As I remember Sue Townsend's story, Adrian Mole, then a mere 13 & three quarters, awoke one morning and looked at himself in the bathroom mirror. Whilst searching for the hairs on his chin to shave, he began to think that he was ageing quite fast and there were a lot of things in life he just had to do.
Much the same happened to me one morning - as I was looking for the hair on my head to comb. I WAS getting on a bit, AND there were many things still to be done. On just the sailing side of my life for instance, I'd spent all too little time on the Kent coast. Nor had I sailed the mighty Thames itself. So with these thoughts in mind, I had no trouble deciding on a destination for my summer cruise.
Bubbles with Squeak in tow, set off from our new mooring on the Walton Backwaters on a Saturday in June in a moderate north-easterly breeze, carried on down the Wallet, through the Spitway, into the Whitaker Channel and finally anchored overnight in the Crouch. The next day we took the flood down the Roach, through the Havengore Bridge and into the Thames, close fetched across it to anchor in the Swale on Sunday night.
By the Monday, the decent breeze seemed to have gone and I had a lazy day in the Swale and its creeks, coming back to anchor at Harty Ferry. But Tuesday proved better. Bubbles took me out, round the north of Sheppey and into the West Swale as far as the Kingsferry Bridge. We didn't go through, but instead returned, went into the Medway to anchor in Sharfleet Creek. The main got a reef in the afternoon. The local radio's forecast of F5 wasn't far wrong.
Wednesday was set aside to sail the Medway and its creeks. On the way up I stopped off at Gillingham Marina for water and some stores. This high class establishment boasts it has everything the modern yachtsman could require, but their grocery shelves were woefully under stocked except for vast stocks of expensive wine and Pledge furniture polish! I had to go outside consequently, to get my more modest needs.
I continued up the river as far as Chatham's Ship Pier before turning back. Shopping had made me late and the ebb was running by then, so progress became very slow. It wasn't as enjoyable , or as picturesque as the upper reaches either. The wind was gusty and came at us strained through a multitude of bankside buildings so that Bubbles felt under canvassed one minute and was over on her ear the next.
We returned to South Yantlet Creek for the night. The wind, which had forecast to be north, had been SW throughout the day and had fallen to a zephyr by the time I anchored. However, about 9pm. it got up with a vengeance. Bubbles pitched and twisted as it went from NW though N and settled in the NE. So violent was our motion that I thought she'd drag her anchor and although it was almost dark I prepared everything for an emergency move. However, I soon realised that Bubbles was handling things fairly well, but I did lay out a second anchor before letting her rock me to sleep.
As if to relent, there was no breeze the following day and I wondered what to do. I hate the engine and so far had only used it to push through the mile of Havengore Creek, since the wind had been in my teeth and the tide not fully made. But I set it to work that day to journey up to the Medway Cruising Club and rowed ashore for a while. By about 4pm. a light breeze had sprung up and I sailed back through several more creeks, before finally anchoring in Sharfleet that evening.
The tides were right on Friday for me to sail up the Thames. Until then, I'd never been beyond the eastern end of Canvey Island, so I went to have a look a bit further up. Of course the inevitable happened and I got carried away. I began by promising myself that I'd just go to this bend or that corner but finished up in Erith YC at about 1845 after some 30 miles of sailing. Bubbles had to share the waterway with some fairly sizeable ships, but we managed to keep out of their way. On this trip I got the best view a man can have of the dreaded M25 motorway - from underneath the Queen Elizabeth Bridge and from the deck of his own boat.
I woke early enough to take the ebb back down the Thames and found a fair breeze waiting for me. I got underway at 0615, just after HW. I anchored Bubbles briefly near the Chapman sailing club on Canvey Isalnd, where I went ashore for more water and groceries. Afterwards, we crossed the Thames again into the West Swale, sailed under the Kingsferry Bridge and out into the East Swale. Here again, I used the engine on the last mile to Harty Ferry as the evening breeze dropped to a whisper.
Winds were forecast to be still in the north the next day and I planned an early start for a trip to Margate. I was underway before breakfast, soon after the ebb began, reaching in fine style under the sheppey shore. The thought went through my mind as I saw a couple of deeper draught boats taking a more southerly route, that it was wonderful to have a 'go anywhere centre-boarder'. No sooner was the thought out than we touched bottom. "Whoops" I said, heaved up the plate and bore off, believing we were too far north. I was wrong and couldn't have been wronger! I piled Bubbles onto the highest point of Horse Sands and spent the rest of the day there.
The breeze was a little west of north next day as we left, arriving off Margate some three and a half hours later. Unfortunately, by that time there was too little water left in the actual harbour. Moreover, the wind had got up a bit, kicking up a devil of a lop onto the beach. Reluctantly I didn't go ashore, but sailed on past, out to the Longnose Buoy before turning back.
The return journey was in complete contrast to my navigation of the previous day. After passing inside the Margate Sands, the wind began to veer considerably. My original plan had been to return to the Swale or Whitstable and cross the Thames the next day. But with a fair wind, why not make the big jump today? I hastily worked out new courses while Bubbles lay hove-to and then set off to the north west. Each buoy I'd planned to pick up came up dead ahead as if pre-ordained. Finally we reached the West Blacktail Beacon, from which the true course to Havengore creek, across the Maplin Sands, is 308 degrees. I steered up a little to allow for the effects of the flood and timed the distance run on the log. Those who have attempted to find Havengore Creek from seawards know that it almost beats finding a needle in a haystack, so low and featureless is the coast about here. However, to my great surprise and delight, at about the appointed time I looked around the goose-winged jib - and saw a bus crossing the bridge dead ahead! It was either brilliant navigation or extraordinary good fortune. Personally I subscribe to the latter.
By this time it was approaching 1830 and past HW. I wondered if we would make it before the bridge keeper departed for the evening. Goose-winged, I sailed towards the bridge, whistle in mouth to get his attention, but before I'd a chance to blow, the keeper came out of his control box, waved, and a few moments later the traffic stopped as he raised it for us. Bubbles sailed under without change of course or a flap of her jib, right through and into the Middleway beyond where we anchored just after 8pm.
We sailed out of the creeks next morning on the ebb and anchored in the Roach's mouth to await the flood up the Crouch. When the wind failed, I motored the two miles to Burnham and went ashore for a while. Later, as the wind returned in the afternoon, we sailed to Hullbridge. It was my intention to get as far as Battlebridge and almost did. If any of you possess the Admiralty chart for the Crouch, let me tell you that the channel on that last reach up to Battlebridge is definitely not where the chart says it is! The more I tried to find it, the harder I ran Bubbles into the mud and finally had to hop in the dinghy and lay out an anchor, wait for the final half hour of flood to fill in before hauling Bubbles off. We motored back out of the confines until there was enough room to set sail again and finally anchored in the delightfully named Brandy Hole for the night.
The next morning was almost without wind and I dropped down on the tide - managing only to outpace a few jellyfish - through the Fambridge moorings and to the outskirts of Burnham as the ebb finished. Just as I was about to anchor, a beautiful breeze from the south east got up and I romped through Burnham making 4.5 to 5 knots at times. I decided that instead of anchoring in the Crouch for the night, I would continue against the flood, through the Rays'n Channel towards Mersea Island. However, no sooner were we in the Rays'n than the breeze dropped. Had the sea been calm, we could have continued sailing, but such a popple had got up that the sails simply wouldn't stay still long enough to draw. After half an hour of going nowhere I fired up the engine once more and motored towards East Mersea. It came on rather strong however, to a point when I should have reefed. I foresaw an uncomfortable night unless I got under the lee of the land, so I upped the helm and ran Bubbles off to familiar haunts at West Mersea for the night.
I was in gloomy mood next day as this was to be the end of my cruise and the weather seemed to be in sympathy. Through the gloom I could not even see the enormous nuclear power station across the river at Bradwell when I set out at 0730. The whole world was in monchrome, as if mourning for a departed sun. The wind was from dead ahead and didn't free up until well past Clacton when it veered slightly, giving a reasonably fast end to the passage. We finally picked up our moorings in Foundry Creek at 1700.
It had been a delightful 13 day trip covering some 300 miles. Of course I'd been fortunate. How I'd have felt if I'd had to contend with cold weather and wet oilies in the small cabin I don't know. Was I lonely? Not a bit! I took two books with me and managed to read half a page of one. Sailing kept me so busy that I hardly had time to realise I was alone. Nor did towing the dinghy cause me any problems and I'd take her again. She took on only a small amount of water once, on the trip across from Margate to Havengore, but she was planing most of the time and throwing op a devil of a bow wave - looking more like a close reaching Laser in a force five!
One final thought occurred to me. Had Maurice Griffiths been blessed with such a fine boat as the Skipper instead of Dabchick, that awful converted lifeboat he started off with, his lifelong search for that 'perfect' boat would have been over and a whole yachting history would never have been written!
Pictures and words, by Edward Jones.
Many thanks to Edward Jones and the Dinghy Cruiseing Association for the use of this article. You can find out more about the D.C.A. at the following link.