Under full canvas

PUBLISHED: 10:34 02 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:03 20 February 2013

The crew of SB May at work

The crew of SB May at work

The unique Thames Sailing Barge Match is the longest traditional sail racing event in the world, so join in this month as the world watches maritime history come to the port of Gravesend

In 1863 Henry Dodd - known as London's Victorian 'Golden Dustman' - initiated the first match (or race) for Thames Sailing Barges on the Thames. He gained immortality as the character Mr Boffin in Charles Dickens's novel Our Mutual Friend, written at Gads Hill Place, Higham.

His wealth, amassed from running a refuse collection and brick making business, was reflected in his barges. This design of sturdy vessel was the workhorse of the lower Thames ferrying, among other things, freight from the ocean-going ships of London's docks to the Kentish ports along the river Medway, The Swale estuary and the numerous surrounding creeks.

The modern-day event is organised by the Thames Sailing Barge Match Committee in association with the Port of London Authority (whose centenary is this year). Although the America's Cup started 12 years earlier than the Thames event, the boats now used have changed beyond all recognition, but The Thames Match retains the original sail plan and vessel design, so the Match Committee rightly considers their event as the longest-running national racing event for traditional sail in the world. It is organised to showcase these vessels to the public, to remind them that they still exist and can be chartered.

Towards the end of the 19th century, there were 3,000 barges active on the Thames and Medway. Today, there are only around 40 that are seaworthy; they no longer transport freight, but the majority are still commercial concerns as charter barges that take fare-paying passengers on river trips, or act as static mobile venues for special events. The resulting revenue helps support their maintenance in specialist boatyards, the Kent yard being at Faversham.

In tandem, supporting skills such as those of the ship's carpenter, shipwright, blockmaker, sailmaker and the rigger of the 19th century have been helped to survive until today. The Match has helped keep Kent's maritime heritage alive for future generations to enjoy, and is a credit to the dedication and enthusiasm of the committee's voluntary members and the barge masters who race these inspiring vessels.

This year's race takes place on Saturday 13 June, but this extravagance of historic sail starts on the Friday evening with the arrival of the competitors at Gravesend providing a spectacular scene which can be viewed from St Andres Gardens between the Three Daws, a Grade II listed riverside tavern, and the former church at Bawley Bay.

Many of the barges in the Match will be more than a century old and previous entrants have included those with masts reaching up to 80 ft (24 m) above their decks and the ability to carry over 4,500 sq ft (420 sq m) of sail, and a length of 90 ft (27 m).

They are rigged as either a bowsprit or staysail, and will have come
from varying locations; those that are based in St. Katherine Yacht Haven, just below Tower Bridge, are conveniently located. The Kent barges will come from those based or operating from Faversham and Whitstable, others will sail from Essex and Suffolk. Although the line-up changes each year, some regulars re-appear to progressively establish track records and so take a special place in the event's 145-year history.

The Three Daws, and the Town Pier (the oldest cast-iron pier in the world) both provide fine vantage points from which to view the barges leaving to go to the start line on the Saturday morning.

Eight-hour race

The start is about four miles downriver from the town, in Lower Hope Reach, just off Stanford-le-Hope in Essex. The course runs downriver past the Isle of Sheppey out to the North Oaze Buoy, and after rounding it, the barges return to the finish line in the vicinity of St Andrews Gardens, with the race having lasted up to eight hours. The distance of the race is determined by the wind conditions but is normally around 43 nautical miles.

The Three Daws and the Town Pier again provide good vantage points to watch the barges cross the finish line in the late afternoon, as each gets a signal gun fired in acknowledgement, and then berths just off the Gardens.

One noteworthy award - Thames Champion pennant - is awarded to the barge that completes the course in the shortest elapsed time, irrespective of which class it is entered in. The record is currently held by the bowsprit rigged SB May which was built in 1891 and is owned by Tate & Lyle. She has been Thames Champion five times since the current series started in 1995.

After the prize presentations, the Masters of each competing barge muster outside with their trophies to have the traditional photograph overshadowed by Henry Dodd, who looks on approvingly as his legacy, which began in 1863, achieves another entry in the record books.

This year it is expected that past competitors such as the SB May, Repertor (built 1924), Lady Daphne (built 1923 by Short Brothers of Rochester), and Ethel Ada (built 1903) will be in the line-up; it is hoped two newcomers will be on the start line. The SB Dawn (built 1897) which after 16 years is now seaworthy again, and the SB Melissa (built 1899) whose current owners' 15-year rebuild is almost complete.

Each year, the event has to find the financial support to enable the race to take place, and funding is achieved through the Match Patron scheme which invites financial contributions from the public and businesses.

The latter is made as part of a company's support for local community activities, and both types of patrons gain recognition by having their names published in the souvenir programmes each year.

With fine weather and a brisk wind for the Masters, the Thames Barge Sailing Match is a privilege many will never have the chance to witness, and a maritime sight not to be missed.

If you want to view the entire match at close quarters, you can take a trip on the river with Captain John Potter on board the Gravesend-based Princess Pocahontas (Tel: 01732 353448), embarking at West Street Pier. Tony Farnham, the well-known lecturer on barging history and Chairman of the Society for Sailing Barge Research, will be providing passengers with an ongoing commentary and souvenir programmes are available on board.

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