Category: Maritime History

The history of the Marstal schooner

Aron of Svendborg Full Sailing Denmark

Few ships have left as permanent an imprint on maritime history as the Marstal schooner. The boats are named for the shipyards of Marstal, located on the small Danish island of Ærø. The history of Marstal schooners is a fascinating story of workmanship, adventure, and ingenuity, from their modest origins to their popularity as icons of nautical culture.

The origin of the Marstal schooner

The story of the Marstal schooner traces its roots to the early 19th century, a time when maritime trade was at its prime and the world’s oceans were gateways to discovery and exchange. These vessels were designed to navigate the vast expanses of the oceans with remarkable agility.

Not only were Marstal schooners numerous, and relatively small in size, but they also endured long trips that brought them to remote regions of the world. This earned them the nickname “Sparrows of the Sea.” These two-masted ships with their characteristic schooner rig became a common sight as maritime trade expanded its reach, transporting goods that crossed countries and civilisations.

The Marstal’s trade legacy

The 19th century witnessed the Marstal schooners at the heart of a bustling global trade network. These ships had a unique blend of speed and cargo capacity. This allowed them to play an important role in connecting nations and enabling the exchange of goods. From the coasts of North America to the shores of Africa and beyond, Marstal schooners became symbols of Danish seamanship. These intrepid vessels hauled cod from the fishing grounds to European markets, returning with valuable salt to support the thriving industry in the New World.

Thousands of sailors who embarked on these long voyages, lived and worked on board under challenging conditions, braving all kinds of weather. The legacy of Danish shipping, which stands strong today, draws its roots from the seamanship forged on these vessels. The lessons learned aboard Marstal schooners continue to influence modern maritime practices, echoing the resilience and dedication of those who sailed them.

The evolution of the Marstal schooner

In the late 1960s, a significant shift occurred. The once-thriving fleet of traditional Danish wooden ships, including the Marstal schooners, began to vanish. Some ships found new homes abroad, while others languished in poor condition. The advent of modernization and changing trade dynamics marked the end of an era, but the spirit of the Marstal schooners endured.

One such ship who weathered the storm is Aron of Svendborg, our very own Marstal schooner. Now welcoming guests on enchanting sailing holidays in Southern Denmark, this remarkable vessel has spent 115 years at sea. Crafted in 1906, Aron encapsulates the essence of Marstal schooners, showcasing the elegant lines and robust ‘spring curve’ that defined these ships.

Crafted from solid oak, Aron’s flat transom and sailing prowess pay homage to the craftsmanship of shipbuilder Lars Jensen Bager from Marstal’s renowned shipyard. Aboard Aron, above and below deck, guests find respite in a beautiful haven while embarking on a journey of discoverynthrough Denmark’s islands and coastline. Private bunk cabins, a spacious saloon, and ample deck space invite moments of relaxation and contemplation, as the wind fills Aron’s sails and the serene Danish islands float by.


The History of the Brigantine

Florette sailing

We’re all familiar with the infamous pirate names of Captain Hook, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Long John Silver and the sea-faring tales from wooden pirate ships, complete with cannons, flying the skull and crossbones at the top of the mast.

While we give thought to the storylines of their adventures, the pirate ship itself is little more than a prop. In reality, pirates would have had their lives shaped by the ship on which they lived, their days governed by the way she performed in heavy seas; their comfort determined by the layout of the interior, and the storage space for supplies. Such pirates have often sailed on a brigantine; a large, sail-powered vessel used in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. This versatile sailing boat had many purposes in addition to piracy, such as trade, military operations and international exploration.

The Origin of the Brigantine

The origin of the brigantine is unclear, but it likely evolved from earlier medieval vessels such as galleons and caravels. Its design hinges upon increased speed and manoeuvrability, making it well-suited for both long voyages and combat operations. The brigantine was the top choice for merchants due to its speed, provided by an abundance of sail area spread over two-masts. The foremast supports a full square-rig and the mainmast has a rig with a gaff sail, square topsails and topgallant sails. In other words, around 2,600 sq. ft of sail area powered around 60-80 ft of hull, giving a top speed of around 8.2 knots – fast for a sailing ship of this size! It was able to sail with a skeleton crew of 12, which left plenty of space for cargo or treasure. Larger boats had room to sleep up to 125, essential for manning cannons and guns if needed for military operations.

The military history of the Brigantine stretches back to the American War of Independence in 1783. They were privateers – essentially as pirate ships operating under the orders of a state or sovereign. They preyed on enemy merchant ships, disrupting trade routes in much the same way as independent, lawless pirates we think of today. After the war, many of these former privateers were converted to being merchant ships themselves. This allowed them to use their inherent speed and manoeuvrability to transport goods and people around the world.

The brigantine was popular among explorers, with its agile nature perfect for navigating across oceans and discovering countries during the Age of Exploration. The brigantine was well-suited to navigating through narrow waterways and exploring rugged, undulating coastlines. Pioneers who used brigantines included Christopher Columbus, who sailed the Pinta on his first voyage to the Americas in 1492. Francis Drake also sailed a small brigantine called The Elizabeth during his circumnavigation of the world in the 16th century.

The evolution of the Brigantine

Over time, the brigantine design evolved, and by the mid-18th century, there was a split in nomenclature. A newly shortened term “brig”, referred to a smaller, two-masted ship with square-rigged sails on both masts, rather than just the fore-mast. Eye of the Wind is one such boat, built in 1911 as a schooner, now rigged as a brig with square sails on both masts. Brigs became popular among traders and privateers as they were able to operate with a smaller crew than a brigantine. Both boats co-existed for another century or so before ultimately being replaced by both schooners, and later on, steam ships.

By the late 19th century, brigantines were seen as an old fashioned way of sailing, and fell out of use commercially. However, the last few original brigantines were still being built in the early 20th century. Replicas have been built since then – many of which are still in use as charter boats today. One such brigantine is the beautiful Florette. Built in Italy in 1921 to serve as a cargo ship, Florette is now part of the VentureSail fleet, offering sailing holidays from the Med to the Caribbean. The history of brigantine Florette is fascinating, with active service in WW2, and adventures all over the globe. As the last originally built Mediterranean brigantine still sailing today, Florette is a true piece of maritime history.

Sailing on these historical vessels is more than just a holiday; it is an opportunity to embrace the authenticity of a bygone era. As you step aboard, you become part of a living legacy, connecting with the spirit of seafaring that has endured for centuries. Book your voyage and embark on an extraordinary journey through time – no swashbuckling or pillaging experience required!

Show prices in Euro


Celebrate 120years of Sailing History with Bessie Ellen

Bessie Ellen 120th Tour White Logo

Step aboard the magnificent Bessie Ellen and embark on a remarkable journey through time as she celebrates 120 years of heritage sailing. Built in 1904 and lovingly restored, Bessie Ellen stands as a living testament to her maritime history, overflowing with stories from the past.

In her 2024 season, she will set sail around the British Isles, unveiling the mesmerising landscapes and seafaring heritage of the United Kingdom. Join her on one of her celebratory voyages as you immerse yourself in a hands-on sailing experience that will transport you back to a bygone era.

BESSIE ELLEN’S Round Britain Tour Schedule

Legs of the Journey

Spanning fourteen legs, Bessie Ellen’s voyage will showcase the coasts of Cornwall, the rugged shores of Wales and Scotland, the mystical Orkney Islands, and the East Coast. Each leg of the journey offers a unique opportunity to delve into the rich heritage of traditional sailing, exploring the history behind Bessie Ellen and her seafaring ancestors.

All the different legs promise an immersive experience where you can actively participate in sailing the ship. Feel the thrill of taking the helm, and learn the art of hoisting the sails through traditional rope work. As you engage in the fascinating practice of celestial navigation, you will connect with the age-old methods of guiding a ship by the stars. It’s an incredible chance to embrace the seafaring traditions of the past and acquire skills that have been passed down through generations.

Bessie Ellen’s Heritage Sailing History

To truly appreciate the significance of Bessie Ellen’s 120-year celebrations, it is essential to understand her remarkable heritage. Originally built in Plymouth in 1904, this west-country trading ketch has quite literally witnessed the changing tides of history. She began her seafaring life as a cargo ship, navigating treacherous waters and transporting goods across Ireland, Wales and the West Counties. Over the years, she has weathered storms, explored distant shores, and forged a deep connection with the maritime world.

In more recent years, she has been restored with meticulous attention by her current owner and skipper Nikki. Her wooden decks, towering masts, and traditional rigging transport you to a time when sail ruled the seas. The stories etched into her timbers whisper of daring adventures, incredible discoveries, and the relentless spirit of exploration.

Read about the history of the west country trading ketch

Preserving our Sailing History

Preserving historic vessels like Bessie Ellen is vital to our seafaring maritime heritage. These traditional wooden vessels serve as tangible links to our maritime past, allowing us to connect with the traditions, skills, and stories of those who sailed before us. They embody a bygone era when sailing was at the forefront of exploration and trade, reminding us of the bravery and resilience of our seafaring ancestors.

Maintaining historic vessels ensures that future generations can experience the magic of sailing on these iconic ships. By keeping them in sailing condition, we are providing opportunities for people to engage in hands-on experiences, learning traditional skills, and immersing themselves in the rich history of seafaring.

Preserving historic vessels encourages the ongoing development of traditional shipbuilding and restoration skills. The knowledge and craftsmanship required to maintain these vessels are passed down through generations, ensuring that invaluable skills are not lost to time. These skills, rooted in centuries of seafaring expertise, contribute to the broader maritime industry and support a thriving ecosystem of maritime trades.

By joining Bessie Ellen’s 120-year celebrations, you are becoming a part of this living history. You will have the opportunity to converse with experienced crew members who possess a wealth of knowledge about the ship’s heritage. Listen to their tales of life at sea and absorb their passion for preserving the art of traditional sailing.

Bessie Ellen’s 120-year celebrations offer an opportunity to step into the world of maritime heritage. As you sail around the British Isles, you will be enveloped in the stories and seafaring traditions that have already shaped Bessie Ellen’s journey. Feel the wind in your hair, embrace the spirit of exploration, and create your own memories aboard this magnificent vessel. Celebrate her remarkable journey as she continues to sail into the future, preserving the legacy of heritage sailing for generations to come.

Sail with Bessie Ellen

The History of the West Country Trading Ketch

Bessie Ellen Full Sail Cornwall

The history of the West Country trading ketch is rather unromantic. There’s no sailing into the sunset or walking the plank here – but that doesn’t make their legacy any less important. West Country trading ketches were the lorries and trucks of their day. Between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, they carried tonnes of essential cargo like china clay, slate, and coal around the southwest. Usually, they were small, family-run enterprises operating out of ports such as Bideford, Fowey, and Appledore.  West Country trading ketches were complete workhorses. The constant repair and maintenance needed to keep them afloat often meant an ecosystem of chandlers, boatbuilders, merchants, and sailmakers would thrive around small harbours.

What is a West Country Trading Ketch?

A  West Country trading ketch is a two-masted vessel typically around 100 feet (approximately 35 metres) in length. It cuts through the water with a sharp bow and a sweeping, rounded stern. The relatively deep keel provides stability in rough seas. At roughly 20ft (6 metres) across at its widest part, with two deck hatches for fast loading and unloading, West Country trading ketches were the perfect balance of spaciousness and speed. They were strong and nimble enough to conquer even the toughest conditions, but with room to transport between 75-150 tonnes of cargo in their hold. Their traditional rigging consisted of two gaff sails, a topsail, and up to four jib sails attached from the bowsprit. This made them easy to handle with a small crew, often made up of family members. Sailing speed varied but in a beam reach with a good breeze, it wasn’t uncommon to hit eight knots, making cargo delivery swift and efficient.

West Country Trading Ketch Design

The design of the West Country trading ketch was essentially as fast as a sail-powered cargo boat could get before diesel engines and steel hulls took over. They were some of the last commercial vessels to be built from wood. Everything from pitch pine, elm, and oak were in use for the construction of the hull – often a mixture, depending on the price of the raw materials. Trennels, or tree nails, usually made of oak (essentially strong wooden dowels, turned on a lathe) would have been used originally to hold the hull together, but in later designs and in refits, these were replaced with metal.

The history of the West Country Trading Ketch

In their heyday, the fleet of these ketches numbered around 700. However, like many other sail-powered boats, the decline of these ships began with the advent of internal combustion engines at the beginning of the 20th century. Although some were still used as late as the 1960s, many West Country trading ketches ended their working lives during the Second World War. During this period they were moored up in various estuaries and used to hold down barrage balloons which protected ports and harbours from enemy aircraft. Sadly, after the war, there was little money to be made by refurbishing these ships for commercial use, and many were left to rot in shipyards, or on the shores of the estuaries themselves.

West Country Trading Ketches today

The demise of the fleet of West Country trading ketches means that these vessels are now extraordinarily rare – only three remain in the UK. Venturesail are thrilled to be offering charters on Bessie Ellen, a West Country trading ketch whose history stretches back nearly 120 years. Her working years all began with a cargo of manure on her maiden voyage from Plymouth to Bideford in 1907. Bessie Ellen then worked through both World Wars, and her long history at sea has earned her a place on the National Historic Ships Register. Refurbished by owner and skipper Nikki Alford in the early 2000s, there’s nary a winch in sight and all sail handling is done by hand. Happily, though, the cargo hold has been converted into a comfortable main cabin with private bunks so you can relax after a day hoisting halyards and helming (as well as enjoying the stunning scenery of her sailing destinations).

Step back in time and experience the maritime history of these beautiful vessels for yourself with a voyage on Bessie Ellen.

The Best of the 2023 Maritime Festivals

Douarnenez Maritime Festival

The beauty of sailing, fundamentally, is getting out and about on the water, the freedom and fresh air that invigorates your soul. However, for those that aren’t ready to cross oceans, or for first time venture sailors, taking part in a festival afloat is a classic way to learn the ropes and experience what traditional sailing has to offer. No tents or muddy fields to master, just rather elegant maritime glamping. So get your sea boots on, ready to dance across the waves at the 2023 maritime festivals!

2023 will play host to a real variety of festivals afloat, each taking place in picturesque locations around our coasts.  Fleets of classic and historic craft parade across the bays creating a stunning picture of canvas and sail steeped in nostalgia.

We have a number of voyages taking part in maritime festivals this season – find all maritime festival voyages here.

2023 Maritime Festivals 

Brixham Heritage Regatta – 26th – 28th May 2023

May sees the start of events where the fishing town of Brixham hosts the Heritage Sailing regatta. Held in Torbay since the early 1800’s, the fleet of sailing trawlers would race against each other for the glory of their craft. In 1914 King George V presented the winner with the King’s Cup, to be challenged by trawlers over 40 tons. The cup was challenged annually until 1939, resuming in 1997 by enthusiasts. The regatta is now one of the Westcountry’s most vibrant sailing events! In the sheltered waters of the bay you can soak up the festivities in 2023 on board classic yacht, Escape for the weekend. Prince William Quay is the focal point for the weekend long party and celebration of classic sail.  Brixham Yacht Club host the event with a magnificent running buffet for hungry sailors when they come off the water on Sunday afternoon before the traditional prize giving.

Falmouth Classics and Sea Shanty Festival – 16th – 18th June 2023

Early summer sees the historic Cornish maritime town of Falmouth host the Falmouth Classics and Sea Shanty Festival, a weekend of sailing races, sail parades and shoreside entertainment and singers from the world over who gather to sing songs of the sea.

Head over to St. Mawes or the famous Helford river during the weekend, with sheltered waters and stunning scenery for a moment to get away from the bustling marinas. The races include classes for all, from working boats to classic yachts and the emphasis is on taking part and above all having fun.

Paimpol Sea Shanty Festival – 4th – 6th August 2023

Paimpol Sea Shanty FestivalPaimpol Festival du Chant de Marin, comes at the start of August, the perfect way to kick off the summer! The town was once home to a large fleet of fishing vessels that would sail across the Atlantic, fishing the deep seas. The maritime music festival celebrates the towns seafaring traditions with energetic dancing, classic wooden vessels, brass bands and the occasional sax lift the mood to remind the festival-goers that this is a celebration of maritime culture. The town itself has plenty of bars and restaurants to enjoy, and the atmosphere is electric over the three day festival. 

Dartmouth Royal Regatta – 19th – 27th August 2023

The Dartmouth Royal Regatta finishes up the festival season this year, having been a key player on the regatta circuit since 1882! Competitors from all over the UK come to take part in the racing festivities, and it is a popular weekend with maritime lovers. On land, there’s shopping, food, music and all sorts of entertainment during Regatta week in Dartmouth. The Parade of Classic Craft is usually on the Saturday and heritage trawler Pilgrim of Brixham will join in the parade and provide a great viewing platform for the spectacular end of regatta firework display. Set sail with Pilgrim of Brixham to take part in this years festivites!

We hope to see you at one of these incredible events celebrating maritime culture in Europe. To join us on a sailing trip at a maritime festival, view all our festival voyages here.