That’s how I learned to sail
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She turned her office chair round to face my back. "Your wife has just called," she said. "You're to go to Liverpool Street to meet her cousin and take the train down to Maldon to look over the boat she's bought."
Bought? She's bought? I still didn't know Claire very well, but my surprise was tinged with a little admiration.
At the time, I was much fatter than I am now. The middle section of my three-piece suit stuck out unless I weighted it down with a heavy gold chain. I had a rolled umbrella, a bowler hat, and polished shoes. I took this lot down with me to Maldon, Essex - paunch, gold Albert and all.
It wasn't very easy to make out what was boat and what was not. The tide was low, and several large sailing vessels were lying at a slight angle on the mud. When I could begin to make things out in the twilight, I saw they were all vast (at least 80 feet it turned out).
The owner emerged vertically from the deck. I mean: the former owner, whom I now asked how I sailed it. It was quite easy, he said. "You hire a skipper."
On my salary?
Fairly soon, I learned that available skippers came suspiciously cheap.
Thames barges have a huge mainsail set on a sprit which runs diagonally across the sail, free of it on one tack, rubbing against it on the other, above it a topsail set on a headstick, a decent sized foresail, a dainty little mizzen, set outboard to help the rudder turn the ship, mostly no bowsprit, and very pretty painted sterns. Ours spent half the day filling up with water, and the other half draining it out again, beached on the mud. If too much flowed in, we simply found a piece of mud to sit on, took out the plug at the back, and there we were all dry again. The decks were another matter altogether: I didn't like sleeping in oil skins.
The barges had been cargo ships until the Thirties when the Depression laid them out of work. In the Sixties, it was becoming fashionable for people like us to buy them up cheaply, convert the insides for accommodation, re-rig and sail them. Ours, the Gipping (known locally as the Dripping), had already been converted. But we were late on the scene, and the best barges had already changed hands.
On the East Coast, life was wholly governed by tides and sandbanks. Later, I discovered this was exceptional if you look at it globally. By the end of my time at sea, we drove off at any time which suited us, went out of the harbour, turned left, sailed around a bit, turned right and drove back in. But in those days there was no option but to start and end the weekend at high water, aiming to reach the berth just before the turn of the tide.
To get to our berth, we would ram the opposite bank, letting the last of the flood take the stern upstream. We would thus have turned round ready to sail off our berth the next weekend. The better barge skippers sailed off the bank across the stream into the berth. We never attained that reverenced class. We had a small unreliable petrol (gas) engine, which we used for these berthing manœuvres but otherwise we really did sail, when we weren't just floating one way or the other with the tide.
This obligation to the tide had its merits. Sometimes, it is true, we would have to be down in Maldon by midnight to start in the very earliest hours of the morning. There might be a moon which would make it easier to see the way. But a midnight tide also meant that we had to be back by another midday, too early to drive back to London forthwith. Thus we had the afternoon to do further nautical things, like bending on sails or caulking decks. And, of course, everyone else was doing the same thing on the other barges, with maybe time for a drink in the pub before going back to London. Each weekend was different.
I never had to worry how to do anything. I just asked Bruce. He worked for Cook's boatyard, maybe owned it even then - he certainly did later on. Bruce lived alone on his smack. Although he seldom sailed it, he was somehow vaguely of no fixed abode. Communicating with him by telephone from London was, of course, not the way things were done. You had to find Bruce, a sort of contact-sport activity since he was mostly in transit from one barge to another. That is, I remember him most in profile, walking past us, seldom end on. His nose was quite distinctive. From time to time, he would wash his socks, which he then pegged to the rigging. It was useful to know this, as wash days, when he was not available, were random and could occur at weekends, the only time when we ourselves were available. He had asthma for which he carried a small apparatus which he had to whip out from an inside pocket from time to time in order to be able to continue talking with me.
But Bruce was far from eccentric. He was a young man of considerable charm and ability who kept an eye on us. After I once managed to collide with some eel traps as we left our berth, starting in the early morning on a moonless night, I knew I had done some damage, but the tide swept us along. Bruce was on the quay when we returned the next day.
"Have a nice sail?" he asked.
"Oh yes. Thank you. We only went to the end of the river."
"Anchored at Bradwell?"
"Yes. That's right. Nice calm night."
"I was wondering. Blew a bit didn't it?"
"Oh, not so much as all that."
"How did my knees get on?"
Bruce had undertaken the previous winter to rebuild the huge oaken structures, called knees, which held up the windlass barrel, and which in effect tied the ship to the ground when we anchored. They had been under construction for so long that they were called Bruce's knees, as in: Seen Bruce? Yes, he's on his knees.
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