A flat-bottomed Thames barge is hardly built for seagoing - yet this crew sailed the 87ft Venta 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…
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From Sailing Barge Venta by John Fairbrother and Jocelyn Lukins
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 next good anchorage or harbour, which is not made much of in books. A barge’s flat bottom gives her stability to sail without ballast: this is the reason, as well as her famous ability to be sailed by two men, she has outworked all other sailing craft on the coast or sea, come to that. It also means she doesn’t draw much water, hence leeboards.
A light barge, of these I write, only requires a very moderate swell before she begins to pound each time she comes down on the water. It might as well be a brick wall as it slows her down and can easily make winding (tacking) difficult; not to mention that the more she is knocked about the more the crew will have to pump out.
A round-bottomed vessel under sail does not lift clear of the water or offer such large flat surfaces to it. Leeboards themselves are at risk at sea. Having just winded a barge when there is swell, the weather one can easily be wrenched off by a wave getting inside and under it. The lee one is somewhat safer until the barge starts to jump onto it. This is particularly so in the cases of barges with flared sides.
The sprit is the other hazard of barging at sea. At all times it must be held in the desired position by the rolling vangs. The lee one only is used, it leading from the sprit end outside all the rigging and made fast with a fall as large as the vangs proper, on the bluff of the bow.
The best way to see that there is no movement of the sprit is to slack the sprit just a bit further off than is really needed, take the rolling vang fall in and make it fast, then put the vang fall on the crab winch barrel and heave it in as tight as possible, making the end fast on a cleat at the after side of the crab winch.
Then lift the pawl on the winch so the winch does not bear all the weight – and don’t forget to put the pawl back. As long as the sprit is not free to roll inboard it will not be able to roll outboard again, which is when it could very soon either get broken by the vang, or break the vang if it failed to stop the sprit’s outboard motion. A loaded barge at sea will not pound in the same way as a light one.
There is considerable engineering weakness in the rectangular section of a barge, largely made up for by massive construction. A light barge concentrates all weight down through the sides to the chine, while the upward thrust of the water is all over the bottom.
In a barge there is nothing to hold the bottom down from the post under the mast to the stern post and it is noticeable that in all barges that are hogged, the hump is in the middle of the main hold, some even show a tendency here to hog from side to side. It is by no means unknown for barges to slack the main rigging when the weight of cargoes re-flattens the bottom or for cabin doors to jam.
This is all somewhat by the way, with regard to my tale except to make it clear, I hope, that barges are not now and never were meant for seagoing. I would not have accepted the offer of sailing Venta if there had been any time limit set for our arrival in Stockholm and I had every intention that patience and caution would be the orders of the voyage having no taste for adventure, so called, at sea.
23 July 1964
1014mb. Moderate freshening westerly wind. Dull, long showers.
Laid at anchor all day. It began to look better about 4pm and had been finer during the day but was blowing again by 6pm with a small swell making the barge roll as it was right on her beam at 90° to the wind.
It was the swell from the Fehmarn Belt and a good indication as to the conditions at sea. As our next leg is at least 35 miles, it needs to be right to go. The gale warning black ball by day and red light by night are still on the signal mast at Marienleuchte.
1017mb. Still fresh westerly to west-north-westerly wind. Gale warning still up. Lay all day.
Fined away after about 7pm. A beautiful night, the wind falling to a gentle breeze still from the west and a great full moon showing land and sea like a black and silver etching.
1018mb. Light south-westerly wind. Sunny.
Underway by 4.45am and were soon heading east with everything set and boomed out that could be set. A small German coaster made two circles round us to take photographs about 11am and left us with lots of waving and horn blowing. Picked up the Gedser Rev lightship 12.45pm. Caught a mackerel. Also fouled the log line with the other fishing line. Sorted it out in half hour and lost about two miles or less on the log.
Passed the last mine field buoy about midnight with 67 miles on the log. Nicholas questioned whether the skipper could catch a fish with a simple line and bait. John caught a mackerel this morning, took it below and set it flapping in Nicholas’s bed with him in it, then cooked it for his breakfast. The skipper had tied a large black pudding to the mizzen stay at the beginning of our journey and usually cut off a piece for his breakfast – probably a bargeman’s tradition from a time before refrigeration.
1017mb. Light south-westerly wind. Fog midday.
A fair wind, making about four knots so that it was quite easy to leave the wheel to see that the sidelights burnt bright and clear or look under the mainsail. It was good to be quiet with just the barge and the cold black sea. When I was called about 2am just the two of us gybed on the starboard tack. Between then and daylight it gradually came thick so that the colours of the sidelights shone out on the mist. The Sandhaven siren could be heard.
Ran on as it came thicker but the bob (wind-sock/burgee) was in bright sun above and the beam wind held fair, all sail drawing and us making good headway. We decided to try our lead line of 25 fathoms and I took about half of it right to the bluff of the port bow.
A barge’s lead is always cast from the port quarter, as the boat is in davits on the other side. Made a cast from forward with Nicholas to see it free of the leeboard and I was able to walk aft and reel it in the usual way on the quarter. There was no bottom at 20 fathoms. We tried again every 20 minutes or so until about 2pm when we found nine fathoms with Sandhaven about two miles to the north-west.
At 2pm we saw one ship at anchor and another small wooden one in a clear patch not more than 500 yards away. Could see their masts but not their hulls, then it cleared a little and we saw land abeam, about a mile away. Bore up, that is away from the wind, an expressive survival from tiller-steered barges, and ran parallel with the land.
Passed Skillinge at 3.30pm and reckoned on anchoring near Simrishamn about five miles on, but then decided to continue across the bay to Utklippan lighthouse on its skerry 55 miles to the north-east.
Off Simrishamn in poor visibility, before any sight of Sweden we smelt her distinct smell of pine trees. Our first sight of Sweden was unbelievable. The barge was enveloped in a thick white sea mist which reached to the top of the lower mast whilst the topmast was in bright sunlight with a blue sky. We saw a line of masts which we took to be yachts but which proved to be flagpoles belonging to the houses on the shoreline.
1009mb. Variable winds mostly from north-east.
The mainland was now about 20 miles to the north of us and not visible. We had after-supper coffee at the table together, with a hand bearing compass for a telltale while Venta sailed herself. All evening thunderstorms had been building up in the south-west. Called the boys out at 11.30pm with a thunderstorm nearly over our head. Hove half the mainsail up and down topsail, sprit secured almost amidships.
Terrific thunderstorm but, after all our preparations, not much wind. The rain came shortly after, hissing across the water to us. By then there was almost continuous lightning and thunder and it seemed impossible that at sea with an 80ft mast it could not be struck as we were in the middle of the storm. There was still very little wind and although it did puff from odd directions, we were virtually becalmed before the storm passed about 1.30am.
About 2am we were about one-and-a-half miles south-east of the lighthouse. Nick was at the wheel when the wind came light, at last from the direction we wanted, the south-south-west, about 8.30am after yet another thunderstorm. It freshened and we gybed with care because of the swell. More wind followed until we were running seven knots up Kalmar Sound, foaming along with the sun as hot as can be. After such a depressing night everything was wonderful.
Venta passed up the long sound in fine style and hauled in her log about two miles south of Kalmar, now with jib off, bobstay away and mainsail brailed almost completely up. The channel is very narrow amongst spar buoys and little islets, but we held our gybe and fetched the few hundred yards from the main channel to the harbour entrance. Let go in the warehouse-surrounded harbour and, with the foresail backed, got her close enough to the wharf to get a line ashore in the boat.
Moored up on Elevator Quay by piles of sawn wood in front of a large audience.
First published in the October 2018 issue of Yachting World. Sailing Barge Venta by John Fairbrother and Jocelyn Lukins is published by Chaffcutter Books, RRP: £11.95.