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

2 comments:

Paul Mullings said...

I enjoyed that!...good to see you back in print Tony.

Savage Family said...

Great post. I do enjoy reading and look forward to the day when I might have sufficient sailing skills and an appropriate location to pursue similar adventures. I'm sure I've mentioned before my childhood connection to the Blackwater and I hope, in the next five years or so, to explore its shores a little further again. I recently read Sabine Baring-Gould's Mehalah for the first time, which is an interesting novel set in the area. Best wishes from Australia.