[This article was published on the official Cowes site (www.cowesweek.co.uk) – Monday 5 Aug 2002]
Barge ‘matches’, a phrase dating back to Queen Victoria’s era, constitute the oldest continuous racing series after the America’s Cup. The Solent’s largest match so far was in 2001 with six of these enormous boats. On the Kent, Essex and Suffolk coasts, barge matches can attract nearly 20 vessels, with an average size near 80 tons and a typical length about 85ft. Nevertheless, the three who made the Skandia Life Cowes Week start line on Saturday morning, the 1923-built Lady Daphne, old-timer Kitty (1895) and youngster Alice (1954), still made the lengthy Squadron start line seem small. It’s tough to get any boat that size moving when the airs are at their softest, but the barges managed to set off on a rainy run down the west Solent at 1000 when later classes had to wait some hours for wind. From the start, Lady Daphne and Kitty gained and lost the lead numerous times in a close tacking duel that had the tacticians biting their nails on the way down to the Skandia Life mark. Tacking these big vessels through 110 degrees takes several lengths and a few minutes, making tactics quite complicated.
Alice was an unknown quantity in her first-ever match outing under skipper Sean Jacob, but held close enough to worry the leaders as they tried to hold cover.
At first the duel was out in the deep water with the tide. As the tide began to flood, the fight moved to the shallows on the Hampshire shore. When the light winds stopped, the tide could be cheated no longer and the barges took to kedging, twice hoisting their anchors to grasp at hopeful puffs. Two ton leeboards are raised and lowered on each tack, so during kedging pauses, the crews tried to catch their breaths, only to lose them again winding anchor windlasses.
After the second kedge, Lady Daphne and Kitty set out again chasing another zephyr, still neck-and-neck. Just one tack afterwards, Kitty had an unfortunate port-starboard incident with a yacht. The yacht was on starboard, but failed to realise that while tonnage can move swiftly, it turns slowly. Kitty was unable to avoid piercing the yacht’s mainsail with her bowsprit. Fortunately, there were no injuries.
With Kitty disqualified, Lady Daphne held a commanding lead over Alice and, given the weak breeze, the course was shortened at 1500.
Two bargemen who served in trade decades ago took part in the race, Jimmy Lawrence on Kitty and Gordon Diffey on Lady Daphne. Both commented on how little had changed in barge racing since their youth – “although we could have really used GPS in a London fog.”
At a remarkably jolly prize-giving for such a gruelling, wet race, Jimmy Lawrence presented the winning trophy to James Kent, skipper of Lady Daphne.
These ochre-sailed, majestic boats are a welcome reminder that age is no barrier to a competitive boat race. You can view further details of them at www.sailingbargekitty.com (Kitty) and www.4charter.co.uk (Alice).