Friday, 21 October 2016

Sailing Essex Creeks

Stars were out and a lovely half-moon hung low glowing over the creek as I boarded Shoal Waters late on Tuesday night. Being harvest time I could hear tractors on nearby fields as farmers harvested away under headlamps.  It's a wonderful sound, and sight - it's life, and its wheel is forever turning…
 The cabin was down to 13 degrees when I slipped away under full mainsail on Wednesday morning at 0655 in lovely sunshine, albeit with a bracing chill - my hands felt warmer dipped in the sea! I noticed a couple of new arrivals in the creek; dinghies placed at the oyster layings. The oyster firm hasn't worked the line of trays in the creek for a couple of years now. I’ve seen a dredger work the creek for oysters, and sometimes I see someone gather oysters by hand, like some of the fishermen at Mersea do, uses shallow draft skiffs to reach anywhere in the river and hand pick a few sacksful for a morning's graft. It looks backbreaking work being bent over, and let’s hope they make a fare living as disease and one thing and another has played havoc on the stock in recent years this part of the country.
07.20 - We're charging downriver quite nicely under full main and jib. I swigged the jib and staysail halyards before leaving. With the Wykeham Martin furlers, too tight a halyard can cause the bearings to jam which isn't great if it happens when you want to shorten sail in a hurry!
09.00 - Heading S-g-E. Jibed while sounding over St Peter’s Flats. Pretty smooth out here in the Rays'n, and we're making good progress by keeping tight to the Targets in less than five feet of water while sailing over the remaining two hours of ebb. When the sun is shining and every wave top has a sparkle, going to sea alone and under sail has to be one of the best feelings in the world.
10.15 - Shoal Waters’ after-end wiggled to the set of tide when we anchored beside the Mid Ray buoy, got the kettle on the go and scrubbed boot-line free of last week’s moss. All much to the annoyance of a group of seals already comfortably seated up on the Buxey.
12.55 – Weighed anchor. Wind F3, and veering NE. The clouds have gathered and darkened to look quite menacing but a piercing sun lights the glitter every few moments ahead, as we move slowly south, over the sands.
Ray Sand Swatchway
Ray Yellow is in sight and all is blissfully quiet out here, not another boat in sight, just the trickle of salt water and the sound of bubbles gurgling. Are those cockles down there trying to tell us something?
13.35 - In Whitaker Channel, No 1 Outer Crouch - STB Buoy. Looking south, over and above the Maplins, the sky has fused with sea water to the extent it looks ‘other worldly’.
Foulness Island seawall
14.50 - In River Roach. Wind SE F3.
Much work is in progress in both Quay, and Devils Reach, shoring up sea walls on Foulness Island. Cranes are over on Wallasea Island as well. Two or three huts are now permanently on the seawall at Wallasea. Such a crying shame as it now spoils the unique low lying coast of this area, and the feeling one had escaped Man… That's progress, I guess..?
16.05 - Down Yokesfleet Creek and nosed into Shelford Creek to see the drop-dead gorgeous reddish-brown seals and pointed our bowsprit into the abruptly dammed New England Creek, which once exited uninterruptedly straight into the Thames Estuary, lined with gulls as always. Onward into Narrow Cuts where I had to harden up and sail close hauled, up against the sea wall. As if I needed it, I was reminded this creek is a battle every time! Lots of blue sky overhead now and birds are singing on the muds. Wind SE F3-4, with lulls.
 Havengore Bridge is in sight now and I have a gut feeling I should abort the thought of a passage through to the Thames… The driving wind has dropped off to SE F2 and Shoal Waters won’t sail over a tide now, and to further thwart our advance any driving wind is on the nose. We’re running short of precious daytime as well.

17.15 - In Havengore Creek. I imagined the Bridgekeeper to be biting his nails for me in anticipation… Is this boat with the sails coming through or isn’t it? Unfortunately, until we reach the bridge we can never be sure which way the wind will be blowing and a number of attempts have had to be aborted due to it being funneled forcefully through the bridge piers onto our nose.

Oxenham Creek, as viewed from Havengore Creek
By the looks of the harvesting going on over on Rushley Island our annual Harvest Cruise was truly well under way though. There are so many creeks to visit here in the backwaters of Essex, and in Havengore Creek one passes Wakering scout hut, just opposite and upstream of Oxenham Creek, where it peeps above the seawall and is set in a wonderful playground for youngsters to adventure in. We sailed right round the island and had a magical quarter wind up to Potton Bridge, which opened up sharpish. How nice to have a new series of lateral buoys in the creek to help point the best way through the muddy shallows and as we sailed past them the weather obliged with sunshine, and an after the storm type of calmness. Absolutely a magnificent evening to be gliding along the creeks…
Causeway road onto Rushley Island
I had a peep in Barlinghall Creek for an agreeable smooth water sail up to the hard and back out. I generally will always anchor but impulse decided on borrowing a mooring buoy for few hours as I was surprised to see three or four vacant in the Roach and it was an easy matter to sail up to any one of them.  After tying everything down I sat in the cockpit and watched the sun fall and tide recede peacefully.
Causeway road onto Potton Island in Potton Creek
The forecast wind for the next day wasn’t great: up to Force 6, so we sat it out and I didn't get away again until 18.50 the next evening when the sail up to Lower Rochford in a Force 5 was outstanding. I double reefed Shoal Waters’ main while safely moored - a case of shortening everything inward so that, when setting off, I left the jib furled and just set the small staysail. She sails quite nicely with this set-up as long as there is plenty of wind and is well balanced, but as a consequence to increasing wind so does the popple on the water and any sudden drop in wind force and she likes to play stone dead. For her miniature stature she really is such a heavy old bird and demands her share of canvas.

Double reefed in the River Roach
I reached the pair of Lower Rochford lateral buoys an hour after HW. The sun had all but gone and the patterned sky was a magnificent backdrop to end this part of our trip. Mucking Hall has a small creek and a disused wharf that would offer shelter but was bone dry, and to port lay Bartonhall Creek which had about a foot and half of water but we couldn't sail into it tonight for the ebbing tide run too fast for us. Never mind, we had a close look and I wondered for a few moments about the legend of smuggling that once went on these parts.
 I jibed round, and doing so the plate sung and rudder creaked going over a mud-horse on the corner of the creek. She slowed to a near stop and not really wanting to stop here for the night I shuffled over a little, to keep in the deep of the fairway, and sailed on down the Roach toward darkness and a slant south, into The Violet, a stretch of water at the top end of Potton Creek where we anchored at 22.00 just above Barlinghall Creek entrance to be well placed for an advance up to Little Wakering in the morning. I set the riding light and sat in the cockpit in silence. Half the banks were lined by silver mud that reflected faintly the sparkle of a half-moon that shone above Barlinghall marshes.
 There was stillness in the air tonight. Not like the howling and rattling through the rigging that went on throughout the night before. For now, this was perfect. 

Roach sunset
However, the forecast was for strong winds again tomorrow therefore I set the alarm for 05.30 and got straight to bed in the hope I would arise in a shape of pleasing form able to cope with it...
The next morning I was up just after the birds and had breakfast and a cuppa. I shuddered when the radio forecaster mentioned westerlies up to Force 6. Any relaxed and pleasant creek-sailing to be had today in a civilized fashion would have to be done early, before the weather came in. Skies were blue and the sun low, just rising over Potton Island. I weighed anchor and shook out one reef in the mains'l as we slid passed the new Barlinghall red can buoy, and entered into the Barlinghall Creek proper.
Barling is such a sweet creek and immediately inside it one catches sight of the hamlet’s quaint church steeple which sits nicely as a bearing to aim for, and lower down is remarkably broad, not unlike part of Norfolk’s inland waterways. But then, unlike Norfolk and its medieval hand dug Broads, beneath the surface is mud deeper than I am tall, as sticky as glue, and formed by Mother Nature, and as much as it is marvelously wide it has deceptively shallow margins that simply revel in snaring an off-guard skipper besotted by the prospect of sailing it. And anyways, if you were to find yourself aground and stuck fast, there is no shame in admitting it, for as is often said, if you haven’t run aground on the East Coast you haven’t been anywhere! So I confess, I've been trapped here more than once, and still make the odd mistake as I have a short memory…

In the margins at Barlinghall Creek
I tacked a way up the creek; I find it's deeper close to the corrugated piling but still had the sounding cane poking away to one side. There's a distinct sound Shoal Waters’ plate makes before you find you’re at a standstill, and possibly neaped, which of course is what we endeavour to avoid at all costs while beating close to margins. This is an endeavour more important near to high tide as to get the boat under way again can mean downing all sail, lashing the plate and rudder up, and using the quant pole to punt and pole us out into free water again - which done under duress can be a huge effort. So, maintaining way as you become entrenched in the shallower reaches of a creek like Barlinghall can become a kind of delicate ballet dance where, without firmness of grip, the tiller is barely held at all and guided with the lightest touch of hand, or finger, keeping the rudder in line with the centre of the boat as much as possible so it’s not acting like a brake, and at the same time both jib sheets are played and paused accordingly to ‘aback’ the nose round ever so precisely.
 Further skill is required of the creek-sailing skipper in the correct timing of when to sheet in on the new tack for while all this dynamic businesses is going on the force of the incoming tide is having an effect on the small yachts handling as well and so one is wise to not tack too late and see his yacht's stern brought round before him.
If you can imagine Barling Creek as a kind of horse shoe shape, or an upside down letter u, then when we come near to the middle of the u there are two lines of fishing boats and other craft to tack through. The wind direction was rather kind on this occasion being west-south-west and I could reach through into Little Wakering Creek. The saltings are sliced through with rills and home to one or two intriguing old boats while the cant face is a busy feeding and stop off place to small birds. I did look in to Fleethead Creek and for my troubles got stuck for a few moments because of it but then we came to the first and only major bend in our main focus, Little Wakering Creek, and began a succession of short tacks up to an old staging. There's a light airplane field behind the bushes here, and there was a house barge on the staging here for a time. It's a wonder to think the old Thames barges made their way up this small creek. 

Just coming into Little Wakering Creek
 Today's high tide was a very low neap so unlike us they wouldn't be going any further on a day like today. A chap appeared on the seawall walking a dog and took some photographs of us sailing. A few houses are visible from here and so are farm buildings nevertheless there is a warm and secret ambience about the place and with there being plenty of marsh this side of what is, in comparison to other creeks, a low seawall which is soft and decorated with every shade of green, there are lots of little hideaways to tuck into and spend a quiet night on the putty.

As the day past the wind grew in strength and as I entered back into the Roach from the Violet it blew from the seawall at Shuttlewoods jetty where there wasn’t a soul in sight and where I felt it safe to stop for a while to straighten out the rigging. Until that is someone came over and said there was no landing here and I would have to move off straight away.  No problem at all, I said, and we set off again and anchored at the mouth of Paglesham Creek opposite a WW2 pillbox that sits on the seawall there and near about where the old HMS Beagle, the ship on which Darwin sailed around the world and was later called Watch Vessel no 7, would have been stationed guarding the then numerous and valuable oyster beds. I find it quite amazing to think other types of exploratory ships of Man have since been named after this ship that ended its days in a quiet Essex backwater, and have sought other frontiers in that never ending ocean of outer space. 
Anchored in strong winds at the mouth of Paglesham Creek

 We rocked and swung to anchor for what remained of the day. It was enough time to cook a filling meal in the ship’s steamer and read a little more, and then sailed gloriously into Paglesham Creek on the next incoming tide. The creek sailing that followed, even if only a few hours of perfectly idyllic sailing, was exceptional and reward enough for everything one does in preparation to belay it. The oyster layings in the creek are worked from an anchored raft in the Pool and the sight of a 6'x8' pitch roof garden shed sitting on it in mid-creek does raise a smile. 
 I stopped at saltings just inside the creek and stretched the legs and absorbed some of the stunning scenery of one of my favourite areas. I’ve heard people say ‘it’s boring here’, ‘there’s nothing there’, ‘it’s pretty bleak.’ That’s the whole point, thank you, I’ll have it all to myself! 

In smooth water, and the lee of muddy bank in Paglesham Pool. Oyster raft mid-creek and Burnham in the far distance
 Having sailed freely every creek in these parts and circumnavigated every sailable inch of Wallasea Island it was only the fact a road onto Wallasea was sat before us caused a turn back around to anchor next to a WW2 pill box at Church Hall farm wharf and ponder the delights of our marshy surroundings and the timing of our descent.
Wharf with pill box at Church Hall
 20.09. Left the top of Paglesham Creek at high water. I rode close to the mud bank as she would go and keep moving to pass under the highest point of overhead electric cables. There seemed to be a lull in the weather as we sailed past the oyster raft at Paglsham Pool, which held passing Shore Ends in darkness, so I decided to sail on through the night and get the bulk of the passage home done. From Holliwell Point the north-west wind kept falling off and, bar one reef, I had all canvas set but still it took longer than I had hoped to get out of the Crouch. 
Dusk, passing a floating oyster shed in Paglesham Creek
 However, the calmer weather was short-lived and I was taken by surprise when I reached the Ray Yellow buoy at how soon it became atrocious for a miniature vessel as ours to be out in: Force 5, increasing Force 6 at times. I was hesitant that the weather would pick up and thus one reason the cruising man such as I reefs his sails to suit expectant bad weather, and the racing man with safety boats in tow reefs his sails to suit expectant lulls.
 I picked out the North Star overhead it was such a clear night, and I steered by it from the Whitaker Channel, crossing between the Ray and Buxey Sands.
 To a degree I’d took a gamble at crossing the swatchway on a falling tide but I’d done the crossing with success dozens of times before and my reasoning was as long as I stay within 2hrs of high water, and not cut any corners, I should in all instances, get across safely. However, this time I daren’t sound the depth with my trusty stick as I couldn’t bear to confirm what I was already thinking; that we were in less than a few feet of water in wind that wailed deafeningly through the rigging and with threatening short chop crashing loudly against the side of the boat...
 We crossed the shallow sands for 15 minutes... Suddenly, the old girl was on her beam end, rocking forward and back, and as the unsettled sea raced by flashes of moonlight that were so dazzling reflected off it and distracted from the urgency of the situation I was in. It dawned on me then we didn’t seem to be moving with it… I checked the sails with haste and could make out they were filled with wind. I realized she must be pivoting on the plate and we were, in fact, being pinned down by the force of the wind acting on the tide. Suddenly I was living my worst nightmare of grounding on the sands alone, in the dark and in a hellish sea-state.

  I stabbed anxiously at the sand with the six foot cane only to confirm we were in an average two foot of water, with less on the bottom of troughs, and then almost swallowed my tongue in shock as waves began breaking on the weather side and I pictured the worst scenario of being broken up during the coming moments on the unforgiving, hard sand. Oh dear, maybe we are done for this time, I thought. I was puzzled somewhat as I hadn’t heard the usual warning sound from the centerplate, but then a Force 6 makes some racket and add to that I had a woolly hat on covering my ears, I reasoned. Whatever the case, there was no time for judge and jury so, instinctively, I released the rudder downhaul and hauled the plate fully up in such a hurried fashion five stone in weight of cold steel could have come flying out the casing into my bare hands.
 Next, I threw myself into the companion way to grab hold of the paddle and began working it savagely over the lee rail in an attempt to move her along. To cross the sands should take no more than 20 minutes and our time was up. The North Ray buoy should be somewhere in an arc off the bow, to the north, but it was a hopeless case looking for it in this darkness. She stayed  pointing north on the compass and I paddled for a good few more minutes and was relieved the cane appeared to be going deeper and deeper. It was only inches more water but sure evidence we were moving again and had cleared the shallowest point of the swatchway.
 The short amount of time all this played out in felt like days yet was roughly only a few minutes window. Finally, when I knew we were completely clear of the sands, the relief was overwhelming.  Our high adventure on low water wasn’t over yet though. I was starting to feel tired but it wasn’t safe to anchor as the wind was picking up even more, whipping the shallow sea into a cauldron, and I had to press on regardless. There’s a point of no return when one heads out to sea on a running tide and for Shoal Waters and I it was back near Shore Ends - long gone…
 She thrashed along the Dengie coast throughout the night over-canvassed, every so often a spray of sea water rained down over the whole boat. I ducked down behind the cabin to avoid the stinging salt water and trimmed the sheets from there to keep us sailing off her one-reefed mainsail’s leach, and small jib set tight, until we reached an area a couple of miles offshore, east of St Peter’s Chaple, I call The Point.
  There are times when it is safer to keep a boat moving than it is to anchor her still and this was one of them, and as we met the force of the ebb coming out of the Blackwater and pushed the tiller away for a turn west endured two further hours of arduous sailing against wind, and now a foul tide…
I made Bradwell Creek inside the Blackwater just after low water when, as so often is the case, the harsh wind had all but vanished to a distant memory. We arrived home a few hours later, at 0645. Good sailing adventure to all.