Saturday, 14 May 2011

Ray Sand Swatchway

Exploring The Ray Sand Channel By Tony Smith

  Between the rivers Crouch and Blackwater a small swatchway known as the Ray Sand Channel can be found.  For mariners perhaps the main feature of the channel is that it enables a shorter passage when passing between the rivers Crouch and Blackwater. To use the swatchway today one must work the tide to his advantage as the southern end of the channel dries at low water. The natural movement of sand over a period of 100 years or so has gradually filled in what was once a twelve feet deep channel at low water.
The swatchway is encompassed by vast plains of drying sand banks; Buxey Sands lies to the east, Foulness Sands to the south and Ray Sand to the west. Along with Foulness and Maplin Sands further south of the Crouch the area makes up some of the most naturally wild and remote cruising areas in Essex. Heading south into the Raysn at 10.30 hrs. Low water at Southend 11.08. With the channel at this state of tide the sounding cane was most suitable.
At low tide the sands and mudflats are uncovered and spread far out from the deserted wilderness that makes up the shoreline. At this time rippling patterns in the mud can be seen. The patterns are repeated again and again as they disappear into the horizon until lapped by the breaking waves of the sea, an incredible two miles away. To the observing eye these naturally formed shapes resemble a work created by the artists pallet knife and are often wondered at.
At first glance when heading south, towards the channel from the Blackwater, it appears that navigation marks are few. However, using traditional navigation methods the cruising skipper will soon find that as Mersea Island slowly disappears in the mists of his ships wake the Buxey Beacon on the horizon to the south-east of the channel becomes clearly visible.
The Buxey Beacon is soon found to the southeast.
To find the yellow Ray Sand buoy that marks the channels southern most point will take a more patient skipper though as not until you are fully bounded by shoal water, being funneled towards the deep waters of the Whitaker Channel and the outer Crouch will the elusive Ray Sand buoy be located.
Other useful bearings can be found nearby to landward as The Dengie and St Peters Flats are home to four iron shipwrecks that were placed here during the war to enable firing practice by pilots from the nearby Bradwell Bay airfield. A small railway was used to get out on the mudflats to service these targets. The former targets are sited in pairs, and marked with unlit east and west cardinal spars.
The outer most of the two southern wrecks that can be found. Being around low water neaps the wreck is just partly covered. Although I ventured within fifty feet or so it really is not recommended.
Along with the targets another useful feature is the wavebreak that has been placed at the shoreline in the form of steel barge lighters about midway down this stretch of coast to help protect the eroding marshland.
The very nature of the underlying seabed diminishing rapidly the further south you go is in itself an experience not to be missed, but add to this the landward side of the channel offers the small boat adventurer opportunities to discover isolated cockleshell beaches backed by saltmarsh. This saltmarsh abuts a seawall that like the majority in Essex were built around the 17th to 19th century so as the enclosed land could be used for agriculture or building purposes. The seawall stretches 10 miles from the mouth of the River Blackwater to the entrance of the River Crouch.
12.20hrs. Wavebreak 300 deg, Buxey Beacon 90 deg, three feet water, wind SE F3. The lighters forming a wave break can be found roughly five miles south of Sales Point. With most of the passage south being in three feet of water and against a south east wind a repeated tack out to find another foot or so was the order of the day.

Some time later. Even though I had located the elusive Ray Sand buoy which was within half a mile away, Shoal Waters could go no further. With nowhere else to go to find a few more inches I hove to a waited for the incoming tide. The trusty sounding cane has become a third arm. I often loose these over the side when things get too hectic which is heartbreaking when the little piece of stick has served you so well. For this reason I have resorted to buying them in bundles and marking them up in bulk to carry spares down below.

The tide line south of the wavebreak has a number of small creeks indent the marsh. These outfalls reach inland to the seawall where thousands of acres of level farmland spreads west under big open skies towards the nearest villages of Southminster, Tillingham, and Bradwell On Sea, a good four or five miles away.
The unspoilt nature of the area makes up a nutrient rich environment where migrating wildfowl and wading birds find food and shelter. For the creek sailor this is perhaps a number one ingredient for a prime cruising ground. With creek names such as Hoo Outfall, Grange Outfall, Bridgewick and Glebe Outfall, Sandbeach Outfall and Marsh House Outfall the possibility's for adventure are many.

Approaching The elusive Ray Sand buoy. This leg of the passage is the shallowest of all with no deep water escape route. Crossing the sands towards the buoy I was able to find a little more water just north of the buoy. NOTE: Since writing this article, two red and white safe water buoys have been placed in the channel in a north south direction.
Note 2017: Since the new red and white safe water buoys were put in place I had (and still do) called them North RW and South RW. However, the powers that be have named them Ray North and Ray Middle, and since the beginning of 2016 are calling the Ray Middle the Ron Pipe... I guess what I know as the Ray Buoy (yellow) is now the Ray South...
The Ron Pipe was a buoy named after a Burnham gentleman marking the Buxey/Swallowtail that was removed when new buoyage was placed in the Crouch a few years ago for the Crossrail Project.
Of course, none of this name business really matters until there is a mishap, perhaps, and someone needs to call for help and give a position. As far a navigation goes it's in each and every skipper's own interest, whether they have their own names or not, to know the correct names/numbers in general use. And the more sea marks we have at our disposal the safer we can make our passage. Good sailing.


mark said...

What a great read - Dad used to sail these waters and as kids we used to walk out on the sands at low tide . Real nostalgia reading this and brings back memories of such magic places as Burnham in the fifties - I bet its a very different place now ! In those days it had a real lonely Essex feel to it . Mark .

Creeksailor said...

Thank you Mark. The overall picture has changed a little but if you know where to look the magic still exists... Regards