Thanks to funding from Trinity House and Whirlwind Charitable Trust we are able to provide training for prospective barge skippers. This arises from work done before covid with Mick Nolan’s trainees and aims to give hands on practical experience in a variety of situations.

After attending Newham Heritage Month Blue Mermaid beat down the Thames, having beat up it a few days before. Despite a slow start she made anchorage in the Muckings with time to spare before low water. Only there did the crew find and retrieve a tyre that had graced the port bow all the way down the river. Fortunately, at least one other river user had captured an image and posted it online as a reminder. All future courses will include a detailed module in fender operations. Each fender will be numbered with a similarly numbered pocket on the main hatch and a token system as used on branch railways to ensure the rail is clear after use. The procedure will be written up and added to the operation manual and the training manual. Should this prove inadequate then a permit to fender scheme will be adopted requiring signature in and out. This is all consistent with the Trust’s philosophy of taking as much pride in the small things as we do in the big ones. Hence, you earn the right to enjoy a thrash down Swin with two jibs set and spray flying in the sun, only by tying a knot with consideration of how it can be released under load or making fast to a cleat in a similar manner.

Leaving the Muckings next day at first light and two hours ebb, it was obvious the Medway was the objective, where we would pick up two more course members for another six days. A very light easterly stayed with us all the way down Sea Reach and the stream of outbound and a few inbound ships meant more short tacks than normal. On one occasion VTS called up as they were concerned at our proximity to the sand and Oli the mate explained we were keeping clear of ships using the fairway. I assured him VTS were simply concerned about safety and we surmised maybe the software issues an alert to the operator nowadays if one is outside the fairway. It may also provide a similar warning if you are in the fairway in front of another ship and it is tempting to imagine algorithms working like mad to reconcile the two rather like a robot attempting to satisfy all of Asimov’s rules simultaneously. A robot can only protect itself if doing so does not conflict with the other two rules, those being not to harm humans and only to obey humans if not harming other humans: complex stuff as attempts to devise rules for AI will prove. Hopefully the computer survived our manoeuvres without violating its prime directive and we made it safe and sound into the Nore Swatch.

At this point, it would be normal to call Medway VTS and inform them of our intentions. But a combination of light airs and not having got up quite early enough meant we failed to save our tide round the Grain Edge by about 100 yards and were forced to anchor for a couple of hours while the tide made and the London Titan, the PLA’s versatile maintenance and salvage craft, serviced the Mid Swatch buoy nearby.

When the tide served it was a case of up anchor and away with ample water over the spit and a friendly voice on the radio from Liverpool these days warning of a large tanker outbound from KNJ which we surmised was the old Kingsnorth power station jetty. We met the tanker, indeed a large one with two tugs still following, at the Victoria buoy and passed close to the gas terminal exclusion zone to avoid it. Dropping the staysail for more stress-free sightseeing we gybed away up river. It was 2018 when we were last in the Medway, returning the Cambria to Hoo after a busy season, the one before Blue Mermaid was commissioned. Not much has changed but a few important things have. The smack Stormy Petrel has left Gillingham after many years in Dick Norris’ ownership to a new home on the Fal with Working Sail. Cambria is now based at Pin Mill. GPS have expanded their facilities at the Bullnose Chatham to include a dry dock recently used by the Will. Strood Pier remains out of use; testament to the loss of trust port status. We anchored early enough to take the barge boat upriver to seek refreshment. Sadly the Prince of Guinea has gone at Gillingham. This used to be the local office for barges laying near the pier. But thanks to local knowledge from Shiner Wright we found the Ship at Lower Upnor was welcoming and served an excellent meal. This meant a walk past the site of the defunct Shaftesbury Homes and Arethusa. The shoreside building remains, though empty, as do some mighty big mooring chains for the ship. Arethusa was sold to New York in 1975 reverting to her old name of Peking. She had been home for generations of boy trainees serving until old enough to join the Royal Navy or Merchant Service. Ian (Buffer) Cox of Maldon Little Ship Club was one of them and speaks fondly of his time there. Peking has since returned to Hamburg after a major and largely authentic refit. Amelia Hall who sails on Christian Raddich and has studied at Enkhuizen Sea School reported her tutor in stability had been involved in doing calculations for the vessel. This filled those in the Members Bar of the Queens Head with hope the ship might put to sea, but no, she is static and presumably the calculations were to satisfy doubts about moving her and how much ballast she needed. She looks fantastic and at least she lives to sail another day.

Though the Prince of Guinea is no more, Gillingham Pier now boasts an ASDA superstore and it was there we bought provisions on Saturday morning for the following six days of training planned to finish at Heybridge on the Thursday. At lunchtime Laurie and Chris joined and the course started.

Training time

The purpose of this practical course is to provide experience free of a charter and time constraints of a delivery passage so that people can concentrate on their learning. The barge was staysail rigged and remained so for Saturday’s passage to Stangate Creek. The group split into two and took it in turns to be skipper and mate for the day, with the others providing help as needed or providing sustenance, except where everyone had a turn at a particular exercise.

Laurie got us underway just before high water and as it was a Bank Holiday weekend there were a lot of yachts and dinghies about. There was an easterly and sunshine for a pleasant beat and perfect conditions to practice sailing up to and away from a mooring in Stangate, with steady wind on the port beam and ebb tide. Each person took us to the buoy reducing sail, picked it up, debriefed, and each got underway again tacking in the entrance of the creek and approaching again. Finally, as the sun sank and riding lights on thirty four yachts illuminated the creek, we anchored for the night on the weather shore.

Visiting the Medway was useful for local knowledge and with this in mind we also decided to go to the East Swale, leaving early the next morning and rigging the bowsprit passing the Montgomery wreck, setting both jibs and working along the Cant in a fickle easterly. It was still ebb tide at the Spile but the young flood soon stopped progress and down went the anchor for a couple of hours. When there was water to cut the corner to the Columbine it was raised again and a couple of gybes took us to anchor above Harty Ferry, with a gathering fleet of yachts. Laurie sought permission for a visit to the Lady Daphne at Ham Wharf and there we saw the amazing progress by Andy and Sam to finish what Michael and Elizabeth started. Just down the creek lay the recently-launched Puritan, a Colchester smack rebuilt by the late John Milgate and finished by Dan Tester at Hollowshore. Very fine she looked.

Monday saw a start before dawn an hour before high water to enable us to use Ham Gat on the trip back to north Essex. It was a glorious sail with blue sky and force three to four easterly – a perfect way to spend a Bank Holiday – and for once this week we carried the ebb down to the Whitaker saving our tide. The early start meant arrival at Brightlingsea a few minutes after midday taking seven hours, leaving time for a trip ashore before supper.

Tuesday included anchor drills in the lee of Colne Point, everyone having a turn at getting under way and bringing up, with gathering confidence at reading the angle and amount of anchor chain to break out at the right moment under control.

On Wednesday there was time for man overboard drills under various sail permutations, with a growing experimentation with the effects of sail and leeboard working together. When we were all satisfied we had done enough, both jibs were set and the barge fetched rapidly through the Spitway to gybe up the Whitaker Channel to anchor at high water in the early evening at Shore Ends.

This gave an opportunity to go over (you can no longer really say through) the Rays’n early the next morning to anchor for breakfast at Sales Point in the Blackwater. After exactly a week the spell of easterly weather was over and the barge was returned to staysail rig for the beat up the river to the mooring Thursday evening. It was good to see another barge as Reminder was out on a daytrip. As soon as we picked up the mooring the bargeboat took the gangway we had borrowed from Topsail Charters for the event at Excel, returning to take us ashore at Stebbens Boatyard. The team celebrated an excellent few days with a beer before going their separate ways.

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Richard Titchener