El Capitan’s travails with the headstick, photo by Oli MacArthur

On the whiteboard is the most amazing summer season for Blue Mermaid this year. So amazing in fact it has been left intact partly to remind us of the possibilities when conditions allow and partly because the truth of a big blank space is just too depressing to contemplate. But the good news is important too. We are still here and despite the challenges it looks like survival is possible for the charity thanks to government help and grants from the Association of Sail Training Organisations. Understandably much assistance has been prioritised to support charities working with the charity and our work does not do that so it is not open to us and many others.

Since most of us furloughed from 21st April, Oli has split time between maintenance and other work on Cutty Sark, helped by Shipshape trainee Ben. Now that flexible furlough is possible, Don has started applying for funding again to support people sailing with us next year. The big news is we are rigging the barge for a few weeks crew training at the end of the season. As yet the covid restrictions do not allow residential sailing for clients so it is likely to be a team bubble only, but it will enable us to keep working towards succession plans and will be good for the barge and morale. It is great to see Hydrogen doing trips on the tide again with reduced numbers as an inspiration to the rest of us. The original Blue Mermaid’s sister ship Resourceful is busy serving teas and food at the quay.

Blackwater cadets racing, including a TS Rigging apprentice

So on Monday preparations commenced to lower down. Wednesday saw a hot and windy day with first mainsail then topsail and foresail bent on.Meanwhile each tide time cadets from Blackwater Sailing Club were competing nearby, finding the barge with a sprit extension right in their way between two marks. Some went to windward and seemed to make inches on those who went to leeward. Marshalling was to its usual excellent standard with none of the loud and speeding activity sometimes seen from rescue boats.

Talking of rescue, a couple of weeks back West Mersea lifeboat payed a visit to the wrecks below Maldon promenade to attend to some young people cut off by the tide. Two stalwart crew waded ashore to talk them down and as the tide steadily fell the lifeboat stood off. The talking down took longer than the tide and by the time the shore party were ready for pick up there was insufficient water even on the concrete ramp. As fortune would have it Richard was rowing back from the smack to the Bath Wall and was able to effect a transfer from the ramp to the lifeboat. Cyril White would have approved of yet another use for his fourteen foot clinker commission for Musson and Co in the fifties.

Ben finishing a new grommet round the lower topsail hoop

Thursday saw both Hydrogen and Thistle sailing on the tide while we hove up the gear. The morning was blessedly overcast so cooler with less wind than the previous day. As the tide made to present a level barge on went the last of the rig and the resplendent new bob. Ben was keen to make a grommet around the lower topsail hoop and persuaded us he could do it in 30 minutes, and he did with a fine result. This not only takes the crunch when dropping the sail in a rush, but also should stop the tendency of the hoop to drop beneath the upper cap with embarrassing results. Last year a temporary and somewhat large wrap around had sufficed but now we have a new Steward-Shirley thing of beauty. Blue Mermaid’s gear with sails bent on is a heavy toil for three and there were plenty of stops to check for fouled ropes on the way. Eventually it was done with a snag-free result – hurrah.

When the topsail with its fine Maldon Little Ship Club logo was hoisted for a check, licensed premises were evidently open within view and the tide had gone. This prompted not one, not two, but three people to text comments about how barges go better afloat. We toasted their kind thoughts and worked on into the dusk, rigging the mizzen before repairing below for the scrapings from the fridge and a perfectly timed bottle of New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

We may have abandoned their farmers when we joined the EU but now they prosper and send us some of the finest wine around in return. They also have one of the finest sail training outfits in the world with Spirit of New Zealand, a barquentine that enables every child in the country to sail short and long passages never far from home, with orienteering, barbies and water sports, fun and consideration. We were able to send one of our trainees, now in the Merchant Navy, a few years back. He returned waxing lyrical about the experience and ever since we have seen them as an inspiration.

After a tidy up Friday and the weekend off, we will have a shakedown sail next week and will report on progress. As the barge has sat on the mooring in the mud and despite investing in expensive anti-fouling as a trial, the sides are green with barnacles low down. So she will be carpeted underneath. This makes Pin Mill blocks an apt objective for our training sails with the next spring tides giving the right timescales.

As this unfolds so does the work of the MCA’s Stability Section in Glasgow in examining our stability book. When they are prepared to authorise it we will be talking with our local office to agree the loadline. It is difficult to know timescales and it is only sensible not to take too many steps before we can physically load, but slowly and inexorably the day draws closer. Sailing barges supplied London in the plague of the 1660s and were given the Freedom of the River by the King in return. Like everyone we hope covid returns whence it came before long and never comes back. In the meantime we may find cargo represents an alternative activity until residential work restarts and we can develop it as planned as the objective for our voyages.

Evening swinging the lamp

Hilary has written to our clients recently to update them and asked if they would like to do anything this autumn if permitted. One or two have said they would consider day trips. Some are understandably limited on means of covid-secure transport. All in all there seems little we can do until residentials are allowed again. Having said that, if you know of any family groups who would be interested in sailing with us or who would benefit from your professional intervention in this respect we would be keen to discuss it with you. Funnily enough, we have often talked of the benefits of working with whole families and covid now means that is about all we can do! Calling all social workers and charities with an opportunity to do this work, we can help and are keen to give you an innovative and supportive venue for your clients, living and working together aboard a large traditional sailing vessel, conquering fears, developing resilience and above all having fun together.

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