Reproduced from an article by skipper Richard Titchener for the Ipswich Maritime Trust.
On Saturday 11th August 2012, the Ipswich Maritime Trust held a reception on Orwell Quay aboard the Cambria, which was visiting the port for the first time since she carried the last cargo under sail in British waters in October 1970.
Rebuilt by the Cambria Trust with help from the Heritage Lottery Fund and others, her visit was during a charter to the Sea-Change Sailing Trust of Maldon, which works afloat with young trainees and has spent much of the summer carrying token cargo with Cambria to provide objectives for them.
In July the barge delivered beer brewed by the Mighty Oak Brewery of Maldon to four waterside pubs in Essex and Kent. The final delivery at Gravesend was followed by the Thames Barge Match. Originating in 1863 and one of the oldest sailing races in the world, The Thames Match was won by Cambria with a Sea-Change crew. Not only did they win the Coasting Class but were also overall Match Champions, Richard was presented with no less than seven trophies by Suffolk sailor and TV personality Griff Rhys Jones.
The beer was Captain Bob Bitter named with the family’s permission after the previous skipper. The August visit was a recreation of the last cargo, which was 100 tons of ground nuts for cattle feed from Tilbury Dock to Eastern County Farmers in Ipswich. Orwell Quay is as close to the original point of delivery as possible as this is now part of Neptune Marina. Berthed beside the new Students’ Union building, the barge’s gear made an impressive reflection in the plate glass of the new waterfront, while the crew did their best to answer the many questions from passers-by. They also visited the port control tower and were shown round by Clive who made the skipper’s heart flutter when he played Red Sails in the Sunset over the lock tannoy as the barge came through. Equally enjoyable, IMT’s Des Pawson treated the crew to a lesson in knot-tying which was gratefully received and the production of bracelets has grown dramatically aboard the barge since.
It was wonderful to see the barge reunite so many people with their shared memories. As well as Bob Roberts’ daughters, Gill and Anne there were many people who had sailed either as crew or volunteers with their father.
The voyage had started with the barge entering Tilbury Dock on Monday 6th and passing 32 berth where she had loaded from SS Falaba the previous time. Dick Durham, the mate on that voyage, was aboard and had researched the fate of the ship. She was broken up at Chittagong in 1984. What he could not know was that this was not before Peter Cockayne, IMT member and long-time stalwart of barges in operation on the Orwell, sailed with her during his apprenticeship. It was Peter’s current boss, Gerry Coleman, the Harbourmaster at Ipswich, who made the northern end of the exercise possible, just as at Tilbury his opposite number was equally helpful.
In 2012 it was a problem to find a cargo. There seem to be precious few cattle these days, and certainly very little carried by water for them to eat. Despite many emails and phone calls nothing was found so a large cake and furry cow were procured from ASDA so as to not sail empty! Just in time Brett Aggregates kindly donated some samples and the crew were able to find some cement when in Tilbury Dock. This was loaded using the topsail sheet, and similarly discharged at Ipswich for two local good causes, the Pin Mill barge blocks and work Wolsey Rotary is doing for a retirement home.
The actual passage was as quick as in 1970. The barge locked out on Tuesday 7th at 0730 and dropped the tow in Gravesend Reach in a gently increasing south westerly. Dick, now news editor for Yachting Monthly, had to leave that day for a prior engagement the next at the other end of the country and was rowed ashore at Southend Pier while Cambria hove to nearby. He immediately sent a text saying he should have stayed as he could see a fast passage in the making; and indeed Cambria anchored at Stone Heaps at 1730 and he would have made the sleeper in time! Had a real cargo been urgently required it would have been available for Wednesday’s work in Ipswich. This would have taken six lorries off the road and provided the sort of opportunity Frank Carr envisaged when he wrote that barges should be the training ground for the merchant marine.
Indeed this is what Sea-Change is trying to achieve with their New Barge Appeal. Established in 2007, the charity has built up to a full season’s work. They currently use Reminder for five day voyages for up to ten young people and their support staff and Cambria for extended programmes working intensively with small numbers to really embed positive change and traditional seamanship. Both barges are hired bare boat and the plan is to build a replica of the Blue Mermaid, one of the last two barges built in 1930, to give the charity the flexibility of its own vessel. She will carry four trainees, Skipper, Mate and Educator and up to 150 tons of cargo. They are not claiming the cargo is a commercial proposition, although if the true carbon cost per mile of road haulage were calculated it surely would be. Rather, it will provide genuine vocational activity and a set of real objectives for their work. If companies can be found whose social responsibility policy can benefit from freight under sail then so much the better. For like Cambria, the replica new barge will not have auxiliary power and will work as authentically as possible. Sea-Change staff hope this will continue its current work to generate up-and-coming young crews for the barge fleet, which is suffering an increasing crisis of such skills.
Cambria left the wet dock on Monday after the reception. As when she arrived, the wind was south-easterly, now a less helpful direction, the ebb well away and Cambria was given a helpful tow as far as Ostrich Creek but was then on her own. She demonstrated what a fine specimen she is by executing countless tacks, many with the foresail being dropped and reset to turn short between the many moorings not there on her last visit, and not making her low water until she anchored at Wrabness that evening. Next day there was some dinghy sailing for the trainees in the Topper carried on the hatches, before a fast passage with the bowsprit down to the Roach.
The Cambria’s cargo book shows that she loaded at Tilbury on 15th and 16th October 1970 and sailed at 3pm on 17th arriving at Ipswich at midnight on the 19th. On 22nd she sailed at 3pm light for London arriving at Gravesend at 5pm the following day. The final entry is “barge laid up – out of commission.” Dick Durham recounts that when she locked out alongside an motor barge, she stuck in the lock and it took some effort to get her clear. It was, he said, as if she knew she might not return. Now she has.