This is the story of twelve intrepid adventurers who arrived on a warm Sunday evening in Maldon, Essex to find the Thames Barge ‘Reminder’ sitting on thick mud.
Arriving on the Thames Barge ‘Reminder’ is always an amazing experience for the Year 4 pupils and staff from St Joseph’s College in Ipswich. All thoughts of timetables and deadlines quickly fade, the group are now governed by the wind and the tide.
Under the expert eye of skipper Richard Titchener and his crew, the experience is unique. The children live and serve together to sail the barge on their annual adventures around the rivers and coasts of Essex and Suffolk. There are no set mealtimes or bedtimes, only the gentle rhythm of two watches working together.
The children love the barge. Below deck it is much larger than they expect. The converted hold, previously filled with coal, wheat and barley, now with its raised coach roof, provides space and freedom to explore. However, there are responsibilities to fulfil – children make a human chain and handball all the provisions aboard, there are beds to make, bags to unpack, provisions to stow.
Everyone enjoys first night’s fish and chips. Eaten around the table – even by those who profess to only like fish fingers ! There is so much to learn.
An early planning meeting reveals that high tide is at 03:00. This means either an early departure or a day in the park with a mid-afternoon cast off. Should eight year-old children help in the dark? What would Arthur Ransome think ? He would ask for volunteers !
They decide to set sail at 03:00 hrs. All children who would like to sail are invited to be part of this! Mrs Hughes and Dr Hine ease the children into bed, making guesses as to who will arise at such an early hour.
Following the warmest day of the year, with East Anglia having the highest temperatures across the UK, the cabins are sweltering. After a few restless hours of sleep, all ten volunteers appear on deck.
While Maldon sleeps, they single the mooring ropes. Ten pairs of wide eyes are peeping like young seals from behind their hats and hoodies. The crew calmly moving around, expert hands working quickly in the early morning shadows. Aidan, an instinctive Flemish coiler, makes flat cheese-like coils of mooring ropes. They cast off into the still night air with just a slight easterly breeze blowing them onto the quay. The Reminder turns about to face the open sea.
The coolness of the still night air freshens everyone up. Should they sail the full ebb and make it a long day or get into deeper water and then moor up ? The latter is agreed. They will drop anchor in deep water opposite Osea Island.
The Reminder moves silently off its berth and away from Maldon accompanied by sea birds and their dawn chorus. On one beam the moonlight shimmers on the water, with the pink shades of a hopeful sun rising on the other. The reflecting moonlight follows their starboard quarter. Buoys and moorings lean in the turning tide. They are heading towards the lights of the village of Steeple. Who is awake they wonder ? A skein of geese glides across the sky. The loom of the sun appears in the East. Its misty embers reflect on the water as if waiting for a draft of wind to ignite the sky – shepherd’s will be in trouble today. A Turneresque sky mesmerises the children. They describe the shivering wateras the breeze ripples its surface. Soon they are able to switch their navigation lights off. They will remember forever The Reminder moving gracefully through the noiseless water. It seemed like they were in these spellbinding moments forever.
The skylarks start singing. It’s 5am. The anchor is lowered and ten sleepy children slide back to bed again and snuggle up in their bunks.
Teamwork continues with the creation of a Port and Starboard watch – based on the children’s cabins. The philosophy prevails that “everyone can do something but no one everything” and that it is vital that we truly listen to one another and work together. The crewmates are fully committed to teamwork and camaraderie. Starboard watch make breakfast. Five chefs making bacon sandwiches for everyone. Cereal, tea and toast. Port watch have the honour of washing up and being galley porters. Tooth brushing and face washing follows.
Now it’s time for Starboard watch to go on deck and set the sails. Climbing the rigging to release the top-sail, winching the main sail, unfurling the fore sail, setting the mizzen. Winding the anchor winch and hauling the ropes they set sail using the power of the wind. They start to appreciate that the speed and direction of this wind, as well as the flow of the tide, effects where you can get to – and how long it will take. They calculate their time at the helm. Two hours shared equally among five children. Twenty-four minutes each.
Time for reflection. Not now. That’s for around the supper table. Now is a time for action. Tacking out to sea in a narrow river is a busy time.
“Ready about !”
The team are fully engaged.
As days pass, skills grow, both above deck, taking on their watch responsibilities with confidence and pride and below deck, everyone becoming adept at washing and wiping up, setting tables, buttering bread for lunch time sandwiches or helping with ingredients for the evening meal…either topping a pizza or serving the sausages or Bolognese.
What better way can you end a day……than all sitting around the table with the skipper and mates, sharing precious thoughts, achievements and memories of the day! Who could ever forget the experience watching the sun rise above the water, the beauty of the landscape, the birds calling as they swoop across the estuary, seals basking on the sand banks, crew-mates squelching in Wellingtons across the mud flats searching for oyster shells, the endless turning of the wind turbines and glorious shades of orange and pink in the evening sunset. Such experiences – never to be forgotten, during their adventure of a lifetime!
No child forgets the experience of heaving the huge wheel and watching the vast sails respond as the barge gracefully slices through the water; the awesome views of the our landscape having climbed thirty feet up the rigging; sailing with all their friends; the really challenging hard work – hauling ropes, winding up the anchor chain. Perhaps it’s time to give up our washing-up machines and bring out our old t-towels ? Children enjoy hand washing-up and drying-up. Indeed, when someone perfects a method for throwing 10 bucketsful of water on a floor and allowing children to mop it clean James Dyson’s empire will decline. Children also love polishing brass.
The living history of a traditional boat provides an excellent place to develop life-skills and teamwork. These boats provide incredible spaces to live as well as providing real work to be done. Children address the genuine needs of sailing the boat, together with their own personal needs and those of their crewmates. In the evening it’s talent shows, with children and adults engaging with one another and enjoying one another’s company. Not a mobile phone in sight.
Dr Martin Hine
Head of Prep School, St Joseph’s College, Ipswich