Sailing skills can do little to snatch triumph from the jaws of disaster
As we know from Rudyard Kipling, disaster and triumph are both imposters, but had he been on the bridge committee of this year’s annual Thames Sailing Barge Match he may well have added a codicil to his famous poem, If.
More especially, he might have done, had he been at the bend in the river between the North Sea’s last grasp at Sea Reach and the promise of deliverance in the Lower Hope. Here the River Thames narrows between the wind-eddying gargantuan cranes of London Gateway wharves and the tide-confusing shoals of the Blyth Sand.
For here it was in a rising south-westerly that two barges were engaged in a battle royale. Both ‘tinpots’, the affectionate name given to steel-hulled barges, Reminder and Niagara were on very tight sheets, luffing and filling and semi-stalling, in what anyone who did not know bargeman would call a grudge match.
Indeed these two barge skippers, Richard Titchener and Peter Sands, are fiercely competitive, every year giving the thousands of spectators around the coast a thrill of expectancy in their hotly contested, bilateral duel within the half dozen or so barge races.
This time was no different. They were in a world of their own and hardly noticed that a third barge, the much older and wooden Edith May was sailing on a freer sheet at much greater speed, past them both, albeit to leeward.
It seemed as though Edith May’s skipper Geoff Gransden, who had sailed a blinder, had almost run up unexpectedly into the mix and as the shoals rose up to greet and snare his barge, he was running out of water. So he tacked but suddenly there was nowhere to go: the timberbuilt, 111-year-old barge was facing a closing vice between the two steel-hulled craft.
He couldn’t bear away fast enough and Edith May and Reminder collided. It is at this point I believe Kipling would have added that disaster and triumph are both imposters… by default.
For now, what had been almost certain victory for the cerebral and experienced crew of Reminder, a poorer craft in stays than Niagara, after many hours of hard work, fine judgement and iron nerve, had been reduced to ashes in a few seconds. Triumph as imposter.
And what had been an infuriating, almost certain defeat for the brazen and cavalier crew of Niagara, after hours of impressive overtaking, bold sailhandling and calculated short-cutting, had been flipped into triumph in a trice. Disaster as imposter.
But, lo, there came a committee, of which I was part, and it recalled that in the beginning there was a penalty… Niagara had lost enough way to round the first mark incorrectly, but had proceeded anyway.
And so it came to pass that Reminder’s disaster was turned into triumph and Niagara’s triumph was turned into disaster!
Fortunately nobody was injured and while Edith May’s crew reported some splintering to her stem, they reassured one and all that it was nothing they could not repair. ‘ Reminder suffered a dent,’ one sailor told me later, ‘but she’s got plenty of those so it won’t even notice.’
The BBC was there aboard the committee boat X-Pilot filming the whole race and became very excited when the collision happened: ‘Did you get the shot?’ asked an anxious journalist of her cameraman. ‘I did,’ came his calm reply.
Whatever you think of my theory, YM readers can see the results this autumn when a new BBC 2 series entitled Floating History of Britain is broadcast. It will feature a yacht on the River Mersey, a Welsh coracle, a Cambridge punt, a Midlands narrowboat and, of course, the Thames sailing barge.
Your columnist was interviewed for his take on the collision, but you read it here first.
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‘ She suffered a dent, but she’s got plenty of those so it won’t even notice’