Hoist the sails if you feel like it: a Thames barge break – The Guardian | Gmx Pharm

THere’s a pirate ship on the beach at Margate – although instead of a skull and crossbones it’s waving the flags of the four British nations. Sunbathers crowd around them, snapping photos of the city’s unusual visitor.

A hundred years ago nobody would have batted an eyelid. The boat, named after the fictional animal in Lewis Carroll’s poem Snark, would have been one of a dozen such vessels in the bay. It’s not really a pirate ship, of course, but a swashbuckling Thames barge. These six sail barges were once a common sight on the Kent coast and beyond, hauling cargo to and from London. At the turn of the 20th century there were more than 2,000. Today there are only about 30 left.

The Goodwin Sands off deal. Photo: Kentish Dweller/Alamy

Snark is not one of the original barges, nor is it a historical recreation. Although it was built to plans from 1898, and certainly looks like it, the owners Paul and Qiao used modern materials and equipment, simplified sail handling and outfitted the main hold with crew and guest cabins and a spacious, stylish galley (both are architects) . Since they completed the boat in 2018 it has been both their home and business.

The couple have previously run retreats on Snark from their base near Dartmouth in Devon, but this year they have taken on a new challenge: sailing around the UK. Although the boat is a whopping 32 meters long and weighs 67 tonnes, Thames boats are designed to be sailed by just two people – and Paul has 35 years of sailing experience behind him. You’ll visit the four capitals of Great Britain and other historic ports on a 3-month, 10-leg voyage, with a different client added on each leg.

I boarded the ship in Eastbourne, East Sussex, at the start of leg two (her voyage began in Plymouth). Three guests joined for the first leg but I had the luxury of being the only passenger with a cozy cabin and my own bathroom. Snark can carry up to 12 passengers, but usually takes a maximum of six people on longer trips. While their clients vary, the trips are particularly popular with solo women over 50; Some have sailing experience but none is necessary.

Meals are prepared by Paul using fresh, local ingredients whenever possible and are eaten on board. The first night we had sea bass with vegetable pilaf, fennel and buttery sea fennel that morning (the menu is pescetarian). Beer and wine are included but in moderation, and BYOB is prohibited – Paul explained that getting drunk on boats is dangerous and can be deadly.

Rachel is about to dine aboard the Snark.
Rachel is about to dine aboard the Snark. Photo: Paul Jenkins

After supper we returned early; We had a 6am start to catch the high tide. My cabin had a window, a desk and a bed. I found the gentle movement and creaking of the boat soothing and slept soundly every night.

The first day of sailing was the longest: about seven hours to Dover. Two seals appeared next to us as we exited the marina. I was concerned about seasickness and the sea was a little choppy, especially near Dover, but Snark’s sheer size means it doesn’t bobble too much, and Paul and Qiao don’t sail in rough weather. Passengers can help out with the sailing – Paul shows beginners the ropes – or just relax on deck. I prefer the latter with a cup of tea and a book borrowed from the ship’s library. We sailed close enough to shore to see Hastings, Dungeness and Folkestone before the white cliffs came into view.

The White Cliffs of Dover..
The White Cliffs of Dover. Photo: Kentish Dweller/Alamy

Dover isn’t the prettiest of harbors – we were moored next to a dredger – but we had a delicious dinner (vegetarian pasta with fresh mackerel, homemade madeleines with raspberries and ice cream) on deck, overlooking the castle and church.

On the second day we had to traverse the 10 mile sandbars of Goodwin Sands. We passed Deal and Ramsgate and planned our arrival at Margate at high tide. We dropped anchor and had a beer in the sunshine as the tide receded and Snark rested on the sand. Then it was an easy case of sliding down a ladder to the beach and walking to the Turner Contemporary, the vintage shops in the old town and the pubs on the seafront and harbor arm. I returned to the boat before the tide came in and we ate crab salad and homemade pizzas as the sun went down and the water started lapping around us again.

The next day the wind was favourable, and we sailed towards Whitstable in full sail. We had planned to eat at a seafood restaurant that evening. However, the harbor master refused us entry. Whitstable is a busy working port and there was no berth for a large Thames barge and too many oyster beds to find anchorage. So we sailed on to the Isle of Sheppey, entered the Swale tide channel and anchored opposite the Ferry House Inn. Another Thames barge, Mirosa, was anchored nearby.

Snark with furled sails.
Snark with furled sails on a calm sea. Photo: Paul Jenkins

Paul and I went ashore in Boo the tender and decided to have a pint of oyster stout instead of the oysters. On our return we met Peter, the owner of Mirosa, who told us his boat was built in 1892. He has owned it for 45 years. Her traditional black hull and red sails looked gorgeous under the full moon.

On the morning of my last day, I did a yoga class with Qiao (she’s a qualified teacher), then we had a Chinese breakfast: rice with toppings like smoked haddock, wakame, mushrooms and pickled vegetables, along with baked eggs with soy sauce.

Enjoy the sunset from the deck of the Snark.
Enjoy the sunset from the deck of the Snark. Photo: Paul Jenkins

We were going to Chatham where I would get off and take the train back to London; Qiao and Paul first wanted to go to Gravesend for the Thames Match, an 1863 race for Thames Barges. But here, too, our plans had to be changed. The lift bridge at Kingsferry, not far from the Medway, was closed due to the heat, preventing Snark from passing.

After a moment’s thought, Paul and I hopped back into Boo and headed up Milton Creek to Sittingbourne where I could catch a train. We passed the sad sight of a wrecked barge left to rot on the Thames. Luckily we then reached a boatyard that restored Raybel, a 1920’s barge. These boats are part of Britain’s heritage and worth preserving. And as Snark shows, there’s a place on the high seas for a modern-day “pirate ship.”

The trip was provided by Snark. Seven-day all-inclusive sailing trips from £1,368. Whitby to Edinburgh, 10-17 July; Leith to Inverness, 20th-27th July; Inverness to Belfast, July 30th to August 10th; Belfast to Caernarfon 13th-20th August; Caernarfon to Cardiff, 23-31 August; Cardiff to Plymouth 3rd to 13th September

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