Charles Stock & Shoal Waters

Up the Thames 2003

The weather forecast for the last week of July was for unsettled conditions with wind from the northwest for Wednesday. This was the last week of my seventy sixth year and the log so far stood at just over nine hundred miles. Another run to the Thames, which would complete the thousand miles, would be a perfect birthday present.

The wind was SW 4/5 on Tuesday and I got my gear on board over the mud ready to sail off as she floated at 1140 hrs. By now the forecast for Wednesday was very unhelpful so I settled by sailing round the Tollesbury area at high water and ran up to Ray Island for the night where I would be well sheltered whatever the wind. It rained hard over night and was as black as hades when I looked out just before high water, killing my plans to sail with the ebb. The first signs of dawn showed through the tiny ports at 0400hrs and after a battle with my conscience and the hard fact that once I dried, I would not be able to leave until noon, I got underway half an hour later and sailed through the rain to the sheltered Bradwell shore where I anchored for breakfast. Then I pressed on through dull conditions to the drying Ray Sand channel a mile off shore and got as far south as possible before anchoring to sleep away the two hours before the rising tide released me to cross into the outer River Crouch. Over recent years I have watched four or five cockle boats from Boston or Kings Lynn raiding our area but this year there were nine of them. They hoover up the cockles when the tide is in and dry and catch up on sleep when it goes out. By now the wind was blowing harder and gloomy thunderclouds lay over the land. Once out into the spring flood tide, it was very rough indeed and I almost reefed but fortunately sought the comparative shelter of the southern shore for it began to take off as I beat in the River Crouch and by the time I had got into the River Roach it was definitely easing. In fact it was flat calm when I met the tide coming in from the Thames in Narrow Cuts. I couldn’t fight it and anchored at noon. When the ebb set in at 1345hrs I drifted up to the bridge, which they raised for me although it was a weekday. A little air from the west got me out over the watershed on the sands before it dried and I slowly made my way south. Now it was a problem to get off the three mile wide sands before they too dried but I just made it and with a useful westerly set off across the Thames, steering due south to cross the shipping lane as quickly as possible and get over the extensive sands off the Isle of Sheppy where I could anchor if the wind died. I must have been swept eastward well over a mile but once south of Sea Reach No One and the Medway Buoy, I came on the wind, steering south west to creep slowing westward while being swept south out of the tide. It was slow work but Beacon F drew nearer and with relief I realised that I was out of the worst of the tide by 1930hrs as the wind almost died. I was contemplating anchoring for a nap until the tide turned, when suddenly the storm clouds over Essex began to move off westward and a useful breeze came in from the east to take me to Sheerness Fort by 2050 hrs. There was another sailing boat a long way ahead but he was well north, out in the stronger tide, and I slowly overhauled him. We rounded the point together but I stood out across the Medway to keep the wind while he turned south close to the fort and the docks, into wind shadow. As darkness closed in I could see him well astern, lowering his sails and proceeding under motor. By 2155hrs I entered the Shalfleet and lowered the sails to erect the tent as I drifted into the wide, sheltered anchorage.

Light airs were forecast for Thursday and I hoped to sail under Rochester Bridge and on up the lovely wooded Medway valley to return with the ebb but calms until noon prevented my reaching the bridge until 1300hs by which time I was reluctant to sail under in case there was not enough headroom. Nevertheless, this fascinating area, with its’ small but always busy shipyards, had a surprise for me; an ex Russian submarine in for a coat of paint. I believe that it lives near the Thames Barrier where is open to the public. By high water the wind had got up from the southwest to give a fine run back past the historic dockyard to the extensive marshes where I faced the choice of a fast passage back down the main channel which would end with a beat into the Shalfleet or passing south of Nor Marsh, north of Rotten Island, across Bishops Ooze and into the Shalfleet via the drying back door. I settled for the latter and had a glorious sail, which reminded me once again what a wonderful sailing area the Medway estuary is for shallow draft boats. Another quiet night.

Friday dawned with wind from the southwest and forecast three to four with occasional five. I left at 0720 to take the last of the ebb out of the Medway, passing the forts at 0845hs with B.B.C. Essex forecasting SW 3 to 4, locally 5 and 3 later. Perfect for the run home on the afternoon ebb at 1530hrs but I wanted to see something of the River Thames first and sounded round the almost unbelievably wide Grain Sand to reach the Mid Swatch buoy at 0915 as the flood set in. With a beam wind she went like a train in the smooth water in the lee of the mile wide Blyth sands and when I reached what I expected to be the Yantlet Sands Buoy at 1010hrs, it turned out to be the East Blyth two miles further on, the former having been removed. (my chart is 1988!). The wind veered a little as the river eased slightly more southerly making it a beat for the last few miles. Several larger yachts overtook me including two Dutchmen together with a Thames barge well astern. I crossed the Lower Hope in a rare old lop and rounded the lighters full of London rubbish waiting to move in over the flats at high water to be unloaded at the modern clean hygienic Mucking terminal that has replaced the open lighters which made such a mess above Hole Haven so that you felt you could walk across the creek on the rubbish spilt onto the water. It was just midday. Now the Blyth sands would be covered and I could sail back east, close to the sea wall dodging the tide. As I recrossed the river a very smart coast guard cutter came down, much more businesslike than any I have seen before. The rest was just glorious sailing in smooth water. There are several dents in the coast, the best of which is St Mary’s bay where I anchored out of the swell for a twentyfive minute lunch at 1330hrs. Then on past Al Hallows holiday camp of chalets and caravans to lonely Yantlet Creek which once made Grain an island and suddenly I realised that soon I would loose the shelter of the shore. At 1505hrs, half an hour before the top of the tide I eased out into the stream towards the Mid Swatch Buoy, keeping the headsails full, which I reached it at high water at 1530hrs. Then I gybed and headed north to cross the shipping lane twenty minutes later and gybed again to head eastward along edge of the Essex flats. By the East Shoebury Buoy at 1655hrs the water was flattening out and I was delighted to see the strong spring tide in my favour. Now the course swung more northerly and I gybed to bring the headsails back into use. Sailing down Swin with a fair wind and tide is always a thrill. On past the Blacktail at 1720hrs & the Maplin fourtyfive minutes later, where a dolphin came up to give me a look. The question on this trip is always “Can we reach the Spitway by low water?” Today there would be no doubt; in fact I would be too early. Once there, I would have to plug an hour or so of the last of the ebb out of the Blackwater (HW Mersea 0337 hrs). In fact I was able to steer northwest which took me well south of the Knoll and N.W. Knoll buoys and the shoals they guard. It was a long slow business but enlivened by the first sign of the sun that day, an hour before a fine sunset. To my surprise, who should come up the Wallet at dusk but the coastguard cutter, which slowed and anchored for the night in the Swirehole just west of the Spitway. The wind eased as darkness closed in and I anchored off the Sales Point lighters, with their red warning lights, at 2230hrs.

Saturday came in with a perfect dawn and a light northwesterly air. When it died, the rest of the day was almost windless and I made a slow trip to the club at 1330hrs in hot sun, well satisfied with 130 nautical miles made good in some hundred hours off the mooring during half of which I had been underway.

Note. On the twentytwo mile run and reach from the Medway to the Spitway Shoal Waters averaged 4.88 kts.