My old ship comes back

She came sailing back into my life like a ghost from the past…but this is a haunting I welcome with open arms: Cambria, last vessel under the red ensign to carry cargo under sail alone.

Her 92ft of oak and pine with a bowsprit protruding like a 35ft spear, and a top hamper towering 80ft above the deck, she tacked back and forth in the Lower Hope, reminding me of the winter of 1969 when I cut the frozen gaskets from her topsail in this very reach and they hit the deck like bars of iron.

Below stood the stocky figure of skipper Bob Roberts, then 63, scowling up at his new 18-year-old mate. I sailed with Bob for 14 months, loading freight from ships in the London Docks and delivering it to ports between Ipswich and Dover.

Now I stood on the steel deck of Touchstone, a London River tug, which almost certainly once dragged Cambria through the locks of the Royals. Beside me was John Dickens who also sailed aboard Cambria in the 1960s, when she had three hands. John has the distinction of sailing further down the coast to Great Yarmouth – a regular run for coasting barges – and the worst harbour to enter under sail on the East Coast.

Thanks to the hard work of the Cambria Trust, the backing of the Port of London Authority and the Medway Port Authority, among others, this unique craft is sailing again and will doubtless grace the Estuary waters for many decades to come.

In the hands of skipper, Richard Titchenor, and with the best setting cut of sails she has ever sported, Cambria looked majestic and sailed a lot closer to the wind than I remember.

This is thanks to rigger Mark Boyle, a bargeman who has inherited the skills of the old hands who once fitted out Cambria at F.T.Everard’s yard in Greenhithe, Kent.

It is difficult to know what Bob would have made of his old ship re-born. But his widow, Sheila, was very excited when I told her the news that a lottery donation could well secure the barge’s future re-build.
Sadly Sheila did not live to see the recreation, but as she guarded Bob’s reputation with much loyalty and as she enthusiastically approved of Cambria coming alive again, I think we can take it that the old man is not spinning in his grave in Ryde Churchyard on the Isle of Wight.

Picture shows the Cambria off Leigh-on-Sea, Essex