Dick Durham

Yachting Monthly - - VIEW FROM THE HELM -

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.

Lis­ten to the pod­cast

‘ She suf­fered a dent, but she’s got plenty of those so it won’t even no­tice’

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