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Monday, 24 January 2005

FLEET WITHOUT A PORT

 

On December 1, 1170, Thomas à Beckett embarked for England at the French port of Wissant, which lay midway between Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez, knowing that he was probably sailing to his death.

At that time, Wissant rivalled Calais in importance and, though it declined commercially during the Hundred Years War, it was still thriving as a fishing port in the eighteenth century. Its end was abrupt. In 1738, 63 of Wissant's houses were destroyed in a single night, buried by sand thrown up during a storm. Then, in 1777, the inhabitants again fled to neighbouring villages to escape another exceptionally violent storm. This one raged for three days and, when the people returned, Wissant and its port had simply ceased to exist. The Wissantais rebuilt the village, behind the buried remains of their old houses, but the port was lost for ever.

Wissant was not the only Pas de Calais harbour to disappear, though none of the others did so quite as literally. Those which were situated at the head of river estuaries, like Abbeville on the Somme and Montreuil on the Canche, simply ceased to function as the estuaries silted up and, by the nineteenth century, only Calais, Boulogne, Etaples, St Valery and Le Crotoy were still in use.

An attempt was made, in the eighteenth century, to bar the estuary of the river Slack and create a port at Ambleteuse, a few miles north of Boulogne, but it was doomed to fail. Silting was a continuous problem, access always difficult and, in the early nineteenth century, attempts to keep the little port open were abandoned.

Boulogne and Calais were used by the larger herring boats, but most of the coastal day fishermen of Picardy and the Boulonnais no longer had a port to come home to. The only way they could continue to earn a living was by sailing from the long and gently sloping beaches, which are a feature of this coast.

 

No one seems to know precisely when flobards or flobarts first appeared on these coasts, and the origin of the name is equally obscure. The first known reference dates from 1632, when a mill owner was said to be using a flobar to transport his produce on the river Canche. Some suggest that the word comes from the ancient Saxon vloot bar, roughly translated as 'floatable', others that it is a corruption of flambart, which describes a type of sail plan. This latter seems unlikely, as it is not the sail plan used on flobards.

What is certain is that the flobard developed from the clinker built boats of Northern Europe and, by the beginning of the last century, there were fleets of similar boats on both sides of the channel - Normandy caiques and Hastings luggers are just two examples. The flobards, however, had certain dominant features characteristic of this region; a near perpendicular stem, an exceptionally deep hull, a flat and steeply sloping stern, a length/beam ratio which approached, and was sometimes less than, 2:1, an exceptionally flat bottom and extremely shallow draught. These characteristics varied slightly from village to village, being most exaggerated around Le Portel, but the hull form is unmistakable. It is a shape, which has survived to the present day for, now with diesel engines and made of GRP, flobards still fish from France's northern beaches.

Their continued popularity both proves, and results from, the fact that they are superbly suitable for the work they do. Their light clinker construction makes them easy to launch and their flat bottoms mean that they can lie on the beach, equipped with nets, hooks, lines etc, without any risk that they'll tip and tangle everything together.

The massive bow and high sides reduce the risk of swamping during launching and falling overboard when recovering equipment at sea. Their curvaceous broad hull form means that they are exceptionally seaworthy and it is remarkable how little they roll. Perhaps most important of all is their impressive safety record; few have been lost at sea, the last recorded loss dating back to 1939.

The early flobards were seaworthy, but they certainly weren't good sailing boats. The massive bow meant that they virtually stopped dead when confronted with all but the smallest waves and, in the absence of a keel, anything other than a following wind sent them scuttling sideways. This meant that sail power often had to be supplemented, or replaced, by sweeps and skilful use of local currents.

I could find no record of where and when the first flobard with a lifting keel appeared, but old oil paintings and documents suggest that it was after 1860. Strangely, although this arrangement appears ideal for beach launching and was used on American oyster boats, in continental Europe its use seems to have been confined to pleasure craft and the fishing boats around Boulogne. Certainly, it was unknown both in Normandy and above Calais and boats of the Belgian fishing fleet were eventually fitted with lee-boards.

The sail plan of the flobards is also peculiar to this region and appears to have evolved from an adaptation of that used on three masted Boulogne scuttes or luggers. The central mast and sails were eliminated, leaving the main mast, which carried the loose footed bourcet, set extremely far forward, whilst the second mast with its ma/et was on the stern, usually mounted offset to allow direct tiller steering. The foresail (foc) was set on a bowsprit (bout dehors) and the malet on its queue. On some flobards, especially larger ones, the mainsail has a curved metal track, called the overlope. Like so many words which are peculiar to the local dialect, this 'loop over the stern' has English origins.

Flobards came in many sizes starting at around 3.6 metres and, commonly, going up to about 7 metres. There were, however, two centres - Berck and Etaples - where the design evolved into a much larger half-decked boat, which was used principally for herring fishing. The biggest of these (above), built at Berck in the late nineteenth century, were some 15 metres long and displaced about 35 tons.

The larger boats nearly always set a full suit of sails, but owners of the small flobards often left the bout dehors and queue de ma/et at home. They sailed under main alone but took the mizzen mast with them so that, if the wind became very strong, they could take down the mainmast and replace it with the smaller mat de ma/et. The bourcet usually had three reefing bands and the malet one. The first reef would be taken if the wind got up to Force 3 and the saying was that, when it got above a 6, "you could always lash the forward end of the yard to the bottom of the mast." To get the ultimate performance from a flobard the bourcet had to be taken down when tacking, then hauled up again, with the yard arm on the other side of the mast. In practice this laborious process, known locally as lambiquer, was only carried out if the helmsman intended to stand on the same tack for several miles.

A flobard's rigging is simple in the extreme - non-existent if you don't count the lashings which secure the bowsprit to the mainmast and hold the latter tightly in its wooden frame, with the help of a wedge. This simplicity came from the need to rig the boat quickly, once it had been hauled down to the water's edge, and to unstep the mainmast and lay it in its cradle when tending nets and pots. The cradle is called a conchon, which is the patois word for shell.

It was naval architect Georges Soe who first drew up plans for a motorised flobard. As long ago as 1912 he proposed, to the fishermen of Wissant, a design for a 7.4 metre boat which was based on their existing flobards but had a less sloping stern and slightly finer lines. It would be fitted with a 3hp, four stroke engine as well as its 44 sq.metres of sail. The project met with little enthusiasm because, although the fitted out hull could be bought for a  mere 1500 francs, the DAN single cylinder engine would add a further 2800 francs to the price. Soe's design was still born, but a few years later the trend towards motorisation began in earnest. It was the always adventurous Portelais yards who led the field and, in 1925, one a 5.4 metres Le Portel boat, called Saint-Christophe, was fitted with a 7hp Bolinder petrol engine. Thereafter, nearly every flobard launched at Le Portel had a similar motor, and gradually the trend spread along the coast. For many years, however, it was usual to retain the sails even when an engine was fitted and it wasn't until 1950 that the last motor sailing flobard, the 4.4 metre Pierre-Marie, was launched at Audreselles.

The next major change in the history of the flobards was the abandonment of the traditional wooden construction. The last wooden flobard, Ludovic Pascale, was by Rene Libert in 1974 and, two years later, the Boulogne workshops of Blamengin began producing these boats in glassfibre, from a mould taken off a wooden one. These glass fibre flobards have retained the characteristics of their predecessors, though it's sometimes said that they roll a little more. If that is correct, the difference can only be modest for, occasionally, when you're standing on the cliffs of the Opal Coast, you'll see a flobard and a much larger, modern Boulogne fishing boat working in the same area. In a swell the modern boat will be swaying from side to side, while the flobard hardly moves at all.

SAILING TODAY

I met Paulo's owner/builder at a fête des flobards. "Would there be any chance of a sail in her?" I asked. Monsieur Lamarche looked doubtful, explaining that this was only her second voyage and he'd already agreed to take several people. I resigned myself to simply watching and photographing her from the beach but the launching was attended by several hundred people, many of them in swimsuits and waist deep in water. It quickly became obvious that, unless I was prepared to get my clothes very wet, I wasn't even going to get a good photograph.

Then Paulo returned, bumping gently into the shallows, her passengers disembarked and Pierre Lamarche shouted: "Voulez-vous aborder?" I abandoned all thoughts of staying half dry and waded out to her.

Never again will Picardy and Boulonnais villagers, many of them women, drag a flobard à voile to the water, their efforts spurred on by the cry à la hisse, for today the boats are launched by powerful tractors. No longer do the wives of fishermen sit outside Wissant's cottages mending their husband's nets whilst their men folk gather to drink eau-de-vie and talk of the catch in the Hotel Duval.

We can, however, look back to those days of struggle, hardship and cameraderie during the annual fête des flobards, held in August in Wissant, where scenes from those earlier times are re-enacted and decorated flobards line the streets. Occasionally, it is possible to catch sight of a flobard a voile making its way along the coast, for three of these craft are sailing today.

As a young man Jacques Desplats spent his holidays at Wimereux and often went out with the local fishermen. In 1935, he and his brothers bought the Audresalles flobard Notre Dame de Lorette. Two years later, they replaced Notre Dame with the larger Saint-André which, sadly, was used as a German target practice boat during the war and was sunk.

When hostilities ended, Monsieur Desplats came back to Wimereux and looked, without success, for a replacement for the ill-fated Saint-André before deciding to have a new flobard built by the well known Boulogne constructor Pierre Libert. L'Arche, 3.65 metres long with a beam of 1.8 metres, was smaller than Libert's usual boats, to enable Jacques Desplats to sail her single handed; other than in size, however, she is completely faithful to original Libert designs, except for a bracket to take a Seagull outboard. Desplats boat is thus the most traditional of the three remaining flobards à voile. Of the other two, Bononia constructed in 1990 by Pierre Libert's brother, René, is a motor sailer and, like many flobards in the '50s, carries only one mast. Paulo, built this year, is a replica of L'Arche,except for the fact that blocks are used to haul up the sails. It was this flobard which gave me the opportunity to step back in time.

"We could take you to England!" joked Louis-Gabriel's wife, Martine, as we sailed away from the beach. "Not without a bigger foresail," Monsieur Lamarche commented, with the yachtsman's typical lack of satisfaction with his craft's performance.

In such perfect conditions I didn't have the opportunity to seriously test the flobard's legendary stability, but I was very impressed with the speed and smoothness with which she came about. The other thing that stands out in my mind is the illusion that I was in a much larger boat. "That's bigger than us," Pierre Lamarche remarked as a dinghy passed us. It was almost impossible to believe; that 4 metre craft looked like a toy, while Paulo seemed like a little ship.

The word 'classic' means different things to different people. For some it conjures visions of 12 metre racing yachts, Ferrari sports cars and Grand National winners - but to me it means 'something that is perfectly adapted to its purpose.' Whether that purpose is steeple chasing or pulling a cart, ocean racing or catching mackerel is utterly irrelevant and, by my definition, this little French fishing boat is a true classic.

MM

A READER SAYS

Being based on the SE coast of England, I found the article in the November issue of BYM of particular interest. Flobards, the article says, are a French clinker built flat-bottom sailing boat used for launching off the beach , up to about 7 meters long. The hull shape is characterised as a near perpendicular stem, a flat and steeply sloping stern, a flat bottom and shallow draught. They carried two lugsails and a foresail. The main mast was set extremely far forward, with the mizzen on the stern, usually mounted offset to allow direct tiller steering. The foresail was set on a bowsprit and the mizzen on a bumpkin. The boats were to be found in the small fishing villages around Boulogne in France.

While I cannot recall having ever seen one, the description is remarkably similar to that of the 'Hovellers' which once operated off SE Kent, and which there are still a number of examples locally.

These too were up to 7m long and used lugsails, though the one illustrated has a small engine fitted. This was important, because they were mainly used to service ships anchored in the Downs waiting to go down channel, and speed in getting out to a new arrival helped business. It seems more than a coincidence that such similar craft evolved (for different purposes) on either side of the Channel.

The hovellers were also used as lifeboats prior to the arrival of the first dedicated lifeboat at Ramsgate exactly 150 years ago. I have this contemporary description, from H.W.Smyth’s "Mast and sail in Europe and Asia" published by John Murray, London, in 1906:

"In shore life we record with pride and speedily reward the bravery of a man who gallops half a mile under rifle fire to help a wounded comrade out of action, or who by an instant's presence of mind rescues a score of people from accident or death. At sea, a dozen men put off in a small open boat from their snug firesides. A black winter night and a freezing gale cannot keep them at home, for they have seen a signal of distress. It is three hours' beat against the sea and a lee-going tide, and they are all soaked and numbed to the bone in half that time. Arrived at the weather end of the Sands, there is no sign of the wreck. The flares are burnt out or washed away. But the men who lit them may be there still: all, or only one. It is an off-chance. But these twelve men are not going to leave that chance. 'Guess we must wait' is all that is said. Then comes ten hours' waiting through the black night for the winter dawn, such waiting as only such men could survive; every minute in every thundering sea and stinging snow-squall threatening death. Then at last in the dawn, 'There she is !' is the cry, and away goes the willing boat under her close-reefed foresail before the seas, boldly into the breakers towering above her mast, Without fear or thought except for those still clinging to the rigging. Yet the work is not done; now comes effort after effort to get near the wreck without smashing up the boat and so bringing death to all. By consummate seamanship and unerring judgment only is it effected, such swiftness of hand and eye, such patience and steadiness of heart and head as would win for this crew unending fame could men but witness it or understand it as they can a land battle or even a football match. This is sport indeed; this is pluck; this is all we venerate, and a good deal more. But these men are of the sea. Six hours later they are getting on dry clothes, and the poor rescued wretches are weeping their gratitude. A paragraph appears in a newspaper: 'Great Gale. Gallant rescue; the crew of a barque saved.' And then all is done; the names if ever known are quickly forgotten; the event is buried in a score of others; and football gives way to the cricket season."

On the origins, a 'hoveller' is someone who uses his boat for hire: not a fisherman. Smyth claims this use is ancient: the Oxford English Dictionary can only trace it to 1769, but admits it is older.  

The term became applied to the boats themselves in the 19th century, but the type of boat is almost certainly older. There is, or was, one called 'Khaki' in the old lifeboat house at Ramsgate.

Andrew Bebbington

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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