Thank you to the Medway Messenger for this coverage.
Thank you to the Medway Messenger for this coverage.
Thank you to Sue Reed for sharing with us her dad’s story.
Rough Passage by Brian Bridges written 22nd March 1996
Walking down ship Pier at 05.30 on a cold winter morning with a fresh to strong north-easter blowing had something of an adverse affect on the resolve of a 16-year-olds just starting his career as mate of the barge Mousm’e . However 30 years later as I write, resolve won out and the river was to prove one of the greatest love of my life only rivalled by that of the woman I was to share my life with .
But to return to that morning, as I sculled the boat out to the mooring , with the skipper standing with the assurance of one used to the movements of small boat in the choppy waters of the inshore, I marvelled at his calm exterior as he studied the morning sky, with the clouds chasing past the moon . To my inexperienced mind I wondered that if it were this rough close to shore what would it be like down in the Thames estuary, a notorious stretch of water given any wind with a touch of the Eastern it . As we neared the mooring my fears were dispelled by my duties for getting underway. The first of which involved the lighting and trimming of the navigation lights (parrafin) , no electric lights in those days just after the war, the luxury of electricity was a long way off. However, having got the lights going to the Skippers satisfaction , my next job was to scull the boat round and climb up on the buoy, a huge steel drum, and unshackle the mooring wire. This feat called for a certain amount of agility and balance as the barges pulled and snatched at their moorings. Being light on my feet and fairly fit this job was quickly completed. Once back on board the next job was to get the engine started, which was a Kelvin motor paraffin brute and very unpredictable. It involved swinging the engine with an enormous starting handle and if by chance one forgot to retard ignition the brute would backfire and throw you clear across the engine room. Many a forgetful mate had learned this painful lesson.
But this morning she started like a lamb. The skipper indicated we were ready to get underway and we backed out from the middle of the tier and pulled up on the outside Barge and remoored the remaining barge . One of the unwritten laws of the river was that you always left a tier properly moored. Once underway I had to neatly coil the ropes and wire down, get the boat aboard and securely lash any movable object, for the signs indicated we were in for a rough passage . Still there would be time to get a fire going, put the kettle on and take the skipper a cup of tea in the wheelhouse while I got the eggs and bacon going, having a good hot breakfast was a must, for once battened down who knew when our next meal would be . Having served the skipper’s breakfast in the cabin it was my turn to take the wheel. “Keep her in the fairway between between the bouys”, he said as he went forrard for a much enjoyed meal . Now I was alone in charge of the ship, what an unforgettable feeling that was, even though I knew the skipper would keep popping this head up out of forecastle every few minutes I didn’t care for a short while I was in my element . “Keep between the red and green flashing lights”, he said . Presently I saw the lights of a ship coming towards us. I knew it was a ship because of the two white masthead lights positioned above and between the green and red sidelights. I eased the throttle as a signal for the skipper to come on deck and he came aft , looking at the approaching vessel, ordered a change of course to starboard which would take us well clear and then resumed our original course . Having seen the other vessel safely passed the skipper went back to his breakfast and me to my task at the wheel. By this time it was beginning to get light in the East, enough in fact to see white horses on the waves in Longreach which lay east and west and on the ebb tide beginning to get a bit rough.
As you may have guessed Longreach is about 3 miles in length, practically dead straight, ideal for getting the business of breakfast out of the way and the more serious job of getting the hatches battened down and making sure everything was watertight. This meant putting canvas covers on skylights and ventilators, and dodging the odd wave as it sloshed over the bow. You may wonder why such precautions were necessary for a relatively short distance. Mousm’e was an ex-sailing barge loaded with 150 tons of silver sand bound for Ford motors at Dagenham . She only had about 3 inches of freeboard, even small waves would come inboard. Once in the estuary, she looked more like a submarine . In spite of this, Thames sailing barges were some of the safest vessels afloat. Although called a Thames Sailing barge, Mousm’e, was built at Maidstone by Albert Hutson of Maidstone, carrying general cargo between the Thames, Medway and East Coast ports. However on this trip we were bound for the Thames, via Sea Reach. 08 30 and we were approaching Garrison Point, sheerness. We were already beginning to ship water inboard a taste of what we could expect outside. As soon as we cleared garrison point , you could see and feel the difference in the seas motion, the old girl would lift herself up and over one wave and crash straight through the next. The estuary was notorious for its short vicious waves caused by the seas rolling right down from the north sea, and piling up into the shallower waters of the Thames estuary.
On leaving the Medway, one had to battle literally out to Grain Spit buoy, before being able to make a 90° turn into this swatch end and the estuary proper. It was this short, rough stretch that caused many a prudent skipper to turn back and run for the shelter of the Swale, a good safe protected anchorage. However, on this trip, the Skipper decided we would carry on , a decision that threatened to have a drastic impact on the breakfast I have so enjoyed earlier . Now we were outside the Garrison things began to get really lively. She would climb up one wave and then drop down with a sickening crash into the next, which would come washing down over the bows, roll aft, and smash against the wheelhouse, as if trying to carry it away and us with it. The wind had now increased in strength, and must have been gusting to almost a full Gale, spray being blown from the crests of the waves, through the wheelhouse windows , stinging the face and making ones eyes water. No clear view screens on barges then, she only had an open wheelhouse, and a canvas dodger , you literally had to duck behind the canvas as the spray flew aft.
The wind had now backed round almost due east which wasn’t good news for us for we had to steer into the wind and sea taking us diagonally away from our objective, the Spit buoy. We must now run down past the buoy, so that we could eventually make our turn, we would then run up the swatch with the sea on our quarter rather than a beam, otherwise she would roll most uncomfortably, probably causing a shambles down below.
It would be bad enough when we came about, the Skipper would judge his moment ,sometime after a big wave you could get a couple of slightly smaller ones, this is what he was looking for. Then it was all hands to the wheel and get her round as quickly as possible. To me however they all looked the same, huge and frightening. The Skipper on the other hand looked calm and unruffled and I wondered if I would ever acquire this. Looking back over the years I like to think I had.
We had now reached the point where the skipper reckoned we could , given a lull in the sea, turn and run for the Thames. It was now about low water and with the slackening of the ebb, the sea did seem to have lessened slightly. “Right”, the Skipper said, “stand by to about”, watching for the right moment, he ordered “hard a port” and we both heaved on the wheel which was trying to tear the spokes out of our hands, but we got it hard over and she started to come round, slowly at first, and then as a big wave hit her bow, she came round with a rush, and came beam onto the waves which rolled clean across the pathways, trying to carry any moveable object with them. But my lashings held firm and we were round and running for the swatch. Already, in the space of a few minutes, things began to feel better, with the sea now on the quarter, she tended to corkscrew. She felt more bouyant, lifting easily, not so much water coming aboard. Once into the swatch we began to feel the protection of the Nore Sands on the starboard beam and for the first time I began to relax. After about half an hour we had the swatch buoy a beam, and things had calmed down enough to venture forrad, open up the forecastle, light the primer and get the kettle on. Soon I was making my way, if a trifle unsteadily , back to the wheelhouse with two steaming mugs of team, laced with just a spot of brandy to revive flagging spirits (no pun intended).
We were well up Sea Reach with Chapman Head light a beam and approaching the East Bligh buoy, now the river traffic was getting pretty thick and we had to cross the busy shipping lanes. Reaching the Lower Hope, we dodged across in a gap in the ships converging on the Port of London. We then had a welcome if uneventful run up the Thames to Dagenham. On reaching Ford’s Jetty we found a ship alongside loading tractors for the continent, so we went back to Erith where there was safe anchorage.
Next day, with the ship gone, we discharged our cargo of sand and proceeded to Woolwich buoys to wait for fresh orders. After laying empty for a couple of days the Skipper came aboard to say that we had to go up to the Royal Victoria docks to load 140 tons of wheat bound for Colchester. I suppressed a groan for this meant we wouldn’t get home again for a couple of weeks. Still, it couldn’t be helped so I went below to start the engine, there was a bang and I found myself flat on my back. I had forgotten to retard that damned ignition!
Dave Brooks’ report on the 2017 Medway Barge Match:
The day didn’t get off to greatest start as the committee assembled on the Lady Hamilton the committee boat for the day. A radio message received and we were off too Gun Wharf to rescue a speedboat with engine failure. Time running out on us, it wasn’t the time for the speedboat owner to be handing us frayed bits of string to tow her with. A mooring line was quickly thrown to stricken speedboat and he was told to hang on tight as we made our way back to Chatham Maritime with speed boat bouncing in our wake.
Eventually we took up position on the line with a few minutes to spare before the first ten minute gun.
12 barges gathered off Gillingham Pier on the morning of June 3rd to contest the 109th Medway Barge Match.
9.30am Coasting Class consisting of the Cambria, Pudge and the Lady of the Lea. Skipper Ian Ruffles sailed the Cambria over the line first, something she has consistently failed at in all her previous barge matches, since her rebuild. She was followed by Pudge and then Lady of the Lea.
9.45am Staysail Class consisting of Edith May, Niagara, Repertor, Reminder and the Ironsides making a welcome return to the Medway Match and showing some of her previous form as she led the fleet away. Everybody on the committee boat donned their sunglasses as the Niagara’s bright yellow spars dazzled in the morning sunlight. Edith May followed then eventually Reminder and Repertor remembered they had also entered and made their way across the start line.
10.00am Bowsprit Class. Edme clearly trying to start off her season in style made a rare mistake and narrowly misjudged her dash for the line by a matter of seconds handing first over the start line to Mirosa. Edme turned back to start again and watched as Adieu and Marjorie cross before her second start.
From the committee boat perspective the outward leg was a nice sail. Cambria led the fleet out to the outer Mark whilst Edme was uncharacteristically playing catch up and Niagara were doing what she does well by picking off the barges.
Cambria had built up quite a lead to the outer mark and her approach was very good however there was still a strong ebb tide running. With some two hours to low water we settled down on the committee boat and enjoyed the spectacle as the fleet caught up. Adieu made a creditable effort to round the mark but narrowly failed. This was the theme until Edme followed by Mirosa and Ironsides made their approaches with less ebb resistance and were able to round and head for home.
Did you know there are seventeen severe scratches and thirty seven minor scratches on the Medway buoy? After staring at it for so long you get to know these things.
Eventually most of the fleet were round with Cambria followed by Lady of the Lea finally first round in the coasting class a considerable time after she reached it. With Edme now a considerable way off the committee boat had to leave Reminder and Pudge to time themselves round the outer Mark.
With the committee boat now heading to the front of the fleet we were treated to some excellent views as Edme and Mirosa played cat and mouse up the Medway until Edme was able to pull clear and then maintain her lead to win the bowsprit class. She was followed closely by Mirosa who in turn was followed by Adieu and Marjorie.
Ironsides due to her being able to get round the outer Mark early had quite a considerable lead over the Edith May and Niagara but during the course of the home leg both had made up quite considerable ground to suggest that it was going to be a very close finish. I have to confess I thought it was going to be between Ironsides and Niagara but Edith May was closest challenger. Both barges were going for it and sadly their was a coming together leaving both with no choice but to retire in sight of the finishing line. Niagara finished in first place and the plucky Reminder was second as Repertor had run aground earlier. Repertor used a kedge anchor to pull herself off the mud and finished the match in third place.
Cambria rounded off an impressive day by wining her sixth successive Coasting Class followed by Pudge who had a very good home leg and had made up a lot of ground and then Lady of the Lea.
Dave Brooks and Basil Brambleby attended the Medway and Swale Boating Association Conference at St George’s Centre, Medway Campus. We gained useful information from both speakers and delegates, made some interesting contacts which may develop into work for Cambria.
Medway Council’s regeneration leader was present as well as our local MP Kelly Tolhurst both talked about re-development in the Medway area, and its impact on the local heritage.
We have made issue on this subject with local government before, but having listened to speakers at the conference we will bring the subject up again with local government with particular regard to our heritage vessels.
— Kelly Tolhurst (@KellyTolhurst) March 4, 2017
All good things must come to an end. they say. Your trusty blogger has now been ‘at it’ all through the rebuild phase (dead easy because I lived in Faversham and could get down there every weekend!) and has since watched ‘our’ antics from the ‘Wesht’ of Ireland, 500 miles away from the nearest Thames Barge, getting access to the aul’ girl only when I came over in September for the St Kat’s display week(end). That worked well for a while but an evolution in the way we do ‘Social Media’ has seen a superb ‘flowering’ of reporting through Facebook and (to a lesser extent) Twitter, through Skipper, Ian Ruffles, through Maggs Casey Kelly and Dave Brooks plus, when the boat was in the hands of Sea Change, though Hilary Halajko’s “Cambria Watch” reports. I suspect that anyone interested in our adventures uses these media to stay in touch and the blog has run its natural course. I personally have also ‘moved on’ and find myself stepping away from things barge and moving now more into new areas.
So, I thank you all for your attention and I am sure that we have had a real go at it. I thoroughly enjoyed the blogging and I know from the feedback that many people enjoyed the posts. I am therefore, ‘signing off’ as blogger (The Trust may decide that it still wants a blog and invites a new writer to take up the keyboard; that is a decision for the future) and will stay interested in Cambria’s exploits but not as a reporter. Thank you for your attention over the years and for the excellent feedback. Happy Barging.
“Wrap me up in me oilskins and jumper
No more on this blog I’ll be seen
Just tell me old shipmates, I’m taking a trip mates
And I’ll see you someday on Fiddlers Green” (Sorry)
Today’s pics are both by Ian Ruffles. You can see that the winter has been fruitfully spent changing the galley area around, extending the worktops and cupboards. This to help make the galley more fit for creating the large amounts of servings of, for example, breakfast when the bigger parties of sail trainees are on board.
The poly-tunnel part of our winter work, though, is nearly done and Dave Brooks has posted this following call to arms to anyone who would like to help as we uncover the barge and get her fit again for sailing.
Dave writes ….
“We are now 5 weeks from leaving Faversham for the dry dock at Oare Creek. We have achieved quite a lot in the close season but now is the time for making the barge look the smartest she has been since she first left Faversham in 2011. This is the proposed schedule for the following weekends.
28/1. Painting Sprit, Inner Rails, Windlass (all buff)? Deck (blue) This needs to be concentrated on the foredeck back to the fore horse so that the Poly Tunnel can be disassembled and stacked neatly later.
7/8 Mar. Dressing Sails (Ian to confirm location) On the barge. More painting as above moving aft.
14/15 Mar. Dressing Sails if overrun or postponed due to weather from last week.On the barge Continue painting as before. Wheelhouse and iron work. Begin rigging out.
21/22 Mar. Removal of Poly-tunnel. Rigging out
28/29 Mar. Possibly moving to Oare. Gear Up.
Will advise what can be done at Oare after consultation with shipwrights.
Desperately need bodies for all these weekends. Please beg wives, girlfriends, family and friends to come and help, and pass on to anybody I have missed.
Please advise if you can make any of the dates.”
Meanwhile some bad news and some good news. It seems we have been broken into again and (reports Ian Ruffles) “Unfortunately yesterday when we arrived at the barge to continue our galley painting, we found the barge had been broken into again. As you can imagine us at Cambria Trust together with our volunteers this year who have worked so hard to get her ready for the new season are feeling quite upset, this has now put us behind in our preparations, so as per Dave’s post if you can give some spare time to help us that would be much appreciated.” Stolen was the Flat Screen TV, the Surveillance box, laptop, hand held radio, money and, for some reason, a box of Weetabix. On the good news front, a gent called Mark Grimwade has let us have (back) an old anchor sold to him in the 50s by Cap’n Bob Roberts for use as part of a mooring at Pinmill. Thanks Mark!
Just in from Trust Chair Bruce Richardson, the notice and Agenda for the coming 2015 AGM – your chance to hold the Board to account for their decisions and running of the company up to now and to quiz them on any concerns you have. It is also the annual chance to see how we are doing financially and to hear about the operational plans for 2015. If you are concerned that it might be long, dry and boring (as these meetings can be), trust me, I have never found that. They move along at a goodly pace and do not send you to sleep. Go along and enjoy the meeting, meet the Team and learn a lot about the running of a Thames Barge as a business in 2015.
Our mainsail, which just about fitted into the back of an enormous Japanese 4 wheel drive (someone was actually wondering whether we might be able to wangle some sponsorship out of Mitsubishi for the pictures!) has now made it as far as our sailmaker, Steve Hall of North Sea Sails, Tollesbury, for some repairs. Readers will know that the sails were originally made there using the mainly traditional methods by Steve. They were unfortunately damaged last winter by some sparks thrown up by the injudicious use of an angle grinder on the quayside by a contractor working for the landlord, cutting off old mooring rings.
There is a lovely series of pictures of the sailmaker at work, taken by Maggs Casey-Kelly and posted on our group page on Facebook. Thanks for those, Maggie. I reproduce one here just for the non-FB folks to give a flavour.