A short history of fishing boats

5th September 2019

A short article on the evolution of modern trawling and fishing boats

A history of trawling.

The United Kingdom has an affinity for the sea and its history of fishing is an essential part of our culture as an island nation. From the development of early coastal communities to industrial harbours fishing is at the heart of much of our rich traditions. The UK is credited with the development of deep sea fishing owing to the fact that the first trawlers were designed here. As with many industrialised processes, trawling has had its fair share of controversy over the years but the development of these capable fishing boats has had the most significant influence over fishing economies, and politics, than any other vessel.

Though the design has changed over the last six hundred years, trawlers can all be classified as being vessels that tow a net (irrespective of the depth) to catch fish. Simple in premise it is the design of the 17th century Dogger that revolutionised the industry and is widely recognised as being the precursor of the modern fishing trawler as we know it.

However, trawling has an even longer history in the UK and is mentioned in documentation as early as 1376 with a petition to the British Parliament to ban fishermen from using a new device called the wondyrchoum, a type of beam trawl. Those fishermen who did not have access to such a rig were incensed both over the success of the catches but also concerned, perhaps the first, environmental complaint over damage being done to the ocean floor. The objections to its use were eventually upheld and the method was banned. To find a fishing boat with a beam trawl could thenceforth end in execution though many fishermen continued to use the device it wasn’t until the 17th century that further developments in trawling began to occur. Trawling Cutters at Brixham

Brixham in South Devon

At this time Brixham in South Devon was an already well established fishing port, boasted an excellent fleet of vessels and was the principal harbour in the area. But it was the development of the dogger over the ensuing century that earned the village the nickname of ‘Mother of Deep-Sea Fisheries’ and secured their influential role in the development of fishing history. Taken from the Dutch word meaning a fishing boat that tows a trawl, doggers were already in use in the North Sea and their compact size along with their sturdy design made them well adapted for the rough conditions; however, it was the Brixham fishermen that developed this trawler into something altogether more adept and powerful for deeper waters.

At the time, fishing for the people of Brixham was getting harder as fish stocks near the coast were being depleted by an ever-growing community of fishermen. As a result it was becoming necessary to adapt their vessels to venture further afield. At the time the doggers were too slow to get sufficiently out to sea and they were not powerful enough to tow large catches home. By improving the design to include a tall gaff rig and changing the shape of the boat the Brixham fishermen changed the face of fishing forever. With a more powerful and faster vessel, larger trawls could be exploited from deeper water and without overfishing local stocks.

This development changed the geography of fishing and immediately instigated mass migration as fisherman relocated to towns in the North of England from where the new design of trawlers could launch to access new fishing grounds. Migration towards towns such as Harwich, Hull and Yarmouth produced booming local economies with, perhaps the most famous of these, Grimsby becoming the world’s largest fishing port by the mid 19th century.

The Brixham trawler remained largely unchanged until the advent of steam power in the mid to late 19th century and these unassuming but successful vessels were exported across the globe. With almost 3000 trawlers in service by the end of the 19th century the Brixham trawler had become the backbone of the UK’s fishing industry.

By the 1870’s steam powered boats began to use the trawling system with the first such design being accredited to David Allan in Leith who converted a drifter to steam power. Allan went on to build a further ten such fishing boats from Leith including the Pioneer LH854 the worlds first screw propelled steam trawler.

The evolution of the design of steam powered fishing boats was such that they could be up to 6m longer than their sail driven counterparts and were capable of travelling much faster. The result was greater time spent fishing instead of travelling and larger quantities of fish able to be caught and transported home.

Sailing vessels had had their day and the last such trawler was built in Grimsby in 1925.

fishing boat development

Trawler designs continued to be adapted alongside the advancements in modern technology with timber boats being replaced by steel hulled vessels, sails by coal fired engines and turbine engines becoming more popular by the end of World War II.

As well as the design of the boats themselves advancements in the 1940’s continued to be developed enabling trawlers to be equipped with state-of-the-art technology to assist with navigation, monitoring of fishing grounds and communication.

Until the mid-twentieth century most trawlers hauled their catch up over the side but in 1953 the Fairtry became the first purpose built trawler with a stern hauling mechanism. This enabled the vessel to lift out up to 60 tons of catch and lead to the dawn of the age of the modern ‘super trawler’.

Such vessels as are now in operation bear little resemblance to the sailing fleets of the 17th century but continue to play a dominating role in the fishing industry.

The world’s largest fishing boat, the Atlantic Dawn built in Norway at the end of the twentieth century was capable of hauling over 400 tons of fish each day and could fish the deep seas for up to five weeks at a time. Weighing more than 14,000 tons such vessels are uncommon but go a long way to demonstrating the extraordinary history of the trawler.

You can sell your fishing boat on FAFB here.

Bottom Trawling
Extract from Chapter 10 of The Unnatural History of the Sea
FMIB 37819 - Trawling Cutters at Brixham
Fishing Trawler
Brixham Trawler
Dogger Boat
Brixhams History
Atlantic Dawn - The ship from hell

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