On A Thames Sailing Barge
David Pollock, skipper of S B Repertor
“It’s all my wife’s fault,” admitted David Pollock of the Thames Sailing Barge Repertor with a grin of pure delight, when I asked how he came to be the owner of such a fine vessel. “She was an avid reader of the property pages and small ads, and one day she said, ‘There’s a Thames Barge for sale in The Times, let’s go and take a look.’” David continued, rolling his eyes, “I said, ‘You don’t know anything about Thames Barges,’ and she said, ‘I’ve been to a party on one!’ Well, one thing led to another and we bought it, and here we are twenty-seven years later.”
Our conversation took place in the engine room of Repertor, moored in St Katharine Docks for a few days in the midst of a busy summer of charter trips and races. Looking trim with its green, yellow and red paintwork, ropes coiled and russet sail neatly furled – the barge welcomes you with an appealing mixed aroma of engine oil and yacht varnish, as you step below deck. In the hold, where once the cargo was stored, there is now a large panelled galley with small cabins leading off a narrow passage. In its working days, Repertor was manned by a skipper and mate, with the skipper sleeping in the stern and the mate in the foc’sle next to the engine room.
“My twin brothers, Ben and Leo, and me, we’d shimmy up the rigging to the crosstrees to show off,” admitted Amy, David’s daughter, fondly recalling childhood summers on the barge, “People were horrified, but nothing terrible ever happened to us.” As a child, Amy spent every weekend and holiday on the boat, at first on the Isle of Dogs where it was repaired and then on extended coastal cruises. “My parents had three children in a tiny two bedroom flat in North London yet when they got a little money, rather than investing in it bricks and mortar, they invested it in steel and sail – and it was well worthwhile,” Amy confirmed to me, as she sat cradling her one-and-a-half-year-old daughter Rosa, who is herself now being introduced to the ways of maritime life.
The Repertor was one of the last Thames Sailing Barges, built in 1924 by the famous barge-masters Horlocks, based in Mistley on the River Stour in Essex. Such barges were the workhorses of coastal transport, making deliveries up and down the Thames and along the East Coast, their flat hulls enabling them to navigate the shallow creeks where larger vessels could not go.
“I’ve always sailed and my father was in the navy, he was a keen sailor,” David confided, revealing that he was not quite the dilettante he had first implied, “We did most of the work repairing the barge ourselves.” These days, David enters many of the nine barge races that happen at locations around the Thames estuary each summer from the River Medway at Chatham in May until the River Colne at Brightlingsea in September, and he has a reputation for winning a significant number, as the lines of trophies in the galley testify.
“It’s a way to refine the rigging as well as a test of skill – traditionally, barges had to race to get the ports to be the the first to get work delivering cargo, so it was a commercial imperative,” David explained, “The matches were begun in 1863 by Henry Dodds, a barge owner from Hackney who became known as The Golden Dustman by making a fortune transporting rubbish from London to Kent, where it was used in manufacture of bricks that were transported back again.”
Readers may be interested to learn that you can join David Pollock’s crew for one of these matches this summer. Involving as many as twenty-five traditional sailing barges over a day-long course, they can be dramatic races and the S B Repertor has won the annually-awarded title of ‘Champion Barge’ five times.
Repertor moored in St Katharine Docks
Amy brings her baby daughter on board.
Amy Pollock and her daughter Rosa
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