The Gamecock is one of only two or three remaining examples of a Whitstable Oyster Yawl still capable of going to sea. Gamecock was built in 1907 in Whitstable, is 42 feet long, and has most of her original fittings. She has been registered as a National Historic Vessel and is currently undergoing a painstaking restoration thanks to the efforts our expert team of volunteers and to the generosity of Whitstable Maritime supporters.
In the late 19th century and early years of the 20th century there were up to 80 oyster yawls dredging the Whitstable coastline and at one point these ships were responsible for supplying London with half of its oysters.
Gamecock’s 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 part and parcel of the oyster yawl’s working life and the Gamecock herself was hit twice while under her previous owner. She was repaired, 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, it has fallen to Whitstable Maritime to keep her away from the deadly embrace of the soft silt of The Swale where many a craft has found a grave!
The short TV film below, originally shown on Thames TV in October 1980, offers a fascinating insight into the life and times of an oyster fisherman. The then owner of Gamecock, Bill Coleman, offers an insight into the technique of oystering using the traditional method of dredging under sail. In the early 1980s oyster fishing was in decline after several harsh winters…
Restoring the Gamecock differs from Whitstable Maritime’s other 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 enthusiastic volunteers need supportive 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 in partnership with the Kentish Sail Association. The race now forms part of the nautical festival organised by Whitstable Maritime. When in the harbour the tall masts add to the picturesque scene of fishing boats, stalls, lifeboats and other craft. Scale models of many of the local craft are on display with parents and offspring competing to control the models in the temporary boating pool. Attendance has doubled to 10,000 and ‘Harbour Day’ is now firmly established as an annual event.