Fishing trawlers dominated the maritime culture of Brixham for a long time and this image of red-sailed trawlers in Brixham harbour captures its lively character. The Brixham trawler was renowned for its speed and copied by other shipbuilders and Brixham trawlers could be found in Lowestoft, Grimsby, Hull and Great Yarmouth. In its hayday Brixham boasted a fleet of 400 trawlers. The distinctive red colour of the sails is given by the local red ochre, a pigment which was mined in Brixham and used extensively by the fishing industry. Originally made of pure white cotton, after a while the colour was applied for protection. Red ochre was mixed with oil giving the unmistakable reddish-brown effect beloved by artists. One such painting of Brixham trawlers by William Adolphus Knell adorns the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Trawlers take their name from the large fishing nets used by them, called trawls. Large fishing trawlers are called smacks and smaller ones mules. When operating in other parts of the British Isles, Brixham smacks could be identified by the capital letters DH, standing for Dartmouth. Many larger vessels fished in North Sea ports or on the other side of the Bristol Channel, for example in Tenby, Pembrokeshire. Smaller ones gathered oysters and lobsters in the inshore fisheries. Features from old vessels such as wooden panels and sails have found their way into existing Brixham properties such as the seafront cottages.