Our amazing sail cargo movement has come on at a rapid pace in recent years. Ship owners, merchants, port allies and producers have all worked together, creating what is nothing less than a full-on demonstration of alternative economics in action – showing how co-operation in trade and exchange can truly work. We’ve dealt with the bureaucratic hurdles that have been put in our way, worked around sailing schedules that have blown off course, convinced harbour masters and port owners that sail cargo is more than some frivolous hobby business.
All the while, the different sheets that hold the sails of this new movement aloft have had to be moved in some sort of synch – producers making more of their goods available to provide cargo for the ships; ships adding new ports to their itineraries; port allies seeking out new supporter/customers through their own local eco and green networks. As interest grows, new opportunities arise, in more places. In England, Penzance, Poole, and Brighton all featured in this year’s epic voyage of De Gallant. On previous journeys, sail cargo allies have been found in Bristol, Falmouth and Torquay.
But – until this autumn – nothing had come to London, the biggest city and one of the biggest potential markets for sail cargo. Then, in early October we were thrilled to welcome Gallant to London – the first sail cargo ship to arrive at these famous docks in a generation. The schooner sailed up from Leigh-on-sea at the mouth of the Thames estuary on a rising tide, in the darkness of the early morning, October 8th. First stop was Greenwich, where we brought the ship onto Greenwich Pier, normally busy with cruise ships and commuter clippers, but for the twilight hours, a magical evening with our first pioneer customers coming to collect their pre-ordered olive oil, sea salt, coffee. Mostly these were friends and supporters, but we also welcomed the National Maritime Museum, who bought produce to use in talks they are giving about the revival of sailing ships for trade.
The following day De Gallant continued the journey up river to moor just outside Tower Bridge at Hermitage Community Moorings, Wapping. Now on the north side of the river, we welcomed more customers during the day, whilst plotting plans to make this a long-term venue for London cargo arrivals.
The trip has proved a real boon for our cause – providing new exposure and excitement, which we can use to build support for next year’s voyage. We’ve already distributed the cargo delivered, mainly through the network of friends we’ve put together over the last couple of years, with people like organic market gardeners OrganicLea, the Skip Garden in Kings Cross and the network that still exists around the demised Food Assemblies.
By the late 1960s sail powered Thames barges – like Raybel – were becoming a rare site on the London river, as freight switched to road and the vast port of Tilbury took the trade further down river. By the early 1970s the very last sail cargo journeys were being made. The number of Thames barges dwindled from 2,000 to around 20 today. The docks themselves soon went the same way, some to be filled in (like the London Docks linking Shadwell to St Katherine), some to the gigantism of the financialised economy (Canary Wharf at West India Dock), others to slow creeping regeneration (Silvertown and the Royals).
But the crisis in economics and environment which we now face means those vessels and docks suddenly have a purpose that many thought had died forever.
Now we look forward to 2021, when Raybel will be ready, and will start connecting with other ships in the alliance and making regular sail cargo runs along the Thames estuary and into the centre of the city.
Gareth Maeer is a director of Raybel Charters, a community interest company which organises distribution of sail cargo goods in London and is restoring the Thames Sailing Barge Raybel, to carry out cargo work on the Thames estuary. Funding for the restoration was confirmed earlier this year and work on Raybel is now underway, and expected to be compete in late 2020.