With a nice, buoyant bow and cod shape they look the part and are superbly seaworthy, says prolific boat owner Clive Marsh...
Sussex beach boats and their Flobart sisters on the other side of the channel are amongst my favourite luggers. In Normandy they have a following but here in the UK we do, perhaps, take them a little for granted.
There are those among the fishing community who would use no other boat and it is still possible to get a GRP version built. They can often be purchased second-hand for a bargain and, over the years, I have owned five of them.
They are beamy boats characterised by their lute sterns which, on modern GRP versions, have a hole cut out to take an outboard motor.
With a nice, buoyant bow and cod shape they look the part and are superbly seaworthy. The lute stern is to help the avoidance of swamping when beaching bow first as they run up the pebbles.
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I have read that a lute stern can lift the stern at sea and cause the bow to dig in but I’ve never found this to be the case. These boats have evolved over centuries and if I had to cross the Channel in a small open boat I’d choose one of these boats every time. They have a wonderful motion in a chop.
The standard boat has a normal level of freeboard to enable easy rowing in the event of an engine failure. Some had built-up topsides which are harder to row but have the advantage of keeping the crew much warmer when at sea.
I’ve owned both but my favourite has been the version with the built-up sides: they’re very cosy on a rough day (70% of the year). In several cases I decided to rig the boats with simple standing lug sails and leeboards. It all worked very well.
These boats were ideal for family trips and a spot of mackerel fishing out in Rye Bay. I used to take two outboards with oars and a sail as auxiliaries, belt and braces for me when with the family.
When the time came to sell one, a chap popped over from France and took her back with him. She is much admired in Brittany. This is not the first time that a Frenchman has bought one of my boats. Apparently, there is a smaller second-hand market in France where people tend to keep their boats within the family for a long time.
Most of these beach boats are 16ft to 17ft in length. However, one day at the Southampton Boat Show I came across a neat little 14ft version. The builder told me that he had come across a rotting 14ft boat on Winchelsea beach and taken a moulding for this 14ft GRP version.
She looked very trim and had the huge advantage of being more easily managed. Heavily laid up there was something robust and fine about her construction.
On closer inspection I noted that she had a deeper keel than her larger sisters. The builder explained to me that he had done this to prevent leeway when using her lug sail.
When hauling out, open the seacock and the water drains out. Imagine letting water enter a straw and preventing its release until you take your finger off the top – same principle.
At the time this tough little boat seemed to meet my needs so I bought it and it’s not often that I buy a brand new boat. The builder had named her the Winchelsea Lugger.
Unfortunately the builder made very few of these fine boats, probably because EEC legislation and the Small Craft Directive might have made it a little more difficult for small volume builders to continue.
This has been the subject of much debate so I won’t go over old ground. However, there were very few made and if you get the opportunity to buy one you will be lucky.
Most of my little passages in the lugger were to Rye Bay or occasionally to the Chichester and Solent area. However, once I decided to take her from Rye up the River Rother and all the way to Bodiam.
This is a delightful trip which, under power, will take about six hours. There is only one lock, but on this occasion, because the tide was not favourable, I decided to launch from the slipway on the upstream side of the tidal lock (more about this lock in my Freeman 22 cruiser review).
For most of the journey I motored against the wind and stream. I was using a Johnson 4hp twin pot motor which is not at all noisy. The distance was too far for my electric outboard. On the return I was able to sail most of the way, lowering the mast under roads and one railway bridge.
This river had previously been used by shallow draught barges to bring aggregates and products to Newenden and Bodiam.
The yard at Newenden is still used for aggregates which are now transported by road. You’ll find very little traffic on this stretch of the Rother, often none at all. There are very few houses, the land on either side being mainly pasture.
The first significant habitation is when you reach Newenden. There is nothing left of the once wooden city at Newenden but there is an ancient bridge, a cricket green, a pub and even a coffee bar come restaurant. What more could you want?
The cricket green has some claim to be the home of cricket. It is certainly old. At this point I would recommend you pause for a break, a late lunch in the Boat House cafe followed by a book in the boat and the inevitable afternoon kip with the sound of wavelets on the bow. Who wants to go to sea? But, we have work to do and onwards to our raid on Bodiam Castle.
Of all the castles in the world I say that Bodiam is the finest. It nestles in a perfect moat full of carp surrounded by Sussex oak. Its exterior is impressive yet of a modest scale. And, even better, it now boasts two cafes. Time for another break; it doesn’t get better than this.
Bodiam has an ancient bridge but I have never ventured beyond this. Also, here, and for most of this river, there is a double bank which may be covered when the river is in flood after heavy rain.
Watch out you don’t get stranded on this because when the water drops your vessel could overturn, just like that! Even in the peace of the non-tidal part of the river there are hidden risks for the unwary.
Once back out at sea the Winchelsea Lugger is at home. Like her bigger sisters she has an easy motion in a chop and remains dry in most conditions.
She has buoyancy in her forward and aft tanks which have watertight lids and there is one thing worth remembering – her ballast is water, which of course is the same weight as water, so that in the unfortunate and unlikely event of being holed or swamped the ballast will not pull the boat down as would an iron keel.
I carry a galvanised steel bucket for bailing but have only ever used this as a step up to get into the boat from the shore.
Winchelsea Lugger specifications
LOA: 4.27m (14ft 0in)
Beam: 1.63m (5ft 4in)
Draught: 0.38m (1ft 3in)
Trailing weight: 159kg (350lb)
Sail area: 8.45m2 (91ft2)
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This feature appeared in the September 2022 edition of Practical Boat Owner. For more articles like this, including DIY, money-saving advice, great boat projects, expert tips and ways to improve your boat’s performance, take out a magazine subscription to Britain’s best-selling boating magazine.
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