four additions to her ballasting including some 300kg in 12 squares of iron and lead covered with leather. Possibly this was portable ballast shifted on each tack, another method noted by Dixon Kemp.
The mainmast is positioned exactly as per Le Coureur but the foremast, very far forward in Le Coureur, is, as we have seen, moved to the very stemhead. Whilst the mainmast is counter balanced, Broads fashion, the foremast was simply unstepped to accommodate the many bridges. The original sail plan for Le Coureur set the pattern for Maria’s first sail plan. Omitting Le Coureur’s mizzen, main topsail, fore topsail and headsail, the remaining two lugsails require only a slight adjustment to become loose-foot lateen. Maria’s final rig, with a gaff mainsail and a boom-footed lateen foresail, totalled an astonishing 755sqft on a 3.4-ton boat. With Le Coureur’s hull and that massive sail area she was fast.
The Rescue
As I poked about the ancient hull in the near total gloom of that evening, I became aware that I was not alone. A nervous glance to the light of the doorway revealed the silhouette of a small man with a strong resemblance to Robinson Crusoe. He spoke in a thick Norfolk accent and invited me to explain the purpose of my visit without permission.
In my enthusiasm to see this wondrous boat I had not thought to look around to see if the place was inhabited. So it was not unreasonable that this elderly gentleman should seem hostile toward my intrusion. I spluttered apologies and sought forgiveness but I could feel myself losing the discussion when the cavalry arrived in the form of my wife, pushing my small daughter in a pram. It had taken them some time to make their way through the undergrowth whilst I had, selfishly, gone forging ahead.
The sight of this pretty little girl in a pram and her somewhat flustered mother changed things. Suddenly this guardian dropped his aggressive stance and was full of concern for the “little gal what ha’ cum owl this way just to see ole George, an bless my soul, you ha’ better hive a cup o’ tea an’ a drop o’ milk for the little gal”.
We repaired to an ancient Gypsy caravan deep in the undergrowth where we had tea out of tin mugs whilst George Thrower, for that was his name, told us his story.
He had purchased the site, which included Maria in her shed, from the Preston estate in 1953 and had run it as a boatyard for some years. Eventually old age had got the better of him and the grass, nettles and trees grew and he sought solace in his wilderness.
It was part of the purchase agreement that Maria should stay in her shed, just as she had been laid up in 1914, for a further 20 years. True to the word Mr Thrower had kept her so and, to ensure security, he slept in the ancient boat each night. He and the old shed did their best but the shed was showing signs of losing the struggle for a large part of the thatched roof had blown off. Maria and Mr Thrower often got wet. With some temerity I offered a solution. Would he allow me to arrange for Maria to be taken for display in the newly formed Maritime Museum in Great Yarmouth in exchange for a new roof on the shed.
So it came to pass that the bargain was agreed and concluded. The Museum got Maria and Mr Thrower got a new roof. Just how is, as they say, another story. Maria went on display to the general public at Great Yarmouth for some 35 years until 2004 when she was moved back to her old haunt on the edge of Barton Broad, this time to be put on display at the Museum of the Broads at Stalham, where she can be seen to this day.
Maria is now very nearly 180 years old and is still in very good condition considering the passing of time. She stands as a remarkable memorial to the skills of her builder, ‘Brown of Yarmouth’, and the foresight of Mr John Bellamy Plowman.

Aucun commentaire:

Merci d'aider 15marins

Si chaque personne qui lit ce message donnait 1 €, cela permettrait à 15marins de continuer à prospérer sans pub.
Cliquez sur les photos pour les agrandir et pour les télécharger. Click on pictures to enlarge and for download.

Messages les plus consultés les 30 derniers jours