The floating home
PUBLISHED: 15:20 20 March 2017 | UPDATED: 15:20 20 March 2017
The Dutch barge, Onderneming, at Pin Mill, is the much treasured floating home of Charlie McLaren. Words and images by Tony Hall
Charlie Mclaren leads a fascinating life. Sailor, journalist and small time adventurer, his life would make a great book. Regrettably, I’m restricted to 1,000 words so I will try to do justice to Charlie in this abridged version.
We meet aboard his Dutch barge, Onderneming (English translation ‘Endeavour’), on the jetty at Pin Mill. Charlie has just returned from two months crewing a three-masted square rigger from Punta Arenas in Chile to Antarctica, South Georgia, Tristan da Cunha and, finally, Cape Town.
The 120-year-old barge was his home by Tower Bridge in London until last year, when he brought her to Suffolk to start up another charter business. We sit at a table in the beautifully panelled deck saloon – Charlie’s favourite spot on the barge – and chat about his life and the barge world.
“I was born in London in 1948,” he tells me, “but spent my childhood in Italy, India and then, as a teenager, in the United States. My father was a businessman, but we didn’t get on, while my stepfather, a journalist, was extraordinary. The only salt water in the family veins came from my mother’s great grandfather, a deep sea sailing captain.”
A law degree from Sussex University, was followed by time spent mostly in the pub, thinking about joining the police force. Then his stepfather provided him with an air ticket to Washington DC to do some research for a book he was writing. A stint in the London Daily Telegraph office, mainly learning how to cut newspapers, fetch sandwiches and make the coffee, morphed into a job learning television journalism with Charles Wheeler, which in turn became a job as a journalist with the BBC in London.
“I found I had an avid interest in the technical side and was fascinated by production,” adds Charlie. “I gradually worked my way through the system.” He enjoyed working in the news room and typically did four days on/off, which meant, by swapping shifts, he could get a run of days to work on the barge.
Barging in . . . and under
It was only then, when living on a houseboat in Cheyne walk, that the family gene surfaced. In 1971 Charlie bought the old wooden barge Ethel Ada, moored across the river at Saint Mary’s Church in Battersea. He had to leave behind his beautiful half Indian, half Swedish girlfriend, who had no intention of moving onto “an old damp sailing barge that smelled of rot”.
Charlie’s first job was to teach himself how to sail a Thames barge and cope with its amazing spritsail rig. The next task was to make the barge seaworthy. But the main job was to keep his bosses at the BBC happy, while spending the maximum amount of time on the barge.
Sailing and racing these large red sailed ships is an art. Charlie had a racing mentor in Stan ‘never break an egg’ Yates, a marvelous old trading skipper, who once lost a sailing barge with a cargo of Portland stone. Feeling there was something wrong, he called down to his wife (he had married by this stage) to bring up the passports and the parrot as quickly as she could. They stepped into the dinghy as the barge sailed herself under, and calmly rowed ashore to Brighton beach.
Stan taught Charlie much, mainly by letting him get on with it, only saying, “I’ll tell you when you’re going to hit something” – which Charlie says he did quite regularly. After Ethel Ada came Repertor, and then Thistle, a powerful coastal barge.
After rebuilding her, he sailed as far afield as Brest, Bristol and Bremerhaven, the latter while taking part in the tall ships race from Edinburgh. He started last, after dropping off a charter passenger who had come to see the start of the race, but finished 27 out of 89. Thistle, the first iron barge ever built, and the only Thames barge built in Scotland was, perhaps, his favourite.
Charlie retired 10 years ago from the BBC aged 55.
“It was becoming a young man’s game with deadlines six times a day,” he comments. What, I asked him, what was his most memorable day?
“I was on the night shift and about to leave the newsroom for a half-hour programme just before one in the morning, when someone called out that Princess Diana had been in a car crash in Paris. I stayed in the control gallery running the output till nine the next morning. Only then was I told that a billion and a half people around the world had been watching that night. Thank heaven it all went well.”
After Thistle came Cabby, the last wooden sailing barge built, and a different sort of corporate entertainment business on the Thames. Following the death of his wife from lung cancer, Charlie gave up chartering and joined a group of people building their own residential moorings 400 yards below Tower Bridge, at Hermitage Old Stairs. He had the mooring, now he needed the barge to fit it.
“Onderneming,” continues Charlie, “was used for charter near Amsterdam. I had fallen in love with her beautiful lines and brought her back to Maylandsea for a complete refit inside and out. The deck saloon was re-panelled and the charter accommodation for 24 replaced by a huge saloon, four bedrooms and three bathrooms. But after four years, my partner wanted to create something different, so off to Holland we went again, and this time came back with a 40 metre barge named Viod.
The letters stand for ‘our aim is to go forward’ in Dutch, always a good idea on a ship!” Charlie cut her in two and took nine metres out of the middle, before building a new home inside. So Onderneming came to Suffolk. His new charter business is based at Pin Mill, just yards from the Butt and Oyster, a pub and mooring he has been using for more than 50 years.
I ask Charlie, with his wealth of sailing the world, about his favourite place.
“Antarctica,” he replies, with little hesitation. “So stark and unspoiled. The wildlife is extraordinary down in the southern latitudes. Living on boats gives you tremendous freedom, like a snail with his home on his back. I love the different light, the views, how the wide sky is forever changing. My whole life has been total magic, I am so lucky. A truly enjoyable job, so many different boats and so many interesting people. Who could ask for more?”
Onderneming is available for holiday lettings moored at Pin Mill, on the River Orwell. Visit www.endeavourholidays.co.uk