Excelsior LT472 77ft Chambers built 1921
This fishing vessel is a survivor out of many first class smacks that worked the North Sea from UK East Coast ports in the late 19th century. Although she dates from 1921, she was built without an engine to a design that had evolved fifty years previously. She was built for Lowestoft which in 1912 had a fleet of 340 similar vessels.
Her first skipper, Jimmy Strong, was skipper of His Majesty’s Armed Smack Fame during WW1. On 6th March 1916 H.M.A.S. Fame survived five confrontations with a German coastal submarine (or submarines) .
The ketch rigged Lowestoft smacks had a crew of five and a powerful steam capstan for the heavy hauling work. They used ice to preserve their catch and when the ice started to melt after two or three days, they raced their catch back to market where it was dispatched onwards by express goods trains to inland towns and cities for sale on the slab. Before the combination of sailing fishing vessel and steam railways, most people were unable to enjoy the luxury of fresh sea fish and had to make do with dried fish or muddy-tasting freshwater fish on Fridays, which the Church decreed should be meat-free.
After being laid up in the Depression, EXCELSIOR was sold to Norway in 1935 and converted for coasting. In 1940, during WW2, EXCELSIOR had delivered a cargo of firewood to Bodo in North Norway when on 13th April the town was attacked from the air by German bombers. As the town was built largely of wood it caught fire so EXCELSIOR ferried many of the townsfolk to safety on nearby islands until the pier she was operating from was itself destroyed by a bomb aimed at her. She was severely shaken up and was beached in a leaking condition and her engine dismantled to prevent her being used by the Germans.
Mid-war, an illicit radio was hidden aboard EXCELSIOR with which the islanders of SVINOY, where she was based, were kept informed of news of the War from the BBC’s Norwegian Radio News in London.
After World War Two, she was sold to Sverre and Ole Borrufsen of Mandal. Her mizzen-mast was taken down in 1968, and she ceased trading in 1970.
John Wylson bought her the following year and repatriated her to Lowestoft, where he re-framed and partially restored her to smack rig in partnership with Mark Trevitt. Extensive fundraising was necessary before restoration could re-start in 1985, with help from a Manpower Services Community Programme using unemployed people in Lowestoft.
EXCELSIOR was commissioned as a sail training vessel by HRH the Princess Royal in 1988, and completed a circumnavigation of Britain in 1989. She joined the London-Hamburg leg of the Cutty Sark Tall Ships Race and revisited Norway the same year. In 1999, her trawling gear was re-created and she caught plaice again after 66 years, an achievement which was televised for Channel 4’s Real History Show. The Trust which now operates EXCELSIOR was set up to keep alive the knowledge and sustainable technology of Lowestoft smacks.
The vessel is in regular use, but now has an engine to improve the safety and comfort of those who sail in her. Since 1989 when EXCELSIOR’s restoration back to external ‘as built’ condition was completed, she has been quietly taking people of all ages and backgrounds to sea to experience their maritime heritage first-hand. Each year between April and October she sails around 5000 miles, taking 17 people at a time for day trips or voyages lasting a week or more. She has sailed north almost as far as the Arctic Circle, south to Portugal, and East as far as St Petersburg, and each year she is seen by thousands of spectators.