Blue Mermaid in full flight. Photo courtesy Sandy Miller. Click to enlarge

Only three barges approached the start line, Blue Mermaid, Lady of the Lea and Ironsides. Repertor was entered but neaped in her berth at Faversham. Marjorie had been hoping to show off her new leeboards and these were ready but not fitted while another boat was neaped in the dry dock which was earmarked to help remove a year’s growth from her bottom. There was a rumour Niagara and Edith May were coming, both with bowsprits. Still, it was a race and to add to the occasion the smack ADC was there after a refit, as she had been for the very first Colne Race, before the Bar Buoy was a mark in the course and the crabs on the Bar had to duck as she went past, the shallower Hyacinth hot on her heels.

In Blue Mermaid we had left the mooring at Heybridge on Thursday afternoon, as we needed time to remember quite a lot about things we had not set for (literally) a year. Friday was spent practicing and having a very pleasant sail down to the Spitway to meet the two Kent barges on their way over. There was a good breeze and for only the second time we set the small jib on its traveller and left the working jib aboard. This made for a less demanding day and balances the boat nicely. The forecast for race day was for a good breeze from the west. This is the direction that allowed Ironsides to take the course record in 1978 with a fetch all the way around. This was after the Bar buoy was included by the way. This meant there was a possibility if things held and we did well enough by the barge she could have a stab at it.

Some of the crew from 2019 were aboard. Myself, Hilary and Oli welcomed back Chris Stopford, now working for Brightlingsea Harbour, and Oli’s friend and fellow Yorkshireman Jake. Jake joined us for the first fit out in 2019 and so liked the idea he stopped his tree felling work and volunteered for Ocean Youth Trust South on Prolific, as well as applying for other sail training jobs. Covid stopped all that for now, but he is still smiling and will be an asset to any crew when conditions allow him to follow his star again. Others were unable to make it because of covid and other commitments. Shipshape trainee Ben was at his first barge match as was Rose who had attended one of our courses last year. When we anchored in Colne the afterguard was already there in the shape of Shiner Wright and Steve Hunt, both travelling independently in their own boats, one from Conyer and the other fresh from a major refit at Ipswich and looking a picture. The evening was spent bending on jibs to give a choice in the morning.

Race day dawned bright and breezy with the direction WSW. It clearly was not going to be a day for the big jib topsail, or so we thought, so it was removed leaving working jib and jib topsail. The start was at a hospitable time at 0930 with the smacks starting afterwards. In the past the smacks had started first meaning the barges were still around for the smack start and it does seem to work better this way round. A few tacks to check the line and make a plan and then we gybed into a start with both jibs going up through the gybe into clear air, though not as near the gun as we would have liked. And off she went on a reach to the first mark doing 8.5 knots over the ground. The jib topsail was dropped for a while in the gusts. We kept well up and had a slow swooping bear away at the Bar, unsure which gybe the run would be on, and not calling it until it became apparent. Then with the running sail she was doing 7.5 knots on the way to the Clacton mark, meaning by the time we arrived there the course record of just over seven knots felt close. But then as we crossed the tide on the way to the Spitway the breeze slowly fell away and although we did fetch in one tack, the speed had dropped and we had gone practically to the Swin Spitway buoy to do so. Chris found his metier on the lead line over the shallow and the board never touched. The lead line always seems so much more real than the echo sounder, always prone to flutter just when you need it, going fast in shallow water.

Approaching the Knoll it was apparent more power was needed and the big jib was set on the traveller before the working one was peeled as it was dropped. By now we were heading east of the Eagle and through Land Deeps with an increasingly fickle wind that actually veered two points under a cloud as we approached the shore. Looking astern most of the fleet was suffering more and only one smack, which we thought to be Alberta, on our heels. As so often happens, tacking on the header was merely a sign for the wind gods to organise a return to the old direction and Steve on the wheel did a phenomenal job of fetching north of the North Eagle without another tack. Tacking by the NW Knoll gave a fetch up the Colne to the finish and another sail change to the big jib topsail was executed quickly by Oli and his team. By now the record had receded into the mists of imagination but there was enough wind for a flourish into the finish and after both jibs came down on the gun we watched anxiously to see if Alberta had saved her time on us. She did by around five minutes; quite an achievement. It did not seem long though before another cream smack appeared and ADC received a round of applause and a long hoot as she crossed our stern to anchor in the Pyefleet.
It was strange there being no prizegiving or festivities ashore and the distancing requirements meant more than one table being employed at the pub. We were saved one chore though. When we got back aboard there was a pennant at the peak and a cup by the hatch as Paul Winter had kindly popped aboard and done the honours. So ended the only barge match of 2020, with our thanks to those who went to the effort of making it happen. Hopefully next year will be more normal.

Richard Titchener