Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel by Viv Head
I was not a young man when I came to sailing with a first cruise on a yacht from Southampton to Weymouth aboard a 38 foot Sigma. A fine boat sailed in company with an experienced crew. At the end of four days I recall saying – Well I enjoyed that but I don't think it's going to change my life. Rarely have I made a more ridiculous statement.
I have owned a yacht of some sort for twenty years now and for most of that time I have been a member of the OGA, the Association for Gaff Rig Sailing. The gaff rig has a four-sided mainsail and was used for centuries by working boats. It is the way sailing used to be and, increasingly, the way it is becoming once again.
I grew up in Cardiff and am back living there now with the remarkable Cardiff Bay and the challenging Bristol Channel right here on my doorstep. Sailing the gaff-rigged 19 foot Shrimper Nutmeg, nothing pleases more than the satisfaction of being on a beam reach with a sailor’s wind, sails tight and a hand on the tiller, the boat lifting and dipping to the rhythm of the sea. In the Bristol Channel you do have to keep a weather eye on the horizon and the tides which are notoriously strong.
From any point of the compass, the Bristol Channel has played its part in maritime heritage right around the world. It has a fascinating history and researching it for Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel was a satisfying journey in itself. In Denmark I visited the Viking Museum at Roskilde, running my fingers along timbers from Viking ships more than a thousand years old, knowing that one of them was built in Dublin in the year 1042 and had every chance of having ventured up the Bristol Channel. Not just that, but having the opportunity to put to sea in a replica of a Viking ship, pulling on the oars in tune with fellow crew mates and raising the single flax sail knowing that the Viking ships of old had voyaged from these waters.
The other place that caused me to pause and reflect on events of long ago was the graveyard of ships at Purton. With the banks of the Sharpness to Gloucester canal in serious danger of being breached by the searing tides of the Severn estuary, local men came up with a scheme to save the day. In 1909 they began running derelicts aground on the river bank so that they would catch the silt that is a feature of the rushing tides and cause it to build up. Over half a century more than 80 ships were deliberately abandoned here – schooners, trows, barges and lighters were all pressed into final service. And it worked, the bank has grown and the canal is safe now without the need for any major embankment construction. Most of these old working boats are buried deep in the silt and long out of sight but the old sailors certainly knew what they were doing. You may feel safe standing on the bank today amongst the scattering of maritime skeletons, yet a few feet away, the swirls and rush of the muddy brown water of a filling tide has a threatening menace about it.
There are many mysteries that lie beneath the waves that have long been forgotten and cannot now be re-discovered. Brave deeds, returning heroes, ships lost and sailors drowned. So it’s all the more reason to celebrate what we do know about this fascinating coastline over 300 miles long. In Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel I set to capture some the stories of the famous ships, working ships and lost ships that have sailed these waters. The Bristol Channel has an incredibly rich maritime history, not just locally – many of its ships have made an impact on the affairs of the world. Some were built along its shores – the legendary Bristol Channel pilot cutters have a global reputation. Eighteen original vessels still exist and modern ones are still being built. John Cabot set out from Bristol in the Matthew and discovered America. The Newport Ship, built circa 1450 is the most complete fifteenth century vessel anywhere in the world. Four famous Antarctic exploration ships loaded Welsh coal before heading south. Scott’s Terra Nova is well known while the Antarctic pioneer Scotia was later wrecked and burnt out on Sully Island.
More recently, around-the-world racing yachts and many more modest working boats and pleasure yachts were built, raced, traded or simply spent their lives earning their keep in a notorious stretch of water. In Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel I set out to bring the story of this heritage, courage and endeavour into one readable volume with many fascinating photos and stories of more than sixty vessels.
Viv Head's new book Sailing Ships of the Bristol Channel is available for purchase now.