Smack Fever – the Return of the Maria

 By Robert Simper

(This article was first published in Classic Boat magazine in December 2007)

The 47ft Essex smack Maria tacked, like a racing dinghy, and skipper Paul Winter put in another short tack before the finishing gun rang out as she was first home in the last smack race of ‘Mersea Week’. The Maria was built by Harris Bros, at Rowhedge in 1866 for Mr Gunn of Wivenhoe. The story of the early years of the Maria have been lost, but she has always had a reputation for speed because she was narrower than the other smacks. Harris’ were primarily yacht builders and Gunn probably crossed the River Colne to Rowhedge because he wanted a fast smack. He certainly got one.

In about 1880 the Levetts of Tollesbury bought Maria and worked her in inshore fishing for the next eighty years. In 1948 the hull was in such bad order that Drake Bros cut 8ft off the counter stern. Later the owner went into hospital and the smack was laid up in a creek where she eventually sank and filled with mud. In 1961 Tommy Bolton bought her and got two 5gallon drums of eels out of the hulk. When she was more or less afloat he managed to tow her back to the River Crouch with a pump running and she was rigged out again in Clements Green Creek. Tommy Bolton rebuilt the stern, 2ft too short, and planned to fit an engine in the smack, but sadly he was drowned off the North Foreland on a yacht delivery trip.

When I first became aware of the Maria,back in the early 1960s,she was a yacht rigged as a schooner with painted-gun ports. A romantic image of the past, but the wrong past. She was a thoroughbred of the Essex fishing fleet and nothing to do with Pirates of the Caribbean. The Maria was sold away to Holland and there she became a motor yacht and then a ‘live aboard’ boat berthed in Muiden.

It was Maria’s reputation as being a fast smack that saved her from falling to pieces in a Dutch port. Paul Winter had grown up sailing on his father’s smacks, the big Whitstable smack Rosa & Ada  and the Wash smack Unity, good work boats for fishing trips in the Swale, but they were not built for summer racing. Paul dreamt of owning a fast sailing smack and after he tracked the Maria down in 1996,bought her a week before Christmas. To get her home she was placed on a low loader and arrived back at Peter Dodd’s Iron Bridge yard Faversham.  Later on the smack was moved down to Hollowshore, on Oare Creek. A huge cabin top was removed and the deck covered with plywood. A new, temporary, counter stern was also added to make her up to her original length. She was given a 45ft  grown mast and was rigged with new sails from Jim Lawrence. Although the hull was rather tender she sailed successfully in the local smack races but she only performed well in light airs because the hull couldn’t be driven hard. Besides she had over three tons of concrete in the bottom to strengthen the hull and beat the endless leaks.

In 1993 the smack George &  Alice towed the  Maria  up the River Blackwater to Rick Cardy’s yard at Maylandsea. Rick renewed the keel and frames in English grown oak but he had a major job on, rebuilding the barge Pudge so the Maria was moved by road to Andy Harman’s yard at St Osyth. There were no plans or photographs of the smack in her working days, but the over riding guide line behind the total rebuild was to completely replicate the working smack on the same lines. The current thinking about rebuilds on the East Coast is that, if a hull is rebuild in exactly the same air space to exactly the same shape, then you still have the original vessel. Over a period of four years the smack was totally rebuilt, but the working time was actually only for about two years.     A number of freelance shipwrights worked on the rebuild. Alan Williams planked up the starboard side with larch and Andy ‘Droid’ Balfe planked the portside. In fifteen planks a side they only had two butts. John Brett, owner of the smack Iris Mary, also worked on the smack replacing the rail stanchions and lodging knees. She has also been ballasted with lead low down in the hull.

The most outstanding feature of the rebuild is the powerful windlass; so that she can be used for the traditional stowboat fishing. For winter stowboating, the smack anchors and a stowboat net is lowered down over the bow and that puts tremendous strain on the anchor and ground tackle. She also has all wooden blocks and three strand Hemplex rope to get a traditional appearance. There is little point in restoring a smack unless one sticks absolutely to the traditional appearance.

The Maria does not have an engine. Several of the Essex smacks that are raced regularly, don’t have an engine, but they have powerful inflatable tenders with outboards that push them in and out of the moorings at West Mersea or Brightlingsea. The Maria, trying to stick nearer to tradition, has a 14ft grp smack’s boat powered by a 25hp outboard. This works perfectly, ever in the strong tides at Brightlingsea. To get to her berth on the pontoons, on a flood tide, she sails above the commercial quay, drops all sails and the boat push her back to her place on the ‘smack’s berths’ on the pontoons.

It is on race day that Maria really comes into her own. Not only is she fast, but her long narrow hull pushes her up to windward. In her first major piece of racing, the five days of Mersea Week, she proved, boat for boat, to be faster than any other smack. She won or came in second in the week of racing, but her reputation went before her and she carried the highest handicap.  She normally races with just working sails, there is nothing more out of place than a colour spinnaker on a smack.

The Maria is owned by the Tall Ships Restoration Company, of which Paul Winter is a director, and will be available for charter work out of Brightlingsea. Tall Ships Restoration Co are getting together a group of smacks to undertake corporate charter racing in the Rivers Colne & Blackwater.

The Maria has had a charmed career. She has been abandoned twice to become, a rotten hulk and she has been saved twice. After 141 years she is back home on the River Colne. Hopefully this time she has a very long career ahead of her sailing in her home waters around the Thames Estuary.

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