150th Anniversary Thames Match, 13/07/13

A glorious summer day presented challenging conditions for the historic 150th Anniversary Thames Barge Match.

The fleet gathered before the start

The fleet gathered before the start
It was approximately 109500 tides ago, in 1863, that Henry Dodd first set up a formal barge race, with the intention of improving the rigs and performance of the humble Thames sailing barge. Those that compete in todays races are a tribute to this man’s vision and innovation.

However, the Thames Match has not run continuously since the days of Henry Dodd and the latest series was established in 1995 through the vision of Captain Mark Boyle.

Capt. Boyle was the driving force behind the Thames Match and with the 150th anniversary approaching, he laid the groundwork to ensure that it would be a great success. Through intensive negotiations with the PLA, the original course, starting in the Lower Hope, turning at the SE Leigh buoy and finishing at Erith, was re-introduced – no mean feat in todays London River with the large container ships manoeuvring throughout the day.

Tragically, Capt. Boyle passed away shortly before the 2013 season began and was not able to see the match take place, with the anniversary event renamed the Mark Boyle Memorial Thames Barge Sailing Match.

16 competing barges gathered at Gravesend in tranquil conditions. Edith May was competing against Wyvenhoe, Niagara and Repertor in the Fast Staysail Class.

The Bowsprits were well represented, with Edme, Mirosa, May, Xylonite, Decima and Marjorie all turning out.

The Coasting Class also had a good entry, with Lady of the Lea, Ardwina, Lady Daphne, Centaur, Reminder and Cambria. There was some debate about the latter two being included in this class, as the term ‘Coasting’ is now more associated with speed rather than size. Cambria, clearly a coasting barge by nature, has enjoyed a very successful return to racing, often being one of the fastest barges on show and there was a feeling amongst several competitors that she should be competing in the Bowsprit Class.

Weighing anchor from Denton, Edith May tried sailing downriver to the line in a very light SW breeze. Unfortunately, with the wind ever decreasing, it became apparent she would be late for the gun and so started the engine to ensure she was somewhere near the action. As at Pin Mill, it was a little too late and she eventually crossed the line 6min and 12 seconds after the gun. Wyvenhoe was first over the line, but was unfortunately two minutes early, with Niagara judging the drift to perfection, crossing 11 seconds after the gun. Repertor was a couple of minutes later.

The coasters had started 15mins ahead but were only a few hundred yards downriver and the bowsprits followed the staysails, with the engineless Mirosa showing good nous and use of the anchor to claim line honours in her class. All the other bowsprit barges, with the exception of Edme, were early across the line and incurred time penalties.

The fleet was now split into two groups. Those who sought the best of the tide kept to the Essex shore, whilst the rest kept to the shallower Kent side. Edith May fell into the former group, believing that staying in the best of the tide was the way to get ahead in these conditions.

Edith May takes a close look at the London Gateway reclamation project

Edith May takes a close look at the London Gateway reclamation project (Photo: C. Curling)
However, it soon became apparent that the tide was a greater hindrance than help. Up ahead, Repertor was set on to Mucking No. 1 and Lady Daphne and Wyvenhoe had been swept into the reclamation project for the new London Gateway Container Terminal, anchoring to avoid being set onto the shore.

It became obvious Edith May would soon be joining them and so the anchor was let go. Repertor tried to kedge herself off but to no avail and so started her engine to get clear and back into the middle of the river to resume the race. The other three barges anchored under the shore waited another 15 minutes for the non-existent breeze before Lady Daphne was given permission to motor clear, followed by Edith May, with Wyvenhoe stowing up and retiring.

Waiting for a breeze

Waiting for a breeze (Photo: D. Brooks)
Officer of the Day Juilan Cass had made the point in the briefing that those who started their engines to get out of trouble would not be penalised. However, having fired it up, the feeling aboard was that any result over a barge who had not started theirs (some do not even have them and these barges rarely find themselves in such awkward positions) would be unfair. In terms of racing, the problem with starting your engine and being allowed to continue was highlighted by the advantage Repertor gained through starting hers before everyone else. The other side of the coin is that there were no collisions and this is the priority in todays world of expensive repairs and watching authorities.

Having escaped the clutches of the Essex shore, a zephyr of breeze from the east soon arrived to provide the barges with much needed drive. The competitors who had kept to the Kent shore were by now approaching the shortened outer mark of Mid Blythe buoy but the ebb tide was nearly spent.

Edith May sails behind Ardwina – and runs aground

Edith May sails behind Ardwina – and runs aground (Photo: D. Brooks)
Trying to keep out of the new flood tide, Edith May went over to the shallow Kent shore. If her day was not going well, it suddenly got worse. Just ahead of her, Ardwina tacked through the wind. Whilst watching her go about, it went unnoticed that Edith May’s leeboard pennants had gone slack, a sign they were dragging through the mud. By the time the crew realised, it was too late and the barge continued on to the putty where she sat for 30 frustrating minutes.

Leaders running upriver making a fantastic sight

Leaders running upriver making a fantastic sight
By the time she re-floated, a marvellous sight greeted her as the fleet, led by Edme, were running up the river. Unfortunately for the Cambria, she sailed up onto the putty for a few minutes, giving the others in the Coasting Class a head start.

Edith May was joined by the Decima, Centaur and Lady Daphne as the only barges yet to get around the mark and as the tide strengthened, progress was reduced to only a few feet each tack. With the rest of the fleet already running up the Lower Hope to Gravesend, the Committee decided to let the barges turn where they were and begin the run to the finish. It was the low point in a morning of poor racing for Edith May and a subdued atmosphere was prevalent on board.

Finally a breeze!

Finally a breeze!
The breeze had now freshened to a decent 3-4 and the barge was sailing fast, although so far behind she could not see the other barges, who were now off Gravesend. Then came the first bit of uplifting news for the day. Greg Diddams, Edith May’s part time mainsheetman, was sailing aboard the Mirosa and tussling for the lead. He sent a text message to say the entire fleet was becalmed upriver!

Sailing at 6-7kts, suddenly the fleet came into view, clearly becalmed. Sheets were adjusted, more canvas set. The chase was on.

Up ahead, the Ardwina and Repertor were the two that seemed within reach, but entering Gravesend Reach, the wind fell light again.

Capt. Boyle’s vision of the barges sailing up to Erith was wholly justified as the barges safely negotiated the busy Tilbury docks and the fast tide and must have looked quite a sight. Edith May nipped past the Ardwina when off Grays but Repertor had a good cushion and was comfortably ahead.

It was quite a moment when sailing under the QE2 bridge and there was a great crowd to witness the finish at Erith, a very loud cannon echoing around the river as each barge crossed the line.

Niagara had comfortably won the Staysail Class and extra credit to her for being the only one not to start her engine.

The Bowsprits and Coasting Class had seen some thrilling racing. Edme triumphing in the former relatively comfortably ahead of Mirosa, Xylonite, May and Marjorie, who enjoyed some very close racing up the river.

The Coasting Class also witnessed some high drama. Cambria, who had sportingly given the rest of the Coasters a head start by running aground earlier in the match, worked her way past the Reminder and hunted down the Lady of the Lea, taking the lead in the final reach. Heart-breaking for the Lady of the Lea but continuing Cambria’s dominance of the Coasting Class since her return.

The evening prizegiving was held at Erith Yacht Club, which proved a superb venue for the occasion. Robin Knox-Johnson dished out the prizes to add a bit of star dust to the event and everyone celebrated the deliverance of Capt. Boyle’s vision and raised a glass to his memory.

Sadly, it is likely that the 150th Anniversary will be the last in this current series of the Thames Barge Match. New blood is required to pick up the baton but it is unlikely to return next year. The hope is that it will be restarted soon, before the success of this historic match fades into the memory and the authorities of the river forget that sailing barges are more than able to share the river with the modern leviathans of the sea.

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