Low carbon holiday adventure – mini journal

The Blue Mermaid

In my end of year review, I commented that ‘a sail passenger ship is very appealing for a more adventurous holiday’. So when the opportunity for adventure finally arrived, I seized it with both hands.

Sail Cargo London have been supplying me with olive oil from Portugal, sea salt from France and the occasional Tres Hombres chocolate bar from the Dominican Republic during my year of living on One Tonne of Carbon per Year. All delivered to the UK by sustainable sail-powered cargo shipping. This year I have continued to order online (adding red wine for good measure!) and saw this advertised at the bottom of the email.

Sail with us!
As last year we are offering the chance to be part of the journey. A bit different this year, as the charters are for the entire journey into St Kats. This will mean two (possibly three) nights on board the barge.

We have a couple of spaces left on the beautiful Blue Mermaid, leaving Ramsgate on 16th August.

Helping to sail the ship and cargo handling – it’s a great chance to be involved and get closer to the spirit and soul of the sail cargo story. The cost of the charters is £150 per person. This includes all meals on board.
E-mail info@raybelcharters.com for more details

There was a tense few days, waiting to hear if I was going on the Blue Mermaid voyage. And then once I heard there was a place onboard, I needed to do a PCR covid test too. And then my bags were packed! Toute suite.

The Blue Mermaid Voyage

A Thames sailing barge is a type of commercial sailing boat once common on the River Thames in London. The flat-bottomed barges are perfectly adapted to the Thames Estuary, with its shallow waters and narrow tributary rivers. The Blue Mermaid is one of the larger sailing barges which is also seaworthy and can transport people and cargo around the coast and across seas.

In 1900 there were around 4,000 such barges registered to carry cargo up and down the London river and the surrounding coasts, using just the wind and the tide. In 1940, sixteen Thames Sailing Barges took part in the Little Ships of Dunkirk which sailed from Ramsgate in England to Dunkirk (Dunkerque) in northern France, as part of Operation Dynamo, helping to rescue more than 336,000 British, French, and other Allied soldiers who were trapped on the beaches. Others sailing barges were used to transport essential goods around the coast in WW2. Many of the boats were destroyed or damaged during this time. The original Blue Mermaid was built, in 1930, but sank after hitting a magnetic mine in 1941. 

Thames sailing barges have since been re-purposed in many ways; I often see sailing barges used as houseboats on the Regent’s Canal, near where I live. Others like the Raybel are being lovingly restored and brought back into use as sustainable net carbon zero sail cargo and passenger transportation.

Commissioning in 2019, Blue Mermaid is a faithful replica of the original Blue Mermaid. Delivering our current work with youth groups and their staff, she extends it by carrying cargo and trainees who gain sea time learning traditional seamanship skills. Sailing without an engine, she does this with very low carbon emissions.

Yours truly pulling a Thames sailing barge at Ramsgate Harbour

The Sea-Change Sailing Trust, who owns the Blue Mermaid, provides residential opportunities for young people and vulnerable adults to learn and develop in a unique environment. By living and working together aboard a traditional sailing vessel they participate in a wide range of life skills and are encouraged to take increasing responsibility for their contribution and group decisions’.

The Blue Mermaid is also designed to be a working cargo ship. Original cargoes varied enormously; timber, bricks and hay were stacked on the deck, while cement and grain was carried loose in the hold. Richard Titchener and Hilary Halajko from the Sea-Change Sailing Trust have the ambition to make the Blue Mermaid a commercially viable Thames cargo sailing barge alongside training young people in seamanship skills.

Our 3-4 day trip will take us from the coastal port of Ramsgate in Kent, where it will be loaded with a small amount of sail cargo like coffee, chocolate, almonds, olive oil brought from South America and Portugal by the sail-powered cargo ship De Gallant. We will then voyage around the coast, past Margate to the Thames Estuary, up the River Thames , finally docking at St Katherine’s Docks right by Tower Bridge in central London.

The Blue Mermaid has no engine and navigates these waters entirely by wind and tides, guided by the immense skill and detailed knowledge of its captain and crew. There are five experienced crew members, two members from Raybel Charters and five passengers on this pilot trip, combining sail cargo with sail passengers. The passengers have the opportunity to be involved in sailing the barge – setting and bringing down sails, manoeuevering buoys, winding winches etc – as well as helping with cargo loading and unloading.

Holiday journal

In this mini holiday journal I have slightly changed the format; including the financial cost of the holiday alongside the carbon cost. Before the trip I bought a

  • PCR test – £129 (no idea of the carbon cost of this? but the financial cost!!!)
  • 2nd hand sleeping bag – 0g / £4.99
  • 2nd hand bound paper and leather journal – 0g / £4.99
  • Sea-Band acupressure nausea relief ( I actually didn’t experience any sea sickness but these were useful and effective for 2 of my fellow passengers) – ?g /£8.59
  • Cost of 3-4 day Blue Mermaid voyage, including 3 nights sleeping in a berth and all meals – £150

Monday 16th August 2021

  • Organic UK grown quinoa porridge with fresh mint from my garden, sprinkling of dried cranberries and pine nuts – 250g
  • Green tea – 22g
  • Pedalme cycling taxi from my home to London Victoria station – 5 miles x 36g= 180g / £22.75 (Underground train would be a lot cheaper at £2.40 but I wanted to do the trip by cycling taxi. Underground slightly more carbon 5 miles x 68g = 340g)
  • Oatmilk latte – 288g /£2.75
  • Slow train London Victoria to Ramsgate – 68 miles x 80g = 5.44Kg / £11.30
  • Bus Ramsgate station to Ramsgate Harbour – 2 miles x 46g = 92g / £1.30
  • Small portion of Fish & Chips on the beach – 1Kg /£4.95
  • 2 pots of tea with milk – 300g /£4.40
  • Brewdog can of Hazy Jane beer 330 ml – 360g / a gift
  • Pasta with tomato sauce and sprinkling of parmesan (Italian restaurant) – 500g / £8.50

Note: The slow train from London to Ramsgate takes us through Charles Dickens country; Rochester, Chatham and Broadstairs. These are the Kent landscapes which weave through his novels. Something in my heart leaps when I see the sea. Today in Ramsgate the salty water is a smooth, silken, silty turquoise green. I drop my bags at the harbour with Louis from Raybel Charters and go and explore. The beach is close by, so I eat my fish and chips, surrounded by eager seagulls, whilst watching children splashing in the shallows. And then I continue walking along the coast. with its chalk cliffs carved out with smugglers caves, seaweed lapping against the rocks. When I reach Dumpton Beach (more beautiful than it sounds, with liquorice allsorts beach huts) I want to stop at the cafe for a cup of tea. But the tides are turning and I need to get back to Ramsgate before I am cut off. Back at the harbour, I watch the crew, alongside friends and colleagues, loading the cargo onto the Blue Mermaid, And meet some of my fellow passengers, which include an artist, a nanny and two guys from Haeckels natural seaweed skincare.

I go early for an evening meal at a local Italian restaurant, overlooking the harbour. And then when back on the sailing barge, I lay down on the deck and look up at the sky. As night draws in; a bright star appears. Louis says it is the Vega star. I absorb the magic of that moment.

Later we have a quick lesson in how the onboard toilet works…the short story – a lot of pumping going on there…and we all retire to our berths for an early rise next morning, getting ready to sail.

Tuesday 17th August

  • Cinnamon bun – 75g
  • Slice of bread with almond butter – 75g
  • Handful of blueberries – 50g
  • 2 x filter coffee with hemp milk – 87g
  • 2 x black chai – 22g
  • 1 builders tea with cow’s milk – 71g
  • Olive bread and salads – 400g
  • Classic yogi tea – 22g
  • Toast with brie and tomato – 500g
  • Spicy vegetarian chilli with rice – 500g

*Cost of all food onboard included in charter

Note: After a morning lesson in how the sailing barge operates, a tug pulls us out of Ramsgate harbour and then we are quickly out sailing on the open sea. I sit behind the Skipper Richard, at the helm, keeping out of the way; when he asks me quietly if I would like to take the ship’s wheel. So I am steering the ship along the coast, a bit wobbly at first as I begin to tune in to the wind, the tides and the instructions. It is quite physically demanding, and requires immense focus. But so exhilarating too! We hug the coast at first, past Botany Bay and a wonderful view of Margate. And then we sail further out as we move towards the mouth of the Thames Estuary. We are going into a head wind so the tides will be very important to aid our progress. There is a lot of tacking as we move back and forward against the headwind.

We pass Thanet Earth, a large industrial agriculture and plant factory on the Isle of Thanet. It is the largest greenhouse complex in the UK, covering 90 hectares, or 220 acres (0.89 km2) of land. It produces approximately 400 million tomatoes, 24 million peppers and 30 million cucumbers a year. Tomatoes are harvested every day of the week, 52 weeks a year. Hot-housed tomatoes? That’s tomatoes at 4.6Kg carbon per kilo!

But I digress. We pass a wind farm. It has an eerie beauty in the slow winds of the Thames estuary. I hear a lot of discussions taking place about winds and tides. It looks like the tide will not be in our favour until the next morning. So we decide to anchor just outside the bright lights of Southend-on-Sea. I am out like a light.

Wednesday 18th August

  • Porridge, apple, cinnamon, nuts and seeds – 250g
  • 2 x filter coffee with milk – 300g
  • Black chai – 22g
  • Pasta and salads – 500g
  • Pear – 10g
  • Builders tea with milk – 71g
  • Vegetable curry, rice and mango chutney – 500g

Note: The crew and Skipper and some of the passengers rise early in the morning at 2 am, hoping to catch the tide to reach St Katherine’s docks that day. I do not join them. Sleeping on blissfully in my berth, despite the clanking up on deck. When I finally emerge outside with warming porridge, we see seals on the banks of The Ovens at Lower Hope, East Tilbury. Wonderful to see wildlife on the Thames. Later on, a flock of cormorants passes overhead. We also start to feel the company of more and more container ships and aggregate dredgers heading up the Thames. The Elbsun, Allegro, Astella, Mazarine and Transfennica. We are beginning to see the supply chains that feed London. With their billowing plumes of noxious pollution, it ain’t pretty, the back room of the city.

We pass Tilbury Docks, where container ships are offloading their cargos. I am surprised to see them still belching out toxic pollution, even when docked. Is this for refrigeration? The so-called cold chain? And then we pass under the Queen Elizabeth bridge / Dartford Crossing, teaming with lorries and vans on the next stage of the fossil fuel supply chain. This is where my fellow passengers Charlie and Buckles from Haeckles get out their drone; juxtaposing the slow, smooth. emission free elegance of the Blue Mermaid with the toxic business-as-usual fossil fuel cargo option.

Tilbury Grain terminal can still accept cargo delivery from Thames sailing barges. But Richard tells me that many of the docks and wharfs along the river Thames have been converted to container shipping or turned into luxury flats.

We miss the tide and decide to temporarily anchor at Old Man’s Head in Erith, moored between a landfill site on one side of the river and a metal scrapheap on the other. A few slow moving wind turbines add to the slightly surreal quality of this no man’s land. The sun comes out and whilst the crew catches up with their sleep below deck, I stretch out and sunbathe in this unlikely holiday destination!

We continue further up the Thames, past the controversial Belvedere incinerator to an even more unlikely mooring, tied to a buoy right under the final approach flight path of City Airport. The thundering echo of the planes landing between the high rise residential buildings, located either side of the airport, is truly shocking. How can having an airport bang in the middle of a city where people live be acceptable?

That evening, Olly, one of the crew, entertains us below deck with his lute, and soulful folk songs. And then we enjoy a final communal dinner together by lamplight – curry, rice and marmalade (mango chutney). Under the atmospheric ambience of lamplight, the crew take the opportunity to spook us with some seafaring ghost stories! Tomorrow morning we will make the final leg of our journey, towed by a tug for the last 7-8 miles. Port of London regulations mean we can’t sail those last miles.

Thursday 19th August

  • Oat porridge with dried fruit, nuts and seeds – 250g
  • 2 x filter coffee with milk – 300g
  • Small piece of lemon drizzle cake – 75g
  • 2 slices of melon – 120g
  • Orzo pasta with tomato and basil – 300g
  • 4 mile journey with pedalme transporting Columbian coffee beans to an Islington restaurant – I do add additional weight. I won’t disclose how much:) – combining cycling cargo with passenger transportation. This would be an interesting calculation? – ? / free
Arriving at St Katherine’s docks, central London – photo by Joy Vick

Note: I am getting too comfortable in my berth and sleeping bag! and sleep through some of the early morning tug arrangements. But pop my head up above board, just in time to see us move through the Thames Barrier. And then we are quickly moving fast past wharfs and docks which were once the lifeblood of the city. Most of these are now offices or luxury flats. Closed to sail cargo ships. Shortsighted selling off of our riverside assets IMO: Often now used as empty property gold bricks for investment purposes, for the global wealthy. Luckily St Katherine’s docks still values sail cargo ships and we have been given a prime position in the Marina. From where we are able to chat to the interested general public about the history and future potential of sail cargo / passenger ships.

I stay on to help with offloading the cargo onto pedalme cycling logistics. Share a last lunch with some of the remaining crew. And then hop on a cycle, loaded with Columbian coffee beans, transported all the way from South America by sail cargo. These sacks of coffee are destined for a restaurant in Islington, just down the road from where I live. Sail cargo /passenger to cycling cargo /passenger journey completed.


SS Bedale Passing Gibraltar Signed SS Bedale, built 1879 by John Readhead & Co of South Shields.

During the trip, I got a chance to chat with Joy, Gareth and Vanessa of London /Kent sail cargo, who are together restoring the Raybel Thames sailing barge and organised the voyage via Raybel Charters. They have discovered a close connection between their ancestors and the sailing barges. It is almost as if the ancestors are calling upon us not to lose these invaluable and vital skills – the ability to harness the energy of wind and tide. My ancestors, the Readheads, specialised in building cargo/passenger ships of 10 to 15,000 tons deadweight. This painting shows one of their sailing ships with an engine. I wonder if they ever built sailing ships with no engines? Or even a Thames sailing barge?

The International Sail Cargo Alliance and International Windship Association are working together to create a global network of sail cargo shipping. As Capt. Jorne of Ecoclipper puts it – “Ten years ago, everybody thought it was crazy to transport goods in sailing ships. Now it is a rising trend, for companies, to watch their entire production chain for sustainability. Soon, customers will demand clean transport…”

You need to know someone who owns a boat

On the Sunday, after my return, I am at the Farmers Market, selecting from the abundant seasonal tomato selection on offer at Nigel’s Lettuces and Lovages stall. A lady interjects, saying sorry for jumping the queue. Oh don’t worry I say, I’m in a Sunday laid back mood. Time doesn’t matter. She sounds surprised and enquires how I managed to be so laid back. Oh I’ve been sailing this week. Sounds lovely she says “but you need to know someone who owns a boat”. Er, no, I reply, I just buy sail cargo from London Sail Cargo. Check it out and hop onboard.

Thank you to Richard, Hilary, Olly, Shiner, Chris, Vanessa, Louis, Megan, Buckles, Charlie and Isabela for a wonderful holiday.

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