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East Coast Gaffers featured boat: smack boat ‘Joy’

Our featured boat for September is ‘Joy’, winner of the Jubilee East Coast Race for open boats which took place on Sunday, 6 August, 2023 in very windy conditions. Unusually for our featured boats, her owner is not an East Coast member but trails ‘Joy’ to OGA events around the country – a great advantage of having a boat which can travel on a trailer! ‘Joy’ may certainly be regarded as an ‘East Coast’ boat though, being a Brian Kennell Smack Boat, popular with many Gaffers on the East Coast and further afield. A few years ago, her owner, Steve Mitchell, wrote in OGA Gaffers Log:

“At OGA55 I managed to get a sail in Pete Thomas’ smack boat. I was really taken in by the simplicity of it. Having bought a campervan, sailing and camping were fighting for my attention. Maybe the answer was to combine the two. In October 2018 I put my Crabber 24 on the market, she sold in 28 days. I ordered a new Smack boat from Brian Kennell. This meant my 2019 sailing season was going to be a bit lacking due to the build time. When August came, so did my shining new dinghy. The ability to tow my new boat meant I took no time at all in getting afloat. After a couple of successful camping/sailing trips to Cobnor in Chichester Harbour, I was pleased to see that the East Coast OGA were arranging a rally at Aldeburgh. Excited at the prospect of introducing ‘Joy’ to some East Coast mud I so lovingly grew up in, I duly registered.”

Steve Mitchell, Solent OGA

Read skipper Steve’s account of the Jubilee Race. In preparing content for the Jubilee Programme, Ian Clarke was commissioned to write about these well-known East Coast boats.

So what is a ‘Smack Boat’? Is it a generic term, for a type of boat built in a lot of places over the last 150 years? Or is it a unique design GRP replica built by one boatbuilder? It’s a question that hasn’t got a definitive answer, and so makes writing the history of Smacks Boats quite difficult! Looking at old black and white photographs of fishing harbours, there is usually an abundance of small clinker-built smack’s tenders, lying uncared for, having brought the crew and their catch from the main boat. A good average size might be 12’ long and 4’ 6” beam, and only rarely were seen with a sailing rig. Here on the East Coast, particularly Kent, Essex and Suffolk, in such places as Faversham, Leigh-on-Sea, West Mersea, Brightlingsea and Woodbridge, many of these craft earned a hard-living, and you can usually see plenty of smack’s tenders on old postcards of those fishing villages. 

Brian Kennell, who has built his GRP ‘Smacks Boat’ for over 40 years, says the master wooden smack’s boat builder of the 1960s was Alf Last, at Walter Cook’s boatyard at Maldon, who worked 53 years at the Essex yard. Examples of Alf’s work still come up for sale. A mould was made of an Alf Last boat in the 1970s by Ron Hall of Cook’s Yard at Maldon. Brian Kennell started building his Smacks Boats in the early 1980s. He used Ron Hall’s mould, fitting-out shells commercially, alongside restoring smacks, bawleys and cocklers. He specialised, with partner Shaun White, in historically correct rebuilds. The defining feature is the balanced lug sail on an unstayed mast, creating a very simple, easy to rig sail boat. 

In the late 1990s well known East Coast OGA member Ian Smith, owner of the bawley ‘Bona’, bought ‘Willow’ from Brian. Pete Thomas notes, “as he sailed past us ashore at Stone Point Ian cast off ‘Willow’ to run ashore and said ‘try this out’, we placed an order for ‘Happy Days’ hull a few weeks later”. The interest grew quickly and several East Coast Gaffers bought one of Brian’s shells to fit out. Smack boat racing started a couple of years later. Several of the more well-known examples can often be seen at OGA open boat events, or simply being towed and used as tenders for the East Coast Cruise. 

Ian Clarke, East Coast OGA member