Although I like to admire these old girls from a distance when cruising the tidal rivers and creeks, I also like to get involved at a hands on level with there general upkeep.
The Phoenician has had much work done on her over the last six months while sat along the quayside. This has included replacing certain areas of her deck, as well as a new topmast.
Jobs like these are best done by professional shipwrights, but most of the work involved in keeping the old girls afloat does not need that level of skill.
One of her last jobs before this passed weekend's shakedown sail was to replace the hatch covers. Although the hatches have Houdini windows fitted, they are all individually removable to allow access to the hold, just as would have been the case when she would have been a working barge.
Here insulation board is fitted before boards are laid over. This is then followed by the fitting of a soft underlay before the new waterproof cover, which was supplied by North Sea Sails can be fitted.
Finally the Houdini windows are fitted with mastic used to create the rubber seals.
The weekend 'shakedown' began with the 'crew' assembling on Friday evening, before a little midnight motoring from Maldon's Fullbridge Quay down to Osea and 'The Bay', to drop anchor and sleep. This was an interesting start as half of the buoys on the way down are not lit.
I had been allocated the aft quarter cupboard berth which had laying headroom. The polished hardwood doors are vented by ornate fretwork allowing one to breathe. The other plus of this berth is that the joint of the 12 inch by 2 inch thick planking to the barges framed transom can be used as a raised pillow area. It has to be said, a lovely couple of nights were had here.
A cooked breakfast the following morning was followed by a glorious sail down the Blackwater, and out of the river and into the Colne.
We found a spot to lay anchor just above Brightlingsea Creek. Once the barge had settled and began swinging pendulant to anchor, two crew abandoned ship via the barge boat in search of the bright lights of London.
A peaceful night was had anchored opposite Batemans Tower. Sat on deck after dark the mast tops of a dozen or so yachts could be made out. They were lit candle-like, and lined Pyefleet Creek. Being the beginning of Mersea Regatta week, a few fireworks went up over the island. Leaving the River Colne the following morning around low water, the barge was motored back to the Blackwater, passing the Bench Head buoy.
By the time we had reached Bradwell a classic F4 wind over tide was blowing. In my little ship this livens things up considerably, but is hardly noticeable on the barge.
I was given the helm and took her from Bradwell to Heybridge Creek. This was no mere doddle as fleets of dinghies buzzed across the bow like gnats coming out of nowhere while passing Stone. All good fun which was repeated at Hillypool Point as BSC racing dinghies criss-crossed the narrow channel as simultaneously a fleet of Squibs, and three or four cruising yachts, along with 84 foot of ourselves converged on the little red port hand buoy. After motoring the barge down from Maldon in the dark this was comparatively easy, at least I could now see who I would be flattening!
It will not take long to wear the new hatch cover in?
Unmistakable, Osea Island while heading into the Narrows in a F4 headwind