When I was a kid I hoovered up the Hornblower stories. Lately I’ve read almost all the Patrick O’Brian novels. It’s fair to say, I’m a sucker for a good sea yarn. So what a treat to go on a photographic trip to see the Oyster Smacks racing off the coast of Essex at Mersea Island. But what is an Oyster Smack I hear you say, and what on earth is this race about? Good question…
Catch the wind, boy, come on...!
Well, this is all about small sailing boats, most of which are a good century old. And they used to catch oysters for the local markets. Nowadays those markets buy commercially farmed oysters, so the boats have a bit of fun once a year, and have an oyster catching race. And the boats are called Smacks. Why Smacks? – no idea… But what a great name! Rings with nostalgia…
No way you're catching me!
The point of the race is to catch as many oysters as you can in 2 hours within a set area. Any idea how you catch an oyster…? No, I didn’t either. So, the way they do it is to sail as fast as they can from one end of the set area to the other, then slowly dredge the sea bed floor back through the area searching for oysters, then charge back again to the starting point to go again. Lots of frantic hoisting of sails and charging along, then go slow but heave the dredge up and down the sea bed as frenetically as possible. By the way, I think oysters are a bit thin on the Mersea sea bed, as pitifully few oysters come up for a hell of a lot of dredging!
Now some take it seriously. Have a look at this chap in the photo below. A sea dog, probably speaks an impossible dialect and looks upon anyone who comes from more than 5 miles away as a foreigner. It’s like stepping back into the 18th century!
Hauling in the catch
There is something lovely and romantic about sails. I would have liked to get these with the sun shining through them, but my day was particularly grey and grim. But hey, that’s where black and white comes to the fore. And it gives me an excuse to go back again
Sail set fair.
So if you fancy stepping out of the 21st century techno babble, go to Mersea Island and catch the Oyster Smacks. Feel the wind tug and the spray blow, leave the mobile back on shore, and then feast on oysters with a pint of the local brew. Unforgettable!
Oyster Smack, Mersea Island, Essex, England
(PS – I was on a photographic day trip with Quest Photography. If you’re interested, google them. I recommend highly!)