Sam Llewellyn goes aboard Thames Barge Reminder to see how sailing the old-fashioned way can change people's lives back on land
If your idea of Essex involves TV preconceptions of girls with rococo nail jobs and lads on the run from the law after a little contretemps with a cash machine, a roundabout and some pills, the town of Maldon may come as a bit of a shock to you. There is a charming High Street crowded with jettied buildings. Down the hill past the deeply eccentric church tower are Hythe Quay, the River Chelmer and a crowd of curlews. And alongside Hythe Quay lie the barges, gigantic, tied up two and three deep.
These are not boring old Dutch barges, with wheelhouses and the skipper’s Daihatsu on davits on the after deck. These are proper spritsail barges, around 100ft long, displacing some 100 tons, crammed together in the muddy creek like whale-sized sardines in a gigantic tin.
Their masts and sprits scratch the drifting Essex clouds. They have beautiful champagne-glass sterns, names in gold: Kitty, Xylonite, Hydrogen, and (our target for today) Reminder.
Once, Thames barges were the heavy lorries of the East Coast. These days they survive through chartering. Reminder is no exception; but this is a charter with a difference. Adult cash customers sail her at weekends. On weekdays she is on charter to the Sea-Change Sailing Trust, brainchild of the lifelong sailor and (since 1994) full-time bargeman Richard Titchener and his partner, Hilary Halajko.
It is the top of the tide, and time to get Reminder down the creek and out into the Blackwater. The barge ahead sets off, a rather constrained group round her wheel (MCA surveyor on board, says Richard out of the side of his mouth). Yachty smarm is not in evidence. The engines of the barges on the outside of the raft fart diesel smoke, and the great beasts slide into the middle of the creek and hang there, waiting for us to go.
Reminder is sailing off her berth. We are up by the mast, letting go brails – on a barge, the mainsail is not hoisted and lowered, but brailed against the huge steel mast with top, lower and main brails. The breeze is blowing down the creek, straight out to sea.
We let out a fat russet bag of mainsail, keeping some turns on the main brail’s winch, because it is holding a sail that looks roughly the size of a tennis court and the pressure is mighty.
She starts, she moves, she seems to feel the thrill of life along her keel. The helmsperson passes the fat spokes through her hands. We are moving. The quay slides by, and the mutter of the other barge engines fades as the huge hulls settle back into their berths.
The Sea-Change Sailing Trust takes parties of people, many suffering from social isolation or various kinds of exclusion, for week-long sailing trips in the barging waters of the East Coast, the intricate network of rivers and creeks, banks and swales between Suffolk and Kent.
The Trust works with children and adults – everyone from eight-year-olds from St Joseph’s College in Ipswich through to an older generation with Dementia Adventure, a charity dedicated to improving the quality of life of people with dementia. The success stories are as heartwarming as they are remarkable.
There are four teenage crew on this trip, together with Richard the skipper, Hilary the mate, and Jack the third hand. With bigger groups they run a watch system, ensuring that everyone gets an opportunity to learn every job and nobody ends up doing either only popular or unpopular work.
In their heyday, barges were sailed by a man and a boy (or according to Hilary a man and a woman –
partners, like her and Richard, in life as well as work).
Many trainees started coming as part of a group and return as individuals, financed, if they cannot afford the fees themselves, by bursaries from the charity. Unlike some other sail training organisations, Sea-Change stays in touch with – and in some cases mentors – its trainees when they are ashore between trips, so Sea-Change participants, some of whom come from very difficult home circumstances, become part of a warm and familiar extended family.
We are moving fast now, down a coiling brown lane of water past the municipal paddling pool and something that might be a park. The crew are tidying up, cheesing lines on the green tarpaulin hatch covers, sloshing the quayside grime off the side decks.
There is plenty to do on a barge. Richard has thought long and hard about the usefulness of sailing. Much British sail training, he reckons, is splendidly well-intentioned but takes place on boats with so little to do that trainees spend most of a voyage waiting for their turn to steer.
The barge is different. Working from stern to bow, there is the mizzen, sheeted to the rudder; the mainsheet on its horse; the vangs (pronounced ‘wangs’) that determine the position of the sprit; the running backstays for mainmast and (more importantly) the tall, slender topmast that supports the enormous topsail; the leeboards, controlled by huge chains running to the crab winches on either side of the wheel which have warping drums for vangs and mainsheet in a breeze; the mast, with its dizzying festoons of brail tails and topsail sheets and God knows what other miscellanea; the foresail, whose sheet, like the mainsheet, runs on a horse athwart the deck; and the anchor windlass, with its vast chain and a horizontal timber drum as fat as a well-grown oak trunk.
Each of these elements demands someone’s full attention, and many of them bear loads measured in tons.
The teenagers stand by, quietly confident. Hilary reminds one of them that it might not be a great idea to be standing forward of the foresail sheet horse when the sail bangs over. Her voice is mild and sensible. There is no shouting in Sea-Change, and very few orders. Richard and Hilary make quiet suggestions, and the crew act on them, and learn sailing and life skills by example.
The Blackwater is opening out. The tide is ebbing hard, and down we go, keeping the big reds to starboard. Ahead, the North Sea trawler that found a sort of fame as Radio Caroline lies anchored off the twin tombs of the Sizewell nuclear power station. Combined with the line of beach huts on Mersea Island, this is not an obviously romantic panorama, but Reminder makes it so, a great white beast from a more spacious age.
Down we run. There is a gybe. Everyone takes his or her position, no fuss. The mainsail and topsail are both up, and the barge is surging down the wind.
Up with the mizzen topping lift, because nobody needs a mizzen before the wind. Stand by the running backstays. Over goes the helm. Control the sprit with the vang, a turn or two on the crab winch warping drum. And away we go again.
This article appeared in the November 2017 issue of Practical Boat Owner magazine, since when the readers have donated over £1,000 to the Sea-Change Sailing Trust. To find out more and donate, visit: www.seachangesailingtrust.org.uk
On almost all barges, cargo space is now dedicated to the accommodation of charterers. This is not something that pleases Richard. Sea-Change is in the process of building its own barge, Blue Mermaid, a replica of a Blue Mermaid launched 85 years ago at Mistley and blown up by a mine in the Second World War. The hull was launched last year at Toms of Polruan and was towed to Maldon, where she is currently fitting out under the hands of Jim Dines and his team at the Downs Road Boatyard.
She is an enormous vessel even by the standards of barges. The main difference between her and her ancestor is that she is welded from plates of laser-cut steel rather than riveted. She is waiting for her rig – the Trust, a charity, has already raised half a million pounds and needs £180,000 more. Authenticity will be important. Her sails are planned to be something special – woven from linen with a selvedge instead of a hem at the Whitchurch Silk Mill with the help of Richard Humphries, Upper Bailiff of the Worshipful Company of Weavers.
But linen sails are by no means the whole of it. As we walk through the cavernous spaces of the raw hull, Richard points out the sites of her future accommodation, and a huge void in her mid-section which will be the most authentic feature of them all: a cargo hold.
Sea-Change trainees who sail on Blue Mermaid will not only work with a minimum of engine power, they will work whatever cargoes Titchener can find up and down the East Coast. The object of sailing, he reckons, is to take people out into the middle of nature.
His trainees do not use mobile phones, because they interfere with the group dynamic and the sense of here-and-now. Similarly, engines can if overused make life too easy. He will use them if absolutely necessary – it is after all the 21st Century, and there are schedules to be kept. But on the whole he would rather not. So Blue Mermaid will carry her cargoes without an engine, and will rely on the traditional barge skills of towing, drudging and warping.
Meanwhile on Reminder it’s time to anchor. Some skippers would start the donkey, jam the boat up head to wind, give her a blast astern and drop the hook.
Not Richard. He puts the helm down. The luff of the mainsail bulges aback, and the 100-odd tons drifts to a slow halt. Hilary and the anchor crew have made a beautiful square flake of chain aft of the windlass drum, with a turn on the drum. She drops. The chain roars out. A couple of trainees put buckets of seawater over the drum to lubricate it. The barge drifts astern. The chain lifts from the sea, straightens a moment, dripping, and sinks again. The anchor is set.
Time moves at a peculiar speed when you are living in a sailing machine built 100 years ago. It is a surprise to see that the sky over the land is already turning pink, and to feel an evening chill in the breeze. Smoke is fluttering out of the flue of the saloon wood stove as we tally on to the brails for the mainsail. The topsail comes down, and stays aloft, held to the topmast by its rings. ‘We should put a gasket on that or it’ll go flap flap all night,’ says Richard. ‘Who wants to go?’
The trainees are somewhere around 16 years old. Eight young eyes seem to be looking at me. I have been asking questions all day. It is my turn to suffer.
‘All right,’ I say. This is not exactly Cape Horn. The mast is only 40ft high, and I have a safety harness on, and the sea makes millponds look rough. But as I beetle up the shrouds I am thinking, why the hell did I open my stupid mouth? And when I get to the hounds, where the shrouds are too close together to get a foot on to a ratline, and my spectacles are falling off, and it has taken five minutes to get the first turn of the gasket on to an oil-drum-fat lump of unyielding canvas, and the gasket itself is the only thing that is keeping me suspended in mid-air, I notice that the safety line is doing its bit as well. I look down and see that in charge of the line is Dan. Dan is 15. He has a turn and half a figure eight on the cleat. He is in full control of the situation, because he has done it dozens of times before, the way Hilary and Richard have shown him. And I find myself thinking that any combination of vessel and organization that will allow you to trust your life to a 15-year-old stranger after six hours’ acquaintance must have something pretty special going for it.
But there is not too much time for ponderings of that nature, because it’s supper time, and everyone has to think of three things they’d take to a desert island, after which there is a passionate and uproarious Sevens tournament. And so, with minimum engine and maximum sailing and manoeuvring and anchoring and serious fun, the week roars on. Everyone on board will be back. Including me.