The StAyles Skiff T
he design is based on the Fair Isle Skiffs, like those portrayed in the Fisheries Museum. Sharing a common heritage with the Norwegian faerings, seksaerings and ottrings – four, six and eight-oared boats – they are variations on the Shetland Yoals in shape, construction and sailing rig. These are extraordinarily able boats in rough open water; seemingly the most seaworthy light open boats that can be built.
What gives these hulls their rough-water ability is the amount of boat above the water. The strong sheer, the overhanging ends, the great flare and consequent narrow waterline beam, which leads to an initial feeling of tenderness. You instinctively keep your weight amidships. If you step on the gunwale, you will not achieve your intention of lightly hopping aboard but will get wet. This characteristic, however, is what enables the boat to meet a short steep little wave, with its breaking crest coming right on the beam and intending to swamp the boat, lifting lightly to it and ready for the next one, in contrast to a broad-beam flat stable hull, which will lurch and roll uncomfortably, perhaps dangerously. But these craft can be pulled hard against wind and sea, and sailed hard before it. The broad buoyant bow always lifts over the waves, however hard she is pressed.
Hulls of this type will perhaps never conform to the RCD requirements for stability but with their astonishing rough-water capability, developed over hundreds of years, they demonstrate the futility of trying to legislate for safety. For the fishermen, it was not just their wages but their life at stake and the boatbuilders knew what they needed.
Looking closer, we see the simplicity, lightness and flexibility of the structure, also practically unchanged from hundreds of years ago. There are fewer strakes than we might expect, making them fairly wide. The rivets are quite widely spaced at 5-6” (125-150mm) and there are no steamed ribs, just a few simple pieces of sawn framing, fastened with wooden treenails.
The rowing thwarts - tafts - are closely spaced at around 3’ (0.9m) or less, to concentrate the crew weight amidships. Short quick rowing strokes are used to keep the boat moving through rough water. The oar blades are quite narrow, so that a breaking wave has not much to get hold of. This layout offers flexible crew arrangements; two or three can take the boat out for a little practice. Smaller rowers may sit two to a taft, perhaps with lighter oars.
The boats were quick and simple to build if you had grown up doing it. Tools were minimal, as were the few simple measuring sticks and patterns which were made by the boatbuilder and passed on. No plans were needed, so clever boat designers were redundant.
The St Ayles boat is a little longer than some of the boats that were raced in the 1950s but no longer than she needs to be. Thus we minimise the cost in time, materials and the building space required and the boat is not too much of a handful on land. The construction is a compromise on traditional methods and the plywood kit makes it very much easier for inexperienced builders to assemble a good-looking boat in a reasonable time, creating a craft of predictable shape which can then compete with others of the same type.
The arrangement of the framing is conventional. However each frame is made up of overlapping parts of plywood, which is very strong and uses up a minimum of material. The 3/8” (9mm) planking is light but quite strong enough for the purpose, which is not heading far out to sea in all kinds of weather and returning with half a ton of fish.
It may be that some builders will want to build the hull traditionally. This would require a boatbuilder to oversee the whole project; it would take more time, and more work to find the materials. Although many builders of the glued plywood hulls may have little or no boatbuilding experience and little or no intention of building another, some may well want to learn something of the traditional craft and the skills required to create them. Some may think that such a boat really ought to be built this way. Maybe if this is done and the traditional boat wants to race with the plywood ones, the latter could carry a little ballast to even up the weight.