22 BOATWATCHING IN FALMOUTH
Falmouth, England, is blessed by both a generous harbor and a strategic location. The harbor is entered through a fairly narrow entrance between prominent headlands and then opens up into a broad bay that forms a large well-protected harbor. If this description sounds familiar, it is. We are visiting Europe by ship, and a ship needs a harbor. As sailors, we are interested in the great and historic harbors, which are usually built around a natural harbor that is both protected from the elements and easily defended from enemies. So this description would fit all of the harbors we have visited so far.
The estuary of the river Fal, near the mouth of which lies the town of Falmouth, includes the river itself, which is navigable by large ships well inland, and many connected bays and creeks, usually with their own little harbors and quaint villages. This harbor is located near the western end of the southern coast of England. In this position it is handy for vessels sailing both south to France, Spain, Portugal, the Mediterranean, and the southern trade wind route across the Atlantic, and for vessels headed west to Ireland and directly across what they call The Western Ocean—and we would call the Atlantic— to the Americas.
With this location and harbor, Falmouth has been important for a long time. It was from here that the packets—the first ships that sailed on a regular schedule—began departing in the 19th century for Portugal, North and South America, and the Caribbean. I believe that it was to this harbor that the little British Navy schooner Pickle brought the first news of the great victory of the British fleet over the combined fleets of France and Spain off Cape Trafalgar in Spain which ended Napoleon’s quest for control of the sea so he could fulfill his dream of invading England, and of the tragic death in that battle of England’s great naval hero Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson. (Those of you who have been to London will remember at the heart of that city, Trafalgar Square with its tall column with a stature of Nelson at the top.)
In the later days of the great sailing ships, which would sail halfway around the world for cargoes of grain form Australia or nitrates from Chile, ships might be away for a year. Captains were commonly given the instruction for their return voyage to sail “to Falmouth for orders.” At Falmouth they would receive instructions on which port to proceed to unload their cargo, depending on where their cargo would bring the best price. Later Falmouth was an important strategic harbor in both world wars.
Of great interest to me is that Falmouth, as a great and historic harbor, has spawned the development of some interesting types of traditional small vessels to meet its needs. I love people watching, and I probably love boat watching even more, and Falmouth is a great place to watch boats, both historic and contemporary.
In earlier days, before the advent of modern charts and accurate electronic navigation, entering a harbor was a very perilous endeavor, particularly if the captain had never been there before and had only the vaguest idea of where he was and where the rocks and shore were. In those days the use of pilots was crucial. Often retired sea captains themselves, pilots knew the harbors, rocks and deep channels well and would meet ships at sea and guide them safely into port. (Pilots are still commonly used by big ships in constricted waterways and in entering and leaving harbor, and are often required.) Swift and seaworthy small vessels were needed to range far off shore and stay there, waiting for approaching ships to deliver pilots to them. Piloting was a competitive business and so speed was important to deliver your pilot to a ship before your competitor did, and seaworthiness was crucial since pilot vessels had to range far offshore and stay there in all kinds of nasty weather to do their job.
In Falmouth two types of craft were developed to deliver pilots to ships. The first, designed to range far offshore—often beyond the Lizard, the southwest point of England—were sleek pilot cutters of 40-50’ length. These craft had fine bows for speed, plumb (straight up and down), with a graceful sweeping sheer (the line at the edge of the deck) and long elegant overhanging counter sterns. The were cutter rigged with a single mast set well back, a long bowsprit to carry multiple headsails, and a big gaff-rigged mainsail with a topsail that could be set above it in light winds. The second type of pilot boats, designed for inshore work, were long elegant rowing boats called gigs, that were propelled by 6 to 8 men each pulling an oar.
Once ships were in port their needs changed. They needed crew ferried ashore and back, workmen, food supplies and spare parts brought out to them at anchor in the harbor. To serve this need a different kind of vessel was developed, called the Falmouth Quay Punts. These sturdy and seaworthy vessels were 18-30’ long, usually open and undecked, with plumb stems, almost vertical flat transoms, and low gaff rigs to fit under the overhanging square yards of the sailing ships they must lie alongside to serve. These vessels have modern descendents still sailing and racing in Falmouth, and were the inspiration for the American Yacht designer Lyle Hess, whose best-known design is Serafin, which has sailed around the world.
Another kind of working boat seen in Falmouth Harbor are small half-decked cutters that dredge for oysters in the winter under reduced rigs, and race in summer under lofty rigs with colorful topsails. (Like Chesapeake Bay in the US, to keep oysters from being over-harvested, they must be dredged from sailing vessels.)
One night when I was on watch and confined to the ship at anchor out in the harbor we were treated to the spectacle of a sailboat race, where dozens of boats divided into racing, cruising, and traditional classes raced around the bay all around us.
In Falmouth we were fortunate to see the reproduction of John Cabot’s Matthew, she ship in which Cabot—trying to sail to China—discovered Newfoundland and North America.
As a major port, Falmouth has always been a target for attack, so it has beenfortified. Since medieval times each new war has brought new fortifications. On my second day in Falmouth I hiked up to the top of the hill overlooking the harbor mouth tolook at them. The most interesting is Pendennis Castle. Built by Henry VIII it was one of the first castles designed to hold and defend against cannons, with gun ports and extra thick walls, but it is also clearly a castle. It stands on the open top of the hill, surrounded by Napoleonic era canon batteries and World War one and two cannons as well.