At Brightlingsea this weekend we were lucky enough to look over the sailing barge Centaur and even more lucky to spend a while listening to traditional sailmaker and sailing barge skipper Jimmy Lawrence tell wonderful stories about his time on the barges, and sing a few songs.
The Centaur is one of two well known barges in the care of the Thames Sailing Barge Trust, an organisation that keeps the boats in good shape and offers them for charter.
The trust dates back to 1948, a time when it was already clear that the barges were doomed to be replaced by trucks riding motorways and dual carriageways, and to some extent by steel-built Dutch barges famously built with government subsidies.
The Trust’s other barge is Pudge – and she’s in desperate need of work to get her back into sailing and chartering trim. If you can help with a donation or by running a fundraiser or simply by providing your labour, please contact the organisation’s officials.
On Jimmy Lawrence – the old boy is well worth hearing if you can. He has an amazing, fluid talent for entertaining and a teriffic collection of tales. One concerns his first day as a boy on the barges: apparently while he was finding his berth his new skipper barked a few orders at him and threw a new house flag to mount at the top of the mast.
Jimmy tells the story of how, as a lad of maybe 15, he then climbed the mast for the first time with no supervision. To do this job you raise the topsail, climb the ratlines, then ascend the topmast using the hoops holding the topsail to the mast, then you shin up the rest, clambering over the gold-painted plate-like object near the top and remove the old flag. Then you climb down, take the old flag off the frame, sew the new one on, and climb back up to mount it on the button. The whole thing must have been bloody terrifying, and either young Jimmy was fearless, or desperate to succeed or more frightened of his skipper than he was of falling, or a mixture of all three.
I took care to photograph Centaur’s mast above, so that readers could consider the situation in which the young Jimmy found himself.
Skipper Jimmy had a big roomful of non-sailing folkies in stitches as he told the tale. At the time I roared along with the rest,but the story was told so vividly that it has since been giving me nightmares – there’s no denying it has a dark side of callous risk-taking where young employees are concerned. It’s a good thing we have employment laws and health and safety legislation these days.
Jimmy’s been retired for some years, but the sailmaking business that bears his name is still in existence.
PS – Paul Mullings points out (in the comments below) that our pal Dylan Winter has a bit of film of sailing and conversation with Jimmy in his Keep Turning Left series. See it here. Great work – thanks Paul!
The Brightlingsea Wreck Warehouse
Brightlingsea struck us as a nice little town by the sea. It’s greatest curiosity that we saw was the Wreck Warehouse, which dates from the late 18th century and was built to house goods recovered from wrecks. It’s worth noting that the local Lord Warden was due 20 per cent of the value of anything acquired that way. It’s a good job, being in charge of stuff like that…
Also, check that look out tower. Don’t get into trouble, or those Brightlingsea boys will be coming to get your stuff!
Finally, after asking members of the Colne local yacht for permission we took a stroll along the Aldous Smack Dock, which is on the site of the legendary Aldous boatbuilding yard, famous for building smacks and is now used for mooring preserved smacks.