Charles Stock & Shoal Waters

The Perfect Week

Year after year, the average, ever optimistic, weekend yachtsman looks forward to the week’s annual sailing holiday and hopes that this year the weather will be perfect and the tides serve him well. It must all come good sooner or later. I waited fiftyfive years.

May the 12th 2004 was not very encouraging with a northerly wind for my planned trip to Suffolk from my drying mooring at Heybridge. A dental appointment prevented my getting away on the morning tide at 0727 hrs, so I left as soon as she floated at 1735hrs; to sail over the last two hours of neap flood tide, dodging behind Osea Island and anchor for the night on the extensive mud flats off East Mersea holiday camp at 2030hrs. The wind was still a light northerly when I left next morning at 0535hrs. In my younger day I would have put up the topsail but these days am reluctant to do so in view of the difficulties of lowering it in open water if the wind gets up. By 0600hrs, I was off Colne Point and a warm sun broke through which was very welcome, for it was bitterly cold. The coast here runs just north of east as far as Clacton Pier and then I came on the wind, finding I could point NE, to fetch Walton Pier at 0935hrs. From then on it was a beat across Dovercourt Bay with low water at Harwich at about 1400hrs. To dodge the southbound ebb out of Harwich, I stood over the extensive Pye Sand to benefit from the northbound ebb out of Walton Backwaters and closed right in under Dovercourt cliffs in the shelter of Harwich Breakwater. Off course, once past the tip of the breakwater, I would be beating over the ebb. I was within 500 yards of it when the wind suddenly veered ninety degrees and then another 45 to give me a run into the harbour and on up the River Orwell. This was the first hint that things were going my way this trip. By 1410hrs, I was anchored off the steeply wooded shore below Pin Mill, the Mecca of east coast sailors. After drinking in the rich and varied shades of green on either shore over a cup of tea I laid down for a glorious afternoon nap.

It was overcast at 1600hrs when I left for a sail on up river under the Orwell Bridge, surely one of the most pleasing post war designs, to have a look at Ipswich Dock gates and see how much more the Orwell Yacht Club has been squeezed by land reclamation which never seems to end in what was once a fine great open bay. It is no place to stay unless you can afford the marina in the wet dock, so I beat back downstream to lay on the mud between Pin Mill and the Harwich Yacht Club with views both up and down the river over my horlicks. It’s a fine spot for sunsets but no luck tonight. As a consolation I heard my first cuckoo of the year somewhere in the wooded Orwell Park.

Friday came in fine but dead calm which lasted until after 1100 hrs, so I quanted to the RHYC for water and enjoyed a walk in Orwell Park to soak up rural Suffolk at its’ best. When the ebb set in, I drifted down stream; in shirtsleeves for the first time this year, to meet wind from the south off Colimer Point for a lively beat down Sea Reach. The choice was threefold, out to sea for the River Deben or the River Ore/Alde; down to Walton Backwaters or the easy one up the River Stour. The need to shop Saturday morning meant either of the last two and I turned west off Shotley for Mistley and Manningtree. The River Stour runs ten miles due east/west and the chance of a beam wind was too good to miss. Of course it would be dry beyond Wrabness so I eased over onto the flats once past Parkston Quay for lunch and a nap to let most of the ebb run out. I left at 1455hrs for a leisurely trip to Manningtree but found the wharf still dry and settled for the night on the mud above Mistley where I could see both historic towns glowing in the evening sunlight, one famous for its’ extensive maltings now being turned into luxury flats and the other famous for its’ fleet of Icelandic cod boats.

When I left Manningtree at 0930 next morning after a shopping expedition, there was a fine breeze from the northwest and bearing in mind the probability of a calm spell before the sea breeze from the southeast, reached along the north shore and right into Holbrook Bay by high water before joining the main river to reach Landguard Point at 1215hrs and so to sea. Progress was fine as far as the Deben Buoy but then the beam wind faded and a real sea breeze never took its’ place, just a few light airs at times, but of course the tide carried me on my way. At 1530 hrs I anchored south of the shingle on the southern bar to watch the water pouring out of the River Oare and examine the changes since I came this way last year. To check the turn of the tide, I noted a slither of shingle just visible on the north side, which signalled the first of the rising tide when it vanished at 1600hrs, but here the ebb runs out of the river for at least another hour. In fact it was 1750hrs before I crept slowly up to the green buoy and turned into the river. A fishing boat came in from the NE through the maze of shingle patches, straight to the green buoy and next day a local told me that the buoyed channel is not no longer the deepest water. This would seem to be confirmed by a big fellow who made several approaches in the buoyed channel behind me and turned back seaward each time. When leaving on Monday morning, I found just four feet. Once in the narrow river; progress was steady but pleasant enough as the seemingly endless shingle banks slipped by. Orford with its’ popular jetty, castle keep and church, looked as charming as ever but the wind was dying now and the sky clouded over. In view of the danger of a long calm next morning, I let the boat drift on until 2040 hrs before anchoring for the night just above the small nuclear power station. When it was built for defence purposes; warnings were put out that sparks would come out of radio sets for several miles out to sea when activated via a maze of pylons. In fact it just didn’t work for whatever purpose it was intended. When I looked out for an hygienic break at 0300hrs the boat was wrapped in thick fog.

Sunday brought a perfect dawn watched by cattle on the southern sea wall. I left at 0645hrs as the ebb died with wind from the NE ½, almost blinded by the low sun when on port tack. By the time I reached Slaughden at 0830hrs it had died to a flat calm and I used my paddle to avoid the moored craft as the tide swept me on. Suddenly wind arrived from the east and then it was all plain sailing to the head of navigation at Snape Maltings, except of course for the winding channel. Most of the many withies were still there but had lost their port and starboard fabric markings over the winter. Just one other vessel, a Wanderer dinghy, overtook me under motor but once in the Great Lake, where the river widens out over half a mile wide for well over a mile, he settled for jib only as he tried to find the winding channel with a hand held echo sounder costing, he told me £139. I relied on an eight foot garden cane. He gave up in Lower Troublesome Reach but after admiring the large orange brick house among the trees of Blackheath Wood and a mass of purple rhododendrons, Iken Church and the Oaks; I worried my way up the every more tortuous channel with flooded farmland rapidly being colonised by reed beds to port and the Suffolk Heath land to starboard, to arrive at Snape at 1045hrs. The lovely old Maltings are now an arts centre and busy with tourists. Just two vessels lay alongside the quay, a motor fishing boat, now a floating home, and the small barge Cygnet. By high water a good working breeze was blowing from the east giving a delightful beat as far as Slaughden and then a reach most of the way down river. This time I went west of Halvergate Island and into the Butley River, the jewel in the Suffolk Heritage coast. After running past the old jetty with its’ ruined barn and past the ancient ferry as far as the exquisite Gedgrave cliff, I beat back nearer the main river to anchor for the night at 1740hrs, ready to leave on the last of the ebb next morning.

In fact I could have spent the evening at Gedgrave for there was a useful air from the northwest when I left at 0310hrs on Monday morning to glide down on the swirling water listening to the surge of the sea on the shingle just over the narrow spit. It was one of the calmest trips out over the bar I have had since my first visit in 1949. Leaving as the flood starts down the coast ensures that the flood will be setting into the River Deben by the time I reach there. To my surprise, when I reached it at 0700hrs there was white water by the green buoy, which I assumed was a sure sign that the ebb from the river was still meeting the sea outside, so I backed off for half an hour but found no change when I entered at 0740hrs. The ever changing banks certainly produce some strange effects. Once through the narrows by the ferry, I found flat calm and used my paddle once again to avoid the maze of closely moored craft. After clearing the last of them, I washed and shave al fresco as the boat drifted on with the tide. Then the breeze appeared by Ramsholt and the rest was an easy run to Woodbridge at 1100hrs. I always go on above the tide mill to Wilford Bridge for most of the boatyards are above the town now and there is a lot going on. After anchoring for lunch in the bay opposite a green valley in glorious surroundings; I beat back to the Rocks for an afternoon nap and later, moved on nearer the entrance for the night where the calm of the evening was killed by the water skiers.

Tuesday came in with a useful light breeze from the north. I left at 0345hrs for a swift but easy trip over the bar, on to Landguard Point and across the busy Harwich shipping lane without a vessel in sight for once. Leaving the tangle of cranes astern, I headed for the hazy low land behind the Naze, picked out the first of the Walton Club buoys and by 0630 was anchored in the shelter of Walton Stone. Food was low and I breakfasted on a raisin sandwich. Then an easy sail with the tide and the dying northerly to the Walton and Frinton Y.C. for water, an all day breakfast and shopping in the cheerful little town just fifteen minutes away. By the time I had finished, the wind had gone southeast to blow me back over the flood to the Twizzle to sail past the ever growing marina and out across the Wade to Kirby creek to rejoin Hamford Water to pick up a mooring at the top for lunch of steak and fresh bread rolls followed by an afternoon nap. There are just five buoys, all empty so early in the season. Only one is marked, as suitable for 5 tons Thames Measurement. A massive R.Y.S. vessel had already picked up one of them and later a very large yacht tied up alongside her. The noise boys aren’t the only yobs on the water! In anticipation of a long days’ sailing on Wednesday, I took Tuesday easy but at 1720hrs moved down near the entrance ready to leave next morning. Most craft anchor in the Walton Channel but fast fishing boats past at all hours with heavy wash, so I anchored in the mouth of Hamford Water close to the lighters sunk there to protect the northwest tip of Horsey Island. Sitting in the cockpit over my horlicks, I noted two craft aground, one, a thirty footer, on the Pewit Island side and another way out to the northeast on the far side of the Pye Sand with just the mast and boom visible above the golden sand.

At 2330hrs I was disturbed by the noise of a motor and looked out to see a vessel with navigation lights and a brilliant spotlight waving far and wide. They came over to me when I flashed my torch and asked where I was, as they were lost. They said that they wanted to get back in the Twizzle Marina from where they had taken the boat that afternoon to try it out with a view I buying it. They were strangers to the area but had been given a MAP which they had lost overboard. Once aground they had been stuck until dark. Now it was nearly high water springs on a very black night with the saltings partially awash. I advised them to anchor until first light but they moved off quickly before I could ask about food or even water to drink and soon I fancied I heard an anchor chain but there was no sign of them nearby next morning.

The longterm forecast of wind from the NW for Wednesday had turned out to be a cruel tease and now it was SW ¾ going NW later. When I left at 0315hrs it was SW 1/2. Most of the channel buoys are now lit and by 0400hrs I was able to sound across the sands near Crabb Knoll and head ESE into the misty gloom. The Naze was not discernable but the lights of Walton showed up dimly and I knew that when they disappeared, it must be behind the high ground of the Naze. Of course I kept the sounding cane going like a walking stick and expected to pick out the green flash of the Anglia Buoy, which I reached at 0430hrs. At 0500hrs the red orb of the sun appeared over a few degrees of cloud and stayed for the day. After Walton Pier at 0515hrs I was on the wind until Clacton at 0730hrs . The wind died for a short spell off Frinton and I was surprised how shallow it was so far out so that I quanted for a spell until the wind returned. As I drew away from the shore after Clacton pier, I relished the glorious sailing; enough wind to keep the boat moving well but not enough to let the sea build up and slow her down. It got lively off the Colne Bar Buoy at 0910hrs and on to the Bench Head. I had the choice of rougher water but plenty of tide or sailing in closer to Mersea Island to find smoother water but less tide. Time was the enemy for high water at my mooring was at 1400 hrs and it dried two hours later. Anyway it was grand sailing on blue water under a bluer sky. Once through Osea narrows at 1245hrs, I would have hoped to point the course to my club but the wind had veered NW so it became a beat again, with the wind becoming flukey. By 1340hrs I was off No 7 buoy with a mile to go as the wind almost died. The flood was obviously finished and I eased over close to Northey Island when suddenly a succession of vicious gusts from between west and north came and went every few minutes. Slowly I reached the western tip of the island and found a westerly slant that enabled me to point across Colliers Reach, with the growing ebb tide on the lee bow. In the lulls, I paddled furiously to keep the boat moving. Suddenly I reached the western shore and tacked past the club to pick up my mooring at 1500hrs. After lowering the sails and bundling them up, I collapsed on my bunk with a cup of tea to recover enough energy to stow the gear properly by which time the little lady was high and dry and I could walk ashore with my gear, well pleased with my forty one year old boat and my seventy six year old self.

Words 2693 – 160 nautical miles made good in 165 hours and a half.