The barges also traded much further afield, to the north of England, the South Coast and even to continental European ports. Cargoes varied enormously: bricks, mud, hay, rubbish, sand, coal and grain, for example. Due to the efficiency of a Thames barge's gear, a crew of only two sufficed for most voyages, although by today's standards it would have been hard physical work at times.
They were usually spritsail rigged on two masts. Most had a topsail above the huge mainsail and a large foresail. The mizzen was a much smaller mast on which was set a single sail whose main purpose was to aid steering when tacking. The rig also allowed a relatively large sail area on the upper part of the mast, to catch wind when moored ships, buildings or trees blocked wind on the water's surface. Sail areas varied from 3000 to 5000 square feet (300 to 500 m²) depending on the size of the barge. The typical, attractive rusty-red colour of the flax sails was due to the dressing used to waterproof them. No auxiliary power was used originally but many barges were fitted with engines in the later years.
In good conditions, sailing barges could attain speeds over 12 knots, and their leeboards allowed them to be highly effective windward performers. The unusual sprits'l rig allowed any combination of sails to be set: even the topsail on its own could be effective in some conditions.
Their heyday came at the turn of the 20th century when over 2000 were on the registry. That century saw a steady decline in their numbers. The last Thames barge to trade entirely under sail was the Everard-built Cambria in 1970, owned by Captain A. W. (Bob) Roberts. Roberts had sailed the Cambria for more than twenty years, and gained a reputation for hard sailing and fast passages in other Everard barges.
Cambria's last mate was Dick Durham from Leigh-on-Sea, Essex, with whom Bob carried the last freight under sail alone: a 100 tons of cattle cake from Tilbury Dock to Ipswich in October 1970. Dick wrote Bob Roberts' biography: The Last Sailorman and is available for lectures on the barge and the life of her colourful skipper. You can contact him on 01702 713613.
There was never a shortage of youths ready to sail in the barges, but few could put up with the workload, the weather conditions and the sparse income of the "mate's berth". Following the Second World War, the coastal barge trade diminished as the nation became more mechanised. Cargoes went by road instead of by sea, squeezing the purses of the barge owners, until most of the once-handsome barges were given motors and relegated to short, lightering passages within the Thames Estuary.
Today, a small number of sailing barges remain, converted to pleasure craft and commonly sailed in the annual races which take place in the Thames Estuary.
The matches have ceased and been reinstituted several times, and are now considered the world's second oldest sailing race (after the America's Cup). The course was originally from Erith downstream, but as of 2006 is from Gravesend into the Estuary and back to Hope Point on the Hoo Peninsula.