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Frequently Asked Questions About Spritsail Sailing Barges.


What are those paddle things on the side for?
Those paddle things are called leeboards. A barge is a flat bottomed craft without a keel and, as such, obviously lacks directional stability. The leeboards act in the same way as a keel in reducing the amount of leeway (sideways rather than forward movement) that a barge makes when under way. Usually only one is used at a time, the one that is away from the windward side of the barge, hence the name leeboard. Leeboards are only really needed for sailing light as fully laden, a six foot draft and low hull windage meant they could often sail well without them. Other roles of leeboards - provides a pivot point when turning to windward, and can be used as a depth indicator when tacking in shallow waters, one touching the bottom can be used as the first indication that shallower water is being approached - a good time to go about.
Why are the sails that colour?
To make a sail more efficient and to prolong its life they are dressed with a mixture of oil (traditionally fish oil), seawater (&/or horse urine if available!) and red ochre. The red ochre is purely a colouring agent, without which the sails would look a dirty grey colour. Sail dressing often had "secret" ingredients. Modern sail material is made in the traditional colour, and nowadays you can buy modern sail dressings readymade in large cans.

How many crew did a barge carry?
Usually three, a skipper, mate (often under 21) and a dog (burglar alarm/waste disposal unit). Spritsail barges evolved with a very simple rig, despite their size, which could normally be easily managed by a crew of two people. Some of the bigger coasting barges additionally carried a third hand as a regular crew member. The burglar alarm was activated if an attempt by intruders was made to board a barge whilst lying dried out waiting for the tide!

Where can barges be seen?
The main home ports for barges today are Maldon in Essex (The Hythe), Faversham in Kent (Standard Quay), St Katharine Docks in London and at Sailing Barge Match Races held around the East coast from May to September each year. More information from the S.B.A.

How many barges are there today?
There are around two dozen or so that are in regular sea-going use, either privately or as charter vessels. Many of these also compete in the Barge Match Races each year. There are also some twenty or so that are under restoration, many of these are very long term projects and some may never be completed due to the prohibitive cost of such work.

Do they have engines?
Almost all spritsail barges were built purely as sailing craft, without any other form of power. The vast majority of barges afloat today do not rely solely on the wind for propulsion and have fairly large auxiliary diesel engines, usually of 5-7 litres or so. There are, however, at least two still sailing regularly today which have never been fitted with an engine.

Are there any plans available?
There are several sources of plans, see the plans page for further information.
Any further questions? - email bargemaster@thamesbarge.org.uk
See Glossary page for explanations of barge terms.
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