The barge owners and the sailing barge community do a gallant job of keeping these vessels maintained and in good seaworthy sailing condition, but there are times when this self preservation takes it toll on their personal pockets.
Trying to keep alive such a Great British icon and historical artefact, of a period when Great Britain was known as an Empire, the British Empire, is a mammoth task for the community alone to upkeep.
It needs help; public help. It needs sponsorship, advertising, grants and donations.
Prior to this chance meeting, I was invited to look after a friend's new house boat (a 150 foot Dutch barge) which had three bedrooms, a lounge, an open plan kitchen and a bathroom/utility room.
I had never been on a personalised boat before and indeed knew nothing much about boats at all, so this was novel to me and given that the barge was moored in a working boatyard, there was plenty of fascinating sights to feed my imaginative mind.
The first thing that got my attention was the number of wooden boats that looked like projects in various stages of repair or restoration.
I had no problem with this, but it crossed my mind that each afternoon when I set out down the jetty and across the yard to the fields where I walked the dogs, activity on those projects I passed, was not very evident.
I expected to see lots of young apprentices and skilled boat builders working on these projects, but the yard didn’t seem to have much young blood about and I wanted to know why.
The reason for my concern here, was that the media had been reporting apprenticeships were lacking in the field of boat building, yet the work looked aplenty to me. I needed to question someone, but I didn’t know who.
Then the day came when I was able to pose that question thanks to the four dogs between us bringing me in front of the boatyard owners, Andy and Jane Harman, from whom my friends Dutch barge was brought.
We got talking about all the projects that were sitting in the yard and why new apprenticeships were not being taken up (all of which came down to funding — the lack of).
Then seeing that I expressed an interest in his industry, its welfare and establishing that I didn’t just see rubbish, Andy invited me to have a look at the project he was working on.
Next day I turned up to view what I learned was the sailing barge Edme, de-rigged and undergoing some heavy maintenance, we got talking more about the problem of funding such a project, but that, however, wasn’t Andy’s priority — he wanted someone to get under the barge and anti-foul it.
Although he knew I didn’t know anything about boats, barges or even sailing, he wondered what I was made of and offered a proposition.
“...Well, If you really want to know what this is all about and you get and do a good job on the anti-fouling, we’ll take you out sailing. You ain’t gonna understand any of it until you go out sailing. Come sailing with us and see what you think, then ”.
Intriguingly, I agreed, did my job and then some.
A few weeks later I was asked if I wanted to crew at the first race of the season in 2015, Medway.
I expected hordes of people watching from the shoreside and loads of boats (well, that’s what I thought they were at the time, but I address them properly now as Barges, specifically Thames Sailing Barges), all lined up ready to race.
The total wasn’t very many and in Edme’s class (Bowsprit), she was racing only one other — Adieu. I was shocked. Shocked for both the numbers that turned out shoreside to watch and shocked for the number of entries, however, you have to keep in mind I knew nothing about the world of boats, let-alone, Thames Sailing Barges, what they did or even that they were attached to an amateur sport because of what they used to do in their working days (the barges used to compete against each other, unofficially, to see who could pick up and drop off the most loads, which later turned into sporting barge matches that are part of their tradition to this day).
As far as I could tell, the event needed better publicity, more marketing and PR around it, but I reserved my hastened judgement for the next time.
I was told, the next match was going to be much better, better turn out, better race, more in our class and so on. The next match I went to was Pin Mill.
Yes the numbers were better, yes, there were more in our class, but again shoreside, the turnout was not really there.
By now I was starting to notice a real problem; shoreside viewing. Even if the crowds did turn out, they would only be limited to seeing the start and finish, the rest of the time the barges are way out to sea where no one can view them unless they were on some other vessel or that they were being televised in some way, which they weren't.
For most of the matches thereafter that I attended (Meadway, Pin Mill, Swale and Colne), that problem was pretty much what I saw.
In my mind I thought, “perhaps the lack of viewing public is part of the wider problem of funding”.
I couldn’t see major sponsorship coming in, unless they were able to get something out of it.
Given the limited exposure, it seemed that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon.
Exposure… that is what I then turned my sights to and thought, “if something could happen where the public could have land access to easily see all of the barges while they were sailing, I think people would turn out for that...”, I held that thought for a bit, switched to another, which was to figure out where that could be done, then switched back again to continue on from where I left off, I came up with, “...London, that’s where you could do that, on the river Thames, but not a race, a parade”.
I asked Jane if there were any matches that were on the Thames and she said no, that there was a match called the Thames Match, but it wasn’t actually on the Thames any longer.
I asked why and was told in short, too many restrictions and other problems.
That to me became the challenge, to get the barges sailing up the Thames, through the Thames Barrier, into the Pool of London, past Tower Bridge, with its Bascule drawn up and further on up the river.
Putting that Idea to Jane she informed me that the barges could not go any further than the Upper Pool because of the low bridges (I didn’t even know what the Upper Pool was at the time — for those who don’t know either, Google ‘river Thames Upper Pool’), but if that was as far as the barges could go, for me, it was enough of the south and north bank where thousands of people could view from, to still pursue as an event.
I knew then that the only way for such to happen was to talk to officialdom and so I began my quest.
The first person I wrote to was the Mayor of London, then Her Majesty The Queen, then the PLA (Port of London Authority) and through this endeavour I got replies, enough to lead me to the one person I wanted to get to in the first place… pageant master of Her Majesty The Queen’s Jubilee Pageant 2012, his name: Adrian Evans.
Adrian Evans was of particular interest to me because he had already done something akin to what I wanted to do with the parade, so I wanted to find out from him how to do that or better still, do something with him. The latter persisted.
Here are the letters (warts and all, spelling or grammatical mistakes and incorrect terminology, until I learned better. The main thing was, the message was clear):
letter to the Mayor’s Office and reply from the Mayor’s Office
letter to The Queen and reply from The Queen
letter to the Port of London Authority. Though I never received a reply from PLA, we managed to see them later (upfront and personal, backdoor style) through that contact with Adrian Evans.
In my search to understand the leads I had been given, I read up on the fact that Adrian Evans headed up an event called Totally Thames which celebrates London’s river from the 1st-30th September with events galore, sponsored by the Mayor of London and promoted by Thames Festival Trust of which Adrian is the director.
But my search also revealed that this event had nothing to say of Thames Sailing Barges, yet the address of Thames Festival Trust is: Barge House, Barge House Street, London, SE1 9PH.
I had to get in contact with this man and find out if we could be included as one of his events and when I did, I was surprised at how fast the positive response was to my initial contact — just 7 Hours.
Here are some of the email communications with the Thames Festival Trust that you can be shown
At that point, I knew we were onto something quite special and here we are today, planning and organising the first event of its kind, anywhere in the world.
The Thames Sailing Barge Parade.