Western Morning News

Review by Colin Bradley

What is the Meaning of the Letters and Numbers on Fishing Boats?

By Stewart Lenton Channel View Publishing, £2.99

YOU do not always need to spend a lifetime at sea to develop a fascination for fishing boats.  Stewart Lenton didn’t, but he can tell you plenty about the registered craft that ply their trade off Westcountry shores.

Barely four years ago the retired pilot had absolutely no interest in fishing vessels for his working career had been in the air rather than on water.

He served in the RAF for 16 years, during which he flew the legendary British bomber, the Canberra.  Then he became an airline pilot and operated from Gatwick for more than two decades before joining Plymouth-based Brymon Airways.

After 18 months of flying from the city he retired there to follow his other passion – living beside the sea and sailing on it.  With time on his hands, he became a volunteer watch keeper at the National Coast Watch Institution’s Rame Head station and it was there that his interest in fishing boats was unexpectedly ignited.

Daily duties included logging every fishing vessel that passed the station, but fishing gear or rough seas sometimes obscured names and numbers. .  Even when skippers called up on their radios and used their ship’s names as call signs, watch keepers still had difficulty visually identifying them, especially when other boats were in the area.

Stewart overcame the problem by creating a recognition aid in the form of a display of photographs that he took of every local vessel. It proved such a hit that he and his wife Liz, a retired GP, travelled to every harbour and cove in Devon and Cornwall recording more than 1,200 registered fishing boats.  Their findings, along with an in-depth look at the region’s fishing industry and the communities that make their living from it, were turned into two successful books.

Now Stewart has followed them up with a new booklet about the UK Fishing Boat Registration system.  He tells how it all came about, explains the meaning of the letters and numbers that have to be painted on each vessel, and lists all the Ports of Registration, some of which, sadly, no longer have any fishing activity, even though a handful of boats are still registered there.  Truro (TO) is one of them.

One of the reasons for the booklet is to satisfy the curiosity of visitors to the region – and to correct their own interpretation errors.  And you can understand why, as the author explains.  “Many television viewers watching the series ‘Doc Martin’, which was filmed in Port Isaac, thought that the boats in harbour with Port Letters ‘PW’ (from nearby Padstow) were registered in the fictional ‘Port Wenn’!” he says.

Fishing News

28 November 2008

Guide to boats' port letters and numbers

Here is a useful guide for anybody who is uncertain about the ports identified by the latter L (LA, LH, LI, LL, LN, LO and LT) not to mention the letter P (PD, PE, PH, PL, PO, PT, PW, PZ) and all the other combinations used toidentify UK fishing vessels, writes Dave Linkie.

Stewart Lenton’s new 16 page booklet What is the Meaning of the Letters and Numbers on Fishing Books?provides a valuable resource.  In addition to presenting the port letter numbers (PLN’s) in boat table and geographical format, it also provides an interesting insight into both the history of PLN’s and their modern-day management.

General shipping registration was introduced under the Navigation Act of 1786, when vessels of more than 15 tons burden had to be registered with customs officers in their home port.   At this time the general shipping registration number was carved into the main structural beam of the vessel (as it still is today) with no external markings.

The practice of fishing vessels displaying an identifying number started around 1828 after the Napoleonic Wars.  At this time there was still considerable friction between English and French fishing vessels, heightened by extensive smuggling in the English Channel, particularly at times of poor fishing.

To enable British and French officials of their respective customs and navies to recognise and identify fishing vessels, it was agreed that the first and last letters of their home port should be displayed, followed by an identifying number.  In the UK this was formalised by the Sea Fisheries Act of 1843 and implemented by those ports that had a customs house.

Fishing vessels were initially divided into three classes.  First – class boats of more than 15 registered tons displayed the port letters before the number; numbers preceded the letters on second-class vessels; while on third class vessels, essentially rowing boats, the port letters came before the number.

In 1986, the register of Seaman and Shipping in Cardiff took over from HM Customs the task of issuing fishing vessel registrations and port letter numbers, which then became known as PLN’s

Stewart Lenton’s extensive research into the history of PLN’s has unearthed an interesting array of other facts , as well as outlining current policy.

The mysteries of PLN’s  and how the system came to be adopted are explained in Stewart Lenton’s guide – and the preferences for some skippers to secure “Lucky” registration numbers .  This is illustrated by the preference shown in Orkney for PLN’s in which the digits total 13.