Four years ago, Whitstable Maritime was formed by local volunteers and purchased a hundred-year-old oyster yawl called the Gamecock.
There is nothing pretty about the Gamecock: she is a work boat. The craft had previously been used locally for oyster dredging. She has most of her original fittings and is one of the very few Whitstable Oyster Yawls still afloat. Built in 1907 in Whitstable, 42 feet long, and with a good provenance, she has been registered as a National Historic Vessel.
Her working life was spent dredging in the Swale Estuary where she was moored to a metal screw driven in to the hard sea bed. Storms and collisions were not unknown and the Swale can be rough when the North Sea is blowing on to the shore as the residents of Whitstable have found to their cost. Twice the Gamecock was hit while owned by Bill Coleman and he repaired her, as was the custom, by adding a second layer to the hull. Similarly, money was saved by storing sails and other gear below deck in the months when oysters were out of season. This cost-saving practice led to damp-rot on the underside of the deck as the air did not circulate. So, the boat and its owner struggled on. Now Whitstable Maritime, struggles to keep her away from the deadly embrace of the soft silt of The Swale where many a craft has found a grave.
Will the Gamecock make or break us? The charity also aims to establish a Maritime Discovery Centre, an interactive coastal trail from Whitstable to Faversham, and an annual maritime festival. The overall purpose of Whitstable Maritime is to celebrate the town’s connections with the sea: past, present and future. Restoring the Gamecock differs from the other three programmes in that its costs are unpredictable as owners of historical craft will testify. How much of the hidden timbers have been eaten by large fat worms? What strength of wind-on-sail will crack the mast weakened by rot? While some of the work can be undertaken by volunteers, such as painting, some requires supervision, such as caulking, while other tasks need the skills of a shipwright, such as the steaming of planks: one of our volunteers has been so inspired by the experience that he is now training as a shipwright at Lowestoft. Then there are the ongoing costs of moorings and insurance. This is when you need friends, friends who are equally committed, such as Swale Marina at Conyer and Iron Wharf at Faversham.
Why then take the risk? The Gamecock is more than a flagship; it is a nationally recognised icon of the town’s maritime heritage and when fully restored it could once again be used for dredging oysters. Not only will this be a contribution to responsible tourism in the area, and an opportunity for ‘Red Letter’ days for clients of local companies, but it will also provide adventurous voyages for NHS patients and youngsters who would benefit. Dredging by sail is more environmentally acceptable. A power dredger can scrape a sea bed of oysters and other marine life until they disappear. If dredging in the Thames and other estuaries was again limited to sail this more gentle method would lead to a more sustainable form of aquaculture.
The Gamecock also participates in an annual barge/smack race which Whitstable Maritime has helped promote over the past three years with the Kentish Sail Association. For the past two years the race formed part of a nautical festival organised by Whitstable Maritime. When in the harbour the tall masts added to the picturesque scene of fishing boats, stalls, lifeboats and other craft. Scaled models of many of the local craft were on display with parents and offspring competing to control the models in the temporary boating pool. Attendance has doubled to 10,000 and another ‘Harbour Day’ is planned for 3rd. August.
It is an aspiration of Whitstable Maritime that many of these activities are managed by a permanent Maritime Discovery Centre on the coast The plan is for the Centre to provide enjoyable opportunities for visitors and students to explore the town’s connections with the sea, past, present and future, through six themes: the impact of Man and Nature on the coastline; fish and shellfish from sea to plate; marine industries past, present and future; seamanship and navigation; a coastal trail; alternative energy and new technologies. Discussions are also underway to reintroduce the construction of small craft to Whitstable. The Centre would strengthen Whitstable’s future appeal as a visitor destination and advance the education of school children, students and adults. A pontoon to assist with embarkation has been installed in the harbour and it is realistic to envisage the programme being delivered in the Centre, on the foreshore, and afloat.
So no longer will visitors walk along the beach unaware that it is a recent artificial creation built to defend the town from storms. An interactive coastal trail will help them discover evidence that buried beneath their feet are the slipways of half-a-dozen boatyards, including that of the Collar Brothers where the Gamecock was built. Street names and architectural features of historical buildings will be other clues to a once thriving industry. Whilst students can use real data gathered through satellites to simulate alternative ways of dealing with rising sea levels. There are many opportunities for enriching the learning of all ages and a consultation undertaken in 2016 by Canterbury City Council resulted in a strong public endorsement of the proposal for a Centre.
How rapidly the vision promoted by Whitstable Maritime is realised depends on the success of the charity in attracting competent volunteers and adequate funding. To date, the response from companies, other voluntary organisations and the public, has been very encouraging. We now have expertise in boat-building, seamanship, architecture, marine ecology, tourism, education, IT, art and business and are looking to recruit more volunteers with different skill sets. The town’s expansion is limited geographically but building on its maritime heritage adds value and will stimulate further growth in the local economy.
Meanwhile, the Gamecock requires more attention - and funding!