BARGE IN THE BALTIC

A FLAT-BOT­TOMED THAMES BARGE IS HARDLY BUILT FOR SEAGO­ING – YET THIS CREW SAILED THE 87FT TO SWE­DEN AND BACK

Yachting World - - Front Page -

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…

SKIP­PER'S FORE­WORD

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

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