London – Maylandsea


It is the height of season and hard to find a skipper, however, a pilot is secured, the awesome Chris Hanley, with two days to spare and who, coincidentally, is coming into Limehouse on Tim’s boat the day before. Insurance is sorted with only a day to spare thanks to the understanding of Alan Peake and Winter Marine.

The pontoon is loaded with bin liners, the unmarked essays and detritus of over four years on Cabby. We raft alongside DB Black Star as agreed the previous day with the marina manager. BWML, however, decide to play awkward buggers and insist we have to move over to the guest wall and away from the convenience of shore power before they will let Maja, now circling in the Thames, through the lock gates. Realising an unwinnable situation when I see one, the engines were fired, all the ropes cast off and an hour later, we were secure on the quayside.

Maja’s in, neatly handled into the tricky entrance to the lock by Chris prior to Tim taking the helm to guide her from the lock to the mooring, via getting snagged in the buoys and lines marking out the impossible to navigate planned new finger pontoons. It is strange seeing her in our mooring, looking smart but quite diminutive in comparison.

Pilot Chris drops his bags off on the way to the Grapes for lunch with Tim while we nip round to NB Smoking Otter for lunch with Kat who, with this visit, becomes the co-parent (with the off-the-wall Cassandra French from two boats further along A pontoon) of our beloved cats, Stanley and Bear. The children are all smiling charm and politeness, relieved, I think, that their pets are both staying on a boat in the Marina and, no doubt, won over by being fed by a F-W of TV chef fame.

Lyulf, who, to date, had shown little or no remorse about re-housing the cats eventually released the bottled up emotion by getting very tearful on the way back round to Cabby. I did the big hug, father thing, reassured by the fact that he will never know that beneath the reassuring bulk I had had several ‘moments’ regarding the cats, to the extent that I find myself welling up thinking about them now… (I had to go from the fold down seat in the corridor where I am typing this up into the sleeping compartment, where Peta is unconscious, Justine is on the edge of sleep and Lyulf is perversely staying awake to the detriment of his tomorrow, to seek comfort in the warm fug therein.)

Chris, having checked charts and tides realises that we need more time than my estimated 10 hours to get to Maylandsea and in an effort to achieve this within a day we lock out and wait on the outer pontoon in the entrance to the marina from the Thames, with the mizzen mast just feet from the swing bridge that Narrow Street crosses and with the collective beer garden clientele of Gordon Ramsey’s pub, The Narrow, looking down on us as the tide recedes and we rest on the mud some 20 odd foot below them.

Pizza outdoors on the old pontoon with Paul and Marni, Chris fitting in naturally with none of the need to prove oneself that so many skippers seem to have. Then back to the boat to check her over as she starts to float on the incoming tide.

The riding lights, for some reason, do not work. A potential show stopper. The bulbs seem fine, the fuse is on and there is a search for a switch that I can not remember existing. ‘Question’ Mark from Ocean Lady comes round with a voltmeter and it turns out all the lights have power, dispelling the idea of the mysterious switch. The bulbs are double checked and look fine. Despite the fact it has gone midnight, Jonathan on Izula is still up, into what is now his 65th birthday, and has a spare set. These, however, do not work either. There must be some issue with the sprung connection, possibly corrosion built up over the past couple of years of them not being used. Plan F, or whatever it is by this stage, involves a trip around to DB Black Star to visit Paul and his magic engine room of, ‘I’ll keep that in case it comes in useful…’.

Some cobbled together riding lights are created along with the loan of a brand new battery. Then it is back around to the Cabby, remembering to block the magnetic security gate to prevent any silly late night climbing antics, to test the Heath-Robinson work around.

And there was light!

It is 01.24 and as Paul heads back to bed Jonathan arrives to spend his birthday on the barge in what will be, no doubt, a less luxurious experience than us being his guest on the French canals around Dijon and south thereof.

By 02.00 the boat is ready with the makeshift lighting gaffer-taped to the ratlings. Half an hour later we cast off and head down the London River. I am consumed by worry about oil, fuel, the engine, the leaking elbow and numerous other things as we slip past Greenwich and the Cutty Sark; round the Isle of Dogs and on to the Thames Flood Barrier as the first touches of dawn soften the sky and I go into the third day without sleep.

Thames Reach, Southend, Maunsell towers stalk tankers on the horizon as the wind farms look on and we progress up the channel with a gentle, rolling rhythm and the benefit of perfect weather.

A couple of hours shut eye, packing, tidying, feeding Jonathan and Chris (who is very appreciative of my mediocre cooking skills, made to look all the better due to the fact he was under nourished on Maja’s trip from Ostend) and it becomes clear we are not going to make the tide that will carry us into Maylandsea at high water.


We anchor at Osea Island for curry and conversation. Any idea of tackling the creek on the 02.20 tide is dispelled by Ian so we settle in for the night resigned to the fact we will be here until lunchtime the next day. Still, the chat covers many subjects and I learn a few things as the conversation meanders towards bedtime.

  • Pirates eye patches were, in most cases, nothing to do with injuries, but a way to maintain their night vision so they could effectively move from the brightness of the deck to the murky world below (just lifting the patch below decks) and still see.
  • Wogs, now hard to type without a flinch, originally stood for people, ‘ Working on Government service’, ie. anyone around the ‘empire’ who was not military. I had never questioned the ‘worthy oriental gentleman’ answer that, as it turns out, was an army joke before the term acquired its modern abusive connotations.
  • Submarines from Osea Island – check historical details and cross reference with the footnote – add that they are the only ships legally allowed to fly the Jolly Roger – dig out reference for this from WWI
  • I shared, ‘Nonce’ referring to prison segregation and, ‘not on normal courtyard exercise’.
  • And in contrast Jonathan and I mentioned that the stars on the front of, mainly, continental barges is a sign that the boat is owned and not under mortgage.

A quick port and then instant sleep.

Climbing from the depths of unconsciousness it takes a moment to realise where I am and a further few seconds to realise that the chat that had wove itself in and out of my pre-waking dreams is that of Jonathan and Chris in the cockpit.

Up, genny on and breakfast of sardines, beans and toast served with a pot of almost chewable coffee.

Packing and tidying. Tidying and packing. Break for coffee and to admire the mirage that, while common to people who live and work on the water, was amazing to a city boy as it made Radio Caroline (the Ross Robert) and the land framing the estuary of the Blackwater float magically above the sea.

With a wonderful sense of timing the showers make the anchor drum wet, causing the chain to slip back one link for every two we winch up – 10 fathoms of pain for the three of us.

Ian buzzes down to meet us on the yard launch as I am taking down the ‘at anchor’ ball and shouts directions as Chris navigated the Mayland creek to the mooring, culminating in a narrow gap to slip into while negotiating the tide running up our stern, a cross eddy and a bastard wind making it apparent why it was a bad idea to attempt this in the early hours on the previous tide. Chris masterfully makes it look easy as Cabby glides through an impossible gap and is soon nosing the sea wall between a decaying SB Berwick and the Fountain, which acts as a footbridge to the steps to the jetty we left here four years previously and which still bear our name.

Waving to the departing Chris and Jonathan I find myself alone in the mizzle with the final packing and tidying of my ravaged home that I am about to leave indefinitely.

The yard hand has kindly trolleyed all my rubbish around, Ian is waiting in the bar to give me a lift to the station and, fighting back tears, I lock the saloon doors and say, aloud, a final goodbye to the beloved Cabby, our family home for four great years. I wonder when I will see her again as I lean into the rain and head for a pint.


A long awaited update

Wind and rain, summer 2015.

Cabby was due at Oare Creek to dry dock, but held in London while waiting for the winds to drop to a safe level for her to motor down to Kent.

And held.

Meanwhile the children had been packed away in readiness and we are staying between the Indian YMCA and the Cruising Association. Both are very reasonably priced. You do not have to be Indian, young, a man, Christian or a member of their association to benefit from the Fitzroy Square location with double rooms at £80 per night, inclusive of breakfast and dinner – an absolute bargain – great people and wonderful home cooked food.

And held.

The CA at Limehouse is very different, with the rooms modelled on cabins – small and comfortable with efficient and inventive use of space utilising many of the features you find on a narrow boat. Jeremy, quietly and calmly oversees things, in his charming way, between giving his incredibly well researched lectures on local maritime history at the CA and locations around the area.

And held.

The children returned before the boat had left and any hope of making the last Barge Matches of the season were rapidly fading.

It turned out to be one of the most consistently windy summers on record and not ideal for a costal barge with all her gear lashed down.

We moved to a friend’s house in Ealing and eventually weather, tides and people’s availability all aligned to motor her down to the Swale.

Into September, the decks are stripped back to the wood and the rain starts in earnest. I was not down in Kent enough to realise that the amount of water coming through the decks was damaging the inside. I had naively assumed some sort of covering, but the tarps there were were no match for the amount of rain. Another note for next time…

And rain.

Into October, racing season over and winter around the corner. The list of work is far from complete, yet the money has been long spent.

And rain.

It is time for Cabby to return and, on the nominated day, my son Lyulf and I approach the lock at Limehouse as Cabby appears, speeding with the tide, stem repaired and mast up. She pulls a magnificent, handbrake like, turn arriving exactly on time before impatiently stemming the tide until the lock keepers appear. The road swings back and she glides into the lock without the need for roving fenders.

Lyulf is jumping with excitement and we head round to the pontoon.

Lines looped over cleats. Beer tins fizz open and hand rolled cigarettes are lit as we climb aboard.

Below is a nightmare of mess and mould. Lyulf is in tears. Everything is suffering the effects of water from above and the family are staying aboard that evening.

For the second time in two years (the last time being when the marina moved us and left the systems powered down while we were away) the task of clearing out most material goods, clothes, books and children’s toys forms the start of a daunting clean up.

The lighting, any box, the cooker, everything was full of water, although, ironically, not the taps as the pumps had failed. In an effort to kick one when down, the coffee machine then exploded.

At least the sun is shining!

On and on it went into November and then December.

By the time we left for India at Christmas most of the work was done.

In fairness to Tim Goldsack, his team did an excellent job. The work on the stem and the decks is top quality. It is unfortunate that a combination of my naivety – I had assumed a false sense of security in the term dry dock – and the most unlucky weather imaginable had conspired against us.

I’d recommend his work in a shot and plan to go back when funds allow – the next job being getting the sails back up.

India was an adventure and, in the excitement, the children failed to notice that the trip meant missing the opening of Star Wars and a traditional Christmas.

In January they saw Star Wars in Greenwich. Work dominates and doesn’t seem to pay enough. Easter passes. The Medway match passes and it is June (well it currently will be in 10 minutes).

Much tinkering has happened on board and, having come to terms that we will only be out under motor this year, a season of painting – the final part of the clear up below decks and the much needed wood and windlasses on deck.

Now I have come out of hibernation, there is also the need to look at how best to maintain this most beautiful of barges. An approach and business plan following this enforced delay. Much advice to seek and people to speak to.

It should be fun if one keeps perspective. She is a wooden barge. It is going to heartache, frustration and much work. It will be worth it.

In the meantime, a few Tower Bridge lifts will keep the spirits up.

Barge pushers!

The murky side of the sailing barge world? How much for 76 tonnes mate? Are those ropes hemp?

Or not.

That sort of behaviour is most likely to happening on the tow path by the pontoon on an evening.

This is the tiny part of tow path, hidden behind Marina Heights, that was (proposed) to be given low-impact, sunset to sunrise gates to prevent this and associated ant-social behaviour, vandalism and abuse. The same gates that were voted against by the local, ‘footpath must be open day and night’ community – an ideal they uphold without being on the spot or ever down there at night as it is dangerous. But, so long as they feel virtuous and have done the correct chattering class, yoghurt weaving thing, that’s okay.

If only it was in their back yard I mused while wandering off, avoiding the broken glass, litter and improvised crack pipes, to buy todays Guardian…

I digress, even rant.

Getting Cabby ready to go to dry dock involved all the usual things. Remove the covers, clear out in general, service the fire systems, hire life-rafts, service the engine, generator and pumps, take on board around 750 litres of fuel and etc.

To do this required manhandling Cabby past Izula (a 90 odd foot barge built the same year as Cabby) and round the corner with the right angled hazard of the new visitors pontoon jutting out, to get her stern close enough to the road to drop a hose down from a tanker – all made easier with a stiff breeze and a flotilla of small visiting yachts who were at risk of becoming very expensive fenders if something did go wrong.

It involved many opinions on the best approach, many ropes and, from above, must have resembled a giant game of cat’s cradle. Suffice to say, it was harder work than it should have been.

For the return journey, the wind was against us and gusting around 24 miles per hour and some of the expected muscle had not turned up. Possible, but would have required a more practical use of the lines than our diminished group, myself included, had on offer.

The boat had to move – the space was booked – and I was not going to move her.

Until two magic words were spoken, ‘barge pushers’.

I had no idea what on earth these were, let alone there were two in Limehouse.  But, there they were, two eight foot, single cabined, mini barges designed to push (and pull) bigger barges around harbours. They came accompanied by two charming, white bearded Dutchmen, smiling broadly as they chugged across the basin.

These two gentlemen had spent the last 10 years restoring these vessels, had bought them over from Holland on a low-loader. Dropped them into South Dock, chugged across the Thames, into Limehouse and then up to Nottingham and back!

We were lucky enough to catch them as they were waiting to lock out and go and find the lorry for their return journey.

With one pulling forward and the other counter-balancing from the stern, they had us round and slotted back into our mooring in minutes with none of the sweat and swearing of the outward journey (can you call 100 yards a journey?).

Cheery waves and many thanks followed and, as I was treating the rest of the helpers to a pint in the Narrow (the arrival of the children prevented going to the Grapes), they popped out of the lock and darted across the river to the south docks looking slightly like turbo charged, bobbing baby moorhens dodging around the swans of commuter filled ‘clippers’ and tourist boats.

With thanks to Tim for the pictures.

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All at sea

So, it has been a while and a series of posts are to follow.

In short, we are off to dry dock in July following an enforced lay up due to a damaged stem. SB Cabby should be back at sea in August.

We are all very excited.


In between the massive high tides over the last couple of days, and the equally high winds causing the wires to hauntingly moan like whale-song, we had a beautifully clear dawn with the frost sparkling in the sunlight. To cap it off, the resident Kingfisher, I assume one of a pair, darted across Limehouse Basin, dived under water and then broke the surface with fish in bill before proceeding to buzz past me before looping back flashing blue and orange as if showing off. Delightful. from the RSPB doesn’t quite capture the electric blue but is a lot better than anything I would be able to shoot.

Mersey Flats

So, you learn something new every day. While I am aware that there are around ten major types of inland-coastal barges in England – all sharing the same function (a lorry) but with varying hull forms and rig – I had never heard of a Mersey Flat.

It transpires that Brian Bloom, with whom I have been talking to about Cabby, E A Gill and the like, is involved with Oakdale, one of the two surviving Mersey Flats, and shared the below picture.

Wikipedia says,

‘A Mersey flat is a type of doubled-ended barge with rounded bilges, carvel build and fully decked. Traditionally, the hull was built of oak and the deck was pitch pine. Some had a single mast, with a fore-and-aft rig, while some had an additional mizzen mast. Despite having a flat bottom and curved sides, they were quite stable.[1] They were common from the 1730s to 1890s.[2]

As the name suggests, these flats originated on the River Mersey, but they were also used on the rivers Irwell and Weaver.[3]

The length of a flat was from 62 to 70 feet (19 to 21 m) long, with a 6-foot (1.8 m) draught and a beam of 14 feet 9 inches to 17 feet (4.5 to 5.2 m). They could carry up to 80 tons of cargo,[4] and this size allowed them to work along the Bridgewater Canal, the Sankey Canal and the northern parts of the Shropshire Union Canal. The Weaver flat was a larger version of the Mersey flat, measuring 90 by 21 feet (27.4 by 6.4 m). Its draught was 10.5 feet (3.2 m) and when fully loaded, could carry 250 tons. 

The National Historic Ships website says the following about the Oakdale

Built in 1951 by Richard Abel & Sons of Runcorn, OAKDALE is a Mersey Flat of composite construction with a Lister HA3 diesel engine. She spent her working life on the Rivers Mersey and Weaver and was used as a grain barge. She is one of only two Flats surviving and is the only remaining composite construction Mersey Flat. She is also the only remaining merchant vessel built at Runcorn and is built to the same pattern as boats built by Abels in the 1850s.


The Gill family

As is the nature of degrees of separation, it turns out that a friend of a friend is the great granddaughter of EA Gill who ran the London and Rochester Trading Company, builder and owner of many a Thames Sailing Barge including Cabby.

Cabby, herself, was named after his wife’s dog – although this has been questioned as it may well be Pudge who had that honour – it certainly sounds a more dog-like name.

They also, very kindly shared a photo of the boat that provided Cabby with a lot of her gear when we were re-rigged – Sirdar on 6th May 1953 in the Medway, from the Gill Family archives.


Dunkirk 75

2015 marks the 75th anniversary of Operation Dynamo where, between 28 May and 04 June 1940 the ‘little ships’ brought back around 340,000 British and French troops to continue the fight. Contrary to popular belief, comparatively few owners took their own boats outside of the fishermen and barge crews.

Rita & Peter Phillips excellent, ‘illustrated guide to Thames Sailing Barges 2015 Edition’ has a double page spread covering this in more detail. They then list the barges that went to Dunkirk under tug until, about two miles offshore, they were cast off and made their own way to collect troops under sail!

Incredible bravery by barge and tug crews alike and proud of Cabby’s place on the list.


Association of Dunkirk Little Ships –

A toast to Nelson

The Old Royal Navy College’s Painted Hall, artist Sir James Thornhill’s 19 year epic masterpiece of interior decoration could well be the largest painting in Europe – not that he was well rewarded for his efforts as he demonstrates by adding a self-portrait into one of the pictures with his hand out as though asking for money.

This is the magnificent room where, 210 years ago, Nelson lay in state before his journey to St Paul’s, another Wren masterpiece. By this stage he was in a real coffin, with the barrel of brandy he was preserved in on his return from Trafalgar allegedly being drunk by the crew for good luck!

As the bells rang at 15.30 today the hall was silent. As the last bell rang there followed a very simple speech from the Commodore of the South East of England and then the room raised a glass of port to the Immortal Memory of Admiral Lord Nelson – a bit of a boy and-all round hero!

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