My enthusiasm for boats began early. I grew up in an artistic family in the enchanting fishing village of Staithes, settled on many levels within immense cliffs on the rugged North Yorkshire coast some ten miles northwest of Whitby. Often, huge seas battered the houses and harbour walls and ran up the main street.
All manner of things were influenced by the sea and fishing. Some houses were named after boats; Star of Hope Cottage, Confidence Cottage, Unity House, Blue Jacket House, Venus Cottage and Wavelet. Parts of boats were even used as building materials. Visual delights were everywhere. The warning to KEE POUT was painted on the door of a fishermen’s shed, and the paraphernalia of fishing gear created improbable shapes. In the small tidal river lay the shapely bright-hued beach boats peculiar to north-east England.
But our family boat was different. The 26ft clinker-planked Bonaventure WY62 was built in Canada in 1946 as a ship’s lifeboat but was rejected for that purpose by not being sufficiently full-bodied and roomy. I remember mackerel fishing at sunset with the sea like blue- and pink-shot taffeta, and the lights of the Scottish herring fleet just beginning to show.
In Staithes I met my first English square-sterned cobles. With their complex and curious hull form they were primarily beach boats designed for launch and recovery stern-to-shore through heavy breaking surf, but they can also negotiate rollers and shallow turbulent water when entering or leaving unsheltered tidal harbours and creeks. My particular favourite was Golden Crown WY78, built in 1953 by William Clarkson (Whitby) Ltd to replace the earlier coble Star of Hope WY174 which had been wrecked in the great North Sea storm of 31 January that year, when huge seas pounded Staithes and the Cod and Lobster pub was partly washed away.
Following village custom when a new coble arrived, she was welcomed by crowds of cheering people lining the waterfront. Hand-bells were rung, parties were held, and celebratory ‘coble cake’ was eaten. Measuring 30ft 5in with 8ft 6in beam, and powered by a Petter A.V.2M two-cylinder, 10-horsepower, 1,500rpm watercooled diesel engine, Golden Crown was every inch a true coble, but I was fascinated by her shape. She was of rugged build, unusually full at shoulder and quarter, with a strong sheer aft, a pronounced tumblehome and a broad bottom, and her relatively deep drafts were set well apart. Her propeller was housed in a ‘raised ram tunnel’, a hollowness in the sweep of the planking between the drafts. This feature was originated by William Clarkson in the 1930s and gave a more efficient water flow to the propeller.
Cobles in Whitby and district tended to be buxom and chunky. Local builders thought that a fuller, beamier sturdy-lined coble was needed when motors got bigger and fishermen began to work heavier fishing gear. Yet, very few cobles were exactly alike in line and detail. There were charming inconsistencies in Golden Crown: her hull form was not quite symmetrical, but this was a key to her intrinsicality.
Golden Crown was built for Richard, Matthew and Francis Verrill, and was highly thought of as a grand little sea boat. Her deep drafts gripped the water and her relatively full shoulders prevented her from dropping her head. During the winter she fished with longlines, catching chiefly cod, haddock and skate. At other times she worked 150 crab and lobster pots, using a hydraulic-powered hauler positioned on a thwart aft.
During my childhood Golden Crown was a constancy, an enduring thread, but was set within the overall enchantment and freedom which was my life in Staithes and its surrounding wild-scapes. I did not spend all my time with the boats. There were carnivals, historical pageants, torchlight processions, and congas through the streets and alleyways with much laughter and friendship and the shrieking of herring gulls. There were whist drives in a harbourside cottage when waves thumped against the wall; and walks with dog through woodland and banks of primroses and along Jurassic sandstone and shale cliffs 666ft high. There was the 11+ examination and Grammar School in the historic river port of Whitby. And I was always painting, drawing and writing.
For me, too, there were visits to the rarified atmosphere of London and the Mayfair art galleries, and weeks spent in an artists’ commune. My mother, the painter Lilian Colbourn, produced highly individual and powerful pictures of fisher people and savage seas, and won considerable acclaim and success. Staithes folk could identify themselves and others in her paintings just by the stance, the shape of a figure. But some were puzzled. ‘It’s this ’ere wild sort of painting’ was said within her hearing.
Although cobles were my first love, a herring-drifting trip from Whitby with the cruiser-sterned Lead Us II A291 aroused my interest in other types of fishing boat. The trip was full of delightful sights, with moonlight and green bioluminescence, and everyone covered in thousands of opalescent herring scales which filled the air as the fishermen shook the fish out of the nets and onto the deck. Later there was thick fog and a cacophony of honks and whistles and booms and wheezes from dozens of nearby herring drifters and ring netters. Dawn was cold and grey and be-herringscaled.
The catch was the biggest Lead Us II had ever had. My wordy youthful diary recalls ‘… skipper leaps out of hold shouting “ … most we’ve had in her …”, and the crew did a conga round the deck’.
For a while, people worried about Lead Us II. A Staithes fisherman said to me ‘For God’s sake, keep away from Lead Us. She ain’t up to no good; she rolls’. However, all was well. An expert on vessel behaviour was called in, who found her to have a high ‘GM’, or metacentric height, a characteristic which caused her to recover quickly from a roll but was a good stability feature. Though she was uncomfortable and made people seasick, she would return to the vertical.