Nowadays we tend to get a false impression of our resident barges.

We are so used to seeing them sailing back and forth to the Hythe with paying passengers on board, we can forget that they were never built with that purpose in mind.

They were, instead, designed as bulk cargo carriers - the equivalent of a river version of the articulated lorry.

Barges, however, had the added advantage of being able to navigate shallow waters and thus travel into some of the most restricted of places.

Potential customers were keen to look out for the fastest barges with the most skilled crews, to ensure the timely and safe delivery of their many and varied goods.

Although most were general carriers, some specialised. Maldon was famous for its so-called “stackies” – barges that carried hay (both in the hold and stacked up on deck) to London.

It was a horse-drawn city in those days and the return cargo was inevitably manure.

There were other niche traders. My own maternal grandfather worked on Russells ‘Shrimp Brand’ beer barges, bringing full bottles and barrels from their Gravesend brewery up to Maldon’s Fullbridge and returning with the empties.

Sadly, this very eco-friendly method of transportation was killed off by improvements in the road system.

Maldon and Burnham Standard: he Blue Mermaid (photo Den Phillips c/o Sea Change).he Blue Mermaid (photo Den Phillips c/o Sea Change). (Image: Den Phillips c/o Sea Change)

Fast forward to May 2019 and the Sea-Change Sailing Trust commissioned their own barge – Blue Mermaid. They named it after a long-gone Horlock (of Mistley) barge that was lost off Clacton during the war, when she struck a German mine.


The original Blue Mermaid was registered to carry up to 150 tons of cargo and, on that fateful day in 1941, was laden with wheat bound for Ipswich.

Her modern phoenix, the new Blue Mermaid, provides special sailing opportunities for young people and vulnerable adults, who learn and develop by living and working together on board.

To ensure the continuation of this good work, the executive and trustees have now begun reflecting on those old cargo carrying days.

After a series of rigorous trials, including an inclination (or stability) test at Heybridge Basin, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has granted Blue Mermaid a “load line exemption”, allowing the vessel to carry a maximum 112 tons (along with three crew and six passengers) along the coast between Lowestoft and Sandwich.

This permission is an important development in the work of Sea-Change and has many other, wider benefits.

Transporting goods in this time-honoured way offers excellent PR for businesses, additional learning experiences for those on board and much needed income to continue with the trust’s work.

Enter stage left a local business – the Mighty Oak brewery. They have commissioned Blue Mermaid to deliver firkins of their beer from Maldon to local hostelries at Harwich, West Mersea, Tollesbury, Bradwell, and Burnham on Crouch.

This exciting project has been sponsored by Essex County Council as part of their Climate Change Challenge to help Essex reach net zero.

Maldon and Burnham Standard: Beer barrels on board Blue MermaidBeer barrels on board Blue Mermaid (Image: Stephen Nunn)

The voyage will highlight the use of wind and tide as a clean and renewable source of energy for local deliveries around our coastline.

Not only that, but the brewery will only be charged at the 1931 freight rate and is kindly donating £9 for each firkin delivered.

Further discussions have also been taking place with both a cement and kitchen unit company. The possibilities really are limitless – local oysters, jam, salt – you name it, Blue Mermaid could deliver it.

And if one cargo is not large enough for the limit, how about that old term - a “cotchel” cargo - made up of a number of smaller, mixed parcels, all proudly stamped “transported by barge”.

The future looks good and, ironically enough, it is born out of the past.

A full barge could result in removing up to four lorries from the roads, at a time when congestion is a major contributor to the climate crisis.

So if you own or run a business and would like to talk about transporting your products by barge, why not contact Sea-Change at