Charles Stock & Shoal Waters

There’s no fool like an old fool

There’s no fool like an old fool

The above was one of my late mother’s favourite sayings. I have suspected that it was true for most of my 77 years but last Saturday, the 26th of April 2005, Easter Saturday, I approved it beyond all doubt.

As has been my custom for the last 42 years, I was cruising the maze of creeks and sandbanks that make up the greater Thames Estuary in my small home built sixteen foot engineless sailing boat from her moorings at Heybridge. A moonlight trip late Friday evening took me down the shallow Ray Sand Channel two miles offshore to moor for the night in the entrance to the River Roach. This enabled me to take the midday flood tide up the River Crouch to the tidemill at Battlesbridge and return with the ebb to the Roach for an early night. Saturday came in with thick fog but the river is clear of moorings and I worked my way through to Pagalsham where the sun came out so hot that I wished I had packed my sunhat. A couple of hours before high water I ran onto the mud near the old tidemill for a snooze as the spring tide covered the extensive mudflats and freed the miscellany of motor craft moored along the shore and to a new ambitions jetty built by the users themselves. I noticed a sturdy craft smothered in fishing rods leave at noon and followed them half an hour later as the flood tide eased. With the wind in the southeast, it was a glorious beat; long on the port tack and short on starboard. The problem was; ‘where to? ‘

The forecast was for rising wind from the northeast next day, just the way I had to go home. My progress would be slower because I was beating and by the time I reached the lower end of the Ray Sand Channel; it would already be dry. There was twelve feet of water at low tide in 1900; now it dries a metre and a half; that’s metrification for you! The alternative, and the route used by deep draft yachts is the Spitway; a swatchway between the Buxey and Gunfleet Sands, seven miles out. It is lit and I decided that if the Ray was already dry, I would carry on to it. With the wind in the southeast, it should be possible to reach it by dusk and low water at about 1900hrs.

The best laid plans off go awry! When I was about a mile from the mouth of the River Crouch, thick fog rolled in from the East, real genuine ‘Harry Thickers’. The sensible thing to do was run back to anchor in the River Roach or beach on the drying mud on the north bank of the River Crouch (wind forecast to back). I decided to press on in the hope that the fog would lift (which it did about midnight). A few minutes later I swept by the Inner Crouch buoy and later met the fishermen that I had seen leave Rochford at noon; busy at their trade; far to busy in fact to sound any fog signals. I tooted regularly on my barge horn and was glad of my tanned sails, which show up in the gloom better than white. I had no radar, direction finder, position finding gadgets, no echo sounder and no communication with the shore, as my Orange mobile does not seem to reach this far out to sea. I did have a large brass compass that once served a WW2 landing craft, (it is lit by a battery, charged from a solar panel); a centerboard which can be lifted if I touch, and most important of all, a seven foot garden cane. My Ziess, seven by fifties, were unfortunately in the boot of my car and to be sorely missed. The head wind simplified navigation, as I merely had to sail back and forth across the river helped by the strong spring ebb tide, tacking whenever the cane touched the bottom. The only other seamark I saw was Buxey No Two, a large north sector cardinal buoy. Later a large trawler loomed out of the mist on autopilot with the one chap on boat working aft. Again no fog signals!

As darkness gathered round me, my enthusiasm faded. I did what the political correct would call a ‘risk assessment’, and found it all a little worrying. The wind had backed and each tack to the north still found shallow water. I had hoped to hear the bell on the Spitway Buoy as Cdr. Muir related so brilliantly in ‘Messing About in Boats’ before the first world war; but heard not a sound, which told me I still had a long way to go. The water began to smooth out at about seven o’clock and I had to face the fact that the tide had turned against me. All that I could do now was anchor to feed and sleep until there would be enough water to cross right over the Buxey Sand in some hours’ time. The boat was swiftly snuggled down and I had soon fed and slipped into a warm sleeping bag after refilling the hot water bottle.

An hour and a half later I was woken by the boat going mad and realised that the wind has rising and that the waves were getting bigger. It was time to move north into shallower, smoother water. Reefing and setting the sails was bad enough, but getting the anchor out of the iron hard sand, into which it had been dragged for over two hours was worse. Suddenly it came out; I stowed the fisherman across the bow behind the Sampson post and dashed aft, dodging the writhing boom. At first there was water galore but soon the cane touched and half an hour later I was into two or three feet and had to anchor again. By now of course, the tide was rising fast; so this time I just sat in the cockpit and thought of my sailing hero’s, Francis B Cooke, aground on the Buxey Sand on a February night in sixteen foot ‘Wave’ in the eighteen nineties (In Tidal Waters) and Maurice Griffiths in ‘Albatros ‘ on the Gunfleet Sand at night in the late twenties (Magic of the Swatchways). My first thought was to allow the tide thirty minutes to rise sufficiently but in fact I added another five for luck and after another rough and tumble, got under way again, still steering north on starboard tack. This time, after shallowing a time, the depth remained steady for fifteen minutes or so. Suddenly the water began to deepen and almost at once, my faithful cane failed to touch bottom. The Buxey Sand is very steep to on the northern side. My heart soared and I settled back to sail the five miles north across the Wallet Channel, hoping to find some navigation mark before I hit the beach west of Clacton. An hour later the red light on the North West Knoll loomed out high above the dark black water in front of me. It just was plain sailing now! I shook the reef out of the mainsail as the wind seemed to be easing. The seas smoothed as I gained the shelter of Colne Point Beach where I found a quiet spot over the mud to anchor for the rest of the night.

On Sunday I visited Colchester at high water, admired the ‘Walt Disney’ new homes at Rowhedge and by four o’clock was moored up in the snuggest anchorage on the coast; the little creek between Rat Island and the Colchester military firing ranges with a steak and kidney pudding heating up in the kettle, ready for a long kip and an easy trip home to my mooring at Heybridge on Monday.

Note, halfway through typing this, my wife put her head round the door to say that there were only had two potatoes left. On my way to the local shop I passed a harassed mum waiting to cross the busy road with a gaggle of children anxious to get into the park.

“These youngsters,” she remarked, “They have no sense of danger”. I nodded my wise old head in agreement.

Note two, At least Cdr. Muir had some help to find the Spitway Bell Buoy. While moored in Lowestoft, he had met three unemployed actors, one male and two female, who thought that they could find work in Southend but lacked the funds to travel there. He agreed to drop them off at Southend on route back to Chatham. They met thick fog in the Spitway area and listened for the dismal sound of the Bell. One young lady lying on the deck said she could hear it by pressing her ear to the deck. At first they laughed but found it did work.

A few years later during WW1. Cdr. Muir was sitting in the front stalls of a London theatre when he noticed that one of the young ladies on stage was staring directly at him and seemed to be making signals (so did several matrons sitting nearby). At the interval he was invited backstage to meet the ‘bell’ girl and later dined with her and her finance.