Swan smaa' boat launch

Swan Smaa’ Boat Launch Friday 21 August 5.30pm at Hay’s Dock, Lerwick

Image copyright (C) BBC Radio Shetland

Although the Swan is remembered best as a successful herring boat under sail since being built in 1900, she was motorised in 1936 and later requisitioned by the Admiralty for service throughout WW2 on the Clyde. During this early period most fishing craft did not carry any form of lifeboat, but when she was returned to her owners in Whalsay after the war, in very poor condition indeed, and requiring extensive refitting in 1946 to continue her fishing career, she was also equipped with a lifeboat in 1947, which had by now become a Board of Trade requirement.

This boat was built for the Swan by John Bruce, Skaw, a noted Whalsay boatbuilder. For this task he enlisted the help of his brother, Sammy Bruce, also a capable boatbuilder. Although by that time square-sterned boats were common as lifeboats to be carried aboard, mostly it seems they were imported from builders in the south.  To have this restored Shetland-built boat with her direct connection to the Swan now in good sea-going condition, is something rather special.

The purpose of these boats was to be able to hold the crew of up to eight men in an emergency, so they were strongly built and good weight-carriers for their length. This 12’ boat interestingly and uniquely demonstrates Shetland boat-building techniques such as the three sawn bands, or frames, and her “tafts”, set on longitudinal stringers or “warings”, yet she has the outward appearance of the typical ship’s boat.

She was carried on the port side of the wheelhouse, inevitably taking up a lot of space there, and we do have photos of the Swan at the time, showing this boat jutting out past the wheelhouse.

Most herring boats had another boat, a “drag-boat” or “jagger” not carried aboard but used for transporting men and gear from the shore to the anchored fishing craft. These boats were usually of the double-ended Shetland model shape, and not to be confused with the newer requirement of ship’s lifeboat type which this boat represents.

The Swan’s lifeboat was fortunately never required to save lives, but it is worth noting that unfortunately this need did sometimes occur. The Shetland fishing boat “Replenish”, for example, was near the Vee-Skerries  when a large wave breaking aboard tore out her wheel house and threw her smaa’ boat along with most of the crew, suddenly into the water. It has often been said that it was the presence of her lifeboat floating free which the crew were able to grab hold of which saved their lives. There are also several accounts of the lifeboat being the means of saving boats’ crews cast adrift through enemy action during wartime.

The Swan was sold out of Shetland in 1955, but her smaa’ boat was sold separately to John Philips of Lerwick at that time, who kept her for a number of years. Around this time liferafts in a portable and packed-away form had begun to replace the traditional wooden lifeboats. When the restoration of the Swan was undertaken in the early 1990s Mr Philips kindly donated the boat to the newly formed Swan Trust, who in turn kept her in storage until recently. The trust was eventually able to fund her restoration, carried out expertly by Robert Tait and Jack Duncan here at the Museum. The final chapter in the restoration took place throughout last winter and spring when a dedicated group of Swan volunteers met weekly to finish off the task with paint, tar and varnish.

That takes the story up to the present, and it is hoped that after her launch tomorrow she will be able to be used by Swan volunteers well into the future to hone their small-boat handling skills which in previous times were an integral part of the whole fishing operation so common to our shores.

Thanks to Josie Simpson, John Lowrie Simson and Allister Rendall for their help in putting this information together.

By Brian Wishart, Trustee

20 August 2015

Listen to Good Evening Shetland broadcast from Thursday 20 August 2015 by BBC Radio Shetland where the story of the Smaa Boat is featured.  

Some pictures from the launch of the smaa boat are featured below.