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