Take it as RED

Why are Brixham trawler sails red?

People often wonder why the Brixham trawlers had red sails? Few of these boats are still water tight – and very few, if any, skippers will still be using the old methods of sail maintenance. But why where the sails painted red, is the red colour a preservative of some kind?

The red colour on sails comes from rust, from the naturally iron rich soils around Devon provide the clay which is mixed in with oil, possibly lamb fat and more recently vegetable oil, this oil-clay mix is daubed onto the cloth of the sail to seal up (albeit temporarily) the holes in the weave.

The oil and clay becomes a barrier cream to catch all the power of the wind and also to lubricate the sail which can otherwise stick to itself in the wind. 

In Devon we boast about our red soil – it’s a brand.

Iron oxide (or ferric oxide depending on how intelligent you want to sound) is simple rusted iron. Oxygen has begun reducing the surface into simpler less reactive substances, but this doesn’t mean the rust is in any way preserving anything. You’ll find Devon Red potatoes are perfectly edible, despite their extraordinarily red skins. Devon Red is a popular local cider among drinkers in these parts, and from a distance in can be nearly impossible to tell if an orchard is being grazed by sheep, or pigs!

We could make theories about why one might lean into this coloured mud as a brand mark thing, but we don’t know for sure why the practice was started. I’d like to think that red developed as a brand – these Brixham trawlers were game changing in their day. All British boats at the time were coastal fishing essentially, they were limited in range, limited in speed, and could only carry a small haul of fish. Then some bright spark built a new type of boat, a design that would be copied all around Britiain and the world.

Do more with a Brixham Trawler

What the Brixham trawler did well was go far, go fast and bring lot of heavy Atlantic cod back with it every time it went out. 

Our naturally formed Iron Oxide powder is ground to half a micron – this makes it super easy for you to create the same results again and again.

The red sails caught attention wherever they went and soon the boats were being sold all around the country and beyond, to countries bordering the North Sea too. Brixham quickly had a fleet of 400 Brixham trawlers and many hundreds were registered elsewhere – 600 at Grimsby, 450 were registered at Hull. 

Just five Brixham trawlers remain registered in the UK, and we know their names and numbers. Of these five vessels we like to watch BM45, known as Pilgrim, being the forty fifth vessel ever registered at Brixham. Impressively, still registered and still in active service since 1895. Almost certainly using better sail technology than mud, rust and oil and clay. 

From ashes to ashes from rust to rust.

Iron oxide remains useful to this day as a pigment and receives attention as a ceramic glaze, where its exact melting point can be used to control other processes.. It also is a component in thermite, which makes a controlled heat as it burns and is used to cut and join metal. The presence of rust will have a strong effect on many dyes, changing the colour produced by other dye, so some experimentation is required. At least if you settle on this pigment as your own brand colour you’ll be able to make your own – and as long as you don’t need to mix it with clay and oil you’ll go a long way.

Don’t use iron oxide on (or near) anything that will be harmed by staining. Don’t use thermite on metal you don’t own – sarcastic writing in this blog post should not be taken as consent, permission or encouragement in this regard. Have fun.

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