The Old Tamar River Fishermen – Part 1 by Edward ‘Jack’ Windsor.

The Old Tamar River Fishermen - Part 1 by Edward 'Jack' Windsor.

(The first selection from an article written by the late Jack Windsor in 2000) 

I am going to try and project you all back in time to an era when the Tamar River fishermen were in their heyday; they seemed to have appeared from nowhere at a certain time in our recent history and formed a tight little community along our river system. 

Perhaps they were the remnants of the old goldminers and early settlers that had found themselves thrown upon hard times, who knows? They were just there when I came into the district. 

They lived in a state of perfect harmony with their surroundings, the phases of the moon and the state of the weather and tides governed their lives. They were mostly illiterate but not stupid, they were clever and resourceful, and plied their trade along the river quietly and without seeming to be there at all. 

It was these remnants of a fast disappearing group of people that I became aware of when I first came to George Town to live in 1950, the river fishermen who earned their living on the lower reaches of the Tamar estuary. 

These men each had a boat, which became known in the late nineties as Cod Boats because Cod was one of the best known species of fish in this river system. 

These vessels were about eighteen feet in length, around six feet on the beam and generally with about eighteen inches of freeboard. They had a wet-well fitted amidships, were decked in over at the front for about five feet, about two feet at the stern, and had side decking of about ten inches. 

They were clinker built mainly of hardwood with pine wood ribs. The level floor was supported on cross beams in lift out sections to allow for cleaning and stowage. 

From the rear of the foredeck there was a canvas tent-like shelter called a tilt, which could be lowered when rowing against the wind. 

The foredeck carried the anchor and rope, and there was also a bowsprit fitted. This was used as a means of climbing into the boat from the shallow water at the shoreline. The rear deck carried the layed up net or nets, always ready to be let out when required. 

The space between the rear deck and the well was the working area and usually had a fire-pot made from an old petrol drum, partly filled with sand and sitting on bricks. The boat’s woodwork was protected from the heat by a sheet metal screen between the fire pot and the side deck. 

Under the side decks was where the small fishing tackle was stowed consisting of trolling and cod lines. The tucker box was in front of the well out of the way, and provided a seat under the tilt’s shelter when waiting at a net set. 

Some of these boats had a small two stroke engine fitted to enable trolling to be done when out after the ‘couta and blackback. The pots and pans for cooking were under the side decks in front of the well. 

The old method of propulsion was by sweeps, which were operated from a standing position just behind the well. The fishermen relied on the tidal currents to take them to their fishing grounds. 

The shape and size of these little boats had evolved over many generations of trial and error and working experience. The boats were usually built by the older men at some quiet spot at the river’s edge close to home during the off season. 

The planking and ribs, copper nails and roves would be selected very carefully by the older fishermen whilst on one of their infrequent trips to town and shipped down river on one of the family boats. 

They had their own system of measurements; for instance a thumb was an inch, a hand’s breadth was four inches, a foot was a foot, a pace was a yard, an arm’s span was a fathom, from finger tip to elbow was a cubit and so on. These measures were notched into a long piece of split wood with a knife and became their universal measure. 

They knew the stars and the moon’s phases and the tidal behaviour at all times of the year. They had their own peculiar language which they used amongst themselves; they were extremely hardy and resourceful folk who spent long hours out of doors in all kinds of weather. 

The keel which was a carefully selected piece of peppermint gum wood would be laid on level bearers and fastened down firmly. The keel was rebated by hand on each side before it was laid. The moulds made from wood and recycled from boat to boat were then fitted at pre-determined spaces along the keel. 

At each end of the keel a vertical post was erected and braced. From this a strong overhead beam was fastened to each post and from this the moulds were braced. At this stage the stem and stern posts were fitted and also braced. 

The planking started from the keel and was fitted outwards towards the bilges and thence to the gunwales. The first plank was called the garboard and sometimes had to be hot water bent. It was fitted as a rule full width. 

At the front there was a very sharp twist from the keel to the stem. At the stern end there was also a severe twist where it joined the stern post. If the boat was to have a motor fitted then the rear end would be built down to allow room for a propeller shaft and gland. In the case of a built down shape the keel would slope downwards from the front to allow sufficient depth for a propeller. 

The stem and stern posts were generally made from a local she-oak natural bend, which had been gathered before hand. The fishermen were always on the lookout for these natural stems and knees. There was a ready market for them at the boat yards in Launceston and it would provide them with a bit of extra cash now and again. 

Consequently these bends and knees were hard to find, and all the old wood cutters would be doing the same. These bends were kept wired under water in some nearby creek for the sap to be washed out and then hung in a bag in a shady spot until they were properly seasoned. 

to be continued… 

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