Barges off Brightlingsea

Thames barge, Blackwater River, River Colne,

“Right” said Ian “I’ve booked the sailing barge for the end of August. The only unexpected problem is that we will have to take part in the River Colne Thames barge race over that weekend, is that O.K?”

Well it sounded good to me. After all, these barges were traditionally sailed by just one man and a boy, so surely all our extra crew would be a bonus. It turned out subsequently that that boy needed to be a six-footer, and that’s just across the shoulders… but, came the day, and we all set off for Maldon in Essex at the head of the Blackwater river, a Mecca of the barge sailing fraternity. We arrived on Thursday in the late afternoon in glorious weather to find our barge, the Reminder, moored outside a clutch of other barges, all sitting firmly on the Maldon low tide mud. This state of the tide meant that our own sailing adventure had to start at high water in the middle of the night, casting off and motoring down river for several miles before anchoring in deep water and going to bed again for a few more hours. Cor, how exciting…!

We were trebly blessed for our long weekend, by the weather, the wind and the crew. The weather was bright and clear, sunshiny most of the time but with enough variable cloud to give constantly changing skyscapes and dramatic dawns and sunsets over the flat Essex coastline. The wind was fresh and brisk out at sea, perhaps force 5 or 6 at times, but because it was generally westerly and thus coming at us over the land the sea remained relatively flat. Great sailing weather without getting wet—great! The professional crew numbered three - skipper, mate and cook. Our main man for this trip was Steve, the mate and chief deckhand for the race, although he had been the actual skipper of Reminder for most of this year so far. But because he had only just gained his captain’s ticket the racing rules insisted that someone with more experience must be in charge so he was acting as first mate for this race. But boy, he was good—very young (only twenty three-ish or so) but very knowledgeable, good humoured, enthusiastic, and fast, lithe and fit. Nor did he forget us, his passengers, keeping us informed without forgetting to keep our safety in mind. Quite a hero. The skipper was Mac, a complete contrast. He was older, taciturn and undemonstrative, and grizzled and weatherbeaten in a storybook sort of way. He seemed to survive on nothing but coffee all day and beer all night but he quickly emerged as a skilful bargemaster of fine judgement and deep local knowledge. We knew we were in safe hands with him at the wheel. Our cook for the voyage was a striking young Slovakian woman called Titania who served up miraculously substantial meals for all fifteen of us three times a day, with tea and coffee in between. And she still found time to come up and crew on deck at times, hauling the bowline and winding the leeboard winches. Clever, strong, in love with barges and beautiful – some woman!

Later Friday morning saw us up-anchor, setting sail down the Blackwater and learning the ropes, or at least a few of them, and winding winches. This is where the mate’s muscles come in. The Thames barge sailing gear is necessarily massive, so to remain manageable by a small crew every human effort is multiplied by block and tackle, double purchases or winches but it is still hard work. Most of the sails remain aloft and rigged most of the time, brailed up tight together when not in use, so the work is in setting the sails rather than actually raising them. A massive diagonal spar called the ‘sprit’ reaches skywards from the base of the mast to support the top of the mainsail and the outer point of the topsail. This spar, with sails gathered up to it, gives the English spritsail barge its unmistakable and characteristic silhouette. To get under way the topsail is set first, hauled up the topmast by a double purchase from the deck and then sheeted down to the base of the mast. Then the foresail is pulled up the forestay, made fast, and tightened down to the stem with another set of blocks. Amazingly the barge is now already sailable and manoeuvrable, and if the skipper sets the little mizzen at the stern and drops the downwind leeboard from the winch near the steering position our barge will already be sailing well to windward.

Ah, yes, the leeboard winches… To sail to windward any boat needs some lateral resistance, something to stop it being blown sideways across the water like a saucer. Most boats have a keel of some sort but the sailing barges are built flat bottomed, to carry big cargoes in shallow water and to take the mud at low tide. So, like Humber keels and the myriad of Dutch sailing barges they are fitted with leeboards, hinged keelboards that hang on either side of the boat. But they only work on the leeward side of the boat, when the sideways thrust of the wind is pushing the leeboard against the side of the barge. Fine. But to get to windward you have to tack, zig-zagging towards the wind to gain a bit of distance each time, but each time you tack you have to drop one leeboard and winch the other one up out of the way. Dropping one is easy—lifting a pawl out of the cogs on the winch and letting the steel cable roar out as several tons of steel board swings down into the water (although we always let Steve do it, funnily enough…) But on the other side of the boat someone else began winding the weather board up. Oh, please let me do that… Wind, wind, wind, well this is not too bad although it seems to be getting stiffer and stiffer. The winch handle is a poor fit and a bit long so you have to throw your whole body over each time which is extra tiring but keep going, and keep thinking of that one man and a boy. Wind, wind, wind and as you get more and more exhausted the blighter gets stiffer and stiffer. Finally pride has to give way and someone else has to help me get the last few turns in. Phew, thank goodness that’s over -- but then you hear the skipper say “Coming round!” as he hauls the wheel over and the whole business begins again – the roar as my hard fought cable runs out and the clink-clink-clink as the other one is winched up again, thankfully by someone else this time. One man and a boy indeed – some boy!

The main driver is of course the mainsail, a huge area of tanned canvas supported at the top by the sprit, let out and down from the mainmast like a great theatre curtain. It is loose footed and as the sail is set the mainsheet blocks have to be dragged aft and attached to the mainsheet horse, a massive slightly curved wooden bar that runs across the stern deck, just ahead of the ships wheel. Then the sail can be sheeted in, hauling in what seem like miles of rope through the pair of multi-sheaved pulley blocks that give that mythical one man the power to control such a vast sail. After it is tied off on the after block it can be left to look after itself, simply sliding across to the other side as the ship comes round. But it is the most dangerous place to be as the wind comes ahead and the sail begins to flog, wanging half a hundredweight of wooden block around in the air before slashing across to leeward to take the strain on the new tack. It wouldn’t care bit if someone was standing in the way… We were told to be careful, and we were, watchful for ourselves and each other. For a normal sailing rig the mainsail is the last sail to be set and the first to be struck, hauled in and up to the mast with brailing ropes attached to a cable coming down from the truck of the mast to yet another powerful winch on the deck. But for the race we were to fly yet another, a staysail set above the foresail running right up to the very top of the topmast but that would have to wait until tomorrow. Continued »

Next - the race begins!»

©Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, September 2007


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