HTBS’s Tim Koch Visits The NMMC

After HTBS’s Tim Koch’s outing with the Falmouth Gig Club, told on 8-9 January 2011, he went indoors to visit the beautiful National Maritime Museum, Cornwall. Here is his report:

Following my visit to Falmouth Gig Club I visited their neighbour, the splendid National Martime Museum, Cornwall (NMMC). This purpose built museum overlooking the busy Falmouth waterfront is now twelve years old. It is the result of collaboration between the former Cornwall Maritime Museum, Falmouth, and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London. For many years the latter had been looking for a dramatic waterfront location to show its important collection of historic small boats. Falmouth, with its own nautical heritage and one of the world’s finest natural harbours represented an ideal site. With initial funding from the National Heritage Lottery Fund, the NMMC was opened in June 1999.

As my photograph on top and this plan show, the award winning building is entirely ‘fit for purpose’. The exhibits within the building are impressive enough but, looking out of the windows onto Falmouth Harbour, there is an ever changing display of all types of marine craft. You can see what is happening at this minute on the museum’s web-cams which look out to sea, upriver and onto the delightful square in which the museum is based.

The NMMC’s mission statement is: “To promote an understanding of boats and their place in people’s lives, to inspire new boat design and to promote an understanding of the maritime heritage of Cornwall.”

NMMC Restoration workshop

Restoration is also an important part of its work. The workshop is part of the museum’s main hall and visitors can watch craftsmen at work repairing boats. A very exciting new project is the restoration of a 250 year old Native American canoe which was bought back to Cornwall by a British officer who fought in the American Rebellion / War of Independence and which, incredibly, has remained in his family ever since. It may be one of the oldest birch bark canoes in existence.

Each of the NMMC’s collection of 140 boats was powered by the wind or by engines or by human effort. As the main interest of HTBS is with the latter, I have picked four of its ‘man powered’ craft to write about. They are all on show in the main hall, a 360 degree panorama of which can be viewed here.

My HTBS entry of 11th May 2010 mentioned Eton School’s Ten Oar, the Monarch. There have been five such boats at the school, all with the same name, and the one that saw service from 1890 to 1990 is now in retirement at Falmouth. It was built of cedar on an oak frame by Sambo Parkins and Son and is the only known Parkins boat surviving and one of very few examples of 19th century racing boats. It is also an example of the once common side seated boats, where outrigger lengths are adjusted to give constant oar leverage throughout the boat’s length, which is little more than an eight oar at 65ft (20 m). Its beam is 2ft 2ins (0.62 m) and the beam over outriggers is 5ft (1.54 m). The museum’s website says it is a clinker boat (‘lapstrake’ in North America) but I think that it looks like it is carvel-built. Eton has produced many great oarsmen, so it is interesting to think of all the famous rowing men that must have sat in this boat at some time or another.

The simple yet graceful Oselvar (above) is described as ‘the boat of a thousand years’. The museum has this to say about it: This type of boat is typical of those still being built in and around the town of Os in south-west Norway…… The lack of coastal villages and ports on this remote coastline meant that boats were vital for transporting people and goods. They had to be light, shallow-draughted, and able to work with three or four crew……. ‘Oselvars’ were exported in large numbers to the Shetland Isles where they influenced boat construction in the north of Britain…. Boats like this over 1000 years old have been found in graves in Norway and Sweden.

It is interesting to note that many names used to describe boat parts are of Scandinavian origin – such as ‘thole, ‘thwart’ and ‘sax’. Length 16 ft 1 in / 4.9 m, beam 4 ft 10 in / 1.46 m, depth 1 ft 4 in / 0.41 m.

The Thames Skiff (above) on show is described as a similar boat to the Oselvar though these evolved in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for leisure use on the Upper Thames. The skiff is often understandably confused with the Thames wherry (which had a long overhanging bows to enable paying passengers to get onto the shore without stepping in the water) and the Thames gig (which had steeper bows and developed following the increased building of landing stages). Length 26 feet / 7.92 m, beam 4ft 7in / 1.21 m.

The Dghaisa (above) is pronounced duy (as in ‘buy’) ser and is an ancient boat, traditional to the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Gozo. They were originally used for ferrying passengers around harbours or along the coast. They are similar to Venetian gondolas in that they have high bow and stern ends but they are straight up and down and are not curved. Like gondolas they are propelled by one or two people standing and pushing on the oars. When the Royal Navy gave up its base on Malta the demand for the dghaisa as a working boat declined but they have remained popular for racing. The example in the NMMC was built in 1870 and is 21 feet / 6.45 m long and has a beam of 5ft 7 in / 1.7 m.

The National Maritime Museum Cornwall receives no government aid and must pay its own way so please support it if you can by visiting and / or becoming a member.

It is a great day out, even for those in the family who are usually reluctant to become involved with one of its members boating interests!

Thank you, Tim for an as always very interesting report. It made me want to go to the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall!

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