The Beer way of rowing “Sheathing”
One of the highlights of Beer Regatta week is the Rowing Championship of Beer and some competitors still adopt the unique Beer way of rowing – Sheathing.
Mike Green recounts his personal memories of this tradition.
As a boy on Beer beach in the 50s. I often remember being told off by my elders for sitting down in a boat. The old men insisted that one always stood, especially when helming or rowing. There is even a special verb to describe rowing standing up facing forward. It is ‘Sheathing’, and for years Beer Regatta held sheathing as well as rowing races.
I recall one particular day in the 70s, when I was crossing the river Teign. We were off to the boat auction at Shaldon and happened to meet some Beer fishermen aboard the ferry.One of them said to me ‘ Do you know how to spot a Beer man in a boat? Well I’ll tell you. He’ll always be standing up’ I immediately looked around the ferry. He was right, everybody aboard was sitting down except for the half dozen or so people from Beer.
There is a long history of standing oarsmen that stretches from the Phoenician hippos in the Eastern Mediterranean, past the Venetian gondolas and the Maltese dghaisas, and around the Spanish coast to the ancient seafaring city of Gades. Then up the Iberian peninsula past the Portuguese saveire (a large beach launched fishing boat – there is one in the Exeter Maritime Museum) to the English Channel and beyond. This tradition then seems to have been completely swamped by the Norsemen and Viking custom of rowing sitting down facing aft. Now it might be tempting to believe that Beer was so independent and free of spirit that is ignored this new wave and stood aloof for a thousand years, but this would be wishful thinking. One piece of evidence in particular leads me to conclude that it could not have been so, and that is the rig of the traditional Beer Lugger.
There are several features in common with Beer Luggers and the sailing boats that carried William the Conqueror to our shores. The mast is shipped when coming ashore and is short enough to be stowed inboard. There are no stays, only shrouds and it appears the halyard was kept to windward as a running backstay- this was an old Beer trait. So why should Beer, after all this Norman influence, have a strong tradition of sheathing and standing compared with other local ports?
I believe the answer is this. Following the plague of 1647 there was a shipwreck in Beer Roads and the survivors settled here. The crew were Spanish, having sailed from the port of Cadiz (Gades). As the village had lost so many of its male population, they were welcomed into the work force. This is also the reason why the surrounding villages always refered to the people of Beer as ‘Spaniards’. It is highly likely that it was this event that reintroduced to Beer the custom of sheathing and standing
in a boat.