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Donkin on Sailing

September 2010 - Cornish Crabber back in business 

There is something about a Cornish Crabber that evokes the kind of nostalgia that Morris Minors and Minis inspire among motorists. You notice them on the water. With their gaff rig, bowsprit and sturdy lines they look the part in any estuary but nowhere more than here on the Fal in Cornwall .

It's Falmouth week and the gaffers are out in force. Crabbers and the smaller shrimpers seem to be everywhere. If their owners are taking a little more notice of our boat than might normally be the case, it's because, in spite of the classic rig, this is the first of a new series from a boatyard that just two years ago appeared to have reached the end of the line.

The story of the Cornish crabber might have ended in 2008 when the company went in to liquidation, had it not been for an order for a 41 spare part posted to the yard in Rock, Cornwall, around the same time. The order was placed by crabber enthusiast Philip Langsdale who owned a 22 ft version of the boat.

Langsdale, chief information officer at British Airports Authority, received a letter by return of post, explaining the liquidation. "It seemed a shame to be losing a boat as charming as this, so I ended up buying the assets of the company," he said.

The sale went through on the day before the 2009 London Boat Show. "We had pre-booked a stand at the exhibition just in case. We had orders and enquiries from the show and we've simply gone on from there."

The business plan for the first year was seeking to sell eight boats. But the yard surpassed all expectation and sold 52. "And we did that in the middle of the deepest recession since 1926," adds Langsdale who is now the company chairman.

He puts down the company's success to slimming down the range, concentrating on the popular crabbers and their strong customer loyalty, retaining key people in the yard management and hiring locally skilled workers who would have been lost to a flagging economy in one of the UK 's unemployment black spots.

Today the company has a healthy order book and a new addition to the range, the 26 ft crabber. The new boat emerged at the suggestion of Langsdale's wife, Vanessa, who thought their existing boat lacked a galley and convenient heads. The heads in the 22 ft version are in the forepeak whereas the larger version has them installed next to the companionway.

Sailing this latest boat out of Falmouth marina, I'm joined by Peter Thomas, sales manager of Cornish Crabbers and Richard Picking who runs Cornishblue Sailing, a charter business that has bought the first boat in the new range, a pretty cream yacht with a pale blue stripe and cream sails.

"We already have two of the shrimpers and they are fine for a couple. But the crabber has much more space, making it ideal for a family or two couples," says Picking.

The boat was designed by Thomas's father, David Thomas, one of the UK 's most prolific yacht designers. The all-steel yacht I sailed during the 1996/97 BT Global Challenge race was a David Thomas design. He builds strong boats.

It's easy to see why owners fall in love with their Cornish crabbers and shrimpers. They're stable and easy to sail. In the 26 ft model all the sails can be operated from the cockpit. The mainsail is hoisted and lowered by two halyards pulled in unison from the cockpit, raising the gaff pole. The two foresails are self-furling and the bowsprit can be raised to allow for cheaper berthing since berths are priced by boat length.

We sail up the estuary, almost as far as King Harry's Ferry beyond which is a deep-water anchorage for large cargo boats. Charterers often take the boats as far as Truro if they opt for a river sail.

I'm used to sailing in bigger boats and yachts rigged for racing, or small dinghies. This is of a scale that feels comfortable for coastal cruising. I'd be happy to own a boat like this.

The 26 ft crabber is listed in Category B of the European Union's Recreational Craft Directive. This covers yachts for sailing up to 60 miles offshore whereas Category A boats are considered suitable for longer ocean passages such as an Atlantic crossing. "Cross Channel trips are no problem in this," says Peter Thomas.

Explaining the design concept, he says: "Visually we have tried to keep it looking like a crabber but with a higher coach roof with standing room below in to the forward cabin. That makes it appealing to the kind of people who might otherwise opt for a modern production yacht. This is a production gaffer with modern accommodation and performance."

In this respect the boat is surprising, with a roomy interior yet traditional exterior, including portholes along the cabin side. It feels like a big little boat. Langsdale says: "I used to own a Dufour 38 but it was too big for our needs. We needed a day or weekend boat and the crabbers are perfect for the kind of short distance sailing we have in mind."

And that is exactly what this boat does best. It's a boat for pottering; not too demanding, not too much of a heel when the wind is gusting up, but perfect for exploring coastal creeks and inlets in a style that evokes the very best traditions of small boat sailing.  

The full Cornish Crabber range and price list is available at: 

A Cornish Crabber can be hired with a skipper or as a bareboat charter for those with RYA Day Skipper qualifications or above from:     

Shrimper Owners Association:    

Cornish Crabber owners website:


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