The Development of the Wooden Drascombe Peterboats

The name ‘Peterboat’ derives from the sturdy and seaworthy double ended hard working fishing boats commonly used on the River Thames Estuary at London in the 18th and early 19th Century. These boats were built with a watertight compartment in the centre of the hull that was kept flooded with seawater through small holes in the hull, a necessity to keep fish alive during time at sea, often up to a week at a time. The usual rig was a spritsail main and jib, often with a spritsail mizzen. There is even a Peterboat Close at Greenwich which presumably indicates how common the Peterboats were.

Unfortunately, even though numerous in their day, none of these craft have survived the passage of time, The National maritime Museum has paintings and drawings, but that’s all as far as I know. Another story I’ve heard is that the Peterboats were named after the boat that St Peter used to transport Jesus. I can’t verify that story, I’m not quite old enough to remember that far back, but maybe that was the actual origin of the name that was adopted by the boatbuilders in the 18th Century, St Peter we are told was a fisherman, so it could make sense, but I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for certain. The Drascombe Peterboats can’t claim the same pedigree as the boat owned and used by St Peter, but the pedigree is none the less worth recording.

The story, to the best of my knowledge, begins with a 19ft boat built by John Watkinson at Drascombe Barton for his own use, it was built a short while after the development of the Drascombe Longboat and a natural progression from the Lugger and Longboat. The lines of the 19ft Peterboat bore the distinct Drascombe stamp, the internal layout very similar in many respects to the Lugger, the typical half decked cockpit and an outboard motor well offset to one side, (rather than central as in the Lugger) The big difference when compared to the Lugger was the canoe stern, from the bow, you could easily mistake the hull for that of a Lugger or Longboat, but that’s where the visual similarities ended. The build method was very similar to the Wooden Lugger and Longboat, the lapstrake marine plywood hull with hardwood scantlings and trim, the all glued construction once again used to produce a strong, relatively lightweight and low maintainence boat. The rudder is stern hung unlike the Lugger and Longboat, but still with the familiar metal centreplate. The initial rig was a spritsail main and jib, with a smaller spritsail carried on a mizzen mast. The boat sailed well enough and had all the excellent sea keeping qualities of a Drascombe, the canoe stern giving her a very clean wake.

It soon became apparent that the powerful hull was capable of far more than the spritsail rig could provide, so a radical re-think by John Watkinson came up with a much more powerful rig, but one that could still be stowed within the cockpit. The new rig consisted of a gunter main with a large jib/genoa on roller reefing. Probably the most unusual aspect of the rig was a laminated curved yard, I suspect this harked back to a boat John had designed and built during his time in the Royal Navy. I don’t know very much about that boat, but I do recall him telling me about the top of the mast being curved aft and how fast the boat was. With the spritsail abandoned, her new rig with it’s distinctive curved gunter main and a boom the boat really did perform well, proving to be a surprisingly fast boat for her type, no slouch by any standards she could take a heavy sea and keep up a good turn of speed. On one occassion completing the annual Plymouth to Newton Ferrers ‘Yealm Passage Race’ just a few minutes behind a Fireball, although in fairness, the Fireball had to slow a little because of the rough seas and high winds, never the less, still a creditable performance by any standards.

The next design after the Peterboat was the Skiff, also a double ender and built at Drascombe Barton. Initially the Skiff was designed as a rowing boat, but converted very quickly to a sailing boat when it’s potential was realised. An unstayed mast carrying a standing lugsail, a centercase, dagger board and rudder along with a mini transom to cater for a small outboard motor completed the modification and conversion to sail, a very useful small boat with a good look and plenty of appeal. Not one to keep still for long, John Watkinson decided to sell his Drascombe Peterboat and concentrate on developing new Drascombe designs for the Wooden and GRP Drascombe builders. As a consequence a short time later the design for Drascombe Scaith emerged from his drawing board. We built the prototype for John at our Yealmbridge yard, he subsequently used her extensively for about 2 years, during this time he was the Harbour Master at Newton Ferrers, so the boat was put though her paces as a sailing, rowing and motor boat, generally given a thorough testing during which time we built a total of 13 Scaiths. All had a standing lugsail rig, some with the optional jib, or jib and mizzen, a 28lb galvanised steel centreplate, a wooden stern hung folding rudder and a small outboard motor well offset to starboard.

Shortly after the Scaith came into production in wood, John designed the Scaffie for GRP construction only, a similar looking boat in some respects continuing the canoe stern theme, but with distinct differences such as bilge keels and no centreplate as well as being half decked instead of being an open boat with thwarts or an optional foredeck as the Scaith had. John Watkinson decided as a result of the extensive trials he carried out on his Scaith that he could improve on the design a bit, the re-design gave her a bit more underwater beam aft and a little finer in the bow, to all intents and purposes, the same boat to a casual observer, but John was convinced the redesign would improve the boat and was worth doing. To differenciate the redesign was name the ‘Peterboat 4.5 metre’. We built a few of these, then John Watkinson decided that a 5 metre version would be useful. This was similar thinking to the concept of the Longboat, which is essentially a stretched Lugger. We built the ‘Peterboat 5 metre’ for him and once again it proved to be a good design, the extra waterline length giving a bit of extra speed and the hull able to carry more sail, in this case a powerful standing Lugsail with a jib, giving ease of handling and a relatively low height to the rig, all capable of being stowed within the length of the hull for trailer sailing.

The second Peterboat 5 metre we built was half decked similar to the Lugger and Longboat decking configuration, that boat went to Greece and the thinking behind the arrangement was to have a sunbathing platform on the side decking. That boat was later sold to an American serviceman based in Greece and transported to the USA on board a military aircraft, the whereabouts now unknown. The next logical progression in the ‘Peterboat’ story was the design of the ‘Peterboat 6 metre’. John’s brother Dick Watkinson was on the lookout for another boat and entrusted his brother with the task of coming up with a good design for us to build that would meet his requirements. Dick had previously owned ‘Tumult’ a one off design that John had designed and built for him at Drascombe Barton. ‘Tumult’ is a very good boat with a good performance, she has had a few modifications over the years, all of which have improved her. Dick knew he would be getting something very special, so the drawing board was dusted off and quickly put to use. John Watkinsons agile mind once again produced a design that certainly had the Drascombe stamp about her, but this one was quite special, “A wolf in sheeps clothing”. The interior of the broad powerful hull had far more strengthening than usual for a Drascombe, giving tantalising clues of what might be expected from the design performance wise.

For this particular build, Dick wanted her to be flush decked to reduce top weight and windage, the powerhouse for this boat was a style of rig that had proved itself on the original ‘19ft Peterboat’, a gunter rig mainsail with a laminated curved yard and boom, along with a big foresail on roller reefing. To cope with the power that the rig would provide, a profiled cast iron centreplate weighing in at 300 lbs was needed, it was raised and lowered with a winch. This arrangement permitted a shallow draft hull design as is common to most Drascombes giving the advantage of a shoal water sailing capability. The mainmast, which was short enough to stow within the length of the boat for trailing, was fitted with backstays and highfield levers, a curved track on a substantial beam horse catered for the mainsheet traveller.

On launch day, she was named ‘Cariad’ and floated spot on her waterline marks, ghosting along in the merest breath of wind, a sure sign of exciting things to come. The mainmast was designed to be dropped through the deck and step on the hog with a collar to give a watertight seal, this was modified after a short time to be stepped in a tabernacle on the deck to make trailer sailing easier. A further later modification was for a low coachroof to be added to the cabin, providing more headroom and extra comfort below decks. John drew up the plans for this modification. Eventually an offset well was added to cater for an outboard motor, something Dick had never wanted because he thought it would spoil the lines, but practicality ruled in the end as it often does.

The Peterboat 6 metre is a very capable boat for extended passages when sailed by an experience hand, the sea keeping qualities excellent, the self draining cockpit a useful feature of the design. Equally the boat is capable of giving a rattling good sail for the day sailor who wants that little bit more than the usual Drascombe experience but still requires the option and freedom of trailer sailing. Subsequent re-working of the original design has changed it a little to make construction easier, also allowing a choice of rigs and layout, but ‘Cariad’ the prototype ‘Peterboat 6 metre’ in her original guise was, in my opinion, the most beautiful of all the Drascombe designs and certainly the fastest by a very long way. Dick told me he’d “Had 13 knots out of ‘Cariad’ in a good blow, she was stable and planing.”

Quite a remarkable achievement for a displacement hull !

Doug Elliott