How Lowestoft’s last fishing smack is helping the county’s disadvantaged young people
PUBLISHED: 12:59 13 August 2019 | UPDATED: 12:59 13 August 2019
Jonathan Schofield sails on Lowestoft’s only remaining fishing smack and discovers how it is helping to transform young lives
Early morning and we are edging out into the North Sea from the most easterly point of England, on board Excelsior. A diesel engine is rumbling somewhere deep beneath the decks. I turn my back on Lowestoft and look out to sea.
I can see three weather fronts arching across the great expanse of water. The sun has found some cracks in the storm clouds and great shafts of sunlight sweep across the grey, choppy sea like enormous search lights.
There's a crisp wind whipping in from the north-east and a whole day's sailing ahead of us. Mugs of coffee are handed out on deck, warming hands and giving the boost of energy needed to start the job of raising Excelsior's sails.
There's a bewildering amount of ropes but, along with all the paying guests, I join the crew and start hauling. I do what I'm told, pull on various ropes, and watch as great thick sheets of rusty red sail appear, mainsails, topsails, headsails, billowing in the wind.
I quickly realise why the crew have weathered, etched hands, unlike my soft hands used to nothing more robust than a keyboard in a heated office.
When all nine sails are raised, the engine is cut. The only sound is wind against sail and the repeated smash of waves on the bow, as this glorious Suffolk-built sailing smack, now listed as one of the nation's most important historic ships, starts to live on the wind.
As Lowestoft and the coast recede from view, the skies darken, the breeze stiffens, Excelsior's skipper, Jim Goddard, tells me how this 98-year-old vessel has survived and is thriving thanks to the work of the Excelsior Trust.
Built in 1921 by John Chambers of Lowestoft, she plied her trade in the North Sea during the heyday of the region's fishing industry, before she was shipped to Norway shortly before the Second World War and used to transport goods along the Scandinavian coast and the frigid Barents Sea.
And she was still afloat, just, in 1971, when Jon Wylson, an enthusiast of Lowestoft's fishing heritage, spotted her while on holiday in Norway. Keen to return Excelsior to her rightful home he bought her, and thanks to some ingenious use of tar and chalk, and a straining bilge pump, nursed her back across the North Sea.
"She's designed perfectly for the short, steep waves of the North Sea," explains Jim, "as opposed to the large swells of the Atlantic. And she'll bang through the waves rather than slice through.
"She was built for stability in the most extreme conditions. People on board will break long before she does." I'm hoping he's not referring to me.
As we pitch and roll I can only imagine the lives of the hardy Suffolk souls who worked daily on Excelsior, in this unforgiving sea, to bring in her catch.
The freezing temperatures, the waves crashing over the men as they toiled on deck, none, I should add, wearing the heavily insulated, waterproof clothes we have today, as we sip our coffees.
In the 1920s, when Lowestoft had a fleet of more than 300 similar vessels, Excelsior would be at sea for three or four days, preserving fish in ice, before returning to port and dispatching the catch on trains to towns and cities.
Simon, one of the guests on board for our day-long voyage, tells me about his previous trip on Excelsior, 25 years ago, as a Suffolk teenager with his school friends.
Recalling the voyage to Holland, he describes his night-watch when a wave suddenly broke across the bow and the entire deck was awash with glowing phosphorous, under a canopy of a million stars. Simon is planning to contact his old crew for a reunion voyage.
"This is an amazing ship that means a great deal to many people," he says, "and what they are doing for young people is truly remarkable."
Today, the Excelsior Trust, supported by donations and income from paying guests and corporate charters, takes disadvantaged children, teenagers and young adults on multi-day voyages.
Over the next five years the 77ft long, 55 tonne vessel will travel more than 35,000 nautical miles, taking groups of youngsters from all walks of life. Many have mental health issues, conditions such as Aspergers, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorders, or have been excluded from school or home.
Some are recovering drug addicts or gang members. But they all have one thing in common, they are on the margins of society and need positive reinforcement and encouragement to help turn their lives around.
"You see a transformation in the young people that come on board," says Jim. "We don't mollycoddle them, but with the crew's support they have to get up and get on.
"If that means climbing the main mast to put up a sail, or cooking for 12, that's what they do, and the pride they take in this is powerful to witness. When they step on board they experience new adventures, develop new skills, make new friends, an experience that can act as a turning point in their lives."
Hailstones bounce off the deck. I head below into the cosy warmth of the saloon where a long table is laid out with a delicious smorgasbord of fresh breads, cheese, meats, lemon and ginger cakes, and fruit.
I explore the wonderfully converted fish hold, my mind wandering with seafaring adventures as I inspect the ingeniously packed-in bunks.
Back on deck, the skies have cleared and relief skipper Karol Petryka shows us how to tack as we begin our return to Lowestoft. Excelsior pivots, the sails slacken, then suddenly fill again as we head back towards the coast.
The adventure isn't quite over as we enter Lowestoft port. Due to some questionable dredging work Excelsior runs aground just feet from the dock where we are to disembark.
With help from people on the dock, heaving ropes and calling instructions, we finally get close enough for a ladder to be lowered and we somewhat reluctantly disembark. Sailing on this fine vessel is a chance to see, feel and experience a surviving link to the coastal heritage of our seafaring county.
Excelsior's story has been one of survival and reinvention, from Suffolk fishing smack, to Norwegian transport vessel, to her current role as a training ship.
It's a credit to the people who have poured immeasurable hours and toil into her restoration, and to their continued effort to realise the role Excelsior can play in transforming the lives of young people in need of direction, a future, and above all, hope.
1921: Built by John Chambers of Lowestoft
1935: Sold to Norwegian Bjorn Stensland, converted to a motor coaster
1971: Bought by Jon Wylson, sailed back to Lowestoft for restoration
1983: Excelsior Trust formed to complete restoration
1988: Restoration completed. Commissioned by HRH The Princess Royal as a training ship
1989: Took part in the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race, appeared on Anglia TV's Sailaway, completed circumnavigation of Britain
2006: National Historic Ships rated Excelsior as one of the nation's 60 most important vessels
2014: Excelsior chartered by Disney for Alice in Wonderland, appeared in BBC's Coast and Channel 4's Homes by the Sea
Excelsior is taking part in Heritage Open Days, Sept 20-22, at Heritage Quay, Lowestoft.
For more information: T: 0845 3082323 E: firstname.lastname@example.org W: theexcelsiortrust.co.uk