Whitstable volunteers build on the town’s maritime heritage

After five years of fund-raising, fun and frustration, the aspirations of the volunteers of Whitstable Maritime are coming to fruition.

There is nothing pretty about the Gamecock. She is a working boat that has been battered by the Swale since she was launched in 1907. She looks even more sad having lost her mast which broke when the volunteers of Whitstable Maritime tried to lift the thick trunk clear of the deck so as to winch the forty-two foot hull in to a boatshed at Conyer. Despite its thickness, the timber mast had rotted through at deck level where the water had collected over the past hundred years.

Under the guidance of a professional shipwright, the volunteers have repaired or replaced the damaged planks in the hull while she was out of the water for eight months. Once returned to the water, the new timbers swelled to seal the hull. It was then possible to tow her round to a creek in Faversham where she is now resting on a mud berth. With each high tide she is lifted off and soaked by the incoming water, so her swollen timbers keep out the sea.

The Gamecock is the last of the Oyster Yawls built on the beach at Whitstable. Owned by local fishermen, the spent her working life dredging for native oysters offshore. Some of the volunteers are direct descendants of the families that built and sailed these vessels up until World War Two. Today she is recognised as being of national historical significance and restoring her to working order requires a great deal of patience, money and skill. 

During her working life the Gamecock had been hit twice by other vessels, while moored off-shore, and repaired by adding a second skin. Her deck has damp rot on the underside where her sails had been stored below, preventing the flow of air through the vessel. Her stern has been weakened by attempts to improve performance. While the engine is from a bus. All measures taken by her former owners to keep down maintenance costs.

Today’s volunteers are all amateurs working to a trained shipwright. However, even they have been beaten by the coronavirus which struck just as the Gamecock was about to be towed round to Whitstable harbour and lifted on to the quay for public display. Once restored the priority will shift to operational issues with the training of crews, the securing of commercial contracts, sail-training for youngsters, social prescribing, racing, adventure holidays, educational visits and annual maintenance.

The Gamecock will have a permanent mooring in the harbour halfway along the new Coastal Trail being developed by Whitstable Maritime. The Trail will

 help walkers, runners, cyclists and wheel-chair users enjoy and understand the natural environment, wildlife, history and landscape of this unique five kilometre stretch of the Kent coast.

A second team of local volunteers, each with a relevant expertise, have researched the Trail’s accompanying guide which includes information about key themes and features, an illustrated map, and stunning images of eight key observation points. Available initially on-line, there are also plans for a printed version and an APP.  Visitors will be able to discover evidence of former boatyards, spot a rare plant and moth, study satellite images of the changing shore-line, and learn how to dredge for oysters by sail.

Those fortunate enough to be able to visit Whitstable in early August will be able to enjoy the annual Harbour Day & Boat Show. Each year over 10,000 visitors arrive from the South-East and Northern Europe. The event is managed by a third team and on the day over two hundred extra local volunteers help deliver a joyful family occasion.

The harbour fills with boats, both modern and historical, and the quays will be lined with over forty stalls, each with a maritime theme. As well as stall-holders and seafarers, there will be lifeboat crews, coastguards, environmentalists, crafts-folk, modellers, artists, naturalists, historians, archaeologists, shipwrights, shippers, fisher-folk, caterers and musicians. 

Young children are able to scramble over lifeboats, a cargo vessel, and tipper trucks, ride on a model steam railway and navigate large hand-made model boats. Environmentalists can investigate marine pollution, coastal wildlife and the impact of rising sea-levels. Thames barges and smacks race off-shore while those interested in marine archaeology are invited to build a coracle or examine a Bronze Age replica. Foodies will sample the Native Oyster and seaweed products whilst listening to the bands and watching the sailing dinghies compete off-shore. And it is free! 

Whitstable Maritime is a charity formed five years ago to celebrate the towns connections with the sea: past, present and future. The Founder, Gordon Vincent, says: “Our aim is to help residents and visitors enjoy and appreciate the town’s coastal zone in all its complexity. By building on our maritime heritage we can add value to the visitor offer and hopefully make a significant contribution to the regeneration of the local economy following the coronavirus”. 

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