Com­ing to terms with it

Hard-won ob­ser­va­tions, with ap­pro­pri­ate ter­mi­nol­ogy, from a Ômod­ern ap­pren­tice­shipÕ on a Thames char­ter barge

Practical Boat Owner - - Letters -

No. Not that one, that one, no, the other one,' shrieked the first mate calmly as I fum­bled with the ropes that led up­wards out of sight high up into the ozone layer.

Day two of my ‘mod­ern ap­pren­tice­ship’ on the Thames char­ter barge Ground Hog Day was ex­actly the same; and day three and four, come to think of it. By then the first mate was bel­low­ing even more pa­tiently, and I think he was get­ting a lit­tle bit stressed. When I asked him what all the ropes were there for, he blurted: ‘Be­cause of rea­sons.’ That didn’t help. Then he stopped talk­ing al­to­gether. I help­fully sug­gested neat lit­tle Dymo-tape la­bels like we have on yots, say­ing: ‘pull’; ‘don’t pull’; ‘pull only in an emer­gency’; ‘don’t pull even in an emer­gency’. Ap­par­ently that’s not done on barges. Still, they say every day’s a school day, and on day five I learned my place: I was pro­moted into cus­tomer care – mak­ing tea.

I kinda feel that was a turn­ing point in my life, cos I used to have all sorts of is­shoos about me self-es­tee­ment and ev­eryfink, but after pulling ropes on a barge I feel I ‘as turned a cor­ner and is mostly go­ing to mostly stop com­mit­ting crimes al­to­gether, mostly, and be­come a use­ful mem­ber of so­ci­ety and wot­not and stuff. But if they don’t give me a barge of me own I could fall back into bad ways and have even worse is­shoos. And that would be bad for so­ci­ety, car in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums and other wot­not and stuff and ev­eryfink.

To say the least, help­ing out on a Thames barge was an ed­u­ca­tion… and a rev­e­la­tion. Barges, you see, are not like other boats. Their his­tory is fas­ci­nat­ing. Most were built in the olden days, although oth­ers were built in days of yore, ei­ther for the cream-tea trade or the dis­en­chanted yoof turn-around mar­ket. It was dan­ger­ous work ei­ther way. In the cream-tea trade, most feared were the scone car­ri­ers, as a cargo of wet scones could swell and burst the planks. In the yoof trade, most feared were the so­cial work­ers. Fa­mously, barges were crewed by no more than a man and a boy and a Jack Rus­sell ter­rier whose job was to yelp pierc­ingly when the barge was about to hit some­thing. That’s why Jack Rus­sells yelp con­stantly. It’s evo­lu­tion.

Enough his­tory. Down to prac­ti­cal­i­ties. Barges have ropes ev­ery­where, and some of them do some­thing, but as they’re all the same colour and dis­ap­pear out of sight into a bun­dle of or­ange sails up the mast, there’s no way of telling. Then there’s the ter­mi­nol­ogy. I was on a sprit­sail barge, but in Bar­gish it’s the spreet. There’s also a horse, which isn’t a horse at all but a tree trunk laid hor­i­zon­tally for trip­ping over, and ropes var­i­ously called brails, clew lines, bunt lines and ‘that one’, and it turns out all of these names are in­ter­change­able.

I found out the clew line I was pulling, which is prop­erly termed ‘clew lin’, was ac­tu­ally the brail, which was also the bund line. There’s also an ‘Essex man’, which isn’t a per­son at all but an 8:1 pur­chase for do­ing some­thing. And then there’s the wang, which sounds to­tally wong, and is re­puted to be even more dan­ger­ous than a so­cial worker. And fi­nally, you’ve got the re­tractable flip­pers which are known as ‘lee-boards’.

I’d nearly for­got­ten the sails. They’re or­ange. And so beloved are our barges that even to this day fair Essex maid­ens pay homage by dy­ing their skin or­ange with the same stuff they use to dress the sails – a fra­grant com­pote of fish guts and cre­osote.

It’s all pretty straight­for­ward, but more enig­matic are the won­der­ful names given to barges, for ex­am­ple Mi­nor Fra­cas, Metaphor, Acro­nym, De­fib­ril­la­tor, Apos­tro­phe, Ca­theta, Cur­mud­geon, Para­dox, Re­minder, Reper­tor, Scone, Xy­lonite and Hy­dro­gen – the last five are real names.

That’s about all there is to know about Thames barges, and the fact that these unique and his­toric ves­sels re­ally can be op­er­ated by a man and boy and a Jack Rus­sell, as long as one of them’s not me or Bart. They’re canny craft, a prod­uct of the in­dus­trial age which pro­duced the gear that re­duced each in­di­vid­ual task to the strength of a sin­gle man or woman. And each one that sur­vives is a trib­ute to the re­mark­able com­mit­ment of the men and women who keep them go­ing. If they let me, I’m de­ter­mined to sort out my is­shoos, and when I’ve learned the dif­fer­ence be­tween a clew line and a brail my self-es­tee­ment will re­ally be on the up.

‘He’s been like that since I told him not to get the clewlin con­fused with the brail when he eases off the vang and winches up the star­board lee­board...’

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