Softwing

Softwing is a 24ft Truro River Oyster Dredger, registration number TO 4. Very full in the bilge with a rounded forefoot and is considered by many to have the ultimate hull form for her trade. She is the only Falmouth “working boat” to have retained her original rig, as those remaining have had their rigs increased for racing in the summer when the fishery is closed. She is an open boat with a foredeck to the mast, narrow side decks outboard of the coaming and a narrow deck across the transom. She is a gaff cutter with a bowsprit and was designed to be worked by one man.

Ian Woodford became Master and Principal Skipper of Softwing in February 2023. He takes members and guests sailing in mainly fair weather and light winds so as not to stress the old girl too much. Man overboard drills, sailing to a mooring, heaving to and gentle tacking, gybing and wearing round are more the nature of the trips. And everyone who wants to can have a go on the tiller. But sometimes when the wind freshens there’s an opportunity to tighten the jib, staysail and mainsheet and Softwing once again shows that she can wet her decks like she used to!

History

She was designed in 1899 and completed in 1900 by Frank Hitchens and his son Tom, at Yard Point on Penpol Creek in Falmouth Harbour. She was the last boat built by Hitchens for Edward Green who used her to dredge the oyster beds at the northern end of the harbour in the part controlled by Truro.

In 1930 she was sold to Pyman Ellis of Pill. The last fisherman to use her as a working boat was Robin Vinnicombe between 1956 and 1958 when she was fitted with a mizzen mast and a portable cabin and was used to dredge for oysters and for shark fishing.

In 1973 she was sold to the Maritime Trust.

Why Oyster Dredger by sail?

The oyster beds in Carrick Roads have, for years, been worked under licence by sail and oars alone.

The oysters have survived because a bye-law orders that oyster dredging in the Carrick Roads may not take place under power and, even then, only during specified hours on weekdays and Saturdays between November and March. This bye-law has effectively protected both the oysters and the working craft that have fished them.

How did she fish?

She is a gaff cutter with a bowsprit and was designed to be worked by one man with two dredges towed over the sides, rather than the stern, and the skipper kept her at the right speed for working using a combination of tide and wind on partially set sails. The helm would have been held by a lash while the skipper worked the dredges. She worked for sixty years of her life and she still sails in the same waters today.

Restoration

The Cornish Maritime Trust acquired Softwing from The Maritime Trust in 1994 for the nominal sum of £1.

She was not in good condition having been laid up since 1987 and although under a covered berth ashore she continued to deteriorate over the ensuing years. In 2002 a successful application for Heritage Lottery Funding, together with funds raised from Cornwall County Council, the Cornwall Heritage Trust and other funds raised by the Cornish Maritime Trust, meant she would be restored and equipped to full sailing condition.

The restoration was completed in 2003 and she now sails with members of the Trust weekly from her mooring in Falmouth between April and October.

Some new planks were fitted in the winter of 2023/2024 for her 30th year with The Trust and other remedial works were undertaken to keep her sailing as one of the few original wooden Falmouth Working Boats.

Sailing Rig

She retains a working rig, unlike those larger and faster working boats with the coloured topsails regularly seen out racing in the Carrick Roads. In olden days the working boats would have raced each other in the summer months when the fishery was closed and they would have changed their rig for the racing season. Racing kept the crews practiced at their art and could bring in welcome prize money.

Having a working rig means she doesn’t have a topsail which means she doesn’t require running backstays to help support the mast from the extra forces that a topsail can bring to bear, but the deck eyes are still in place from a time when her crew would have hoisted her topsail, tightened the sheets and raced against her fellow men, putting the side decks underwater. The Falmouth Working Boats that race today are a brilliant spectacle. Their power and speed and the close-quarters nature of their races is a sight to behold.

Join the Trust

By becoming a member of the Cornish Maritime Trust, you will be helping to preserve Cornwall’s extraordinary maritime heritage. Joining the Trust will also give you many benefits: the opportunity to sail on our boats, the chance to develop skills of sailing and maintenance, the chance to contribute your own skills, and membership of a diverse community of people.

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