Discover the working boats of the UK and Ireland with these 10 cruises recommended by Yachting Monthly experts

Discover the working boats of the UK and Ireland with these 10 cruises recommended by Yachting Monthly experts

There is something stirring about seeing a boat sailed for the purpose she was built for, her sails full of wind and her bow cutting through the water.

Working boats are an important part of our heritage in Great Britain and Ireland, diverse in their shape as they were in their purpose and how they were sailed.

Even within one design of working boat, there can be many different versions, each one built to accommodate their local sailing ground.

Cumbria was a working Thames Barge from 1906-1970, and is now restored as a training charter vessel. Credit: Dick Durham

Cumbria was a working Thames Barge from 1906-1970, and is now restored as a training charter vessel. Credit: Dick Durham

Luckily, many examples of these vessels can still be seen cruising around our coastline and rivers.

Our experts have chosen 10 of their favourite working boats, but there are others to discover.

So point your bow and find out more about the Orkney Yole, the classic East Coast smacks and the coal-fired Clyde Puffer.

It may leave you wanting to buy a classic.

Stromness, Orkney

Workings boats of Orkeny - the Yole

Yoles are wide-beamed to cope with strong tides. Credit: Doug Houghton/Alamy Stock Photo

Recommended by Caroline Butterfield

The Orkney Yole is the traditional working boat of Orkney’s South Isles – a distinctive, wide-beamed boat, sharp at both ends, with the beam giving the buoyancy needed to cross Orkney’s strong tides.

It is clinker-built with 10 or 11 planks of larch on an oak frame, with an overall length of around 18ft.

The working boats in times past were used to fish, act as pilots for larger vessels, carry peat, sheep, tow the “coo-boat”, and to transport folk and their shopping around the isles.

Today they are mainly leisure vessels, with some 10 or so sailed regularly under the aegis of the Orkney Yole Association, mainly in Stromness and Longhope.

They are best seen on Saturdays in July at one of Orkney’s regattas, most with gunter rigs but a few sporting the traditional sprit-sailed rig with three red sails.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Stromness

Stromness has excellent shelter.  To get there, skippers have to sail through Hoy Sound or Scapa Flow.

Both are subject to strong tides; many prefer the western approach via Hoy Sound with the flood tide.

Tidal planning is as important as meteorological forecasts in this area; Pentland Firth, with its overfalls and tidal races, is a major consideration when sailing from the south.

Avoid crossing in Force 6 wind or above and wind against tide conditions.

Stromness Marina (01856 871313) has good facilities and there are chandlers and boat repair services nearby.

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Crinan & Irvine, Scotland

A Clyde Puffer anchored in Crinan

Built in 1943, Vic 32 can be chartered for skippered trips. Credit: John Peter Photography/Alamy Stock Photo

Recommended by Sarah Brown

Originating around the 1880s, the iconic Clyde Puffer is quite a sight with a high wheelhouse and ‘puffing’ chimney making them visible well below the horizon.

The Vic 32 lies at Crinan and can be accessed via the Crinan Canal from either the Clyde end or the Forth of Lorne.

Still in steam, she is available for skippered charter and tours onboard if you ask nicely.

The Vital Spark at Inverary Pier is at least the third puffer to carry the name of Para Handy’s iconic craft.

She was originally Vic 72 and as Eilean Easdale was the last puffer to be trading on the west coast.

Auld Reekie, also once called Vital Spark, was the vessel used in the 1950s TV series The Tales of Para Handy, and she is currently in rebuild on the slip at Crinan Boatyard.

Spartan, the last surviving Scottish-built puffer, is in the care of the Scottish Maritime Museum at Irvine which can be visited by sea; however, harbour facilities are limited as the channel markers are absent.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Crinan

Approach to Crinan is straightforward. The only hazard to look out for is Sgeir Dubh (Black Rock), which lies north of the Crinan Canal entrance.

It has a drying reef which extends one cable eastwards.

There are plenty of anchorages to choose from, although the River Add is only suitable for shoal-draught boats.

Crinan Boatyard has visitor moorings.

Boats can also anchor off the hotel, although it is exposed to the northwest. Yachts can moor in the well sheltered canal basin.

Buy Kintyre to Ardnamurchan by Edward Mason/Clyde Cruising Club at Amazon (UK)

Buy Kintyre to Ardnamurchan by Edward Mason/Clyde Cruising Club at Amazon (US)

Connemara and Mayo, Ireland

A traditional Irish Currach was a working boat used in Mayo

Traditionally oars were used to propel the Currach, although outboard motors are more common today. Credit: Alan Murphy/Alamy Stock Photo

Recommended by Ken Endean

The Currach, a fabric-covered boat generally associated with western Ireland, is much more than a historical curiosity.

On the Atlantic Coast currachs are in daily use, some as working craft, and possibly resisting punishment better than modern boats.

Light currachs have a basket-type frame with a stretched canvas skin, but it is more usual to see a heavier construction, in which the hull is a planked structure but covered by tarred canvas instead of having caulked seams, so that minor damage is very easy to patch.

Traditional propulsion is by thin, bladeless oars, often pivoted on single thole pins in a manner used on many other types of beach-launched craft.

Modern propulsion may be a 20HP outboard, ensuring a quick run home after an evening’s fishing, and if the hull has a scaffold board for an outer keel the owner can then drag it up a slip behind his 4×4.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Connemara and Mayo

Working currachs are probably most common on the central part of the Irish West Coast, particularly around Connemara and Mayo.

For sailors from the UK or from eastern Ireland that means an extended cruise on to an oceanic lee shore, where a poor spell of weather could cause long delays.

However, the whole coast is a wonderful cruising ground that would justify a prolonged visit.

To arrange that, it might be advisable to organise a long vacation, or a preliminary trip, perhaps to Cork Harbour or further west.

Buy South & West Coasts of Ireland Sailing Directions edited by Norman Kean at Amazon (UK)

Buy South & West Coasts of Ireland Sailing Directions edited by Norman Kean at Amazon (US)

Galway Bay, Ireland

Carrying turf was one of the main functions of hookers like like An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Mermaid), seen racing at the Cruinniú na mBád. Credit: Joe O'Shaughnessy

Carrying turf was one of the main functions of hookers like like An Mhaighdean Mhara (The Mermaid), seen racing at the Cruinniú na mBád. Credit: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Recommended by Norman Kean

The Galway Hooker is the classic traditional boat of Connemara and Galway Bay, on Ireland’s west coast.

Hookers come in four types: the bád mór (‘big boat’) 35ft to 44ft; the 32ft leathbhád (‘half boat’); and the 24ft to 28ft gleoiteog and púcán.

They’re all the same shape, with a fine entry, bluff bows, pronounced tumblehome and a narrow, sharply raked transom.

The smaller boats are open and the larger half-decked, although hookers built or converted for cruising have cabins.

The hull is larch on oak, the rig gaff cutter with a long bowsprit (the púcán has a dipping lug) and the sails traditionally tan-coloured.

All hulls are painted (or tarred) black, and all are tiller-steered.

Formerly used as fishing boats and cargo carriers on this indented and rockbound coast, the hookers now have a vibrant racing scene in many locations in Connemara.

The annual Cruinniú nam Bád (Gathering of the Boats) festival takes place every August at Kinvara on Galway Bay, and attracts up to 100 boats.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Galway Bay

Galway Bay is 150 miles by sea from Baltimore in west Cork, or 260 miles from Kilmore Quay at the other end of the south coast.

The west coast is exposed to the Atlantic but there are many excellent natural harbours (and several marinas) and the scenery is magnificent.

The city of Galway has a small marina in its wet dock, and there is a new marina 25 miles to the west in the fishing and ferry port of Rossaveal.

Offshore here are the Aran Islands, themselves part of the hooker tradition.

There are, unfortunately, no charter boats available on this coast.

Buy South & West Coasts of Ireland Sailing Directions edited by Norman Kean at Amazon (UK)

Buy South & West Coasts of Ireland Sailing Directions edited by Norman Kean at Amazon (US)

Bristol Channel

Bristol Pilot cutters were working boats up until the early 1930s

Built in 1903 at Pill near Bristol, Peggy was converted to a yacht in 1925. Credit: David Broadbent/Alamy Stock Photo

Recommended by Jonty Pearce

One of the most dangerous shipping lanes in the world, the Bristol Channel’s huge 14m tidal range drives currents speedier than many sailing ships between rocks and shifting sand bars.

In the late 19th century, as now, it was essential for traders wishing to enter its ports to employ local knowledge.

Self-employed and generally owning their boats, the first pilot to reach incoming craft got the work; as a result the fastest pilot cutters thrived.

Many consider the Bristol Channel pilot cutter to be the finest sailing boat design ever: fast, seaworthy and kindly on the eye, the design is a perfect combination of form and function.

To combat each other as well as the often dangerous conditions, a long-keeled heavy displacement deep hull driven by a powerful gaff cutter rig was used to make them speedy, sea kindly, and manoeuvrable yet crewed by only a man and a boy.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to the Bristol Channel

With a mere 18 original cutters surviving from the hundreds built, these craft are not a common sight.

None are static museum exhibits, and those not undergoing restoration enjoy regular use.

Some, like the Swansea Council-owned Olga, currently on loan to Sailing Tectona, are available for private charter voyages, whilst many attend maritime rallies such as the Falmouth Classics.

The Barry Yacht Club’s early May Cock of the Bristol Channel race provides an unmissable chance to see these stunning gaff cutters in their intended habitat.

Whenever classic boat rallies are held, Bristol Channel pilot cutters are pretty much guaranteed to take part.

Buy Bristol Channel and River Severn Cruising Guide by Peter Cumberlidge at Amazon (UK)

Buy Bristol Channel and River Severn Cruising Guide by Peter Cumberlidge at Amazon (US)

Continues below…

Isles of Scilly

The annual World Pilot Gig Championships on the Isles of Scilly is the best time to see gigs in action. Credit: Roger Hollingsworth/Alamy Stock Photo

The annual World Pilot Gig Championships on the Isles of Scilly is the best time to see gigs in action. Credit: Roger Hollingsworth/Alamy Stock Photo

Recommended by Ken Endean

Scilly gigs are light, slender six-oared boats that were developed and refined for speed on the open sea, essential in the days when pilots raced out to incoming ships to secure the job of conning them up-Channel.

They also served as lifeboats and for transport between the islands.

Although their commercial use has ended, in recent decades they have become popular for competitive rowing – mainly in Cornwall but also in other counties and countries, including the USA.

Each Scilly island has its own gig sheds to protect the wooden craft.

To be eligible for top flight competitions they must comply with specified dimensions and eligible boats compete in the World Pilot Gig Championships, held annually in early May and attended by thousands of rowers and spectators.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to the Isles of Scilly

The championship courses converge on Hugh Town harbour, which will be packed, so obtain a copy of the race programme and select an anchorage that will give a good view without the risk of being run down by spectator boats.

There are several approaches depending on where you have come from and most involve crossing one of the three circulation TSS schemes to some degree.

From the east St Mary’s Sound is 35 miles from Newlyn to the Outer Head and considered the easiest entry.

Wolf Rock Lighthouse is a useful landmark, beware the bottom of the Seven Stones TSS. Pick up transit 307° on North Carn and Great Mincarlo to pass between Spanish Ledges EC buoy and Peninnis Head.

There are two port hand markers for a historic wreck on Bartholomew Ledges. Beware Woodcock Ledge to starboard on approaches to St Mary’s Pool.

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Buy Isles of Scilly by Graham Adam/Royal Cruising Club Pilotage Foundation at Amazon (US)

Buy Yachting Monthly’s Channel Havens: The Secret Inlets and Secluded Anchorages of the Channel by Ken Endean at Amazon (UK)

Buy Yachting Monthly’s Channel Havens: The Secret Inlets and Secluded Anchorages of the Channel by Ken Endean at Amazon (US)

Buy Yachting Monthly’s Channel Havens: The Secret Inlets and Secluded Anchorages of the Channel by Ken Endean at Waterstones (UK)

Falmouth, Cornwall

Falmouth Working Boats were used for oyster dredging. Credit: Roger Hollingsworth/Alamy Stock Photo

Falmouth Working Boats were used for oyster dredging. Credit: Roger Hollingsworth/Alamy Stock Photo

Recommended by Jane Russell

It is hard to think of a more exuberant spectacle than a fleet of Falmouth Working Boats racing hard under full sail, jibs set taut on their bowsprits and multicoloured topsails their battle colours.

There is a level of jeopardy involved in racing these three-quarter decked open boats too hard, but in working mode they are easier to handle.

Developed for single-handed oyster dredging, their gaff-cutter rig could quickly be scandalised.

Each boat is unique, and some are centenarians, but since the late 1970s the whole fleet has been kept true to a set of rules drawn up by the Falmouth Working Boat Association (FWBA), which aims to preserve and encourage their traditions.

Some of the boats still work through the winter months, but come the summer they transform into racing thoroughbreds, with club races from the Flushing and St Mawes sailing clubs and a full FWBA race calendar which can be downloaded from www.fwba.co.uk.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Falmouth

Between St Anthony Head and Pendennis Point the entrance to Falmouth Harbour splits around Black Rock with its BRB beacon (Fl(2)10s3M).

The main channel is buoyed up the east side but there is also plenty of water to the west and navigation is relatively straightforward.

Falmouth Haven and Port Pendennis are the most centrally located marina berths for visitors.

Falmouth Haven also has swinging visitor moorings.

You might find space to anchor off Custom House Quay, keeping clear of the turning area for the docks.

For St Mawes moorings you should book with the harbour master in advance.

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Buy West Country Cruising Companion by Mark Fishwick at Amazon (UK)

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Buy West Country Cruising Companion by Mark Fishwick at Waterstones (UK)

Brightlingsea, Essex

Oyster Smacks were a firm fixture in the traditional fishing fleet around the Essex coast. Credit: Colm O'Laoi

Oyster Smacks were a firm fixture in the traditional fishing fleet around the Essex coast. Credit: Colm O’Laoi

Recommended by Julia Jones

Time was when London apprentices petitioned their masters not to feed them oysters more than three times a week; when smacks with the CK prefix swooped across the North Sea to hoover up other people’s oysters; and when small ships built on the Colne could be found across the globe.

Those times are not forgotten in Brightlingsea.

The Pioneer Sailing Trust, at Harker’s Yard, was founded to restore the 70ft skillinger, Pioneer, now used for sail training.

They offer shipwright apprenticeships, often to young people in difficult circumstances.

The Colne Smack Preservation Society is based in the Aldous Heritage Smack Dock.

There you will find smacks, bawleys and Thames barges.

Oyster dredging under sail is not a lost art here and the annual smack and barge matches are intensely competitive.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Brightlingsea

Approach roughly NNW from the Colne Bar buoy with shallow water either side of the main channel.

Brightlingsea Creek is marked by an S Cardinal. It’s possible to anchor by Mersea Stone or in Pyefleet.

Anchoring is not permitted in Brightlingsea Harbour.

There is a small marina or pontoon berths.

Call the harbourmaster on Ch 68 or the harbour office; 01206 302200.

Use leading marks 041º. Channel is narrow. Least depth 0.5m CD www.brightlingseaharbour.org

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Maldon, Essex

Two historic Thames sailing barges racing on the river Blackwater. (Photo by: Loop Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Thames barges still race a& Barge Match. Credit: Getty

Recommended by Nick Ardley

Historic Maldon is one of several Thames estuary havens to see the unique, ubiquitous tan-sailed spritsail barge.

The ‘lofty’ hillside church and houses tumbling down the hill is picture perfect. There is something magical about ‘drifting’ past these Victorian workhorses, on land or water.

Immediately downstream of the Hythe is Cook’s Yard where barges were built and continue to be maintained.

Another yard, Howard’s, is remembered with a plaque.

Repair work is still carried out using traditional ‘blocks’ and a floating dock based upstream.

Many barges are available for day charter and longer weekend trips.

The Thames Sailing Barge Trust operates two craft, and Topsail Charters have several.

The glorious Blackwater Smack & Barge weekend is a must.

For those requiring stores, Maldon has everything.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Maldon

The River Blackwater is reached via the Wallet or Swin channels. The river appears wide and open towards high water; beware drying areas and Thirslet Spit as the tide falls.

There are plenty of anchorages along the river, and it is worth exploring these.

Maldon is navigable at high water, and is reached beyond Osea and Northey Islands up a narrowing and shallowing buoyed channel.

There is a good waiting anchorage off Osea. Drying pontoon berths are available at Hythe Quay, upstream of barges, also at yards for shoal-draft yachts (www.mhic.org.uk).

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Northumberland and North Yorkshire

Bridlington Sailing Cobles are some of the biggest, at 38-40ft, but still have a dipping lug and foresails. Credit: Paul L Arro

Bridlington Sailing Cobles are some of the biggest, at 38-40ft, but still have a dipping lug and foresails. Credit: Paul L Arro

Recommended by Theo Stocker

A coastline of stunning beauty, Northumberland and North Yorkshire’s sandy beaches, shallow rivers and low-lying rocky reefs also make it potentially vicious when there’s any east in the wind.

The cobles of this area, with all their functional and regional variations, are specifically designed to cope with these challenges.

The boats needed to be stout sea boats but still be capable of being hauled up a beach.

Wide clinker boards, a high, sharp bow sweeping down to a beamy waist, followed by a marked tumblehome, a flat or even concave keel and a raked barrel transom give this boat its distinctive appearance.

Ranging from 12ft to more than 40ft, many were scrapped for grants to decommission fishing vessels.

Fewer than 10 sailing cobles remain. They are rigged with a single dipping lug sail set on a mast raked well aft.

As a boat evolved to suit its environment, the coble is about as refined as they come and is beautiful because of it.

Cruises to see working boats: Getting to Northumberland and North Yorkshire

Cobles range from the Humber to the Scottish borders. Though much rarer now, they are still dotted about the harbours of the region.

The Bridlington Sailing Coble Festival takes place every year in July and historic examples are preserved in working order by the North East Maritime Trust on the Tyne, and at the Bridlington Sailing Coble Preservation Society

It’s a coast that’s worth exploring, based out of Newcastle, Amble, Blyth, Hartlepool, Whitby or Scarborough.

Buy Royal Northumberland Yacht Club Sailing Directions, Humber to Rattray Head, Ray McGinty and Lester Sher

Buy Cook’s Country by Henry Irving at Waterstones (UK)


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