Blue Mermaid goes to the Thames Match

It has been a while since I have written a blog due to being busy and there not seeming much new to say. At last there is. We won the Thames Match and have added a pennant to the Yarmouth Roads in the cabin. We had been slowly eating away at our distance behind the Edme since her 20 minute lead at the Medway and were actually ahead of her for a while at the Pin Mill before the chocolate biscuits came on deck to coincide with a lift in the breeze and she passed us again. At the Thames she did not compete and the trend was complete, though we missed her.

At the Blackwater Match the barge seemed perfectly clean, not a barnacle in sight, and the vantage point was good because the outer berths at Hythe Quay are so difficult now and the chine was exposed. So we chose not to utilise the weekend set aside to scrub before the Pin Mill race, instead dressing the hatch cloths. However, once growth starts it comes quickly as the Chancellor keeps promising. And it was clear that even if she was still clean she would not be for long without fresh antifoul and she would be handicapped in the coming matches. Market Fields College kindly ended their charter at Pin Mill and Jonathan Webb moved Xylonite off the blocks so we could have a scrub the weekend after the Pin Mill match, eccentric perhaps but essential. And out of sight underneath she was growing a very nice set of barnacles, patchy but over a significant area if added together, an area far greater than you lose if you do not move when in a dry dock or on blocks to address the bits the blocks conceal. Who knows, maybe she was like that a week earlier. We shall never know.
Clean and sprightly, the barge took Oli and I back to the mooring on the Saturday with a very enjoyable but taxing sail to windward all the way. Hilary reminded us it was a good opportunity to experience what being in trade with two crew was like. She could say that as she had business elsewhere, and boy did we miss her? Just enough wind to keep up speed and too much for the topsail for only a short time. Clean, she did an effortless 8.2 knots across Pennyhole Bay in neutral tide, before the topsail was set, and felt fast all day.
After a couple of days at home, it was time to slip the mooring again to head for Gravesend and the Thames Match. For some years we have been proud to take a team from the PLA on the match, with a day sail to practice and prepare the day before. This meant leaving on the Wednesday to reach Gravesend a day early. Though having a potential fair wind as far as the Blacktail, the weather was squally and it was not wise to anchor out in the estuary to best use the flood the next day as we would in settled conditions, so we anchored instead at West Mersea with something of a lee and had an early night. Mustering at 0500 next day and away at 0600, we had three hours to low water in the Swin and seven to the advertised high water at Gravesend. Plenty of time you may think, and at first this seemed the case as we made on each tack going north of the Middle in the lesser tide to make our low water at the Maplin Middle. Today the wind was southwesterly and on the nose from the Whitaker. It held until the West Shoebury and all seemed well with time in hand. Then it failed and came all around the compass in fitful zephyrs, despite the turbines at Sheerness showing a constant southwest breeze. The jib topsail was hanked on and set, which helped, but by Canvey it was clear we would struggle to make it, and we were preparing ourselves for laying in the Lower Hope and having an even earlier start next day.

The Gods smiled and the promised increasing south or southwesterly eventually manifested itself at Gateway. Now it was half an hour to high water with three miles to go. By this stage on the flood the flow becomes narrow, and does not follow the hatched lines of the fairway on the chart, if indeed it ever does, so we did short tacks along the western shore and followed it over to Shorn Mead, holding onto the jib until the last possible moment. Although it was well after high water, there was just enough flood still running through the moorings to drop the topsail on the right side before tacking one last time and fore reaching (the sailorman’s term for ferry gliding) across it to anchor close under the shore below the training college jetty. As the gear was stowed the water started moving down river. Phew!
Within hours, race crew were arriving by train, Rose from Tollesbury, Richard Atherton and Trevor Ross from London. Toilets were cleaned, sails were tidied, the galley was sorted and a floating pick-up line was put on the buoy kindly loaned us by the PLA off the Strand for Saturday.

Next morning bright and early to have some ebb to play with in the expected easterly wind, seven stalwarts from the PLA joined us for the practice day and were put through their paces. Whether by design or serendipity, the space for small vessels to work to windward past London Gateway is very limited when the fairway is closed for a manoeuvring ship. It is a bit like the yacht track into the Orwell when beating past with a ship manoeuvring alongside the Trinity Terminal. In fact, there it is even worse with barely two lengths of a barge to play with. At Gateway it is around four and gave the team ample opportunity to hone their skills punctuated by helpful commentary on the radio as to the movement of the medium-sized container ship swinging in the channel. The boards never touched once and the sail drill was very proficient by the time the ship had cleared. Once clear of Gateway the flood was running hard and we ran back to anchor at Denton again and use the heat of the afternoon to prepare for the next day.

At the race briefing that evening a steady easterly was anticipated for the race, but this did not arrive until after the finish. On deck at 0630 to have time to get down to the start line for an 0830 start, there was a helpful light south westerly to get us out into the tide clear of the moorings. This was better than the previous year when it had proved necessary to drudge clear, making for a day’s work on the windlass before the start! A recent notice tells there will soon be two more buoys added to the line, a testament to the increased activity level on the river.

There was not enough wind to make over the ebb and it looked doubtful this would work for us even in the slack along the Mucking shore, so we decided to anchor above the line on the eastern shore and await developments. Even in drifting conditions, this enables one to avoid being carried into the bight at Gateway and helps to keep east of the Lower Hope buoy on the corner. Barges with power were able to keep above the line although to be fair I am pretty certain Marjorie, Wyvenhoe and Edith May did not use their engines in the Lower Hope and cleverly made sure they stayed well above the line.

As it turned out, we got our anchor, gybed round and started with the Marjorie, a few seconds after her and to leeward with a light southerly at that stage. Niagara made a splendid sight sailing fast from the slack water and quickly catching us both. She and Marjorie protected their wind and held up over the Blythe Sands out of the tide giving us a chance to do something different which sometimes works, especially when the wind died. Once below the Mid Blythe all three of us were becalmed and for the first time in a while the barge actually stopped and we could do nothing to get her to point down river, even dropping headsails making no difference this time. The dinghy anchor over the stern seemed to do some good but at the same time the breeze filled in briefly from the south and we made some progress towards what was to be the turning mark at Sea Reach No 6 South.

The fleet had bunched up a good bit by now. When a slight air came from the west, a precursor of a growing breeze for the rest of the race, those ahead of us managed to get across to the north shore though suffering from the effects of the ebb as they did so. Repertor was by now close astern of us having been carried out of the best of the tide, and she rounded shortly behind us, followed by Marjorie and Niagara. Our arrival at the buoy coincided with that of a fast ferry. Oli spoke to the ship and we gave a wide berth to the buoy so as not to be in the fairway. In fact, the ship kindly went well north and we could have been far tighter, as did Repertor being awarded the best rounding of the day, deservedly.

It was a case of last becoming first as the draft of westerly air developed and found us before it found the rest of the fleet. From second from last at the start, Blue Mermaid was now leading. As the beat home developed, sometimes Repertor, Marjorie and Niagara seemed to make up ground and sometimes we made ground on them. Jimmy Green was unwell and not able to be with us, but he would have been proud to know we made good use of the north shore lift along the quays by Holehaven, just as he so often has done in the Gracie and Pioneer along the Tollesbury shore at home. Often the presence of a shore bends the wind to provide a lift near the shore. So successful was this tactic, we went from Holehaven to Lower Hope Point in one tack which set us up well for the next reach. An outbound ship took precedence and we had to settle for the slack rather than cross with the run of the tide into the Muckings, but it made little difference thankfully.

Longs and shorts up Gravesend Reach were a joy because not only did it give an exciting sail to the finish but it enabled us to run back unassisted over the tide and pick up the mooring just before it started to reduce and then go easterly. No steam tugs with hooters at the finish this year but you cannot have everything.

The prizes were presented by Ann Stanbrook, whose late-lamented husband Roy was a great friend of the Match and sailing barges. Ann was also able to present a silver salver in his memory for services to the committee, given on this occasion to Julian Cass, the Officer of the Day. Roy had been PLA Harbourmaster (Lower), though he was quite tall, before becoming Harbourmaster at Gibraltar and Melbourne.

Mustering at 0500 the following day, there was enough wind westerly to drive against the last of the flood inside the moorings at Gravesend. Steadily the outbound fleet overhauled us, many needing to make some emissions to get home. The wind came light and from the south, with an increase forecast, but initially caution meant we had help from the outboard for a while before stopping it and lifting the bargeboat into the davits before dramatic wash from a large container ship (the Rayshmi, “proceeding slow”) was encountered at Sea Reach 4. Oli said we could not race her even if invited. It was good to see Roy’s playbook has made it to another generation.

We made low water at the SW Swin and speed dropped to 2 knots over the ground. Gybing onto the sands progress improved and when we were level with the Maplin Middle there was two hours flood. We calculated we could cross the Ridge at half flood and indeed did so at 1430 with a fathom, popping out an hour later at Bradwell with two and a half hours of flood left to reach Heybridge. In the event we were on the mooring an hour before high water, although there was a bit of work because its pick-up line was in the flood when we went past inbound, but in the slack by the time we ran down to it, meaning dropping the boards in the mud and running a line a short distance.
And now a week off before we are joined by Fairlop Sailing Club before Gravesend Sea Cadets take us to the Swale Match. Hopefully the barge will still be clean for that, but who knows. Edme is unlikely to oblige a second time!