Monday, 26 April 2010

Time and Tide

James and I have had the most fantastic weekend, sailing the Thames Barge Reminder on the Blackwater. I have been wanting to blog about the fact that we would be doing this for ages, but since it doesn't do to advertise the fact that you and indeed several other Cambridge narrowboaters will be leaving their boats unattended for the weekend, I somehow have managed to resist.

(big) James on Kestrel sent an email round a few months ago saying: "Would anyone like to join me and Emma in hiring a historic Thames Barge for the weekend sometime? I need at least six more people." It wasn't cheap, at £195pp from Topsail Charters based in Maldon, Essex, but we decided that this was a chance we simply COULD NOT miss! So we said yes, as did several other of our friends from the river and the rowing club.

So, on Friday night, we drove down to Maldon to board Reminder, ready for an early start on Saturday. She is a beautiful steel sailing barge, 80ft by 18ft and built in 1929; tradition has it that after the 1928 Thames Barge Match, Fred Horlock promised his victorious rivals that he would give them a "reminder" of the speed of his barges. The following year, Reminder was launched at Mistley and fulfilled his expectations, winning races on the Thames and Medway. She was also one of the last barges built. The cargo hold has now been converted to comfortably accommodate 12 people.

Reminder under sail (obviously not my own photo, since I was on board all the time we were sailing!)

The saloon

We were lucky to arrive early and nab the only two double rooms! One of the first things we did was hoist the rowing club flag, which I had brought! It looked great flying at the top of the flag halyard.

Lowering the flag (this is the best photo of the actual flag that I have)

We were to be sailing with a crew of three: Kevin the Skipper, a tough but very friendly seaman, Sam the Mate, a calm, competent 17 year old lad, and Annie the cook whose delicious meals were one of the highlights of the trip. We ate out in a Greek place in Maldon on the Friday we arrived, but all our provisions (bar drinks) were catered for. The difference in price between catered and non-catered was minimal and we were glad to not have to worry about cooking for 14 every meal!

At 7:30 am, the crew arrived and we set off down the Blackwater in the morning sunshine. Kevin explained that while he and Sam were quite able to crew the boat by themselves, we were welcome to join in an help out as much as we wanted. As we were pretty much all either rowers or narrowboaters, sailors or all three, this offer was taken up with enthusiasm! (big) James helmed at we motored out of the channel, and then it was time to get the sails up. Under Sam's instructions, several of us were soon hoisting first the topsail, then the main and foresail. Although there are a lot of ropes, it was actually fairly simple. These boats were designed to be sailed by one man and his boy!

James takes the helm

Once out in deeper water we spent the next few hours beating out to sea, and past the mouth of the River Colne. After a while we got the staysail up as well, and then we really started to move! We were in no hurry to get anywhere though, as the weather was glorious (if a bit cold in the wind) and we were just enjoying being under sail. We were tacking back and forth, so every so often the skipper or whoever was at the helm would shout 'Ready about!', followed by 'Lee-oh!' and we'd all run to our stations to move the bowlines on the foresail, slacken and tighten the relevant staysail runners, and drop and raise the leeboards. Some people didn't feel like actually getting involved in the sailing, but instead just enjoyed the ride, reading or chatting on deck.

Once the tide turned, we went about and began running before the wind back to the Colne, where we were planning to moor up for the night. I took the helm for the first time at this point, and it was very exciting although a bit nerve wracking to be in control of such a large vessel. I sailed quite a bit when I was younger, and so all the principles were familiar to me, but the scale made everything different. Although going about is slower, everything's larger and that bit more dangerous!

James took the helm again as we sailed up the channel towards Brightlingsea up the River Colne. With the help of Kevin and a handheld GPS, I helped him navigate between the shallows and up to the spot where we were to drop the anchor and moor up for the night. Kevin then brought the boat head to wind and we helped Sam stow the sails. We had no need to go to shore, as we had plenty of booze on board, and so spent the evening drinking, reading and playing games after a delicious meal cooked by Annie. Before it got dark, a few of us, James and I included decided to go for a pootle in the tender, which was good fun.

Sunday morning dawned grey and damp, and as we were in no hurry to get back to Maldon (the water would not be high enough to moor at the quay until 9pm) Kevin suggested that we stay anchored and head off after lunch. A few of us headed to shore in the tender, to enjoy the sights and sounds of Brightlingsea on a wet Sunday morning, under instructions to pick up the Sunday papers.

Beach huts of Brightlingsea (some of these go for anything up to £24k!

While we were out, some of the boaters had lit the stove and we returned, wet and dripping to be greeted by mugs of tea and a toasty warm saloon. Most welcome. Sunday lunch was pork and caramelised apples with mash, followed by fruit crumble. After lunch, the weather brightened and we had another glorious afternoon's sailing back to Maldon. On the way we saw a dinghy, with lots of fast, two-man spinnaker boats: RS B14s, Laser 4000s and others.

Another historic boat, Black Rose, was also sailing up the Blackwater, and was a lovely sight.

The wind was in the wrong direction to sail all the way back to Maldon, which was a shame as it had picked up considerably and we were racing along with James at the helm, absolutely loving it! He had really got the hang of it, and the skipper was impressed. At one point a gust caught the boat and she heeled over so much that half of the soup for dinner crashed onto the floor! Once we were in the channel, we stowed the sails again. The staysail got a bit caught on the way down, so the intrepid Sam scaled the ratlines (I think this is the word?) to free it.

As the sun set, we motored back to Maldon, arriving at 8:30pm just as dusk fell. We said our goodbyes to Reminder and the wonderful crew, and headed back to Cambridge, exhausted but having had one of the best weekends boating that we can remember!


  1. Very nice, thanks for sharing. Sailing and hiking are my favorites. What a great boat.