Eel drifter: History and background

An eel drifter is a clinker-built boat from the beginning of the 1900's.

The boat's name is derived from the special methods used when fishing for eel. Eel were caught using drift seine nets. Using the sail, the boat was made to drift sideways through the water, with the seine net spread out between two booms, one forward and one abaft.

Eel drifters belong to the boat class known as wet well smacks: a boat with an inbuilt wet well. A wet well is a space in the boat, where holes in the base of the hull ensure that there is always a well full of fresh seawater in which to store the live eel, until they are sold on land.

The eel drifter we built at the Viking Ship Museum's boatyard is based on the boats built by boatbuilder Christian Nielsen, from 1890 - ca. 1910-15. He had a boatyard on the island on Fejø, in the straits between Sjælland and Lolland. In the photo you can see Christian Nielsen and his family, with a newly built drifter in the background. His son, Carl Nielsen, took over the boatyard from his father.

Carl's son, Christian Nielsen, also became a boatbuilder and later worked at the Maritime Museum of Denmark, at Kronborg. Here, he was involved in measuring and recording many old Danish boat types. His records were published in the book, 'Danske Bådtyper' (only available in Danish).

Eel drifters were approximately 26-28 feet (ca. 8.5m) long. They had a lee board in the middle of the boat, which could be drawn up or pushed down, depending on whether the boat should sail or drift with nets. Here, you can see the lee board and wet well, together with the jib-boom in front and the drift boom abaft. The drift seine nets were played out between the two booms.

The large rig gave the eel drifters very good sailing capabilities, which resulted in many races being held between the drifters. Here, you can see Elisabeths Minde, built in 1900, with all sails set. From the fore: jib, foresail, gaff with topsail and mizzen.

Precisely because of its good sailing capabilities, the eel drifter is still a joy to sail with. The Viking Ship Museum owns an eel drifter, Viktoria, built in 1904. Today it looks just as it did when it was built. It lies in the Museum harbour and is sailed by a volunteer boat guild.

The other eel drifter which can be seen in the Museum harbour is called Dan. Dan is privately owned and has also been restored to appear as it did in 1906, when it was built by Christian Nielsen.

Here, you can see Dan and Viktoria on Roskilde Fjord in 2005.

The eel drifter we built at the Museum boatyard was commissioned by a private customer, who planned to use it as a leisure craft.

The new boat was fitted with an inboard engine, but was otherwise built and fitted out like the old drifters.

You can read about the process here on the website.