Published: 06:00, 05 September 2021
Reporter John Nurden tried out his sea legs as he climbed aboard the Thames sailing barge Edith May to learn how we can save historic boats such as these...
When the Thames sailing barge Edith May was launched in 1906, Edward VII had taken over the throne from Queen Victoria, suffragettes were demanding votes for women, the Wright Brothers had just been granted a patent for their flying machine and Charles Rolls and Henry Royce had decided to build cars together.
Geoff Gransden talking about the Edith May
Televisions and mobile phones hadn't even been dreamed of. But 115 years on, the 26m-long (86ft) Edith May is still going strong.
She is normally moored at The Old Brickmakers' Dock at Lower Halstow near Sittingbourne but can often be seen around the Kent coast especially at Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey. At the weekend she is often competing in barge races.
Maintaining her, needs a lot of loving care - and cash. Some have estimated it at £20,000 a year.
Skipper Geoff Gransden, 68, said he had "never added it up" but his son Ed, 35, and Ed's wife Heather Burgess have decided the finances of running a grand old lady of the sea need to be put on an even keel.
So they have formed a non-profit community interest company called Tiller and Wheel to encourage others to take up the challenge of saving these ships from the scrap yard.
Ed said: "There used to be more than 2,000 Thames sailing barges plying up and down the Kent coast but now there are only around 30. It is sad to see so many going to the breakers' yard to be cut up.
"Many people who can sail them are hitting their 70s. It's not sustainable. So we put our heads together during the Covid lockdowns to come up with a different solution.
"Because we care about the future of these beautiful vessels and want to make them accessible to all we are keen to start educating the next generation of barge hands."
Their idea is to offer the chance to be a patron for a monthly fee. It helps with the cash-flow and opens up the opportunity to be part of the action to many who could not afford to take on a barge of their own.
Last year a ticket to ride for a day on the Edith May would have cost £120. Now patrons, who pay anything from £3 to £500 a month (for corporate clients) can sail for free.
Trying out the scheme recently was solicitor Richard Murr who took along a party of friends and family for a trip around the Isle of Sheppey to see seals and sail past the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery bomb ship.
The scheme is based on the crowd-funding website Patreon. The couple's target is to sign up 200 patrons this year. They already have more than half that and ultimately hope to attract 10,000.
The Edith May has been in the Gransden family for more than 20 years.
Geoff said: "I've been interested in barges all my life, since I was five. In 1997 I spied the Edith May going up the Medway with all her sails in tatters and went to have a look at her. In 1999 I bought her as a wreck. She was as rotten as a pear. So I spent the next 10 years rebuilding her. It's been a lifelong passion."
His late father Eric, who set up the Gransden family firm of builders, was even helping to relay the deck at the grand old age of 87.
At the other end of the scale, Ed was four when he first began working on another boat, a Whitstable smack, bought by Geoff. Geoff said: "He was indoctrinated at a young age. But now I rely on him 100% to climb the rigging or shin up the mast."
During the Swale barge race Edith May clinched the trophy for being first over the start line but after losing the lead finished an honourable second.
Geoff described it as a "lively race" meaning it was windy - appalling weather for the likes of you and I but perfect for a barge under full sail.
Luckily, when I had a chance to try out my sea legs and clamber aboard the vessel at Queenborough's all-tide landing, the wind had died down and the sun was out.
Having attempted to learn to sail in a dinghy the previous summer at Sheppey Sailing Club, when I spent more time in the water than in the boat, this seemed a far more civilised way to ply the ocean.
As we cast off and the gentle breeze blew us away from the pontoon, Ed summoned his part-time crew. In the best traditions of pirates, those who yearned to be at one with the sea were allowed to lend a hand.
Retired solicitor Richard Murr was given instructions on stowing pulley blocks before disappearing below decks to concoct chicken chasseur in the kitchen, sorry, galley.
On deck, retired cop Bob Morris lent a hand on the bow learning how to winch up a foresail to provide more speed. At the back of the barge (sorry, stern) Queenborough Harbour apprentice Harry Coughlan, 17, was receiving extra tuition on his day off. He had temporarily joined the crew of the Edith May to "see what it was like."
That's one of the fascinating things about hitching a ride on a boat. You never know who you are going to bump into.
As we sailed away from Queenborough, Ed clambered out along the bowsprit to set the foresail. As the breeze filled the sails the barge gathered speed, making its way past the giant DFDS cargo ferry berthed at Sheerness Docks.
Skipper Geoff was of two minds. "We could sail out to Southend or aim for Whitstable," he mused.
Instead, we turned right (I think that's starboard) and scraped past the wreck of the American bomb ship the SS Richard Montgomery before setting sail to circumnavigate the Isle of Sheppey.
It was odd looking at the Island from the sea. The beach huts at Minster appeared very small, the fossil-strewn cliffs at Eastchurch were imposing and the sand at Leysdown looked very flat. It's a wonder it has never flooded.
As we rounded Shellness the wind dropped and we became becalmed. It is at times like these you realise why a sailing barge has a diesel engine hidden in its hold. With a steady throb we entered the Swale and gave a cheery wave to the Ferry Inn at Harty where a wedding party seemed to be in full flow.
A few days later I spotted a Facebook post from a Mark J Reason with a photo of the Edith May. He wrote: "This came past the Harty Ferry Inn on Monday during the wedding of my daughter Natasha to her fiance Keiron who is in the Merchant Navy. It was very fitting, we thought, to see this beautiful Kentish barge sail past."
It's a small world.
In the same vein, that cheeky veteran seaman Tim Bell of the Sheppey Sailing Club posted: "John Nurden is becoming an old sea dog and now knows what it's like to circumnavigate this wonderful Island. Talking of which, the Round The Island sailing race is this Sunday (Sept 5). The record is 2.5 hours."
We were taking life a little more leisurely. We had left at 10am that morning and now it was approaching 5pm. But the best was yet to come.
Having waved to a few curious seals en route we were now approaching the distinctive four-poster outline of the Kingsferry Bridge. Motorists will tell you that any ship forcing the bridge to lift is the scourge of their lives.
You can't begin to understand the sheer feeling of power you get on board a boat when you overhear the skipper calling the bridge on the radio to ask for it to go up. "You cars are going to have to stop and wait," I heard myself saying with glee. So, to all those drivers who were stuck, sorry.
Kingsferry Bridge replied. "Sorry Edith May, you will have to wait."
Wait? Whatever happened to the tried and tested motto 'motor gives way to sail'? It seems tide and time wait for no one except Southeastern's shuttle train between Sheerness and Sittingbourne. So we cut the engine and sort of floated about.
It was then I noticed Ed clambering up the rigging. Apparently the mast was a tad too high to go under the raised bridge even when it was at its full height. It was at this point I decided a sailor's life was not for me if it involved climbing up rope ladders.
Soon, the train clickety-clacked over the tracks and we could hear the familiar bell sounding as the lights went red to traffic and the bridge began to lift. The women on board raced to the front and posed for selfies as we cautiously powered through the gap and then passed under the Sheppey Crossing.
On the final leg home we glided past yachts moored next to the spookily mysterious Dead Man's Island before gently coming to rest at the all-tide landing again. What an adventure! I'm signing up to become a patron.
For information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 07814 950442.
1906: Edith May built for William Barrett of Leytonstone and skipper Captain Howard by J&H Cann of Harwich.
1918: Sold to Alfred Sully just after the end of the First World War (1918) carrying wheat and barley between East Anglia and London.
1952: Diesel engine fitted. Sold out-of-trade.
1961: Used as a motor barge by skipper Bob Childs who wrote the book Rochester Barges then re-rigged as a racing barge.
1985: Refitted for charter work and moved from Maldon, Essex, to Liverpool Docks.
1988: Returned to east coast under new ownership based at Maldon and St Katherine's Dock, London.
1999: Geoff Gransden buys Edith May on October 7.
2010: Relaunched after major restoration.
2016: Used in the film Wonder Woman.