Charles Stock & Shoal Waters

Shelter in the Sands

June 1987

‘THAMES, DOVER, north-east 5-6, 7 later . . .’

In spite of the dominating high, the 1355 shipping forecast brought deep depression aboard the little green cutter battling into the short, steep seas knocked up by the ebb tide in the outer Thames Estuary. It was a breathtakingly beautiful scene – clear blue sky tinting the writhing waters into a sparkling blend of greens and blues, topped by white crests. Worrying streaks of spent foam littered the faces of the waves.

Three miles to the north-west, the low sea-wall of Essex fell away beyond the widening expanse of the Maplin Sands, already edged by a line of yeasty surf. Steamers, waiting for their turn to go up into the Port of London, stood rock steady at anchor, making useful benchmarks to gauge the progress made good at the end of each port tack. Under deep-reefed mainsail and tiny storm staysail, the little boat could be nursed over the waves safely enough, but progress was poor. It improved if the jib was unfurled but at the cost of showers of spray and some terrifying bumps when she sailed off the top of one wave to land in the trough before the next.

It was nearly half-ebb and the chances of beating the 12 miles to the Whitaker beacon by low water, never very good unless the wind swung southeast, were now nil. The precious radio was switched off and stowed in the safety of the cabin. In a smooth patch, she came round on to port tack once more and the Skipper settled down to assess the options.

I had long made a habit of taking a full week’s holiday at Easter and this one had turned out to be a winner, with the sun rising out of the sea each morning and sinking below the sea-wall each evening. Four days in the Harwich area had been followed by a glorious nine-hour run south to the Medway on Tuesday. There I spent a lazy day among the marshes near the river mouth and another upstream among the dilapidated wharves and ship repair yards near the first bridge at Rochester.

By Friday it was time to head home to Maldon but the wind stayed in the north-east and became more hostile. Not good; but, on the time-honoured principle of sailors over the centuries, it was ‘worth a look’. And this was where it had got me!

The first possibility was to run back to Leigh and shelter but that would do little to solve the problem of getting home. The second was to press on steadily and fight the young flood until the sands covered sufficiently to enable me to make a short cut across the Ridge; ideal in lighter conditions but today it could mean disaster, for I knew I’d be getting very tired by that time and there was no chance of a hot drink in these seas. Any miscalculation, a failure to make one more tack out into the flood tide, could mean running aground on a dead leeshore in heavy surf. No thank you!

The third option was to run back a mile or so and creep into a hole in the sands near the Old Measured Mile beacon in the lee of the drying Blacktail Spit. That would be safe enough. When the flood returned, I could beat across the sands to Havengore creek. But it would be dark by then and I would have to wait for water deep enough to enable me to use at least half plate (2ft 6in). The wind and tide would be against me and there are stakes 18 inches high on the sands set out by the MoD for ranging purposes. Drop on to one of those and fini!

The fourth was an old trick perfected over the years. I could press on past the Blacktail Spit until the SE Maplin buoy was in sight. There is a gut running northwest into the flats here. If I could find my way in, there would be shelter in the lee of the drying sands. Finding it is the problem when the sounding pole is the only aid. It is not just a case of finding a gap in the surf, for the tide runs out so rapidly that deep water is as tortured as shallow.

The prospect of peace and quiet among the sands was irresistible. After a furious session with the sounding pole, including a frightening two foot patch, there was no bottom at six feet and suddenly the little boat was steady for the first time since she had left the Medway at 1100.

I had settled back at the tiller as Shoal Waters, now with sheets eased, raced through the smooth water followed by a long, lazy swell from the main. Visibility was superb – the Isle of Grain chimney, the tower blocks at Southend, the gasometer at Shoebury, the gun towers out on the Shivering and Red Sands and, most important of all, buildings and structures including the twin radar towers of the defence establishment three miles across the sands. A gleaming ridge of drying sand reached out beyond the Blacktail beacon towards the buoy of the same name.

Progress was slow, for here the tide races off the sands, but it was certain. At 1540, the depth was down to three feet with a drying patch to windward. The bowsprit rounded up into the wind, the anchor and sails went down and the kettle went on!

I believe that the southerners in America have a method of catching porcupines using a bathtub. You drop the tub over the animal, trapping it. The next move is up to you but at least you have something to sit on while you think it out. I felt rather the same way about my present situation. The watershed between Havengore Creek which ebbs into the River Crouch and the Thames is some half a mile to seaward of the coastline. Until the lifting road and rail bridge was built in the twenties, it was the only road to Foulness Island and known as the Broomway, because it was marked by a line of brooms or withies.

High water was at 2346 at Sheerness. The mean rise of 6hr 15min gave low water at 1730 and the pocket tidal atlas shows the tide here about 20 minutes earlier. There would be water over the Broomway by 2200. The course was roughly due west but it would depend on the slight channels revealed by the advancing flood tide, because the sands are not billiard table flat. The passage could be made under headsail. The working staysail was fitted in place of the tiny stormsail. Most important of all, no plate would be needed so Shoal Waters could take full advantage of her shallow draught – some 10 or 12 inches.

Shallow water is smooth water on these wide sands. Snatching stress on the anchor chain is a problem; the weight of the chain offers no shock absorber effect as it would in deep water. Instead, I rove some thick shock cord through links of the chain to make a bight so that the strain was taken by three thicknesses.

Many years ago, two vessels en route for the Crouch found themselves over these sands in the dark and anchored, one with chain and one with warp. The warp held and the vessel reached Burnham safely. The chain snapped and that boat was wrecked, fortunately without loss of life.

When the tide returned, it would be a case of moving on as soon as it got deep enough to be uncomfortable. Down plate six inches, up anchor, unroll the staysail and run in with the tide, keeping upwind and uptide of the entrance to the creek. When the plate whispers (no danger with the wind aft) whip it up, round up, furl the staysail and down anchor. Back into the warmth of the cabin for a brew up and to study the rising tide through the glasses, the boat of course lying head to wind.

At no time would the hull touch the sand. In places, the tide runs as fast as a man can walk. Several wildfowlers were trapped and drowned here in the early seventies. The best water over the Broomway is marked by a wooden post with eight horizontal cross-pieces at 20 inch intervals. It should be approached from the southeast and two plain posts mark this route.

I knew that, with luck, I should be able to find one of them in the dark.

The Easter moon was old now and there would be no help there. It is not every yachtsman’s idea of sailing, but to this happy 21-year-old partnership of boat and owner-builder with 30,000 miles of ditch-crawling behind it, it is the very cream of the sport. In fact, if anyone had hailed ‘Davis!’ I might well have answered!

By 1900, the little cone of sand, built on the drying bank as a tidemark, had been overwhelmed and it was time for the first move. The bearing of the twin radar towers increased from 346°T to 355°T. Now the glasses picked out the structure of the bridge 3 1/2 miles away, silhouetted against the perfect backdrop of a crystal clear golden sunset. Next move, the towers came into transit (due north) and began to open again. The beacons leading into Havengore could be picked out with the glasses as the sun set behind the sea wall at 2015. They would be lost again as darkness closed in, but it was comforting to get a bearing on them while the light lasted. The wind, freed from the opposition of the sun, increased its bite and the roar of the surf carried on it was a reminder that this was a deadly serious business with no room for mistakes.

Under way once more, a stake slipped by to port, its slimy green top just visible between the waves. By keeping in shallow water, at least the boat couldn’t land on top of them. The problem now was to find those beacons again.

Crouching low in the cockpit made them stand out in the night sky against the glare of Southend. Suddenly, one appeared a few hundred yards ahead; a sweep of the glasses showed the beacon on the Broomway to landward. It slipped by to port at 2200. With just a few inches under her keel, Shoal Waters headed up into the wind a little and glided into deepening water from the River Crouch, as the saltings closed in on either hand. When the sounding pole drew a blank, the anchor went down for the last time that day.

The bridge doesn’t open at night but there would be another tide next day. An anchor light was an absurdity but I put it up as the seal of good seamanship on a deeply satisfying adventure. The Gaz radiant heater and the stove, boiling the kettle for the last hot drink, soon warmed the tiny cabin. I unrolled my sleeping bag and positioned a pillow to complete an atmosphere of cosy comfort protected from the bitter cold outside.

I couldn’t resist one long, lingering look, learning over the boom, a cup of Horlicks in my hand, marvelling at the peace and quiet of the creek. The soft dark shapes of the saltings contrasted with the bright black of the swirling water, and overhead the stars were so prolific that it was difficult to pick out the constellations. A motor vehicle clattered over the old iron bridge, sending a harsh metallic rattle echoing across the marshes.

It would get lively here in an hour or so at high water but calm would return as soon as the Broomway uncovered. In fact, I was hardly even aware of it. A routine look

It would get lively here in an hour or so at high water but calm would return as soon as the Broomway uncovered. In fact, I was hardly even aware of it. A routine look just before dawn found the last of the ebb sweeping silently towards the bridge under a crescent moon. The sounding pole showed three feet over soft mud and I climbed contentedly back into the sleeping bag.