Rita's new life: Goddess of the Galley

It took Rita Phillips many years to realise her dream of going to sea. Then she found a 100-year-old Thames sailing barge called Thalatta. STEVEN RUSSELL shared a cup of tea with the Goddess of the GalleyIT'S an unconventional coronation.

It took Rita Phillips many years to realise her dream of going to sea. Then she found a 100-year-old Thames sailing barge called Thalatta. STEVEN RUSSELL shared a cup of tea with the Goddess of the Galley

IT'S an unconventional coronation. Rita Phillips is standing on a barge in the River Blackwater, wearing a crown made from a hairband and pink feathers and holding a sceptre that looks suspiciously like a deck-scrubber. Draped over her shoulders, passing for an ermine cloak, is a patchwork blanket.

The schoolchildren who have spent the week on Thalatta - it's the name of the vessel, not a fancy coffee - have decided to honour Rita for her sterling work in the galley. So they deck her out in ad hoc finery and chant “All praise the Goddess of the Galley, Lady of the Lard!”

It's the kind of spontaneous fun that makes life afloat so appealing - easily outweighing downsides such as living in cramped quarters with no showers and just a couple of pump-action loos.

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Rita has spent five seasons as third hand on the barge, now owned by the East Coast Sail Trust and used since the late 1960s for taking children (and sometimes adults) on educational trips - anchoring off places such as Osea Island, Brightlingsea and Walton Backwaters. She enjoys working with like-minded folk and gets a kick out of trips where the kids pitch in and show the right attitude.

It all came about unexpectedly, as the best things tend to. Rita and husband Peter were enjoying a winter walk at Maldon, fruitlessly searching for somewhere selling ice-cream. Peter, who reads everything, spotted a notice pinned on a shed. A barge was seeking crew - an ideal job for his wife, who was driving a minibus for an old people's home but was open to new possibilities and up for an adventure.

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Rita went for an interview. It being winter, Maldon-based Thalatta was just waking up from hibernation: paint tins, boxes, ropes and parts of the toilet mechanism were strewn around. She squeezed into a cleared spot, obviously impressed the panel, and later learned she'd got the job.

Sorting out the food for 15 people is obviously a critical role - as is instructing the young passengers in the art of hammock-making.

Signing on with Thalatta finally gave Rita an official life on the ocean waves (well, the rivers Blackwater, Stour, and the North Sea in between). As a youngster she'd enjoyed a cruise to North Africa on the SS Uganda with the Girls' Nautical Training Corps. She'd fancied joining the Wrens - the Women's Royal Naval Service - but her parents were loathe to give consent for their 16-year-old daughter to sign up. By the time she turned 18, and could do as she pleased, she'd met Peter.

True, the couple went on to have a little motorboat - until the engine was pinched - and a speedboat after that. But Peter developed a back problem, his wife had rheumatoid arthritis, and they had to sell.

Now, with the Thames barge having played a big part in her life since 2001, Rita has now committed her thoughts and memories to paper. The Thalatta Diaries charts life above and below deck from the point of view of its third hand.

Rita was born in South Ockendon, in south Essex, in 1954, and later went to school in Sandon, near Chelmsford. She went into the rag trade upon leaving at 15, making trousers and blouses, and later spent five years working for Singer in Chelmsford, demonstrating sewing machines.

The Phillipses married in 1975 - they'd met when Peter went out with Rita's sister, and they took her along for company! - and went on to have two daughters and a son - all now in their 20s. In 1980 the growing family moved from Heybridge, near Maldon, to Tollesbury.

Rita had a variety of part-time jobs - pub work, cleaning and the like - and at one time harboured dreams of becoming a driving instructor. Then there was the minibus-driving before Thalatta beckoned.

She had been a committed sea cadet as a teenager in Chelmsford, learning knots and how to row. And it's true that she has never really been able to swim! “I used to go to the swimming baths every week, but couldn't do it. We did have lifejackets when we were rowing with the sea cadets, but you were allowed to take them off and lay them on the seat beside you!” Rita smiles.

“I even had lessons at 40, but when I developed rheumatoid arthritis” - she's endured it now for a decade - “I couldn't move my arms properly, so I still can't swim.”

Happily, spending the summers on a working barge has helped ease the condition somewhat. “I have got fitter and can wind up the anchor to a certain degree - you get to a certain point and know you should not overdo it, so you stop - and can get the sails up and down.

“At home, every morning, I can get up and be as stiff as a board!”

Rita laughs that the trust was looking for a matronly figure when she applied for the job - “someone that wouldn't take any nonsense from the children”. The barge takes about 10 children at a time, aged between nine and 14, along with a couple of teachers/leaders.

“I don't take any prisoners, because safety is the top priority,” she grins. “Everybody has got to help, and if they misbehave they have got to be told.” Children help with tasks such as preparing the meals, setting the table and washing up. The galley can reasonably comfortably take five people; any more and it's a touch claustrophobic.

It's great when everyone enters into the spirit of the adventure, as they usually do. The crew can have a laugh with the kids and everything's dandy. Youngsters will test you to see where the boundaries are, says Rita, and will try to get away with things if they can. But it's fun getting to know them. “You earn their respect and respect them as well.”

Very, very occasionally, the chemistry won't be there. “We had one group we couldn't stand! If they (the children) give a little, they will get a lot out of it, but if they just 'take', they won't get much out of it.

“This group didn't want to do anything and didn't seem to appreciate what they had and what they could see.” The teenagers' attitudes didn't exactly encourage the crew to go the extra mile. “They missed out on taking the small boat out and they missed out on crabbing.”

The aim of five days afloat is to show young people that it is more effective to work as a team rather than as individuals. As a sign in the galley makes clear, “There's no I in Thalatta.”

But most weeks are fun - often punctuated by water fights between youngsters and various members of the crew, mud fights, tugs of war and other jollities. As Rita says: “We're laughing so much, sometimes.”

She smiles at the memory of one prim and proper girl, dressed in light pink, who fell splat into a puddle and was immediately caked in mud. “Once she had got over the initial shock, it was just a case of kids being kids; doing something she had probably never done at home and wouldn't do again - getting dirty in the mud.”

The interior of Thalatta looks bright, clean and cosy - with a characterful wooden sea-chest for each child - but, of course, there's no room for personal DVD players or PlayStations. And mobile phones must be left behind. But the lack of established home comforts is another lesson: that you don't need material things to have a memorable holiday. By mucking in together, and making the most of what you have, you can enjoy some days you'll never forget.

“It is a bit of a downside in that you cannot shower. The kids say 'Oh, no. No shower! How are we going to cope for a week?' But they do.

“I tell them 'Well, when I was a child, I had a bath once a week. We didn't have central heating.' They don't believe me when I say I had to scrape ice off the inside of the window in the mornings. That was life - and it didn't do us any harm. People were driven about a lot less in those days, too, and I think we had fitter children then.”

The third hand's bunk is 2ft 6ins wide, and with personal space being at a premium no-one can spread their belongings far and wide. Is Rita tidy and well-ordered? “No!” she laughs. “I have tried to be neat and orderly, but it doesn't work. But I manage on the barge.”

Rita's series of summers onboard Thalatta has been interrupted, unfortunately. The Thames barge is in dry dock at St Osyth, her hull being restored in a near-£800,000 project substantially paid for by the National Lottery Fund (though the East Coast Sail Trust would welcome any other donations).

Happily, Rita will spend five weeks on a different barge - the Reminder, built in Mistley in 1929 and operated as a charter vessel. For some of the time it should reunite her with her first Thalatta skipper, so there will be a chance to reminisce about the summer of 2001.

Does her supportive husband mind her disappearing off to sea, even if modern communications mean they can usually chat daily?

“I think it was a bit strange for him at first. I had always done his meals for him, ready for when he came home from work, so he had to fend for himself a bit more,” she laughs. “But, then, he's cricket mad - and I can't stand the game! So he's either playing or preparing the square.”

When she's not acting as Goddess of the Galley and Thalatta has been put to bed after the season - the sails and other equipment safely stored and the toys and games packed away - Rita will seek other work: perhaps with an Essex-based yarns wholesaler with whom she has a long relationship, or in the post room of a marketing company.

She's waitressed at the Five Lakes hotel and leisure complex near Tiptree, and even driven light lorries - though she admits her sense of direction on the homeward leg has sometimes caused a few problems.

The rivers of Essex are never far from her thoughts, though.

“It is a way of life,” she says - “more than a job. You get drawn into it. I love the fact you work with people who think the same way you do. You look at each other and say 'Here we go again . . .'

“Then there are the kids. They come on board and don't know what to expect - and usually end up loving it. Each week is different, because every group is different.

“It can be so amazing; and you see things you wouldn't see if you were working in a 'normal' job. We saw a flamingo. We see seals and cormorants - seals coming up with a fish - and porpoises. It's brilliant and I love it.”

(The Thalatta Diaries is published by Heritage House of Manningtree at £7.99. ISBN 1 85215 181 1. www.heritage-house.co.uk)

The Thalatta File

The name comes from the Greek for sea

The vessel is a traditional spritsail barge

She was built in Harwich in 1906

Thalatta is made of oak

She is 90 feet long

During her traditional working life she carried cargoes of about 150 tons around Britain and to the continent

Her character remains largely unchanged today - though a modern diesel engine now complements sail power

In 1966 Thalatta was restored and run by the East Coast Sail Trust, a charity

She also has two boats, able to carry eight passengers each, that can take children ashore, and which can also be used to explore creeks that are too shallow for Thalatta

Web link: www.thalatta.org.uk

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