Thames Barge Racing – The Whitstable Barge Match

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Majestic Thames Sailing Barges – cargo workhorses of the River Tham

‘Barging In’: Win 1st Prize TWICE by coming 2nd, Alice’s Sea Bass – & Meet the Real Captain Birdseye!

Huge, majestic craft with distinctive red-ochre sails, Thames sailing barges used to be the cargo workhorses of the River Thames and the Essex coast. Once a common sight; over 2000 barges plied these waters. Sadly, now only a handful of these historic ships remain.

Their romance had long held me in thrall, so imagine how excited I was to discover that it is possible not only to sail a Thames Barge, but also to stay on board AND race one! We took part in one of the Barge Matches, a series of races held to every year to pit the pride of barge crews against each other!

At 6’6”, onboard accommodation for my hubby, Mark, is usually a little spare in the hammock and headroom department. Not so with our steed, SB ‘Repertor’. Dating from 1924, her cabins in the converted cargo hold had the space and soaring sense of a cathedral, albeit one lovingly crafted from polished wood with a deep patina of age.

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The converted cargo hold had the space & soaring sense of a cathedral!

We had been told to expect ‘an atmosphere of serious but friendly competition’. I think we erred toward ‘friendly’ – we lingered a little longer than strictly necessary over our racing breakfast of scrambled eggs, with a luxurious hint of cream, toast, marmalade and all the trimmings (all that was missing was champagne, really!)

Onboard catering was provided by our hostess, Alice, who was really one of the warmest, loveliest people I have ever met. Breakfast combined with the slow-motion, 20-point turn required to manoeuver our 86ft length out of the tiny harbour meant that we managed to arrive late for the start! (Although we had, by that time, pulled quite a large and worried looking crowd!)

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The competition erred toward “friendly” rather than serious – here, we arrive fashionably late for the start!

Notwithstanding our not-too-fashionably late start, we still cunningly nosed our way in on the line to start ahead of the back-marker, Sailing Barge ‘Greta’. I guess this was ‘barging in’ at its most literal! Greta had cleverly avoided the 20-point turn by parking the right way round in the harbour. I can only assume from her dilatory start that her crew had enjoyed an even more leisurely breakfast than us and had clearly been on the champagne for hours.

Far away on the horizon, we could see the ‘serious’ aspect of the competition; SB ‘Marjorie’, whom, we were told, spends her time between Barge Matches in dry dock, having barnacles polished off her bottom. Besides her hyper-hydro-dynamicity, she was also superior tactically. Well, she reached the start on time, for one thing, which delivered a fairly significant advantage! She had been anchored aloofly in the bay beyond the harbour, thus avoiding the complex extrication procedure and anxious looks from yacht owners as they fended off 86 feet and 69 tons of U-turning sailing barge…

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An Essex Smack joins the “serious” aspect of the competition, SB Marjorie

We could instinctively tell that Marjorie’s crew was lean and muscular; a bunch of Jolly Jack Tars who would eschew champagne and scrambled eggs in favour of a maggoty ship’s biscuit – and still be able to function at full capacity on race days.

I have to say that it was the most pedestrian form of racing that I have yet experienced. It is fair to say that it was a day of light airs, but on some legs of the race, we progressed rather more slowly than an octogenarian snail suffering from paralysis of the pseudopodium.  Nevertheless, we were quietly confident of being placed. Not because of misguided faith in our prowess as a racing crew, but because there were, in fact, only 3 barges in this particular match!

Aboard ‘Repertor’, we managed to retain our balance between ‘serious’ and ‘friendly’ throughout the race and finished exactly as we had started, in second place. Imagine our extreme surprise when at the prize-giving, in a room satisfyingly full of Captain Birdseyes, sporting full, white beards, sailing hats and pipes (I am not joking!) we were awarded First Prize!

 

It turned out that Marjorie, although she crossed the line first, was in the ‘Restricted Staysail’ category, while Repertor was in the ‘Unrestricted Staysail’ category. So we both took home a shield with ‘1st Place – Whitstable Barge Match’ inscribed thereon. This was by no means an end to Repertor’s honours, though.

There seemed to be a bit of silverware lying around spare, so we were also awarded a lovely silver cup for winning the match in the ‘Bowsprit’ category. I pointed out quietly that ‘Repertor’ did not actually have a bowsprit… I was told that she USED to have a bowsprit and that, although it had been removed 6 years ago, it was no obstacle to her claiming victory and honour in a barge match!

Such free flow of prizes was cause for great celebration for us but sporting commiseration for the crew of poor old Greta. They left empty-handed, obviously not having had the foresight to invent a unique form of rigging or ghostly bowsprit that would put them in a class of their own. Still, I suppose that this shows that in Barge Racing, as in life, there are both winners and losers – and that really, the competition is against oneself!

We ended the evening at Whitstable carnival after dining on board with the freshest fish from the renowned Whitstable fish market. We still cook ‘Alice’s Sea Bass’ – baked in the oven for about 20mins with the bottom of a baking tray covered with Pernod, a handful of capers and a few slices of lemon. Add a dash of cream in the last 10 mins of cooking to finish the sauce and serve with new potatoes and steamed vegetables. Rick Stein could learn a thing or two from Alice!

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The following day, we relaxed & caught our breath cruising around the Thames Forts.

The following day, Repertor relaxed and caught her breath cruising around the Thames Forts before we followed a narrow channel back to her home port of Faversham. Here, the Thames Barges’ distinctive topsail showed how it was designed to catch the winds, which blow at a higher level here when navigating through these land channels.

All in all, it was a fabulous weekend and a real privilege to experience this unique piece of our maritime history, albeit in rather 21st century comfort and style! One day, I will return when the wind is blowing; for although she was a multiple champ in the light airs at Whitstable, with her 4000sq ft of sail, I would dearly love to see what ‘Repertor’ is made of when the wind is really blowing!

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With 4000 sq ft of sail, I would dearly love to see what Repertor is made of when the wind is really blowing!

The barge matches take place throughout the summer from various Essex ports. If you would like to passenger or crew on one of these beautiful sailing barges for a few hours, a day or a weekend, the details are below. The barges are also available for private hire or as a novel venue for parties. Please note that we had to climb down a harbour ladder to board Repertor at low tide, but this may not be the case at all times in all ports.

 

If you too would like to get aboard and experience SB Repertor (1924) click here. Repertor’s home ports are Faversham & Whitstable in Kent & St Katharine Docks in London. She often sails from Maldon in Essex but can start or finish trips almost anywhere along the East Coast or in London.

Topsail Charters run SB’Thistle’ (1895) and SB ‘Hydrogen’ (1906) – you can join these boats for birdwatching cruises or Sunday lunch or afternoon tea at sea!

 

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