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

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Seven derrieres of a Thames sailing barge...

  As barge hulls and maintenance go the old iron pots may have fared the ravages of time better than the wooden barges. But that's not to say the enthusiasm for wooden barges has waned. Far from it, the maintenance for both materials is constant and ongoing and a fair few i.e Cambria, Dawn and Thallatta have been completely restored in recent years and are sailing in as good-as-new condition today as they were a hundred or so years ago. However, with around 30 barges still actively sailing today, for the layman a barge can appear to look like every other barge.

 Below is a series of seven photos taken at a barge gathering in London's Docklands last summer.  It's clear to see from simply looking at one part a barge how much in fact barges differ. Everyone has there own preference and I will admit, of the seven in this selection, to being a fan of the broad, hollow and shapely transoms like wooden barge, Edme - built in 1898 by Cann in Harwich.
Edme is another wooden barge to undergo extensive restoration in recent years.

What's your transom?

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Stolen Tarp

Upset to report Shoal Waters' tarp has been stolen.

This picture shows the tarp as it was before being stolen. Looks like a knife was used to cut every rope away from the trailer and probably within the last week or two.

It's light green in colour and approx 16' x 12' of heavy, duck canvas material with brass eyelets, and has the boat name painted in black on both sides. Being many years old the colour had faded a little and as they are very expensive to replace I had it overhauled of small rips and a fresh tin of fabsil applied only 18 months ago.

Please, if you happen to be offered a canvas tarp like the one in the photo, kindly let me know.
Best wishes, and good sailing to all, Tony

Saturday, 7 January 2017

Land Yachting

 As much as I long for those lazy, warm summer days afloat on board Shoal Waters during the midst of a cold winter, with her tucked away in hibernation, I also quite enjoy the winter time and being free to play around with my other little boats. This winter I've moved a couple of steps forward on a spot of land yachting I had been contemplating for my 12' punt, Winkler.

 I didn't think too much about how I was going to go about adapting her other than I wanted to try and see if I could steer her as one does with a tiller. And, for wheels use the trolley wheels I already had and, in fashion with Winkler's initial build, do it at minimal cost... I'm pleased to be able to say I managed all the above with minimal effort and this time no cash outlay.

Initial land trials found life evolving around the rhythm of nature just as much it does with my cruising year in Shoal Waters. Without sail set Winkler rolled surprisingly free on urban tarmac, but it was a different matter altogether on the sticky Shoebury sands where tide tables are scanned in reverse for low water times and a force two fails miserably to move her more than a few inches...

After more trials I came to conclude that for land yachting one wants a very strong wind indeed, and lots of it, and a firmer packed surface... Then I must remember this is a Mk 1 version and things can be adapted or tweaked further... The fun continues!

 Photos speak a thousand words so here's a couple of pics of Winkler adapted for land yachting (Mk 1 version). The tiller pivots up and down and, with regards the science of leverage, is probably not ideal, being the shorter lever, but it works well enough when Winkler is moving...

Good sailing, and land yachting, Tony

Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Creeksailor Xmas and New Year.

Wishing all readers and viewers of the Creeksailor pages a wonderful Xmas and New Year. Your patronage has been gratifying. May your pulpit be steady, and full of joyous cheer...
Tony x
Ps. More cruising articles to come in the New Year: I'm coaxed away from the muddy creeks, and my miniature gaffer, to try big boat sailing around the gorgeous, rocky coast of Brittany...

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Yacht Sailing on Canals

Sailing a small yacht on inland canals and canalized rivers in the traditional manner one would sail unhindered on an open sea isn't really possible due to their inherently restrictive nature; the numerous low bridges and lock gates one encounters and, as is the case in many areas, the huge proliferation of overhanging trees there are to negotiate. 

 However, despite the obstacles, these often overlooked waterways can present an interesting challenge to the normal cruising environment of the seafarer who’s boat has a relatively shallow draft and a mast that can be easily raised and lowered, and by simply adding a few additional pieces of kit, and obtaining any relevant licenses to navigate there is a worthy amount of cruising under sail to be had.
  Most of the miles covered by boat inland are shorter distances of the stop start kind and therefore the sea-sailor contemplating a journey along a canal never having done so, and whose main objective while cruising until now has been his yachts performance in swallowing those oft choppy sea miles beating away at a leg of coastal passage, perhaps, like marmite spread over a favourite piece of toasted bread, he or she will either love or hate it... I would rather the yachtsman did the former so with this article my aim is to help him or her be better prepared for what this type of cruising entails by sharing some of my experiences of canal sailing undertaken in my own small yacht named Shoal Waters in and around my own cruising area on England’s East Coast.
Sailing on the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation


 Cruising sailors can often carry more kit on their boats than they need so may already have the necessary equipment for inland work. Now, I no longer use an engine but by all means if you do take yours along in the knowledge it sits comfortingly in reserve. I promise you by covering the shortest passage from A to B without it in what can be a challenging environment will be gratifying. 

I should mention that as canals are a part of Shoal Waters’ cruising ground so the kit listed below is part of her general cruising inventory used in the day to day sailing I do and is carried all year round. 

List of useful kit carried on board Shoal Waters for a canal trip: 

Bridgesail, paddle, Norfolk Broads style quant pole, lock key, 60 foot length of rope with a monkey’s fist knot tide in one end, mud weight, mooring hook, sounding cane, and bucket with lid.

 Oar/Paddle: Although we carry an oar as well I choose a canoe-type paddle because it has a wider blade than a normal oar and its length is about 4.5 foot, just right for the seated paddling position on the cockpit coaming of my boat. The paddle comes into its own when maneuvering in and out of a deep lock and has been the main form of propulsion on many a length of cut. 

 Quant pole: Used from the cockpit or foredeck to punt around in shallow areas and Shoal Waters has side decks specially built to enable quanting, which I find is a most pleasant way to travel on any peaceful stretch of still or slow moving water.
 Lock key: Fits two sizes of paddle gates however there are canals that require special lock keys which can be hired, or on leaving a deposit can be borrowed. 

 60’ bow-hauling rope: For when all other options are closed and you still want to make progress, or simply want to take to the towpath and physically tow the boat. This is done with a slight lean forward in one's gait and the rope over one shoulder and with the monkey’s fist comfortably held in hand. I use 8mm braided rope as it is strong enough for the job and considering its length coils down to next to nothing for stowing away in a locker. Bow-hauling is surprisingly easy to do and I’ve hauled Shoal Waters for miles along a towpath.
Bow-hauling: easy when you have crew!
 For a session of bow-hauling to run smoothly when single-handed I've found the secret is to lash the tiller enough so the boat will steer away from the towpath while at the same time remain in balance with the force of your pull. Additionally, I find with the hauling rope attached further aft (straight to the foot of the mast) she holds a superior parallel course than when run through the bow fairlead. If you have the help of crew then it’s even easier and taking turns on the helm every half hour or so is quite enjoyable way to stretch the legs. 
 The only snags with bow-hauling are coming across unmaintained stretches of towpath where trees or large sections of overgrown thorn bushes and the like come between you and the water having taken route on the very edge of a path.  Now, I’m all for more green the merrier today but for good reason the towpath would have been meticulously kept clear of any obstructions in the days of commercial trading. And there has been an occasion when I politely had to inform a float fisherman who begrudged moving his rod out of the way to allow me to pass that the towpath he was sat on was put in place for exactly what I was doing, towing a boat!
Mud weight: Used on a canal in the same way they are on the Norfolk Broads, and is rarely needed being so close to banks on either side.  I use a 17lb fisherman type anchor at sea but have found is to be excessive for the application on still water and once we hooked into a shopping trolley.

Mooring hook: For wild mooring alongside a clear towpath and has a sharp point one end so it can be driven into the ground and a ring to tie up to on the other end.

Length of garden cane for soundings: The sounding cane needs no introduction other than to say without one I feel I have a limb missing…

 Bridgesail: perhaps my most important piece of kit for inland canal sailing. A bridgesail is what its name implies, a sail that is set to transport a vessel short distances between bridges. Ideally, and worth one’s prudent consideration is how easy this sail will be to set up as it will be put to use often in this environment. Any spare sail carried on board could be adapted for this purpose, and however complicated the science of sailmaking may be, on one occasion a friend and I had great fun taking turns standing on the bow of Shoal Waters with our arms spread out holding our rain jackets open catching a following wind. We covered some useful ground in this way and had a lot of fun doing it. 
Note the bamboo yard of our topsail cum bridgesail
 However, if you plan on cruising for any real distance on a regular basis, it may be worth sourcing something dedicated to this purpose like a small dinghy mast with a sail, or a surfboard mast and sail, and keep it rolled up on board ready to be put in use. For canal work I have two dual purpose bridgesails. Shoal Waters’ canvas cockpit cover doubles as one and so does the topsail which I use most often and when in use has to be tweaked like finely tuning a violin to get the best out of it, and is kept permanently furled on its bamboo yard and stored in the cabin.

Evolution of a bridgesail... Stort Navigation
 On one waterway called the Stort Navigation, which is 14 miles of canalized River Stort straddling the Essex and Hertfordshire borders, an old photograph shows bridgesails were used by horse drawn barges and appear to be a simple spritsail, marginally bigger to something like an optimist dinghy sail, set to ease the burden on a tired horse. Whether being propelled by bridgesail, or towed by a horse, the pace of movement along the canals before engines came along was like life back then in general - slow, and that is just how the canals are enjoyed by leisure boaters today. 

Understanding this concept of a heavy, floating load being moved by the power of such a meagre sail on still or hardly moving water helps to settle one’s own expectations, if there are any which can, if need be, be adjusted to enjoy fully this type of cruising environment and after first launching your own boat into still water you will discover soon enough how little effort is in fact needed to maintain movement, and that there are only two speeds needed for enjoyable canal cruising: one being slow and the other full stop! 


 For me the relatively shorter start stop distances encountered on these enamoured waters are the basis of what this type of inland cruising is all about. As are being at ease in one’s own comfy vessel absorbing new surroundings as they are slowly revealed on either bank. Memories of oyster catchers calling ‘phweep-phweep’ as a salt wind thrashes into one’s eyes soon become distant in urban canal areas and as we move on through rural levels beyond every hill and every new twist now are chirping robins, sparrows and tits. Dividers and dead reckoning become redundant as the sea-skipper manually works a way up or down through a succession of lock gates, with all it entails: crisscrossing from bankside to bankside, opening paddles and slackening mooring lines as a lock empties, or holding-fast as water rushes in and one fills; catching a rare glimpses of kingfishers - that colourful little bird the keen eye can take pleasure in watching dive low to banquet, or coming alongside to clove hitch around a bollard before unclipping the forestay by its quick release pelican hook and lowering down the mast until secure in its crutch. Once again it’s time to cast off and, with a light shove and a hop on deck, have gentle way and a soft ripple in one’s wake. A brown backed carp breaks the surface near the overhanging branches on the opposite bank and suddenly there’s an almighty splash immediately followed by a swoosh of water as it swims powerfully out of sight, and the little green yacht glides with ease under another delightful, brick built, low-arched and charmingly ornate Victorian bridge…
About to negotiate another delightful, brick-built, low-arched Victorian bridge

  There are also lengths of canal where quiet water has become home to the occasional shoal of gudgeon after falling into disuse, and a sunny day in the margins shows up the cover of one or two serious looking pike...

 Let’s take a look at two of them in this corner of England that can offer spirited sailing: 

The 8.5 mile North Walsham and Dillham Canal in Norfolk which had six working locks and watermills sited along its length, two of these were bone mills once served by the iconic Norfolk wherry with cargoes of offal. Two of its locks have been restored and a longer term plan of work drawn up. Nevertheless with silted water, lush, green woodland banks overgrown on the lower reaches where it falls into the River Ant, a hot summer’s day cruising in such surroundings can resemble something more akin to an Amazon jungle waterway and be an absolute joy to practice ones boating in… In one trip on this canal in 2014 and using my garden cane for soundings I was presented with an average of four feet depth here and being so choked with overhanging branches found any breeze tended to funnel from either end of the waterway and thus when a favourable aft wind came in could set Shoal Waters’ bridgesail, which I set from the tabernacle, to drive the boat and effortlessly penetrate deep into north Norfolk farmland.
North Walsham and Dilham Canal

  Another disused canal being brought back to life I’ve had the pleasure of sailing my punt Winkler on is The Thames and Medway Canal, a very small cut which quite recently built its own slipway to give access to boats once more, in northwest Kent, which originally went from Gravesend Basin to Strood Lock but now terminates at Higham and is slowly being cleared for use as a leisure waterway. The initial intention of the canal was to offer safer passage to barges carrying ordnance round the Ilse of Grain to Chatham, and later, by the time building began in 1800, to save journey time sailing from the River Thames round to the River Medway. 
Winkler: not quite a yacht, enjoying the great linear sailing to be had on this small canal
 The idea was full of good intention but with boats having to wait for the tide to use the lock gates there was hardly any saving. Add to this the coming of the railway in the 1840s and we can see how transport of goods on the canal would soon fall out of favour. Even so, the service of towing Thames sailing barges from Gravesend up to Dung wharf at Lower Higham to offload a hold full of fetid London mixture continued until the 1930s. 

  While the trailer-sailor owner can take advantage of various launch slips that exist on inland canals there are navigations on the East Coast that not only offer exploratory sailing but are directly accessible from the sea. I keep my boat on the tidal River Blackwater and cruise locally and further afield rivers and creeks that indent this corner of North Sea, and only a couple of nautical miles sail away, at Heybridge, near the head of my local river is a sea lock which gives entrance to the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation’s 14 miles of fresh inland water. This delightful waterway meanders through some of Essex’s most enchanting rural landscapes to the county town of Chelmsford and has a safe boating idyll feeling typical of many canals. And there are one or two longer lengths between bridges and locks where the yachtsman can raise his yacht's mainmast and sail gloriously through some truly picturesque countryside.  The canal has an added bonus for skippers moored in tidal water who can take to their avenues of discovery and adventure for a late season cruise. Fresh water can save on elbow grease later on as it kills off barnacles… Building on the Chelmer began in 1793 and it was fully open by 1797 and would save the slow struggle of horses carting goods over Danbury Hill that had been unloaded from ships in the Blackwater, and transporting of commercial cargo carried on until 1972.  

Mast lowered for overgrown tree

 Further south of the estuary more options for inland cruising exist: 

  On the mighty London River, in Limehouse Reach, yachts can enter into Limehouse Basin and venture onward into Limehouse Cut and beyond, or immediately opposite the O2 Arena, in Bugsby’s Reach, take that muddy and twisting tidal section of the old River Lea, known as Bow Creek, from where Vikings once sailed 17 miles inland to the small Hertfordshire malting town of Ware, and where the tidal Bow Locks are gateways to the smooth, steel waters of the Lea Navigation (also known as Lee) and on pre-arrangement with the lock keeper open up to give the sea boat access to sojourn deep into the heart of England’s canal network. 
Near Bow flyover, on the Lea Navigation in East London

 There is one special Thames sailing barge still to be seen sailing at annual Thames barge meetings. She’s Lady of the Lea, a slightly smaller version of a spritsail barge that was built in 1931 to fit under the bridges on this navigation and to carry explosives from gun powder mills at Waltham Abbey, out through Bow locks and Bow Creek, and down the Thames to Woolwich Arsenal. Her initial methods of propulsion were her stumpy sailing rig and, when in the canal, she could be horse-drawn until she was fitted with an engine in the 1940s. 

  It goes without saying there is mile after mile of inland river cruising opportunity the further one ventures west on the River Thames, past Teddington Lock.  However, with our focus further east there are other navigations worthy of note. In the Lower Thames there is access to the River Medway Navigation in Kent, that which begins at the head of the tidal River Medway at Allington Lock and is the doorway to this somewhat slower pace of cruising through eleven locks, 22 bridges and 17.5 miles of England’s rural garden county up to Tonbridge.  And further north is the freshwater navigation of the River Stour. Bordering Suffolk and Essex, it passes through Constable Country and the world renowned Flatford Mill. The Stour was cut off to boats from the sea by the building of a dam in Cattawade Creek however, skippered by her former owner; the late Charles Stock, Shoal Waters was the last known yacht to venture up to Flatford in 1969. 

Other notes and pointers for consideration when on inland waterways: 

Check with the IWA before navigating as licences are required for all vessels on most inland waterways and can be purchased on a day, week, month or yearly basis.

 Overhead electric cables are a real danger to tall masts and one must maintain a watch for any that may be encountered. 

Weils Disease is a type of bacterial infection caused by contact with some farm animals and rats urine in water, and can have very serious implications.  It can be contracted through the eyes, mouth and nose, and open cuts and abrasions where it is advisable to minimise contact with stagnant water and avoid completely on open cuts and abrasions. 

  Carry an Ordnance Survey map of the area and, if possible, a guide book or map which shows where cables are sited and the average depth to the waterway you intend navigating on. 

  Nature’s course is not something you often read about or hear talked openly about and isn’t really a problem at sea, however inland is a different matter and a plan of action should be in place for when nature calls as public toilets are few. If there’s room on board a portable cassette toilet would be luxury. On the other hand, a bucket with a lid on and a bottle of chemical is a simple solution. Failing that, cross one’s fingers as boatyards with facilities do exist on inland waterways, and those giant supermarkets in or near towns are not just good for restocking supplies as they also have customer toilets… 

  And, as is the case with any type of inland waterway, after rainfall there will be an increased flow of water and on the Medway Navigation they offer a Strong Stream Advice service warning mariners when it is not safe to attempt to navigate.

All in all there is ready access to some interesting and varied canalised waters with rewards enough that await the intrepid sailor prepared to tackle them. 

Enjoy your cruising, Tony Smith, gaff cutter Shoal Waters


Friday, 4 November 2016

Creek Focus - Levington Creek

Entrance to the delightful Levington Creek in the River Orwell, Suffolk, lies on the northern bank of Long Reach 4 miles or so upriver from Harwich Harbour and the open coast of the North Sea.
At just under half a mile in overall length it has a mouth of approximately 250' wide which quickly narrows to half that as you meander in a north-westerly direction to follow its broad and subtly snaking contour. 

 Navigation charts indicate a depth of 2.5 to 3.5 meters above Chart Datum but in all practicality I find it has a small gut of around 5' deep (1.5m) on a high water neap tide which can be picked out with a sounding cane, with shallower margins abutted by mud and saltmarsh and, unlike much of the river, low, grassy seawalls. At high water the creek resembles a mill pond and the holding is as secure as a new baby is snug in a cradle after a bottle of warm milk: ie a sound sleep on good old soft mud is the order of the day.

The head of Levington Creek resembles a mill pond and is typical of many creeks I visit
The surrounding countryside views from the creek are of dense wood interspersed with green carpets of rising ground where sheep graze and a peppering of mature oaks are crowned by the red brick tower of St Peters Church which, sitting as it does on top of a hill overlooking the creek and River Orwell, gives one a sense of bygone days and is on the south-eastern edge of the small, peaceful and rural village of Levington. 

View of St Peters at night
Those who like to step ashore to stretch the legs and wet the throat can make the short climb up to Pilots Way, an unmade footpath once used by ship pilots to reach the river and escort ships up to Ipswich, to the 13th century Ship Inn which has a thatched roof, inglenook fireplace and takes its name from the ship’s beams that were used to build it and is just along from the church. At night the church tower is lit up and makes quite a picture standing out in the blackness of night. The sound of curlews can be heard calling throughout the dark hours and if one anchors lower down the creek, and looks to the south-east, there is a glow of light illuminating ships docked at the Port of Felixtowe. 

Just outside the village, to the west, is Broke Hall, once the home of Rear Admiral Phillip Bowes Vere Broke who commanded the celebrated HMS Shannon in the US-GB war of 1812. And, like many other creeks on this coast, there are one or two worn wooden stumps - likely remains from the days of sail when barges would have typically poked and pulled a way to a small rural farm wharf, like the one near the head of this type of creek, and collect corn and other farm produce to be taken to places like Ipswich six miles upriver or down the coast to London or, on return journeys, deliver horse muck from the city’s streets for use as fertilizer on the surrounding farm fields. Here at Levington it’s possible barges carried another cargo as well for during the early 18th century a local farmer was the first person to dig up coprolite from crag ground and found if spread on poor land the phosphate mineral acted as a kind of super fertilizer thus word spread and many fortunes were made when it became a sort after bulk material near and far.

The beauty of Suffolk Sea-Country; all yours for the taking 
Mornings see godwits feeding on the tide-lines of the incoming flood, and one particular glorious morning I was lucky enough to sit and watch a seal swimming around the boat in two and a half feet of gin-clear water. A short distance downstream and not visible from inside the creek is a marina – Suffolk Yacht Harbour - home to 550 moorings and a forest of yacht masts where you can pay for a visitor mooring. However, this classic East Coast creek anchorage will likely be all yours alone, bar curlews, godwits and seals, free for the taking… Happy cruising, Tony - Creeksailor

Friday, 21 October 2016

Sailing Essex Creeks

Stars were out and a lovely half-moon hung low glowing over the creek as I boarded Shoal Waters late on Tuesday night. Being harvest time I could hear tractors on nearby fields as farmers harvested away under headlamps.  It's a wonderful sound, and sight - it's life, and its wheel is forever turning…
 The cabin was down to 13 degrees when I slipped away under full mainsail on Wednesday morning at 0655 in lovely sunshine, albeit with a bracing chill - my hands felt warmer dipped in the sea! I noticed a couple of new arrivals in the creek; dinghies placed at the oyster layings. The oyster firm hasn't worked the line of trays in the creek for a couple of years now. I’ve seen a dredger work the creek for oysters, and sometimes I see someone gather oysters by hand, like some of the fishermen at Mersea do, uses shallow draft skiffs to reach anywhere in the river and hand pick a few sacksful for a morning's graft. It looks backbreaking work being bent over, and let’s hope they make a fare living as disease and one thing and another has played havoc on the stock in recent years this part of the country.
07.20 - We're charging downriver quite nicely under full main and jib. I swigged the jib and staysail halyards before leaving. With the Wykeham Martin furlers, too tight a halyard can cause the bearings to jam which isn't great if it happens when you want to shorten sail in a hurry!
09.00 - Heading S-g-E. Jibed while sounding over St Peter’s Flats. Pretty smooth out here in the Rays'n, and we're making good progress by keeping tight to the Targets in less than five feet of water while sailing over the remaining two hours of ebb. When the sun is shining and every wave top has a sparkle, going to sea alone and under sail has to be one of the best feelings in the world.
10.15 - Shoal Waters’ after-end wiggled to the set of tide when we anchored beside the Mid Ray buoy, got the kettle on the go and scrubbed boot-line free of last week’s moss. All much to the annoyance of a group of seals already comfortably seated up on the Buxey.
12.55 – Weighed anchor. Wind F3, and veering NE. The clouds have gathered and darkened to look quite menacing but a piercing sun lights the glitter every few moments ahead, as we move slowly south, over the sands.
Ray Sand Swatchway
Ray Yellow is in sight and all is blissfully quiet out here, not another boat in sight, just the trickle of salt water and the sound of bubbles gurgling. Are those cockles down there trying to tell us something?
13.35 - In Whitaker Channel, No 1 Outer Crouch - STB Buoy. Looking south, over and above the Maplins, the sky has fused with sea water to the extent it looks ‘other worldly’.
Foulness Island seawall
14.50 - In River Roach. Wind SE F3.
Much work is in progress in both Quay, and Devils Reach, shoring up sea walls on Foulness Island. Cranes are over on Wallasea Island as well. Two or three huts are now permanently on the seawall at Wallasea. Such a crying shame as it now spoils the unique low lying coast of this area, and the feeling one had escaped Man… That's progress, I guess..?
16.05 - Down Yokesfleet Creek and nosed into Shelford Creek to see the drop-dead gorgeous reddish-brown seals and pointed our bowsprit into the abruptly dammed New England Creek, which once exited uninterruptedly straight into the Thames Estuary, lined with gulls as always. Onward into Narrow Cuts where I had to harden up and sail close hauled, up against the sea wall. As if I needed it, I was reminded this creek is a battle every time! Lots of blue sky overhead now and birds are singing on the muds. Wind SE F3-4, with lulls.
 Havengore Bridge is in sight now and I have a gut feeling I should abort the thought of a passage through to the Thames… The driving wind has dropped off to SE F2 and Shoal Waters won’t sail over a tide now, and to further thwart our advance any driving wind is on the nose. We’re running short of precious daytime as well.

17.15 - In Havengore Creek. I imagined the Bridgekeeper to be biting his nails for me in anticipation… Is this boat with the sails coming through or isn’t it? Unfortunately, until we reach the bridge we can never be sure which way the wind will be blowing and a number of attempts have had to be aborted due to it being funneled forcefully through the bridge piers onto our nose.

Oxenham Creek, as viewed from Havengore Creek
By the looks of the harvesting going on over on Rushley Island our annual Harvest Cruise was truly well under way though. There are so many creeks to visit here in the backwaters of Essex, and in Havengore Creek one passes Wakering scout hut, just opposite and upstream of Oxenham Creek, where it peeps above the seawall and is set in a wonderful playground for youngsters to adventure in. We sailed right round the island and had a magical quarter wind up to Potton Bridge, which opened up sharpish. How nice to have a new series of lateral buoys in the creek to help point the best way through the muddy shallows and as we sailed past them the weather obliged with sunshine, and an after the storm type of calmness. Absolutely a magnificent evening to be gliding along the creeks…
Causeway road onto Rushley Island
I had a peep in Barlinghall Creek for an agreeable smooth water sail up to the hard and back out. I generally will always anchor but impulse decided on borrowing a mooring buoy for few hours as I was surprised to see three or four vacant in the Roach and it was an easy matter to sail up to any one of them.  After tying everything down I sat in the cockpit and watched the sun fall and tide recede peacefully.
Causeway road onto Potton Island in Potton Creek
The forecast wind for the next day wasn’t great: up to Force 6, so we sat it out and I didn't get away again until 18.50 the next evening when the sail up to Lower Rochford in a Force 5 was outstanding. I double reefed Shoal Waters’ main while safely moored - a case of shortening everything inward so that, when setting off, I left the jib furled and just set the small staysail. She sails quite nicely with this set-up as long as there is plenty of wind and is well balanced, but as a consequence to increasing wind so does the popple on the water and any sudden drop in wind force and she likes to play stone dead. For her miniature stature she really is such a heavy old bird and demands her share of canvas.

Double reefed in the River Roach
I reached the pair of Lower Rochford lateral buoys an hour after HW. The sun had all but gone and the patterned sky was a magnificent backdrop to end this part of our trip. Mucking Hall has a small creek and a disused wharf that would offer shelter but was bone dry, and to port lay Bartonhall Creek which had about a foot and half of water but we couldn't sail into it tonight for the ebbing tide run too fast for us. Never mind, we had a close look and I wondered for a few moments about the legend of smuggling that once went on these parts.
 I jibed round, and doing so the plate sung and rudder creaked going over a mud-horse on the corner of the creek. She slowed to a near stop and not really wanting to stop here for the night I shuffled over a little, to keep in the deep of the fairway, and sailed on down the Roach toward darkness and a slant south, into The Violet, a stretch of water at the top end of Potton Creek where we anchored at 22.00 just above Barlinghall Creek entrance to be well placed for an advance up to Little Wakering in the morning. I set the riding light and sat in the cockpit in silence. Half the banks were lined by silver mud that reflected faintly the sparkle of a half-moon that shone above Barlinghall marshes.
 There was stillness in the air tonight. Not like the howling and rattling through the rigging that went on throughout the night before. For now, this was perfect. 

Roach sunset
However, the forecast was for strong winds again tomorrow therefore I set the alarm for 05.30 and got straight to bed in the hope I would arise in a shape of pleasing form able to cope with it...
The next morning I was up just after the birds and had breakfast and a cuppa. I shuddered when the radio forecaster mentioned westerlies up to Force 6. Any relaxed and pleasant creek-sailing to be had today in a civilized fashion would have to be done early, before the weather came in. Skies were blue and the sun low, just rising over Potton Island. I weighed anchor and shook out one reef in the mains'l as we slid passed the new Barlinghall red can buoy, and entered into the Barlinghall Creek proper.
Barling is such a sweet creek and immediately inside it one catches sight of the hamlet’s quaint church steeple which sits nicely as a bearing to aim for, and lower down is remarkably broad, not unlike part of Norfolk’s inland waterways. But then, unlike Norfolk and its medieval hand dug Broads, beneath the surface is mud deeper than I am tall, as sticky as glue, and formed by Mother Nature, and as much as it is marvelously wide it has deceptively shallow margins that simply revel in snaring an off-guard skipper besotted by the prospect of sailing it. And anyways, if you were to find yourself aground and stuck fast, there is no shame in admitting it, for as is often said, if you haven’t run aground on the East Coast you haven’t been anywhere! So I confess, I've been trapped here more than once, and still make the odd mistake as I have a short memory…

In the margins at Barlinghall Creek
I tacked a way up the creek; I find it's deeper close to the corrugated piling but still had the sounding cane poking away to one side. There's a distinct sound Shoal Waters’ plate makes before you find you’re at a standstill, and possibly neaped, which of course is what we endeavour to avoid at all costs while beating close to margins. This is an endeavour more important near to high tide as to get the boat under way again can mean downing all sail, lashing the plate and rudder up, and using the quant pole to punt and pole us out into free water again - which done under duress can be a huge effort. So, maintaining way as you become entrenched in the shallower reaches of a creek like Barlinghall can become a kind of delicate ballet dance where, without firmness of grip, the tiller is barely held at all and guided with the lightest touch of hand, or finger, keeping the rudder in line with the centre of the boat as much as possible so it’s not acting like a brake, and at the same time both jib sheets are played and paused accordingly to ‘aback’ the nose round ever so precisely.
 Further skill is required of the creek-sailing skipper in the correct timing of when to sheet in on the new tack for while all this dynamic businesses is going on the force of the incoming tide is having an effect on the small yachts handling as well and so one is wise to not tack too late and see his yacht's stern brought round before him.
If you can imagine Barling Creek as a kind of horse shoe shape, or an upside down letter u, then when we come near to the middle of the u there are two lines of fishing boats and other craft to tack through. The wind direction was rather kind on this occasion being west-south-west and I could reach through into Little Wakering Creek. The saltings are sliced through with rills and home to one or two intriguing old boats while the cant face is a busy feeding and stop off place to small birds. I did look in to Fleethead Creek and for my troubles got stuck for a few moments because of it but then we came to the first and only major bend in our main focus, Little Wakering Creek, and began a succession of short tacks up to an old staging. There's a light airplane field behind the bushes here, and there was a house barge on the staging here for a time. It's a wonder to think the old Thames barges made their way up this small creek. 

Just coming into Little Wakering Creek
 Today's high tide was a very low neap so unlike us they wouldn't be going any further on a day like today. A chap appeared on the seawall walking a dog and took some photographs of us sailing. A few houses are visible from here and so are farm buildings nevertheless there is a warm and secret ambience about the place and with there being plenty of marsh this side of what is, in comparison to other creeks, a low seawall which is soft and decorated with every shade of green, there are lots of little hideaways to tuck into and spend a quiet night on the putty.

As the day past the wind grew in strength and as I entered back into the Roach from the Violet it blew from the seawall at Shuttlewoods jetty where there wasn’t a soul in sight and where I felt it safe to stop for a while to straighten out the rigging. Until that is someone came over and said there was no landing here and I would have to move off straight away.  No problem at all, I said, and we set off again and anchored at the mouth of Paglesham Creek opposite a WW2 pillbox that sits on the seawall there and near about where the old HMS Beagle, the ship on which Darwin sailed around the world and was later called Watch Vessel no 7, would have been stationed guarding the then numerous and valuable oyster beds. I find it quite amazing to think other types of exploratory ships of Man have since been named after this ship that ended its days in a quiet Essex backwater, and have sought other frontiers in that never ending ocean of outer space. 
Anchored in strong winds at the mouth of Paglesham Creek

 We rocked and swung to anchor for what remained of the day. It was enough time to cook a filling meal in the ship’s steamer and read a little more, and then sailed gloriously into Paglesham Creek on the next incoming tide. The creek sailing that followed, even if only a few hours of perfectly idyllic sailing, was exceptional and reward enough for everything one does in preparation to belay it. The oyster layings in the creek are worked from an anchored raft in the Pool and the sight of a 6'x8' pitch roof garden shed sitting on it in mid-creek does raise a smile. 
 I stopped at saltings just inside the creek and stretched the legs and absorbed some of the stunning scenery of one of my favourite areas. I’ve heard people say ‘it’s boring here’, ‘there’s nothing there’, ‘it’s pretty bleak.’ That’s the whole point, thank you, I’ll have it all to myself! 

In smooth water, and the lee of muddy bank in Paglesham Pool. Oyster raft mid-creek and Burnham in the far distance
 Having sailed freely every creek in these parts and circumnavigated every sailable inch of Wallasea Island it was only the fact a road onto Wallasea was sat before us caused a turn back around to anchor next to a WW2 pill box at Church Hall farm wharf and ponder the delights of our marshy surroundings and the timing of our descent.
Wharf with pill box at Church Hall
 20.09. Left the top of Paglesham Creek at high water. I rode close to the mud bank as she would go and keep moving to pass under the highest point of overhead electric cables. There seemed to be a lull in the weather as we sailed past the oyster raft at Paglsham Pool, which held passing Shore Ends in darkness, so I decided to sail on through the night and get the bulk of the passage home done. From Holliwell Point the north-west wind kept falling off and, bar one reef, I had all canvas set but still it took longer than I had hoped to get out of the Crouch. 
Dusk, passing a floating oyster shed in Paglesham Creek
 However, the calmer weather was short-lived and I was taken by surprise when I reached the Ray Yellow buoy at how soon it became atrocious for a miniature vessel as ours to be out in: Force 5, increasing Force 6 at times. I was hesitant that the weather would pick up and thus one reason the cruising man such as I reefs his sails to suit expectant bad weather, and the racing man with safety boats in tow reefs his sails to suit expectant lulls.
 I picked out the North Star overhead it was such a clear night, and I steered by it from the Whitaker Channel, crossing between the Ray and Buxey Sands.
 To a degree I’d took a gamble at crossing the swatchway on a falling tide but I’d done the crossing with success dozens of times before and my reasoning was as long as I stay within 2hrs of high water, and not cut any corners, I should in all instances, get across safely. However, this time I daren’t sound the depth with my trusty stick as I couldn’t bear to confirm what I was already thinking; that we were in less than a few feet of water in wind that wailed deafeningly through the rigging and with threatening short chop crashing loudly against the side of the boat...
 We crossed the shallow sands for 15 minutes... Suddenly, the old girl was on her beam end, rocking forward and back, and as the unsettled sea raced by flashes of moonlight that were so dazzling reflected off it and distracted from the urgency of the situation I was in. It dawned on me then we didn’t seem to be moving with it… I checked the sails with haste and could make out they were filled with wind. I realized she must be pivoting on the plate and we were, in fact, being pinned down by the force of the wind acting on the tide. Suddenly I was living my worst nightmare of grounding on the sands alone, in the dark and in a hellish sea-state.

  I stabbed anxiously at the sand with the six foot cane only to confirm we were in an average two foot of water, with less on the bottom of troughs, and then almost swallowed my tongue in shock as waves began breaking on the weather side and I pictured the worst scenario of being broken up during the coming moments on the unforgiving, hard sand. Oh dear, maybe we are done for this time, I thought. I was puzzled somewhat as I hadn’t heard the usual warning sound from the centerplate, but then a Force 6 makes some racket and add to that I had a woolly hat on covering my ears, I reasoned. Whatever the case, there was no time for judge and jury so, instinctively, I released the rudder downhaul and hauled the plate fully up in such a hurried fashion five stone in weight of cold steel could have come flying out the casing into my bare hands.
 Next, I threw myself into the companion way to grab hold of the paddle and began working it savagely over the lee rail in an attempt to move her along. To cross the sands should take no more than 20 minutes and our time was up. The North Ray buoy should be somewhere in an arc off the bow, to the north, but it was a hopeless case looking for it in this darkness. She stayed  pointing north on the compass and I paddled for a good few more minutes and was relieved the cane appeared to be going deeper and deeper. It was only inches more water but sure evidence we were moving again and had cleared the shallowest point of the swatchway.
 The short amount of time all this played out in felt like days yet was roughly only a few minutes window. Finally, when I knew we were completely clear of the sands, the relief was overwhelming.  Our high adventure on low water wasn’t over yet though. I was starting to feel tired but it wasn’t safe to anchor as the wind was picking up even more, whipping the shallow sea into a cauldron, and I had to press on regardless. There’s a point of no return when one heads out to sea on a running tide and for Shoal Waters and I it was back near Shore Ends - long gone…
 She thrashed along the Dengie coast throughout the night over-canvassed, every so often a spray of sea water rained down over the whole boat. I ducked down behind the cabin to avoid the stinging salt water and trimmed the sheets from there to keep us sailing off her one-reefed mainsail’s leach, and small jib set tight, until we reached an area a couple of miles offshore, east of St Peter’s Chaple, I call The Point.
  There are times when it is safer to keep a boat moving than it is to anchor her still and this was one of them, and as we met the force of the ebb coming out of the Blackwater and pushed the tiller away for a turn west endured two further hours of arduous sailing against wind, and now a foul tide…
I made Bradwell Creek inside the Blackwater just after low water when, as so often is the case, the harsh wind had all but vanished to a distant memory. We arrived home a few hours later, at 0645. Good sailing adventure to all.