It was surprising how dark it was still at half past three in the morning at the end of July. It was drizzling a little too but the wind had died down and by the time I reached the Hard and made my way down it in the glare of the car's headlights, with the rubber dinghy on my back, there was a faint lightness in the sky to the east. I slipped the mooring as quickly as I could and slid away down the river as I was trying to catch the back of the ebb before it gave way to the young flood. For the next few days life was to be ruled by the winds and the tides and as the last of the moorings at Pin Mill faded behind us the pressures of land-bound life slipped out of focus with them. The huge arc-lights of Felixstowe vied in their glow with the morning and lost. A gentle westerly breeze gave me a chance to find my feet with Merlin once more and by the time we dropped the anchor at Fagbury Point for breakfast I felt that we were ready for a voyage. An enormous catamaran was lying at anchor half a mile up the river from us bearing the name 'British Airways II' in four-foot high letters on the sides of her hulls. While she was undoubtedly faster than Merlin and had a mast the size of a telegraph pole she wasn't at all beautiful and I was glad I wasn't setting off on the Round Britain race in her.


By the time Merlin was ready to for sea and I'd taken in five rolls in the main there was a good wind, still westerly, and in the lee of Dovercourt Bay we managed to make the five miles from Harwich breakwater to the Naze Tower in forty minutes on a close fetch. The Thames seemed very close then but sure enough, as we turned the point into the Wallet, the wind backed into the south-west and rose with the tide. The Wallet was behaving true to form and I settled in for the inevitable battle to windward.


Frinton, so they say, has never been the same since the block of flats was allowed to be built by the Green but the block has turned out to be such an enormous help to yachtsmen that perhaps it doesn't matter after all. With our small bermudan-rigged boats nowadays the old land-marks are no longer the help that they used to be as we simply don't have enough height above the water to be able to see them. So I couldn't use the directions in the 1874 edition of Norie & Wilson's Thames Estuary "Bawdsey Church NE by N" to bring me through the Medusa Channel - how often can one see Bawdsey from the Naze anyway? - nor could I take "St. Osyth Priory and Church in one" to lead me through the Spitway" even if it hadn't moved a mile to the west in the last hundred years. But

‘Frinton Bldg' as Imray, Laurie, Norie and Wilson call it in their 1985 edition of the same chart, does stand out most 'conspic' and is the best landmark on that stretch of the Essex Coast today. I was certainly glad of it as we tumbled and crashed our way to windward that day as it gave me a bearing most of the way past Holland-on-Sea towards Clacton.


Although  the  better  tide  runs  out  in  the  deepest  part  of  the

Wallet there was more of a lee and a much calmer sea inshore so I only ventured out as far as comfort would take me and baled Merlin dry of the results at the end of the inshore tack. A couple of boards took us to Clacton pier - an hour and three-quarters to do the same distance that we had covered in forty minutes in Dovercourt Bay - and the Colne became the goal for the day as the tide was already on the turn.


As my course took me round to the west so did the wind, beginning to veer as the forecast had said, and the visibility drew in. Two more boards, and more baling, saw us close under the lee of the Martello Tower at Lion Point and we still had the long haul round the Colne Bar to face against the ebb. The wind ceased as the rain grew heavier. The Martello Tower merged with the grey of the sky and my world was reduced to a circle of sea and the two Eagle buoys, just visible half a mile away. A final board and a compass course brought the Colne Bar buoy out of the murk and the relief of bearing away downwind at last towards Colne Point, the sea silent, washed smooth by the ebb. A Mars Bar and a can of beer were consumed in celebration, salt wiped from the eyes, and the reefs shaken out to give us some way.


As we reached the Inner Bench Head the world grew all of a sudden round us, the empty shingle beach of Colne Point to starboard, the low cliffs on Mersea Island to port and myriad dinghies, like birds, swooping and darting in a race over the Flats, their crews single wings on trapezes, flapping in and out as they tacked.


If the wind was going to stay in the west or just north of it the Pyefleet Channel wouldn't have been a very comfortable anchorage for the night, good though it is when blowing from any other quarter so I headed on up the Colne to Alresford Creek. One feels it somehow to be a place the Vikings would have approved of, the first drawing in of the trees at the end of the saltings, a safe beach at high water and the riches of Colchester for the plundering. There is a good anchorage on the eastern side of the fairway about thirty yards to the north-east of the red can buoy at the entrance to the Creek, where over a metre of water can usually be found at low tide, the highest spot on the river below Wivenhoe to spend the night. There is a lee from the trees of the Nature Reserve on the western bank and the wooded cliffs on the Alresford side are protection from the north-east.


By the time I'd had lunch and listened to the shipping forecast I was ready for a watch below and when I next woke it was after six o'clock and the tide was at its lowest. Some little tern were fishing, their sudden sharp plops breaking the ripples of the breeze. The wind had come further round to the north than I had expected and was blowing straight over the marshes from Wivenhoe so that Merlin was lying partly wind-bound and partly tide-bound even at this low ebb. It seemed sensible to go back downriver to the Pyefleet as it would save time the following morning as well as give more comfort during the night. The anchor was weighed and

I had a gentle evening's sail with a following wind under the jib alone, assisted only by the occasional mouthful of beer and peanuts, and hindered only by one small grounding - possibly during a mouthful of beer - to remind me that the channel is narrower than one thinks between the scarcely-covered mudflats. The hook was dropped again in the dusk at half-past eight in the Pyefleet, Merlin's cockpit dried out and the cabin prepared for dinner.


Merlin's eating and sleeping arrangements have already been described in the log of the cruise to Holland in 1983 so they needn't be repeated here save only to say that they are of the more basic variety. One of the improvements for 1985 was an investment in a "sleeping-mat" of thin foam rubber to avoid the need to blow up and deflate a lilo every day which took time and breath when little of either were available. Another was the purchase of several allegedly" self-heating" tins called "Hot Cans", flavoured variously of Irish Stew, Chicken Curry, etc., intended to escape both lighting the primus and washing-up afterwards. While the first of these improvements was a great success, after the initial shock of losing a land-bound mattress, the second (although subsequently, as I found, not entirely the fault of the maker) proved to be a dismal failure. Instructions on the insulated sides of the can informed me that when two holes had been punctured in the top with the spike provided, which required to be plunged to its fullest depth, the can would miraculously heat its own contents to an edible temperature in the space of the next ten minutes provided it was stirred so that all the food would have an equal opportunity to heat. Being unmechanical I wondered not how but did my best in the light of my paraffin lamp to puncture the holes, remove the top and then to stir patiently for the allotted span.


My patience went quite unrewarded and when after some twenty-five minutes the contents remained obstinately cold I resorted to tipping them into a saucepan and heating them, in the space of the next five minutes, on my utterly reliable and (probably) utterly dangerous little Optimus paraffin stove, to a far more edible temperature than I am sure they would ever have attained by themselves. As the same experience was repeated on each of the subsequent occasions that I tried my Hot Cans I became somewhat disillusioned by the maker's representations on their insulated sides and resolved to find out as soon as possible on regaining dry land whether their assets would be similarly insulated from legal proceedings. Needless to say, when I asked the assistant at the store where I had invested in them how she would deal with one of them she immediately found two little holes marked under the rim of the plastic insulation covering at the edge of the top which, when punctured, warmed the contents to a perfectly acceptable temperature within a perfectly reasonable time. So sailors, remember to shine your paraffin lamps harder at the cans than you ever would have thought had you not learnt this sorry tale!


As a result of all this I went to sleep later than I had originally expected, after checking my riding-light and seeing that the glass had risen from 1004 to 1010 since I left Woolverstone that morning. The wind was still in the north-north West, the sky was clearing and London seemed closer once more. I decided to get up as early as I could next day and make the most of the morning's flood to the Medway.