Prolific boat owner Clive Marsh sings the praises of Sussex beach boats and their French sister, the Normandy Flobart
There is something reassuring about Sussex beach boats with their lute or counter sterns and also their French sister, the Normandy Flobart.
These boats look just right and if you’ve ever had the opportunity to go to sea in one you’ll know how well they handle the conditions of the English Channel, or la Manche as the French call it.
In France their boats are celebrated in the annual Fête du Flobart.
One of the best places to see Sussex beach boats is on the fisherman’s beach, The Stade, at Hastings where a fleet of working boats operate along the coast to Eastbourne, Brighton and Worthing.
Most are now power boats with inboard engines or outboard motors.
The smaller boats of around 16ft are known as punts by the locals. For a fine example of a sailing version visit Hastings Fishermen’s Museum where it is possible to walk on the deck of a large sailing lugger kept inside the museum.
Several other craft including a sailing punt made by Phillips of Rye are kept outside on the beach.
These vessels tend to have a full length keel with a tow eye at the point where it joins the stem post.
This is so the boat can be pulled up the beach more easily without pulling the bow into the shingle – most of this coast is shingle.
The hull is cod-shaped and fairly full at the bow until it gets beneath the waterline.
They have a buoyant belly and are best sailed upright. The stern is lute shaped which gives an attractive overhang aft.
The purpose of this overhang is to help prevent swamping from the stern when they are run up the beach bow first.
This is an excellent idea that works and can be seen in operation at The Stade beach.
The boats run up the shingle at speed and a crew member jumps out to connect the tow eye for the winch man to pull her up quick and fast.
They are normally launched stern first using a bulldozer-type vehicle.
I use a slipway or manhandle my punt-sized boats down the shingle with the aid of old mains water/gas pipes.
They are heavily built boats for professional use and will take rough handling.
Many of the smaller boats (punts) were made on Denton Island at Newhaven by a firm called Meeching.
As such, beach punts are often referred to by the locals as Meechings.
I have owned three standard Meechings – all excellent motorboats that also row well once you get them going.
They all had fore and aft buoyancy.
Sometimes I added buoyancy bags under the benches but in the conditions I used the boats they showed little sign of being swamped.
I also had a slightly larger Sussex beach boat with higher topsides. This was very comfortable since I was sheltered more from the wind.
A disadvantage was that the boat was more difficult to row and required very long oars.
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Having said that, the French Flobart tends to have higher topsides and the professional fishermen of Rye, Hastings and along the coast tend to prefer boats with high topsides. They don’t expect to row.
As a sailor I could not resist converting my Sussex beach boats into sailboats.
A low-standing lug rig and possibly a mizzen too.
I decided against having a centreboard fitted for two reasons: I didn’t want Sussex stones getting stuck up the plate case and the hull was so well built I could not bear to see a slot cut into the garboard next to the keel for a plate.
So, I made some leeboards that just clipped over the gunwale.
These worked but in practice I rarely sailed hard into the wind and found that I didn’t need them if I kept the boat upright which was easy to do with my small rig.
Having a simple, clear, good-sized open boat is excellent for family trips either fishing or just pottering and I have used my punts at a variety of places from Rye Bay to Falmouth.
I can remember one heavy squall at Falmouth when people were staying in their yachts on moorings while our little Sussex beach boat was very happy bouncing along in the short, steep chop.
It’s still possible to find a builder of these boats and there are usually a number on the second-hand online markets.
Or you can just take a day out at Hastings beach and ask around, there are often dilapidated examples that might be easily restored.
Even the small boats will take a good weight of cargo and many are used by professional fisherman.
Some smaller (14ft) punts were made for close inshore work.
One of these was used as a mould by Rye boatbuilder Ian Shearer to make a GRP version.
He wanted a sail and oar boat with a deeper keel for lateral resistance.
He also enabled the deeper keel to take in water as water ballast, making for a very stable little 14-footer.
He called her the Winchelsea Lugger and I bought one of these and used her at Chichester and at Rye.
She had a simple lug sail and a bowsprit to take a small jib. The jib was helpful when tacking.
The outboard motor fitted through a hole in the lute stern so was protected when mooring and also from swamping.
She rowed very well. In all she was an excellent little sea boat.
I don’t like to compare boats because they are all intended for different purposes, coasts and on different budgets etc.
But I can say that the traditional Sussex beach boats have evolved over many years to safely earn a living for Sussex coast fishermen and it shows.
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