I often ask myself that! However, my interest in the English coble is revitalised everytime I come across passages such as that published below - written by William Weaver Tomlinson (a well known and much loved Northumbrian author) and taken from his 'Historical Notes on Cullercoats, Whitley and Monkseaton.'
For those interested, the book also contains many statistics on the Cullercoats fishing community and how it came to the attention of artists as early as the1820s and becoming famous enough to attract then little known Winslow Homer to it's shores.
'Afloat in the harbour or drawn up on the foreshore are the cobles of the fishermen, of which there are about eighty at Cullercoats. These are painted in a variety of colours, the most common being blue and white, and blue and green or pink, and black and white.
'It is well worth our while to examine carefully these picturesque looking boats, in which the Cullercoats pilots and fishermen brave all weathers on the North Sea, for though small in size they are very seaworthy, and they possess features which give them quite a distinctive character. They are principally built in Hartlepool (see the photo of the 'Dauntless' half hull on this site).
'The coble is an open boat of graceful outline, 27 feet to 32 feet in length, overall, and 6 feet to 8 feet in beam, clinker-built , the material used being larch - a boat with a flat bottom from the stern for two-thirds of the length on the water-line. with high and bold bows, a deep fore-foot, sides having a considerable 'tumble-home,' a square raking stern that will float in one or two inches of water, a tiller 5 feet or 6 feet long and a broad rudder that, running down below the boat's bottom to the extent of one-sixth of the water-line, and projecting forward at the angle of the rake of the stern, acts exactly like a centre-board when the wind is on the beam, and is so fixed as to give great hold of the water. The curve of the planking on the water-line from the stern into the flat floor of the boat amidships is said to give the true curve of least resistance.
'The rig consists of the main lug, jib, and mizen lug - the two latter sails being of minor importance. A coble carries two main masts, a large one and a small one. The latter is for bad weather, when the rake at which it is fixed is increased, being sometimes as much as 25 degrees from the perpendicular.
'Difficult to steer and handle on account of the peculiarities of the hull and rig, the coble requires great nerve, skill and experience in the management of it. If the rudder breaks nothing can save the coble: it would instantly capsize. It's principle advantages are the readiness with which it can be launched and beached (from and on the shallow sandy beaches and coves of the East Coast), and its rapid sailing powers.
'A coble is usually worked by three (or even two!) men and a boy. The names which are given to the boats are often very quaint and picturesque. A number are called after the mothers, wives, sisters or sweethearts of their owners (ie 'Eve' - a much treasured half hull owned in Tynemouth and bearing the letters SN for Shields North!). Others bear the designations of many of the virtues, such as' Moderation,' ' Gratitude,' 'Amity' etc. Others are more poetical and curious, as will be seen from the following selection - 'Sea Flower,' 'Star of Peace,' 'Pilgrim,' 'Pride of the Cliff,' 'Lily of the Valley,' 'Swiftsure,' 'Quickstep,' ' Cock Robin,' 'Robin Hood,' 'Good Samaritan,' 'Good Design,' 'Temperance Star,' ' Rock of Ages,' ' Grand Old Man,' 'Confido Deo,' 'Amaranth,' 'Ancient Promise,' 'Welcome Home,' 'Village Bell,' 'Young William,' 'Ripple Gold,' and 'Shelumiel.'
'A very interesting and picturesque event is the departure of the salmon cobles at sunset, some calm summer evening. Down to the beach, which is already enlived with the stir of preparation, trudge the slow-gaited fishermen in heavy sea-boots and oil-skin coats, accompanied by their blithe, buxom wives and hardy children, who assist in the carrying of fishing-gear, ballast-bags, nets, water-bottles etc. When everything is aboard, the boats are rowed outside the breakwaters, the square brown-red sails are hoisted, fluttering a while and then swelling in the breeze; at once the graceful boats plunge into the trough of the wave, rising over the crest of the next and bounding buoyantly along the faintly gleaming waters, in an irregular line or curve, becoming less and less distinct, until they can only be traced, in the pale sea-haze of the horizon, by the light of their firepans.
'Equally beautiful is the spectacle of the cobles returning, one after another, in the early morning when the sea is a-shimmer with sunbeams, and the mist is rolling away from the land.'
Illustrations (from top to bottom): postcard of Cullercoats circa 1880; photograph of the bay taken in the 1920s or 30s; an illustration from 1850 showing the graceful lines of a sailing coble; an unusual coble diorama half hull showing the 'mainsail up with crew;' a watercolour by Winslow Homer showing beach activity before launch; and finally, Robert Jobling's oil showing cobles being hauled onshore without the aid of pit props or a wheeled boogie - artistic licence methinks! - see Harold Knight's version in 'Coble folk.'