Following in the wake of the Thames Sailing Barge

by Vermont Rice

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I was recently introduced to this book (with a title that I very much hope will ultimately turn out to be inaccurate), The Last of the Sailormen, written by Bob Roberts, and first published in 1960.  Probably at that point the prospect of renewed sailing trade was as bleak as it could be.  Well, it’s still pretty challenging, but perhaps reports of the death of sail will turn out to be greatly exaggerated.

I am not very far into it, but I wanted to share the preface with you to give you a taste of the world of Mr. Roberts so you can see how his themes resonate with our work here at VSFP.  Perhaps is easy to write off the intangible virtues of doing work in a slower, more deliberate way when it has become an ingrained cultural habit that we will make seemingly any sacrifice in the name of progress.

Bear in mind that the world of work that Bob Roberts lived in was no holdout of medieval cargo methodology but was in fact a highly refined and efficient system, one that endured and remained economically viable in England into the 1970s, at which point the barges began to degrade.  In the U.S. we stopped hoisting commercial sail at least 70 years prior, so it strikes me that in many ways we have a lot to learn from our historical counterparts in Britain.

Much of this book has been written in a barge’s cabin, rolling at anchor in Yarmouth Roads, storm-bound under the lee of the Yantlet Flats, waiting to load at Keadby or while lying idle in London River.  I have not attempted to glorify or exaggerate this account of life in a type of sailing craft which is one of the most unique and efficient in the world.  It is a life in which, to my mind, the pleasantness, satisfaction and occasional thrills, calling for the exercise of a man’s more sterling qualities, far outweight the times of hardship and frustration.

Sailing barges, like farm horses, belonged to a more peaceful and expansive age than the uncertain, war-wracked, nervy, money-grubbing years to which mankind has descended.  A bargeman knows nothing of regular working hours, overtime pay, crowded city trains, noisy, bustling streets, or the clanging hell of a vast, modern factory.  Like the fisherman, the wildfowler, and the farm hand, he lives by the winds and the weather, the tides and the seasons.  The artificial sort of life which shackles millions of people to great, powerful industries is something foreign to him and something to which he cannot adjust himself.  He has never known what it is to be pushed, shoved, and ordered about like the clever town-dweller who comes and gapes at him with a sympathetic curiosity.

Barge-like hulls are the most ancient of all English sailing craft and the art of handling shallow draft vessels has been handed down through hundreds and hundreds of years.  It is not a thing you can learn at a university.  That the epidemic of mechanisation which has spread all over the world and eliminated the square-rigged ships, schooners and sailing smacks should in time leave the barges rotting in their salty creeks has for long been inevitable.  But at least it can be said that when all other wind-driven vessels had gone into history the fleets of spritsail-rigged sailing barges held their own for many years against an ever increasing number of steam and motor ships, and might still have prospered had new hulls been built and new blood encouraged to learn the ways of the sea in the best, though hardest, school.”

Bob Roberts

Pin Mill, Suffolk (From Last of the Sailormen, 1960, Seafarer Books London

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