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Building the sailing gun-punt “SHOVELER”

Building the sailing gun-punt “SHOVELER”

In May 1990 following the launch of a wooden, open marshman’s punt for customers in Belaugh, I launched my own newly built gun-punt called PLOVER, at just over 17ft long and 3ft wide she was loosely based on a 21ft two man punt by Everson’s of Woodbridge that at that time, I maintained for a chap in Norwich who’s father had gone crew in her during the 1950’s as puntsman on the river Alde. The first gun-punt that I remember seeing though was moored in Ted Ellis’s dyke at Wheatfen Broad around 1984, it had been built by a chap with an outboard bracket so that he could motor to and from the local pubs so as to bypass the drink driving laws, any way she was a pretty little thing. At this time we had recently successfully raised the hulk of the trading wherry LORD ROBERTS sunk at Ludham and were attempting, this time unsuccessfully, the same thing with Collins old carvel built pleasure wherry LIBERTY sunk across one of Ted’s dykes. He did not, contrary to popular belief, own her but had offered a dumping ground for her when she became surplus to requirements to her Brundall owner who used her as a houseboat. Ted intended to put her up on a rhond bank on a high tide as a playhouse for his children but the old girl sank in deep water before he had a chance, and she lays there still. Ted also owned an early sailing gun-punt that he bodged about Rockland and Wheatfen in, but by this time she lay hulked and if I remember correctly very little could be seen.

Generally Broadsmen could only afford to own one small craft for every day use on the river the year round and these were generally either the marshman’s boat like that mentioned above which was a copy of one built at Stalham in 1912, or a gun-punt. The larger reed lighters were generally owned by the local landowner and came in various sizes, generally too big for every day use. For the Broadsman, no matter what the job, they had to make do with whatever boat or punt was to hand, so a gun-punt was not just used for winter wild fowling but as an example in summer it went out eel picking or indeed was used for any other useful task, including simply transporting the marshman to or from his dyke dydling and fying work. Before 1824 as far as is known gunpunts were open boats with the long gun balanced precariously on the bow. In that year Colonel Hawker introduced his new half decked design which has, apart from extremely minor details remained exactly the same until now, some one hundred and eighty five years later, this also is true of the gun recoil system, for those very few people who actually still use the big gun. Even though this new design was considered the best and safest, in some rivers and estuaries open “coffin” style punts continued to be used but I think it fair to say that gentlemen gunners and amateurs right up until punting died out after the second war definitely preferred the decked version whether it was a single or more likely a double punt.

If we now specifically discuss those punts used on the broads then these could be broken down into Hickling, River Ant and Breydon versions although they all had similarities tending to have a length of around 18ft and a width of between 3ft up to 4ft on Breydon. They all had a long fore deck, a short aft deck and narrow side decks with low combings and of course some method of mounting the gun. Generally the sides were around 9” high and they drew about 1½” of water. The actual details though of the big punt guns ie, bore and whether muzzle or breach loading and also the method of restraining them in the boat and then coping with the enormous recoil varied tremendously. Punt gunning is only now aloud on tidal salt water and so died out on the broads a very long time ago, although it is possible that one or two low grey cigar shaped punts crept out onto Breydon or Hickling during hard winter weather up until the 1950’s, though it is fair to say that professional fowling had finished on Breydon by around 1900. For further information read any of Arthur Patterson’s books, still the best written and illustrated Broadland books.

When I was looking at wherry hulks from the early 1980’s onwards I only remember seeing a very few gun-punts left on the broads and two derelicts that stick in my memory were hauled out of the water by a small tin punt shed down a narrow dyke at Catfield, one even still had its brass builders plate, unfortunately I did not measure or photograph these punts and soon afterwards a group of local lads attempted to launch them whereupon they directly sank! One has recently been hauled to the surface during dredging operations near the shed, but really only the bottom remains. Afloat at Upton in the mid 1990’s could be seen the pea green “STAR” whilst in a nearby boatshed a “coffin” style fully equipped Essex punt lay for sale at £1000. Of course several punts are still in use in and around Hickling, but definitely not for big gunning, it is simply that they are still the best way of getting about, being quanted with a pole rather than rowed. Several different punts can be viewed in the local museums although a really interesting one built for T E Booth by Harwood of Yarmouth is in his Brighton museum, another, presumably Breydon punt is in the Tide and Time museum in Yarmouth whilst at least three can be seen in the Broads Museum in Stalham, including my own tiny “WEE MAID” that we found derelict in a Hickling garden many years ago, I had hoped to restore her for Sam, but she was too narrow and cranky for safe use.

Looking to find a punt gun for “PLOVER” proved fruitless and so over a period of time, using a length of seamless tubing, I built a muzzle loading gun for show only, originally this had quite an intricate recoil apparatus but we have now fitted it with a long swivel pin which is much more in the local style, especially with guns of only about 1” to 1 1/8” bore. Over the years “PLOVER” has been used for many varied jobs but has always been cramped for two persons and a dog being what is known as a “single” punt and rigging her has been rather disappointing so I determined to build a sailing gun-punt that would also have a large enough cockpit to easily take myself, Sara and Tillie (big black greyhound) plus her essential bed. We have built several gun-punts over the years including a sister ship to mine called “WEE DRAM” that for various reasons lived and died at Sutton Staithe. Another was called “WEE PORTRAIN” and was designed to have twin electric outboards and she lives in Belaugh.

Like the latter punt, “SHOVELER” was to be constructed from epoxy coated plywood with solid oak frames and stem and stern post. The base size was easy enough to work out from the plywood limiting size with a width of 4ft and a length of 16ft that rose to just over 18ft by the time the rake of the stem and stern post was added, of course no punt has upright sides so these were sloped out at around 4”.

The main inconvenience in a sailing gun-punt is the centre plate box, running back from behind the mast into the cockpit which I certainly did not want, so we have fitted a dagger board through the fore deck just in front of the mast. This may mean that she is a little slow coming about in light winds but seems to make absolutely no difference in a blow, especially as we carry a long and a short dagger board.

Normally a punt rudder is constructed in a long narrow box that slots through the aft deck as it is ineffectual to hang a rudder onto the stern post three feet away, so we built a watertight box and simply hang a stainless rudder in the normal manner on gudgeons and pintles dropping the rudder out or lifting it into place on a weighted length of cord.

The bottom of any punt is not flat, but rounded fore and aft by 3” and across by 1½” so once the two sheets of ply were cut to shape and joined the curved cross pieces or floors were screwed into place and then the whole base suspended on two work horses and weighted to sag the middle, then the solid oak stem and stern posts were added. It is fair to say that I probably kept the stern a little full and would for cosmetic reasons now have built this narrower, mind you this has not affected her handling under sail or oars.

One or two flared oak knees were screwed to the floors and the sides laid over and round them before adding all the other remaining knee’s each one having to be made and fitted individually.

As I was working on other projects at the time it fell to Steve to complete nearly the whole of “SHOVELER” working from my rough measurements and a lot of head scratching between us. With the open framed hull lying ready, the dagger board case and rudder box were built and screwed into place following which the deck beams were added. The deck beams have to be absolutely dead right, flowing fairly down to the stem and stern from a six inch curve on the gun beam or perhaps we should call it the mast beam. Pine tongue and groove boards were laid over the beams and then the sweeping cockpit combings were added along with all the rowlock chocks, rubbing bands and sailing gear.

Over the epoxy, her bottom and waterline was black antifouled and the rest, apart from the floorboards which are a traditional red, were painted in a high gloss green-grey, Eider duck colour. A lot of Broads punts were painted various shades of grey from almost white to a deeper slate, however a lot of coastal punts were grey green as was the 21 footer mentioned above though of course either in a matt or satin finish to avoid flashing in the sun and scaring the wildfowl. The ivory lettering and black shadow for the name board was printed up locally and looks superb and it may be as well to mention that “SHOVELER” can be spelt with both one or two l’s, the latter definitely being the more popular, but considering that a racing gun-punt is already called this and that Arthur Patterson used the spelling Shoveler I am quite happy with that. The duck itself used to be a frequent summer Broadland visitor but seems less so now, or at least keeps well hidden, although I have seen a flotilla of them on Breydon with their spatula beaks sifting for food and more recently two were zooming around Ludham marshes at dusk.

SHOVELER was launched on a rainy 9th June 2009, sitting well on the water, the cockpit size has lived up to expectations and can carry quite a load of people, dogs or various bits of freight or any mix of these. Because of her curved bottom shape and that she has no keel It was found that when rowing she slid around a bit on the surface, first we tried a short dagger board but then dispensed with this and added a tiny fixed fore and aft rudder in place of the big sailing one and she now rows an absolute treat no matter what the weight distribution on board.

SHOVELER was designed to take one of our hire fleet Coypu dinghy gunter rigs, this also being the rig of the early traditional racing gun-punts when they were still recognisable as such during the 1920’s, although I have used a white set up until now ,as these sails need replacing I shall have tan ones made.

We have had some good sailing in SHOVELER and even Tillie came once but squealed when she got her legs caught up in the jib sheets, Sara doesn’t like to heel over too much and that is why SHOVELER is quite beamy but with Sam and another Sarah on board we really got her decks under water and she was flying, though she is very easy for me to sail on my own, it is true that she likes a good blow.

So far SHOVELER has fully lived up to expectations and if we do not use her to row to and from work every day we at least try to as much as possible and although there is a small detachable outboard bracket we try not to use this too often even though the engine pushes her easily enough through the water.