A Shetland ‘zulu’ sails south: 1963

In this extract, an East Coast member of the OGA recalls a story about his father, who purchased a 42 foot ‘Zulu’ herring boat, ‘Fjara’, in 1963, intending to sail her south to Essex for use as a sail training vessel. After a daring rescue off Dundee, we hear the vessel eventually arrived on the Essex coast, though sadly, the plans for sail training never materialised.

H Warington Smyth, Scots Zulu from 'Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia', John Murray, 1906
H Warington Smyth, Scots Zulu from ‘Mast and Sail in Europe and Asia’, John Murray, 1906

In 1963 my father had become increasingly obsessed with the seafarers of Shetland and their courageous deeds, in particular their special kind of herring fishing boats ‘Zulus’ and ‘Fifies’. This led to a visit to Shetland and Lerwick’s ‘Up Helly A’ Fire Festival of burning the Viking chief body on his boat. My father made many friends with other sailing enthusiasts on this visit.

At the same time he had become interested in the idea of providing sail training for London East End teenagers and felt that this type of vessel was entirely suited for such activities. His hope was to achieve sponsorship from the Hearts of Oak Benevolent Society with which he had a close association. He persuaded his brother to purchase a suitable craft in the spring of 1964.

A boat was identified in Lerwick and the sale agreed, the plan being to bring the boat down to the Essex waters and prepare as a training vessel. A crew would be required, and my uncle’s two sons together with my friend Bill and myself were enlisted. An experienced skipper of this type of sailing craft was commissioned to take the boat from Lerwick, Shetland to Aberdeen with Dan and another Shetland man as crew. This was to enable my father to gain the experience of sailing this type of craft, and prepare him to skipper for the sail down the east coast from Aberdeen. We, the crew, would join them at Aberdeen, having arrived by train.

First stop Dundee, and a rescue. In the evening we joined the vessel, ‘Fjara’ a 42 foot ‘Zulu’ double ender lug-rigged ketch with a small fisherman’s type wheelhouse. Below was very spacious, but with limited accommodation. As it was late, we bedded down as best we could. At about 00.30hrs we heard persistent calls for help, Bill and myself rushed on deck in our underclothes and identified the calls coming from a drowning man about 100 yards off. With the help of Dan and the skipper we launched the dinghy, with me rowing and Bill in the stern, ready to rescue the man. When we got to him he was in a desperate state and we decided not to attempt to pull him in to the dinghy for fear that he would struggle and have us all in. So Bill grabbed his arms, held them close to the stern of the dinghy, with his head held up. We then rowed him to the nearest ladder on the quay and with great difficulty Bill, with help from Dan and skipper, pulled him to safety up the vertical ladder. It was a 15 foot drop. Later we found he had driven off the quay while drunk, managing to get himself out of the car, but struggling to keep afloat as he could not swim. He was given resuscitation and lived to tell the tale, a lucky man.

I rowed back to the boat with the dinghy. It was freezing cold and we all warmed up with tea. The next morning, just as we had departed and were underway, a reporter turns up, hailing us to stop as he wanted to interview the rescuers, but we were off, heading for Dundee. We had a fine trip that included observing porpoises.

The trip to Essex waters had to be postponed, as the rudder had developed serious operational problems following a reversing accident and we had to return by train. The vessel eventually made it south, but my Father’s ambitious plans for her to operate as a training vessel were never realised. My cousins used her as a family cruising boat for fishing and trips out to see the pirate radio stations of the day. Eventually she was found to have caulking failure, which was settled at the cost of the surveyor.

Where she is now, or if she is, we do not know.

Contributed by Martin Goodrich, East Coast OGA member