Seasons Greetings

Yachts and Yachting December 22 1978

  It had been such a wonderful sailing year that it just could not be allowed to slip from the grasp. The sailing season was long over as I carried my gear out over the knee-deep mud to my 16ft gaff cutter ‘Shoal Waters' -in fact it was just twelve days before Christmas. There was a gale warning out for the Thames for westerly gales but the sun shone from a clear sky and in spite of the cold, I liked the look of things. The moon was nearly full and would be there to help ‘Shoal Waters' and me on our way if the few hours of daylight proved insufficient for our travels. High water was at 2000 and there was time for a brew up and laze in the warmth of the radiant heater in the tiny cabin before the tide began to roll in over the mudflats off the Blackwater SC just below Heybridge Basin. As the first water lapped the boat at half flood the cockpit cover was folded and a reef tied into the mainsail, ready to go. I cast off the mooring, unrolled the jib and waited for her to move. Suddenly, she slid out towards the deeper water: down went rudder and plate; settled on the stern seat and snuggled into my duffle coat, together we slipped off on a fine sail behind Osea over the last three hours of flood. A night run to the Crouch seemed on the cards but the bitter cold soon highlighted the attractions of a mooring in West Mersea, just above the wooden jetty off Old Mersea City. The wind eased and the reef came out for the trip up the Thornfleet between Cobmarsh and Packing Shed Islands into the inner harbour.

  On 'Shoal Waters' both headsails are on Wykeham-Martin furling gear so they are soon out of the way. The mainsail rattled down and was soon stowed and well-lashed down into the boom crutch for it could be rough here at high water if the nor'west gale came as forecast. Then up cockpit tent and I was able to shed some of my layers of wool and crawl into the cabin. Tea first, and then a steak was soon sizzling on the single-burner stove. By the time the steak was ready I had dug the hot water bottle out of my two sleeping bags (filled before leaving the mooring) and poured it back into the kettle to heat up again. The plastic covered bunk cushion grows chilly so I stood it up for a while and placed the radiant heater in front of it to warm it up before unrolling my sleeping gear. The sleeping bags are covered with the heavy duffle coat; into my pyjamas, a cup of Horlicks and so to sleep. I hardly noticed the boat move all night. Next morning the sun was rising clear above the pretty village of West Mersea. The lightest of breezes came out of the north, ruffling the blue, blue water. What gale?

  Having no dinghy, I can only get ashore on a rising tide or alongside a jetty. An hour before highwater 'Shoal Waters', under headsails only glided over to the jetty where the members of a fishing party lent a helpful hand with the lines. The jetty was thick with frost and the whole place was like a fairyland in the bright sunshine. An hour later and she was slipping seawards, aiming to go through the Spitway but 'gently gently' was to be the rule this trip. The wind died to the lightest airs as we sailed through Besum fleet, past the old church standing guard over the wide entrance to the river Blackwater and out towards the rusty, laid-up tanker 'Aro'. With topsail set 'Shoal Waters' reached to gather all the wind she could as we altered course down the Raysand channel. After midday the wind came in light but steady from the nor'west, the sun shone steadily from a clear blue sky and the familiar land and seamarks gradually came into view: St Peter's on the Wall at Sales Point; the wrecks on the flats; the Buxey beacon over to seaward and eventually, just before sunset, the sunken Buxey buoy over the tail of the Buxey sand and the yellow Ray buoy. It was just 1800 as we picked up a mooring below Burnham in brilliant moonlight.

  Thick fog shrouded the tea kettle's early whistle at about 0700, giving time to settle back in the warm for another snooze. It cleared just before the sun came up warm and red over the sea wall of Wallasea island. The cockpit tent, stiff as a board, was covered in hoar frost - as indeed was all the deck, mast and rigging -and only with difficulty and cold-bitten fingers could it be fought into a parcel to stow under the stern seat. Then a beat to Burnham jetty, largely on the tide wind, in time for a shopping expedition. Then under way and a gentle beat slowly upstream with the last of the flood to work up an appetite for a steak breakfast. Strangely, there was thick fog across the river at the Wallasea marina so 'Shoal Waters' hung to a buoy in the sunshine and I breakfasted while waiting for the tide to turn. The radio told a sad tale of fog, frost, dangerous road conditions and chaotic air transport on shore. At 1000 we dropped down past Burnham with the stream in almost flat calm. A little wind came in off the mouth of the river three hours later and by low water a light breeze from due north grew steadily but firmly to take us through the shallow water of the Rays'n and on over the flood to round the Buxey Beacon at 1630, disturbing the cormorant sentries on duty. As darkness closed in there seemed little hope of reaching Brightlingsea that night, so we settled for Mersea. 'Shoal Waters' could point NNW but with the flood tide this was not enough to take her clear of the shallows on the Bradwell shore. An hour or so later the wreck on the flats loomed out ahead in the moonlight and fifteen minutes on port tack was needed to clear the shallows. The wind rose to Force 2 by this time and 'Shoal Waters' rippled along under the moon in thrilling style. The red flash of the Nass Beacon came up well to port and we closed the shore, near the church, squared away into the Besurn fleet and picked up the first mooring buoy we came to. Mooring was a little more difficult tonight as the tent was still frozen stiff, but the cabin was as snug as ever.

  Next morning I was woken by the hooter of a local fishing boat as she sailed out into the promise of another perfect dawn. I struggled to the hatch to give him a cheery wave: they may let sleeping dogs lie but no fisherman lets a yachtsman sleep on. There was a fine breeze from the north, or west of north about Force 2, and under full sail 'Shoal Waters' had a chilly but idyllic trip to Brightlingsea at the top of the tide, where a walk ashore to fill up the water cans was complicated by the frozen tap on the jetty.

  The running ebb was soon the signal to start back for home, as the wind grew from the West and the first clouds of the holiday covered the sky. A grim red sun lit up the cloud banks as 'Shoal Waters' beat slowly past the rusty sides of the 'Aro', but it was 2000 as, with the wind dying on her, she glided inshore of Osea pier to anchor for the night.

  Next day, in dull overcast weather, 'Shoal Waters' sailed up past the timber yard to the Fullbridge, returned to nose into the dykes of flooded Northey island, sending clouds of ducks and geese into the now sunny sky, and was back on her mooring at 1230. At 1430 the tide had left her and I walked ashore to the end of a classic season.

  The little engineless cutter had covered some 3,000-odd miles, never failed to bring her happy skipper home on time and had not once made him so wet that the spare dry clothes, stowed aboard in polythene bags at the start of the season, were called into action. What more can a boat do?