Set up in 2018, Raybel Charters are a social enterprise working to restore the 1920 Thames Sailing Barge Raybel.
The company has two aims:
- to manage Raybel as an asset for heritage-based environmental, education, skills and health project, at locations throughout the Thames Estuary, but with a main focus on the home port Sittingbourne. At the heart of the operation, is a commitment to advancing education in maritime heritage, and providing opportunities for recreation, leisure and social welfare connected with the arts, crafts and skills of shipbuilding, sail-making, sailing and seamanship.
- to run a not-for-profit sail freight service on the Thames estuary, the east coast of England, and cross-Channel – demonstrating how wind power and the use of heritage craft can be a viable alternative to the environmental impacts of carbon intensive shipping.
The conservation project
Raybel is currently moored at Heybridge Basin, Essex. Once further funds for the ongoing conservation of Raybel have been secured, she will move to Milton Creek, Sittingbourne where the work will be carried out.
The project will be a key component of a new heritage tourism and leisure site at Lloyd Wharf on Milton Creek. This is a great opportunity to re-connect Sittingbourne with its maritime heritage – especially as a restoration has never been carried out at the town, despite its rich heritage in barge construction.
Raybel Charters are also working with local community organisations to provide opportunities for volunteering and training in conservation, archive research, oral history, arts and sailing We have planned a three year programme of community activities, events and festivals– all to all be produced alongside local people.
A first round pass from the Heritage Lottery Fund was secured in June 2018, and final approval for the project is due in June 2019. The restoration of the Raybel will be completed in 2020, the centenary of the barge.
Raybel is still predominantly original, and the project will bring the barge back into full sailing condition, meeting sailing barge exemption certificate for a maximum of 12 passengers plus crew.
The barge was listed on the National Register of Historic Vessels in 1996 (cert. no. 225), and is a powerful coasting Thames sailing barge with a cargo capacity of 150 tons. She was built by Wills and Packham for shipping company G.F. Sully,
Raybel was once described as 'the strongest barge built' by Reuben Webb of barge builders F.A. Webb & Sons, and the Society for Sailing Barge Research has said: -
"It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this particular vessel. Human nature has us often marvelling at the oldest survivor of a genre, but it is rare to have the opportunity to preserve what is arguably the ultimate evolution of the sailing barge. Raybel is one of just a handful of sailing barges built between the wars, the last group of the genre, her construction more historically important than any of the others and predominantly still original."
The level of originality remaining on Raybel is very high. Having had only two owners, all repairs and replacements that have been made from the original build are known about and fully documented. Of the internal hull fabric all the original ironwork is in very good order. The timber fabric of lining, sealing, oak beams, inner wale and chines is more than 95% original. Of external fabric there is less originality and greater need for replacement. However no replacement of fabric has been carried out that differs to the detail of the original. The intricate carved bow badges are original. The ship’s wheel (heavy teak and brass) is original, as is the compass.
Raybel retains the patina of use from cargo delivery. The combings bear the marks of many years work and there is evidence of the iron banding inside combings being snagged during unloading. The 'Sullys green' paint can be seen on timber. The Gardner marine engine fitted in 1962 is now itself a rarity.
Raybel’s story is interwoven with the lives of individuals, families and communities. Largely as a result of being managed by just two companies, her varied activities are well recorded. Further research and archiving is being carried out, but stories and evidence already known about include:
- Photographs, documents and stories about Wills & Packham, giving insight into the lives of the families that ran the company, the people who worked there and the community they lived in.
- Raybel was the 'pride of the fleet' for Sullys. We are discovering more accounts and photographs of Raybel’s early years.
- During WWII Raybel was commandeered by the Admiralty and worked from the Clyde, as a supply ship to naval craft. We believe Royal Navy evidence exists of this heritage.
- Jim Lovegrove studied at The Royal College of Art, and worked passages on Raybel as a trainee hand in the 1950s. He went on to sail with explorer F.W. Tilman and was later instrumental to the restoration of the Mary Rose.
- Raybel features in 18 publications and six films (including feature films and broadcast documentaries); has been used as a location for music publicity photography; and features in a Norman Parkinson photograph published in Vogue.
A growing community
Raybel Charters is part of a growing community of ship owners, merchants and producers who are passionate about the opportunities for transporting freight, emissions free, and that collectively operate as the Sail Cargo Alliance.
It is a new, exciting and growing movement with sail cargo vessels now linking England, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Germany, Spain and Portugal, and that traverses the Atlantic and stretches into the Mediterranean. For the Raybel, the plan is to provide a sail cargo operation along the east coast, the near continent, and into the Thames Estuary.
The cargo matters to us too – we want to transport products of high quality, generally food and drink from farmers and producers who care for the land, and are often restoring it to a richer environmental condition.
We plan to make out cargo arrivals colourful and vibrant events – with people able to collect pre-ordered products at the dockside, restoring supply chains to a human scale, re-connecting people to products and to the movement of goods at a pace dictated by nature. We see sail cargo as an antidote to the 'just in time', 'always available' culture of modern consumption.