The sailing races on Regatta Day centre on the Beer Lugger. This unique sailing craft is a direct link with the village’s colourful (and not always law abiding) past and the traditions are being kept alive by the Beer Luggers club whose enthusiastic members race these majestic boats weekly during the summer season.
The Beer Lugger is not just any old lugger with the word Beer stuck in front of it, but is a design and rig type specific to Beer. The archetype is documented in the Science Museum in London as the Little Jim of Exeter (Exeter being the port of registry). Owned by H Bartlett , it was built by Lavers of Exmouth in 1916. However, even then, the angle of the yard has started to steepen making it similar to present day rigging. There are, of course, other luggers up and down the South Coast, many of them may look similar, but to the informed eye there are differences. Some in Cornwall, for instance, set a jib outside of the for’s’l (foresail) so the lugs’l (lugsail) cannot be dipped when going about. The Penzance Lugger is one such example.
There are some lovely old pictures of luggers from years ago with three masts and very square sails on display in The Anchor Inn but the ones you will see racing on Regatta Day will probably only have two masts with a much steeper angle on the yard – the latter is a modification to make them sail better to win’rd (windward). The essence of the Beer Lugger is that it is a working boat rig.
In a two-master the Foremast is set right for’d (forward) and the mizzen mast is set right aft, often ouboard. This leaves the boat uncluttered for working. In the three-master the main mast, amidships, would often be unshipped when working so as to clear the decks. The for’s’l and mains’l are called Dipping Lugsails and the Mizzen is a Standing Lug. There is no boom on the for’s’l or the mains’l and when under way the sail is completely outboard. Even when close hauled, the foot of the sail will never come inboard of the gun’l (gunwale). This means that when going about there is nothing to bang you on the head and the whole sail can be turned inside out around the fo’d side of the mast – so no part of the sail has to cross the working area of the vessel.
Those who have sailed Naval Luggers will note the difference. The mizzen sail is self tacking. There are other advantages to the rig: all the spars are short enough to fit in the boat when unshipped, the short mast does not require a sophisticated system of stays or shrouds to support it and with such a rig it is possible to set a large, powerful sail despite the low mast.
Most people will be familiar with the square sails that you might see on a Viking Longship used for their voyages to the Arctic and America. Down the ages this rig has slowly been turned on its side for better windward ability. First to the Lateen or Lugsail type, then the Gaff, followed by the Gunter rig (similar to the Mirror dinghy) and eventually to the Bermudian rig that you see on so many modern yachts and dinghies.
The Beer Lugger is, I believe, a direct descendant of the Viking rig which was taken to Normandy by the Norsemen and then later introduced to Southern Britain by the conquering Normans in 1066. If you study the Bayeaux Tapestry you will see that the rig can be seen in detail. The sail is square and set on a yard, the mast is short and is unshipped on reaching shore, there are no stays, only a few shrouds and it appears they used the halyard as an extra shroud to win’rd; this is a real old Beer trait forced upon poor fishermen who could not afford enough rope.
As I previously mentioned, the rig has changed over the years; the angle of the yard has steepened and the luff has become shorter to aid speed when beating and to ease going about (with a steep yard there is no need to slacken the halyard when dipping the lug). In the old days they had a special spar that was stuck in a cringle on the luff to help keep it tight and to win’rd. This was called a vo’g’d and is, I believe, a local corruption of fore-guard. However the rules of Beer Lugger racing still encourage many of the old skills. For instance, they are allowed no mechanical advantage on the sheets, they must attach the sail to the yard with robins, the shrouds must be of rope and held taut using only a rolling hitch. A Beer man is the only person you are ever likely to meet that can tie a rolling hitch ‘correctly’, but that is another story.
Beer is the only place in the world I know where they race dipping lugsails, so keep a good look out on Regatta Day for the Beer Luggers. Particularly watch them when they go about (i.e change direction), that’s when the fun starts!