Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Twelve Hours in a Barge "Over Home": Schooner Days CCCLXIV (364)
Toronto Telegram (Toronto, ON), 24 Sep 1938
Full Text
Twelve Hours in a Barge "Over Home"
Schooner Days CCCLXIV (364)


OUTSIDE the Full Pitcher on Great Yarmouth quay certain earnest souls were abiding opening time the morning after. There was Nobby of the Hit-or-Miss, and Peppercorn of the Altania and Knuckles of the Time To Go, and Parish of the Elkhorn and some other masters and mates, and the occasional "third hand," from the fleet of barges that had lain windbound for days; and of course, they held a symposium of opinion.

"Fair wind for London River, quoth one, watching the masthead bobs stretch their tails to the north-easter.

"Much good it does with that sea a-running," rumbled No. 2 above the monotone of the surf of the German Ocean.

"The moon set bad," added a third.

"Some owners don't know when they're well off," came a fourth. "A safe berth inside is better than two fair winds and a sprung spreet."

"Awkh!" spat Yarmouth George, our mate. "I bet our Old Man will be for towing out the minute he jumps off the train. He went home, yesterday while we finished unloading."

"Here he comes now," conceded Nobby.

Jim Uglow, our skipper, hove above the cobblestone horizon from the direction of the South Bank station like a square-rigger coming in from sea, his boyish face aglow with the run from the third-class coach.

"Oh, he's a chaser, he is," murmured the conclave, judicially.

"Well, my home's in Yarmouth here," retorted George valiantly, "but I'd sooner sail with my chaser than hang around one of these League- o'-Nations' conferences, wouldn't you?" and he flattered my status as fourth hand in the Will Everard with this direct appeal.

"What cheer, Georgie? Morning, everybody," hailed our young "Old Man." "Waiting for the Pitcher before pulling out? Have a pint apiece, but don't wait for me. The governor has a charter for us as soon as we can reach the river. Tell the tug-man to get alongside, George."

There was a mumbling of thanks as he laid a little silver on the niggerhead, and a grumbling about chasers and the impossibility of putting old heads on young shoulders and we singled up our lines.

The Will Everard, steel-hulled, a hundred feet long, a hundred and twenty tons register, was flying light. She was drawing just three feet as she lay there at the quay with her wing-like leeboards hauled up. Her red-and-white triangled bob, or houseflag, proclaimed the great house of Everard, barge-owners, hoymen, lighterers, and motorship proprietors, with yards at Greenhithe on the Thames and offices in Great Tower street in the City.

"Tug's alongside," announced George. "He says there's a lot of sea outside."

"Had breakfast?" asked the skipper of all of us. We answered with three dutiful "Ay-ay's."

"There's tea in the pot, and I saved a rasher, sir," quoth Richard, the culinary expert.

"Ta," acknowledged the skipper, peeling off his shore pants. "Tell the Tactful, George, to take our grass warp aboard, and do you shackle our wire towing hawser on to the warp. We'll tow short down the harbor and lengthen out the line at the pierheads. We'll need all the spring the longest lines can give. And be sure to take plenty of turns on the wire six on the bollard, mind you."

"Ay-ay, skipper," answered George, with that heartening music only an Englishman can put into the ancient affirmative. Dear old Yarmouth George! Young as the skipper, but humped already like an ancient shellback, with heaving beyond his strength. Lean and light and slim-waisted as, a flapper, he was the decentest mate I have ever sailed under. And I've been in many forecastles in forty years.

The Old Man had changed and breakfasted by the time we had passed the warp aboard the tug Tactful.

"Cast off," cried he, "and hook on your boat before you make sail." We swung the boat up on the quarter davits and griped her fast in the smooth of the river, then sheeted home the great red topsail, whose head-yard lifted its peak a hundred feet from the deck. It seemed fantastic to be setting a top-sail first of all, especially with a half gale howling without, but in a barge it is the sail which is sure to draw above the wind disturbance of trees and warehouses and pier-ends.

Then we gave her the mizzen, by casting off the brails and hauling the loose foot out to the boom end. The crimson mainsail was set and filled as fast as you could say the word, for as soon as we let the brails go from the drum the heavy treble and single sheaved sheet-blocks on its clew and leach pulled it down by their weight. We took more pains to set up the weather after vang, and the lee forward one - like a spinnaker fore-brace or forward guy; "rolling rings" or "rolling wangs" the barge men call them. On these depended the behavior of our twelve-inch diameter sprit, cocked diagonally sixty-four feet aloft, and spreading the mainsail and topsail.

The church clocks were chiming seven as we began to lift to the seas outside the piermouth. When we opened the entrance it was a sight to make anyone's heart skip a beat. The grey North Sea was charging the east coast of England with horse, foot, artillery and air force. Great grey rollers, scourged all the way from Skager Rack, were pounding the Yarmouth sands as though they would wipe out the Island of Britain. I remembered Kingsley's "Welcome, Wild Nor'Easter," and wished he had been the reception committee in person instead of me. The black-topped Tactful was climbing the first of the ridges and kicking up her heels till we saw all her red flannel underwear.

"Ease away on your towing hawser and stand by your foresail!" sang out the skipper from his hutch behind the wheel. Even his bell-like baritone came small and reduced like a telephone call amid the crashing uproar of the pierheads. The spray was shooting over the lantern top of the lighthouse.

Whoosh! a grey-white avalanche seemed to envelope us as we surged the turns on the grinding bitts. It was only spray, as she waded into it, but it seemed like Niagara. The lengthened wire hummed like a harpstring, as it straightened out in knitting-needle directness toward the laboring tug.

"Lookit our warp! Pulling out like elastic!" shouted the irrepressible George, as the Tactful vanished to her funnel on the other side of the comber. "Gimme grass, every time. It comes and goes like a rubber band."

With a screech the six turns of the wire hawser began to render around the bollard.

"Quick!" he yelled. "Catch a turn round the mast with the bitter-end! Take plenty!"

We brought her up that way, at imminent risk of mangled knuckles, and the Will gave a particularly wild upfling of her bold bow.

"Zing!!!" sang the wire, and suddenly slacked and kinked.

"Too-o-o-o-o-t!" wailed the Tactful, beginning to circle back.

"Give her the foresail!" roared the Old Man. "The warp's parted. How d'ye like grass now, Georgie?"

Our lives and the life of the ship depended on getting that bloody foresail (damned forestaysail to you, Mr. Yachtsman, perhaps, but I'll explain later) on her fast. We winched it up its stout protrusive forestay in record time, snatched a turn with the bowline to keep the swishing iron traveller from maiming us as the clew traversed the wooden horse from rail to rail, and caught up two or three reef-nettles on the foot, to give us headroom under the gory triangle. We were so busy heaving in fifty fathoms of kinky wire and stranded grass rope, with nothing to help us but the heavy hand-grinding anchor winch, that none of us saw how close we came to being hurled back on to the pierhead piling by the bursting breakers. But the Will, gathering way with the foresail, shouldered the combers aside, waggled her barndoor at the Tactful, and clawed her course to sea.

Now I can expound Foresail, Bloody, Reason for so calling.

The adjective is one I never heard aboard the Will Everard, nor the London docks. Barge language as I learned it is much cleaner that Canadian office slang or society jargon. The foresail bore my ensanguined epithet because, like most barge sails, it had been treated with a mixture of Stockholm tar, red ochre, horse fat, fish oil and salt water, well beaten together, to preserve it against chafe and mildew. Soft coal soot from our galley enriched its tint, so that it had the tone and texture of a great mass of fresh liver. It was not a pleasant kerchief for the fevered brow, when it came over your head as you toiled at the winch-brake. In fact it really got in your hair.

Officially, "not a drop came aboard" in this passage, being a tribute to the high, dry and handsome behavior of the Will Everard when flying light. Yet I must say we were wringing wet ere we had the over-stretched grass warp inboard again, and what was not North Sea spray was honest toil-sweat.

But she did go like a wild steer, once she cleared the pier-head smother, and she was dry, too. Certainly no solid water came on her steel-plate deck — steel-plate, wooden-sheathed by Board of Trade rule on quarterdeck and forecastle. The wind was strong northeast, right on our port quarter, and when the alarm clock down below in the cabin rang at eight — the alarm had been left set there by mistake — we were abreast of Lowestoft. Eleven miles on our way in the hour!

Then she did some tall diving again. Off Lowestoft is the Burlington Channel, which leads seaward out of the mess of sands and deeps which lie betwixt Lowestoft and Thames mouth. All about acres of white water showed the necessity of getting more offing. So out the Burlington we steered, pretty well by-the-wind, heading about east, that flat bottom and the square bilges of the Will did some hard hitting, and one would have thought the sixty-foot sprit, weighing its twenty hundredweight, would part its heel-rope and go clean through the deck and bottom.

We got the bowsprit down — it was hinged and had been cocked aloft like a stubby foremast, to keep the cable and towline clear — and we gave her the benefit of bobstays and jibstays; a stabilizing influence, as the diplomats say. But in a moment of excessive zeal we tried to give her the pressure of the standing jib, the heroic George stirruping the man-ropes and casting off the footstops while we stood by with the halliards on the winch. Alas, at the third flog the sea-sodden sail went to pieces before it could be hoisted. It was an old racing sail, anyway, of untanned duck. Had it been some of the sanguinary flax, now, it would have stood the punishment.

We still had the flying jib, at the boom end, which some barge men insist on calling the staysail, and yachtsmen know as a jibtopsail. It could be set, on its stay, either from the stemhead of the bowsprit, to which a long tack brought it down. We got it aloft without mishap, and she snorted out of the Burlington like a locomotive.

By nine we were able to ease the sheets again and head south. Sheet-trimming on a barge is largely a matter of letting go and taking up the slack on the vangs of your main sprit and mizzen gaff. Our main-sheet, for example, hemp heavy enough to bring the barge up all standing — it did once, in full career, as I may tell you — this mainsheet was so easily worked that it required no belaying bitts, but made fast practically on itself, on a pin running through its traveller block.

Kissingland (rapturous bourne!), Covehithe, Southwold, Dunwich, Aldburgh with its red-banded white lighthouse, flew by us as though a train were towing them past us. It was a delight for me to steer the Will. Her big wheel, five feet between spoke-tips, had a great grip on her outboard rudder, for it had a dozen revolutions between hard up and hard down, and for all the sea there was it never needed more than a few spokes. I had to watch the backslap of the rudder, however, for once she caught me, and the only thing that saved me from being whirled overboard was the roof of the wheelhouse. The Will, though, ran very steadily, planing like a speedboat when her chines got a chance to lift her, and rolling much less than a keel vessel or yacht would in this following sea.

One of the things which helped — no, two — were her hard square bilges. Another was that she had no gaff to flail about, no boom to roll down and pick up the flying water. Our short mizzen boom was fifteen feet above the water level, the mizzen gaff was held by vangs, the great "spreet" was vanged into place like a mast, and the mainsail was loose footed. We boomed it out, when we squared away, with a thirty-foot quant-pole.

We went down to dinner — salt pork fried, cabbage, potatoes, and suet-and-syrup pudding — Richard's offering for the occasion — with Orford Ness tucked under our lee. George, the obliging, kept the wheel. Our repast was not long, but when I came up to relieve him, Harwich was in sight. We were fifty miles on our way by one o'clock, and could see, just ahead the ninety-foot tower Trinity brethren built on the cliff to show the Naze, that ancient English sea- mark.

"Where are we, George?" called the skipper later, stretched along the locker seat in the snug cabin.

"Down along the Middle about halfway," from the deck answered George, like a traffic cop giving directions. English traffic cops, who have no inferiority complex, are polite.

It was a continuous amazement to me how these bargemen, without consulting a chart or taking a compass bearing, although miles from land, always knew exactly where they were. Also what water they had, how fast the tide was running, and which way, whether they were "out of the Wallet and into the Gunfleet" or "clearing the Barrow Deep" or "crossing the King's Swin."

It all looked like a lot of dangerous tide-ripped water to me, and if occasional lightships helped identify it, the numerous can-buoys certainly bewildered me. But they were never at a loss. Our skipper, though, was not of the old school of head-knowledge. He studied his North Sea charts like a Presbyterian his Bible.

Of course, we couldn't carry a fair tide all the way and all the day. When it came foul our pace slackened. But I'm setting down here and now that we averaged nine knots for twelve hours, from pierhead to pierhead.

When we rounded Shoeburyness we were getting into the "London River," as bargemen call the Thames, and the sea lessening. We had our tea — lots of it, with bread and butter, cheese, jam and salad, in Sea Reach, after Southend pleasure pier showed us ninety miles on our way. The river was thick with traffic — high-sheared coasting steamers butting the easterly seas, big passenger liners from the Orient and the south and the Americas braying their way through the little fellows, red-sailed barges like ourselves cracking on for home or working the tide; the river barges loaded "iron- band-to," that is, with the iron sheathing at deck-level amidships, protecting the chafe of the leeboards, under water. Steamer wakes washed completely over them, but they came up like bottles.

And so we went booming up the Lower Hope, and past H.M.S. Warspite with her battle-marked plating, and the steel Exmouth, whose chequerboard sides reproduced a Nelsonic three-decker, till from Fiddler's Reach we saw the double topgallant yards and twin spanker-gaffs of the graceful Germain grain ship Magdalena Vinnen; and beyond her the dummy spars of the training ship Worcester.

Appropriately, the lamp of the Sailor's Return light, on the north shore, flashed a welcome as we topped our bowsprit and let go our half-ton anchor and fifteen fathoms of chain in the Everard bight at Greenhithe, abreast of the firm's yards.

"Lower the boat. I can get the 7:05 for home," said the skipper, adjusting a collar stud after seeing her well and truly moored. Then, as though it had just occurred to him, "The Governor will be pleased. No barge ever made the time we did this day; hundred and five miles in less than twelve hours. Those lads, left in Yarmouth will have something to chew on. Come ashore for me at eight in the morning."

"'E's always catchin' trains for 'ome," commented Richard, as the boat splashed into the water.

"Wouldn't you, with a missus like his, and a nipper, and a little fruit business goin' on ashore wiv him away?"

"No," said Richard decidedly. "I'd sooner go to the pitchers. Can I, Mr. Myte?"



Snider, C. H. J.
Item Type

The "Will Everard" was built in 1925-1926 for F.T. Everard & Sons at Great Yarmouth, the "Will" was the last of four 280 ton barques. The ship was built with a hull of steel and was used be the Everard family for over 40 years for cosatal navigation along the Eastern coast of England, the islands and the English Channel.

A diesel engine was installed in 1951, but in 1967 it was decided to take the "Will" out of service.

After nine years at rest, the "Will" was bought in 1976 by Overseas Container Ltd. Since then, the vessel has sailed in European waters, rounding England several times and visiting over 50 ports on the European Continent - sailing as a living memory of sailing ships from times past and giving impressive publicity for the owners.

Date of Publication
24 Sep 1938
Language of Item
Geographic Coverage
  • England, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 51.45026 Longitude: 0.28539
  • England, United Kingdom
    Latitude: 52.47523 Longitude: 1.75167
Richard Palmer
Copyright Statement
Public domain: Copyright has expired according to the applicable Canadian or American laws. No restrictions on use.
Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Twelve Hours in a Barge "Over Home": Schooner Days CCCLXIV (364)