Sunday, 25 July 2021

Lion Creek - Sea-Country book extract

 My book Sea-Country is no longer in print and in due course I will be making the book available from my own website in digital format only. Meanwhile, I hope you enjoy this extract. 

I took a deep breath and my shoulders fell as I exhaled. I had cleared the last of the swinging moorings while passing through Burnham on Crouch and was able to free off a little. As I did so 500 deep water moorings at Essex Marina passed close-by to port, while Burnham Yacht Harbour, home to two RNLI boats, was opposite. Just a few more moorings in mid-river to pass and I was deep inland again, at Baltic Wharf, where ships still call regularly from northern Europe to deliver steel or timber. Just west of the wharf is an insignificant-looking opening in the marsh; enter it and you are in Lion Creek, a whole micro-world on its own, and one I had come here to explore. Across the river was neighbouring Creeksea, on the north shore, the place looking as pretty now as it has done for centuries, with its old brick cottages and Tudor buildings leading down to the water, and the sailing club slipway originally built in World War II to service RAF rescue boats. Not much else appears to have changed in this little area of the Crouch that manages to retain a timeless feel.

It is said that during the 17th century Lord Mildmay, who was Keeper of the Crown Jewels under Charles I and who owned Creeksea Place, a wonderful Tudor building just up on the hill, was taken from here to the Tower of London for, with eleven other state elders, signing the King’s death warrant, though it is also said he was later pardoned by Charles II.

I sailed around the Creeksea Sailing Club moorings before looking back across the river and lining up a transit route into Lion Creek’s approximately 100 feet wide mouth, which was now facing opposite and right beside Baltic Wharf on Wallasea Island. The creek is deeply cut with a good 15 feet of water in the gut if coming in on a high tide, and it has steep-shelving mud slopes that are marked 2.7 metres above chart datum on my Admiralty chart, that can trap the unwary skipper, and are topped with the green glory that is East Coast saltmarsh. This marsh abuts an encasing six-foot-high grassy sea wall creating a creek haven that is a joy to sail in and one that slowly narrows the deeper you enter, but with this westerly wind persisting I ambled into the waterway on a beam reach, playfully probing the margins as we went, penetrating inward until out of sight of the Crouch, and where I had to “ready about” a few times to round a westward bend that camouflaged a massively humped mud shoal that tried to claim us.

The banks of the creek were coming together now, embracing us fully. It was time to fold Shoal Waters’ little russet brown wings and gently paddle the rest of the way up. The last few yards took us into a tight cut at Lion Wharf, where just a few jabs with the quant pole positioned her; I anchored in five feet of water at 0843 to cook steamed kippers for breakfast, right beside a solitary wooden hut that is thought to be an old oyster shed. This is quite possible as the creek, like many others in this area in the 19th century, was used for highly profitable oyster farming, and is profusely indented with hand-dug oyster pits along its saltmarsh banks.


The wharf at the creek’s head once had the traffic of many Thames spritsail barges during the heyday of working sail. Quite unique to Lion Creek today are the mysterious solid wooden blocks, of which I counted 30, scattered all about on the top of the saltings or part-buried in muddy rills off the main creek. Maybe they had broken free from a tether of connecting chains during some gale-blown night. Each block is approximately ten feet long by six feet wide and four feet deep and on closer inspection has four steel airtight drums encased within and held together by giant iron rods with large mooring rings. Their history is worthy of note as they were some of thousands made for floating defence booms that spanned the mouth of the River Thames from Shoeburyness in Essex to Minster in Kent, and other East Coast rivers, to thwart enemy incursion during WWII. Huge nets were hung from them to trap submarines and some of the blocks had spikes on top to prevent ships going over the boom. They were sold off after the war and used as pontoons and now resemble giant planters, especially those that have become overgrown with saltmarsh. However they ended up here, these wooden blocks and many other man-made objects, such as wrecks or old docks, that I come across lend a distinct charm to the forgotten and lonely backwaters I explore.

Knowing where to anchor in a creek when you come in at high water can be a hazardous business, so if I have not done a scouting visit on foot I always sound forward and aft for level ground, and sweep the cane underneath the boat both sides as the water level drops to check for any protruding stumps that could hole her. Where I had anchored for the night the bottom was flat and just perfect for drying out, and once the tide had left the creek it became the feasting-ground for curlews and terns; I climbed ashore to find wild mushrooms as big as jam-jar lids growing along the rim of the saltings.


Lion Creek was once named Canewdon Creek for it is sited in Canewdon Parish, at the foot of a belt of green land that rises westward to a steep hillside behind which the evening sun sets. There Canewdon village is found with its ancient church from whose tower are some of the most far-reaching views across the Crouch valley and greater Essex. Canewdon is a name which you could be forgiven for thinking was derived from that great Dane, King Canute, who it is said came to this part of the coast in 1016, after his failed siege of London, to battle with the King of England, Edmund II, and triumph in the valley between Canewdon and Ashingdon hill. But it is thought to have derived from much earlier Saxon meanings such as ‘don’ which meant a hill settlement.

The creek ends at Lion Wharf beside Creeksea Ferry Road that connects the mainland to Wallasea Island and also blocks another cut to the east that would have joined Paglesham Creek, encircling the Island. There is also a dam across the main body of the creek to the west in the form of the sea wall, beyond which the creek has become a freshwater inland pool named Lion Creek Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Old maps show the creek would have originally made its way westward through marshland where King Canute is thought to have made camp, before it enters the River Crouch again near South Fambridge.

Lion Creek is best explored a couple of hours around high water when it’s possible to get ashore. I eventually left at high water that same evening for the 25nm journey back to my mooring, where I arrived safely the following day. Trip tally 50nm with an average of 2.5kts made good under wind and tide alone.fell as I exhaled. I had cleared the last of the swinging moorings while passing through Burnham on Crouch and was able to free off a little. As I did so 500 deep water moorings at Essex Marina passed close-by to port, while Burnham Yacht Harbour, home to two RNLI boats, was opposite. Just a few more moorings in mid-river to pass and I was deep inland again, at Baltic Wharf, where ships still call regularly from northern Europe to deliver steel or timber. Just west of the wharf is an insignificant-looking opening in the marsh; enter it and you are in Lion Creek, a whole micro-world on its own, and one I had come here to explore. Across the river was neighbouring Creeksea, on the north shore, the place looking as pretty now as it has done for centuries, with its old brick cottages and Tudor buildings leading down to the water, and the sailing club slipway originally built in World War II to service RAF rescue boats. Not much else appears to have changed in this little area of the Crouch that manages to retain a timeless feel.

It is said that during the 17th century Lord Mildmay, who was Keeper of the Crown Jewels under Charles I and who owned Creeksea Place, a wonderful Tudor building just up on the hill, was taken from here to the Tower of London for, with eleven other state elders, signing the King’s death warrant, though it is also said he was later pardoned by Charles II.

I sailed around the Creeksea Sailing Club moorings before looking back across the river and lining up a transit route into Lion Creek’s approximately 100 feet wide mouth, which was now facing opposite and right beside Baltic Wharf on Wallasea Island. The creek is deeply cut with a good 15 feet of water in the gut if coming in on a high tide, and it has steep-shelving mud slopes that are marked 2.7 metres above chart datum on my Admiralty chart, that can trap the unwary skipper, and are topped with the green glory that is East Coast saltmarsh. This marsh abuts an encasing six-foot-high grassy sea wall creating a creek haven that is a joy to sail in and one that slowly narrows the deeper you enter, but with this westerly wind persisting I ambled into the waterway on a beam reach, playfully probing the margins as we went, penetrating inward until out of sight of the Crouch, and where I had to “ready about” a few times to round a westward bend that camouflaged a massively humped mud shoal that tried to claim us.

The banks of the creek were coming together now, embracing us fully. It was time to fold Shoal Waters’ little russet brown wings and gently paddle the rest of the way up. The last few yards took us into a tight cut at Lion Wharf, where just a few jabs with the quant pole positioned her; I anchored in five feet of water at 0843 to cook steamed kippers for breakfast, right beside a solitary wooden hut that is thought to be an old oyster shed. This is quite possible as the creek, like many others in this area in the 19th century, was used for highly profitable oyster farming, and is profusely indented with hand-dug oyster pits along its saltmarsh banks.

The wharf at the creek’s head once had the traffic of many Thames spritsail barges during the heyday of working sail. Quite unique to Lion Creek today are the mysterious solid wooden blocks, of which I counted 30, scattered all about on the top of the saltings or part-buried in muddy rills off the main creek. Maybe they had broken free from a tether of connecting chains during some gale-blown night. Each block is approximately ten feet long by six feet wide and four feet deep and on closer inspection has four steel airtight drums encased within and held together by giant iron rods with large mooring rings. Their history is worthy of note as they were some of thousands made for floating defence booms that spanned the mouth of the River Thames from Shoeburyness in Essex to Minster in Kent, and other East Coast rivers, to thwart enemy incursion during WWII. Huge nets were hung from them to trap submarines and some of the blocks had spikes on top to prevent ships going over the boom. They were sold off after the war and used as pontoons and now resemble giant planters, especially those that have become overgrown with saltmarsh. However they ended up here, these wooden blocks and many other man-made objects, such as wrecks or old docks, that I come across lend a distinct charm to the forgotten and lonely backwaters I explore.

Knowing where to anchor in a creek when you come in at high water can be a hazardous business, so if I have not done a scouting visit on foot I always sound forward and aft for level ground, and sweep the cane underneath the boat both sides as the water level drops to check for any protruding stumps that could hole her. Where I had anchored for the night the bottom was flat and just perfect for drying out, and once the tide had left the creek it became the feasting-ground for curlews and terns; I climbed ashore to find wild mushrooms as big as jam-jar lids growing along the rim of the saltings.

Lion Creek was once named Canewdon Creek for it is sited in Canewdon Parish, at the foot of a belt of green land that rises westward to a steep hillside behind which the evening sun sets. There Canewdon village is found with its ancient church from whose tower are some of the most far-reaching views across the Crouch valley and greater Essex. Canewdon is a name which you could be forgiven for thinking was derived from that great Dane, King Canute, who it is said came to this part of the coast in 1016, after his failed siege of London, to battle with the King of England, Edmund II, and triumph in the valley between Canewdon and Ashingdon hill. But it is thought to have derived from much earlier Saxon meanings such as ‘don’ which meant a hill settlement.


The creek ends at Lion Wharf beside Creeksea Ferry Road that connects the mainland to Wallasea Island and also blocks another cut to the east that would have joined Paglesham Creek, encircling the Island. There is also a dam across the main body of the creek to the west in the form of the sea wall, beyond which the creek has become a freshwater inland pool named Lion Creek Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Old maps show the creek would have originally made its way westward through marshland where King Canute is thought to have made camp, before it enters the River Crouch again near South Fambridge.

Lion Creek is best explored a couple of hours around high water when it’s possible to get ashore. I eventually left at high water that same evening for the 25nm journey back to my mooring, where I arrived safely the following day. Trip tally 50nm with an average of 2.5kts made good under wind and tide alone.

Monday, 5 July 2021

Gaff Rig- How To

 Gaff Rig: The four corner sail with that piece of wood dangling above.

Gaff Rig - How To - Mainsail Setting



Saturday, 19 June 2021

Engine-less Cruising

 Sailing without an engine is not unusual, after all it takes place almost every weekend during the summer months at sailing clubs throughout the rivers and creeks of the estuary. And at a guess, by probably thousands of very skilled sailors who will likely be able to skim a can and turn a one design boat on a sixpence at will. However, there are generally set operating procedures in place during sailing club or class association meetings and, from what I have seen, all have rescue boats with engines and officials and others standing by in case of emergency. The sheer thrill of sailing will equally drive the racing sailor around the cans, or the cruising sailor on in their endeavour to reach a destination.

On passage from one river system to another. The cranes at Felixstowe docks in Suffolk are the sure signal we are near those gemntle Suffolk bays where the trees come down to the sea.

Now, to take a small dinghy or yacht away from this set environment, alone, to go cruising around the estuary, is another matter. Things change dramatically for the cruising sailor who sets off alone as by doing so the danger level is automatically raised.

And to do this there is, in my view, a whole number of additional factors to be considered. No matter how many times one annoys the coastguard for radio checks and the sound of a Human voice on channel 16, one is, for all intense and purposes, at sea alone with the unknown just around the headland, or that sharp bend coming up as you head downriver.

So, one has now moved on from simply enjoying the thrill of sailing to having an experience of high adventure.

I believe cruising is for everyone and boats can be adapted and customised to suit all shapes, sizes, personality and levels of ability. Using a stepped approach to learning how to cruise safely we can stay at one level and happily spend the rest of our days sailing the same creek or river and many do, and it is a well-known fact many have never seen the seaward side of Bradwell power station twin towers. And that is fine as danger can arise in boating when a person places themselves literally out of their depth.

Being close and living with nature is one of the joys of cruising under sail.

 If we assume fit of mind strong of body and full of resolve, we have half the ingredients for successful engine-less cruising. Studying the tide-tables, learning the chosen area – I’ve done many wintertime scouting visits to target destinations – and choose the weather wisely, not sticking too rigidly to a plan are others. Learning to sail is easy enough and can be done in a safe and controlled way on any stretch of water on calm day outside your club be it on tidal water or on a lake. And while we can read all the books in the world about cruising, and more so today watch videos of others doing so, it is only with trial and error and the sheer volume of hours spent on the water ourselves at the helm sailing can we grow and cement our own cruising knowledge bank. And there is a lot to learn about the Thames Estuary that books and videos will never be able to pass on and so I’ll be forever still learning.


However, I can say from my own experience of sailing in Shoal Waters for the last 10 years, learning to cruise alone, single-handed on the Thames Estuary can only truly be learned through undertaking passages from A to B. The equations that go into decision making are many and plans cannot be fixed too rigid.  One must be ready and willing to be governed by the tides. Be able to place one’s destiny on the whims of the four winds. Even, in my case, heaven forbid, miss the fortnightly mowing of the lawn!

Afterall one is training the mind to react to pressures set upon it by outside forces one has no control over. And it is this non control, or fear of it, that inhibits most people from enjoying sailing in this spiritually rewarding and environmentally friendly way.  I realised early on, the way to enjoyable cruising without an engine is made far easier if we accept that we put our destiny in the hands of Mother Nature and Father Neptune.

 I began my own learning using a stepped approach - cruising engine-less sailing on the top of tide from one side of my local river to the other and mooring up again. From my home creek to the next, from bottom to top of a river. From middle to top, middle to bottom. Lucky for us sailors based on the River Blackwater in Essex we have in the main river two islands: Osea Island and Northey Island to circumnavigate. And, progressing on, north to Suffolk where the trees come down to the shore or south to Kent and its cliffs on the Isle of Sheppey, along the coast from one river system to another.

During this process I was eagerly studying tide tables, thumbing charts and Ordnance Survey maps of the area till my thumbs were sore. And I was completely absorbed listening to the weather reports. I’ll admit I’m not averse to a little danger. And it helps a lot if one has a certain measure of guile and determination and zest for adventure. Taking small steps of learning this way I found my courage (sea-legs) grew bit by bit. Talking of ‘sea-legs’ it’s very different to going to sea on a big yacht with a crew and getting your sea legs. I too have done this prior sailing on other people’s boats. However, to be alone with no one to hand if things go wrong, with nature’s sea wind in your hair and sea spray washing gently down your cheek was an altogether different experience I was drawn to.

 

Sometimes we anchor on passage to await a favourable tide or wind. Here we are anchored for the night off the Tendring Peninsular at Holland-On-Sea, Essex.

There’s a vast array of boats to choose from to go cruising and I’m no expert in their design but I know what I want a boat to be able to do for my type of cruising. In the last 20 years I’ve had less than a handful of sailing cruisers, very few when I think of people I know who change their boats on an almost seasonal basis, and before taking on Shoal Waters had come to the conclusion that for my preference a boat around 16 feet with gaff rig and a lifting keel and rudder would allow entry to knee-deep sailing grounds and all the beach access one could wish for. And much of this is documented back in 2010 when I explored 64 named creeks which resulted in my Blackwater book. For single-handed engine-less cruising my boat of choice is a 16’6” wooden gaff cutter. She has lifting centerplate and rudder for scraping over sandbanks and through swatchways and shallow creeks. She’s well documented and known throughout the East Coast. She was built in 1963 so is no spring chick - more a fat duck when she’s sitting contently on the mud. With her miniature stature, green hull and wrinkles and workaday readiness that she imbues so charmingly often she gets pleasing comments from passing boat owners. As I write she is 58 years old so does take quite a bit of keeping, and as well as painting and varnishing there’s always a line or two to be changed or renewed due to wear. She’d rather anchor on saltings with curlews and avocet than do time in a marina. She’s covered so many thousands of nautical miles that I gave up counting them. There’s nothing I would change about her other than I commissioned a new suit of sails for our 10th anniversary. When you consider sails are our driving force and will harness free wind power for another 25 to 40 thousand miles of travel the cost per mile is minimal.

There are always other material wants and needs to tempt us in life and the old saying the grass is greener has fooled many into a type of boat ownership they neither really wanted nor could afford. I’m careful to live within my means and day to day try to live in a stress-free way as possible and small boat ownership for me seems to fit this ethos, I guess.

Other than the muscle stretch felt in my lower back on entering the cabin, nothing about my boat is too stressful. Just the simple acts of moving around inside equal a gentle yoga workout and it has helped keep me flexible well into my late 50s. Her manoeuvrability and handling on the water in confined spaces is every long keeler’s dream. Laying up she can be pushed about on her trailer or towed by a small car and stored in a convenient place, and the mast goes up and down fast and easily.

However, everything is relative and the trade-off, of my boat, is more than two people on board is a crowed so that’s not to say one day, yes one day I may borrow something bigger, just to take the whole family along on a month-long sojourn around the estuary.

  The cruising sailors I know and have met are very independent and have been wise to try a hand at voyaging in a multitude of intriguing craft. Essentially though, the cruising craft chosen will be one of personal preference where speed and weatherly performance do not have to dominate one’s choice. Most cruising sailors will choose a boat because they like the look of it. But let’s not kid ourselves, for the cruising sailor, hull design and rig, and how the boat of choice sails remains important indeed. However, on a bucket list of wants compromise allows it to sink down below the want for headroom perhaps or cabin layout, manageable sails, and free deck space maybe…

One small boat advantage is anchoring in shallow bays and knee deep water
Small boats and lifting keels allow direct entry to secluded bays.

 And there’s no doubt the beginner will soon learn when out cruising on a forecast of a gentle breeze the human body gives its own forecast signals: involuntarily the mouth lips come apart, eyebrows lift and ears pin back and eyes bulge suddenly at the dismay of wind that begins rising far more than they predicted over the radio. And daylight is now quickly fading - the quality of one’s health just may go with it if this boat of choice can’t serve an urgent need to get into the safety of an East Coast anchorage…

Whatever your choice of sailing and vessel enjoy it,  Tony

 

 

 

 

Sunday, 19 May 2019

Creek Cruising Life


Sailed into a creek on an ebbing tide (presently big tides) and passed a motor cruiser sitting on marsh. Thought a little strange as it looked to be drying but thought perhaps they are staying there and can walk across marsh: viz rural creek with no-one around but the cackle of duck. Sail up and back down creek and see same boat being pulled off salting by heavy launch, and saw a flush of ramblers had appeared from nowhere, popcorned, nose ointmenting the boater's misfortune in an otherwise sleepy creek...

A few moments later, as I sailed on, the two boats motored off and ramblers, having eaten the last of their popcorn, went on their way. Creek back to silent again. Sailing, I saw someone else on sea wall walking toward that same area none-the-wiser of earlier creeky excitement...

Is there a message for us all in this type of creeky goings on? Well, I think there may be for in life timing is everything. A minute earlier and that person's presumably intended quiet stroll along the the lonely sea wall would have been quite different than planned.

And this simple scenario makes one think of the life that has gone before us along our watery wildernesses, which we can only wonder at, as we come across the old bones of a wreck buried deep in mud with just frames pointing through, as if grasping at life - perhaps a hundred year old barge hulk or a smack. Or soggy timber posts from a former farm quay, or marks of an ancient ford standing sentry; a Red Hill or Decoy... Who owned these things, who were the people using them in their daily lives, what were they like...

Historians give us some of the answers but many we can only guess at. One thing we can be sure of is life moves on and as much as I enjoy contemplating it, it is to live.

Friday, 6 July 2018

On the Morrow

A special evening in the flooded valley of the Crouch is all one could hope for. Keep breathing and we should do it all again on the morrow. X

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Creek Sailing Talk at RYA conference

Photo from my creek sailing talk at RYA London & SE region racing and cruising conference in Maidstone, Kent on Sunday 24/02/18. A very enjoyable and informative event where I was able share some of the delights of small boat cruising in and around the Thames Estuary, make some new friends and catch up with old... 
I'm being asked to do more and more of these talks so if you'd like me to come along to your club or group do make contact. 

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Winkler's Tales - Yantlet Creek


   Narration of a film taken in 2012 along Yantlet Creek in Kent, in 12' Essex-type punt 'Winkler'. Winkler, was home-built to the owners specification (one being she would be light enough to carry and lift over a farmer's five bar gate!) at a cost under 75 pounds, and some of her forays were documented in the fun little tome Winkler's Tales - Duck Punt Sail & Oar Exploring on Inland & Coastal Waters.

   

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Creek Sailing talk at the Cruising Association HQ

It was a delight to share some of the joys creek sailing at, what can be described as a font of knowledge on the subject of boat cruising, Cruising Association House in London. The library alone holds over 10,000 books and charts dealing with the matter (cruising book heaven), and the CA now have over 6000 members who are able to share experiences.

Image: Preparing to speak at C A House. The two hour talk was illustrated with beautiful photographs and I went on to deliver an overall picture on the subject of East Coast creek sailing: the vital statistics and key features of my miniature gaff cutter Shoal Waters - including a specimen voyage from my 2017 log - a most memorable voyage, and the how-to and practicalities of keeping a boat on a drying mooring along with the nuts and bolts of maintenance and related costs that small boat ownership entails.
  More talks are already in the pipeline and if you would like me to visit your club or group over the coming winter please make contact.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Cruising lesser known haunts on the River Blackwater, Essex


As far as the weather was concerned, I’d seen better Junes than the one we had just experienced – and the longest day had come and gone all too soon for my liking. However, if the weather hadn’t seemed much like summer, the sailing had been pretty good, and I had made some decent trips up the coast to places like Mistley on the River Stour and down to the Thames, and had even circumnavigated one of Essex’s smallest built-upon marsh islands up the River Crouch at Stow Creek, a fair distance inland.
For those of us based on the East Coast, summer eventually arrived in July – and with it the prospect of some balmy days afloat on the River Blackwater in Essex, my home river which holds 64 named creeks (and many more which I have visited). The river has a wide and inviting entrance, and from Sales Point, the line of sunken barges used as a wave-break at the mouth of the river on the south side, over to Mersea Island on its northern edge, is approximately one-and-a-half miles long – and from there up to Maldon is a tad over 10 miles.

Saltings at Post Beach, Osea Island
With such a large expanse of water, the Blackwater provides some fantastic sailing. Anyone based somewhere between the top and bottom of all this water, as I am at my half-tide mud mooring in Goldhanger Creek, has numerous choices of what I call ‘destination areas’ for short cruises inside the river on either flood or ebb tides. If we take a look at low tide in the Blackwater, we find most of the places upriver of Osea Island dry. However, the deeper fleets at Mersea and Tollesbury hold water, and lower down the Goldhanger, Thirslet, Lawling and Bradwell creeks retain a little as well; but it’s the main fairway up to Osea that holds onto the largest body of water, and this is where boats generally head if their skippers want to stay afloat and continue sailing in the river as the tide recedes.
Now, as the crow flies, it takes 12 minutes and 800 footsteps from the roadside to reach my boat Shoal Waters on her mooring in the creek. A trivial fact perhaps, but I only know this as cars are not allowed into our club because we are sited on an organic strawberry farm (which produces the sweet but rare Little Scarlet variety). I use these minutes wisely when walking along the sea wall to get a feel for the conditions, and change or adapt a plan accordingly before I step on board.
One option for a short cruise on a flood tide is to a destination area a couple of miles upriver, west-north-west toward the salty town of Maldon, home to the largest fleet of active Thames sailing barges on the East Coast. If plenty of boats and people are your thing it’s a wonderful place to head for, arriving at Hythe Quay by high water with time for a relaxed sail back on the ebb, waving at a few smiling faces on the promenade and popping into a couple of small, remote creeks on the way – and still having enough water to get back on the mooring.

Another potential flood-tide cruise is the hop across the river (heading south) and into Lawling Creek, then on into Mayland or Mundon creeks – and with the wind anywhere but north, sailing back quite easily to the mooring over the last of the flood tide or the beginning of the ebb. Ebb-tide cruises are in the general direction of east-north-east toward Mersea or Bradwell; and, with prevailing south-westerlies, I’ve found that these invariably involve a lengthy interlude of beating back upriver, returning on the flood when the earliest I can get in the creek to my mooring is three hours before high water. Of course, skippers who sail without an engine must use the tide to their advantage – but that’s not to say we can’t and don’t sail over it when and where conditions allow.

Lovely small beaches
And that is just how I began a short cruise with the aim of visiting a few creeks, beaches and saltings, and circumnavigating Osea Island into the bargain. With a forecast of variable Force 3-4 becoming south-easterly 3-4 – and high water at 1230 – I raised the mainsail. It shook as I clambered forward and let us free from the mooring buoy, and once again we glided off to go cruising under sail. Sheeting in, the sail filled with wind and her nose came round a little more, enough to unfurl the jib
so it too filled. We sailed a straight, close-hauled course over the Stumble to Hulk Beach on Osea Island. ‘HMS Osea’, as it was once named, was used as a naval training base in the First World War and was defended in the Second World War, so it has numerous curiosities from the past lying around on its shores. With its manor house and smaller cottages it was once regarded as a centre for abstinence, but in recent times it has become an island retreat, with people coming to stay from all over the world.
There are some lovely small beaches, and even with the place becoming better known, solitude can still be found in the island’s margins – and Swallows and Amazons-style fun and adventure can be had. I ran Shoal Waters’ nose into the beach and stepped into the water. Beside us, a derelict post leaned wearily to one side. How soothing and cool the water was as the air temperature was 32°, the highest it had yet been all year.
Two black and red danger marks
Osea is a private island so I stayed well below the high water line and, making sure to not pull out the roots, gathered a handful of sea lavender to dress the cockpit of Shoal Waters and celebrate the arrival of summer. I browsed along the shore to reacquaint myself with this delightful little place then set off again, heading north-east. There are two black and red danger buoys in shallower water mid-river below Osea, plus the unlit green Goldhanger Spit buoy: I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve tried to find the latter coming down the creek at night! These buoys indicate two iron barges that were used as target practice by fighter planes in the Second World War, and most boats take the fairway on the south side of these, clear of the Marconi and Stone SC moorings. However, given enough water I prefer to take the shallower north side into Thirslet Creek to Thirslet Spit – a huge shoal in the middle of the river, marked by a green starboard buoy, that is revealed an hour or so after high tide. It is a trip hazard for yachts, but a playground for boats that can beach beside it for a wander around before entering the main river.

Ancient history 
I had a look in at Bulham Beach on the outside of Gore Saltings and picked some more sea lavender, and after a cuppa sailed over to the north of the two target buoys close to starboard – then I felt the breeze suddenly pick up. I freed off the main and jib, then unfurled the staysail. With the wind now gusting south-easterly Force 4 I turned toward Skinners Wick and one of Essex’s red hills, an interesting stop-off. Broad-reaching with a fair tide, we were there in a few minutes. I furled the headsails, dropped the main and, at 1345, hopped barefoot into 2ft of flowing water.
Mud squelched between my toes, and as I stood and pondered this piece of ancient history the pressing thought occurred to me that the tide was running: I had a job to keep Shoal Waters from grounding and cutting even shorter our short cruise! Red hills are a distinctive feature of the Essex coast and are thought to be up to 2,000 years old – ancient industrial waste sites formed over time by waterside communities that once resided here producing salt, then a very valuable commodity. These communities would have created piles of broken, discarded pottery vessels used for the boiling of seawater – and from this ancient salt-making industry, local creek and place names such as Saltcote and Salcott came about.

Author, literally standing on the site of an ancient Red Hill
The time was now 1400. With centreplate and rudder up I aimed Shoal Waters toward the middle of the river for deeper water, and thought we were off again. However, conditions have a habit of changing rather quickly on the Blackwater: with the afternoon came the sea breeze, and a strong gust pushed us back toward the red hill. I thought quickly and scandalised the main by lowering the gaff. I have a shackled tack so I can’t trice as quickly (this effectively folds the sail in half), and sailed over to deep enough water to get a bite with the keel and rudder. We soon neared Rolls Creek, a mud-filled inlet where we’ve spent many a night tucked away from a blow. As we closed towards its mouth the tide ran east, the wind blew from the south-east and our compass heading to enter it pointed north-east, necessitating a few moments of delicate boat handling as we gingerly entered the creek – and saw that the upper reach was unsurprisingly dry. I pushed down the tiller, swung back round and let the suck and pull of the tide take us out of the creek and downriver, past Old Mill Creek (which runs behind an island of saltings called Mill Point, and which had no water at all) and Mill Creek, also known locally as Mell Creek. On the east side of its entrance, this creek has one of many sandbars (demonic when invisible, treasure islands otherwise) that litter the shallow contour on this side of the river down to the Nass.
Being the largest, this one extends out into the river and is known locally for tripping up visitors unfamiliar with the underwater terrain here. There’s also a Second World War pillbox that was originally on the sea wall, but which has sunk into the sea due to erosion. In addition, there was once a pier where paddle steamers stopped to pick up day-trippers from Tollesbury’s former crab-and-winkle railway line that terminated here. Its remains are revealed at low-water Springs by two rows of cut-down wooden stumps: I like to anchor just below them as the spit gives shelter to a small boat.

Local landmark
Sailing on over the Nass, we proceeded into the deep green water at Mersea Quarters and up to Packing Shed Island, where oysters were once farmed. The whole island is awash with oyster shells, and at low water the large black shed towers above the creeks. This local landmark is maintained by the Packing Shed Trust, but in its late-19th-century heyday up to 60 fishermen worked here, sorting and packing oysters that were sent down to London or across the Channel to Europe. Oysters are still farmed in the surrounding creeks, and more than 1,000 boat owners keep their vessels in this attractive, charming spot.

Moving on, I hardened up again and pointed at the twin towers of the now closed and partially decommissioned Bradwell Nuclear Power Station to find open, shallow and smooth water. (The towers are still used by mariners near and far for navigation.) I anchored at 1640 in a depth of 4ft for dinner in the lee of the sea wall at Weymarks Creek, a small cut in the saltings. Low water was predicted at 1835 and the following high water at 0047 the next day. We were still afloat, just, and with the south-easterly wind becoming a lighter but more consistent Force 3, I was perfectly set up for one of my favourite excursions in the main river: an evening sail at low water with the sun setting and the wind eased, following the south side of the river on the edge of the mudflats at St Lawrence Bay.

Classic East Coast creek sailing in St Lawrence Creek
At 1925 I weighed anchor and began our short journey back upriver. I couldn’t resist sailing through Bradwell Creek which, from the tide pole, cuts inside of Pewet Island, a haven of wild seabirds. We enjoyed a majestic sail through the moorings, past the Bradwell Marina entrance and on, clear of the island, into a sharp turn where the creek becomes St Lawrence Creek – a low-water inlet where if a single shaft of sunlight cracks through an overcast sky, the mudflats revealed at half-tide burn like giant brown ovens. With the mainsail free, Shoal Waters slipped quietly along. Egrets fed on the tide lines, curlews called out in their unmistakable shrilling and a full moon appeared in the sky to the south-east as a big sun sank over to the northwest. This was East Coast creek sailing at its best, and with half the plate down I scraped the bottom two or three times before I gybed round to face north in this low-water idyll, entering the main river again at 2050. We gybed again to hug the shoreline for further blissful shoal-water sailing and made about 4 knots all the way up to reach Osea Island again, albeit on the south side this time, and anchored at 2210 in 5ft of water in a bay to the west of the pier.
With the second high water the following day being at 1313, I chose to dry out for the night in a position 100 yards from the beach in mud where I could get some sound sleep but still be afloat early (four hours before high water, 5.2m). However, as a rule I find soft sand about 60ft offshore here, with steep-to shingle on the shore so a boat can get close in and stay floating nearer high water.
By sticking to the main channel, boats with deeper draught can enjoy much of the low-water sailing on offer in the Blackwater, and many choose to anchor by Osea Pier and await the tide before moving on upriver to Heybridge or Maldon. With another hot, blue-sky day emerging, the wind backed east as I walked the boat inshore with the rising tide so I could have another refreshing swim. The river suddenly seemed to come alive with yachts, and two sailing barges that passed by were filled with passengers enjoying the setting.

Small yacht moored at Osea Island
After a sail over to Coopers Creek (due south of the Southey Creek port buoy), its saltings teeming with the vivid purple hues of wild sea lavender, I sailed round Osea’s West Point and over the causeway, a mile-long tidal road onto the island. I then sailed further along to the picturesque Shipwreck Beach for another dip. There is an underwater power cable here which is marked by a yellow post, but this blends into the background – so if you’re in a small boat without charts, you would do well to keep this in mind when anchoring. I then moved further east along the shoreline to Bawley Creek, Osea Island’s natural harbour, where the delightful if bizarrely-named Death Creek (also known as Deadman’s Creek) cuts through saltings round to East Point. What remains of this creek has 2-5ft depth: legend has it that it acquired its name back in the days of smuggling, after a group of men were found in a boat swinging to anchor with their throats cut. Charming!
With so much to do in a small boat on the Blackwater, I hadn’t noticed how quickly time had passed: and as I took a gentle sail back across the Stumble to my mooring at 1430, I contemplated cruising to many other haunts along the river on another hot and balmy summer day…

About The Author
Tony Smith sails the rivers and creeks of the Thames Estuary in a variety of dinghies, but for the most part can be found cruising in his 16ft 6in miniature wooden gaff cutter Shoal Waters, which he keeps on a drying mud mooring in a picturesque creek in the River Blackwater.


Further reading: learn more about cruising the River Blackwater and its 64 named creeks here


All images and text copyright Tony Smith