III PYEFLEET TO HOLE HAVEN
My plan was to catch the last of the ebb out of the Colne and down to the Wallet Spitway so that I would then have a full six hours' flood to take me up the Swin and over to the Medway by lunchtime; however, like so many plans made in the rosy glow of evening it faltered in the cold light of dawn. Low water at Colne point was at five to six in the morning and by the time I'd cleared up the cabin to make ready for sea it was already then and time for the shipping forecast, so I didn't weigh anchor until six.
There had been a glassy calm at five and even by the time I got under way a faint air from just north of west was only just beginning to stir the surface. There was still a tiny trickle of ebb which carried Merlin out beyond the Mersea Stone, following an old Colchester fishing-smack which had lain a quarter-mile below me overnight and had left ten minutes ahead of us. The breeze grew steadier and though the flood was running in strongly by the time the Colne Bar buoy came abeam the sea was still calm and since visibility was as good as could be the day's sail promised to be ample recompense for the Wallet's offerings of the previous one.
Single-handed sailing does not make for spinnaker work down wind on an Ajax so the fishing smack, with her huge loose-footed gaff main, staysail and jib pulled steadily away from me. Still, there was a small fibreglass cruiser ahead as well, which should have been doing better but whose skipper didn't seem to have taken account of the cross-tide in fixing her course over to the Wallet Spi tway buoy, so honours were even by the time we reached the Swin.
A miniature coaster riding high and in ballast, akin to Masefield's 'salt-caked smoke-stack', chugged noisily by with a friendly wave, bound for London over the Spitway.
The glass rose slowly throughout the day. The wind backed to just south of west, never increasing beyond force 3 at the very most; the sun shone and the smack and I tacked on the tide up towards the London River. The smack took the Maplin side to the west and I the Barrow to the east and each seemed to gain in turn. South Whitaker, South-west Middle, North-east Maplin, then over the tip of the Maplin Spit to the edge of the West Barrow where the West Barrow beacon points its lonely finger to the sky on the seaward side of the sands. Once the main navigational aids in the Estuary but now superseded and obsolete, overtaken by Racon and the IALA system of buoyage, the beacons would still be far easier for the yachtsman to see if their top-marks were kept up than the buoys of the cardinal system with their uniform shape, inadequate top-marks and indistinguishable colours. As it is the beacons, silent, so far from land, leave one with an eerie feeling, wondering at the men who placed them there and those, like Murdoch McKenzie, who first used them to fix the point of the Long Sand by triangulation in the latter years of the eighteenth century. It seems a relatively simple matter to place a buoy now but the trouble it must have caused them then to fix the beacons in the shallows in the hard unyielding sand, with blocks and tackle from a shallow-draught sailing barge, makes one realise yet again that we sailors of the 1980's have no comprehension of what men had to do even to cross the narrow sea until the advent of steam. When Turner tried to find out by having himself tied to the mast of a packet-boat off Harwich in a storm in the snow, the resulting picture gives one a fair idea and perhaps we should look at it more often today!
Luckily my voyage past the West Barrow beacon was of a different kind, closer to the calm scenes of van de Velde, as the breeze backed further to south west, died down and left me making my way slowly over the Mouse and the Knock John Channel towards the Red Sand Tower. I had hoped to gain more of the last of the flood in the main channels and to reach the shelter of the Kentish flats before the ebb set in but, with what was left of the wind in the south-west now, the Medway, directly in the wind's eye, became an impossible goal. Further, the cliffs of Sheppey were still not visible - though only eight miles away - and there were the problems of the Spaniard and the Red Sand shoals which I preferred not to find unexpectedly under my keel on a falling tide. The Colchester smack was doing much better now, still close by the edge of the Maplins, so I turned about and headed back towards the Essex shore to join her.
The setting in of the ebb found us both losing way close above the Shoebury Beacon, the wind falling at last below force one. The smack had anchored and I was forced to join her, one of us directly above what was clearly marked on the chart as a drying wreck. Still, the echo-sounder was steady, the sea calm, and no masts had appeared out of the water beside either of us.
I had some lunch in the sun, watching the Kentish shore appear slowly to port, the great tall chimneys of the Isle of Grain power station towering over the rest and, to starboard, the office blocks of Southend, windows glinting in the heat, the occupiers no doubt trying their hardest to operate their automatic venetian blinds to keep out the glare of the sea while they processed last month's overdrawn Access accounts. This, for a day, was summer.
I lay down in the bottom of the boat and tried to read a book but as I did so the motion of the ocean increased, short bucks and snatches at the anchor warp, a ceaseless wash from the procession of steamers making their way down on the tide from London docks. No, it couldn't be. The docks had closed, the river was empty. I was constrained to rise as the motion increased, to find us anchored in the middle of an overfall. The smack was drifting downstream to a calmer spot. The tide ran smoothly only thirty yards away but here two streams seemed to meet, eddying together. I slipped a little too, laying out more warp, and Merlin fell back, out of the stream, to calmer waters again. I hoped it wasn't the wreck but still no signs of masts or superstructure had appeared and still the bottom was even on the echo-sounder as I slipped astern. As there was nothing more to be done and no-where else I could go I stretched out again and sleep came quickly. Those workers in the Access building were very far away and if they saw my overdraft out on the water I could only slip anchor and drift away to sea - to land on the tower of the Shivering Sands, no doubt, ten miles downstream, and declare UDI.
By tea-time the sands had dried and couples were walking their dogs, or digging for worms, on the flats of Shoeburyness. I saw the reasons for the overfalls, a hillock of sand up river from me and a channel between me and it leading out from the flats, where the two streams of tide, one down the river and the other off the sands, would meet. I was left in a calm backwater, and had I a better log-book would have fixed my position more properly for future use. Suffice to say, however, that it was half-way between the Shoebury Beacon and the mid-Shoebury buoy and if any of my readers arrives there he will probably have an engine and prefer
to cross over to Queensborough than risk the wreck - though, having said that, when the ebb reached its lowest (and it was only a foot off springs) not a piece of it was to be seen all around.
The flood was due to begin at half-past five but it didn't seem to have done and as there as still next to no wind I waited for the shipping forecast (westerly 4-5) before weighing anchor. The sight of a clean one after the heavy clay mud of the Colne was a joy to behold.
There would have been little point in heading across the tide the seven miles over to Queenborough on the Swale. Such little wind as there was was coming from south of west and I would have had to beat, and as it was only an extra mile further to reach Hole Haven behind Canvey Island up river I chose the latter course. Anchor weighed I reached slowly up the edge of the channel, hoping the wind might pick up before the dark fell. It was fickle and needed concentration to keep the way on her. After an hour the breeze picked up but the tide was still ebbing - the times of high and low water at Sheerness must be considerably earlier than in the main stream of the Thames opposite it, though the books don't seem to make this clear - so there was yet a while to go.
The same little coaster that had passed me in the morning came back down the Thames, heading out to sea again, laden, and I wondered what it was that was still traded from the Colne to London.
Not long afterwards the flood set in and the buoys began to pass faster, Sea Reach No. 5 and Sea Reach No. 6, but then the breeze died away, leaving us nearly becalmed once more just off the Canvey Island Casino, Monte Carlo of the South Essex Riviera. Mid-Week I suppose nothing much happens there, but some coloured lights were lit and a forest of television aerials could just be seen sprouting from a field of caravans beyond a new grey concrete sea-wall. Were it not for the fact that it is the beginning of the Thames as a river Canvey Island must seem sometimes like the end of something, especially from the land, and I thought perhaps it was better to be approaching it from the sea.
Oddly enough the wind then suddenly came out from the north-west with a decent force 3 and instead of having to wonder if I should be spending the whole night by the Canvey Island Casino we sped upstream in the gloaming to the promised land of Holehaven, past the Canvey Island Gas Works (since closed down) and the Texaco Oil Terminal (very little happening) to the corner of Holehaven creek. There, by the entrance, were moored four dumb barges, the text "GLC - Working for London" painted on their hulls, and downwind of them the most pungent of odours, as of dustbins emptied and left to mature for a goodly span: the GLC was certainly working for London, but whether for the inhabitants of the lower reaches of the Thames was quite a different matter.
Had it not been for the sudden veering of the wind to north-west an hour beforehand the moorings at Holehaven would have been directly downwind of the barges but as it was the air was clean and unpolluted (the Canvey Island Gas Works, as I have said, being shut, and the Texaco Oil Terminal having no vessels to service). The tide flows fast up the narrow creek, the channel being close to the Canvey shore and not more than a hundred yards wide at this stage of the tide, so there was little time to make all ready but I managed to lower the main, swing Merlin round into the tide and to keep hold of the only available morning which saved the anchor on a rather dubious bottom, and it wasn't long before I found myself in the bar of the Lobster Smack Inn.
Holehaven Creek was described in the 1927 edition of "Rivers and
Creeks of the Thames Estuary" as being "perhaps one of the most popular yacht anchorages on the London River", the best landing place at all stages of the tide being the steps close within the entrance, which were "most handy for the Lobster Smack Inn" where water was obtainable at 1d per gallon and also limited quantities of paraffin, bread, etc. could be bought. Earlier, in the eighteenth century and before, the creek was known as Holy Haven and it can only have been in the last forty years or so that it has begun to live up to its present name.
Now the Lobster Smack crouches behind the high concrete sea-wall, much safer but without the lovely view it must once have had from the windows of its upper bar across the Estuary, and populated no longer by fishermen and yachtsmen but by the young bloods of Southend and Dagenham who climb up to the path that runs around the top of the concrete wall, crane their heads over the edge and retreat them again, wondering why it all smells so odd - not knowing that the GLC is still busy working for London.