Monday, 5 July 2021

Gaff Rig- How To

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

Gaff Rig - How To - Mainsail Setting

Saturday, 19 June 2021

Engine-less Cruising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whatever your choice of sailing and vessel enjoy it,  Tony





Sunday, 19 May 2019

Creek Cruising Life

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 6 July 2018

On the Morrow

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

Sunday, 25 February 2018

Creek Sailing Talk at RYA conference

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

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Winkler's Tales - Yantlet Creek

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


Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Creek Sailing talk at the Cruising Association HQ

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

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

Friday, 21 April 2017

Cruising lesser known haunts on the River Blackwater, Essex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All images and text copyright Tony Smith

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