A Maritime Interlude

This half term just gone, I got the birthday present of a lifetime and was given the chance to go, with some family and friends, on a real Thames Sailing Barge, under sail from Maldon. It was simply the best day ever!!! I have loved boats all my life and these boats in particular for more than 10 years. We used to visit Maldon in the summer, sit on quay, have fish and chips and watch the Morris Dancers. Always, moored up there, were the Thames Sailing Barges, looking magnificent.

Finally I got to sail in one and on the same water where I learned to sail! I just can’t say how totally awesome it was – it blows my mind!

This (above) is the view as we motored away from the quay and got out into the Blackwater Estuary. (These vessels originally didn’t have engines but when they were converted for passenger use, engines were added.)

Here are some amazing facts…

  • They are flat-bottomed sailing boats with no keel. Instead they use “leeboards” to prevent them being pushed to leeward when sailing. (Leeward is basically sideways in the direction the wind is blowing i.e. downwind.).
  • Because they have no real keel their draft can be as small as 3 feet allowing them to get right up river if needs be.
  • Our boat “Thistle” was 85 feet long and 20 feet across.
  • Thames Sailing Barges are the largest boats to be crewed by two men, a Skipper and a First Mate
  • She was built in 1895 and is 124 this year!
  • She began life bringing coal down to the Thames from the Humber and now works as a charter boat for Topsail Charters.

This is our First Mate putting up the jib. That day it was a bit blowy so we only used the jib and the mizzen (main sail on the second mast). She still heeled over when the wind got up, even with so little sail on. It was a beautiful ride.

This is one of a few beautiful vessels we saw moored out in the Blackwater. Once we got right out into the estuary I was very kindly given a chance to helm the boat for about 15 to 20 minutes under the careful watch of the crew. It was so brilliant! It was one of the best experiences of my life! The waves kept banging against the rudder making the wheel jump heavily in my hands. I also noticed that even with the leeboards she wasn’t able to go as close to the wind as the modern boats I’ve sailed before. She took a pretty long time to respond to the helm too, so you had to watch well ahead for channel markers. It was only 20 minutes but I think I fell in love with her a little bit. It was such a privilege to take the helm.

This (above) is part of the salt marsh at high tide. I love this kind of place! Marshes and fens have been my favourite places for years. They are incredibly useful and productive from a biological point of view. They are also invaluable as nurseries for fish, insects and crustaceans. Having good condition salt marshes on the coast really helps to balance overfishing and they also stabilise the land against wave action to some extent. Although, being a Biology teacher at heart, I really enjoy all of this biological stuff, the thing I love most about the marshes is that they’re a liminal place, neither sea nor land, a place of change, of lost edges, of ends and beginnings. It feels kind of magical to me, somehow free from the normal rules. I can see why the marshes were regarded as strange and uncanny in the past. To me though they spell freedom.

Finally we came back to the quay at mid afternoon and had a gorgeous late lunch of Lentil Soup onboard as the boat settled gently onto the Blackwater mud at low tide. This was followed by a lovely birthday whiskey – the perfect end to a perfect day!

P.S. I haven’t included any photos of family or friends because I prefer to ask permission for this kind of thing before putting any pictures onto the internet. I have loads of great photos and many more from my sister who is, it turns out, a much better photographer than me!

P.P.S. Apologies for my absence online on this day. Saturday is my main day for perusing WordPress and this nautical adventure was on a Saturday, so I got a little behind in my reading that week. 😁