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What Is a Fifie?

Mike Howells
Mike Howells

Likely named for the Scottish town of Fife, a fifie is a particular kind of two-masted sailboat that was used in Scotland and England from the middle of the 19th century through the early part of the 20th century. They are comparatively small vessels used mainly for fishing, part of a larger category of boats known as herring drifters. Few examples remain, and most are located not far from where they were built a century or more earlier.

The herring drifter was a type of ship designed to catch fish, generally herrings, by trailing enormous nets behind it as it moved slowly through the water. This technique dates back to ancient Scandinavia, and Norse vessels from as far back as 1200 AD have been identified as drifters. The drifter design is a spiritual predecessor to the modern trawlers that dominate 21st century fisheries, and fundamentally little has changed in how they catch fish.

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Woman posing

There were a number of variations on the fifie design, but the basic underpinnings included a relatively long keel, which is essentially the spine of a boat, and a vertical, rather than angled, stem and stern, which are the front and back ends. Fifies were quite wide for their size, which lent them great stability. Their length, often 75 feet (23 meters) or more, reduced maneuverability, however. This made them somewhat tricky to steer in small inlets and harbors, but allowed them to carry more sails than other similarly sized boats. Most had steam-powered capstans that allowed a small crew to handle great quantities of fishing nets.

Though its popularity was limited largely to the eastern coast of Scotland, the fifie was prized by people in that region as a reliable design capable of withstanding choppy weather while remaining easy to sail. As a result, many fifie ships saw service beyond fishing and were routinely re-purposed as small shipping vessels throughout the British Isles. Beginning around the turn of the 20th century, most new fifies were fitted with motors in addition to their sails. This meant they could cope better in still weather and retain a greater ability to move about in all conditions. Previous models had only oars kept onboard for last-ditch maneuvering.

As the 20th century progressed, the fifie design and those like it were rendered obsolete by fully steam-powered vessels. Most fifies that were not retrofitted with engines were left to decay. By the the 21st century only a handful of original fifies remained, though those that did have largely been refurbished and made into historical floating artifacts or are used as training vessels for teaching the art and science of sailing.

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