Thames Match 2023 – 8 July 2023

Thames Match Report 2023

“Thames, Dover: wind cyclonic force 3 or less; sea state slight; weather showers perhaps thundery for a time; visibility good occasionally poor”.  The forecast for the 91st (Coronation) Thames Sailing Barge Match on Saturday 8 July was not particularly encouraging.  The early morning flat calm at Gravesend had given way to the lightest of southerlies just about giving steerage way to the eight barges mustering in the Lower Hope for the start. 

The start of the Coasting Class at 0800 saw Gladys, newly rebuilt at Gloucester, just stemming the tide until the breeze failed for a moment and she drifted inexorably over the line, stern first half a minute before the gun.  With no prospect of re-crossing, she took a time penalty and carried on.  Pudge, on the Kent shore, timed a good run at the line and crossed with all sails drawing two minutes after the gun.   The staysail barges at 0815 were a little more cautious but made a good job of it with Wyvenhoe, back at the Thames Match after a ten-year absence, crossing in just over two minutes with Repertor and Edith May five minutes later.  The three barges in the Bowsprit Class adopted different strategies.   The engineless Blue Mermaid anchored on the Kent shore close above the line to wait for the start, while Marjorie stayed fairly well upstream sailing to-and-fro.   Niagara went into the slacker water over Mucking Flats which made for an easier wait but she then had to claw off to windward to get around the Mucking 3 buoy limiting the northern end of the line.   All three plans worked well with Marjorie starting after three minutes and Blue Mermaid and Niagara after four.

Fortunately, there was enough wind for all the barges to avoid being set into the Thames Gateway berths. The three bowsprit barges were neck-and-neck entering Sea Reach but tactics differed as Marjorie and Niagara held up to windward on the Blyth while Blue Mermaid eased off to the north in search of the stronger tide.  By the time the barges had reached the Chapman the wind had dropped to almost nothing and the barges’ headings were all over the place as they sought to take advantage of each fickle puff. Wyvenhoe had worked out a useful lead over Repertor and Edith May but Pudge having drifted faster than Gladys still led the fleet.   The decision was taken to shorten the course and the Sea Reach 6 South buoy was chosen as the turning mark.

Wyvenhoe had slowly overtaken the coasters and was the first to reach the mark at 1028.  There was by now a light breeze from the north and with some ebb stream still running could not immediately start back but stood close-hauled across the tide toward the Essex shore.  Gladys was the first Coaster to the mark at 1034, followed by Edith May and Pudge.  But now something strange happened – the light breeze, still only about force 1, started to back into the west and slowly fill, giving an advantage to those reaching the mark later.   By the time Repertor got to the mark at 1101 she was able to round closely and start to make progress back upstream ahead of those that came before her who had drifted further east.  For the bowsprits the effect was even more pronounced and Blue Mermaid and the Bowsprit class led the fleet back up the river as the order of the fleet had been effectively reversed. When Marjorie was the last to round at 1119, the ebb had all but finished and she was able to make a tight rounding with smart sail changes.  

The light but now steady westerly wind gave the barges a long but straightforward turn to windward back up Sea Reach aided by the strengthening flood tide.  Passing the Chapman at midday Blue Mermaid, sailing beautifully, had worked out a significant lead which she held from then on.  Repertor was leading the staysails by a good margin but Wyvenhoe was slowly clawing back the ground lost at the outer mark.  Niagara and Marjorie were engaged in some close racing with Marjorie eventually pulling ahead.

Dark clouds over Gravesend and a flash of distant lightning reminded us of the forecast and by the time Blue Mermaid crossed the finishing line just before two o’clock it was raining gently.  Marjorie followed some fifteen minutes later followed shortly by Repertor and Niagara.   Edith May finished third in the staysail class, although she subsequently retired, while Gladys came home to beat Pudge in the coasters.  All barges finished within an hour of the leader and all had been smartly and safely handled with none of those incidents which might vex an officer of the day.

The prizegiving was held outdoors this year on the Clarendon lawn, the Three Daws not being available. Prizes were presented by Anne Stanbrook, widow of the late Roy Stanbrook, formerly a PLA harbourmaster, whose interest in and support of the Match had been instrumental in keeping it going.

First prize in the Bowsprit class, and being the fastest around the course this year’s Champion of the Thames, was again Blue Mermaid, master Richard Titchener.  Repertor won the Staysail class and Gladys the Coasting class. Tony de Winton of Pudge had made the fastest start of the day, the seamanship prize went to David Pollock of Repertor while Simon Devonshire of Marjorie was judged to have made the best rounding of the turning mark.  The Mainsheetman trophy was given to Oli Evans, and the Crew award to Rose Ravetz, both of Blue Mermaid whose crew had turned in yet another polished and professional performance.   Sophia De Bont-Burgess of Marjorie took the under-16 crew award.  The Gold Belt Trophy was awarded to Gladys on the successful completion of her major rebuild for the twenty-first century.

An additional prize was given this year by Richard Titchener and Hilary

Halajko of the Sea-Change sailing trust.  The Roy Stanbrook Salver is to be given for services in supporting the Thames Match Committee.  As officer of the day for some twenty years, I was delighted to be the first recipient of the award from Anne Stanbrook.  I very much hope that younger volunteers will come forward to take the Match on to another generation.

Thanks were expressed to those who had helped with organisation of the Match: to David Allsop and his team at the PLA, to John Hargreaves our timekeeper and to Dawn Franklyn for making winners pennants.

Next year’s Match is to be held on Saturday, 15 June 2024.   Do put the date in your diaries.

Julian Cass, Officer of the Day, 2023