Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Cruising Notes: Grain Tower

Cruising Notes:
If you’ve ever wondered what that stocky little stone tower is that sits out on the ooze at the mouth of the River Medway, in 2013 I took a closer look...

Grain Tower Battery - a solitary sea-building
Grain Tower, mentioned in my book Sea-Country, chapter ‘The Ton’, can be found offshore of the Hoo Peninsular, on Grain Spit, an area where the waters of the River’s Medway and Thames meet and directly opposite Garrison Point which is on the Isle of Sheppey. The tower, which has just recently came on the market and is for sale at £500.000, is privately owned and stands empty with bare window openings and doorways, almost as it was left after WW2. This is also the area earmarked for the Thames Estuary Airport ‘Boris Island’ which at a cost of up to 90billion has just recently been dropped.
Originally built to counter the threat of Napoleon in 1855 the tower was mounted with guns and used in conjunction with Sheerness batteries in Essex, just across the wide mouth of the River Thames. Since then it has been added to and re-armed for use in both World Wars to guard the Mouth of the River Medway and the Thames. For seafarers this interesting relic of 19th century Britain makes a decent object for taking bearings and there are a couple of navigation buoys very close to the tower, one of them Grain Hard, a green starboard lateral mark. In 2013 I re-commissioned the building to serve us as a very useful navigation mark while crossing the potentially hazardous shipping lanes of the estuary between Essex and Kent in Shoal Waters.

The stone causeway - still in good condition despite the wearing sea
A look back from the base of the newer addition to Grain chimney
  A peep inside reveals some very ornate stonework, bomb-proof thick, with some narrow window openings of the 19th century military era, with a more cubist, concrete 20th century addition which stands to the back of the building and is interlinked with concrete a stairway, all presently decorated in ultra-modern graffiti.
The position and height of Grain Tower means it is a fantastic vantage point and anything attempting an advance up the Thames from the open coast would have had the odds stacked against them to survive the encounter. Its position and heritage would be an obvious draw for a potential buyer today who, after spending a fair few quid or more to make it habitable, would be the owner of a unique home.
  If one comes close to the tower by boat there is about ten feet of water at its foot at high-tide but if you could be persuaded it might be best to avoid drying out near to the building as there are rocks, metal pieces and the remains of a hard perilously nearby. All is not lost for the persistent (insistent even) boater as smooth mudflats are just to the west and reach close to the concrete of the seawalls.  A stone causeway about half a mile long spans the mudflats from the seawall out to the tower and though mud is deep for the first fifty feet, and the path has perished in places, perhaps surprisingly what remains is in sound condition where one can find a sure footing. However, in light of the many obstacles surrounding the tower it is much safer to arrive on foot and use this path via the seawall. In this respect, a closer look at Grain Tower is as much a proposition to ramblers as it is boaters. This could be said of many of the places I visit in Sea-Country.
  The tower is presently overlooked by neighbouring Grain power station chimney, one of the tallest in Britain, and further up the Medway, Kingsnorth chimney, built on a former WW1 airship base. The tall chimneys of Grain and Kingsnorth have been useful landmarks in themselves but of the two Grain is a more prominent feature of the whole area, particularly if viewed from the Essex shores, and can be seen from almost everywhere around. Readers take note: Work to demolish the two smoke chimneys began in 2014 therefore when demolished the Kent skyline will be changed forever...  
A concrete stairway links 1850s old and 1940s new

Flood tide begins to cover the footing. Note the obstacles inshore of Grain Hard buoy
  A few other sites that are visible from the tower are Southend to the north and the Mulberry Harbour Phoenix Unit, a portable concrete harbour built for D-Day landings in France, which broke its back after grounding on the sands in a fierce south-westerly blow while being towed in 1944, is clear to see as well as the Red Sand Towers; these can be clearly seen to the east and are another place I have sailed around in Shoal Waters. There are the masts of WW2 ammunitions carrying Liberty ship SS Richard Montgomery to be seen (and avoided) on a clear day.
  A look toward the seaward end of the Thames can awe, inspire and fill a person with wonder. It is a fascinating part of the river, a ‘metropolis water’ busy with international shipping and awash with rewards for those willing to poke at its banks and inlets that are teeming with industry and forgotten history seen in structures like Grain Tower that can keep an enquiring type busy for decades.. Enjoy your cruising, Tony

Monday, 13 October 2014


 Up close and personal with Edme... Filmed from the stern of Phoenician. Enjoy

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Voices In The Sands - Part One

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.
Thank you Essex Yacht Club