The pearling lugger used across the northern coast line of Australia from about the 1870s is a craft unique to Australia. They were built in their hundreds and have the honour of being amongst the last wooden sailing vessels to remain in commercial use in Australia.
The pearling trade involved the collection of mother-of-pearl shell as the principal stock, but also the related collection of trochus shell and beche-de-mer. It suggests images of an exciting and glamorous tropical life, but the reality is quite different. It was dangerous for the lowly paid divers, and for many of the great the number of competitors involved it was a difficult trade in which to make any profit. One person who stood out and made a success of the business was James Clark, from Queensland, whose role in the development of the trade involved a close relationship with the development of the typical luggers used. Clark was self taught and an entrepreneur who understood the need to have good equipment to be a success in any venture.
The pearling lugger divides into two relatively distinct types, the Broome or North-West lugger, and the Thursday Island or Torres Strait lugger. Both shared some features, but were quite distinct in others, and remained this way for a long period.
The pearling industry began in the North West coastline around Broome in the 1860s, firstly collecting shell from the shoreline. When these stocks were depleted divers began to be used in deeper water, and primitive diving equipment became available. A purpose built craft soon began to appear, developed by the WA builders in Perth and Fremantle. By the early 1880s the typical boat was around 30 to 35 feet long, 11 foot beam and ketch rigged. Some carried the standing lug rig and it is thought that this is the derivation of the term lugger.
A significant development appears to have occurred when the Fremantle builder Charles Walker began building luggers around 1888, (he was formerly from Sydney and the North Coast of NSW). They were shallow draft and had firm bilges that were by then established proportions needed to suit the regular beaching of the craft in the large tidal range around Broome. However Walker's boats were over 40 foot long, fore and aft schooner rigged, and the hull is described as being refined a little to be more yacht-like. They were built of jarrah, white gum frames, with karri pine decks and topsides. It is unknown if Walker designed them as well as being the builder (which is quite possible), but contemporary reports show they were the fastest of their type and much admired, and at least one is connected to a fleet operated by a then young James Clark
AE Browne was another significant builder in the early days and his advertisements note his development of a successful double ended type.
Other builders appeared to follow this lead from Walker, but some craft were ketch rigged, although the relative size of the two mainsails is quite similar judging from contemporary photos. The Broome style of lugger was now fully formed and the hull shape remained constant until the advent of the engine forced changes to the proportions. The schooner rig though seems to change to a ketch, probably more suited to drifting while the diver slowly scours the bottom. Despite the various rig changes, the term lugger was established as the name for the type, and further confusion exists in the way some of the sails were named.
Thursday Island Luggers
Clark did not stay long in the North West. New fields for shell were opened up in Torres Strait and he moved to that area in the early 1890s. At this time new boats appeared, quite unlike any seen before and not evolved from previous shapes used in the industry. These boats were 35 to 45 feet long and up to 12 foot beam with an elegant yacht-like hull in profile and section. They had a deep keel, a long elliptical counter, and were ketch rigged. This rig was proportioned with a small main on the aft or mizzen mast, and a larger mainsail and single foresail on the main mast.
Clark and his business partners owned a number of these craft, all of a similar size. Surviving records, documents and plans show that the Sydney based naval architect Walter Reeks had designed a number of them, including craft in 1891 when the style seems to first appear. This is an important connection as Reeks was the premier racing yacht designer in Sydney and Australia. In the 1890s Clark also owned two racing yachts designed by Reeks. The quite sudden appearance of this yacht-like vessel now seems most likely to be the direct result of Clark commissioning Reeks to design vessels appropriate to the needs of the task and the area.
The style or concept appears almost unchanged until the 1920s and the craft were built in NSW, Queensland and Thursday Island, including a number built by the Japanese shipwrights on Thursday Island. The boats built on the east coast used New Zealand kauri for planking and local hardwoods for the framing and other structure.
The two distinct styles relate to their areas and mode of operation. The principal concern for the Broome area was the extreme tidal range. The boats came to shore regularly while working the pearling grounds, and during the cyclone season they remained in port so they had to cope with extended periods lying on one side or the other, and had to negotiate shallow sandy bottoms to reach the shore on the high tide. Hence the light draft, and firm bilged shape which lay over a modest amount and righted with the incoming tide without water coming over the side. Another characteristic that developed on many Broome luggers was an overhanging bow and short counter stern.
In contrast the Torres Strait boats stayed at sea for longer periods, based in fleets around schooners as mother ships. They needed to be sea-kindly and fast to reach new grounds, and a yacht style hull with a finer shape, higher bilge and sharper dead rise, plus a deep keel suits these demands exactly. The ketch rig performs better sailing upwind, and the small mizzen suits the drifting operations. Most of the boats shared a plumb stem and long elliptical counter, features which remained typical to the Thursday Island type for many years.
The advent of engines forced a change to both types, but at first some boats were simply retro-fitted, with the only visible change from the outside being the new propeller aperture and rudder alterations. New boats developed fuller sections aft to accommodate the volume and weight of the engine and fuel, and once their reliability was accepted, the sail area reduced on both types. Transom sterns appeared on some craft as a construction preference, and both types began to look a little more like each other, especially as the Thursday Island luggers could reduce their draft with the engine taking over from sail for making longer passages. The last of the Broome and Thursday Island style of luggers were built in the 1950s, and these craft were over 50 feet long.
Kerr, Garry 1985, Craft and Craftsmen of Australian Fishing, 1870-1970, Mains’l Books
Plans from the collection of Norman Wright and Sons
Papers from the Australian Register of British Ships.
Contemporary reports from the Inquirer and West Australian newspapers in 1888,1889
Photographs from the Battye Library WA