We were delighted to be featured by BBC East of England for our recent shoot at Snape Maltings.

The Thames Barge named the Cygnet is a slight to behold, simply beautiful sailing on the River Alde. Watch her sailing down the Alde on our YouTube channel.

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A Thames sailing barge is a type of commercial sailing boat once common on the River Thames in London. The flat-bottomed barges with a shallow draught and leeboards, were perfectly adapted to the Thames Estuary, with its shallow waters and narrow tributary rivers. The larger barges were seaworthy vessels, and were the largest sailing vessel to be handled by just two men.[1] The average size was about 120 tons and they carried 4,200 square feet (390 m2) of canvas sail in six working sails. The mainsail was loose-footed and set up with a sprit, and was brailed to the mast when not needed. It is sheeted to a horse, as is the foresail; they require no attention when tacking. The foresail is often held back by the mate to help the vessel come about more swiftly.

The topsail was usually first sail on and last sail off, being fixed to the topmast by hoops. In the upper reaches of the rivers and constricted harbours it reached into the clear air, and when approaching a berth casting off the halliard would drop it immediately killing the forward drive. The mizzen boom in a mulie is sheeted down to the long shallow rudder. The masts are mounted in tabernacles so they can be lowered to pass under bridges; the anchor windlass is used to lower and raise the gear via triple blocks. This takes considerable effort and to aid in the process ‘hufflers’ were often used. They would come on board to help with lowering and raising the gear (for a fee). The bowsprit where fitted could be ‘topped’, helping where space was limited.[1]

The river barges worked the London River and the Port of London. Cut barges were smaller so they could pass into the Regent’s and Surrey canals. The larger estuary barges were seaworthy craft working the Kent and Essex coasts while coasters also traded much further afield, to the north of England, the South Coast, the Bristol Channel and to continental European ports. Cargoes varied enormously: bricks, cement, hay, rubbish, sand, coal, grain and gunpowder. Timber, bricks and hay were stacked on the deck, while cement and grain was carried loose in the hold. They could sail low in the water, even with their gunwales beneath the surface.

They sailed the Medway and Thames in a ponderous way for two-hundred years; then in the 1860s a series of barge races were started, and the barges’ design improved as vessels were built with better lines in order to win. The Thames barge races are the world’s second oldest sailing competition, second to the America’s Cup.

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