Boat build tribute to Shetland fishermen

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FOR more than two centuries, the ruggedly built rowing boats known as "sixareens" formed the backbone of Shetland's fishing fleet.

Crewed by courageous and hardy islanders, their design was based on the longships of Shetland's Viking heritage.

Only one of the hundreds of boats are known to still survive.

But now, an exact replica is being built as a tribute to the brave men who once made a precarious living from the stormy seas around the islands' coastline.

Jack Duncan, 62 and Robbie Tait, 60, have been recruited to build the 30ft replica boat.

Using the skills they last used while serving their apprenticeships together in the former Allcraft boat yard in Lerwick more than 40 years ago, it will be the first sixareen to have been built in the islands' capital for more than a century.

This week they finished laying the oak keel in the first stage of a labour of love that is expected to take three months to complete.

The project is being championed by Shetland Museum, which is home to the Industry – the only remaining sixareen.

Mr Tait said: "It's a big challenge because there has never been a sixareen built in Lerwick since at least the early 1900s. We are using the Industry as a sort of template but we served our time making smaller boats of the same type, so we know roughly what we're doing."

He added: "We have got our hands on some old plans that were used to build these kind of boats. And we will be using traditional methods to make the boat waterproof.

"The sixareen is clinker built, meaning that one board overlaps the other, and where the boards overlap we are using archangel tar – natural tar from fir trees – and strips of cloth to make the seals. It's been very interesting so far."

Sixareens were used to fish the "Far Haaf" – the often-treacherous deep sea waters up to 50 miles from the Shetland mainland. But in one single day of tragedy in 1832 a total 105 Shetland men were drowned when 17 sixareens were lost in a severe gale sweeping in from the North Atlantic.

Tommy Watt, the curator of the museum, said: "A sixareen called the Industry, which is on display in our boat hall, is the last complete original sixareen that is left. We plan to use the replica in the harbour here to give children rowing lessons and give them an idea of what it would have been like to row the boats for 40 or 50 miles out to sea.

"And we also want to learn how these boats were built to gain the knowledge we can then pass on to others to ensure that these skills can survive."

Mr Watt added: "These boats were a vital part of the fishing fleet from the 1700s up to about 1900. Although these were open boats, they were used to fish the 'Far Haaf' – the deep sea grounds. The men would be based for weeks on end at what they called far stations, located at some of the most exposed parts of the Shetland coast and as close as they could get to the fishing grounds. They must have been a hardy breed."

The sixareen is being built in the boat shed which forms part of the new Shetland Museum at Hay's Dock on Lerwick's waterfront. It will be open to the public to allow visitors to follow the project's progress.

Mr Watt said: "It is fantastic to see the boat sheds being used for their original purpose."

TOIL AND TRAGEDY

THE sixareen got its name from the fact that the boat was crewed by six men, each rowing a single oar.

The first of the boats were imported from Norway in kit form, but they were built on Shetland after the mid-19th century when increasing import duties drove up costs.

They were open boats, 25ft to 30ft in length, operating in often stormy waters up to 50 miles from the coast.

But the unpredictable weather in northern waters meant that the loss of both boats and lives was extremely high.

On one day alone – 16 July, 1832 – 17 boats and 105 men were lost in a severe gale.

For many weeks after the disaster, Shetland was rife with rumours of men being rescued by passing ships and of fishermen who had been carried as far away as Antwerp and Norway. But all the rumours proved to be false.

And on 21 July, 1881, a freak and violent summer storm claimed ten boats and 58 men, mostly from the hamlet of Gloup in the north of the island of Yell.

A fast-moving depression that had formed near Iceland rushed in with hurricane-force winds, taking the crews out at sea completely by surprise. The bodies of only seven men were eventually recovered.

The men who drowned left behind 34 widows and 85 children.

The "Gloup disaster" marked the beginning of the end for the "Far Haaf" fishing.

A statue of a woman, looking out to sea with a child held in her arms, was erected at Gloup in 1981 to mark the centenary of the tragedy.