The 90th Thames Sailing Barge Match was sailed on Saturday, 18 June, at the end of a week of increasingly hot sunny weather and light southerly winds, culminating on Friday in the hottest day (and warmest night) of the year. Overnight the wind veered right round to north-easterly with the temperature plummeting and an increasingly cloudy sky. Just as last year a couple of late withdrawals reduced the number of starters, this time to six, the same number that had made it to the Medway Match a month earlier.
An excellent start in the Coasting class at 07:30 saw Thalatta lead Centaur over the line about half a minute after the gun with both sailing nicely close hauled. The sole entry in the staysail class, Repertor, found herself below the line at the ten-minute gun, had to motor back quickly upstream and then started in more leisurely fashion. The bowsprit class was more keenly contested. Niagara got to the line too early and turned back upstream on the starboard tack but the wind failed her and she inexorably drifted back stern first below the line before the gun. Meanwhile Blue Mermaid on starboard tack and Marjorie on port tack sailing down the Kent shore approached the line, both making excellent starts at good speed. Unfortunately, Blue Mermaid mistook the recall signal hoisted for Niagara as applying to her and bore away to re-start leaving Marjorie to lead the class away down the river five minutes ahead. Niagara hauled across to the slacker water over Mucking flats and gybed round No 3 buoy to cross the line correctly at 08:18. Particularly when considering the light wind and strong tide, it was impressive that four out of six barges had got away within a minute of their official start times.
There followed a gentle turn down Sea Reach with the ebb tide doing most of the work in a light breeze that was now blowing straight up the river. Blue Mermaid caught and passed Marjorie and was chasing after Repertor but the Coasters held on to their half hour head start with Centaur having passed Thalatta. Approaching Southend as the ebb tide slackened it was decided to shorten the course to the Sea Reach 4 North buoy as it was clear that the slower barges would struggle to make further progress against the young flood tide and an uncomfortable choppiness had built up as the breeze filled in. Centaur, smartly turned out, freshly antifouled and showing an unusual turn of speed, was the first to tack round the buoy at 10:05 shortly followed by Thalatta. At 10:30 Repertor, approaching the mark at the same time as Blue Mermaid, found herself short of space and had to execute a tight 360 degree gybe to round three minutes later at 10:33. Marjorie followed at 10:40 and Niagara at 11:00 just as the flood was beginning to run.
By the time Niagara had rounded the leading barges were almost out of sight on the return leg hastened on their way by a freshening easterly breeze. It was fortunate that the Sea Echo acting as this year’s committee boat had a good turn of speed for even at fifteen knots it took us until the London Gateway container terminal to catch Blue Mermaid which by then had overtaken all the slower barges to lead the fleet. A range of downwind sails were seen on the run up Sea Reach: Centaur set her staysail to windward up and down the mast Chubb Horlock style, Thalatta boomed out the foresail, Blue Mermaid squared off her enormous light weather headsail and Marjorie at one point had both a running sail and a huge flying jib filling. An interesting sight was the yacht barge Snark, now based in the West Country, but built in steel in Essex to the lines of the old British King and re-rigged with a modern interpretation of the spritsail barge tradition.
With a fair wind and a strong tide running the barges were soon back at Gravesend with Blue Mermaid crossing the finishing line first at 12:33 to win the Bowsprit class, followed by Thalatta at 12:38 the first in the Coasting class. The second bowsprit barge Marjorie crossed the line at 12:41 ahead of Centaur while Repertor just held off a late challenge from Niagara which had run back from Southend more quickly than any of the others. The barges finishing at speed and under full sail made a fine sight for those who had turned out to appreciate it.
In the evening after the traditional bangers-and-mash supper at the Three Daws, prizes were awarded by Christine Lawrence who for many years had played a key role in the organisation of the Match. First prize in the Bowsprit class and, being the fastest around the course, this year’s Champion of the Thames was Blue Mermaid, master Richard Titchener. Repertor duly collected the prize for the Staysail class and Thalatta won the Coasting class, with her master Cyril Varley collecting the prize for the day’s fastest start at 32 seconds.
In the open awards the seamanship prize went to Noddy Cardy sailing Niagara who had continued to sail a competitive race despite the initial setback. The Majestic Trophy for the best rounding of the mark as judged by Michael Mainelli was given to Centaur. Centaur also won the Gold Belt Trophy for her excellent and much improved performance: many of the bargemen present said that they had never seen her go so well as today. The award for best performing mainsheetman went to Jim Green of Blue Mermaid, that for a valued crew member to Tom Curtis of Thalatta and for a contribution by a young person to Sophie Burgess of Marjorie.
Thanks were expressed to those who had helped with organisation of the Match: to Tim McQuillan and his team at the PLA, to the Three Daws for hosting us, to Christine Lawrence for presenting the prizes, to Dawn Franklyn for making winners pennants at short notice, and particularly to Rachel deBont without whose enthusiasm, competence and sheer hard work we could not have run this year’s Match.
Next year’s Match is to be held on Saturday, 8 July 2023. We look forward to seeing everyone again then.
Officer of the Day, 2022