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The Raybel At Sittingbourne

July 16, 2021
by the gentle author

Any readers seeking an excursion out of London this weekend might like to take a trip to Sittingbourne to view the restoration of Thames Sailing Barge Raybel in dry dock at Lloyd’s Wharf which is open for visitors this Saturday 17th July.

Raybel’s name painted on the barge’s transom

Contributing Photographer Rachel Ferriman & I enjoyed a day trip to Sittingbourne recently, where we were inspired to meet the passionate band of souls who have dedicated themselves to restoring the Thames Sailing Barge Raybel to working order in Milton Creek where she was first constructed in 1927.  Gareth Maer filled us in.

“The Raybel is often described as the ultimate evolution of the Thames Sailing Barge. You can trace back the history of these vessels for centuries, with the trade escalating in the mid-nineteenth century, transporting good up to London and back from the estuary.

The basic flat bottom design evolved through the end of the nineteenth century until the twenties when Raybel was built by barge builders Wills & Packham. They decided to experiment with a composite structure, employing an iron frame which was clad with timber. They took inspiration was the Cutty Sark which was constructed with this same approach to structural design. Traditionally, barges were not necessarily very strong because they have no keel but the iron structure mitigated this  inherent weakness and is probably why Raybel survived.

There was a mooring space and there was a quayside but we didn’t have a boatyard to do the restoration, so we had to set one up. We needed a dry-dock to bring barge into to do all of the work. We were donated an old dry-dock but we had to go and rescue it from the bottom of the Swale and do some welding repairs so we could bring it up Milton Creek. Essentially, it’s a great big ugly cumbersome metal tray and a little tug boat came along and pushed it up the creek for us. Then it had to be manoeuvred into place and a lot of mud had to be cleared from the creek bottom, so the dry-dock would sink low enough.

You open the gates of the dry-dock and the water comes which lets you sail the barge in. There was only one high tide suitable for this  and if had missed we would have to wait another six months for the next one. Once the barge was in the dry-dock, we drained the water out and we could see the whole structure of the vessel.

The first thing we noticed was that the front end of the barge had drooped by a couple of inches, it meant the whole structure was bent out of place. We got a big hydraulic jack to jack it up precisely to its original and correct position.

The main work was always going to be upon the front section of the barge – the bow – which is the weakest part. It’s had a couple of knocks over the last fifty years of cargo carrying.

It is incredible intricate and skilled shipwright work, deciding what you can keep and what needs to go, to bring the barge back into sea-worthy condition. We want to keep as much of the original fabric as possible and we will be able to save most of it. We rely upon the experience of the shipwright to say what can be retained and what must be replaced. There are still skills locally and we have father and son shipwrights from Faversham working here.

Yesterday, they started working on the back end of the bow which is called ‘the apron.’  We are shaping wood exactly as they did a hundred years ago. We are starting on the ribs now and then we will put the planking on top of them – there’s a couple of layers of planking on the inside and the outside – it’s called ‘the wale.’ There’s an inner wale and an outer wale.

It will take until the end of September to complete the bow work and by then we should have done all the ribs on both sides. At that point, we can move on to the longitudinal planking on the hull which is another six or seven months’ work. While that’s going on, we can probably do the deck planking as well.

By April or March next year, we hope the basic structure will be sound, and it will be sealed and seaworthy. The sails and rigging, the ropework, winches and rudder will come after that.

All the way down this creek were once boatyards, a dozen or so doing boatbuilding, repair and maintenance work. Yet the physical evidence is almost entirely obliterated today.

We hope that by bringing Raybel back to Milton Creek where it was built and doing the work here, we encourage Sittingbourne to readopt the barge. We’ve brought it home, back to where it was launched. Although the physical evidence of boatbuilding has gone from here, it still exists in living memory. Everyone we meet has a father or grandfather who once worked in the yards.”

The Raybel in dry-dock covered with tarpaulin

The gangplank

The deck and ribs under repair

Shipwright Josh at work removing some of the ribs

Chipping out rotten timbers

Reuben carries out the rotten timber

The new ribs in place

Reuben spraying the new ribs with a mix of paraffin and cooking oil to protect them

John is removing nails around the forehatch cover, and the lead flashing and bitumen underneath, so the condition of the deck beneath can be assessed.

Raybel’s bow

Master Shipwright Tim

Master Shipwright Tim at work in the fo’c’sle of Raybel

Looking into the fo’c’sle, where much of the work is taking place.

Roger in the engine room

Inside Raybel, once the main cargo hold

Raybel’s ironwork and lining in the main interior.

Patina of layers of paint on the barge’s interior sidings

Light floods into the barge where the port side of the barge is open for work on the ribs.

The barge’s transom

Mark is the restoration project manager

Kevin in the boat yard

Paul standing near some of the salvaged timbers from a broken-up sailing barge, the Westmorland

Paul shows nails from the Westmorland

Fragments of the Westmorland

Westmorland’s bow section

The Raybel in dry dock in Milton Creek

Photographs copyright © Rachel Ferriman

You may also like to read about

At the Swale Barge Races

The Arrival Of The Gallant

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Annie Green permalink
    July 16, 2021

    Fabulous! To see such skill and love and craftsmanship bringing something back to life – it warms the heart. Best of luck and more power to their hammers.

  2. July 16, 2021

    I’m fascinated by Thames barges as my paternal grandfather was a crewman early in his life. The family moved from Bermondsey to Faversham where they set up home before emigrating to them US in the early 1950s. A few years ago whilst sailing in Chichester Harbour I came across the rotting hull of Pride of Sheppy. When I told my late father of this, he informed me that was the barge his dad crewed on.

  3. Peter Hart permalink
    July 16, 2021

    Fascinating story and great pictures. Thanks very much.

  4. July 16, 2021

    An awesome story!

    Love & Peace

  5. July 16, 2021

    A really great read and some wonderful photographs! These craft were such an important part of our maritime history.
    I’d encourage anyone remotely interested in tracking down one of Bob Roberts’ books, the last commercial skipper of an entirely sail powered barge – the Cambria. He was also well known for his knowledge of sea shanties and songs, and there are several recordings of him singing them, accompanied by his evocative melodian playing. Super stuff.
    Newly opened is the Dolphin Sailing Barge Museum, 17 Crown Quay, Sittingborne, Kent. I say newly opened as it is a recent replacement of the old museum at Dolphin Quay, on Milton Creek.
    If any of the readers had the pleasure of visiting the old museum, it was located in the sail loft of what was the most unaltered sailing barge quay left. Cambria was being repaired there, continuing a long tradition of craft built on this site. Next to the sail loft was a small forge, containing a saw pit. The entrance was supported by ornately carved tiller handles, making it a beautiful little building. The sail loft itself was filled with such atmosphere and hundreds of irreplacable tools, photographs and other barge related items. The Cambria’s reconstructed original cabin was also in the museum.
    In 2008, arsonists burned down the sail loft and museum. I can’t begin to tell you how tragic this crime was. In one night, a time capsule was lost forever. A gloom fell over me that I found hard to shake for a long time. Why do this? I wish the new museum all the best.

  6. paul loften permalink
    July 16, 2021

    How fortunate they are to be involved in this wonderful restoration project. A mixture of many skills, carpentry is only one. I once met an old bargebuilder who built them during the war, in the course of my work . He told me he had written a book on the subject .He vividly described to me , by swinging and old adze he had standing in the corner of his room how he would carve out the inside to shape with the adze. There wasnt much space but there he was swinging it above his head . I need not have feared he was so skillful at using it .
    I used to see the barges go up and down the River Lea when I was a child, laden with coal and wood to and from the vast James Latam wood yard on its banks at Clapton . Next to it stod a coal depot with huge coal silos. When the barge would dock the silos would open up and pour into the barge with a roar . Sometimes they would use horses to draw the barge although many had their own power . They were usually steered by a cheerful pilot who would give us children standing on the banks a friendly wave as it slowly passed by

  7. Richard Smith permalink
    July 16, 2021

    A wonderful and fascinating read today thank you so much for telling us about the Raybel. What skills and knowledge must those craftsmen hold! I now know that paraffin and cooking oil make a good wood preservative too. Thank you.

  8. Chris Webb permalink
    July 16, 2021

    I was talking to someone only recently about Thames barges and I mentioned that I had read somewhere why they had dark red sails, something to do with them being treated to prevent them rotting. We were wondering why all sails weren’t treated in the same way. Does anyone else know?

    It’s good to see there are people with both the skills and willingness to carry out restorations such as this.

  9. July 21, 2021


  10. September 9, 2021

    An excellent series of pictures of the restoration of Raybel – there are very few Thames sailing barges left, so each one restored is a vital connection to the nautical past of the Thames and Essex/Suffolk/Kent regions for which the barges were a vital part of the economy. Much more interesting stuff on the websites of the Society for Sailing Barge research – and the Thames Sailing Barge Trust

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