The coble is a traditional and distinctive fishing boat of the Eastern coast from Berwick to the Humber Estuary. It was developed to operate from beaches rather than harbours, since on that coastline there are far more suitable beaches than safe harbours. Its origins are said to lie in the Viking longboat.
There are all sizes of coble, though a typical example would be around 27 feet (8.2m) long with a beam (width) of 8 feet (2.5m), however, all have the same features of design. The bow is deep and slim towards the lower part (the forefoot). The hull broadens and flattens toward the stern where it finishes in a flat raked panel (transom) as if sliced off.
There are two bilge keels, which run two-thirds of the length from the transom forwards, but do not go all the way to the forefoot. These support the hull on the beach and keep the bow vertical. At the transom the tumblehome covers three quarters of the side of the boat, where the strakes (planks) are brought in-over to form a barrel-like effect.
Traditionally there is no deck although modern vessels have a cuddy (shelter) and forecastle deck from about the midship forward. They also have engines, the screw coming out quite far from the transom and protected by the bilge keels.
Construction and Rig
The materials used are oak and larch and the construction is very like the Norse longboats. The keel is laid together with transom and stem (bow piece). The hull planks (strakes) are then laid from keel to handrail. They are overlapped and nailed (clinker-built). The 'ribs' and thwarts (planks running across the width) are added afterwards.
Traditional cobles are single masted vessel with a dipping lug sail - one spar to spread the top and suspended about one-third away from one end of that spar. They do not use a bowsprit but a storm mast and a jib and sometimes a staysail were rigged, both triangular sails. Sails were usually coloured dark red, a result of rot-proofing. The deep forefoot does not make them difficult to steer and a narrow, deep rudder with a tuller is fitted to change the boat's Centre of Lateral Resistance without which they could not be sailed. This would be removed to allow landing.
The traditional vessel is launched by family and friends pushing it, bow-first into the surf and rowing into quieter waters before stepping (raising) the mast, setting the rudder and raising sail. The tumblehome at the stern prevents too much water coming aboard when under way in heavy seas or surf.
Sailing a coble is an art learned from father or uncles and it is not easy. The boat is tacked (sailing into the wind) by lowering (dipping) the sail and putting the short end of the spar on the opposite side of the mast (away from the wind). It can be done without dipping, but some sail area is lost. This is perhaps another Viking technique.
Landing is done by unstepping (lowering) the mast, unshipping the rudder and then turning the boat stern on to the beach with the oars. The boat is then backed onto the beach, the forefoot acting as a rudder and keeping it straight, while the bow breaks the force of the waves. Once aground, family and friends turn out to drag the boat up the beach.
Although it was a characteristic boat of the eastern coast, it was not the only one. Some fishermen or fishing communities preferred the 'mule' a double-ended (bow at each end) hull that would do as well as the coble, but without the difficult sailing characteristics. It was not, however, as good a sea-boat as the coble.