Historic boat takes to the sea again

By Rebecca SheppardFIVE years ago it was a wreck embedded in the mud, but the 70ft hull of Essex's last deep sea smack has taken to the water once again.

By Rebecca Sheppard

FIVE years ago it was a wreck embedded in the mud, but the 70ft hull of Essex's last deep sea smack has taken to the water once again.

The Pioneer has been restored in a £500,000 project and was relaunched from Brightlingsea Hard on Saturday, supported by a flotilla of boats and hundreds of people.

But before the smack was set afloat, it had already embarked on a voyage of a different kind after being discovered embedded in the mud at West Mersea five years ago.

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It had been restored at a barn in Great Totham and then navigated the streets of Colchester, where it was originally registered as an oyster dredger.

The Pioneer spent two days on display in front of Colchester Castle for two days – picking up a parking ticket in the process – and was then transported to Brightlingsea.

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Rupert Marks, trustee of the Pioneer Sailing Trust, said: "We moved the Pioneer in a big storm and there were times when it was a bit precarious. At one point it was stuck in the field for four hours and we needed the help of four tractors to haul it out."

Jo Ruffell, who is the great-granddaughter of the original skipper of the Pioneer, launched the smack on Saturday as her last duty as the Mayor of Brightlingsea.

She said: "What we are witnessing today is the culmination a lot of effort, hard work and most of all love to restore this magnificent craft and bring it back home to where it spent most of its life."

The Pioneer was built in Rowhedge in 1864, but in 1889 it was sawn in half in Brightlingsea, extended by 11ft and fitted with a deep water well.

After this refit, John Bateman, who was the Mayor Deputy to the Cinque Port, launched the boat for the second time.

The Pioneer was part of a fleet of about 150 Colchester-registered deep sea smacks working out of the Colne and the Blackwater.

It sailed all around the British Isles and North European waters dredging for deep sea oysters and scallops, a trade described as the hardest and cruellest Essex man ever worked.

The skillingers, as they came to be known, are a distant memory in Essex maritime history, and the trust believes there is no-one still alive who can remember the sight of one under sail.

Alan Goggin, who currently holds the post of Mayor Deputy to the Cinque Port, said he was "delighted to follow in the footsteps" of his predecessor.

He added: "This is just the most exciting maritime event to happen in this town and it brings people here from far and wide who want to be part of this history and tradition."

The Rev Richard Salenius, of All Saints and Saint James' Church in Brightlingsea, blessed the Pioneer and said it was a "living link to the fishing history of the past".

The new Brightlingsea mayor, Janet Russell, also made a speech before the Pioneer floated on the rising tide to its new mooring, accompanied by music from Colne Community School's band.

The smack will now be ballasted and rigged with 2,000 sq ft of locally-made sails ready for its maiden voyage next year. It will then offer training to 12 youngsters at a time, particularly those who might not have the opportunity to sail because of disabilities or economic circumstances.

For more information about the Pioneer, visit www.pioneersailingtrust.org.uk.

n A book charting the history of the Essex deep-sea smacks and the story of the salvage and restoration of the Pioneer is now on sale.

The book, called Pioneer: Last of the Skillingers, also includes prints from the linocuts of artist James Dodds. It is available from Wivenhoe Bookshop on 01206 824050, priced £7.95 plus 50p post and packaging.

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