Salty Stories

Posted by Andrew Berry as a Tribute to Skipper Derek Ling who passed away 18th August 2011 aged 84.


A group of club members were recently lucky enough to spend a gloriously windy weekend sailing Centaur out of Ipswich under the ex-Paul’s skipper Derek Ling. Those of you well versed in the lore of barging, (i.e like me you got it from a book ), will know that Derek rejoices in the nickname ‘Spiro’. To be strictly accurate we should call him ‘Young Spiro’ as it was his father before him who first had the nickname Spiro. Needless to say Young Spiro won’t mind me telling you that he is in his seventies.

Before sailing I had asked people the obvious question – ‘Why do they call him Spiro ?’ No-one knew. I thought it was something to do with ‘spiralling’, but it didn’t take much to get the skipper to tell us the following; just one of the many tales, strange but true that he regaled us with as the weekend progressed.

Young Spiro’s father had a brother, who, although some 3 years different in age, was actually visually indistinguishable, indeed, most people thought they were twins. Our skipper’s Grandmother made her children’s clothes herself using cloth bought locally for 1/- a bolt.
Various identical suits of clothes were made, but one set in particular was made from a rather bright, stripey, pattern, similar to that encountered in a stick of seaside rock .

Naturally the boys were frequently to be seen on and around the barges in the wet dock, and when the pair came into sight wearing their brightly coloured new clothes, some wag of a bargeman shouted out, ’Here come young Spearmint and Peppermint !!’, our skipper’s father being Spearmint and his brother being Peppermint. The names stuck, and have been passed down three generations although abbreviated to ‘Spiro’ and ‘Pepp’. Our skipper’s son readily answers to the name ‘Spiro’, but I suppose strictly that should be ‘Young,Young Spiro’ ……and his cousins are still the Pepps.

Another thing that you learn from the books, is that the hard working bargemen hardly ever managed to get home to see their wives and family, so the skipper’s statement at supper time that he has one son…………….and ten daughters was greeted by general howls of disbelief.

However, when challenged, Spiro managed to reel off all ten names, including the twins…but only just, he nearly had to ‘phone a friend’.

As is happened , the one son, ( that’ll be the aforementioned Young,Young Spiro to you and me), met us as we locked back into the Wet Dock on Sunday afternoon. Completely out the blue I shouted up at him ‘ How many sisters have you got’, and quick as a flash the reply came back, somewhat to my disappointment, ‘Ten !!’. I mention my disappointment because I’d had a feeling that our Skip might have been spinning us one yarn too many the previous night, and now was my chance to catch him out.

Derek Ling has been sailing barges for nearly sixty years now, since he was a boy of 14 in 1941. Some of the weekend’s crew thought he showed slight Captain Ahab tendencies, except it was not a white whale that tormented him, but rather the thought of catching the ultimate lobster in his dab net. This net went over the side whenever we brought up, and usually got to the bottom mud before the anchor did. We never did find out if the nightmare lobster came with or without hollandaise sauce on it, no-one dared ask.

I actually believe that most of Derek’s many stories were true. But if we did get the wool pulled over our eyes at all, I think the crew can take quiet satisfaction in knowing that it wasn’t us up on deck at 06:00 on a Sunday morning, eagerly pulling up a promisingly heavy net from the bottom of the Walton Backwaters, only to find a lovely plump, and seemingly very fresh spam can nestling in the bottom. The lobster lives to fight another day !!

Spiro is alleged to have opened the can, and used the contents to re-bait his net – I understand he couldn’t work out why, when the net was pulled up some hours later, not even the crabs had touched it !!
I know all the crew would like to thank our guest skipper for a superb weekend, for his patience with a strikingly inexperienced set of people, for his humour, and for his stories, both personal and historical.

Finally, I know Spiro won’t mind some words of advice from his Mate for that weekend -but then he called all of us, male or female ‘mate’ – it saves having to learn names . I’ll probably have to try this trick myself if my recent name recalling performance has been anything to go on. The skipper shared sixty years of knowledge with us, I would like to think I could give him something back in return. Derek – when you next play bingo at that ‘Old People’s Club’ you claim to frequent, take my advice, you never will win that cuddly toy, if every time you miss hearing a number you decide to wait a bit because its sure to come up again soon.

(written in 2000 by Andrew Berry)

see also these videos from ‘in the boat shed’



After my efforts in the last issue at telling you the story of the Thames match , I thought I would share with you the details of the Pin Mill Barge Match of 6th July 2002, but this time cut out the boring bits about the racing and derring-do on the high seas and get straight on to what actually happened after the match.

I should point out that as always I have checked with all concerned that they are happy to be mentioned in print. Centaur’s Skipper for the weekend , Terry O Sullivan , was fine but the Mate, for reasons which should soon become obvious ,objected. Whilst as they say, the following narrative is a true and accurate account of an incident which recently took place on the shores of the River Orwell, I have drawn a cloak of anonymity over the name of the Mate. This has been changed for the purposes of this article to Burt, Burt Kevinshaw, and it must be pointed out now that any similarity between any person living or otherwise is entirely coincidental

As anyone who has ever sailed the Pin Mill Match knows, the real purpose of the day is to get the racing over and done with and get ashore in plenty of time to witness and then eat that eighth wonder of the world, the Pin Mill Sailing Club buffet. It is inherent in the sporting nature of barge matches that it is not the winning that counts, just the taking part in the buffet afterwards. I do not think it immodest of me to state that whilst the TSBT may not always win on the water we can usually be found up with the front runners in the queue for the food.

Not unnaturally all this food has to be washed down with lots of beer, and I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that this was to play a key part in the sad story I find it my solemn duty to relate. Matters were probably compounded by Terry filling one of the cups we had won with a mysterious, but probably only temporarily lethal , cocktail of various spirits. Come to think of it Methylated spirits does make you blind doesn’t it ? I must ask ‘Burt’ next time I see him.

Notice the casual way I slipped in the words ‘ONE OF THE CUPS’ above, yes not only did we come second out of three, but perhaps more importantly from the seamanship point of view we also were first over the start line in our class. Luckily these trophies were safely returned to the barge on the first trip by the more trustworthy and as it subsequently proved ‘upright’ members of the crew.

Now our Mate , ‘Burt’, being well versed in the art of getting 15 people ashore in the barge boat had carefully taken his trainers off (THIS BIT IS IMPORTANT) and replaced them with a pair of sexy ( in my opinion) rubber thigh length waders.


Photo posed by model

After running that first boat load back to the barge, ‘Burt’ returned to the hard to pick up the second party. Having carefully tied the boat up, he went back to the club, and met the remaining crew members and took them back to the boat. The party was gingerly picked their way down the hard in the darkness, carefully avoiding the perils of the deep stream known as the Grindle which runs down the side of the hard. When the Grindle is covered by the tide it acts as a trap for the unwary, lurking just under the surface ready to ambush its victims.

grindle distant

The Grindle at Low Water (Photo by PMSC)

‘Burt’ was striding ahead, he had again changed from his trainers into those magnificent waders and using them to good advantage had soon retrieved the boat and floated it up the Grindle ready for the passengers to get in. He had just carefully placed his trainers in the boat when he was distracted as he spotted one of those big RO-RO lorry ferries coming up the Orwell with a huge ‘bone in her teeth’.

It was now that the patiently waiting Grindle seized its opportunity to have a little late night snack and pounced on our poor ‘Burt’. Technically this is not strictly correct, as the few witnesses who hadn’t already been knobbled by the Mate testify that  ‘Burt’, was the one who pounced on the Grindle, waders and all. It is just so typical of our hero to face up to any threat and get that knock out punch in first. Unfortunately it was dark now, so no one knows who actually won this epic battle, but I have a suspicion that ‘Burt’, like Centaur had come second.

By now ‘Burt’s’ blood was well and truly up, and the primeval effect of the adrenalin rush to his brain was kicking in. This, coupled with the not unnaturally disorientating effect of his submersion, may have affected ‘Burt’s’ judgement, however, when he finally broke surface he spotted that approaching ferry was sucking all the water off the hard. Instantly realising that the water wouldn’t be gone for long but would soon return as some form of Tsunami, ( that’s a tidal wave to you or me) , ‘Burt’ weighed up the situation in an instant and drew deep upon his not inconsiderable powers of command and leadership. Taking no heed of his waders full of mud and water or his injured knee, he commanded everyone present to jump into the boat sharpish before the predicted ‘great wave’ arrived and soaked them all. Issuing that centuries old nautical imperative, ” GET IN !”, it was a case of every man and one woman for themselves and that’s how five rather merry people ended up in a giggling heap in the bottom of the barge boat.

Back to the story. The Skipper, realising that the Mate had other matters on his mind struggled to his feet and manfully heaved on the starter cord to bring the trusty seagull outboard crackling to life.

Luckily, being a Seagull it failed to fire. It was quite dark now, but as the skipper ran his expert hands over the outboard he was just able to discern white writing on it.
White writing ? We don’t have white writing on our outboards do we ? Slowly the whole dreadful truth dawned. Yes they were safely in the boat, and only ‘Burt’ was wet. A barge’s boat ? ‘Yes’, Centaur’s boat ‘No’. The question was ( and remains to this day ) which barge’s boat ?

‘Burt’ had brought the boat up the Grindle, and had then had skilfully and courageously lead his party to shelter from the perils of the sea in it, but he had taken someone else’s boat. Our brave crew of survivors hastily abandoned their temporary refuge before eventually finding Centaur’s boat and piling into it for their triumphant return to the barge. Unfortunately ‘Burt’ forget to bring his trainers with him, so if anyone knows of a barge boat that has mysteriously gained a pair of size 8 trainers overnight, could they please return said footwear to Hythe Quay.

Several helpful suggestions have been made so that the club can move forward and learn all available lessons from this experience. I was particularly impressed with David Renouf’s proposal that we take time out during the winter refit to add the name ‘Centaur’ in braille on the boat’s transom.

It has to be admitted that there were a lot of big black barge boats out there, it was very dark, and it was an easy mistake to make, nevertheless a completed incident report will soon be winging its way to the committee. Someone quite reasonably pointed out that although it was an easy mistake to make , ‘Burt’ being a bit of a perfectionist had actually expended considerable effort in making it.

Photo by Corinne Simons

On our return up the Orwell on Sunday we spotted several fire engines and other emergency vehicles racing down the riverside road onto the Shotley peninsular with blue lights flashing, and it must be surmised that Burt’s abandoned trainers had spontaneously combusted, something they have been threatening to do for some time now. Similar learned judgement pronounced on the air sea rescue helicopter seen flying overhead was that it was out searching for the mystery man who, rather in the spirit of the perhaps somewhat better documented Marie Celeste mystery had totally disappeared from his boat, except instead of just leaving signs of a last meal abandoned in haste, there was only a pair of muddy trainers and a few pitiful mud spatters on the boat, a silent testimonial to what happened on the night of the Pin Mill Barge Match.

muddy trainers_1

muddy trainers

By Andrew Berry.  July 2002