Richard Writes: As part of their commitment to the future of sailing barges, the trustees of Sea-Change supported offering structured training for aspiring mates and skippers during their bareboat charter of Cambria from owners the Cambria Trust. This has been made possible by help from the Whirlwind Trust which has supported the charity for several years.
Cambria was on Pin Mill hard as a picturesque backdrop to the Barge Match weekend after some maintenance a week earlier and while Sea-Change delivered a long-booked charter on Reminder. During the match weekend trustee Jonathan Simper painted much of the wale and the red line on the transom and the crew from Sea-Change returned on Sunday 24th to a smart looking ship.
They arrived by minibus with food for the week and two clients, Dave Cooper fresh from working on Blue Mermaid at Downs Road Boatyard and Matt Reid who is one of the trainees on Mick Nolan’s training scheme for bargemen and women. The food and gear were hauled aboard by rope and stowed, and the jobs list started. Soon local man Hugh Barker appeared at the top of the ladder. He has been sailing with his Dad on barges since a youngster including racing on Melissa the previous day and wanted to learn about how the whole barge worked as opposed to how to make your allotted bit of it work on race day. As the tide reached the bottom of the ladder, a gleaming powder blue limousine belonging to Rob Salvidge of the Thistle delivered in the nick of time Sam Hicks from Hydrogen and David Renouf from Reminder both in Ipswich wet dock after a busy and slow locking in. It remains to be seen how the proposed new bridge at Ipswich will affect this already straining process. A tunnel like on the similarly busy Medway would be best or a second, high level bridge.
There followed a look around the deck and the necessary checks of gear that should be made on joining a new ship. After supper there was just time for a quick trip in the bargeboat to the Butt and Oyster to admire Cambria in the sunset.
As the tide served next day we watched the Adieu leaving nearby while mooring lines were recovered before Gus Curtis towed us down to anchor at the Clamp for the flood to ease with some initial pushing too from Jonathan Webb as the easterly breeze was picking up, the story for the whole week. It was not long before the anchor was hove short the first of nine times over the next five days. This is an important part of the course, repeating many times the thinking and processes needed to get under way under sail and taking it in turns to do the various roles involved. There was a fresh breeze and Cambria was beating down to Collimer dead against it with several yachts in close proximity calling for concentration and verve on the wheel and reliable crew work.
After Collimer there were longs and shorts with the bowsprit now down and jib set and finally a bear away against the ebb up the Stour; ideal for some evolutions and another anchor stop with a different set of circumstances. The team were able to relate to the similarities and differences between Cambria with the mulie mizzen and other barges with mizzens sheeting to the rudder. The big mizzen affects ability to bear away under bare poles for example. Well, with a barge there is no such thing as bare poles with all that gear aloft, but the extra windage aft makes a difference.
With the last of the ebb and a dying breeze and the mizzen set we tacked back down to anchor off Shotley and row across to pick up Dan Dangerfield from Harwich arriving after the last of his A level exams that morning. Dan has sailed with us for several years as a Youth Sailing Scheme trainee. That evening the port main and all mizzen shrouds were tightened, and other small jobs ticked off the list, like a new boat painter and jib sheets. Then the aspiring skippers did a passage plan to Brightlingsea for the next day.
As expected the day dawned calm and sunny but a sea breeze was not long coming. In the meantime, we watched Thistle sailing around the harbour and up the Stour with some keen people aboard. Captain Rob had clearly timed his departure from Ha’penny Pier to coincide with the arrival of the slowly developing wind and came close to Cambria as our crew were rigging the jib topsail. By the time that was complete and passage plans reviewed, there was enough wind to get the anchor and fetch against the last of the flood over Shotley Spit, tacking once under the cranes at Felixstowe as jib and mizzen were set through the wind, to fetch out over the Shelf as the jib topsail was set and the barge headed past the Stone Banks at an impressive six and a half knots and bore away up the Wallet. Turns were taken at steering and navigating, and course was set for the Spitway.
There was plenty of wind to make against the tide. We arrived at the Wallet Spitway buoy as Adieu motored out of the Colne into the headwind and passed nearby before setting her gear to run up Swin returning to London. There was a gybe for us at the Spitway and two more at the Knoll and Eagle by which time the crew were adept at using the brail to tighten the mainsheet and leach for the gybe in what was now a nice force four easterly. Trim was adjusted at the Colne Bar using a stopper to transfer the mainsheet to the winch and back. Once in the shelter inside Colne Point, the jib was handed and anchor uncatted and we prepared to anchor under the beach.
This would be our venue for anchoring and buoy approach practice next day, and as some crew needed experience of the bowsprit Cambria was rerigged as a staysail barge. This is rather time-consuming if it is not done regularly. According to Phil Latham it was a great deal easier in her trading days. Apparently, he and Bob Roberts used to raise the bowsprit with the long stay on the windlass as the gearing was better and the jib stay was then down and clear of the staysail. We use the jib stay to raise the bowsprit and have a line and shackle on it, so we can later recover it later to clear the staysail. In Phil’s day the staysail would often stay hanked on the short stay as it moved to the stem or rigging whereas we take it off and put it in a sail bag neatly folded. Phil also found the anchor a puzzle these days as a combination of newly welded wide (and very successful) flukes with a square top, a large bobstay fitting and its articulating shackle make it rare (once out of nine times this week) for the anchor to come up clear. The shackle often needs attention from the boathook to articulate the right way. All this was new to Phil who rightly explained that working boats should work, and if they are hard work there is usually something wrong somewhere. Still, we all know life was better in the old days, and in some respects the evidence suggests it was certainly easier.
So, by dinner the bowsprit was steeved up with jib lashed to it, and the staysail was stowed on the stem with the serving on the stay protected from the hanks by woulding. The easterly stayed after sunset and was evidently set in.
Next day, Wednesday, aspiring skippers and mates in pairs each took turns at getting under way from the anchor, sailing downriver, tacking and returning to anchor again, setting and adjusting sails as necessary. This proved a very beneficial exercise as not only did everyone have a turn, but so did they have a chance to observe. It took a little while to reduce natural gusto and exuberance to the steady pace of working that is best for crew and vessel. And it was fun.
Now, we had gone to the Stour Monday in the hope of a suitable big mooring buoy to practice with but found 1000m of pipe moored to the intended target and loads of warning markers around it rendering it unusable for our purpose. Instead we now found a suitably placed race mark and did three attempts at approaching, slowing and bringing it alongside with various permutations of sail. By now it was blowing hard enough for the head of the topsail to remain clewed home so the combination of foresail, varying amounts of mainsail and topsail sheet enabled considerable control.
After the third approach, and a debrief as the barge fore reached slowly upriver against the ebb, the topsail was set, and we poked our noses out to the Colne Bar buoy to feel the true force five before tacking and returning. This gave more stopper practice and the crew were now getting used to doing their roles in turn. Evening saw us do two tacks to get the topsail down the right side and anchor at Brightlingsea Spit for a run ashore, this time with the outboard, for fish and chips and to sit outside the Yachtsman admiring modern architecture and the IPA rather more.
As hoped there was a little less wind on Thursday. After an exercise in getting the barge ready to sail, we got the anchor and fetched downriver with the staysail and mizzen set. But it did not last, and both were stowed in big seas off the Knoll before we ran back to anchor for lunch and the reverse transformation again at Second Beach. Now a bowsprit barge again, and with stowed topsail in the easterly force six, up came the anchor again with another pair of crew running the process and we headed upriver against the ebb to tack off Brightlingsea for the last time this week and head down again with catted anchor and jib set. At the Bar buoy the mainsheet was wound in and a handy billy got the jib sheet as two tacks took us to the Knoll. Here there were some breaking crests and wet shirts forward as the barge did what she was built for, shouldering the spray aside and careering along with a steady mien. It was the first time some crew had seen a barge in sun, sea and spray and made a fitting finale to the exercises for the day. Before doing so, we held the bowline and hove to. Coasting barges sometimes did and indeed all barges can heave to, so it was interesting to see how she behaved. We concluded she would need a couple or three cloths of the mainsail brailed to balance the helm, so it could be locked and left.
The run up to Osea contained four gybes and a lot of sun, and by the time we anchored below Southey Spit England were one nil down in Russia and it was supper time in home waters.
Friday we cleaned up, tried unsuccessfully to sort out one of the electric toilets, debriefed the crew and sailed the short distance to the mooring at Heybridge. While running people back to Maldon it was heartening to see the George Smeed alongside Hythe Quay with her sails set for the first time. Congratulations to Ken and Carol for an amazing achievement over many years.
Sea-Change will be running a second course on 9th to 13th July and there are places available. If you or someone you know would like to take part, please get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or ringing 07895063838.