Report by Kentish Sail Association. Photos by Seamus Masters.
Back in 1972, a few keen traditional boat sailors from north Kent organised a race for Essex smacks and Thames barges in the river Swale; fifty years on the event prospers and is now one of the largest annual gatherings of traditional boats on the East Coast. Last Saturday witnessed some thirty-five craft racing out of the Swale in a brisk sou’westerly to compete in the 22-mile race off the north Kent shore; the brown sails, set against the eastern horizon, made for a fine sight and a great day’s racing was enjoyed in the calm waters of a weather shore.
It had been blowing pretty hard the day before and that had deterred a few of the smaller boats from heading south from the Essex rivers for the race. But the engineless Thames barge Edme arrived in the Swale for the first time since 2019, and the smack Hyacinth and bawley Gladys made it down from Pin Mill. The ADC was another smack that had been absent for a number of years so her arrival was much to be welcomed.
Edme went on to win the bowsprit class and the BMM Western trophy for the fastest elapsed time around the course, while ADC was the first smack home. The Faversham-based Repertor won the staysail class and Centaur the restricted staysail class. Nightfall was first home of the gaffers over 25 feet, and Fifi sailed home alone to take line honours in the gaffers under 25 ft, the rest of that class having retired in the teeth of the squally conditions. It’s always good to welcome a small fleet of Dutch barges, and this year Johanna, Nooit Volmaakt and Albatros sailed a shortened course and added a touch of stately elegance to the affair.
Fifty years on from that first Swale match it’s clear that the traditional boat scene thrives. Despite the rising costs, the declining interest in our maritime history and the inevitable toll of the years on old wooden boats, an active and enthusiastic core of owners, crew, shipwrights and skilled craftsmen keep a remarkable fleet of traditional craft alive and active around our coasts. The Swale Smack & Sailing Barge Match is just one of many races and events that take place each year but it’s certainly one of the most significant on East Coast and it looks set for another fifty years.