Keeping Maritime Heritage Alive in the Thames – April 2022
During 1994 the call went out around the UK coasts to attend a parade on the Thames heralding the launch of a new association, Heritage Afloat, an umbrella body uniting all elements of our maritime heritage for the first time. The parade was to be from Tower Bridge to Greenwich on 6th October and would include power and sail.
Being a founder member both personally and for the Sailing Smack Association, I had enjoyed the meetings of the nascent Shadow Council upstairs in the Red Lion on Whitehall. The division bell would ring occasionally during meetings to call MPs from the bar to vote and this somehow added to the sense of being at the centre of something important and good. At an early meeting Jamie Clay raised the fate of the Heartsease, threatened with extinction for her interior. There is still no mechanism to save important boats, even today. At each meeting Colin Allen produced fresh lists of boats of historic merit so that eventually the file became too big for his brief case . Talk revolved around presenting to the Culture Select Committee, leading to the establishment of the National Historic Ships Unit, how to influence the novel lottery funds; above all, how to create a broad consensus across a fleet ranging from static museum ships to private yachts and dinghies. Somehow it all came together under the inspiring leadership of David Morgan helped by many others. It has since merged with the Maritime Trust to become the Maritime Heritage Trust and I commend membership to anyone supporting the cause of keeping maritime skills and traditions alive.
And there was to be a parade in the Thames. It felt right to take the Sallie along. Two years before she had been to the first Brest Festival where 15000 crew were fed from the back of lorries and the French really showed us the way to do things. London was much closer to home. The parade was on a Thursday so earlier that week Graham Lovegrove and I left Maldon with a fair wind which gave a fetch as far as the Blacktail Spit. We had kept ahead of the loaded sand barge Roffen until we started tacking but once we did even Alan Jenner’s fuel-efficient slow steaming soon took him into the distance as dusk settled on Sea Reach. It was cold and there was plenty of shipping making a night passage any further unpleasant so Holehaven was our harbour for the night. We had electric navigation lights in those days, long before LEDs and before we learnt the error of our ways on a second trip to Brest in 2000 when the Channel slop made running the portable generator impossible and the lights went dim. Back to paraffin we went subsequently and still have it with a redundant electric installation taunting us with memories of cost and clutter.
Once under the windshadow of the jetties all was peace and we came gently to a halt as the anchor bit the mud. It is a steep edge so we approached with a couple of fathoms of cable intially hanging below the bow to stop us not too deep to concern any shipping and not too shallow to take the ground and lose the next tide. Next day we stopped at Gravesend, laying on a Sailing Club mooring if I remember rightly, and picked up Don Ramsay for the trip up the river with an early start on the day of the parade. The wind remained westerly so it was a beat all the way with big jib and full mainsail and the topsail until above the barrier at Woolwich.
It is possible to leave Gravesend at low water and make high water in the Pool under sail with the right amount of wind and a smart smack or barge. Indeed sometimes we got there before high water in Xylonite and waited on a buoy by the wonderfully-named London Grist Mill for a Tower Bridge lift back when Roy Aspinall used to book the barge for a week of day trips each year from London Bridge City Pier with his friends from West Mersea Yacht Club. Their munificence subsidised delivery voyages for visually impaired people there and back. I was never as proud as when receiving a “well done my boy” from Yachtmaster Examiner Roy when we passed the Wallet Spitway buoy showing ebb and the Swin Spitway buoy with flood tide.
In Sallie we had no radio or mobile phone, so were blissfully unaware of any radio traffic. There may have been some of course because to sail through the Woolwich Barrier to windward it is necessary to approach from level with the next span to the south and this can take you onto the “wrong” side of the river byelaw-wise. You then sail full and fast so as to luff and carry your way through your span. The tide does the rest. Wivenhoe barrier is much narrower and more challenging.
Once in Limehouse Reach what should appear from South Dock Marina than Hardy? Noel Probyn had left Maldon a day ahead of us and had a fair wind up so was early enough to have a night in. The two boats made a splendid sight as they crossed tacks into the Lower Pool. Rachel Spender captured the scene from SB Thalatta, also there for the parade. Hardy went on up to near Tower Bridge where the parade formed up. It was led by PS Waverley and had steamboats, barges, working boats and yachts. There may even have been a narrow boat. We anchored for a short while just above Wapping Police Station and joined in as the others passed outward-bound. There was a parade marshall on the Regard and apparently Noel was repeatedly asked to hold station which he found impossible being under sail. The overall progress of the parade depended on the speed of the shovel being wielded on one of the steamboats.
After Greenwich the parade broke up. We carried on down to anchor near dusk just above Shorne Mead and Don left us for work next day. Graham sat in an abandoned chair on the beach and we watched rather than heard the Waverley spuffling past doing 12 knots. In the calm of evening a spout of water rose vertically some way up the sharp edge of her stem as she rounded the Ovens.
Friday saw us return down Swin and beat home up the Blackwater. I remember it was by then a starlit clear sky and ice was forming on deck. I have not been as cold underway before or since and only by taking turns to nip below and warm up by the stove did we make it to the mooring.
This trip took place almost 28 years ago and much has changed. The Pool of London is busier now with far more passenger traffic if no more freight. There are boats offering Rib experiences (tag line “hold on tight”) making wash and travelling at speeds promising multiple fatalities in time. Indeed, everything happens faster to little purpose and the joy of appreciating the river for its intrinsic qualities and those of its environs is in danger of being lost. You would not find this in Venice, Amsterdam or Stockholm I doubt. Would we sail the smack to Wapping again today? I would like to say yes, but I wonder if we would, and whether we would be welcome to do so. We took Cambria from Kent to London for the 2012 Jubilee. There were many craft coming upriver for the pageant but in our field of vision only Cambria was sailing. We were picked up by a friendly tug in Gallions courtesy of Chris Livett. As we rounded Wappingness the half-barge Cygnet was just ahead. Des had sailed all the way up, of course; in fact, all the way from Snape. He and his crew were in period garb, she with parasol as the sun shone, unlike the next day of the pageant itself. Nearing a buoy and with little way, Des hopped in the boat and sculled a line. There was palpable relief in the voice of the boatman on the harbourmaster’s launch reporting on the radio “Cygnet has now picked up a buoy”. Such a standard manoeuvre by a vessel so insignificant would hardly have merited notice barely a few years ago. I am not sure quite what has happened and am sure it has not been planned. Somehow, the most natural activities are now odd and eccentric.
This post was prompted by Noel coming across the pictures and passing them on. Since then by coincidence Don has been in touch. He visited the excellent London: Port City exhibition supported by the PLA at the Docklands Museum. Go if you get a chance. He was perplexed by the complete absence of Thames sailing barges and the tiny appearance of lighters and lightermen. He knew the development of London and the port depended heavily on these so asked a member of staff why so little was displayed. In reply he was asked “what is a Thames barge?” I mention this only to show how quickly times move on. It would have been inconceivable even a generation ago to get this answer. We cannot sit on our laurels and think our heritage is somehow hard-wired into the nation’s psyche. It most certainly is not, and if we value it and believe in its benefits to our communities and ourselves we need to work hard and fight to keep it front and centre. Then maybe the Sallie and others can attend a 30 year anniversary of 1994, but that will be a story for another day.
The Leech Stands Altogether Better – April 2022
During the winter the Blue Mermaid’s sails went to Steve Westwood’s loft for some attention. They had two relatively full seasons’ and a short covid season’s wear. 2021 had been hard on them with plenty of wind and days under way. The mainsail particularly needed some patching.
We also sought Steve’s advice about what to do about our wafferty mainsail leech. We had peaked up the sprit pulling down the collar first, then taking a link out of the standing lift, and still the leech wobbled. So we had to look at the sail itself. Of course, there was the possibility of separating the bolt rope and sail and tensioning anew, but before going to the expense and effort Steve suggested an old sailmaker’s trick of effectively tightening the boltrope by inserting a line through its core. In fact, this could be the first time it has been shared outside the freemasonry of the brotherhood and a fork of lightening may well soon short out this internet connection.
This trick we did while dressing the sails on Hythe Quay. This annual ritual fascinates passers by even though there is usually the odd one or two impatient enough to take a Pirelli or a Michelin across a piece of valued sailcloth rather than wait for it to be moved, or even move it themselves. The barges at Maldon are fortunate to have a Council which supports the heritage of the district in its use of the quay area.
The proof of the insert is for all to see, and the leech stands far better than before. Above it all is a new bob made by Dawn Franklin.
Local Knowledge Training Day for trainee Bargemasters – March 2022
Waiting for Tower Bridge at the end of a training trip from St Katherine’s Dock to Woolwich Barrier, Greenwich and Tower Piers. As part of the work of Thames Sailing Barge Trust and Sea-Change Sailing Trust to provide structured experience to people working towards becoming barge skippers, this day was funded by Trinity House. It was great to see Lady Daphne back in commission after a big programme of restoration and we were made very welcome by Sam and Andy. The barge is shortly going down Channel to be based at Charleston so this was the last time she will pass through Tower Bridge for a while and was the end of an era for long-time skipper James Kent.
Mustering in St Katherine’s Dock for coffee and croissants at 0800 felt very early what with the clocks going forward as well. We were joined by waterman Dave Jessop who gave generously of his knowledge of the river. Being Sunday, traffic was light which was a little unrealistic compared to a normal working day. Even so, spoil was going away from Chambers Wharf and some hardy souls were braving the advertised “exhilaration” of the various rib experiences on offer in the misty cold with the tops of the high buildings shrouded in low cloud. They waved cheerily as they bounced past at eye-watering speeds. We shared the lock with a sea school rib and instructor about to do a training session on the tideway. He was in the process of relocating to a quieter Essex river.
James took us down to the Barrier as we related the points of interest to the learning materials. There we turned and headed in against the ebb to catch a brief turn at Greenwich Pier before a 1315 bridge lift and return shortly after following a few minutes on Tower Pier. By this time the traffic had increased considerably. Driving home the sun came out and planning a week of scrubbing and antifouling looked more pleasurable than in the earlier mist.
A Late Season Weekend – October 2021
Last weekend we were joined by Emma and Amelia for the last training weekend of the year before the wind and promised icy blast arrives. Being at the quay alongside Centaur from the previous day’ group sail for National Historic Ships, we watched during Friday as Tim and Geoff made ready for Mick and the de-rig team at the weekend.
The Downs Road Boatyard tug was already alongside from the previous day and as the tide arrived so did Jim furloughed briefly from Tom Cook’s birthday celebrations and drawing attention to the lack of wind. On the way to Hillypool it was indeed difficult to discern any movement in the air not being created by ourselves, but every so often there was a cat’s paw in the moontrack and sometimes facing directly ahead there was a little more air on one’s left cheek where it was forecast to be.
And letting go the tug at Hillypool the mainsail and topsail did indeed just fill and we made progress very slowly against the flood past the moorings at Millbeach to eventually meet a steady south-easterly at the Doubles. It was a glorious evening with a moon bright enough to read a book by and the sound of the sewage works washing strongly over Decoy Point in the still conditions accompanying the sound of the many thriving Canada geese.
It was now high water and had we wished the carry the tide downriver we could have made a passage. But we had a fine meal cooked by Oli and ready below so brought up at the Doctor and quietened the barge down for the night.
Saturday saw a sensibly late breakfast to give the promised westerly a chance to arrive at high water which it did. As Emma and Amelia got the anchor Marigold came past on a day trip and we sailed down river in company to anchor again for lunch at Weymarks. This anchorage below Bradwell is good in anything from Southwest to Southeast with good holding and a fine beach if you have young people aboard. It is named after the nearby farm and there are remains of a quay where much of the aggregate for Bradwell power station came by sea as did some of the equipment. If there is a new Chinese power station in future then there are plans for a jetty to do the same, and at least one of the local windfarms on the Dengie was brought by sea in the teeth while others required straightening some of the bends on roads following the medieval field pattern.
The bowsprit was lowered while at anchor to allow time for explanation in the light drizzle which cleared for the sail back upriver. Before doing so there was time to complete an imaginary course around four of the Mersea racing marks to generate a gybe and some trimming.
Then up to Osea unrigging the jib on the way. The young flood was now making and although Marigold preceded us into the dusk to her mooring, we rounded up above the Doubles and anchored for the night. It only remained on Sunday to steve up the bowsprit and return to the mooring at Heybridge to be ashore for lunchtime.
Colne Match and Beyond – September 2021
After a few days at home, mainly loading and unloading the washing machine or so it felt, it was time to leave the mooring at Heybridge again to get down to Brightlingsea for the Colne Race, the last race of the season. We left in the dark on the early tide, Hilary, Oli and I joined by Rose on leave from Duet which has been turning heads on the south coast. It was very light and took a couple of hours to get to Bradwell at dawn where we found Cambria anchored having found no wind and seeking sleep instead. A few minutes with the outboard alongside was enough to bring the promised southerly. It is one of life’s great axioms that if beset by light airs you so often need only to bring a bigger sail on deck, threaten the outboard motor or uncat the anchor for dropping and up will come the breeze. The other great mystery is how often wind comes or goes at high or low water. Can the wave of the tide really affect such things as it seems to? I used to feel using the outboard an admission of defeat and dispensed with one altogether on the smack suffering from sores after carrying the Seagull Century down the road one time too often. Oars at £100 are a better bet than the greater sum for an outboard and much lighter to carry. On the barge though, the sweeps are mighty items calling for heroic efforts over any length of time and I choose to side sometimes with Chubb Horlock who allowed Commander Martin to take his Johnson outboard in the Vigilant with him in the 1930s and did more freights as a result.
Once anchored in Colne there was time for a kip before returning the cup to Paul Winter and picking up mainsheet Jim Green and stalwarts Lucy Harris and Iain Stubbs. This is a more compact crew than usual and would call for careful husbanding of muscle mass.
The start was early with a nice west southwesterly breeze forecast but in the prestart it had not really settled down. Of course, with this direction the fleet tends to seek the weather berth and compete for being close to East Mersea Stone. This is indeed what happened and a procession commenced fighting for clear air and space. Niagara and Blue Mermaid tried an alternative and at the five minute gun were close to the line. Both were desperate for championship points, the latter more than the former, and there is a point for fastest start. As we headed up river on our last port tack Niagara came down on starboard but was early and came round to look for a space in the procession which she found and used to good effect shortly after. Hoping to tack in clear air ahead and to leeward of the fleet Blue Mermaid found less wind just when she needed it, and instead gybed into a start at the Bateman’s Tower side of the line setting her jib topsail as she did. And it worked, or at least it did as far as winning the start was concerned.
But of course gybing tight round does not result in boatspeed compared to a long reach into a start, and it was soon apparent there were some fast barges bearing down. Repertor particularly made another of her excellent starts with speed and position and was ahead of us as we converged. Similarly, Marjorie was sailing full and fast through the fleet with Niagara hot on her heels. We had to be content with fourth place at the No 8 buoy at which point an overtaking lane opened up to windward and we took the opportunity to sail high and catch up a bit. The order rounding the Colne Bar was the same but sailing high coming into the rounding gave us a tight exit and the inshore berth for the next leg.
It was a dead run, and after considerable debate we decided to point the barge at the next mark or at least where it should be, before we squared away and see which gybe was best. This gave us a starboard pole. The amazing thing was how well the barge ran before squaring away and setting running gear. She seemed to keep up with the others which were smarter at the set. I am convinced time moves at different rates according to all sorts of pressures. And it never runs slower than when a boat is waiting for a hoist. Seconds seem like minutes as they and championship points tick away. The sail had been stowed in the bag knotted. Once the hoist came Blue Mermaid was in a strong leeward position with clear air and every opportunity of sailing higher and faster as she approached the Clacton mark once it could be seen. It turned out to have been laid spot on the coordinates. By this time Blue Mermaid had sailed inshore of Repertor and Marjorie and indeed made up well on Niagara as well in the last few minutes before rounding. But at the buoy Niagara was two lengths ahead and gained the point for the first to the outer mark.
But then everything changed as the fleet started working to windward against the last of the ebb. With almost but not quite a full board under her and her favourite starboard tack where the headstick sits perfectly under the bob, a good bobstay and thrumming backstay, she started to show what she could do and overhauled Niagara which eventually tacked away. But the hot news of the day was how Marjorie was sailing and it was like a witch. Her helm was using every little puff or lift to steadily rise up on Blue Mermaid’s hip. It took every ounce of concentration to ensure she did not do to us what we had done to Niagara, but she did not, and chose to tack away with Niagara towards the shore. Well we thought, that’s interesting. We are on the favoured tack for the Spitway buoy, the next mark, and if lifted would be there first. This consideration meant we committed the cardinal sin of not staying between the competition and the next mark. At first it seemed to be paying off with a handy lift, but the closer to the Wallet Spitway buoy we came the more we were headed, and when they came back to us on starboard tack, both Marjorie and Niagara passed ahead. In truth, the wind was not settled in direction and whereas in some matches this year the shifts had favoured Blue Mermaid, like at the Swale, here the reverse was true.
Marjorie was confortably ahead but Niagara closer and as she tacked to cover us very effectively there followed several short tacks in an attempt to find clear air. At the same time, Repertor had sensibly avoided such shennanigans and stood well into the Spitway to return worryingly close as she approached the buoy. Suspicious of the wind direction we held up with a tight sheet after the buoy. Theoretically there was a fetch to the Bar buoy but the evidence of the last hour was that this could not be relied upon. To start with we were heading for Bradwell, but as we headed north west we were slowly headed and eventually just fetched. Marjorie and Niagara had freed off and had to tack to get to the Bar.
Some honour was retrieved as we passed ahead of Niagara again near the Eagle after some anxious moments, but although closer we did not catch Marjorie which led to the finish. It was a pleasure to cheer her performance as she passed nearby.
So ended the race series. Although winning her class, the overall champion is Niagara by three points, after a consistently strong performance all round.
On Sunday Oli departed to travel to Hayling Island to join a Cruising Instructor course with the Morning Star Trust. Monday evening as Hilary and I returned aboard after errands we found Shiner Wright’s yacht Mave anchored nearby as he was joining us to help with a day sail the next day with the excellent Lexden Springs Special School. We booked the harbour ferry to bring them off to the barge in one go. As they stepped aboard it started raining so much fun was had getting togged up in our fishermens’ waterproofs before helping get underway and steer down to the Knoll. Undaunted by the rain the students worked hard in the short time available, and it was impressive how much one remembered from coming previously. It was great welcoming back the school which hopes to do a residential next year as things return a bit more to normal.
That evening we were joined by Tom Moody to help us on the passage to Sun Pier Chatham for the Chatham Reach Festival. See separate pictures of this fantastic event.
It was an uneventful passage with enough wind not to need the jib topsail except for a short time on the Cant and a fetch most of the way. There was time before dinner anchored in Stangate Creek to steve up the bowsprit and become staysail rigged for the river work on the following day. Thursday brought low water mid afternoon but just enough wind from the west to make over the last of the ebb. It was slow progress though and took five hours to reach Chatham just before the light failed. Maybe there are more moorings than previously but tacking through Cockham Reach under the trees seemed more challenging than I remember. It was very light and Blue Mermaid is very handy, though her lightheadedness did mean dropping both boards all the way and dropping/resetting the foresail six times when tacking to help her round until we cleared the no 32 buoy and things became wider and easier.
Edith May was sailing down to do a scattering of ashes so the pier was clear for us. With a southwesterly, which by then it was, the pier pontoon is pretty much the same direction, so we dropped the topsail as we rounded Chatham Ness, stowed the mizzen and ran back against the weak flood reducing the mainsail as necessary. Then two lovely thing happened in the last rays of the sun before dusk descended. First, the evening concert by the Libertines commenced in Rochester Castle and excellent rock music filled the valley wafted on the gentle breeze so that it came and went in volume. Pete Docherty allowed Simon North to use some of his music on the film he made of us in Cambria some years back, watcheable on Youtube under the name of the charity. So the combination of themes felt quite appropriate this night. And secondly, as we very slowly approached the pier three jetskis came close. I waved one over and asked if he would pop on the pier and take a line. He did more than that, and wrapping a line Tom gave him around his foot proceeded to take it and attach it to a bollard. He then came alongside, asked where we came from and when we told him Maldon asked if we knew Gary Didhams, a local bargeman originally from Kent. We said we did, and thanked him, realising anew what a small world we inhabit and how assumptions about jetskiers can be wrong.
We proceeded to turn round as our orders for the morrow were to be as far downriver on the pier as possible to allow Jacob Marley space to take her passengers. With a short pier and a little bit of flood tide running this took some winding on the crab winch and spring, and was eventually achieved with the help of resetting the mizzen which had a surprisingly big effect.
Once alongside, Edith May joined us and it only remained to retell the details of our passage and otherwise improve the world with her crew in one or two hostelries. This ended with karaoke in the excellent and friendly Ship where I am pleased to report Red Sails in the Sunset was among the options. It was good to find the Ship vibrant and successful. I had not visited for over twenty years when Hilary and I met Alan Pratt there to view the Adieu, then as now for sale and moored behind the pub. We could not raise enough money but she was saved to sail and has been a worthy addition to the fleet since.
The Festival of Chatham Reach was a great success with a constant flow of people afloat on four vessels and ashore at a fine range of activities and stalls with live music. Hopefully it can become a regular event.
Monday morning saw a trimaran of Blue Mermaid and smack Thistle either side of Edith May towing to Stangate via South Yantlet and Sharfleet Creeks. It was fascinating seeing the Medway from a different perspective, possible because the light easterly conditions decided us to not leave for Essex until the next day, giving Oli a day at home before joining at Lower Halstow Tuesday morning. This all went according to plan and, despite a calm at the start, a decent southeasterly made a fetch of the Swin, low water at the Whitaker at dusk and Weymarks by mid-evening. It was also completed as a staysail barge which made for a more relaxing passage. Next day back to Heybridge and some time ashore. Oh and the washing machine.
And so to the Medway – Late August 2021
You left us on the SBA buoy after a scrub and paint round on Pin Mill Hard. The next day saw us leaving early to make low water off the Naze with a fair wind for the Medway. Leaving was not without incident. A good breeze northerly was forecast and the topsail was left in gaskets. Just after calling Ipswich to announce departure we let go the buoy and filled away on starboard tack heading upriver for an intended tack and turn to head downriver. It was an hour and a half before low water and the gods were unsure that morning of what should await us. Whether it was the early hour bleary-eyed skipper not checking the depth, the newly serviced buoy laying closer to shallow water (clutching at straws here) or just poor handling the port leeboard found the bottom almost immediately and the barge made a beeline for the Clamp House. “Down foresail” and a speedy ante-diem crew responded brilliantly. “Standby the anchor” but the gods then reviewed their stance and ever so slowly the barge pivoted in the board in the mud as the mizzen sheeted on the rudder pulled her head to wind. “Up foresail” and as many times before Blue Mermaid amazed us by coming round onto the port tack. But that was not enough in itself. The starboard board now found the bottom and it was necessary to quickly wind it up while the foresail was dropped a second time. Then the port board now on the windward side was dropped to turn the barge into the wind and as she responded the foresail was reset and she took us downriver at last. The skipper breathed a sigh of relief not having to call Ipswich again and announce a delayed departure, which in that barge-friendly river would probably be known across the literalle before lunchtime.
As we passed through Harwich Harbour the mate was itching for more sail and as there was no more wind in Pennyhole Bay the topsail went up and the barge fair smoked up the Wallet to be crossing the Spitway and Whitaker at two hours flood and fetch away up Swin. It was a fast and glorious sail without either tack or gybe.
We handed the jib once inside the Garrison to make for a more relaxing sight-seeing of the fascinating Medway. Arriving at Gillingham well ahead of high water and in company with some well-managed yachts it was necessary to come on the wind for Short Reach before reducing sail in short order to anchor on the windward Hoo side below the moorings. We were a little concerned as there used to be a big mooring buoy here, used by Cambria for some time before it sank. We were unsure if Peel Ports had removed the wreckage and asked Ian on Cambria if he knew. He was unsure so we made sure we anchored more inshore than might have been the case. We did not pick anything up, but our position meant we took the ground that low water and moved off a little the next day. So the day was bracketed by groundings! After the Match on Saturday we anchored here again and Alan Pratt commented the buoy and gear remained on the bottom and we should take care. In fact he said there were two sets of wreckage. There is also a gas pipe under this part of the river although the yellow shore markers have succumbed to entropy and redevelopment. Care is clearly needed here.
The Medway Match had not happened for two years in common with most of the matches. It is a credit to all involved it restarted with such a well-organised event. The Medway Yacht Club provided facilities for the Friday night briefing where we met our stalwart party for the event from the nearby Wilsonian Sailing Club. After returning aboard with the full team including Mainsheet Jim Thom and all-round handyman Jim Green with new crew Tom Moody, there was time for a little preparation, dinner and bed.
It was an early start with two classes starting before us and Marjorie at 0730. A combination of porcine sandwich relaxation and the early hour found us struggling to catch Marjorie from a late start. She led to the outer mark, Medway No 1, and at times opened out her lead. It was only the differences in courses adopted back into the Garrison that enabled Blue Mermaid to close and eventually overtake. Tony Winter quotes Jim Didhams as saying it is flood tide on the Cant nine months of the year, and while this might not be literally true there is advantage inshore when working back in against the ebb. If there was any doubt the Orinoco overflowed with local knowledge and took the inshore course. We followed her. Others held up to windward near the Richard Montgomery and no doubt felt fast but had more tide. Coming together with Orinoco at the Garrison there were a few anxious moments as both barges came close to an angling boat receiving a tow from a colleague due to engine trouble. But being a true gentleman Frog gave room and we both passed safely. The long-route barges were now well astern and it remained to sail cleanly to the finish. Each time there was a run in every other reach both leeboards came right up. We were closing with the second staysail barge Repertor but Niagara was comfortably ahead. She saved her 15 minute start on us by a minute and a half and it was scant consolation to learn if we had started better we could have had a shorter elapsed time. It is becoming apparent there is far more to winning the championship than finishing order and as we approach the last race Niagara is several points ahead.
There had been talk of a lay day on the Sunday, and we were all looking forward to the rest. Then the Cambrias announced they were for Essex the next day and common sense gave way to the chance of a race. And so it was that the anchorage saw muffled movement well before daybreak. Guest crew were put ashore in the dark to stumble after their cars and no one heard Cambria get underway. Only a dark shape heading down Gillingham Reach gave away how keen the crew were. Before even her, the Centaur had made an early start. Despite a north or Northeasterly being forecast the light airs at this point were northwest and with the young ebb it took all the concentration available at that hour to avoid being set into the moorings below Gillingham Marina. At Beesness the wind went altogether and the sturdy outboard was engaged for a few minutes to get us clear into Kethole Reach where the Northerly eventually came good. By now Cambria was approaching Garrison Point and there was only three hours of ebb to go. Two tacks in Sheerness Harbour and the jib topsail saw us safely out and cutting close to the Richard Montgomery we could spy Cambria well ahead along the Cant. She had no doubt suffered from a lack of wind and been set well to the east, so when she tacked and crossed us near the Medway Buoy she was less than a mile ahead.
As both barges entered the South-West Reach of the Swin they were tack for tack and made a splendid sight in the bright sunshine. At times it looked like a nice slant off the land would provide a fetch against the new flood, but after the Maplin Buoy the wind died and came ahead. Cambria brought up and we went into shallow water along the edge and dropped the kedge, leaving topsail and mizzen set, and had a couple of quiet hours while the tide made. It was Sunday and the firing range was closed so there were options if the wind returned, either pushing on against the tide to the Spitway or going over the sands and through the Ray Sand Channel, once the usual route to London before it silted up.
With barely two hours flood to run, the wind indeed returned from the north, and we scrambled underway and after half an hour were fetching past the Maplin Middle Buoy with Cambria following. But progress was slow against the tide, so we tacked to the west and found the Crouch buoys after a couple of tacks over the Ridge which we crossed with eight feet of water. It was high water now and with the wind slightly west of north one long tack took us through the Rays’n and to the vicinity of the Buxey Beacon where shoaling depth meant coming round to head inshore again. Coming round again near the southern target posts, which mark where bombing practice targets were placed for Bradwell airfield between the wars, we had Brightlingsea beckoning ahead not many hours away. Cambria had sensibly headed on towards the Spitway and could be seen off near the Whitaker Beacon. By now there was a good breeze, with maybe more offshore and at one point it looked like she dropped her topsail.
Through the chance of fate our tacks took us within a hundred yards of a small red sailing cruiser near Batchelor Spit. It looked to be sailing with just a mainsail set and not to be making much progress in the force four to five. Nevertheless we probably would not have thought anything out of the ordinary had it not been the suspicion of a hale as we passed. We dropped the topsail, tacked and hove to close enough to windward of the boat to ascertain the situation. The one man aboard waved vigorously and shouted that he was taking on water and needed rescue, or words to that effect. We replied we were not in a position ourselves to render assistance but would call the Coastguard and stand by until help arrived. Had we attempted to come alongside with the barge there was every chance of doing considerable damage to the casualty. Were she to be evidently sinking, conditions were just good enough to launch the barge-boat when hove to and this would have been undertaken to effect a rescue. However, the lifeboat would be able to rescue both person and vessel so this was preferable.
Having made contact with Dover Coastguard it was interesting almost their first interest was where the boat came from and where it was headed. We surmised rightly or wrongly the world at Dover is nowadays all about people smuggling which might have affected questions, but our boat was from Point Clear headed for Jaywick just round Colne Point. Or perhaps consideration was given to which lifeboat was best placed to reach the destination. After several passes hove to, we were told the Coastguard had tasked West Mersea lifeboat to attend and we should continue to standby. Showing great presence of mind, the gentleman aboard the boat had already stowed his mainsail and now dropped his anchor. This was very sensible as with a falling tide there was shallow water to leeward. Once called, the lifeboat was there in twenty minutes and immediately passed a lifejacket to the boat and took it in tow, and we were stood down after an hour or so.
By now Cambria was through the Spitway and the day was almost done. We were bound for Brightlingsea for a youth charter during the week so it made sense to get there that night even though it was dead to windward with a foul tide. Otherwise a long fetch to Mersea would have been preferable or even further if bound like Cambria for the upper Blackwater. Her navigation lights could be seen passing the Bench Head as we completed the last few of many short tacks into Colne. The jib was dropped at Second Beach so we could concentrate on keeping in the channel and tacking cleanly. By now we were all ready for our beds, as no doubt would the lifeboat crew be by the time they got home. They passed us at the number 13 buoy outward bound having passed their charge over to Brightlingsea Harbour. We learned later the owner was taken by the Coastguard mobile unit to a hostel in Colchester as he had no home other than the boat. Good for them we thought.
Anchoring at 2200, sixteen hours from Gillingham, no one wanted to hear just as we dropped back on the cable “what’s that by the starboard quarter?” It turned out to be a racing mark in a place not recollected. Luckily it was clear and there was no need to move.
Next day was for catching up on sleep, fish and chips ashore and shopping for the young people due next day. As it turned out the charter fell through giving a few more welcome days at home than planned before returning to the Colne for the last match of the season.
A passage from St Katharine Dock to Pinmill – August 2021
It was time to leave St Kat’s after a pleasant forty eight hours with ample use of laundry, local shops and a run ashore. After all, having come from Ramsgate it was de rigeur to visit the nearby and excellent Town of Ramsgate, one of the oldest if not the oldest London hostelry. As our (electric) cab was barred from parts of Wapping for reasons unfathomable but palpable to the driver who suffered an automatic charge on his previous visit, we were dropped short and it proved necessary to examine the Captain Kidd on the way, younger and in an ex-tea warehouse.
Also locking out were three boats from Manningtree who had also been in Ramsgate and passed through the Copperas Channel before us on Wednesday. Aboard one with his family was Reuben, who sails with us via the Blue Pass Trust, and his brother Isaac. They had used Boris bikes to explore London during their stay.
We had a tug, the Emilia D, again courtesy of Deverells and organised by Chris Livett, booked for an hour before high water so as to be let go in Gallions with a whole ebb to use. So we pulled ourselves gently into the lock assisted by lockmaster Tom who had sailed with us on Cambria some years back as a PLA apprentice and is now putting his skills to good use. Then we waited not many minutes for the tug which helpfully backed into the lock to collect us. There followed an opportunity for enjoying the river scene which is never possible when sailing all the way up and down and a hidden bonus. The Emilia D took us past her home shipyard on the North Greenwich peninsula. Only the preserved loading gantry nearby reminds you of the cable ships that set out from here to link the world. Past Peruvian Wharf recently bought to retain its use as a wharf and not to be lost like so many to development. Past Cutty Sark whose rig is maintained by a small in-house team supported by who rigged Blue Mermaid. The flags on the ship showed a light east or southeast breeze, hardly the best for getting down river.
The tug let us go at the top of Gallions and indeed it proved the first of many reaches to windward. There was a bit more south in the wind in Long Reach giving longs and shorts boding well for progress later if only it grew a little in strength. Passing Broadness is always difficult on the ebb because of the way the tide sets onto the three buoys placed to keep ships right on the sharp turn. Before they were there a dredger sank after hitting the Black Shelf. The tidal set doesn’t follow the fairway lines on the chart so you have to allow enough space from Broadness to avoid the red which looks like it is coming at you at five knots. This takes you perilously close to the first green and of course a light breeze is cancelled out by the tide. By dropping the foresail to help her wind Blue Mermaid came safely through this Scylla and Charybdis of Grays-Thurrock and moved in more breeze to the next challenge, that of two large outbound ships in Northfleet Hope with the tidal set into the wharves of Northfleet lurking in wait. The river at this point has suffered years of reclamation creating a significant pinch point accelerating the water around Tilburyness. A quick look at the chart shows how it is less than half as wide here as it is in St Clements Reach or Northfleet Hope, a short distance away. Much is rightly made of how land will be lost to the sea in future years, but of course most of what will be lost has been reclaimed in the first place. We now grow crops where King John lost his treasure. The first ship was avoided with a short tack towards the Seacon Terminal revealing it to be at an angle to the bank causing a set into the lower end requiring another drop and reset of the foresail for a speedy tack. The second ship passed behind after a brief conversation and we then fetched the length of Gravesend Reach. Following was Saga’s cruise ship Spirit of Discovery with 1300 souls aboard, maybe not full but a post-covid cruise nevertheless, but also a staycation being bound for exotic Pompey.
By Lower Hope Point the tide was almost done and we sought and kindly received agreement from London VTS to anchor close under the seawall for the flood. Mustering shortly before high water and getting the anchor at 0135, we found a nice west-southwesterly with just enough south to fill the staysail which was set while Oli set up the bowsprit for the passage. There was some traffic but a handy gap for us to cross to the Essex side at Sea Reach 7.
It being very light persuaded us to set the big jib under the working jib topsail, and this was fine until a look at the Inshore Forecast revealed a strong wind warning whatever the local forecast might say, and gradually the wind did increase. As we approached the Blacktail Spit in a murky damp false dawn down came the jib topsail and then the jib. Set on a traveller this is a hard call in a breeze and necessitated a bear away to drop the halliard in the lee of the foresail and a sprint back to the wheel before a gybe could occur. And still it breezed up in torrential rain. The wind gods were kind giving a fetch down Swin, the buoys flashing by at 7+ knots with the topsail rucked for an hour. When we ruck for any length of time we unhook the topmast runners and take them right forward. We have done this since a long windy beat with a rucked topsail in a Passage Match with Xylonite later revealed the constant worrying of the topsail cloth by the backstay wires had put several holes in the sail. On that occasion arriving at Mistley that evening the sail was sent down and collected by James Lawrence Sailmakers who effected a repair overnight and the sail was bent on next morning before the next charter arrived that afternoon. This was the kind of service that set James Lawrence apart and is a testament to Mark Butler who ran it.
Somewhat impressively a couple of yachts were crossing the Whitaker Spit going the other way and it was evident the weather was improving from the north.
We met the young flood at the Maplin Approach Buoy and coming close hauled found it possible to lee bow it and slide across the spit towards the Spitway. In fact we crossed the Gunfleet Sand well to the east of the Spitway buoys in no less than ten feet of water an hour’s flood midway between neaps and springs. We had found this much water here before, on the Passage Match in June.
By now the working jib was rigged and set and the topsail set again and there was a glorious broad reach down the Wallet against the tide in bright sunshine. In fact we saved our tide into Harwich and although the wind continued to veer so that we beat from Shotley, we anchored at the Clamp below Pin Mill with flood to spare, eleven hours from the Lower Hope and 24 hours from London.
On Monday we went on the blocks at Pin Mill and cleaned the coming growth of weed and little barnacles from the bottom. This is only six weeks since the last scrub and antifoul but a clean bottom is a wonderful thing. A team from Wakelyn’s Bakery at Fressingfield in Suffolk came and took away the last of De Gallant’s cargo, two bags of Brazilian sugar.
Now painted and spritely and back afloat, we leave Thursday for the Medway to compete in the Match on Saturday.