Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Thames Sailing Barge Match 2015

Sailing Barge Lady Daphne
in full racing trim.
Yesterday I took part in the Thames Sailing Barge Match courtesy of Elisabeth and Michael Mainelli, owners of sb Lady Daphne. If you are looking for a bit of tradition then this is the place. Forget the America's Cup. Although the AC is supposedly the oldest sailing contest in the world, having started in 1851, the Thames Sailing Barge Match which started in 1863 is exactly that – a match for this one type of vessel – not for the high tech, low-flying aircraft that have been developed over the years to contest the America's Cup.

Course of the Thames Sailing Barge Match 2015.
The match starts at Gravesend and proceeds down the River Thames towards the estuary, turning around a buoy some distance off Southend on Sea.

The sailing barges at Gravesend
on Friday night.
Now, what was I doing on a sailing ship? I don't know my scuppers from my kippers but I knew that I had only been invited on board to act a ballast. I would not have to do anything would I? They have a crew for that, don't they?

So I duly turned up at Gravesend on Friday night and met the crew and other guests at a very convivial dinner provided by Elisabeth.

I wasn't too sure about clambering up the side of the barge in the dark, having been ferried there in a sort of plastic bath tub, but I gritted my teeth and thought brave thoughts.
Steam Tug Portwey at Gravesend
on Friday night.

I was interested to see the ST Portwey moored just upstream from our buoy. This tug is a very rare creature: a twin screw, coal-fired steam tug built in 1927 to supply coal to coastal steamers.

The Portwey was going to accompany the sailing barges on the morrow.

To learn more about this fascinating remnant of our maritime history, click here.

Skipper James.
So, the following morning I was on board, ready for the off. Breakfast was a Mainelliburger which is fried egg and bacon sandwiched between two toasted crumpets. Having consumed that, I wandered up on deck, intent upon securing for myself a sunny and sheltered spot from which to enjoy this leisure cruise. I was rudely disillusioned when the mate (nautical term) addressed me and another matutinal perambulator with the instruction to, 'Raise the topsail.' For the minute I had thought he meant us. He had. 'Just pull on that,' he said.

View from Lady Daphne as
we lead the field.
So, having no option and not wishing to offend, we set to and hauled this big bit of brown canvas up this sort of pole which stuck up in the middle of the boat. 'Now the mainsail,' he said. This was an even bigger bit of brown canvas. I think it was then that I began to have misgivings about the nature of this pleasure cruise.

Neck and neck around the buoy and we are all
trying madly to get more sail up.

Within a very short time I had come to the realisation that I had been press-ganged into crewing a racing barge. The rest of the day passed in glorious frenzy of ignorance as I rushed about, tripping over things and generally getting in the way of everybody important while trying to carry out the skipper's suggestions (I can hardly call such kindly beseechings, 'commands') to 'loosen off that wang' or 'drop the port board'. 

I could not get out of my mind that we were actually doing this in the middle of a busy river. Indeed, we were occasionally reminded that we were not alone when something like a warehouse would steam happily through the middle of us.

After turning, we catch the wind and start to fly.
Once we had rounded the turning point, we suddenly found the wind and it seemed that everybody was running about like mad, pulling on ropes and winding handles. 

They are still trying to catch us up.
None of the dainty operations on this barge, such as raising acres of wet canvas up a pole or lifting a plank the size of a garage door up out of the water, are polluted by the inconvenience of motive power assistance. It is all human power. In my case, rather weedy human power.

And you know, some of the blighters we managed to overtake, would not give up, they kept chasing us. It was almost as if they thought they were in a race or something.

I looked around the hull of Lady Daphne for those holes through which they stick the muzzles of the canons but could not find any. Bit of an oversight that, on the part of the shipbuilder. They could have come in useful.

If you can keep your head while all
around you are losing theirs...

But I had to admire the sang froid of Elisabeth. With mayhem around her, crew running down the deck and climbing up poles, she managed to get in a bit of serious reading. 

But that is what I thought I had signed up for. Where did I go wrong?

Elisabeth and Michael, I had a brilliant time. Thank you so much. Skipper James, I apologise for being a bit of a nuisance and under your feet. And you didn't even use any 'nautical' language on me. What self control!

To know more about Sailing Barge Lady Daphne, click here.

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