There’s a lot to be said for owning small boats and chartering big ones...Clive Marsh looks at spritsails, snotters and leeboards

Every now and then I like to sail on a big boat or little ship and one of the best ways to do this is to find a berth aboard a Thames sailing barge.

These beautiful shallow sea vessels are normally run by trusts or enterprising enthusiasts.

They cost a small fortune to maintain in seaworthy condition and their owners like to engage passengers and willing crew who can make some contribution to their upkeep.

I have sailed on barges out of Maldon and Portsmouth and there are other ports offering barge trips.

I have known and been interested in sailing barges since the early 1950s when they could still be seen trading in the Thames and Medway.


My first barge sailing experience was on the good ship Thalatta.

She’s an historic vessel with an overall length of 89ft (27.10m) and a beam of 20ft 6in (6.28m).

Weighing 92 tonnes gross and very high maintenance she is way beyond the means of most of us practical boat owners.

Thalatta is available for children’s education and private hire and I found my way on board as an occasional school parent helper at the invitation of my mate who was the headteacher of my daughter’s school.

The overnight trip was designed for a crew of teachers to experience first hand what was on offer to their students.

A barge sailing a spritsails

Thames barges and yachts racing at the Blackwater Estuary, Maldon. Credit: Helen Cullens/Alamy

We were a mixed bag but the skipper and his mate really didn’t need our help.

The mate in particular could manage all the rigging and leeboards herself in between cooking the most amazing meal for us all. I watched her in wonder.

We anchored off the East Coast and after roast chicken with all the trimmings followed by a decent pudding settled down for a few beers and a natter.

I was one of the first to try a hammock in the hold and was surprised how comfortable it was; although in the morning I resembled a banana.

Other members of our motley crew drifted down to join me leaving just one reveller wandering the decks. I dozed and fell quickly to sleep but was shortly stirred by a loud crash.

Our reveller had fallen down the steep hatchway and lay silently.

My initial thought was that he was dead and in which case we could sort him out in the morning one way or the other.

But, before I could have a second thought, my mate swung out of his hammock and attended to the poor fellow.

As it turned out, he had fallen like a baby and had done himself no significant damage.

We all slept well to the gentle rocking of our little wooden ship at anchor.

Next morning our amazing mate cooked us all a decent breakfast and before returning to Maldon we had all learned a little more about sailing barges.

The guest teachers were enthusiastic regarding bringing their charges on board at some future date and I decided that I would one day bring a party onto a barge.

This opportunity was soon to come on the barge Alice.


When working as an accountant for a corporate company, I had a small budget to entertain customers and for them to get to know me better.

I think we called it customer retention and bonding and this was usually done on the golf course or clay pigeon shooting.

While I can hold my own on these types of activities I find them somewhat limiting and apart from the good company rather boring.

So I decided to take my customers sailing.

Not on a yacht, as I had previously done resulting in much seasickness, but on a good, steady sailing barge.

I found the Alice a converted lighter based out of Portsmouth and she was just the job for me.

A man at the wheel of a sailing barge

Clive aboard the sailing barge Alice

Her owner/skipper was a real enthusiast and his mate, a young fit lad from South Africa, had endless energy.

Alice had actually started her life late in 1954 as a lighter for towing or rowing in and around the Pool of London area.

In 1994 she was purchased by Owen Emerson and converted into the beautiful sailing barge she is today.

She was bought by Alan Gick in 2005 and based at Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth for sailing trips in the Solent.

She’s 77ft (23.5m) long with her 3,500ft2 of sail spread over a mainsail, topsail, foresail, staysails and mizzen.

She also has the benefit of a 125hp diesel engine which was useful when docking at Gunwharf.

Down below the accommodation for crew and guests is spacious and comfortable compared to most yachts.

Continues below…

With all this comfort in mind, I felt confident that my customers would enjoy their trip.

I met my customers at Gunwharf and as they walked around the spacious deck of Alice taking in the scenes of Portsmouth harbour I could tell they were already enjoying the experience.

Once out into the Solent the skipper and his mate soon had all five sails up and were happy to leave either me or my sailing mate on the helm.

After playing dodgems with Solent traffic we anchored off Priory Bay on the Isle of Wight.

The sun was out, trees in fresh leaf came down to a sandy beach and my London guests commented that it looked like the West Indies, amazed that we were so close to London.

It was actually April with a biting cold north-easterly wind, the sea temperature was still in single figures and I was wrapped up in my warm sailing jacket.

In spite of this, the young Mate dived into the sea and swam ashore.

After a 20-minute rest on the sand, he swam back and climbed up the anchor cable to get back on board.

A small boat with red sails

Clive and his little traditional boat. Own little and hire big is his recommendation. Still bent like a banana after his hammock experience!

We all stayed huddled around our coffee mugs anticipating lunch. This too was first class.

On our return passage, I was on the helm while our skipper was enjoying himself up the mast when a French ferry, keeping to the deep water, was crossing our path.

I was going to clear her stern but she stopped in our path with her passengers on deck taking shots of us.

We must have made a fine sight with all five sails pulling in a nice Force 5.

I pointed Alice to indicate I wanted to pass astern and the ferry recommenced her course. These large ferries are very manoeuvrable.

The steering on Alice was a bit ‘clunky’ and one soon got tired.

Skipper Alan said he was scheduled to get this fixed.

The guests were now getting more into the swing of things and beginning to crew with some enthusiasm.

Back at Gunwharf, they left the Alice with bronzed faces having experienced something very different to corporate golf.

They talked about it for years to come. Next time I’ll organise a day trip for family and friends.

There’s a lot to be said for owning small boats and chartering big ones.

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