Sailing the Cambria for the 150th Thames Barge Match Race: JCB

Cambria-Thames-Match-2011On Saturday 13th July your editor joined a Port of London team who had chartered the sailing barge Cambria to participate in the 83rd Thames barge match race which was significant in that this year also marked the 150th anniversary of the original race. Although not the oldest regatta, this race is claimed to be the 2nd oldest regularly organised sailing race in the World after the America Cup and the oldest sailing with traditional vessels.

Cambria is a sailing barge with a unique history in that she was the last British registered vessel to carry a commercial cargo purely under sail alone having carried a final cargo of cattle cake from Tilbury dock to Ipswich in October 1970 under the command of skipper Alfred “Bob” Roberts who’d been skipper of her for F.T. Everard since 1954 and owner from 1966 – 1970. In 1970, sailing the Cambria became  commercially unviable and she was sold to the Maritime Trust and laid up in London’s St Katherine’s dock as an exhibit.

Unfortunately a combination of fresh water and neglect led to her rapid deterioration and she was in a very sorry state when she was sold to the Cambria Trust for £1 in 1996 and she was towed to the Dolphin Yard at Sittingbourne for restoration. Here a group of enthusiastic volunteers discovered that the hull was more rotten than they had thought and when the Dolphin yard closed in 2005 it looked as if Cambria would join the many skeletal remains of vessels on the banks of the river Medway. A last minute offer from Peel Ports (Medway Port Authority) provided a berth in Sheerness dockyard and an application was made to the heritage Lottery Fund. Fortunately the HLF recognised the importance of restoring such a classic vessel and in 2006 a grant of £990,000 was made. In order that the restored vessel would honour the original design a decision was made not to include an engine and to retain the cargo hold area as a large saloon.

 Cambria sails again

The restoration contract was granted to Tim Goldsack and on 1st September 2007 Cambria was towed to Standard Quay, Faversham where she provided valuable employment for apprentice shipwrights and riggers who worked alongside the professional craftsmen and the large number of volunteers. In 2011 the restoration was completed in time for Cambria to participate in that year’s Thames barge match where, with the well renowned skipper, Richard Titchener, at the helm and his “Mate” Hilary Halajko along with crew from the Port Of London Authority ( who have also been sponsors of the restoration) she established her credentials by coming first in her class. Having come first again in the 2012 race the pressure was seriously on when your editor joined the PLA team for the 2013 race.

 83rd Thames Barge Match Race 2013

This year’s race’ held on Saturday 13th July, was particularly special in that it marked the 150th anniversary of the race and was held in commemoration of Mark Boyle who had revived the race in 1995 and organised it every year since then until his untimely death last year aged 52. Although the remaining committee members ensured that this year’s race went ahead, without Mark the future of this event is now uncertain given the increasing amount of bureaucracy, risk assessments and support logistics required to hold a major sailing event in confined shipping channels shared with commercial traffic! Its demise would be a great shame, given the barge match race’s unique heritage, but there is enthusiasm within the barging community to try to ensure its survival. Despite difficult sailing conditions, this year’s race was very successful and was completed safely as a result of the comprehensive planning and marshalling arrangements so hopefully this will help to ensure that the race will continue to be held in the future.

The course

barge chart

barge chart


The course was the original one, starting from “The Muckings” about 4 miles downstream from Gravesend, outward down to Sea Reach, Round the SE Leigh buoy and then beck up river to finish at Erith. This was the first time since 1894 that the finish line had been set at Erith and a meal and the prize giving had been organised by the Erith yacht club.

A record number of 16 barges registered for the race and the PLA team (ably organised by PLA’s Civil Engineer and sailing barge enthusiast, Derek Maynard) which included two pilots, our lady pilot, Jean Buckpitt and myself, all joined Richard, Hilary and their experienced crew members “Stretch” & Ray on the Friday morning for a familiarisation sail to learn the ropes and with Saturday’s forecast sunny and hot with light airs we anchored overnight just upstream from the start line.

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The steam tug Portway monitoring the start

The Race

The weather forecast was entirely correct and as the rest of the barges motored down to join us at the start the river was flat calm. The start time was set for the ebb tide, two hours before low water and in order to gain the advantage of the inside of the bend at the Lower hope buoy we had anchored close to the Kent shore whilst other barges had chosen the middle to Essex side hoping to gain an advantage from the stronger tide. Richard Titchener calculated the weighing of the anchor well and we ended up drifting backwards across the line in second place some 3 minutes after the start gun. Fortunately, apart from a couple of coasters who were able to zig zag through the drifting flotilla the only large vessel was the dredger Bruegel working off the London Gateway container terminal and the Master was very co-operative in adjusting his dredge location to avoid impeding the race.

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 Awaiting the first “catspaw” of wind

After about one hour, the first “cat’s paw” of wind was observed indicating the early sea breeze so all sails were set and for the first time we were able to steer the barge. I was amazed at how little wind was actually needed to get the barge moving. The anticipation of the first breeze paid off and we slowly moved from 5th to 3rd place. As low water approached the decision was made to shorten the course to round the Mid Blyth buoy leaving it to port. Whilst this was a wise decision the choice of buoy made rounding it “interesting” since the Mid Blyth buoy, having been replaced by the Tanker buoy and moved south to create a secondary channel, is now only 150m north of the Blyth Sands drying line!

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Your editor hard at work!

My position for the race was down aft to assist with the lee boards and the mizzen and Richard also used me as a back up tactician with respect to the tidal flows, laying the marks and keeping an eye out for other barges under the mainsail! A good judgement of the tide enabled us to catch up with the two barges ahead of us and the three of us rounded the Mid Blyth buoy together but once round the mark we were faced with quite a challenge since the rest of the race fleet which were all converging on the buoy had priority over us. Richard therefore decided to keep as close to the bank as possible on the basis that the barges that hadn’t rounded the mark would need to tack away before reaching us. This worked well and took us into first place until one of the barges, not having enough way on to tack bore away off the wind towards us to gain a bit more speed. In order to avoid a collision we were forced to go further to the south and as a consequence your editor found himself aground for the first ( and hopefully last!) time in his career as of course did the other barge. Fortunately Thames barges are designed to sit on the mud so rather than this being considered a panic situation, Richard just calmly announced the fact to the crew and it was here that I was able to observe a truly skilled sailing barge Master use his knowledge and experience to sail off a lee shore! With no engine, many would have called for a tow off but not Richard. With the tide now flooding and all the sails still set, Richard lowered the windward lee board and as the tide refloated us, the lee board acted as a pivot to turn the barge to the North and we gently sailed clear and back into the race with just a loss of pride! Our “waiting for the tide” had taken around twenty minutes which resulted in our dropping from 1st to 11th place overall. Cambria has a reputation for being a fast barge and following her previous two wins there had been mutterings about the need for a handicap being placed on her by some of the other barge skippers. However, as Richard and Hilary pointed out, they always took the trouble to put her on a drying berth before any race to scrub the hull clean instead of hoping that sitting in a mud berth will clean the hull which isn’t nearly so effective.

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The Santa Rosa (pilot: Chris Young) passes outward bound


So, having given the rest of the fleet a 20 minute advantage we now had a race on our hands and here I was able to supplement Richard and Hilary’s skill with getting the most out of the sails with my knowledge of the tide sets to help to gain a tactical advantage and, having established a good master / pilot relationship, Richard also permitted me to share the helm with him! Being younger and fitter than me, as well as an experienced sailor, Jean’s skills meanwhile were being used to advantage assisting Hilary and most of the rest of the crew up on the foredeck where the several gybes required skill and timing in manipulating the massive pole on the “gennaker” in order to keep the barge sailing well as the sea breeze increased. This combination saw us overtake five other barges in the Mucking Reach and back in sight of the leaders as we entered Gravesend Reach. By this time the tide was picking up and the larger commercial ships started to move. A combination of liaison by VTS with the pilots and marshalling by the escort launches meant that even the 300m long Santa Rosa (Pilot Chris Young) was able to safely unberth from her Northfleet berth and steam out through the race in Gravesend Reach without any delay or close quarters situation developing, thus proving the value and effectiveness of the pre-race planning.

 Back in the lead!

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The last eight miles of the race from Gravesend to Erith saw us overtake another three barges to cross the finishing line 3rd overall and 1st in our Class. Even at the finish line, the skill of Richard was evident since not wanting to have to be towed back to the Marina anchorage we crossed the line whilst rounding up into the wind ready to tack back the half mile down river which must have made an impressive sight for the many onlookers on the shore as the gennaker was dropped and the headsails set. Having sailed neatly into Richard’s chosen anchorage position the barge was secured and we proceeded ashore for a meal laid on by the Erith Yacht Club washed down with some much needed “refreshment” prior to the prize’s being awarded by Sir Robin Knox Johnston. We were all delighted that in addition to  Richard receiving the prize for our class win, Hilary was also honoured with a well deserved prize for the most competent “Mate”.

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Richard & Hilary with their prizes

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Richard and his crew

Following a night at anchor we got underway early to take advantage of the ebb to sail back to Gravesend. Here again Richard’s skill in handling the Cambria saw us sail clear of the marina in the gentlest of breezes and the passage was enhanced by the presence of a seal that popped up to accompany us while ghosting down Long Reach under the Dartford Bridge where the weekend holiday traffic was already starting to build up, probably not going much faster than our 4 kts! For the final berthing on Gravesend’s Town Pier we were assisted by the barge Reminder which lashed up alongside us and dropped us gently alongside revealing another skipper’s expertise in craft handling in a tideway.

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A seal escort!

We all then adjourned to the adjacent pub for a “safe arrival” refreshment before parting our different ways.

During the weekend I learned a lot and it occurred to me that a couple of days sailing on the engine-less Cambria with Richard and Hilary would be a valuable addition to our pilot training programme in that knowledge of the tides and using the elements is essential to the success of any pilotage manoeuvre, regardless of the type or size of vessel. However, I did warn Richard, who enthusiastically endorsed the idea, that working with a “whinge” of pilots might prove more of a challenge to himself and Hilary than their usual complement of socially excluded youth!!

The Cambria trust

John Clandillon-Baker


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