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Normally when I talk about Big Boat Sailing, I  mean a 30 to 40 foot yacht, but this time I mean a really big sailing machine of 85 foot and 61 tons; a Thames Sailing Barge! For a significant birthday in March, the family gave the 2 of us a weekend on the Thames Sailing barge called “Centaur”.  This incorporated the “Pin Mill Barge Race” on Saturday June 23rd and a cruising day on the Sunday.

We arrived in Ipswich on the Friday evening in time to join many of the crew in the Lord Nelson pub by the docks for an evening meal.  After a good meal of fish & chips and a pint of Adnams, we retired back to the Centaur to go through the safety drill with of the mates. Normally when trading under sail, the barges were manned by a Skipper and a mate.  For the Pin Mill Race we had 2 skippers and 2 mates.  One skipper was in charge of the barge, and the helm and course.  The other skipper was in charge of the sail trim and the lee boards.  We had the normal mate and also a trainee mate.  There was a full complement of 16 on the barge, with 8 of us assisting with running of the barge.

After a good English breakfast, we had our race day briefing and followed several other barges on our way down the River Orwell to Pin Mill.  The route took us under the Orwell Bridge with top of mast looking very close to the bridge deck.  The Start was at Butterman’s Bay just below the Pin Mill Sailing Club.  The original forecast leading up to the race day look at a good breeze from the NW, but it was just a very light breeze.  There were 3 starts for the barges, Bowsprit Class (A) 10.30am, Fast Staysail Class (B) 10.45am and finally our start for Slow Staysail Class (C) 11.00am.
We watched the other classes start and made our way down to the line.  With tide under us we were making slow progress, but just as we approached the start line, the wind dropped and we started to slew sideways towards a moored craft.  The skipper on the helm yelled at the mates to quickly drop the anchor.  We drifted around the fixed anchor with the tide; backed the jib to bring the nose round, smartly raised the anchor and back down river over the start line chasing the Ardwina in front of our race.  It took us 2 hours 20 minutes with the tide under us on broad reach/run to get to the outer mark in the Medusa Channel called Stonebanks.  We were 7 minutes behind Ardwina at this stage.

Once we turned round the southerly mark of Stonebanks, we were tacking up against the freshly flooding tide.  The ability of a Thames Barge to tack can only be described as trying to tack a very badly set up Mirror Dinghy, taking at least 10 times as long to go about.   The sideways movement of the hull is only tempered by the use of large pivoting lee boards.  As the barge goes through the tack, the new leeward board is lowered.  The leeboard on the new windward side is a different proposition.  It weighs 1300 Kgs, is 5.5 m long and has a fan of 2.4 m at the bottom.  It takes two men frantically turning the winch to raise the board.  In order to help the badge turn, the jib is backed, held by a rope which is let go once on the new tack.  In the meantime the new windward back stay has to be tightened and the leeward one released.  You might think that it was easy to with plenty of space to tack the barge back up to the River Orwell, but it wasn’t. The wind was very fickle so we doing lots of tacks to make ground; just like tacking up to the green mark in a North East wind. 

Once we approached Felixstowe, the sea breeze picked up with a run up the Orwell to the finish at Pin Mill.  By the finish we were only 2 minutes behind Ardwina, which was thought very good as we were the slower barge.  We anchored amongst all the barges opposite Pin Mill Sailing Club.

In the evening we lowered the small boat, which ferried us in to a good buffet meal and the Prize Giving in the Sailing Club.  With all our efforts, we received the cup for second in our class and the Skipper won the prize for Seamanship, voted on by all the Skippers and the race committee.
After a full English breakfast next day we awoke to a lovely sunny morning with just a little more breeze.  We left the mooring under sail for a gentle cruise down the Orwell. We turned to Starboard up the River Stour.  On the starboard side is Shotley Point which used to house the Royal Naval boys training unit of HMS Ganges.  There is still a fully rigged main mast, which when Ganges was still working, there was an annual ceremony of Topping the Mast where a selected recruit had to scale the whole mast and stand right on the top. He was known as the “Button Boy”.  The mast is 143 feet above the ground and on the top is a wooden disk 1 foot across.  The “Button Boy” had to stand to attention on the top saluting, with just a lightning conductor between his legs to keeps his balance.

After a gentle drift past Parkstone Quay, we returned to the Orwell to make our slow way up to Ipswich.  During this, we spent our time washing down the decks and making everything ship shape.   Once at Ipswich we were waiting around for an hour to get into the docks with 3 other barges.  Once we were moored we worked making the inside ship shape before we all departed.
It was a lovely experience and when you consider that a barge that size was only originally manned by a Skipper and a Mate, I can only have the greatest respect for the seamanship of those sailors.  To cap off an excellent weekend, I have a lasting memory to bring back, when I won the first prize in the Pin Mill Sailing Club Raffle of a Pen and Ink Drawing of barges “In Trade, Ipswich Bound” by Anthony Osler.
Ken Elsey