A good life aboard a working Thames barge

The historic sailing barge Victor
ES 4.6.10
ES 30.10.10

The historic sailing barge Victor ES 4.6.10 ES 30.10.10 - Credit: Archant

Barge life is beautiful for Bev

Bev Lloyd aboard the Victor at Ipswich Waterfront

Bev Lloyd aboard the Victor at Ipswich Waterfront - Credit: Lucy taylor

When Bev Lloyd tells you, with a cheeky grin, that she’s a little bit special, she’s not being wholly mischievous.

Bev really is a little bit special.

She’s the only woman working full time, earning a living on one of the few remaining historic Thames sailing barges in the east.

The work can be hard and heavy, the hours long and anti-social but for Bev the compensations of playing a part of keeping one of these relics from a bygone industrial age on the water more than make up for that.

In fact, the thrill of being on the deck of a barge in full sail is something she doesn’t think she will ever tire of.

“It’s a real privilege,” she says.

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“You have to experience it. You are looking at the river from a different angle and you get to see different times of the day and different seasons.”

Bev is ‘mate’ on the Sailing Barge Victor, built in Ipswich in 1895 to ferry cargo around the Thames estuary and shallow waters of the east coast but now converted to take passengers on pleasure cruises around the Orwell, Stour and Alde.

The hold, where everything and anything from flax and linseed to explosives were once carried, has been turned into a seating and dining area with a fully-equipped kitchen and other facilities.

As winter bites the Victor’s schedule is less busy. Birdwatching tours are continuing until the end of January when the barge will go in for maintenance before the start of the 2014 season of cream tea, picnic, supper cruises and private charters.

Today, Bev and skipper David Westwood (know as Wes) are taking Victor from her mooring on Ipswich Waterfront down to Harwich for a fire inspection.

There two things that strike you instantly about Bev. One is her petite size, which seems to be at odds with the hugely physical job she does.

“It is a very physical job,” she says. “Although I am quite small I am strong. I don’t know of any other women on the east coast working full time professionally on a barge as I do. I think I am a little bit special.

“I don’t think the lifestyle is for a lot of women, because it is such a physical job and because maybe a lot of women wouldn’t want to get up at 5am and haul up an anchor. You’ve got to move when the tide is there to move on.”

These days there’s just the two of them so a good working relationship is vital.

“It isn’t like in an office here, says Wes. “On a barge you spend more time with the mate than you do your wife. We understand each other and a lot of the time we communicate without talking when sailing. It takes time to build up that confidence in knowing what the other person is doing.”

Bev agrees. “He has got to trust that if anything happens to him I can get the vessel and the passengers back on my own,” she says.

“From a sailing point of view Ipswich is great,” she says. “You can get in and out at any state of tide. I have my own boat moored here as well. If I’m not working here I’m sailing for pleasure.”

She started working on the Victor with Wes in 2006 after working on Thames sailing barges.

“I then went off to work on yacht charters with a corporate company before I returned to do this in 2011. I came back because I missed Wes,” she quips.

“It’s such a beautiful life. It’s not something you do for the money. You meet lots of beautiful people who come on board and it’s lovely to hear their stories. I try to make sure they have a fantastic time during the trip.”

She first learned to sail when she was a teenager in Kent and trained as a sailing teacher. She worked in Scotland and Ireland teaching children to sail boats and canoes, has worked in the corporate world on team-buiding projects and still teaches yachting and sailing locally.

There are big differences between sailing a yacht and a barge.

“The barge definitely handles differently,” she says. “It is designed for two people and needs a lot more strength. In the old days it would have been a man, a boy and a dog sailing it.” Bev is continuing a family tradition.

“My great grandfather had a fishing smack in Whitstable,” she says. “Fishing smacks and Thames sailing barges were both the working vessels of their day.

“My great grandfather sailed a smack alongside a barge. It is something I wanted to make sure the family continued and it is only me in my family that sails.”

In fact, she was so sure the job of mate on the Victor was for her that she was quite single-minded about getting it.

“They actually wanted a caterer but I said I wanted to work on the deck,” she says. “I made them give me the job.”

“We need to encourage more young people, not just women, to get involved. There are no youngsters coming to sail them and this is going to be the problem in the future. We are desperately trying to promote the barges to get more young people learning how to sail them and doing apprenticeships.”

To find out more about Victor visit www.sbvictor.co.uk.