Lady Daphne at 96 couldn't quite get the Thames wind to sail under Tower Bridge with her creaking joints
PUBLISHED: 19:53 22 April 2019 | UPDATED: 20:26 22 April 2019
Sea Laurel/Lady Daphne
The last Thames sailing barge ever built has been on a trial run at the start of its first full season taking passengers on nostalgic trips.
That's as long as there's a wind in the sails, otherwise the veteran Lady Daphne at 113 tonnes laden weight has to switch on her diesel engine tucked away in the bow.
The Daphne, launched 96 years ago, is the oldest vessel docked at the historic St Katharine's-by-The-Tower, the pride and joy of new owners Samantha Howe and Andy Taylor.
“We were advised not to buy a barge or wooden vessel,” Samantha admits. “Yet here we are with Lady Daphne.
“It takes a lot of money for her upkeep, but we liked the idea of something old.
“I had to learn to be a sailor. It's quite heavy work and the rigging is difficult.”
Lady Daphne has her dark side, often in rough waters, scarred and almost lost at sea three times.
She had barely been in service five years when the skipper was lost overboard in a storm off the Cornish coast in 1927 and the crew had to be rescued before the vessel struck rocks in the Scilly Isles and was left a wreck.
But she was restored and back in service by 1928 and continued cargo trading for another half-century, although with a few more scrapes along the way—struck by a Thames steamer in 1944, then the infamous 1953 East Coast tidal flooding lifting her bow onto a quay and almost capsizing her.
The Daphne was built in 1923 from oak frames with side planking of elm and a steel keelson, with its original cargo hold still today like it was 96 years ago when she was named after the original owner David Watson's daughter.
She traded out of Wapping as a coastal barge bringing in Portland stone, china clay, cement and grain to the London Docks from East Coast and South Coast ports, often making the run to Ipswich in just 12 hours when empty and returning in 14 hours laden with 190 tonnes of wheat at a time.
The Daphne finally retired after half-a-century and began a new life as a corporate hire vessel before Samantha and Andy heard she was up for grabs in 2016. For Andy, it was a boyhood dream come true.
“Dad was a keen sailor who took us on the River Orwell where Thames barges used to lay up,” he recalls. “I always wanted to own one.
“Now we have the Daphne, but are dipping our toe in the water not quite certain what's next. I'd like people to experience traditional sailing, but it's tricky getting word out, so we're using social media besides word-of-mouth to see what works.”
He wants to use his barge as a floating classroom for schools and is in talks with Tower Bridge administrators who run an education programme.
The Daphne cast off on Sunday at St Katharine's under Skipper James Kent, who has been at the helm for 20 years.
It was a cold but sunny afternoon in calm waters—not enough wind to hoist the mainsail. Luckily we had his diesel engine below for the trip round the Isle of Dogs down to Greenwich, then back under Tower Bridge that was raised in our honour. Special guests on this promotion trip included Beefeaters and their wives from the Tower of London.
All 50 passengers had to be counted aboard and tallied again with Skipper Kent's hand-held clicker when we disembarked two hours later at St Katharine's. This is a concession to modern safety practice after the 1989 Marchioness disaster with 51 river cruise passengers lost when the vessel was hit by the Bowbelle dredger.
One of Sunday's 'tallied' passengers on the Daphne was professional storyteller Vanessa Woolf who came aboard out of curiosity and now wants to run story sessions in September in “one of London's hidden corners”.
Vanessa explained: “We go to all kinds of weird places like cemeteries in the middle of the night and along the Thames foreshore. So this sailing barge is absolutely right for telling strange and spooky stories from this corner of the Thames.”
She was thinking about the Princess Alice steamer returning in September 1878 from a day trip to the seaside when it was struck by a collier at Silvertown, sinking with the loss of 650 souls.
Such a tale seems appropriate aboard the ageing, creaking Lady Daphne with its own dark history, its wartime collision on the Thames, being shipwrecked at sea and nearly sinking three times.
But not to be put off. The Daphne is a unique way to experience the Thames heritage, with Skipper Kent counting you aboard and counting you off, just to make sure.