Our lay days on Eastbourne were spent fitting our new Rain Man water maker and doing running repairs to the mizzen, all complete and working fine. A quick trip to Asda and the local fisherman’s coop shop topped up the food and drink and the jerry can challenge to get 90 litres of diesel across the marina and onboard before we set off.
On day one, our guest Rachel, a journalist from the Guardian joined us for the first half of the trip. The wind gods continued to favour us and early on Sunday morning we locked out without incident and after the morning lull had cleared set sail down wind and down tide (the way we like it!) for Dungeness and on to Dover. The wind built and with it the following seas and the last mile to Dover west entrance was a bit like a roller coaster. Safely in the outer harbour we were escorted to the side of the dredger to moor for the night.
Dover was officially closed to visitors, something to do with migration control, and we had to persuade the HM to let us stop for the night. Once agreed they could not have been more helpful even nudging us onto our berth against the 25 kn wind. The wind dropped and we dined on deck, the dramatic Norman castle and old port to starboard and an ugly rusting dredger to port.
We departed Dover through the east entrance, in the wake of a cross channel ferry. The Coast Guard and Navy were very visible in the Channel, it being a perfect dinghy day for desperate refugees. We set sail for South Foreland and then through the Gull Stream, skirting the Goodwin Sands and on to Long Nose the furthest corner of Kent.
The wind flipped through 120 degrees as we entered the Thames and dropped to a gentle breeze. We dropped sail and motored into the drying Margate Harbour. Now drying out on the sandy beach of a seaside resort is always going to attract attention but the locals and holiday makers of Margate did us proud! Lots of interesting conversations, some fantastic professional photos and a piece in the Thanet News all added to our profile.
Rachel set off to the Turner Gallery to find it was closed on Mondays so went to check out the old town. We were the talk of the cafes and bars with disparate and fanciful explanations for our presence. It proved a perfect stop over and provided a useful opportunity to check all was well below the waterline.
A phone call to the HM of Whitstable Harbour solicited a very grumpy no so no oysters for us, well they aren’t in season anyway, no R in June. The next day we headed off to Harty Ferry in the Swale ghosting along the north Kent coast all sails set. Once anchored up, near Mirosa, a beautifully kept 120 year old Thames barge, Rachel decided you can anchor near a ferryman’s pub without going ashore to sample the beer. So at low tide we launched Boo (our tender) and shod in wellies set off for the derelict ferry causeway. We paddled ashore in squidgy mud and up the ancient stones to the Ferry House, sadly now a chain pub specialising in weddings and events and without a decent beer to be had. Still having made the effort we managed a couple of pints before catching Boo’s mooring line just before the grapple disappeared under the rising tide.
Peter, the owner of Mirosa landed just as we were leaving to walk his dog. He was the epitome of an old bargee, chest high waders, craggy face and full beard, full of bargy gossip and good wishes. Back onboard for fish stew courtesy of the Eastbourne fishermen and a spectacular sunset to finish the day.
The next morning was Rachel’s last and Qiao gave her an early morning yoga class on deck followed by a full Chinese breakfast. At 10.30 we set of with the tide for the Kings Ferry bridge on route for Chatham. We missed the 11.40 opening by 10 minutes, the tide was rising so they asked us to drop our top mast, which we did only to be told that the bridge could not be opened again until the rail tracks had cooled down and re aligned!
Rachel was due back in London that evening for the Guardian’s 200 anniversary bash, not an event to miss. After a bit of a panic, we finally anchored at the Lilies and launched Boo again. Leaving Q onboard I motored Rachel up the Milton Creek to Sittingbourne, an ease 2.5 mile trip at high tide. We landed at the very head of the creek in the Thames barge Maybel’s yard and had a sneaky look at the progress of her rebuild before Rachel set of for a ten-minute walk to the station. Serendipity sometimes works in our favour.
So back down the Swale to Harty for the night sharing the anchorage with two barges this time. The next morning we set off round the outside of Sheppey the forecast was for a scorcha’ so we didn’t risk the bridge again. Sheerness and the Medway are not a pretty place, the names say it all; Slede Ooze, Deadmans Island, Horrid Hill Slaughterhouse Point. Finally esconced on Chatham Marina waiting pontoon we settled in for a couple of days at marina rates but with no access to water, power or fuel. MDL at their best.
Double obstacle run for 180 ltrs of the most expensive diesel so far, and we set of for a well-earned dinner ashore. The choice was bleak, the few good restaurants we had discovered when we were building Snark at the nearby Turk’s Yard, had closed. We lucked out at the Poppadom Indian Restaurant a simple family run, exceptionally good south Indian restaurant with very reasonable prices.
Saturday dawned and we left Chatham for the Thames river. As we passed Grain Edge, we could already see the six Thames barges competing in the Thames Match heading for their mark at North Oaze Buoy. As we entered the Nore Swatchway we started to converge with them and were soon in the thick of it, motoring out of their way as they jostled for position. Blue Mermaid, the other 21st c barge was a clear leader with her huge white spinnaker and over height rig, Thalatta, the first barge we sailed on was giving her a run for her money converging from the north side of the course but eventually Blue Mermaid pulled well clear to finish the race at Gravesend with handsome lead.
We had always thought we would miss the evening events and head straight up the Thames to anchor closer to our destination. Picking up a buoy at Gravesend two up with the great and good of the barge fleet watching was never on the agenda. What we had missed was that the PLA no longer allow overnight anchoring on the Thames above Gravesend, a fact we only discovered when we got to Barking Reach. We had to motor all the way back to Gravesend and ended up anchored off the PLA pontoon clear of the barge match boats.
Our auxiliary motor was now playing up and we just got the anchor down before it mashed up the impeller, overheated and cut out. The evening was spent trying to track down the cause and fix it. More engineering followed the next morning, and a partial fix allowed the anchor to be raised and we set of back up the Thames 80 litres of fuel lighter and with damaged auxiliary engine caused by weed clogging the inlet as we double back the day before. The PLA’s logo says ‘serving the river’ but obviously not the river users!
We were overly pessimistic on our passage time to Limehouse Marina and arrived at 15.30 at the strongest tide in a very choppy river. The lockkeeper was keen to get home so we looped back against the tide and ferry glided into the inlet, past the swing bridge and into the lock with the wash of two city clippers surging us forward and only 200 mm to spare on each side and a couple of meters fore and aft. Still, we did it without any significant damage, just a couple of scratches, to the amazement of the growing Sunday afternoon crowd and to be frank, ourselves. A short distance across the marina into the visitor’s pontoons and we settled in surrounded by a matt of chick weed. The berth is expensive but has power and water and the location is as good as it gets. St Kat gets the publicity but it is too commercialises. Limehouse is residential, quiet and well placed for some of the best river pubs and east end restaurants.
Monday was spent cleaning, inside and out, doing a few minor adjustments in preparation for a visitation from barging royalty; Bridget and Julian Cass. Bridget I knew when I was a student but we hadn’t met since our mid-twenties. Julian has been a barge master and commercial captain all his life, was the race officer for the barge match and is responsible for examining and licencing Barge Masters on the Thames. We showed them around with some trepidation, Snark is very different from the historic barges they are used to. The scepticism slowly melted away and we eventually got a thumbs up for our efforts.
Then a trip to the Grapes, the smallest but best of the Thames riverside pubs, still in a time warp of fifty years ago. Gandalf’s staff behind the bar hints at the landlord’s identity, Ian McKellen the famous actor. Monday evening was quiz night at the Grapes, but we ducked entering and headed back to Snark for a well-deserved early night.