Barge Racing On The Thames Estuary
Barge racing season on the Thames Estuary
Crossing the marshes beyond Faversham at night, heading towards Oare Creek, my heart leapt in anticipation to see the mast of the Thames Sailing Barge Repertor outlined against the last fading light in a sky of gathering clouds. They were harbingers of a storm that woke me in my cabin with thunder and lightning, though when I woke next morning as the engine started up and the barge slid off down the creek towards the open sea, a shaft of sunlight descended through the skylight. Yet even this was short lived, with soft rain descending as we skirted the Kent Marshes towards the starting line of the Swale Sailing Barge Match.
Originally established by Henry Dodds in 1863, the annual Sailing Barge races that take place each summer around the Thames Estuary were once opportunities for commercial rivalry in the days when arriving first to pick up cargo meant winning the business. Their continuation in the present day manifests the persistence of the maritime culture that once defined these riverside communities. On Repertor, skipper David Pollock was assisted by three local gentlemen in his crew – Dennis Pennell, Brian Weaver and Doug Powell – who I believe would not be averse to being described as ‘sea dogs.’ Dennis and Brian went to school together in Faversham and all began their long nautical careers working on these Sailing Barges when they ran commercially – and today David enjoys the benefit of their collective knowledge.
An experienced skipper in his own right, David is a veteran of this race with several notable success and was eager to distinguish himself again this year. Picking up speed upon approaching the starting line, we were surrounded by a scattering of other brown-sailed Thames Sailing Barges and attended by a variety of traditional Thames sailing vessels including Smacks and Bawleys that have their own classes within the race. The sun broke through again, dismissing the tail-end of the rain and, even as we set out upon the green ocean, there was a line of Sailing Barges that extended ahead and behind us upon the sparkling water.
For an inexperienced sailor like myself, this was an overwhelming experience – deafened by the roar and crash of the waves and the relentless slap that the wind makes upon the sail, dazzled by the reflected sunlight and buffeted by the wind which became the decisive factor of the day. The immense force of the air propelled the vast iron hull, skimming forward through the swell at an exhilarating speed, yet required immense dexterity from the crew to keep the sail trimmed and manage the switch of the mainsail from one side to the other, accompanied by the raising and lifting of the great iron ’leeboards’ – which serve as keels to prevent the flat bottomed barge capsizing while sailing upwind.
Thus, a routine was quickly established whenever David Pollock turned the vessel into the wind, calling “Ready about!” – the instruction to wind up the leeward leeboard and switch the mainsail from one side to the other. As soon as this was accomplished, David yelled “Let draw!” - the order to drop the leeboard on the opposite side and release the foresail. This ritual demanded a furious hauling of ropes and winding of the windlass, accompanied by the loud clanging of the iron tether as it slid along a pole that traversed the deck, known as the ‘horse.’ Meanwhile, wary passengers ducked their heads as the sail swung from one side to the other, accompanied by the sudden tilting of the entire deck in the reverse direction.
Before long, we were weaving our course among other Sailing Barges, running in parallel along the waves and slowly edging forward of our rivals, while in front of us some larger vessels were already pulling ahead in the strong wind. Running downwind, these vessels gained an advantage of speed and once we passed the buoy at the turning point of the five hour race, we gained the counter-advantage of manoeuvrability, tacking upwind. Yet by then it was too late to overtake those ahead, but it did not stop David and his crew working tirelessly as we zig-zagged back through the afternoon towards the Swale Estuary, taking sustenance of fruit cake and permitting distraction only from a dozen seals basking upon a sand bank.
Observing these historic vessels in action, and witnessing the combination of skill and physical exertion of a crew of more than eight, left me wondering at those men who once worked upon them, sailing with just a skipper, a mate and a boy.
On two past occasions when less wind prevailed, David and Repertor won the Swale Match, yet no-one was disappointed, making their way up Faversham Creek to the prize-giving on Saturday night at The Shipwrights’ Arms. With more matches to come before the end of the season, and after a strong performance in the Swale match, David Pollock and the crew of Repertor still had the opportunity of winning the Barge Championship – though, after my day on board, I can assure you that the joy of sailing such a majestic vessel was more than reward enough.
David Pollock, Skipper of Sailing Barge Repertor
Lady of the Lea, a smaller river barge designed for a tributary
Dennis Pennell - “I worked on the barges when I was still a boy….”
Brian Weaver - “I’m seventy-five and I started at nine, in the days when the Thames Barges still worked out of Faversham.”
Doug Powell - “I’ve been a sailor since I was thirteen.”
Return to Oare Creek
The day ended with prize-giving at The Shipwrights’ Arms, Faversham
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