Manx Sea Fishing – Resources

Whilst researching the post on Manx traditional fishing boats I came across a wealth of information buried on the IoM government website.  In particular there is a whole project around the history of sea fishing from the Island that was done for schools in the early 1990s. There is a very good teachers’ resource book, and in there is listed a whole load of other resources with more detailed information.  The problem is that quite a few bits are difficult to find (I don’t think the search function on the site works very well) and some are even misnamed.  Since this seemed rather a shame I’ve created a link to the items here.

Teachers resource book

Information Cards:

  1. Early Manx Herring Boats
  2. Herring Boats c. 1830-1940
  3. Herring Fishing in Manx Waters
  4. Manx Fishermen in Irish and Scottish Waters
  5. Nets & Equipment for Herring and Mackerel Fishing
  6. Uses of the Herring Catch
  7. Longlines & Shorelines
  8. Some Further Types of Fishing
  9. Scallops & Queenies
  10. Customs & Traditions of the Manx Fisherman
  11. Some Fish Molluscs & Crustaceans of Manx Waters A-H
  12. Some Fish Molluscs & Crustaceans of Manx Waters I-Z



When is a lugger not a lugger?

… when it’s a Manx Lugger it seems.

On a recent visit to Peel, on the Isle of Man, I was interested to see what looked like a traditional sailing fishing vessel, apparently a ketch, tied up in the harbour.  I was surprised when the friendly owner of White Heather (, Mike Clark, told me that it was a nobby.  My surprise was because, being a resident of Morecambe, I thought it was only our traditional boats, the lovely cutter-rigged Morecambe Bay prawners, that were called nobbies.

Latter in my visit to the Island I came across mention of another traditional type, nickeys, which set me off on a mission to learn more about these vessels.  Getting detailed information about the rigs and what differentiated them turned out to be harder than I expected.

I started with what seemed the obvious place, the little Nautical museum in Castletown.  The chap there was very friendly, and there are a number of interesting models but really it only added to the mystery by introducing me to another type, Manx luggers which, judging by a one model, wasn’t really a lugger as it was gaff-rigged on the main with a lug-rigged mizzen set on a bumpkin, sometimes referred to as a ‘dandy rig’ of which more later.  I did gather that the ‘luggers’ were the earliest type, followed by the nickeys, inspired by visiting Cornish luggers, and finally these were superseded by the nobbies, below is a model of one, Gladys.

Manx nobby, Gladys
Gladys (1901); Fishing vessel; Manx Nobby, Brown, Alastair, circa 1975

From this it is clear that nobbies were lugsail ketches with at least two headsails, the mizzen sheeted to a bumpkin.

In the excellent House of Mananan museum in Peel there is a lovely recreation of a port as part of an extensive display on the fishing industry.  An interactive display on the subject confirmed the ordering of the three types, but the pictures weren’t really clear enough to get a very good idea of how each was rigged.  There was some dialogue in the display of fishermen chatting about their boats, with a comment that the nickeys were fast and best for long, deep-sea fishing trips, but demanding to sail, whilst the nobbies were better for short-handed sailing as crews became harder to find in later years.

Coming home I started doing some more research and since I haven’t yet found a definitive discussion on the subject I thought I’d put this page together to summarise what I’ve found in case it’s of any interest to others, and also to encourage those more knowledgeable on the subject to add to the information.

On the Manx fishing industry in general, with much historical detail, there is, buried on the Manx government website, a fascinating Manx Sea Fishing Resource book.  On the boats it says,

[Luggers, nickeys and nobbies] were the three types of vessel used during the heyday of the Manx herring fishing in the second half of the nineteenth century. The dandy smack of the 1830s was increased in size and fully decked and was latterly known as the Lugger. In the 1840s the tonnage was 12 to 18 by 1864, 15 to 25 tons was the average. In the 1870s nickeys practically superseded the luggers but towards the end of the century this older rig returned to favour when fishing ceased to recruit young men and older crews had to cope with the sails. There was some conversion of nickeys back to the dandy rig

The best picture I’ve come across of a Manx lugger is on an Italian site:

Drawing of Manx lugger
Manx lugger.

The other drawings on here are well worth a look too.  It is clear from this that the main is gaff-rigged.

The nickeys were true luggers, copied from the Cornish luggers.  They had dipping lug sails, which explains why they were demanding to sail and needed larger crews, no bowsprit and a bumpkin for the mizzen.  Again from the resource book:

Manx boat builders copied the basic plan of the Cornish nickey but modified it to the extent of making the hull slightly larger and usually adding a mizzen staysail. The Manx nickeys were some of the largest fishing vessels used in British waters. They were 13.5 – 16.5 metres long with a beam of 4.5 metres. They were fast, achieving 10 knots in good conditions and could lie close to the wind. The nickeys were very suitable for the Kinsale fishing where the mackerel boats had to lie well out to sea and had long distances to make back to port with their catches. Nickeys carried three sets of lugsails and required disciplined seamanship both for changing sails according to weather conditions and because the fore lug had to be dipped every time a tack was changed.

I came across this lovely drawing of a Castletown nickey:

Manx Nickey, 1881, by Tony Fernandes
Nickey 1881 by Tony Fernandes, used with permission

Incidentally on the use of the name ‘lugger’, EJ March in ‘Sailing Drifters’ makes this comment (p192):

The new boats carried a fore and mizzen lug only, and as the name “lugger” had already been given – rather misleadingly – to the dandy-rigged boats, it became the custom to call the newcomers “nickeys”, possibly because so many Cornish men answered to the name of Nicholas, but an alternative is that one of the first boats to be brought to the Island was ‘Nicholas’.

The nobbies were also luggers, but smaller and with standing, rather than dipping lug sails, which required less crew to handle them.  From the resource book:

Nobbies were introduced in the 1890s. These were lighter rigged and smaller than the nickeys. The nobbies had reef points for shortening sails and no changing of sets of sails was necessary. They were 2 1/2 – 3 metres shorter and had a standing lug instead of a dipping one. In the later nobbies a round or elliptical counter stern i.e. the stern projected behind the stern post or overhung was adopted in order to provide more deck space. The stern post was sharply raked. The larger versions of the nobby went to Kinsale and the other Irish ports. Nobbies were all the vogue in the local herring fishing around 1900. They were the last of the sail fishing boats built on the Island.

The nobbies saw the return of a bowsprit with jib and staysail, but retained the bumpkin for the mizzen.  It seems to me that they are rather like the older ‘luggers’ but with a proper lug main instead of the gaff.  You can see the rig in the drawing on the White Heather site, and in many of the photos there, as well as on the model of Gladys above.  White Heather has had various rigs in her life but is now, I believe, once more lug-rigged, or is in the process of being restored to that.

Update: I’ve now found this handy sketch of the three types (although obviously not to scale as the nickey would be much bigger).  Click the image to see it full size.

A comparison of the three types of Manx herring drifters
A comparison of the three types of Manx herring drifters. From

And when is a rig ‘dandy’?

A final (for now) note on the term ‘dandy-rig’.  It seems to be one of those that has a number of interpretations in the literature.  In Kemps’ Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea’ it says,

another name for the ketch and yawl rigs, but sometimes used to describe the rig when the mizzen sail is about one-third the size of the mainsail, the true ketch rig having a mizzen-sail about half the size of the mainsail and the true yawl rig having its mizzen-sail a quarter or less.

It also mentions later in the article the use of ‘dandy-rig’ when the mizzen was sheeted to a bumpkin.

Admiral Smyth in his Sailors’ Word Book gives ‘dandy’ as’

A sloop or cutter with a jigger-mast abaft, on which a mizen-lug-sail is set.

He gives for ‘jigger-mast”

In large vessels it is an additional aftermost mast; thus any sail set on the ensign-staff would be a jigger.

Which seems to be a reasonable description of a yawl. Jenny Bennett in her Sailing Rigs – an illustrated guide, in the chapter on the yawl says,

From time to time boats were converted from other rigs to a sail plan that might, today, be described as ‘yawl rigged’ but which in earlier times would more usually be known as ‘dandy-rigged’ – where a large mainsail was cut down for ease of handling and a small mizzen mast was stepped far aft to re-establish sail balance.

In John Leather’s Gaff Rig Handbook 2nd edition on p216, referring to figures 95 and 96 of a Dunkirk ‘dandy’ herring boat says’

At first the boats were rigged with lugsails but gradually the rig changed to a gaff yawl or ‘dandy’.

So, by some definitions then a Manx lugger, which was not really a lugger, wasn’t really dandy-rigged either since it was a ketch not a yawl (mizzen forward of the rudder post, and/or more than a quarter the size of the main).  But the mizzen was far enough aft that it was sheeted on a bumpkin, so perhaps that makes it dandy-rigged.

I’m proposing a working definition of dandy-rigged as having the following features:

  • a ketch or yawl of no later than the nineteenth century and probably the first half of that.
  • gaff-rigged mainsail (bermudan rig not being widespread until after the ‘dandy’ terminology had fallen out of use).
  • a lugsail mizzen set far enough aft to be sheeted to a bumpkin.
  • Probably a bowsprit and two or more headsails.

Anyone with more information please feel free to leave a comment.

Note:  Since I’ve started researching this I’ve found a wealth of information about the history of Manx sea fishing buried in the document library of the Manx government.  Since some of the documents are much harder to find than they should be I’m working on a page of links.