Red light in the moonlight: Oli fits the port navigation light as we prepare to leave Stangate Creek and race Edith May to Harwich at 0130 on Saturday 26th June 2021. This informal event replaces the longstanding and popular Gravesend to Harwich Passage Match of 56 miles which used to bring barges based on the Thames down to the Orwell the week prior to the Pin Mill Match. Though popular it was no doubt an immense amount of work to organise and as entries dropped it was unsurprising the attraction of waiting all night on a cold Suffolk seawall for barges to rear over a dank horizon lost its appeal. Now Ed Gransden offers people the chance to sail in company from the Medway to Harwich and this year we took him up on the offer.
After getting the anchor on the last of the flood we came level with Edith May as she too got under way and both barges set their gear while crew peered to find the moored barge at Blackstakes against the bright lights of the Grain jetties behind. Couldn’t a massive amount of power be saved if all these flood lights up and down the country were arranged to switch on when needed? Maybe there are too many foxes and owls to allow the use of proximity lighting, but it would sure make night sailing easier.
It was quickly evident Edith May had the legs on Blue Mermaid this day with a cleaner bottom despite having the propeller, the biggest barnacle of all. She was several lengths ahead down the Medway Approach Channel and as both barges chose to pass different sides of inbound ships near she crossed first into the Swin and was half a mile or more ahead in the very light southerly breeze at the Maplin Buoy. From here, Blue Mermaid took the route west of the Middle, passing not far from the wreck of her original namesake lost to a mine almost exactly eighty years ago.
Passing north of the Middle with the running sail then gave us a hotter reach along the southern edge of the Whitaker Spit until the point we deemed crossing for the Spitway was possible. Converging with Edith May we were now slightly ahead, the first time in the lead since Stangate Spit six hours earlier. But the tide was done and the young flood met us both in the Spitway where we crossed with a minimum of seven feet depth well to the north east of the line of the buoys. Once there was enough water leeboards went down and sheets came in and there began a duel with foul tide and fickle wind with both barges keeping up to windward along the Gunfleet and withstanding the temptation to point at the Naze and fall off sideways towards Clacton. Well inshore the Marjorie could be seen making slow progress and eventually dropping her jib and engaging mechanical assistance. After a scrub round at Southend and with no race crew she was also heading for Pin Mill.
All seemed well, progress was slow but steady, and we split into watches to take turns out of the hot sun. But towards the northern end of the windfarm the breeze died and we almost anchored and perhaps should have, as it took an hour for wind to return in any useful amount and both barges made no progress over the ground. Each time the light airs took us to a point in line with the last full line of turbines we stopped even though there was wind on the water beneath them. We concluded the slowly turning windmills were taking the energy out of the wind, as they must of course, but it was interesting to see the result first hand. I imagine someone is researching the impact on local weather and maybe even bigger things.
Eventually we decided to break away and used a small veer in wind direction to set the running sail and head out into the tide before dropping it and coming up to cover Edith May again. A combination of this and slightly more wind then took both barges to the Naze around an hour before high water. It was great sailing and both crews were working hard for that extra few yards. Edith May set her running sail from the stem inside her jib topsail and this gave her what she needed to draw level. Our sail is too long on the luff for that idea and has to go on the bowsprit where the big jib set on a traveller and big jib topsail were just too good to dispense with, so we watched powerless as Edith May first drew level to leeward and then slightly ahead, eventually forced to return to a more conventional rig as the easterly wind increased.
It was obviously going to be hard to win this race. We felt sure there were some barnacles on Blue Mermaid as it had been three months since she was antifouled and she had lain in mud and acquired a barrier film. Nevertheless, it was still possible to win if we could trim well in the remaining few miles of reaching. So Oli rigged a tackle on the jib sheet and played it from the weather side while looking up and calling the jib topsail for Lucy and Beauty on the winchaft. Sometimes Lucy had the mainsheet in one hand and the other tailing the jib topsail sheet. Jim found himself steering and doing a fine job of minimising rudder movements while trying to keep the bob in line with the headstick. I kept the mizzen in the game and kept the kettle going to boost morale. By keeping a sweet relationship between all the luffs, including playing the foresail sheeted aft of the shrouds, we held onto Edith May and slowly overhauled her on Harwich Shelf. Here we crossed the classic regatta running in to a mark before coming close hauled and out to sea again. One pretty little give way vessel carried on blithely and was threaded between the two barges safely more by luck than judgement. Another family cruiser not racing was slowly overhauled between both barges approaching the Guard prompting Jim now forward to call in stentorian tones that he should hold his course. Suddenly aware of what was astern the yacht slewed around in some bewilderment before kindly doing as requested and was safely passed.
With Shotley Spit astern we were ahead but had not managed to break the overlap and Edith May was perfectly correct in forcing us up towards the windbreak that is the ships at Felixstoe. Fortunately for us the reducing wind was balanced by the area of slack water caused by the man-made shape of the river here. With the straight Trinity quay having extended into the Orwell a spring ebb is funnelled with amazing ferocity towards Shotley Spit creating a real tide race by the Fagbury buoy. Edith May cleverly looked for slower tide right over in the bight towards the Orwell buoy and we were worried this might pay off as she had a better angle coming into the finish. Indeed her track brought her back into an overlap to leeward and only the fact of the obstruction of the yellow speed limit buoy close to the shore and the shore itself gave us hope. Even then she accelerated and looked like she might carry her way with sheer momentum through our lee. But it was not to be and after 43 miles and 13 hours there were two lengths between the barges at the Orwell No 1 buoy.
It had been hard work but great fun, and a dead heat would have done justice to the effort made on both barges.
Enquiries found the blocks were free for 24 hours so we went on with the help of Gus Curtis and found a carpet of barnacles on the bottom. There followed more hard work and less fun, but at least this time the pub was open as an incentive unlike our last visit towards the end of lockdown.