BARGE IN THE BALTIC
A FLAT-BOTTOMED THAMES BARGE IS HARDLY BUILT FOR SEAGOING – YET THIS CREW SAILED THE 87FT TO SWEDEN AND BACK
Back in the 1960s when the last Thames sailing barges were coming out of trading, a few were taken by bold individuals as yachts or houseboats. The best of them kept the rigs exactly as they had been. Some resisted the temptation to fit engines.
One such was the 87ft, 70-ton Venta, owned by Jocelyn Lukins, who bought her in 1959 for £600. Five years later, under the command of former barge skipper John Fairbrother, she and one or two friends sailed her to Stockholm and, ultimately, home again. The logs of this remarkable voyage are reprinted, together with a running commentary mainly from Ms Lukins, in the book Sailing Barge Venta published in 2014. The book struck a spark with me, not only because of my long-term passion for Thames barges, but also because the voyage took place in waters I know well.
The extracts I have chosen are very different. The first is the book’s foreword written by the skipper, a professional seaman who makes clear what he thinks about barges for long-distance work. Notwithstanding his opinion, he signs on. The second section, largely from passage logs, takes the barge from an anchorage in the lee of Fermahn Island, well known to all who venture out of the Kiel Canal, towards the inner Baltic, across the difficult bight between Sandhammeren and Utklippan, and into the long sound between the Swedish Isle of Öland and the mainland.
Halfway up here lies the ancient city of Kalmar, with its castle cornered by onion domes. When you see this come over the horizon, you know you are in exotic country. To sail anything at all into its harbour requires skill and nerve. To manage it in a leeboard barge is special, but Fairbrother makes nothing of it. As we leave him and his crew, it’s all in a day’s work, as you might say…
I don’t know how many of you who read this have ever sailed in a barge. The facts that set them apart from most other sailing craft are their size and that they are flat-bottomed, which makes them totally unsuitable for really going to sea. I am well aware that they did work down-channel and to nearer continental ports. Some men in them were undoubtedly hard cases and drove their barges hard, but to do it they drove themselves harder. After the Second World War the sailing trade ceased down channel but even on the Essex and Suffolk coasts there have been some real hard cases and several barges were lost.
I’ve never worked the channel but it must have involved long, long waits for suitable weather in order to make the