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Workshop objectives:

  • To learn about the sailboat building history of Brightlingsea

  • To construct a ‘Smack’ sailing boat based on the Brightlingsea Smacks

  • To visit the Brightlingsea Museum to learn about the history of boat building in and around Brightlingsea

  • To test our sailboats in Brightlingsea Boating lake

This workshop was an attempt to combine a number of things:

Firstly, and foremost is always the wish for children to experience building things; giving them practical skills using a wide range of different materials and tools.

Secondly, I hoped that they would be making sailboats that actually worked. They could sail them in the water and the sails would catch the wind and the boats would have enough ballast to turn them upright when the wind subsides.

Thirdly, I hoped to bring a local historical fishing boat back to life by designing their sailboats on the 'Smack' sailing fishing vessel that used to fish off the coast of Essex for sprats, whelks, oysters and cockles.

Lastly, I planned to visit a town, Brightlingsea, that was the centre of boat building and sailing. I hoped that we would visit the town Museum, the boating lake and possibly CK18 Pioneer, which is a rebuilt Smack. This is a wonderfully restored boat with a Main and Mizzen mast.

Unfortunately, this ambition was always going to be a tall order for one day of a workshop.

Nevertheless, 'Onwards and upwards!' kept going through my head as the reality of packing too much into one day dawned on me.

The Workshop day

The day started with the usual wordsearch of terms that we would be using for the day. I gave a brief talk about the history of sailing and the connection to Brightlingsea.

There are many nautical terms that children and even many adults are now very unfamiliar with. Even the terms like bow and stern are not commonly used by landlubbers not to mention sheet, clew, mainmast, mizzen, ballast, gaff rig, cutter, jib, bowsprit, boom, hull and stay.

No rope is just called a rope on a sailing boat. The terms are sheet, tie, up-hall, out-hall, back-stay, main-stay etc. etc. I would love to do a workshop on ropes and knots at some point. They are so interesting and very useful. However, teaching can be very difficult. It's a bit like teaching a tricky mathematical formula or Algebra to students. Some get it whilst others really struggle and often give up. I was one of those who struggled but, to my credit, would not give up regarding knots. In the Brightlingsea Museum there is a very well designed knot practice display which I might use one day. What a great day out learning how to do knots then taking them out on a yacht trip to see them in action would be.

My father was a great influence on me. His Royal Navy training taught him to tie a bowline with one hand. I still cannot do this but I can tie a bowline. My moment of inspiration was learning how to make a tightening knot whilst being trained how to be a multi-activity instructor for PGL Outdoor Pursuits company. It requires learning how to make a figure-of-eight knot on the bight, looping the end through and pulling.

The making sessions were split into two groups. Group 1 would spend the first hour and a half making the hulls using polystyrene and special tools that cut the polystyrene. I had designed a prototype of the sailboat using polystyrene to create the hull. (picture of the prototype hull)

I decided to design the hulls with polystyrene. They are easy to cut using polystyrene cutters which are a bit like cheese cutters with the wire heated so it cuts through the polystyrene. As the children will attest, it is a very satisfying feeling to cut polystyrene with such ease and control.

A picture of polystyrene hot wire cutter

The difficulty was storing ballast deep in the hull to give it stability under sail . The Smack design did not have a keel so they must have had enormous quantities of pig iron ballast as low to the the bottom as possible. Looking at the video of a Smack being sailed, it is interesting how the water is quite close to the top of the sides of the boat.

Cutting an area in the bottom layer of polystyrene proved difficult. Eventually, I settled on cutting into the layers of hulls and filling them with Plaster of Paris.

Making the masts, boom, bowsprit and gaff boom was a satisfying job. Using tiny hooks placed on the end of the dowel used for the masts, they were then able to move but be securely attached

Once all the masts, booms and bowsprit were attached it was time to thread the rigging through the hooks and begin to make it look like a sailboat.

Lastly, sails were cut from some old bed sheets and stuck into place using glue. Initially, I wanted to use a needle and thread but this would take time, which was in very short supply.

Finishing all the models proved a bit ambitious for many of the pupils. We managed to finish one but it still needed a rudder added.

Trip to Brightlingsea Museum

After a quick lunch, we jumped on the minibus to visit Brightlingsea museum. Margaret Stone the curator of the Museum greeted us. She had taken out one of the model of a Gaff Rigged Smack which was perfect for our students to see as they had just been making it.

It really shows how much work goes into making a model of a sailing ship. The rigging alone must have taken many hours. I particularly liked how the sails were attached using a sort of looped tie around the sail and stays which is, if we had more time, something I would have liked to taught.

A special mention for our two hosts, Margaret and Jack, for their time, enthusiasm, knowledge and help during our visit. They gave us a very interesting visit. Below is a video of Jack helping explain a part of a sailing fishing boat.

There is a very well put together bunk and sleeping quarters

The children also got to learn about how Brightlingsea had a Royal Navy shore establishment 'HMS Nemo' during the Second World War. This was exemplified by the interactive desk with Morse Code machine, old telephone and type writer. This was a real hit with the children.

There were other interactive activities that the children experienced including a fishing game whilst learning about the fishing industry of Brightlingsea. Apparently, they used to fish sprat, dredge for cockles, whelks and oysters.

Lastly, there was an exhibition about schools in the Brightlingsea area.

All of the interactive nature of the museum was great to see with children being able to try out old fashioned desk with the flip desk tops and school satchels and scarves.

As we left the museum we took one last picture of us all together. A special mention to my volunteer, Dominic (pictured far left) who, as always, is a wonderful help and great with the children.

Lesson from the Holiday workshop

As is often the case, ambition verses time to complete the tasks seems to be the problem. The dilemma is always how much time to do the activities without losing the concentration of a mainly young group of children verses making a product of substance, which usually take time and dedication.

Secondly, whether it is better to have the visit on the same day or split up the workshop into two days so there is no rush to finish either the practical or visit aspect of the workshop.

With this workshop, the time it took to complete the hulls, ballast, masts, sails, rudder and painting proved too much for just one morning session. I had hoped that providing detailed instructions with pictures and dividing up the groups into hull and masts tables would help speed the process up but this was not the case.

Additionally, the idea of taking the boats down to the boating lake was also unrealistic. The workshop was definitely a two day affair. In future it will be a two day workshop.

I think what went well was the use of a polystyrene cutter for the formation of the hull. The children were introduced to a tool that is very useful for all sorts of reasons. I love it when making scenery for dioramas.

Also, learning about the parts of a sailboat is a good thing. It gives an appreciation of the technology and complexity of sail power. It also introduces them to sailboat terminology.

The trip to the museum was also well received by the children. I think they learned a lot about a local town, life for fishermen at sea, sailing and boatbuilding.

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