A CRUISE FROM WOOLVERSTONE TO TOWER BRIDGE
The reader may find that the pages which follow dwell over-long upon matters which are not strictly connected with my voyage on Merlin. If so I can only apologise and offer three excuses. The first is that a good deal of my five-day cruise was spent in parts of the Thames Estuary which will be so familiar to most East Coast yachtsmen that it would be presumptuous to attempt to describe them in any more nautical detail (and anyway Jack Coote has already done so in a way which cannot be bettered). The second is that I was sailing single-handed in an open boat and had less opportunity to keep a detailed log of useful navigational hints than I would have liked! The last is that the history of the past and present development of the lower reaches of the Thames is so important to one's enjoyment of sailing in what would otherwise be a long and dreary (though certainly a challenging) river that I have tried in my writing to bring a little of it to the reader's notice, in the hope that a few more English yachtsmen may be persuaded to follow in my path while some parts of the River still remain to be seen as they were before trade deserted it.
London, December 1985.
I wrote all this nearly 20 years ago! It seems a century for all the changes that have taken place since then: Canary wharf, the City airport, the Thames Gateway, the Dome, the Docklands Light Railway, all the designer blocks of flats: none of them were there and none of them had even been thought of in the public mind. Nor of course had mobile phones, GPS, internet, etc etc. I think I knew I was seeing the end of something as I sailed through but I had no idea then what it would all be like there now. Tempus fugit... but I’m glad I did it.
I apologise if what I have written reads a bit pompously to the 21st century sailor but I wrote as I was then and if I change it now it might lose its spontaneity. So please read the story with its age and mine at the time in mind.
London, April 2005
I N D E X
II Woolverstone to Pyefleet
III Pyefleet to Holehaven
IV Holehaven to St. Katharine's
V St. Katharine's to Queenborough
VI Queenborough to Woolverstone
Table of times and distances
Sketch chart of the Thames Estuary
The black cloud grew ominously from the west behind Shoebury, spreading slowly towards Foulness and creeping ever higher over the coastline. A rain squall had passed beyond the Medway and was blowing away to Ramsgate, cotton-wool in the distance, leaving the cliffs of Sheppey crystal-clear in the sun behind it. White-horses sparkled in the sunshine and the ever-present gull was resting on the West Blacktail beacon as it moved by to port. We were plugging the flood, Merlin and I, on our way back towards Harwich, keeping close along the edge of the Warps channel. With the wind over the tide there was a short steep sea running and I needed to concentrate a bit to stop her from gybing so it wasn't difficult to avoid looking back to Shoebury and the black cloud. It was one of those inevitable days, though, and pitying the poor souls in Ramsgate when their squall fell upon them couldn't turn our own black cloud from its path.
Like a cancer it came over us, leaving only Sheppey to starboard in the distance and a couple of empty tankers at anchor a mile away by the Oaze sand, immovable in their vastness. I already had eight rolls in the main and the old small jib but we would have been over-canvassed by the time the rains came so the main had to go. Bundled down, with the boom in its crutch, life became easier as the black turned to grey and the first stinging pelts of rain lashed down, obliterating everything except the friendly tankers and the Blacktail beacon, the seagull long since blown away from its top-mark. We were not surfing any longer, which was a relief, but although the beach-huts of Shoebury and Southend were only five miles from us over the sands the nearest haven down wind was the Colne, twenty miles away still, with the Barrow and the Maplins and the Buxey in between - and for a moment, I wondered, the moon?
There was a little time just then to think, as the squall blew itself through, why I was sitting by myself in an open boat in the entrance to London River, but only the age-old answer came to mind again - just because it was there.
For the last six years or so the breath of fresh air in the daily journey to work for me has been the sight of the Thames at Lambeth, the ebb and flow of the tide through the seasons, so different from the ceaseless movement of men and vehicles on the grey streets about it, unaffected by politics, the Stock Exchange or the Department of the Environment. London, which was born from the Thames and drew its life-blood from her waters, understands its river no longer and has turned away from her mother. The power of the tides are forgotten and the Thames lies, hemmed in on either side by Embankments, abandoned by almost all save tripper-boats, a sleeping beauty awaiting her fairy prince. Whether the prince is arriving in the guise of the London Docklands Development Corporation has yet to be seen.
In the meantime, I determined to try to get to know her, to see what I could of London from the river before the docklands completely disappeared, to discover how it was that the old Thames barges sailed for so long with their crews of two men and a dog between the east coast havens and the City using the wind and the tides alone, and to find out if there was any small vestige of England's former glory still floating on the waters between the Pool and the Lower Hope.
It took a while to find the year to attempt the journey; some passed in the old hunting-grounds of Holland and the Belgian coast, one doing the Ajax championships at Lowestoft, and the last discovering that I could take Merlin single-handed up to Aldeburgh and back.
David Lowe and I had sailed over to Holland two years ago, so we knew Merlin's sea-going strength and weaknesses. We had brought her back from Ramsgate then on the cross-sand route by the Sunk beacon, and once years before we had landed on the Sunk Sand at springs, so we knew a little about the strength of the tides in the Deeps. The Wallet of course, that deceptive piece of water off the Essex coast, one had learnt to respect from a very early age for its quick temper with the wind over the tide. That only left the crucial leg from the Spitway to Southend, and the Thames herself from Sea Reach, as unknown quantities.
David unfortunately couldn't join me because of his holiday plans and no-one else was rash enough to accept an offer of four or five nights on the deck of an Ajax to accompany me on a voyage with such an uncertain goal. So Merlin and I had perforce to chance our arms together. The summer of 1985 was turning out to be changeable in its moods and I was fully prepared to spend my time aboard in venturing only as far as Aldeburgh, Woodbridge or Maldon, but I kept some charts with me nevertheless to take us up the Thames should fortune and the winds decide to favour us. In order to reach the mouth of the Thames I needed a westerly or, better, a northwesterly breeze to take me up the Swin channel to Shoeburyness, and one which was not blowing much more than the lower end of force four as the wind over the tide would be extremely wet to battle against in an Ajax and the only haven in case of need would be back at the Colne. The prevailing south-westerlies in the latter part of July were not going to give much chance of that, though, unless I happened to catch the 'back' of a low as it went through. Also, if I was to be able to return to Woolverstone within my allotted time-span from the Monday to Saturday I would need to reach London at the very latest by Thursday at the midday high water. Time, therefore, was at a premium and the tides - waiting for no man - were such that I had to make an early start every day to catch the flood stream on my way towards London, with the prospect of darkness overtaking me when following the afternoon ebb on the return journey.
On Monday morning the shipping forecast told of a low in the Irish Sea travelling across England to Dogger, where it was expected that evening, and of an associated trough of 994 millibars moving eastwards along the English Channel towards Holland. It was raining from the Scillies to the Isle of Wight and by mid-morning was raining in Suffolk as well, with the glass still falling. The two o'clock forecast gave sea-area Thames as south-west to west 5 to 6, locally 7 at first, and the low still over England.
Although the ship was provisioned, I decided not to go anywhere that day. London seemed very far away still. At the same time, however, the glass began to lift and Norwich weather centre confirmed that the low had actually crossed the Lincolnshire coast into the North Sea. A short period of north-westerly winds seemed to be in the offing which was more promising but how strongly they were going to blow was not so certain. The tea-time shipping forecast, always a bit behind as usual, confirmed this, telling us for the areas Thames to Plymouth that south-westerly winds, from 5 to 7, locally 8 in Dover, were expected, veering to the north-west and decreasing to force 4 or 5. I decided to take an early bed and to set my alarm for half past three the next morning, spending the evening working out courses and distances from Harwich to the Medway via the Colne (just in case). I was going to make the most of the coming north-westerly but where the most was going to take me I left to the fates to decide.