The 117 year old barge you can sail down the Medway
The Edith May is offering free sailing trips down the river. We went to check it out.
“Do you want to take the wheel for a while?”, I hear behind me.
It’s Stephen, the skipper of the Edith May sailing barge. The barge is a familiar sight to many in Medway, regularly sailing up and down the Medway between its home in Lower Halstow and Sun Pier, where we’ve climbed aboard today.
The question slightly takes me aback. I am, to put it mildly, not a boat person. I can probably count the number of times I’ve been on water on one hand. I cannot swim, so I’m one of only two people on board today wearing a life jacket. It isn’t the most flattering look, and I spend the rest of the trip paranoid that I’m going to pull the emergency cord and inflate like a balloon accidentally, but it makes me feel slightly less anxious on the water.
Despite all better judgement, I accept the offer to take the wheel, and suddenly, I’m steering a 117-year-old sailing barge down the River Medway.
It’s an exhilarating experience and not one I was expecting to have when I woke up a few hours earlier.
The Edith May is a wooden Thames sailing barge, originally built in 1906 to transport various cargoes (often grain), largely between the east of England and London.
As sailing barges went out of fashion, the vessel was refitted with a motor engine in the 1950s and became a star of the barge racing circuit of the 1960s.
Following this, the Edith May went through periods as a museum ship and periods of disrepair, before finally being purchased by Geoff Gransden in 1999, who moved the barge to its current home in Lower Halstow and began the long journey to restoring it to its former glory.
The full restoration was completed around 2010, and since then, the barge has hosted art events, been a regular competitor in barge races, and operated as a charter vessel.
By 2019, the vessel was operated by Tiller & Wheel, an organisation set up by Ed Gransden (Geoff’s son) and Heather Burgess. Ed and Heather are familiar faces on the creative scene in Medway as the owners of one of Medway’s leading art spaces, Sun Pier House.
Part of the ethos of Tiller & Wheel is to make sailing more accessible, and so it was that I found myself steering a barge down the Medway on a Wednesday afternoon after seeing an advert on social media.
The advert that popped up on my feed that morning offered a free sailing down the river. At first, I ignored it, assuming there would be an inevitable catch. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me, and I booked myself in.
A few hours later I was on the barge along with a handful of others. The capacity on these trips is 12, but six arrived on the pontoon at Sun Pier for this sailing.
Stephen the skipper took us through a quick safety briefing, and shortly after, we were sailing into the river and heading toward Chatham Dockyard, which is where the wheel was thrust into my control.