Barges off Brightlingsea - continued

Thames barge, Blackwater River, River Colne,

Friday was spent sailing along the coast to Clacton, and then back into the river Colne at Brightlingsea where the race was to start and finish on the morrow.

The deep water channel is quite narrow directly off the town so all the gathering barges were anchored in very friendly proximity to each other, with barely enough space to swing past each other as the tide turned. The barge race was due to start at 7-30 in the morning so it was a 6-30 rise to get ready. Just to make a complicated situation even more interesting the organisers had also organised a sailing smack race at the same place, but starting half an hour earlier. So as the big barge beasts were winching in anchors and beginning to manoeuvre upriver and upwind for their start the fleet of smacks were dashing downriver to theirs, full sail set, all bowsprit and topsail. With a spanking breeze and raking morning sunshine it made a marvellous panoramic picture, one that it was wonderful to be in the middle of. Then began the delicate judgement of positioning ourselves for the start, balancing wind, tide, sail area and where everybody else was. There were two classes of barge in the race but both starting at the same time-- the staysail class like ours and the slightly faster ones carrying a bowsprit and more sail area—fifteen barges or so and all now under full sail heading for the start line within a few hundred yards of each other. “We’ll have to take part in a barge race” had said Ian, months before “is that O.K?” Oh, what!?! fantastic!…

The course of the race was triangular and with the first leg running before the wind it was relatively easy to see how everyone was doing as the line of barges stretched out and the boomies pulled ahead. Everybody had everything up, clouds of canvas all pulling bravely in the strong south-westerly wind. After rounding the buoy off Clacton the next leg was a broad reach out to sea, heeling over and sailing at a spanking 7 or 8 knots until after an hour or so we rounded the outermost buoy and headed back towards the finish. But this last leg was a beat to windward, having to tack more and more often as the estuary narrowed (and winding the leeboards up more and more often –see above…) and with all the other barges criss-crossing on different tacks it was difficult to judge our relative positions. In the event I think we came about fifth out of eight or nine but for us it was certainly the taking part that was important, not the final position, (us passengers, that it – not quite so sure how the crew felt about it.) By early afternoon we were once more anchoring in the river with a sense of deep satisfaction. It is difficult to imagine how this first barge sailing experience could have been bettered for us bunch of beginners, thanks to Mac, Steve and Titania, and the two extra experienced deckhands shipped aboard for the race. Thanks again team.

After a suitably celebratory evening ashore we set off next morning to return to Maldon using the last of the ebb tide to help us out of the Colne. It was a lazier day’s sailing this time under just topsail, jib and mizzen. When I asked Mac why we weren’t setting the mainsail he replied laconically “well it’s Sunday, and the sun’s shining…” He was right of course -- we could sit all over the main hatch without the shadow of the mainsail in the way and without having to be wary of the massively heavy mainsheet blocks thrashing across the deck each time we went about, but really it was another piece of quiet understated seamanship. We needed to arrive upriver at Maldon at high water in the afternoon, and that steady sailing pace was a carefully judged decision to get us to the quay at just the right time. We made stately progress up the Blackwater through several regattafuls of sailing dinghies, like a bull through a swarm of bees and arrived at the top of the tide as planned. There, with considerable regret, we disembarked and returned to the land of motorways heading north. As you can perhaps tell from the above we all had a super time. We sailed aboard Reminder, built at Mistley in 1929 and now operated by Topsail Charters Ltd. Find out more about them at www.top-sail.co.uk  but I’m afraid I can’t guarantee such wonderful weather when you go. But mind the mainsheet!

©Tony Lewery, The Brow, Ellesmere, September 2007


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