I boarded my wooden 16ft miniature gaff cutter Shoal Waters three hours before high tide at her mud mooring in Goldhanger Creek. There was no wind to speak of, but I had a couple of jobs to do before setting off – and earlier in the day I’d heard a promising forecast of Force 3 to 4 south-easterly winds to come during the next couple of days. Most people in my area on swinging or drying moorings use a tender dinghy to reach their cruiser, but in certain cases on a drying estuary this is an unnecessary luxury which I avoid by arriving with plenty of time to walk out over the soft mud.
|A new day begins at Lee-Over-Sands|
The incoming flood reaches her approximately three hours before HW and, if I’m late and she’s afloat, by donning chest waders I can still get out to her quite safely on foot up to two hours before or after high tide. With HW at 1630 I unfurled the jib, raised the mainsail, loosened the outhaul and relaxed the normal diagonal crease in the peak to coax the sail into a driving shape, and was away at 1600. At 2020 I had covered 10NM and anchored inside of Colne Point and the Inner Bench Head buoy in 6ft of water to watch a glorious East Coast sunset over East Mersea and the River Colne. The sailing here was easy, a stolen passage. Fettle Shoal Waters’ lines here and there and sit on the leeward side, as if rubbing a magic genie bottle; she seems to move under her own breath…
Sailors based near Osea Island in the River Blackwater and heading up to Harwich lose 50 minutes to tide time differences, so I generally have to do the passage in two legs. The following morning I left at 0440 with the objective of being north of the Pye End buoy by low water, ready to take the new flood into Harwich harbour. The sun was up, and I slipped close by the shore to round the corner at Lee-Over-Sands to get over the turbulent waters at Colne Bar. I know round-Britain sailors who say there is no other place where the sea state becomes as easily agitated as it does here. The south-easterly breeze had come in and, keeping relatively close inshore, I could admire the numerous Martello towers sited along this stretch that were built to defend against a feared Napoleonic invasion which never happened. They remain a constant source of wonder and intrigue for tourists visiting the area and, combined with other interesting architectural features on the way, brighten up any trip along what is known locally as ‘the Sunshine Coast’.
|Colourful beach huts at Frinton on the ‘Essex Sunshine Coast’|
At 0630 we passed Clacton Pier. The wind dropped off again, but we passed the Wailings beach huts at Frinton-on-Sea at 0750. Unlike other huts on this stretch of coast that sit on the seawall, these demand a premium for anyone wanting a beach lifestyle as they are built upon wooden stilts on the beach, so at high tide they are surrounded by water. By 1200 the wind was unsettled, Force 2 with gusting lifts from the south-east, and there was warm, hazy sunshine. Sailing engine- less – and especially in light airs – I really have to be careful of being drawn too close inshore at Naze Ledge and Pennyhole Bay as, when the tide turns, instead of being sucked into Harwich with the main flow of water you are pushed back down the coast. This time I was well positioned north-east of the Pye End buoy and Lord Nelson’s Medusa Channel and came into Harwich as planned. I could now let the main out for a glorious broad reach up the River Stour.
With a constant stream of international shipping arriving at Harwich harbour, and passenger ferries coming and going at Parkeston Quay – both at the extreme eastern end of the River Stour – you enter what is in essence the gateway into Constable country with extreme caution! However, life moves along at a slower pace elsewhere and at the other end of the river, in England’s smallest town, Manningtree. The river ebbs and flows in a west-east manner, and at just short of 9NM long it is the dividing line of the county of Essex on the south side and Suffolk to the north. Its navigable limit for yachts coming in from the sea was cut short by the building of a dam at the top of Cattawade Creek at Brantham. However, Shoal Waters has been up to Flatford Mill and was the last boat known to do so, taken by her previous owner, the late small-boat adventurer Charles Stock, in 1969. She entered what was at the time the disused and canalised section of the Stour, via the derelict Brantham Lock, to reach the location of arguably that most famous of John Constable paintings, The Hay Wain.
I hoisted the centreplate and nosed into Essex’s Bramble Creek, absorbing the tree-lined setting for a few moments and leaving the sails gently flapping while the kettle boiled and I made a cup of tea. After a quick scan with the binoculars, I crossed from south to north to reacquaint myself with Johnny All Alone Creek, where on previous visits I had spent some wonderful nights at anchor.
The Stour, like many rivers on the East Coast, has a historic connection with the Thames sailing barge: the Wrinch farming family on the Shotley Peninsula at Erwarton, on the Suffolk side of the river, owned a fleet of seven, mostly stack barges. ‘Stackies’, as they were known, carried bales of hay piled 8-10ft high above the deck and transported this to London, and usually returned with what was known as ‘street mixture’ – horse muck that local farmers spread on the fields. The hulk of one of the barges, Snowdrop, lies in my home creek, Goldhanger. Another of the Wrinch barges, built in 1881 and amazingly still regularly seen sailing up and down the East Coast, is the pretty little 16-ton farm barge Cygnet.
|house for Essex, designed by modern artist Grayson Perry in collaboration with FAt Architecture, it is living architecture, with beautiful views of the river, and is available to the public as a holiday let|
I was enjoying some memorable shallow-water sailing in what is, in many ways, a river of contrasts. Solitude is around every ness (extension of land/ headland) and in every sweeping bay. There are a few nesses in the Stour, all in close proximity: Erwarton Ness, Stutton Ness and Wrabness. I cruised away from the buoyed deep-water fairway and inside the yacht moorings that lie close to the beach at Wrabness. Many of the desirable beach huts here are organic in appearance, built on stilts, and dinghies are left parked on hairy saltings in a ‘God’s Acre’ kind of place. Up on the headland sits a unique house with a gold roof and green-and white-tiled facades. Designed by modern artist Grayson Perry in collaboration with FAT Architecture as a House for Essex, it is living architecture with beautiful views of the river, and is available to the public as a holiday let.
|Wrabness as viewed from the Stour|
For sailors, placid waters abound in the heart of the Stour, complemented by an air of regality when one cuts a course across Holbrook Bay, overlooked by the landmark Queen Anne-style building of the Royal Hospital School – a school steeped in 300 years of naval history and tradition. I continued up the Stour on a rising tide, crossing all the shallow bays into a rill in the south shore saltings known as Gallister Creek. Most of the Stour’s creeks are only visible at low water, when they appear as streams carved in mud. At 1500 Shoal Waters slid over Landooze Rill where we looked beyond a decaying relic into Millers Reach, passing the bygone-days setting of old Mistley boatyard and, amusingly, getting caught in the lee of Mistley Quay. This area is known for its swans and, more recently, for a controversial fence that was put in place, barring ancient public access to and from the water. Mistley is still very much a working port, with ships landing approximately 300 ton of grains, forest products and general cargoes annually.
|Mistley Quay – still very much a working port|
With an hour of flood to go I turned round and began the return passage. The wind suddenly backed east, which meant a beat back downriver. I found I could sail an easy northward course over to one of Suffolk’s little secrets, Newmill Creek – and if I had to pick a favourite creek on this trip, this one with its salmon-pink mill house just edges it. Although there was only an hour before HW, I had to raise the centreplate to come in for a close look. When the mill came up for sale in the 1820s, it was advertised as having a wharf capable of receiving ships up to 100 tons: however, it had ceased operation by the beginning of 1900, and is now a dwelling.
|Newmill Creek in Suffolk|
By 1635 Shoal Waters was beside Smiths Shoal, a red-can-topped post, and I was tacking downstream. At 1920 I had dodged another container ship and shaved an exit by Harwich breakwater, and I began the journey back down the open coast, taking advantage of the rising easterly wind to sail over the last of the northerly-flowing ebb tide. Darkness fell completely by 2300 and I sailed through the night, picking out the twinkling navigation lights that one finds so hard to see during daylight hours. By midnight all wind had dropped off and the remainder of the passage was made quite anxiously at barely over a knot-and-a-half plus a knot of tide. I arrived safely back at the mooring at 0530, and I climbed straight to the bunk for a sound sleep.
42 hours on board, eight creeks visited
Distance – 74NM, plus wriggly bits
Passage A, to River Colne – 4 hours
Passage B, to Mistley, River Stour and exploring the environs, followed by night passage return – 25 hours non-stop sailing
Wharf wall near-scrapes – Mistley and Newmill Creek
Ships dodged – two container vessels and a ferry in Harwich harbour
Three hours spent replacing stern navigation light, and two five-hour bouts of sleep
The centreplate was lifted 14 times for draught adjustment, with the rudder only needing five lifts. Two reefs were shaken out and put in, and I only anchored once.
Always remember if we tie a rope too tight we can always loosen it, and if you're out there things may go in your favour, if you're not you'll never know... Enjoy your cruising dear readers and I look forward to passing wakes on the water. Kind regards, Tony