Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Harker's Yard – first impressions – 8.9.2014 by Julia Jones

"That windlass needs seeing to," remarked Abbey as we stood on the foredeck of Pioneer, CK18, the last of the Skillingers. The Skillingers were big, deep sea, sailing smacks, built on the River Colne in Essex in the c19th and sufficiently robust to cross the North Sea in winter to dredge for oysters in the stormy waters off Terschelling.  Pioneer was built by Peter Harris in Rowhedge in 1864 and is therefore 150 years old this year – though very little remains of her original construction. She was pulled from the West Mersea mud in 1999 and almost completely restored in a breathtaking demonstration of ingenuity, determination and the shipwrights' skill. Pioneer is now sailing the East Coast and the North Sea once again but her cargoes are people and not crustaceans. She’s a sail training ship, in beautiful condition – and her connections are clearly determined that she's going to stay that way.

On the fore deck of Pioneer
This was my first visit to Pioneer and my first direct encounter with the PioneerSailing Trust, the charity which oversaw her restoration and which is now based in Harker's Yard, Brightlingsea. So much experience, expertise, enthusiasm had been accumulated during the six years of salvage and rebuilding. It couldn't have been allowed to go to waste. Today Harker's Yard is home to a varying number of shipwrights, volunteers, apprentices and work-experience students. They undertake a variety of restoration projects and build the Harker's Yard gigs – of which more another time. Pioneer herself remains the heart of the enterprise. It was a beautiful day in early September and I was on board in the company of John Lane, tutor at the Pioneer Sailing Trust, Abbey, one of the eight current apprentices and George,  a 14 year old currently released from school one day a week for work experience. "I had to keep my foot on it when I was getting the anchor up," Abbey went on, pointing to the beginnings of wear on ridges of the wooden windlass. George nodded in agreement, as one who knew. "That'll be a yard job for this winter, then," said John.

I had nothing to contribute to the conversation. What was I doing here? Firstly I came because I'd been invited by John Lane. He is proud of the PST (Pioneer Sailing Trust) apprentices and believes that the Harker's Yard scheme offers something that is at least unusual and possibly unique in UK wooden boat building. There are currently 8 apprentices, aged between 18 – 24, very different in their educational backgrounds and skill levels, who are all working towards a City and Guilds qualification. Of course the qualification is important but it seemed to me (on this first impression) that it's the working on real projects, the working both individually and alongside experienced shipwrights, that gives real value to this scheme.

John and George in joinery work shop
My youngest son left school this summer, not quite 18. It can be such a difficult time for youngsters  – and worrying for parents too. Some will get their grades and go to university – in which case the difficult moment of finding work may only be postponed, not necessarily avoided. That was my daughter's experience when she left college in her early 20s with a degree that didn't seem to fit her for anything that she actually wanted to do. Others will struggle for a while to see how all those years of school and exams are relevant to the adult world. I had thought my youngest son would be one of them until he had an amazing stroke of luck and was offered an office assistant job in the place he'd done his y10 work experience. As this was Lord's Cricket ground – his idea of heaven on earth – I'm rather hoping he'll be there for years to come. Others of his friends are starting various apprenticeships and it's an area I know very little about – except cringing at the desperate contestants trying to please Lord Sugar on TV.
Pioneer on her mooring
There were two other reasons for accepting John Lane's invitation. One was Pioneer herself. I saw her twice this summer when I was sailing my own boat – once lying at her mooring at the entrance to the Pyefleet (opposite Brightlingsea) in the early morning light and again a couple of weeks later reaching briskly up the Wallet in the sunshine. Her size makes her tremendously impressive close too but what I also love is her shapeliness as a sailing vessel.

My third reason connects with this. I was a child of the mid-c20th. My father was a yacht broker, my uncle a naval architect. My brothers and I spent hours hanging around outside boatyards while Dad disappeared to have long unintelligible conversations from which we were excluded. They were all wooden boats of course – Dad hated fibreglass and sold his business when it became clear that that was what most people wanted. He got involved in other projects including the management and restoration of some Thames sailing barges. I was never much use with my hands but he gave me a part time job one long summer before I went to university chipping rust off SB Lady Daphne at Cook's Yard, Maldon. People were perfectly kind to me and I drunk gallons of boatyard tea but I was very shy and learned absolutely nothing, except to hate the constant feeling of grittiness in my eyes (for some reason I didn't have protective goggles).

On this first visit to Harker's Yard Charlie talked to me about the iroko he was using to build a skylight for a motor launch. Dunstan explained about the cold-moulding process used to build the gigs and showed me the minute holes made by the staples which he was brushing out with filler. Liam had made prototype oars for gigs and Jake showed me the hollow construction which maintains their lightness without compromising strength. When I complimented him (totally sincerely) on his workmanship he didn't exactly answer but looked at John Lane the tutor as if both of them knew what might have been even better. I was impressed by Abbey's proprietorial attitude to Pioneer's windlass and the highlight of my visit was listening to George talk about oyster-dredging under sail on the cockle bawley Dorana MN2. I find it hard to believe that there are many other 14 year olds in this country with piratical experience like that and the ability to explain it to an outsider like me.

It's the beginning of another academic year and the PST have been advertising for 2 or 3 new apprentices. I don't think 60 year old grannies are eligible to apply but I'm hoping that if I hang around for a while and keep a-hold of my notebook, I'm going to learn a great deal from these young people and the others working with them.

Abbey, one of the Harker's Yard apprentices

This is the first in a series of posts from Harker's Yard.  We are planning regular updates over the next twelve months.  If you like what you see, please add us to your list of favourites.  Your comments are welcome and if you would like to get in touch with the Pioneer Sailing Trust, please visit our website:


  1. A lovely sailing-related post, I can taste the salt (and the rust!)! The trust seems a very worthy cause to blog about. New sailors and boatbuilders, old boats renewed, what's not to love?

  2. I need to apologise to George - I see that an over-hasty spell check has allowed me to say that he has 'piratical' experience rather than the 'practical' variety. Am perfectly certain that George's impressive skills do not include jumping around on a wooden leg with a parrot on his shoulder saying yo ho ho and demanding gold doubloons.

  3. A lovely, atmospheric piece, Julia. Itching to be on one of those boats!