Photo: Image
Print E-mail
Monday, 24 January 2005

The Thames sailing barge Xylonite

In 1926, the Mistley Building Company completed a spritsail steel Thames barge, built for the well known operators Horlocks. In those days barges were often given names like Barbara Jean and Ethel Maud, after their owners relatives, but this one was to have been called BX, a name inspired by the nearby British Xylonite factory. When her first master learned of this choice he flatly refused to sail in his new charge until her name was changed so, on launching day, she became Xylonite, a trade name for celluloid.

Xylonite’s working life followed the same pattern as that of most Thames barges. She was one of the last to convert to power and, for her first 32 years, she worked under sail, mainly carrying grain and malt for the East Coast brewers. In 1958, her sailing rig was scrapped, a powerful diesel engine was fitted and she became a motor barge. She continued to work under power until the early ‘70s when, like so many of her contemporaries, she ceased to be commercially viable. ortunately in 1977, before her steel plates had deteriorated beyond economic repair, she was bought by a private owner who re-rigged her and converted her into a charter boat, with plenty of accommodation in her former cargo hold.

In 1984, Xylonite was again sold, this time to a Christian charity, the Cirdan Trust of Maldon. She was extensively refitted to a very high standard before beginning a new career which seems set to keep her gainfully employed up to, and beyond, her 100th birthday. The Trust was started with the aim of giving young people the opportunity of sailing in tall ships and, in addition to Xylonite, it runs other vessels including the ex-Baltic Trader Else, now renamed Queen Galadriel. Although a Christian organisation, the Cirdan Trust does not operate for the benefit of religious groups and any group of young people who want to experience the adventure of sailing is welcome. The purchase of the Cirdan Trust’s ships was funded by private donations and refits are paid for in the same way, or from sponsorship. It means that young people can enjoy a weekend to a fortnight’s holiday at very low cost and the Trust runs special schemes to enable disadvantaged youngsters to have a voyage.

Xylonite is 86’ (26.2m) long and her huge cargo hold has been converted to provide very spacious accommodation for the crew plus up to twelve young people and their leaders. In addition to the master’s quarters, there are three cabins, two heads areas with showers and a very large saloon with a fully equipped galley. Cooking is done on two modern gas stoves but in cold weather, heating is provided by traditional solid fuel stoves.

A voyage on Xylonite is very much a participation holiday and the group leader is entirely responsible for stocking the boat with provisions and arranging for the meals to be prepared for everyone, including the crew. He, or she, is also expected to draw up a rota with the help of the crew so that, whilst some young people are doing the domestic chores, others are passage planning and helping to sail the barge. The philosophy behind these cruises is that, as well as simply having fun and learning something new, the youngsters also learn to relate to and co-operate with others. Charterers usually join Xylonite at Malden, home for many Thames barges, and then follow one of the traditional barge routes, visiting the coasts of Kent, Suffolk and Essex. Her route is (weather and the racing programme permitting) largely for the group to decide, though the Cirdan trust will advise anyone who is not familiar with the sailing area.

Although Xylonine is a large vessel, she is exceptionally easy to sail for the Thames barges were designed to be crewed by one man and his boy. However, the sheer size of her sails and sheets and the weight of equipment, such as that used to haul in leeboards, means that the unfit are likely to have a few aches and pains after their first day’s sailing, especially if they’ve elected to join the barge for one of the races.  


Officially, Thames barges don’t race, they participate in matches, but don’t take any notice of that. Even before they cross the starting line (there’s an award for the first) these huge ‘yachts’ start jostling for position with as much determination as any 12 metre ever did. Once the battle is underway the racing can be very close and near collisions are by no means unknown. With the exception of the passage match, which involves an overnight sail from Gravesend to Harwich on the river Orwell, these matches are one day events.

The barges leave from their traditional trading haunts and, after the race, congregate there again to spend the night at anchor, or sitting on their flat bottoms on the hard. On the evening after a match, ancient pubs, like the Butt and Oyster at Pin Mill, echo with the conversation of crews dissecting their barge’s performance or simple reminiscing with the locals about the old trading days.

Some years ago I spent a weekend on Repertor, and I rate it as one of the most interesting and exciting sailing experiences I’ve ever had. It was blowing so hard, on Friday that the weekend’s match was cancelled but Repertor set sail, bounding down in a Force 6 from the Orwell to the Blackwater, with her mainsail brailed and her lee topsides almost in the sea.

After an equally exhilarating Saturday sail, we woke up on Sunday to glorious sunshine with hardly a breath of wind. We returned, goose-winged the whole way, with even the dinghy hung out as an extra sail!

Amongst those reading this, there must be many who are involved with young people – teachers, sports club coaches, youth leader etc. There can be no batter way for youngsters to learn to sail a tall ship and explore England’s historic East Coast, than from the deck of a boat which is itself a part of history.

Words & photos MM

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
Next >