Humber Sloop – Origins

Developed from keels in the eighteenth century, the Humber sloop was designed to sail efficiently in the river’s shoal-ridden open estuarial waters, and to make coastal passages. With heavily built clinker hulls constructed first in timber, later in iron and steel, sloops carried a gaff rigged main sail and triangular fore sail. This fore-and-aft rig worked well in the Humber tideway, where much work was beating to windward and close hauled sailing, and it was efficient enough to make regular trade passages to the Wash ports, to Bridlington and to the Thames where purpose built sea going sloops carried a topsail and was rigged with a bowsprit to carry a jib for the open water passages.

Tiller steered, the sloop lines followed the traditional pattern of the keel with a similar deck layout and bluff bows but without the sharp turning run aft to keep cargo to a maximum. Sloops were given a much finer run aft to make them more efficient sailing vessels, sometimes the hold was built deeper to compensate depending on the owner’s requirements. The mast, stepped in a lutchet and lowered by a roller set against the head ledge, was set forward to suit the hull. The thirteen foot pitch pine and oak lee boards were hung well forward of amidships to balance the ship under sail, and worked by vertical rollers on the after rails.

Sloops’ sails were raised and lowered by halyard or ‘crab’ rollers on the port and starboard coamings, twin hold sloops had them in the ‘sparrings’; the deck area between the two holds. The sails were tanned with preservatives, which coloured them ochre. The jib and topsail of the sea going sloops were usually left white, being stowed in the cabin when not being used they would have smelt awful had they been through the preserving process. (The topsail and bowsprit would have been too cumbersome to be practical in the confines of the Humber shoals and for the passage through locks).

The high coamings over the hold were covered by wooden hatches, weatherproofed by tarpaulins. Accommodation was in a skipper’s cabin under the afterdeck and a crew cabin under the fore deck.

Primarily working in open waters, the dimensions of the Humber sloops were not constrained by inland waterways and so tended to be large. A typical 1900’s sloop measured 68ft long by 17ft-6ins wide and carried 150 tons or more. The most common sloops after the canal system had been redesigned in 19th century were the Sheffield size ships as ours are, at 61ft-6ins long by 15ft-6ins wide to negotiate the inland locks and carried about 100 tons.

Sloops mainly handled bulk cargoes between the Humber ports, carrying farm produce from Lincolnshire, coal from the West Riding, bricks and tiles between both sides, cement and chalk stone from Barton and South Ferriby to Hull and transhipping phosphates back to the fertiliser works. In a summer the sea going trade would be to Louth, Saltfleet, the ports of the Wash and on south to the Thames, to the north trade would be to Bridlington, the Tyne and all ports between.

With the advent of motorised vessels, trade under sail declined steadily through the middle of the twentieth century. Most sloops (and keels) were converted to motor barges prior to 1939 using a grant from the MOD, others were used as lighters or dumb barges. The last sailing sloop was SPRITE, unrigged in 1950.

In 1981, the restored HKSPS sloop Amy Howson became the first sloop to sail the Humber in over thirty years.

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