The history of one of East Anglia's 'film star' ship

Trawler excelsior at sail

Trawler excelsior at sail - Credit: Paul Thomas

Excelsior sailed into my life a quarter of a century ago. A friend who knew me through my publicity company asked if I could help her – and the Trust. To find more supporters, more friends, more users to sail her – and help save her.

I had not heard of the ship then but one of my clients, Lord Somerleyton, was president, doing a great job but becoming aged and also needing help to guide her future in later years.

Ships are 'shes' (a subject I so strongly support) and when I visited her first time, Excelsior and her quest for ongoing life - with opportunities to help disadvantaged and other young people grow their lives understand boats and much more – thrilled me.

A wonderful gentleman, one of my previous bosses, showed interest too when I asked him if he could help possibly lead the trust when our president retired. He was a prestigious leader, and we often joked afterwards when he teased me – “that’s another fine mess you got me into Paul”

But he, we – the whole growing team – succeeded, and now Excelsior is a young century old.


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John Wylson, and then skipper Bill Ewen and his team, taught me a lot very swiftly about Excelsior. And I sailed her. We went places in more ways than one. Promoting her, for income, recognition, for the young, but also taking parties of adults who wanted the unique sail aboard her too.

 It is so good to see her happy successful and with Lowestoft’s Freedom today. And I so applaud John Wylson’s great effort over all the decades he has sailed her, saved her, succeeded with her. Here’s a little more history…

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John moved to Lowestoft in the late 1960s and raised his family in the town. In 1971 John bought an old wooden coastal trader from Norway, the Svinør, which had been laid up the previous year. This was a traditional sailing smack that had been built in Lowestoft in 1921, as the fishing smack LT472 Excelsior. John sailed the Svinør back to Lowestoft and with help from keen volunteers set about dismantling and rebuilding Excelsior, using completely authentic shipbuilding techniques and materials - similar to those which would have constructed the Lowestoft fishing smack fleet a century earlier. The trust was formed in the late 1970s.

In 1988 LT472 Excelsior was re-commissioned as a sail-training vessel by HRH Princess Anne, and since that time Excelsior has taken over 10,000 people to sea, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have benefitted from learning sea-skills, team leadership and in the process gained a sense of purpose. Excelsior has 12 berths available for voyages which include trips to France, Holland, Belgium and the Channel Islands as well as the south coast of England.

Excelsior was no different to other smacks in the Lowestoft fleet at that time, and today she stands as a testament to their small part of the history of the First World War. In modern times Excelsior has been used by television and film makers in productions such as The Real History Show: Fish and Ships, the BBC’s The Last Journey of John Keats, Disney’s Alice Through the Looking Glass and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.

Lowestoft was the largest sailing trawling fishing station in the 20th century with a maximum of 340 smacks in 1913. Ramsgate followed with around 220 smacks, and then Brixham with about 160. The Ramsgate fleet ceased fishing in the late 1920s, the Brixham boats in the mid 1930s, but a small fleet of Lowestoft smacks were still fishing at the beginning of the Second World War when the Admiralty ordered that they be laid up as the Navy could not provide protection. Excelsior therefore represents the largest and longest-lived fleet of British sailing trawlers of the 20th century.

Excelsior is close to taking it's 10,000th passenger since its commission as a sail training vessel in 1988. I’ve so enjoyed my days helping her back into young life. Find out more details about the Excelsior Trust charters by emailing sailing@excelsiortrust.co.uk 

Paul’s biography, MY LIFE MY WAY, telling much of Norfolk business growth over two thirds of a century, is available from £10.75 including post and packing from: paul@paulgwynthomas.co.uk

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