Charles Stock & Shoal Waters

East Coast Escape

22 July 1977

On the debit side it was 03:00 and the early May morning struck more than a little chilly after the warmth of a sleeping bag – two sleeping bags, in fact. On the credit side it was high tide and the 16ft gaff cutter ‘Shoal Waters’ rode high above the saltings off the ballast hole at the Blackwater Sailing Club at Heybridge. The moon was just past full (hence the spring tide) and playing hide-and-seek in half a sky of clouds. A light wind drifted in from the south-west, not enough to ruffle the water in the lee of the sea wall but sparkling ripples in the track of the moon promised more wind out in the river. Most important of all, I had Friday free to add to the weekend, three whole days of freedom with the Thames estuary at my pleasure: just me and the best little cruiser on this coast. Previous trips this year had taken ‘Shoal Waters’ up the Crouch to Battlesbridge and across the Thames to the Medway. Now for the Harwich area.

‘Shoal Waters’ does not usually carry a topsail during the dark hours but this night the sail would be needed with a spring ebb carrying her away from what little breeze there was. In the darkness the sheet somehow found its way round the halyard, but it set well enough for downwind work. The mooring buoy splashed overboard into the dark satin water and we glided out on to the broad estuary. I settled back in my duffle coat and began to sort out the early morning stars. Overhead a very bright white heavenly body defied the moonlight. A couple of degrees away a double star could be picked out with the aid of binoculars to confirm that it was Vega, and in the gaps in the clouds could be seen the rest of Patrick Moore’s summer triangle.

Dawn was well on the way as ‘Shoal Waters’ swept past Bradwell power station, a barge anchored over on the Mersea shore enriched the scene as I brewed-up in what would be the last sheltered water for some hours. The flash of the Bench Head buoy (still white, but not for many more weeks with the new system starting any day) glinted palely in the dawn and then it was daylight. The wind was rising and ‘Shoal Waters’ was going like a train. For some years I had been carrying flash gear for my camera in case a chance came along to climb the Old Gunfleet light tower a few miles south-east of Walton. This seemed as good a chance as any and we eased over towards the Spitway to pass down the Swin, for the sands dry on the Wallet side and the tower must be approached from the east. The sun rose to perfection, decorating the blue of the sea with a broad swathe of molten gold.

It is a long haul from the Spitway buoy to the West Gunfleet starboard hand buoy – the seamarks have thinned-out in this area since trading under sail died out and the motor craft can use the narrower, deeper Barrow channel. The buoy was in sight by 06:30 and astern twenty minutes later, cheering me no end with firm evidence of a strong stream going my way and fast. The forecast gave sou-westerly four, going westerly later.

The Old Gunfleet light tower guided shipping in this area for many years up to the second world war, but it has a strangely modern look, almost like a moon landing craft, with its spidery, long-legged silhouette. Within the triangle of the port shrouds and the mast it grew rapidly into a firm, bold, and then massive iron structure. .

At 07:50 ‘Shoal Waters’ arrived just before low water. We sailed round to assess the problem and found more swell than one would have wished for (about two feet from trough to crest). The ladder is on the eastern side, which makes boarding possible with the wind in the west. ‘Shoal Waters’ anchored to windward and at the third attempt found the right spot so that the boat dropped back on the cable to lay about 10 yards from the ladder. The kedge, an 8lb Fisherman, hooked on to the structure at the second throw and thus the little boat could be pulled in to the ladder which slopes inwards as the rising structure narrows. The metal has rusted away from the lowest horizontal member at about low water springs level. There seemed a danger that once weight was put upon it, the ladder could bend in from the upper end and leave the unhappy boarder 5ft or more away from the frame, safety and his boat. I first put a line round the lower rung and the horizontal support then, armed with camera and flash gear, I stepped on to the ladder, kicking the boat away. She lay back on her anchor cable but could be pulled to the ladder when wanted by the lazy painter. The lower rungs, underwater more than out of it, are covered with barnacles and need careful handling. Once above the high water mark bird lime is the trouble and, as the hand rails look very dodgy, tread carefully is the watch word. The boat was riding quietly, well clear of the structure. Through the door in the bottom of the capsule, in which three men lived for weeks at a time, moon-craft fashion, I found that the internal fittings had been vandalised since my last visit. The kitchen stove, which had once seemed to be the heart of the two-storey accommodation, had gone and partitions were broken down. Two of the roomy bunks were intact. Out in the bright sunlight on top, I found the base of the light with bullet holes still there as evidence of wartime shoot-ups by enemy aircraft and the perimeter rails shakier than ever. Presumably some sort of engine must have driven the light. The trolley wheels are still there but the light itself seems to have gone over the side. Fascinating as the place was, it was good to go back on board little ‘Shoal Waters’, retrieve the lines, weigh and stow the anchor, and unfurl the headsails to blow due north towards the sands, now covering with the rising tide. I dropped the hook in 3ft of water and settled down to a steak breakfast in just about as perfect a situation as one could imagine, cheered by the thought of colleagues at the office just getting into their stride for the day.

By the time that breakfast had been eaten and cleared up, the boat was snubbing at her cable, the swell increasing as the water deepened. The banks between us and the Wallet were covered enough to cross now, for she draws only 10 inches with the plate up. At evening classes I teach reduction to soundings by Reeds or the Admiralty tide tables and appear something of an expert on the subject. In practice I use the tea pot method: if the route ahead is water all the way, but of uncertain depth, I anchor on a rising tide. By the time I have brewed-up and drunk a cup of tea, the water has risen enough for me to sail wherever there was water before the teapot was filled. If there are mud- or sand-banks to cover, the meal must be adjusted accordingly and of course the total range of the tide must be considered in strange areas. Like most rule-of-thumb methods, the teapot system is safe only if you know and understand the proper method. By now we had a good working breeze and, with topsail handed and stowed, we got under way for Harwich under plain sail.

Two Ocean Youth Club Ketches heading south with the young flood made a fine sight but other northbound cruisers with the wind astern and no spinnakers, were making little headway past the Naze. ‘Shoal Waters’ closed the coast and crept round the shoreline to pass through the gut between Walton Stone and the Pye Sand, saving a lot of time and, today, windward work. In Hamford Water a squally patch seemed stationary overhead instead of sweeping over in the normal fashion and eventually we surrendered and pulled down a reef before beating steadily between Skippers Island and the wide marshes that stretch away toward Oakley, to Landmere and into the tidal canal to Beaumont Quay. ‘Shoal Waters’ eschews either inboard or outboard, so I towed the last few yards from the bank and made fast to a fine stone wharf. Beaumont Quay is a far cry from the normal farmers’ landing places, so often these days just a few rotting stakes, and the explanation is given on a stone plinth proclaiming that the quay was built in 1832 by the Executors of Guy’s Hospital from the stones of the old London Bridge when the 1176 structure was pulled down. The stones were brought back by barges which had taken hay, straw and fodder to London for the horses of the capital: in the days of the horse, the sailing barge was the equivalent of the modern road tanker. The work involved in the quay and the canal gives an idea of the importance of barge traffic in those far off days before the internal combustion engine set the roads a-thunder.

I brewed-up and then walked over to watch the tide running into the hold of the old barge dying on the saltings beyond the wharf. If only these old hulls could talk! There is a farmhouse and out-buildings some 500 yards away but no signs of life today. It was as quiet and lonely a spot as the light tower.

Just before the top of the tide ‘Shoal Waters’ sailed back through the maze of saltings (this is no place to get neaped on the first of the ebb!) to pick up a mooring off the bird sanctuary at Skippers Island, just in time to listen to the 14:00 forecast give sou-westerly 3 to 4. With the whole broad estuary brim full (including part of the island where the sea wall is broken), a warm sun, a blue sky littered with white fluffy clouds and no other soul in sight. I could have sat in the cockpit with my glasses for hours but an afternoon zizz was firm choice. There is a persistent rumour that I manage to go a long way in my small boat by never sleeping. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am a rare man for my kip but once afloat am prepared to sleep or sail as the tides and winds dictate in the manner of those who sailed these waters in the days of commercial sail.

There had been some talk of rain later but the sun was still shining at 17:00. What a different world! The saltings loomed high on either hand, flanked with miniature mud cliffs and mud flats patrolled by sea birds. With one reef down ‘Shoal Waters’ sailed on past Dovercourt and into Harwich, keeping close to the breakwater on the western edge of the entrance. Now the sky was overcast with a light streak above the horizon. Harwich fort stood out in sharp silhouette, its tall lookout towers having an almost Easter-Island-Statue appearance. Close to the shore ‘Shoal Waters’ dodged the tidal stream, twice being forced out by fingers of shingle, warned by an ever vigilant centreplate which in smooth water acts unashamedly as an audible echo sounder-cum-instant draft reducer. Harwich/Parkestone /Felixstowe is a busy world these days, both in its own right and as the gateway to Ipswich. At the Guard buoy I did the schoolboy crossing act of looking right and left before heading across the main channel to Shotley spit. It is not far, but large craft travel fast here and can appear from nowhere. In the lee of the Suffolk shore ‘Shoal Waters’ went over the ebb in fine style. A larger yacht which had seemed to be catching us now began to drop astern rapidly as she had to keep out into the deeper water and, inevitably. the stronger foul stream. From Colimer Point ‘Shoal Waters’, was on the wind, a long port tack and short starboard and later, in the lee of the trees, the reef could be shaken out. The sun showed himself a couple of times to cheer us on our way and just before sunset and the bottom of the tide the little cutter slid on to the mud west of Pin Mill for the night.

Overnight, the rain came – and came – and came. It eased at dawn and at 05:30 ‘Shoal Waters’ was under way again, either to take the flood down the coast or, if conditions were too rough, up the Stour to Manningtree. Prospects looked bleak at first in Sea Reach, but after breakfast off Stoneheaps I sailed out to have a look at it in the best cruising traditions and found prospects improving. The sky cleared from the west, and an idyllic trip up the Wallet in warm sunshine brought Colne Point abeam at 1310. A couple of coasters swung to their anchors off East Mersea, waiting for the tide to Colchester. ‘Shoal Waters’ had a more modest objective: the tide mill at Thorrington, at the head of Alresford Creek. The entrance, once spanned by a swing bridge in the days of the crab-and-winkle-line to Brightlingsea, is very tricky, winding among expansive mudflats but we found it well marked with withies, a sure sign that the boat population is rising fast. The lovely old barge jetty still stands there at the end of an aerial ropeway and the ford, once the main road to Brightlingsea from Colchester, was a busy scene with some people fitting-out and others just afternoon water watching. A few minutes later ‘Shoal Waters’ was alone again as the creek meandered on, growing ever more winding and narrow, past woods and, strangely enough, Brightlingsea church. Even this stretch is marked with withies now and at the mill we found a large motor-sailer, presumably the beneficiary.

Thorrington is just one more charming spot that makes the chief problem when describing this cruising area the lack of sufficient superlatives to do justice to the scenery. The skeleton of the wheel is still there but the pool is now fresh water and silting up fast. How they ever worked barges up there is a mystery, although presumably the creek has silted up since the mill was built, cutting off the tidal scour from the upper reaches.

‘Shoal Waters’ left with the tide and joined the main river for a beat over the ebb to Wivenhoe and then ran back into Alresford creek to moor for the night near the old sand jetty. Once she had dried out I walked along the rope line (or at least along the ground under it) to the pit, to fathom exactly how it worked. Things like Concorde and calculators leave me cold, they are just beyond my comprehension but things like this, sort of giant Meccano sets, delight me. In fact the runway is younger than your actual Charlie Stock, having been built in 1932 – but even that is getting old now.

More rain overnight, and while we left at 06:00 to get clear before the creek dried out, ‘Shoal Waters’ waited in the entrance to the Pyfleet for the last of the ebb and the sky cleared as the wind obligingly veered nor’west, to let us point straight back into the river Blackwater and home.