Thames Match 2021 – 14 August

The 89th Thames Sailing Barge Match was sailed on Saturdaym 14 August, rather later in the year than usual and with a year missed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.  In view of the continuing difficulties due to the virus a rather lower key event than usual was organised.  A couple of late withdrawals reduced the number of starters to seven but those who came were treated to a very pleasant day’s sailing with an initially light but serviceable west-south westerly breeze and a bright morning.

The only starter in the Coaster class at 0800 was Cambria.  Coming down to the line rather more quickly than anticipated she reduced sail in order to slow down but was swept over by the ebb tide and, unable to re-cross, accepted a time penalty and carried on.  In the staysail class Repertor made an exceptional start, managing to hold just above the line on the port tack and bearing away across as the gun went at 0815.  Niagara followed two minutes later and squared away flying a huge light headsail boomed out to weather.  The champion bowsprit class at 0830 was led away by Edith May with a flying start a minute after the gun followed by Marjorie, Adieu and Blue Mermaid.

A typical Thames Match run down Sea Reach in a light breeze was fairly uneventful. Niagara quickly overtook Repertor and eventually Cambria to establish a half mile lead.  In the bowsprit class Blue Mermaid kept to the north side of the channel where the tide runs perhaps a little more strongly and had passed Adieu and Edith May by the time the barges approached the turning mark, the course having been shortened to the Sea Reach No2 North buoy off the Shoebury shore.

The barges approached the mark in fairly close company, the fleet having closed up on the run down the river.   First to gybe around the buoy was Niagara at 1030 followed by Cambria six minutes later and Repertor at 1041.   Marjorie led Blue Mermaid into the turn but turning rather wide allowed Blue Mermaid close astern to turn inside her. Next round was Adieu, followed by Edith May at 1049, the whole fleet having rounded the mark within twenty minutes.   Some excellent roundings were seen but that which most impressed the committee was made by Cambria whose tight turn and smart sheeting in was particularly commendable for such a heavy vessel.

The committee had expected the barges to work back up the Essex shore and were surprised when Niagara started off with a long starboard tack toward Sheppey while Repertor seemed able to point almost for Southend.  However, it seemed to make little difference for when they crossed again half an hour later Niagara still held the lead.  The wind had increased a little and the bowsprit barges were generally setting smaller jib topsails going to windward.  Some drama ensued when Edith May’s bobstay arrangement failed at the stem and the bowsprit complete with two jibs flew up in the air to the steeved-up position with the flogging sails in danger of fouling the crosstrees.   Cool heads prevailed, however, and in about half an hour the chaos had been sorted out, and with the bowsprit restored to the horizontal position and with the jib topsail re-set on the stem-head she continued racing and caught up a good deal of the lost time.  Soon after, London VTS informed us that an ”ultra-large” container ship was inbound for Thames Gateway and would be swinging across virtually the full width of the river with its attendant tugs.   Most of the barges had passed before this happened but the tail-enders were squeezed over to the south shore where Adieu touched on the Blyth sand and, using her engine to get off, had to retire.

The first barge back to reach the finishing line off Gravesend was Niagara at 1436 followed five minutes later by Repertor which on the return leg had recovered some of her lost time.   Blue Mermaid was the first bowsprit home at 1445 some eighteen minutes ahead of Marjorie.   Edith May was only three minutes behind Marjorie, having made up almost all the time lost through her mishap. Adieu finished under power and Cambria completed the fleet, crossing at 1525.The barges made a fine sight finishing and later when rafted up on the Town pontoon.

After the usual Match supper at the Three Daws, prizes were awarded by Simon Cooper who had been watching the match from the committee boat X-Pilot as the guest of our chairman, Michael Everard.   First prize in the Champion Bowsprit class was awarded to Blue Mermaid.   The Champion Staysail class was won by Niagara.  Cambria took the prize for the Coasting class.   Niagara was fastest to the outer mark but Blue Mermaid the fastest around the whole course. The prize for the fastest start of the day went to Repertor.

In the open awards category, the overall seamanship award was made to Geoff Gransden of Edith May for the safe recovery from an awkward gear failure to continue racing competitively.  The Majestic Trophy for the best rounding of the mark as judged by Simon Cooper was awarded to Ian Ruffles of Cambria. The Gold Belt Trophy for achievement was awarded Iolo Brooks of Adieu for his efforts over many years to restore his barge to racing condition and for his ongoing support for this and other sailing barge matches.

In addition to those already mentioned, I would like to record the Committee’s thanks to David Allsop and his team at the PLA whose assistance has been invaluable, Alan and Martin Harmer of X-Pilot and to the staff of the Three Daws which for many years now has hosted the evening’s events so well.    Next year’s Match is to be held on Saturday 18 June 2022.   It will be the 90th Match and we hope that it will be well supported.

Julian Cass, Officer of the Day, 2021

The Timekeeper’s Report by John Hargreaves follows: