The wind had been kind all week during my stay in the lower Thames area. There was plenty of it, at times a little too much. On the previous day, and with double reefed main and small staysail set, I traversed the swells off Canvey Island at Scars Elbow and sailed over to Egypt Bay in Kent, and back again as one tall ship after another came by on their way up to Greenwich in London for a Tallships Festival on this mightiest of rivers, the Thames. A while later we became holed up in the aptly named ‘Holehaven’ Creek due to strong winds. The wind was so fierce in the mouth of the creek where I had hurriedly slung the hook over that the ol girl almost got thrown on to a mud horse behind us before I’d had time to get a bite in the goo. I daren't leave the boat and sneak over the seawall for a jar in the Lobster Smack pub either. Later on, we bravely emerged again for a late evening sail as the winds seemed to be easing, down to Leigh On Sea, which took longer than planned…
By the time we had reached Canvey’s eastern Point darkness had fell over us and the easterly Force 5 was again coming on to pummel poor Shoal Waters. The sea was running like a flash-flood down a mountain too, and every other wave we took head-on saw the bowsprit disappear under it. The whole of her bow, up to the forward hatch was awash with green. Blown spume slapped at my face and I feared staying seated on the lee side as I usually do as I felt she was going to roll over. Every tack was precision-timed to pass through to the new ‘weather’ on the top of a trough as tall and as wide as a truck. I would wipe my eyes dry if I could but my sleeves were long sodden. I felt that these conditions were the fiercest we had faced in darkness. We simply had to press on though. There was no alternative. One saving grace was I had snugged down in daylight with a double reefed main and by setting the small staysail.
Progress was slow but we were well beyond a halfway point. If only we could get to Canvey Point soon it would still be near high water and we could take a short cut over the shallows to the safety of Leigh Creek. However, presently, we would have to endure the pasting we were taking, or more accurately Shoal Waters was for I felt I could take and handle anything that nature threw at us. However, holding my hands up, this time I may have over shot the mark. I wouldn’t choose to leave my mooring back in the Blackwater in such conditions as wind against tide, and gusting F6. This was 'duffer' material I read about others partaking in while warmed by the heat of my open fire at home during the coldest months of a winter layup. I was so caught up playing with the half-inch steel plate and rivets, spankers and yardarms of the big ships that my guard had slipped. We were only 16 feet of timber veneer, copper nails and rope.
I took every inshore tack almost to the seawall on Canvey in a struggle to find a smoother piece of water to take the strain off the gear. For us, circumstances were fierce to say the least and I had a job of work ahead of me to reach a safe mooring for the night. And, to add a bizarre twist to our unfolding drama, I was in earshot of people still on the beach enjoying the late summer evening. I was so close to the seawall at one point over Chapman Sands I could read graffiti on the seawall as clear as from a book - ‘Sue loves Rob’- and see that one woman was still sitting in a deck chair doing a crossword puzzle and heard her talking to hubby about what to have for tea tonight. She even said to him ’look at that nice boat with the sails’. Strangely, witnessing this domestic bliss made everything seem quite normal. If only they knew this little ship and I were sailing a course for survival!
|On a buoy at Essex Yacht Club the following morning - Chalkwell in the distance|
Then, I was somewhat relieved. The last tack saw to it we were clear of Canvey and within reach of a yellow glow cast off of Southend’s street lamps that illuminated the coast road and near sea. We had made a big step. I could turn to port now, away from this devilish easterly, ease the sheets and reach northward, like a bloated peacock, to smoother waters. But not just yet… We were still far from being free of danger for there’s a wreck sat in the bay near to Island Yacht Club and I wasn’t going to add to it. I remembered the mistake that people make when sailing round Canvey is cutting too close in at Canvey Point to get round into Benfleet or Smallgains Creek. I wasn’t falling for it. Tonight this tiny bay was as hellish as lee shores get on the East Coast and one that was fresh in my mind as I had circumnavigated Canvey in a Drascombe gig with some of my cousins a month earlier when we took part in the annual 'whacky races' event at Benfleet Yacht Club. Patiently, I made two more tacks toward Southend Pier that would see us free of danger; and off we ran, in, Shoal Waters cowering and sulkish, like a reprimanded juvenile. The moorings beside Essex Yacht Club had never looked as welcoming in the dark as they did on this night. In the cause of moral decency, and after a spate of foraging in the dark, I borrowed one of three vacant buoys instead of sinking Cold Nose among so many moorings. Alas to say a sound sleep on soft mud was well earned.