Every Northumbrian can recount the story of local heroine Grace Darling, who rowed through a storm to save shipwrecked sailors off the Farne Islands in the early 19th century. But few will recall the distinctive features of Grace’s wooden boat, which is now housed at her namesake museum in the village of Bamburgh, with its broad sides, flat bottom and high bow. Fewer still will know that her boat was a coble – a vessel peculiar to the north-east and one that is disappearing.
“There are about 40 mid-20th-century cobles left and fewer than 10 original sailing cobles,” says Peter Weightman, who has spent the last decade restoring historic fishing boats in Northumberland. Some cobles still work out of places such as Amble, but gone are the days when rows of colourful cobles lay beached right along the coast. “In recent decades,” Peter explains, “catch restrictions and grants encouraging the decommissioning of fishing vessels have resulted in many cobles being scrapped.”
“There is an ancient tradition of brightly painted boats in the region,” says Peter. “You could often tell where a coble came from by its colours: Seahouses cobles were traditionally blue and white; Staithes cobles blue, red and white; and Cullercoats boats tended to be black and white.”
What Peter is not so sure of is the boat’s historic origins. “A lot of people look at the shapely hull and think it must have descended from the Viking longboat. I’m not convinced, but it is an ancient vessel.”
Peter became interested in boats aged 10 when his father made him a rowing boat. “During summer holidays, I rowed around Seahouses harbour making a nuisance of myself,” he laughs. Later, Peter worked in the building industry but in his spare time he repaired steam engines and took an interest in old boats.
Though they have a great history, Peter says little is being done to save the cobles. “About five years ago, I noticed that the old cobles were disappearing, so I decided to do something about it.” He helped establish the North East Maritime Trust on the River Tyne at South Shields, where old boats are restored. “I feel guilty if I’m not doing something to save them.”
In the centre of the Trust’s workshop is the huge, bulging hull of a Victorian lifeboat, which has a rudder the size of a wardrobe. In one corner are two small wooden boats awaiting repair, and in the opposite corner, a restored sailing coble due to be launched this spring.
The Trust has 100 members and a core team of 14 volunteers. When I visit, there are men lying under hulls, hammering and others planing wood or painting planks. They have all brought different skills. “David is a retired engineer, Alan worked in the shipyards, Charlie used to drive a wagon and Davie was a boiler maker,” says Peter.
“Some of the guys wouldn’t have dared to touch this kind of job two years ago, but now they are confident and doing well.” One of the team adds: “We weren’t boat builders, but we are now!”
Reviving sailing skills
But this venture is not just about rescuing old boats. “It’s very important to keep the traditional boat-building skills going, to educate people about fishing history and to use the boats,” Peter stresses.
The latter is not straightforward. Unlike most boats, cobles are flat-bottomed so they can be beached on the sandy bays along the north-east coast. But without a keel running the length of the boat, they can easily be blown sideways at sea. “Cobles can go out in worse seas than most small crafts, but you have to know how to control them,” says Peter.
However, because the original sailing cobles were last worked in the 1920s, there are few people alive who remember how to handle them. “I was taught by a man in his 90s who died within months of passing on his knowledge,” says Peter. “It’s a lost art. When this latest sailing coble is finished, we’ll get a lot more practice!”