The PIONEER lying off the Nothe in the winter of 1961. Smack MAYFLOWER in the foreground
Early in June 1998 on a hot, sunny day, someone on the waterfront in West Mersea may have spotted three figures plodding through knee-deep mud towards some weedy remnants poking out of the mud. I think this moment marked the start of a remarkable endeavor to raise the remains of the most complete example of a Brightlingsea Skillinger that survives.
The story begins the previous year when John Milgate of Peldon and a band of volunteers dug the smack ABC out of the Feldy Marsh opposite West Mersea. Although she had been sunk since the Second World War, there was a substantial amount of the boat left. Certainly enough for an experienced boat builder to be able to reconstruct her. This set my colleague Shaun White and I thinking about other wrecks of smacks. We were looking for boats in the 30 to 35 ft. long range as we thought it would be easier to find potential clients for small smacks than larger boats. As boatbuilders involved in the restoration of a number of smacks in recent years, we thought it might be a good idea to have one or two restorable wrecks tucked up our sleeve.
The first boat we actually surveyed was the William and Eliza, known locally as the Tally. She lies opposite Brightlingsea, buried in the mud. An interesting boat, she was built in Tollesbury in 1856 and had a lute stern. She was owned by two brothers, 'The Tally Boys', well known for their eccentricity. A friend of ours, Rupert Marks, for whom we had recently rebuilt a smack, said he would like to come too. So, on a cold spring day in 1998, we headed off to examine her remains. We found that although most of the boat above the mud was heavily decayed, probing the mud inside the hull revealed that part to be complete. Afterwards, as we chatted over a warming cup of tea at Shaun's house, we agreed that it was perfectly feasible to dig her out, but she might be a little bit big at 40 ft. from stem to stern. Shaun then produced a photograph of his wife's grandfather's smack, the VANDUARA, CK26. She was a handsome ketch with a sweeping sheer and a long bowsprit and she was big. Originally she was cutter rigged when built in 1880. She was built by R. Aldous and must have been one of the largest cutters built on the Colne at 67 ft. overall. Her boom would have been about 50 ft. long, which must have been a nightmare to handle in a North Sea gale, maybe they used a trisail? At any rate she was converted to the more convenient ketch rig in 1897. Now I knew that many big smacks had worked out of the river Colne in the last century, and I was vaguely aware that the remnants of a few of them were still around, but I was surprised to learn from Shaun that the bones of the VANDUARA were still to be seen.
A couple of months later, in May, we sailed down the Blackwater and into the Colne on Rupert's smack HYACINTH. We were in search of big smacks. Sometime in the previous two months a strange transformation had taken place. No longer were we looking for handy sized small smacks, we were looking for huge boats, anything up to 80 ft. long. Quite what we intended to do once we had found one did not seem clear to me, but Shaun and Rupert seemed to be filled with a missionary's zeal, so I kept quiet.
Shaun had already done some preliminary explorations and we were going to look at the wrecks of three boats up the Pyefleet channel. One of the smacks was a large Jersey built boat called HEIRESS, the other two were Colchester boats, the Guide and, of course, the VANDUARA. All three had wet wells. Unfortunately, although we had an interesting hour or so in the mud and we found a few artifacts, whichever way we looked at the Guide and Vanduara, there was not enough of either to warrant digging them out of the mud. I said, "We might as well go back and look at the PIONEER in Mersea, there's more of her left than these two put together." Which brings us back to our trip to Mersea in early June.
Twenty five years ago when I was a boy with a lugsail dinghy, I sailed around the bow of the PIONEER. It stood high above the water, the windlass and a bit of foredeck still in place. Now, as we walked up the mud, I saw that the boat had completely collapsed, a victim of the '87 hurricane we were told. As we got closer we could see the decking on top of the wet well, proof for us that we were looking at a large Colchester smack. PIONEER was far more intact than the other wrecks we had examined. She had a 30 ft. section in the centre of the boat that was complete up to the beamshelf. Soundings in the mud showed that the counter stern was missing, but the rest of her was there, deep in the mud. In Pyefleet the wet well bulkheads were standing above the mud, the top of PIONEER's wet well was flush with the mud.
PIONEER was not built with a wet well, being built in 1864 for Charles Bishop a Master Mariner from the Isle of Wight and was the first boat registered on the Mercantile Navy List in 1865. This was a period of great smack building activity on the Colne, dozens of boats the size of PIONEER were coming off the ways in Brightlingsea, Rowhedge and Wivenhoe. In Edward Dickin's History of Brightlingsea he records that there were about 200 Colchester smacks between 15 and 40 tons in 1861. Charles Bishop had another smack built a few months after PIONEER, the ALBATROSS. It seems likely that smack owning on the Colne was not as profitable as he thought, since he sold Pioneer within a couple of years. PIONEER was 53ft. from stem to sternpost, cutter rigged, registered as built in east Donyland, probably by Peter Harris of Rowhedge. Her fishing number was CK18. In 1888 she is marked in the register as broken up, but she reappears in the 1889 register as lengthened to 64 ft. bp. and altered to ketch rig. Overall her length would have been increased to around 60 ft. Her beam increased by about a foot to 15 ft. and 2 tenths and her depth of hold remained at 6 ft. and 9 tenths. She would have had a draught of between 8 and 9 ft. This is when the wet well was installed. This type of work was very common in the 1880s and many smacks had the same treatment. Robert Aldous of Brightlingsea lengthened Pioneer. Smacks the size of Pioneer worked all around the British Isles and in the North Sea dredging for Oysters and the addition of a wet well increased the time she could keep her catch alive and consequently increased her range.
Not much showing above the mud in 1998
We started planning our next move. There was now no doubt that we were going to try and raise the remains, but how? She was buried 9 ft. deep in the mud at the stern and the bow had nearly disappeared. She had been lying there since 1942, towed from East Mersea to West Mersea by Bob Stoker, a local fisherman. Bob, now in his eighties, remembers there being a lot of paperwork involved due to the war. He towed her with his own smack, the PRISCILLA. Unfortunately, soon after she was moored close to the saltings
above the Old City, she broke her moorings in a gale and sank. The deck had been cut out and someone had started to build a shed to turn her into a houseboat, presumably stopped by the war. The shed had washed off in the 1953 floods. Local boat builder Dick Gladwell remembers pulling up the floorboards to re-use when he was a youngster. As a boy, fisherman Bill Read thought that if he and his mates could only block up the hole in the port quarter they could get her to float again. Now she was full of junk, the largest item being a Merlin aero engine, dumped there by a local fisherman, the most inexplicable a lawnmower.
The obvious way to move the hundreds of tons of mud in and around PIONEER was with a high pressure hose and fortunately we knew someone who had a pontoon and firepump. Once the mud was cleared the wreck had to be made to float. Airbags were the only way that we could think of to achieve this because the lack of water over the wreck at high water meant that the buoyancy had to be low inside the boat or strapped under the turn of the bilge. Having floated our wreck, what did we do with it then? Somehow it had to be placed in a position suitable for craning on to road transport for the journey to Rupert's barn in Great Totham some 10 miles away.
This work would not be cheap, but fortunately Rupert agreed to underwrite the expenses involved in retrieving the wreck. With this sort of backing we set to work with a will, organising the various experts we needed to ensure success. Anther milestone that we passed was in late September when the naval architect David Cannell came to value PIONEER. This was necessary because we had been unable to establish conclusively who owned her. David drew the obvious conclusion that she was valueless and impressed us immensely by not telling us that we were insane, although privately I still had misgivings about the feasibility of the whole thing. A tremendous stroke of good fortune came when I contacted John Wise of J.W. Automarine about airbags. Not only did John volunteer to come and advise us when we were ready to lift the PIONEER, but he also arranged free use of the bags, saving us around £1110 worth of hire fees. Tidetables were studied and dates were set and discarded to make a start. It was quite important to get it right as we were attempting the job late in the year and daylight was at a premium. Finally a date was set for my colleague from Maldon, Ged Wright, to tow his pontoon and firepump down to Mersea.. In the days leading up to the start Shaun and I busied ourselves preparing equipment and tools. It is very difficult to do this when you are attempting something so out of the ordinary. We reckoned that one of our greatest problems would be moving around in the knee-deep mud, so we made three mudskids which proved very successful.
I think the moment that I became hopelessly ensnared by the project was when I read an account of a voyage by another big smack, the EXCELLENT, CK30. The article appeared in the Brightlingsea Parish Magazine. The vicar at the time was Arthur Pertwee who had a special interest in the sea and had sailed on several long voyages on big smacks, sharing the cramped reality of life at sea with the crew. EXCELLENT was built as a ketch by Robert Aldous in 1883, registered 39 tons she would have been about 70 ft. long. In 1887 Aldous had added a wet well. Written by one of the crew in 1895, it brought home the privations and risks run to bring the humble oyster home for working class tables from the Terschelling Bank. A normal trip would be about three weeks long. When they reached the grounds off the north Dutch coast the crew of six would work for several days non-stop hauling the dredges. These dredges were 6 ft. across the blade and 7 ft. high and they would have worked six of them, towing on up to 90 fathoms of 2" rope. This fishery off Terschelling finished before the turn of the century due partly to a poisoning scare about shellfish and partly to the dangers that the fishermen faced in mid-winter off the north Dutch coast. In one fierce gale on 7th March 1883, three smacks, the RECRUIT, MASCOTTE and CONQUEST, were lost. I have seen the entry in the Colchester port register for the MASCOTTE with its final bleak note, "Missing for two months, presumed lost." The following year another gale took the Pride and the William and Henry and the big smacks that remained tried less dangerous fisheries. Most common of these were the scallop beds down Channel. An alternative to fishing was to carry cargo and many smacks worked around the British Isles when fish were scarce. The VANDUARA is reputed to have carried stone from Wales to repair Brightlingsea church tower. According to the port register for Colchester, the vast majority of PIONEER's sisters were already at the end of their working lives, those that had not been lost or sold away are frequently marked in the register as broken up or unseaworthy in the 1890s.
At 4 o'clock in the morning on Tuesday 10th November I staggered out of bed to join Ged on his fishing boat in the yard at Maldon. Not only were we towing his pontoon, we were towing Rupert's 12 ft. dinghy and a large aluminum dory that had been kindly loaned to us. We had a cold but uneventful trip down the river and as dawn broke we were met by local oyster merchant, Allan Bird, who was helping us to position the pontoon so as not to damage adjacent oyster layings. Rupert and Shaun soon arrived and we set to cutting a channel through the mud from the low water mark up to the wreck. This channel was to wash away the spoil from around PIONEER. The channel needed to be at least 4 ft. deep by the time we got up to the PIONEER. This would enable us to wash the mud out below the turn of the bilge, thus giving us a better chance of breaking her grip of the mud with the airbags. By mid afternoon we had reached the boat but had failed to get the channel deep enough. We had hired a slurry pump to clear the inside of the hull, so we figured that we might be able to use the pimp outside the hull to clear the wallow. If we couldn't, it would add at least a week to the schedule, time we could ill afford.
By Wednesday afternoon we had cleared as much mud as we could without the slurry pump and the Merlin engine and the windlass were starting to loom large. Allan Bird came to the rescue and lifted both out with his mooring launch and put them on Wyatt's Hard. The windlass was to be taken up to Rupert's barn along with some framing we had removed from the port quarter, but the engine was a problem. After some discussion we shelved a decision on what to do with it and concentrated on getting the slurry pimp, which must have weighed 5 cwt., into the dory. Again Allan saved the day and next morning in the pre-dawn rain, he lifted the pump into the dory with his launch. Within a few hours we had cleared the mud from the wet well along with a defunct fishing boat wheelhouse complete with instruments and broken glass, and what Ged identified as a Morris Cowley engine. Meanwhile at the top of Wyatt's Hard they were almost fighting for the privilege of giving themselves hernias taking away the Merlin engine, which proves that we were not the only daft ones in Mersea that autumn.
By now we were getting used to working in soft sticky mud. Ged dealt with his pump, sorting out the hoses every morning and actually hosing the mud most of the time. Rupert, Shaun and I had "borrowed" dry suits from the Navy and the Customs and Excise. These suits were a godsend and without them the job would have been much more difficult. They enabled us to get really stuck in (literally) clearing debris, moving the hose about and retrieving useful looking bits that we wished to save. Shaun had a system for recording where in the boat loose bits of framing came from, so that later we can reassemble the upper parts of the boat that were adrift. We also had help on Thursday and Friday from my friend Richard Titchenor and some moral support from my wife Sally who visited us on several occasions.
Fortunately the slurry pump was proving it was worth its weight in gold. It coped easily with clearing the sloppy mud from around the hull, draining into a sump Ged had cut in the sternpost. The strum-box had to be regularly cleared of small bits of planking that had washed aft. All parts of the boats that had been exposed to the elements were badly eaten by gribble, but the bits buried deep in the mud were perfect. Our excavations of the wet well had shown that Pioneer had a very sharp deadrise and, as the mud was cleared from around the bow and stern, it became apparent that she had very fine lines indeed. We were heartened by this as it would be disappointing to expend a great deal of time on a slow, ugly boat.
We had progressed so well in four days that we decided to give ourselves the weekend off. It also has to be said that we were completely shattered, walking round in knee-deep mud for 6 to 7 hours a day was exhausting. John Wise was coming on Tuesday to advise us about attaching the airbags, the mud had been cleared as low as we considered practical, so we turned our minds to what we could do on Monday. Ged had suggested running a wire inside the boat from stem to stern to give us something to shackle to airbags to. Ideally they would be attached to webbing straps running under the keel, but the keel was still several feet down in the mud and it seemed unlikely we would be able to dig so deep. I had found a big coil of redundant wire in the boatyard and a friend, Jim Dines, had made some steel staples that we could coachscrew into the bottom of the boat for lashing the wire down to. Monday passed relatively easily threading the wire through holes we drilled by hand in the wet well bulkheads and fixing staples down. Two strong points we used were the engine beds and steam-boiler bearers. A steam capstan had been installed in 1925 and a 35 hp engine in 1929 - interesting that a winch was considered more important than an engine. Incidentally the engine was installed in the fo'c'sle with a shaft running through the wet well and out on the starboard quarter.
We met John Wise at Midday on Tuesday 19th November. The tide was leaving the PIONEER as we arrived. I was surprised at how philosophically John looked at our plan to raise the wreck, but after talking to him for a while I realised that he regarded PIONEER as an object that needed lifting rather than a boat. He thought it was important that we got strops under the keel, lifting the boat bit by bit until we had strops under her from end to end. John was not keen on our wire running through the boat, doubting the strength of our staples. It was also apparent that we would not be able to get the bags before Friday. The more we thought about it the more improbable it seemed that we could attempt a lift on the mid November set of tides. We would only have a day to fit the bags, and the working time available to us every day was getting shorter. The tides at the end of the month were higher, so a delay for 10 days could be to our advantage.
Tuesday afternoon passed grovelling at the bow threading webbing straps under the keel ready to shackle on the airbags. Wednesday morning was spent tidying up, unloading the slurry pump and helping Ged prepare his pontoon to tow back up to the yard at Maldon. I felt as if we were abandoning Pioneer to her fate once more. We all returned to our normal lives, but planned our return to Mersea.
Shaun and I decided to return to PIONEER on Saturday 28th of November. Rupert was unable to work over the weekend and Ged could not return until Sunday. We were able to clear her of mud quite easily and continued to fix staples to strong points in the bottom of the boat. It had been decided that despite John Wise's disapproval it would be impossible to attach the bags to the outside of the hull. We estimated that the aft end of the keel was still 4 ft. deep in the mud and we could not think of a way of getting a strop that low. On Sunday Ged arrived with the pontoon which we had loaded with the airbags. Ged moored the pontoon by the bow of the boat so we had easy access for unloading the bags. As well as Ged, Shaun and I, Richard came to help, and Andy, a friend of Rupert's. Many hands made light work and by Sunday evening not only were all the bags on, but they were partially inflated as well.
We had to be down in Mersea very early on Monday morning to inflate the bags properly before the tide came up. It was bitterly cold and I stuck close by the air compressor's exhaust in the dawn, glad that it was Rupert and Shaun slithering about on top of the yellow bags blowing them up. We did not intend to move PIONEER until later in the week, we were not even sure we could make her float. It was quite possible that the mud which had been round her for fifty years would not readily give her up. As the tide rose we were unimpressed by its rate of flow, surely it would be a better tide by the end of the week? We judged its height against the stem and drew the conclusion that it would have to put in several feet by the end of the week for us to stand any chance of moving her out of her wallow. After another half an hour it finally dawned on us that she was afloat. Fortunately as the tide receded she sat back in her hole and we scurried about putting mooring lines out and making minor adjustments to the airbags.
Tuesday and Wednesday passed clearing up some of the gear and keeping the bags topped up, as they leaked slightly. Thursday 3rd December was another grey, cold day, but fortunately the wind was light. Malcolm Cawdron from Mersea Marine had agreed to tow PIONEER to his slipway and haul her out. He and his team of men turned up an hour and a half before high water and we attached his launch to the bow. Originally we had intended to tow her out of her berth stern first down the channel we had cut, but at the last minute we had decided to drag her bow round and tow her stem first down the channel. This decision was nearly our undoing as she snagged on a fibreglass dinghy buried in the mud, and it was nearly high water before she was finally floating free. Malcolm expertly piloted his ungainly tow down through the moorings and on to the slipway cradle. This was quite a tense time as the ebb was already running and we estimated she was drawing about 9ft. which was close to the available depth on the cradle. If she grounded half on and half off she would probably break up.
The winch ground into life and the remarkably fine lines of a first class Colchester smack were visible for the first time in many years. For me she is the vessel that time forgot, a throwback to a former age. The only survivor of a fleet that, according to local historian John Leather, numbered well over a hundred in the 19th. century, a type of boat that was already extinct by the thirties. A small band of well-wishers was there to greet her emergence from the water and after a brief celebratory drink she was made safe and hauled to the top of the slip. Over the next few days we removed the airbags and washed them ready for Rupert to return them to John Wise in Norfolk. The following week Rupert, Shaun and I spent a morning levelling her up ready for the next stage, which was to survey the hull and record the lines before she was moved.
David Cannell and his assistant James Pratt, along with Steve, a friend of Rupert's who is a surveyor, then started to measure the hull in preparation for drawing up the lines. They used high tech. equipment that bounces microwaves from a fixed point onto a reflector held anywhere on the surface of the hull. The resulting data can be fed into David Cannell's computer, which I am told will then produce a lines plan. This also has an advantage for us, the boatbuilders. Instead of having to laboriously make patterns of every piece of wood that made up the frames, the computer can generate a pattern of the whole frame from top to bottom including the bevels. When you think that every full frame can be made up of anything up to 9 separate pieces, and there are between 40 and 50 frames in the PIONEER, the time savings possible are large.
Even after PIONEER was hauled out it was not clear quite what we were going to do with her. Ultimately she needed to end up at Rupert's barn, but to get to the barn involved crossing two fields and that would not be possible until the summer. Leaving her on Wyatt's slipway was not an option as it was expensive and they wanted their slipway for other work. Rupert finally managed to arrange with a farmer friend of his in Goldhanger for her to be blocked off in his farmyard. We had decided to use Cadman, a local crane hire company, for the lift. Finding a haulage company was more difficult. Several firms were contacted but they all failed to come back to us. Eventually Rupert contacted Anglia Plant Haulage. Although they were not specifically a boat moving firm they had a large extending trailer they thought would be suitable. A date was set, Tuesday 26th January.
On the road trolley at last
At 8 o'clock when Ged and I arrived it looked as though the whole world was there to move her. Between Cadmans, Anglia Plant and Mersea Marine, 8 men had turned up. With Shaun, Rupert, Ged and I that made 12 in all ! We had been told by Cadman that we needed a cradle under her, as she was not strong enough to lift with two strops with spreader bars above. A cradle was going to cost £1200 so it was decided to risk it, with the help of extra spreaders to try and prevent her being crushed. The first attempt ended with the crane leg going down instead of the boat going up. Several sleepers later and the second attempt succeeded without her falling in two. The crane driver told us she weighs 21 tons so she is a light load for the 50 ft. long trailer she was loaded onto.
A load as wide as PIONEER needed a police escort, so once the lorry had managed to manoeuvre back onto the road we waited a short while for the escort to turn up. She filled the Coast Road as we pulled off for the 10 mile journey to Goldhanger. The centre of Mersea was negotiated without incident and it was not until Peldon that we had any excitement when the sternpost clipped an electric wire and set the poles wobbling all the way down the road. Further on in Wigborough an elderly lady drove her car into the ditch to avoid us, but fortunately an A.A. van that happened to be following us towed her out.
Now that PIONEER is at Goldhanger for some months, we can piece together the framing we removed before we refloated her, especially the counter stern and stem. This will enable David Cannell to complete the lines plan and start stability calculations and a sail plan. The job of researching her history continues, with further visits to Colchester Records Office and the Public Records Office at Kew. Sourcing oak bends for the framing has begun and we are hoping to find this material in Essex and Suffolk, although the centreline and planking will come from further afield. We have only got as far as we have and know as much as we do because of the help we have received from other people. Many people have given us information and photographs. Others have devoted their time. We are particularly thankful for the help we have had from people in Mersea and their recollections. The real work has yet to begin, but the difficult part is over.
Setting out the sheerline. Now the rebuild can begin.
Copied with thanks from the 1999 West Mersea Town Regatta Programme.
2000 - The Pioneer Trust