The Story Boat project is the creation of a miniature maritime memories museum from an upturned boat in which people’s working memories of our coastline are being recorded and preserved.
Traditional wooden boatbuilder Gail McGarva in collaboration with wheelwrights Mike Rowland & Son have given a new lease of life on land to the retired Dorset fishing boat Vera, the lerret of 1923. She has been transformed into an enchanting oral history recording and exhibition space.
In 2010, Gail McGarva built a ‘daughter boat’ to Vera. This new build not only sought to preserve a boat in danger of extinction but also preserve the art of boatbuilding ‘by eye’. Since the building of the daughter boat Gail held a vison for Vera to become the custodian of people’s working memories of Lyme Bay.
Now with support from Arts Council England, West Dorset District Council, G.F. Eyre trust, Trusthouse Charitable Foundation and a wide range of local sponsors, this vision has come to fruition.
History of the Lerret
The lerret is a rare example of a traditional working boat whose identifying features have remained essentially unchanged for generations.
The earliest known recording of a lerret is 1615. Some believe the lerret is derived from a boat called ‘The Lady of Loretto’ from the Mediterranean, others see Nordic influences. However it does seem the intrinsic characteristics of its form have remained preserved, enabling it to cope admirably with the challenges of Chesil Beach. The ‘shooting’ of the seine net combined with the launching and landing of the lerrets along the steep stoney shelf was a skilful endeavour, a testament to the seamanship skills of the fisherfolk and the seaworthiness of the boats themselves.
The lerret’s reputation for seaworthiness prompted the RNLI to adopt two lerrets as lifeboats when it first formed in the early 19th century. There are numerous stories of lerrets coming to the rescue of shipwrecked mariners; their crews saving many lives and displaying immense courage and ability in treacherous conditions.
In their heyday of the 1800s it is believed over a hundred lerrets could be seen along the expanse of Chesil Beach. In 2009, by contrast, only a handful remained. Vera, based at Langton Herring on Chesil Beach became our motherboat. She was built in 1923 by Wills and Carter for Tom Randall. She was named after Tom’s daughter Vera who was born in the same year.
Littlesea, the daughter boat, was built by Gail McGarva between the autumn of 2009 and July 2010, being offically launched on 31 July 2010. The build was funded by the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust seeking to preserve the lineage of the lerrets – a boat type in grave danger of extinction and to preserve the art of boat building ‘by eye’. In addition, through the work of the oral project in 2011, the memories of the lerret fisherfolk have been retained.
Littlesea was built ‘by eye’ based on the mother boat VERA of 1923 and is featured in the case study on ‘Replication’ in the National Historic Ships UK guidance publication Conserving Historic Vessels. Double-ended, flat-floored, beamy and of clinker construction, lerrets were designed to cope with the steep stoney bank of Chesil Beach, Dorset and originally used for seine-fishing. The earliest recorded date of a lerret is 1615, primarily used for mackerel fishing with a seing net. Two lerrets were adopted for service as lifeboats by the RNLI when it first formed.
Lerrets range from 2 – 8 oared vessels, with some of the 6 and 8 oared powered by sail in addition to being rowed to ‘copse’ oars. Littlesea and Vera both toured extensively in 2011 as part of the ‘Story of the Lerret’ heritage project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and led by Gail McGarva, in conjunction with Lyme Regis Museum.