The Five Man Boat, Coble Lugger or Yorkshire 3-Masted Lugger

This ancient Yorkshire fishing craft was the largest and fastest fishing vessel of the British Isles, renowned for its safe sea-keeping abilities, until it finally became extinct about 1850/1860.

Although mentioned in text through the centuries, representations of their appearance is none existent until the early 19th century, and most descriptions and illustrations today are based on the old Scarborough model, repaired in the early 20th century, and now in the Science Museum. Because so little has been recorded about these craft, they have been the subject of particular research for the Archive, and a limited amount of new material has come to light that is the basis a re-appraisal and re-description of the morphology and use of these famous craft.

Used for the traditional North Sea herring and long-line white-fish fisheries, this craft probably derived from the cog, evolving through the Medieval period, and getting its name from the custom of five men of the crew being equal partners dividing the proceeds into five equal shares, while two or three other crew members, usually boys, were paid a set amount.

Throughout their history, these large clinker-built luggers, ranging from 55 to 65 feet in length, were built up without any form of internal frame being put in until the planking had reached deck level, whereupon timbers were cut, shaped and joggled to fit over the lands of the clinkered planking. This same skillful construction method for such large craft continued with the introduction of the Yorkshire Yawls, which evolved as a two-masted reconstruction of the ancient luggers, eventually bringing about their extinction, and is shown on rare old photographs of the yawls being built in the Scarborough shipyards

Evolution of the Five-men boats was essentially that of a two-masted vessel, which through the necessity of rigging a small mizzen sail at the stern while drifting to the herring nets, became a three-master. However, while the two main masts were substantial and stepped in deep tabernacles slewing off the centre line of the vessel, the mizzen, of which two sizes appear to have been carried, was never situated on the mid line of the vessel, but was simply stepped on the port or starboard stern quarter where and when required, and a crutch to support the main mast, when dropped back while the boat laid to the nets, or when not working, was staffed on the opposite stern quarter.

The hull was beamy, and the floors had little rise, due to the necessity of the craft having to dry out and moor up on the beaches or tidal harbours along the coast, and to land their catches. They appear to have had a long tradition, as with the small sailing cobles of the coast, of painting the bulwarks in broad and narrow stripes of bright colour. Contemporary reference material shows that various emblems were also painted on the bows and that, in some vessels at least, the graceful lute stern was elaborately decorated, a feature which, along with many others, was also carried forward to the Yorkshire Yawls as they evolved during the 1830’s. The main mast carried a fidded topmast, to carry a large lug-topsail.

Capable of great speed, it is recorded that in the 17th century, a five-man boat returning to Scarborough from the fishing grounds was chased by a French pirate vessel, but managed to out run them, getting safely into the harbour. After quickly taking on weapons, the fishermen set sail again, and gave chase to the French pirates. Due to the swift sailing abilities of the fishermen’s five-man boat, the Frenchmen were soon overtaken.

Their speed, sea-worthiness and offshore capability, made them superb vessels to engage in smuggling as well as fishing, and in the 18th and 19th centuries, this activity was rife at the various fishing hamlets along the Yorkshire coast, and the activities of these boats, and the communities that used them, particularly at Staithes, Robin Hoods Bay and Filey, were frequently watched by the Revenue men.

When line-fishing, two cobles were carried on deck, which were launched and retrieved through a removable section of the bulwarks, and the fishing lines and catch were hauled in using the cobles, while the five-man boat dodged about or laid to.

During the herring season, which in the early nineteenth century sometimes began in June on the Yorkshire coast, the luggers carried only a single coble on deck. In the height of the season, as the boats came together in number from the various hamlets in order to land their catches at the beaches and harbours of the coast, they must have presented a glorious sight, with their large red and brown lug-sails, and their bulwarks gaily painted in stripes of different colours, while their black hulls contrasted with the vessels’ small cobles, whose planks were again painted in reds, blues, white and green, and which busily ferried the herring catches back to shore.

This old painting from the 1830’s shows such an animated scene, with the Yorkshire fleet of five-man boats laid off the sands at Whitby, their main masts laid back in their crutches, and with the shore-line and beach a hive of activity with herring workers, agents and carters.

As the herring season advanced, the five-man boats followed the shoals south, working off the beach at Yarmouth, where a very similar craft was also in use, until the end of November, when the boats finally returned home and were given a brief lay-up for refitting for the eventual start of the winter line fishing.

No photographs of these three masted luggers have yet been discovered during the authors research, but since they survived the advent of photography by some years, it is just possible that one day such an image may be discovered.

Related topics