Smacking on the speed

Excelsior off the cliffs of East Sussex

Excelsior, an East Coast smack, has been a past visitor to Rye and John Wylson, whose sister, Caroline, is a stalwart of Rye Harbour Sailing Club, recounts here a recent passage to Norway in this wonderful old boat.

“On June 18 Excelsior arrived in Arendal in south-east Norway after a passage via the German Bight and calling at Hvide Sande in Denmark for water and to repair the main topsail halyard chain, which had parted. The weather ranged from headwinds and fair, to no wind and fog, to headwind and driving rain – apart from the last day when a quartering Force 6 gave her 9.5 knots in the right direction.

“This is her best speed in any sort of a seaway and in such conditions she is in her element with the tiller, the rig, and indeed the whole ship literally thrumming with energy as she crashes through the waves in a cloud of spray. This is the fastest I have sailed in Excelsior with a sea running and it was the use of the powerful tow ‘foresail’ (forestaysail) instead of the working foresail that made all the difference.

“How I envy the view from the bridge of a passing freighter, or from the wheelhouse of a modern trawler that comes over to have a look at us and then steams alongside taking rather longer to overhaul us than she expected. The working rig (of mainsail, mizzen, tow foresail and No.2 jib and no reefs) is reasonably easy on the helm – Excelsior at her best and most exhilarating!

“Excelsior was going to Arendal to represent England at a gathering of British smacks following the 5-year reconstruction of Boy Leslie, a Brixham sailing trawler owned by a Norwegian Trust very similar to the Excelsior Trust. We were the first to arrive but others soon joined. Berthing alongside was Eureka YH815, an 1880 Yarmouth-built lugger now rigged as a smack (i.e. like Excelsior). Ahead was Boy Leslie, built by Sanders & Co. of Galmpton in 1911.

“Also present was Deodar from Stockholm, built in 1911 by Jackman of Brixham  – the best restored of all Brixham trawlers – together with  the 1903 built Lowestoft smack Gratitude,  Atlantica, a Swedish-built replica smack and the sleek ketch Gratia built as a gentleman’s yacht. These three vessels are now sail training and owned by Svenska Kryssarklubben of Gothenberg.  Like Excelsior, they are coded to cross the North Sea and take part in the Tall Ships Races.

“The well-restored  Kewaydin, a Lowestoft smack, but built by G&T Smith of Rye in 1913, was at work in the West Country and could not make it, nevertheless I believe this was the largest gathering of large British smacks since the Lowestoft 1996 Smack Race. Naturally we all thought that Excelsior was the most admired – being the most authentic, having come furthest, and having once been such a frequent visitor to Arendal!

“On the Saturday the smacks sailed in company to a stunningly beautiful little place called Hesnesøya where a prawn supper was laid on for all the ships’ companies. We all sat down on long tables with the prawns simply heaped up down the middle of each table.

“Returning to Arendal for some of our ships company to leave and others to join, we departed for the German Bight again with a fair wind and sunshine, but the sunshine did not last, although another force 6 gave us a cracking sail, including 120 miles in 18 hours to the former charming little British possession of Heligoland. Exchanged for Zanzibar in 1890, but pulverised by the RAF during the War and subsequently used for target practice, there is nothing remaining from before the War. Nevertheless, Heligoland enjoys a brisk day tripper trade for Germans who come across each day in three mini cruise ships encouraged by duty free booze and perfumes.

“After a good night’s sleep the sun came out and we could shed jerseys for the first time. It was flat calm which was helpful, because the engine had to be stopped because of a teething problem with the exhaust when we were changing berths to take on water. This was an excuse to use the sweeps in earnest for the first time to complete the manoeuvre, but the German authorities were not amused at having an oar propelled vessel in their nice modern port!

“Heading west brought us to Den Helder for fuel and where there happened to be a local ‘historic things’ festival where Excelsior and some of her older passengers fitted in very well! The vessels on display included a steam powered topsail schooner, a pre-WWI ram warship, a WWII Minelayer, and a Cold War submarine. Lack of time forced us on, motor-sailing into a light head breeze which enabled us to set all the windward sails and keep them drawing on a course for Lowestoft. A memorable and pleasant trip in good company!” For more information about Excelsior go to .





Photo: Excelsior Trust