Today there are some thirty private, Company, Charter, Club and sail training barges which may be seen under sail around the Thames estuary.

During the summer months they still visit the various traditional ports and participate in the series of barge matches now coordinated through the Sailing Barge Association. Usually the craft will be sailing someway off shore, but they can be seen at close quarters in various berths around the country, particularly Maldon in Essex, Faversham in Kent and St Katharine Docks, by Tower Bridge, London.

Below are listed the various places where the traditional Thames Sailing Barge may be found.  Sailing barges move around and there is no guarantee that any of the craft will be in the places described.  Indeed, it is only by keeping the craft sailing and moving about that they will stand any chance of surviving the twenty first century.

Credit: Phil English

The River Thames

Although spritsail sailing barges evolved on the Thames, there are now only a few craft with permanent berths on the river.

The main London river fleet is now based in St Katharine Docks, by Tower Bridge, London, where there are usually several fully-rigged barges mainly involved in corporate hospitality. St Katharine Docks is private property but the owners welcome members of the public to see the sights from the quayside and visit the shops and pub in the docks, although access to the pontoons is restricted to boat owners and crews.

Out on the river, near Temple underground station, sb Wilfred is permanently moored as a restaurant. Others, often now house barges, may be seen further west in the Battersea area.

Suffolk and Essex

River Alde, Suffolk

The limit of navigation on the River Alde is Snape Bridge and close by is the old Snape Maltings, now converted into a concert hall. The miniature barge sb Cygnet can often be seen moored at the quay.

Ipswich, Suffolk

At the head of the Orwell is the old port of Ipswich. The modern town centre lies back from the port which is only a short walk away from the station. Visitors by road should turn off the A12 before crossing the Orwell Bridge. Visiting barges will frequently be seen during the summer, and sb Victor is based there.

Pin Mill, Suffolk

On the south side of the Orwell, Pin Mill is about half a mile from the bus stop at Chelmondiston on the B1456 road to Shotley. Barges may be lying on the hard near the Butt & Oyster public house.

Maldon, Essex

Undoubtedly the main base for the barge fleet is now Maldon on the Blackwater. The picturesque town is reached on the A414 road by turning off the A12 where signposted near Chelmsford. By public transport take a train to Chelmsford and cross to the bus station, where there is a weekday service to Maldon. From the High Street fork left down Church Street to The Hythe.

Walter Cook and Sons yard closed in 1992 but others now carry on the work, and there are still a number of craft around The Hythe under repair and restoration. Maldon is the main base for the charter barge fleet managed by Topsail Charters. The Thames Sailing Barge Trust’s vessels, sb Pudge and sb Centaur, are based at The Hythe, as is sb George Smeed, and there are frequently other visiting barges.

Upstream towards Fullbridge there are working yards, clubs and the famous salt works on the river bank. It is possible to walk upstream from The Hythe to Fullbridge by Downs Road, the Recreation Ground and a footpath with views towards the entrance to Heybridge Creek, where a number of craft have been hulked.


Hoo, Kent

Motorists may take the A228 out to The Isle of Grain, to visit Hoo Marina taking the turning after the deep cutting signposted to Hoo St Werburgh. On reaching the crossroads by the bus stop, pub and shops, turn right and then left down Vicarage Lane across open fields. There is a “rush hour only” bus stop at the end of the lane, where one way leads through the caravan park to the Hoo Marina clubhouse, and a track leading off to the left to Lapthorn’s shed and the seawall. The seawall walk is part of the Saxon Shore Way, and leads away from the busy yards into the saltings. At R Lapthorn & Co Ltd, Whitton Marine and Stargate Marine there are usually a number of barges. These are very much working yards set behind security fences with working machinery, dust blowing in the wind, and deafening noise from grinders.

Credit: Dave Brooks
The Medway Towns, Kent

Returning towards Strood, another signposted turning on the A228 leads towards the Medway tunnel and a turning to the pleasant riverside village of Upnor where there is often a barge to be seen.  At Lower Halstow sb Edith May can usually be found.

Sittingbourne, Kent

On the Bourne, a tributary of Milton Creek, was the former Dolphin Yard which built and repaired vessels.   Later this became the Dolphin Sailing Barge Museum, but a fire destroyed building and contents.

Over the last few years, though, a new Dolphin Sailing Barge Museum has been erected at Lloyd’s Wharf on Milton Creek, Sittingbourne, and sb Raybel is based there undergoing restoration.

Credit: Ted Ingham
Faversham, Kent

This is now the main barge centre in Kent with the creek running parallel with Abbey Street from the town centre.   At the end of the historic street visitors may turn on to Standard Quay, where a number of barge owners and local businessmen took over the old black sheds in 1992 and set up moorings.   Sb Lady of the Lea, sb Greta and sb Henry are among the barges based there.

Beyond these is Iron Wharf where sb Mirosa is based in a traditional boatyard, and sb Orinoco is not far away.

Further Afield

Both in their trading days and since, barges have ventured far from their home waters. The Thames estuary and the east coast might be their usual hunting grounds, but many of them crossed the Channel to trade with French, Belgian and Dutch ports. In more modern times some have based themselves on the south coast and, in the latest move, in the spring of 2022 sb Lady Daphne has taken up residence in the harbour of Charlestown, Cornwall.