[ Photo Gallery # 91 ]
Thames Sailing Barges
Maldon is a town on the Blackwater estuary in Essex, England. Cruises can now be undertaken from here on the traditional Thames Sailing Barges. During the 17th and 18th centuries Thames Sailing Barges played an important role in ferrying cargo to and from ships to the London wharves. The very first barges were different from those we see today and lacked the distinctive sails which were introduced over time. Such craft came in a variety of sizes that could carry from 100 tonnes, (river barges) to 300 tonnes (large coasters) to suit a range of needs.
The flat-bottomed barges with a shallow draught were perfectly adapted to the Thames Estuary, with its shallow waters and narrow tributary rivers. The larger barges were seaworthy vessels, and were the largest sailing vessel that could be handled by just two men.
The cargoes carried by these boats varied enormously – bricks, cement, rubbish, hay, coal, sand, grain and gunpowder. Timber, bricks and hay were stacked on the deck, while cement and grain was carried loose in the hold. They could sail low in the water, even with their gunwales beneath the surface.
They sailed the Medway and Thames in a ponderous way for two-hundred years; then in the 1860s a series of barge races were started, and the barges’ design improved as vessels were built with better lines in order to win. The Thames barge races are the world’s second oldest sailing competition, second to the America’s Cup. At the time of World War 2 these Thames Sailing Barges played a vital part in the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, their shallow-bottoms proving excellent for this purpose.
The Thames Sailing Barge Trust, which owns such boats, operates some of their boats from Maldon and offers the opportunity to sail to various locations around the Thames Estuary, and also to take part in competition with other barges in the various barge matches arranged throughout the sailing season.
The photographs below, except the first and the last, were taken by me on a visit to Maldon in 2005.
[ My notes above are based on information from a variety of sources ]
Map of the Thames estuary and the Essex coastline
Thames Sailing Barge in full sail