All photos courtesy Cressida Slater

In 2019 Sea-Change was proud to receive a grant from Trinity House towards training for barge crews, and this was used to finance two long weekends aboard Blue Mermaid. The second was postponed because of bad weather and then covid intervened. Eventually as day sails became possible we did the second weekend on the first weekend of September and it was a great success. We had five  Thames Sailing Barge Trust trainees; one more had a last-minute commitment. Despite the difficulties presented by the covid restrictions meaning we did three day sails instead of people staying aboard, the logistics worked out well. Basing ourselves at West Mersea, one arranged a lift home each night and back in time in the morning, one brought his caravan to a nearby site and three found accommodation in the village. We fed the group three meals a day, having an evening meal before they went ashore at 2000 and bacon rolls after they came aboard at 0830. Our crew was myself with Hilary and Oli as mates with our Shipshape trainee Ben who was treated as a trainee with the group giving two teams which enabled us to give people an area to familiarise themselves with and switch periodically.

On Friday all bar one trainee who could not come until the next morning joined us at Heybridge and had a short brief before getting underway. We asked each what they wanted out of the weekend and then tried to deliver it. One is experienced and is working towards obtaining a master’s certificate. One wished to understand the mainsail in particular and also was curious about heaving to, man overboard drill and rolling vangs. He was generally very attentive to learning the parts and had lots of questions. The others wanted to brush up and gain more sailing knowledge. One had received an award as the most promising barge crew the previous year, a fine accolade. There was a very light westerly breeze shortly before high water and the barge was not prone to fill away on the port tack so the mooring rope was led around the bow and with that help she was started moving and paid off as needed. We were bowsprit rigged but did not set the jib on Friday to be able to concentrate on the brown sails. The breeze grew slightly as we ran down the Wade, intent on stopping for lunch and some description before getting underway again. The forecast was such that we would get underway on both subsequent days with a young flood and a westerly so this was potentially our only opportunity to get under way from an anchor with the necessity of casting the right way from head to wind and tide. So we stopped at Osea near East Point with shallow water nearby to demonstrate using mizzen and foresail to come away as required into deeper water. Prior to that we showed the position of key parts of the rig and had lunch. Getting underway in breeze and with a strong ebb gave a clear impression of the point when the anchor broke out after careful shortening of the cable with attention to how the chain led and how the barge was sheering. People could note the Marconi Buoy moving upriver against the land as the anchor broke out. When underway there was just enough wind to hold our own against the ebb short tacking in the narrows before bearing away and running downriver. Arriving at the Nass it was a couple of hours before low water so it was necessary to come on the wind at the beacon and beat up the channel to anchor just below the moorings. The wind was light again with the tide still running hard, and the first approach to anchor put us too close to a channel buoy so most of the mainsail was reset and the foresail dropped and reset to wind for a second successful attempt. The group noted at dinner how such activity was necessary with no engine and demonstrated the balance of the rig and the need to drop and set sails in a sequence according to the conditions.

After breakfast on Saturday there were two sessions on the whiteboard, one about points of sail and how sails work, and the second led by Ben with lots of participation on the detail of each sail on the barge. This was a reprise of learning from the previous day and was then repeated on deck as the gear was prepared and set as we got underway. There was most wind on the Saturday which made for a quick run down to near the Bench Head with the bowsprit being set up by the group and the jib rigged. We then came on the wind across St Peter’s Flats after half flood, tacked and had an exhilarating sail back up to Mersea in a F5 topsail breeze. We came to anchor in the same spot as the previous day with the first of the ebb and a different situation being able to reach on port tack across the top of the sand and slow down steadily so as to pick the spot. That evening after a slightly earlier dinner than Friday there was time to rig as a staysail barge for the morrow with the group participating. Thus the jib was unhanked and folded/bagged, bowsprit steeved up and the jibstay run clear and short stays taken to the stem for the staysail.

Sunday was light again still from the west. Getting away smartly after breakfast we needed to run down almost to the beacon before hauling sheets and crossing the yacht club start line a short while before the day’s race followed. Along the Tollesbury shore and before setting the staysail we performed evolutions, doing 360 degrees describing the process and points of sail as we did, hove to (adjusting bowline, mizzen and helm as necessary) and then did a MOB before continuing upriver to the relief of the race fleet. It was slow progress but just as the wind was threatened with the sweeps it came good to take us to the mooring with a pretty straightforward ferry glide against the flood. The group were then very helpful in cleaning up and making the barge ready to be left before a debrief and timely departure.

A photo album of the weekend’s activities is available here, courtesy Cressida Slater

Richard Titchener