VI QUEENBOROUGH TO WOOLVERSTONE
The morning dawned sunny, a blustery day with small cotton-wool clouds low on the horizon towards London, and everything dried in
a twinkle. I found the Canadian Fisher 25 moored close by, so he at least hadn't allowed himself to be blown out to sea the previous day.
The early forecast was better than the day before's, with no gale warnings, and the glass rose a couple of points by the middle of the morning. A low was passing over the north of Scotland and another was said to be building up 600 miles west of Ireland by Sunday morning; the area forecasts from Humber to Plymouth were the same, west to south-west, 5 or 6 with rain, then showers, and visibility becoming good later. The rain seemed to have passed through already but there were going to be some showers around and the cotton-wool clouds became more frequent as they marched in from the west.
I decided to aim back to Brightlingsea or the Pyefleet, the closest ports of call in a westerly, and if I left with some hours of the flood yet to run I would be able to lee-bow the tide across the Estuary so as to be in the best spot to be carried the rest of the way on the ebb when it began.
According to Jack Coote in his "East Coast Rivers" there would be a strong back-eddy by Sheerness quay on the flood, so the Medway wouldn't be quite so bad to get out of as it as it had been to get into.
With some extra reefs down, a small jib which I had been kindly lent by Charles Lowe off 'Osprey' and a box-full of sandwiches ready up forward, I slipped the mooring at a quarter to twelve (three hours of flood to go) and set off down river. I had done all my courses and distances on a sheet of paper which was securely fixed in a plastic bag and everything was stowed away to give maximum resistance against damp.
The back-eddy did as it should at Sheerness and I kept close to the quay up to its end at Garrison Point, ready to slip across the channel to the Grain Spit side. Just as I was passing, the Olau car-ferry berthed by the Garrison, which looked as if she was making ready to leave with some steam at her funnel, but had no-one on her bridge and was still moored as far I could see, began - without a single hoot or by-your-leave - to move out sideways towards me, the seaward side of her bridge still completely deserted. There was nothing for me to do save to bear away and run for it as fast as I could across the river and to thank my lucky stars I hadn't been a few minutes earlier and past her bows, as she accelerated away with maximum power to turn the point into the main channel. Had anyone been coming the other way they would have been similarly surprised and most probably run down, so for any Harwich man, used to fair warning from the ships in the Harbour, Garrison point and the Olau line are ones to be especially careful of.
Outside, there was a short steep sea running in the strength of the flood and on my way across Sea Reach from the Nore to Shoeburyness I needed to allow nearly thirty degrees off my course to keep a steady back-bearing on the Great Nore buoy. It was quite a different place from three days before, the visibility clear as a bell and not a chance of anchoring by the Shoebury Beacon in the seaway. I remembered reading the disdain with which poor Mr Midshipman Hornblower was treated by the Fleet for so many years for being seasick while anchored at the Nore, but anyone at anchor
there in a ship of the line in a full gale would have as much chance of being seasick as anywhere else I can think of (and the wind when I was there wasn't above 5 - so what more it be might be like in a full gale I wouldn't wish to imagine!).
I always wondered why the Nore light-vessel (no longer in place) was such an important one and - I believe - the first in English waters, and it was only after I returned to look at my 1874 chart by Norie and Wilson that I saw in those days that the sand dried at low water, while now there is no less than two metres over its very shallowest point. The same seems to have happened with the Shivering Sands and it is fascinating to see how much the main channels through to the Foreland have moved even over the past hundred years, the shortest deep-draught channel then, the Alexandra, now having only two metres through it and a drying wreck in the middle, while the Girdler channel, today one of the main ones, had only two fathoms then.
As I crossed from the Nore to Shoebury, though, I was more concerned with the cotton-wool clouds and their black silk linings than the finer points of historical navigation, and by the time I bore away down the edge of the channel towards the Blacktail Beacon I was beginning to count the minutes down to the end of the flood stream, but there was still two hours to go. I was aiming on reaching the Maplin buoy, eight miles further to the north-east, during that period but as the cotton-wool cloud grew a still blacker silk lining, and as the silk was finally cut (like the advertisement for that brand of cigarettes) to reveal in this case a very wet inside, my hopes became more modest.
The most welcome sight of that (first) rain-squall, or shower as they were called in the shipping forecast, was the low grey outline of the sea-wall and trees on Foulness Island distinguishing itself from the monotone grey of the rain and the sea around me. It grew like the dawn, the outline becoming ever sharper as the sun broke through behind it, until finally I was left, wallowing, waiting to hoist the main and move again in the fresh new sunlight. I gazed at the towering white mass of the cumulus cloud as it drifted slowly, lazily, down-wind of me with its grey-lined skirt of rain brushing the sea underneath it, before tidying up the boat again and eating some of my sandwiches with a can of beer and a Mars Bar.
The sea soon died as if the skirts of the cloud had washed it quite away, although it was really the turn of the tide that did it, and I was left gathering speed over the first of the ebb towards - the Maplin buoy which I reached only half an hour behind schedule. The wind dropped to no more than force 3 so I was able to shake out all the reefs (keeping the reefing handle close by in case of future need) and began to think how much more one could do with a crew and a solid foredeck to whip up a larger jib as well. Nevertheless, by the time I was beginning to be wistful about that larger jib another silk-lined piece of cotton-wool was starting to build up behind me as we approached the Whitaker Beacon, so beloved of Maurice Griffiths in his windier tales of the "Magic of the Swatchways". Apt, I thought, as I rolled down the reefs again in good time and took bearings on all the buoys in sight while I still could.
We were only a mile or so from the Spitway when the rain came again. The Swin Spitway buoy was just in sight (I had mistaken the Wallet Spi tway for it for a few minutes) wi th the Trinity House Yacht' Patricia' at anchor close by, and a small yacht, heavily over-canvassed, was ahead of me coming out from the Crouch. I took it better than she did, still wearing an enormous deck-scraping genoa, and overtook her in the Spitway.
It was half-past five when Merlin reached the Wallet Spitway buoy. The ebb was still flowing hard with two hours yet to run and to get back the nine miles to the Pyefleet would have meant a close fetch against the tide for four and a half to the Colne Bar and still a plug into the Colne to follow for the same distance again. I turned to starboard for Harwich, reckoning that if the wind stayed steady I would sail the fifteen miles there just as quickly and much more drily. And so I did for most of the way, doing the ten miles to Walton Pier by seven o'clock, when the next cotton-wool cloud and I managed to collide. This one was just off the pier and was the wettest yet, almost blotting out the lifeboat, half a mile away, from view. It had been building inshore, behind Frinton, for quite some while and was moving ahead over the Naze with the low sea behind it, a yellow-and-black skirt sweeping the ripening wheat between Weeley and Great Holland, when suddenly it thrust out a tentacle towards me which swept over the top of Merlin and curved down in a long black lip, the wind rising under it. A line of rain then crossed the coast and moved seawards towards me, the wind becoming colder by the minute and the warm yellow sum dissolving behind it. Then it reached us, blotting out the pier, flattening the water and sweeping Merlin along in a great rushing race for ten minutes until it left her behind, decks clean and glistening white and the mainsail short of its top batten which had blown out and away in a sweeping arc to leeward in a gust.
As the rain went the wind died away too and the evening sun etched out a perfect double rainbow in the sky to the east. I drew slowly up to the Naze and in the crystal air could clearly see all the hulls of the ships moored at Felixstowe dock, with the cranes moving containers over them from the quayside. They seemed so near that I could almost reach out and touch them, though the farther end of the quay must have been all of six miles away from me. Looking now at Reed's I see that from my height of six feet from sea level, at the most, the distance of the horizon is 2.81 miles so it must have been a fairly remarkable kind of refraction in the air to 'bend' the view to more than double its normal distance without even elongating everything as a heat-haze does.
The sun set at eight thirty while I was still a quarter of an hour short of Harwich Breakwater, the force 2 south-westerly moving us so slowly forward, even now with a full main and the normal genoa, that I began to lose heart. It was a cold evening and my third cold HO-e' Can - Irish Stew this time - had been less warming to the inside than I had hoped it might have been. Nevertheless, it was still far tastier than one can imagine afterwards in a warm centrally-heated house, but the yoghourt to follow was good to take the aftertaste away.
It was dead low water as Merlin passed the foot of the breakwater at 2045 (9 hours after leaving Queenborough) and the thought of another night at anchor, perhaps at Fagbury, with a bed now so close by made me resolve to get up the river to Woolverstone on the new flood notwithstanding the fast-falling dusk.
The wind stayed light and the journey was slow, and when I was half-way up Butterman's Bay, by now in the dark, some lights of a freighter coming down river made me hug the shore as close as I could to keep out of her way. She seemed to be coming past Clamp Cottage but was taking such a while to reach me that I thought almost that she had anchored with her navigation lights on. I realised then, though, that when I first saw her she must have been at Woolverstone, for she had disappeared to Pin Mill and reappeared again, and just before she reached us Merlin ran firmly aground on a soft bed of mud off Levington Creek. Nothing would get us off and my manful throws of the anchor to bring round her head just resulted in dragging the anchor back through the softness of the mire. The wash of the ship, I thought, would be my chance, so I wedged the helm over to starboard, trimmed the sails and took my place in the lee shrouds. Instead of which the water level in the river dropped of a sudden by six inches (or so it seemed), Merlin heeled to an alarming degree, was raised equally quickly right off the bottom, and then deposited back where she'd been with a final and lasting 'thud'.
At that I threw out the anchor again, made sure it was fast, lowered all sails and lay down to sleep.
An hour later the moon had risen, the stars were shining, and Merlin lay peacefully at anchor on the tide, riding gently to the swell. The effort to hoist the sails again and get in the muddy anchor was great, and the thought that I'd missed arriving at the Club before the bar closed was galling but the last hour's sail on the flood was peaceful, as the night was almost bright as day, so I felt all was well with the world.
Merlin reached her old mooring at Woolverstone at five past midnight, just over twelve hours from Queenborough, and I was fast asleep at Holbrook by one o'clock, this time quite definitely not to rise at 0300 hours.
The next day, Sunday, it began to rain as we cleaned up the boat and by the afternoon was blowing hard as the next low came winging its way from the West.
And so continued the Summer of 1985, but it had got Merlin to London and back again. Next year perhaps I'll just go rowing on the Serpentine!