Friday, 21 October 2016

Sailing Essex Creeks

Stars were out and a lovely half-moon hung low glowing over the creek as I boarded Shoal Waters late on Tuesday night. Being harvest time I could hear tractors on nearby fields as farmers harvested away under headlamps.  It's a wonderful sound, and sight - it's life, and its wheel is forever turning…
 The cabin was down to 13 degrees when I slipped away under full mainsail on Wednesday morning at 0655 in lovely sunshine, albeit with a bracing chill - my hands felt warmer dipped in the sea! I noticed a couple of new arrivals in the creek; dinghies placed at the oyster layings. The oyster firm hasn't worked the line of trays in the creek for a couple of years now. I’ve seen a dredger work the creek for oysters, and sometimes I see someone gather oysters by hand, like some of the fishermen at Mersea do, uses shallow draft skiffs to reach anywhere in the river and hand pick a few sacksful for a morning's graft. It looks backbreaking work being bent over, and let’s hope they make a fare living as disease and one thing and another has played havoc on the stock in recent years this part of the country.
07.20 - We're charging downriver quite nicely under full main and jib. I swigged the jib and staysail halyards before leaving. With the Wykeham Martin furlers, too tight a halyard can cause the bearings to jam which isn't great if it happens when you want to shorten sail in a hurry!
09.00 - Heading S-g-E. Jibed while sounding over St Peter’s Flats. Pretty smooth out here in the Rays'n, and we're making good progress by keeping tight to the Targets in less than five feet of water while sailing over the remaining two hours of ebb. When the sun is shining and every wave top has a sparkle, going to sea alone and under sail has to be one of the best feelings in the world.
10.15 - Shoal Waters’ after-end wiggled to the set of tide when we anchored beside the Mid Ray buoy, got the kettle on the go and scrubbed boot-line free of last week’s moss. All much to the annoyance of a group of seals already comfortably seated up on the Buxey.
12.55 – Weighed anchor. Wind F3, and veering NE. The clouds have gathered and darkened to look quite menacing but a piercing sun lights the glitter every few moments ahead, as we move slowly south, over the sands.
Ray Sand Swatchway
Ray Yellow is in sight and all is blissfully quiet out here, not another boat in sight, just the trickle of salt water and the sound of bubbles gurgling. Are those cockles down there trying to tell us something?
13.35 - In Whitaker Channel, No 1 Outer Crouch - STB Buoy. Looking south, over and above the Maplins, the sky has fused with sea water to the extent it looks ‘other worldly’.
Foulness Island seawall
14.50 - In River Roach. Wind SE F3.
Much work is in progress in both Quay, and Devils Reach, shoring up sea walls on Foulness Island. Cranes are over on Wallasea Island as well. Two or three huts are now permanently on the seawall at Wallasea. Such a crying shame as it now spoils the unique low lying coast of this area, and the feeling one had escaped Man… That's progress, I guess..?
16.05 - Down Yokesfleet Creek and nosed into Shelford Creek to see the drop-dead gorgeous reddish-brown seals and pointed our bowsprit into the abruptly dammed New England Creek, which once exited uninterruptedly straight into the Thames Estuary, lined with gulls as always. Onward into Narrow Cuts where I had to harden up and sail close hauled, up against the sea wall. As if I needed it, I was reminded this creek is a battle every time! Lots of blue sky overhead now and birds are singing on the muds. Wind SE F3-4, with lulls.
 Havengore Bridge is in sight now and I have a gut feeling I should abort the thought of a passage through to the Thames… The driving wind has dropped off to SE F2 and Shoal Waters won’t sail over a tide now, and to further thwart our advance any driving wind is on the nose. We’re running short of precious daytime as well.

17.15 - In Havengore Creek. I imagined the Bridgekeeper to be biting his nails for me in anticipation… Is this boat with the sails coming through or isn’t it? Unfortunately, until we reach the bridge we can never be sure which way the wind will be blowing and a number of attempts have had to be aborted due to it being funneled forcefully through the bridge piers onto our nose.

Oxenham Creek, as viewed from Havengore Creek
By the looks of the harvesting going on over on Rushley Island our annual Harvest Cruise was truly well under way though. There are so many creeks to visit here in the backwaters of Essex, and in Havengore Creek one passes Wakering scout hut, just opposite and upstream of Oxenham Creek, where it peeps above the seawall and is set in a wonderful playground for youngsters to adventure in. We sailed right round the island and had a magical quarter wind up to Potton Bridge, which opened up sharpish. How nice to have a new series of lateral buoys in the creek to help point the best way through the muddy shallows and as we sailed past them the weather obliged with sunshine, and an after the storm type of calmness. Absolutely a magnificent evening to be gliding along the creeks…
Causeway road onto Rushley Island
I had a peep in Barlinghall Creek for an agreeable smooth water sail up to the hard and back out. I generally will always anchor but impulse decided on borrowing a mooring buoy for few hours as I was surprised to see three or four vacant in the Roach and it was an easy matter to sail up to any one of them.  After tying everything down I sat in the cockpit and watched the sun fall and tide recede peacefully.
Causeway road onto Potton Island in Potton Creek
The forecast wind for the next day wasn’t great: up to Force 6, so we sat it out and I didn't get away again until 18.50 the next evening when the sail up to Lower Rochford in a Force 5 was outstanding. I double reefed Shoal Waters’ main while safely moored - a case of shortening everything inward so that, when setting off, I left the jib furled and just set the small staysail. She sails quite nicely with this set-up as long as there is plenty of wind and is well balanced, but as a consequence to increasing wind so does the popple on the water and any sudden drop in wind force and she likes to play stone dead. For her miniature stature she really is such a heavy old bird and demands her share of canvas.

Sitting out strong winds with a favorite book

Double reefed in the River Roach
I reached the pair of Lower Rochford lateral buoys an hour after HW. The sun had all but gone and the patterned sky was a magnificent backdrop to end this part of our trip. Mucking Hall has a small creek and a disused wharf that would offer shelter but was bone dry, and to port lay Bartonhall Creek which had about a foot and half of water but we couldn't sail into it tonight for the ebbing tide run too fast for us. Never mind, we had a close look and I wondered for a few moments about the legend of smuggling that once went on these parts.
 I jibed round, and doing so the plate sung and rudder creaked going over a mud-horse on the corner of the creek. She slowed to a near stop and not really wanting to stop here for the night I shuffled over a little, to keep in the deep of the fairway, and sailed on down the Roach toward darkness and a slant south, into The Violet, a stretch of water at the top end of Potton Creek where we anchored at 22.00 just above Barlinghall Creek entrance to be well placed for an advance up to Little Wakering in the morning. I set the riding light and sat in the cockpit in silence. Half the banks were lined by silver mud that reflected faintly the sparkle of a half-moon that shone above Barlinghall marshes.
 There was stillness in the air tonight. Not like the howling and rattling through the rigging that went on throughout the night before. For now, this was perfect. 

Roach sunset
However, the forecast was for strong winds again tomorrow therefore I set the alarm for 05.30 and got straight to bed in the hope I would arise in a shape of pleasing form able to cope with it...
The next morning I was up just after the birds and had breakfast and a cuppa. I shuddered when the radio forecaster mentioned westerlies up to Force 6. Any relaxed and pleasant creek-sailing to be had today in a civilized fashion would have to be done early, before the weather came in. Skies were blue and the sun low, just rising over Potton Island. I weighed anchor and shook out one reef in the mains'l as we slid passed the new Barlinghall red can buoy, and entered into the Barlinghall Creek proper.
Barling is such a sweet creek and immediately inside it one catches sight of the hamlet’s quaint church steeple which sits nicely as a bearing to aim for, and lower down is remarkably broad, not unlike part of Norfolk’s inland waterways. But then, unlike Norfolk and its medieval hand dug Broads, beneath the surface is mud deeper than I am tall, as sticky as glue, and formed by Mother Nature, and as much as it is marvelously wide it has deceptively shallow margins that simply revel in snaring an off-guard skipper besotted by the prospect of sailing it. And anyways, if you were to find yourself aground and stuck fast, there is no shame in admitting it, for as is often said, if you haven’t run aground on the East Coast you haven’t been anywhere! So I confess, I've been trapped here more than once, and still make the odd mistake as I have a short memory…

In the margins at Barlinghall Creek
I tacked a way up the creek; I find it's deeper close to the corrugated piling but still had the sounding cane poking away to one side. There's a distinct sound Shoal Waters’ plate makes before you find you’re at a standstill, and possibly neaped, which of course is what we endeavour to avoid at all costs while beating close to margins. This is an endeavour more important near to high tide as to get the boat under way again can mean downing all sail, lashing the plate and rudder up, and using the quant pole to punt and pole us out into free water again - which done under duress can be a huge effort. So, maintaining way as you become entrenched in the shallower reaches of a creek like Barlinghall can become a kind of delicate ballet dance where, without firmness of grip, the tiller is barely held at all and guided with the lightest touch of hand, or finger, keeping the rudder in line with the centre of the boat as much as possible so it’s not acting like a brake, and at the same time both jib sheets are played and paused accordingly to ‘aback’ the nose round ever so precisely.
 Further skill is required of the creek-sailing skipper in the correct timing of when to sheet in on the new tack for while all this dynamic businesses is going on the force of the incoming tide is having an effect on the small yachts handling as well and so one is wise to not tack too late and see his yacht's stern brought round before him.
If you can imagine Barling Creek as a kind of horse shoe shape, or an upside down letter u, then when we come near to the middle of the u there are two lines of fishing boats and other craft to tack through. The wind direction was rather kind on this occasion being west-south-west and I could reach through into Little Wakering Creek. The saltings are sliced through with rills and home to one or two intriguing old boats while the cant face is a busy feeding and stop off place to small birds. I did look in to Fleethead Creek and for my troubles got stuck for a few moments because of it but then we came to the first and only major bend in our main focus, Little Wakering Creek, and began a succession of short tacks up to an old staging. There's a light airplane field behind the bushes here, and there was a house barge on the staging here for a time. It's a wonder to think the old Thames barges made their way up this small creek. 

Just coming into Little Wakering Creek
 Today's high tide was a very low neap so unlike us they wouldn't be going any further on a day like today. A chap appeared on the seawall walking a dog and took some photographs of us sailing. A few houses are visible from here and so are farm buildings nevertheless there is a warm and secret ambience about the place and with there being plenty of marsh this side of what is, in comparison to other creeks, a low seawall which is soft and decorated with every shade of green, there are lots of little hideaways to tuck into and spend a quiet night on the putty.

At Shuttlewoods in Paglesham
As the day past the wind grew in strength and as I entered back into the Roach from the Violet it blew from the seawall at Shuttlewoods jetty where there wasn’t a soul in sight and where I felt it safe to stop for a while to straighten out the rigging. Until that is someone came over and said there was no landing here and I would have to move off straight away.  No problem at all, I said, and we set off again and anchored at the mouth of Paglesham Creek opposite a WW2 pillbox that sits on the seawall there and near about where the old HMS Beagle, the ship on which Darwin sailed around the world and was later called Watch Vessel no 7, would have been stationed guarding the then numerous and valuable oyster beds. I find it quite amazing to think other types of exploratory ships of Man have since been named after this ship that ended its days in a quiet Essex backwater, and have sought other frontiers in that never ending ocean of outer space. 
Anchored in strong winds at the mouth of Paglesham Creek

 We rocked and swung to anchor for what remained of the day. It was enough time to cook a filling meal in the ship’s steamer and read a little more, and then sailed gloriously into Paglesham Creek on the next incoming tide. The creek sailing that followed, even if only a few hours of perfectly idyllic sailing, was exceptional and reward enough for everything one does in preparation to belay it. The oyster layings in the creek are worked from an anchored raft in the Pool and the sight of a 6'x8' pitch roof garden shed sitting on it in mid-creek does raise a smile. 
 I stopped at saltings just inside the creek and stretched the legs and absorbed some of the stunning scenery of one of my favourite areas. I’ve heard people say ‘it’s boring here’, ‘there’s nothing there’, ‘it’s pretty bleak.’ That’s the whole point, thank you, I’ll have it all to myself! 

In smooth water, and the lee of muddy bank in Paglesham Pool. Oyster raft mid-creek and Burnham in the far distance
 Having sailed freely every creek in these parts and circumnavigated every sailable inch of Wallasea Island it was only the fact a road onto Wallasea was sat before us caused a turn back around to anchor next to a WW2 pill box at Church Hall farm wharf and ponder the delights of our marshy surroundings and the timing of our descent.
Wharf with pill box at Church Hall
 20.09. Left the top of Paglesham Creek at high water. I rode close to the mud bank as she would go and keep moving to pass under the highest point of overhead electric cables. There seemed to be a lull in the weather as we sailed past the oyster raft at Paglsham Pool, which held passing Shore Ends in darkness, so I decided to sail on through the night and get the bulk of the passage home done. From Holliwell Point the north-west wind kept falling off and, bar one reef, I had all canvas set but still it took longer than I had hoped to get out of the Crouch. 
Dusk, passing a floating oyster shed in Paglesham Creek
 However, the calmer weather was short-lived and I was taken by surprise when I reached the Ray Yellow buoy at how soon it became atrocious for a miniature vessel as ours to be out in: Force 5, increasing Force 6 at times. I was hesitant that the weather would pick up and thus one reason the a cruising man such as I reefs his sails to suit expectant bad weather, and the racing man with safety boats in tow reefs his sails to suit expectant lulls.
 I picked out the North Star overhead it was such a clear night, and I steered by it from the Whitaker Channel, crossing between the Ray and Buxey Sands.
 To a degree I’d took a gamble at crossing the swatchway on a falling tide but I’d done the crossing with success dozens of times before and my reasoning was as long as I stay within 2hrs of high water, and not cut any corners, I should in all instances, get across safely. However, this time I daren’t sound the depth with my trusty stick as I couldn’t bear to confirm what I was already thinking; that we were in less than a few feet of water in wind that wailed deafeningly through the rigging and with threatening short chop crashing loudly against the side of the boat...
 We crossed the shallow sands for 15 minutes... Suddenly, the old girl was on her beam end, rocking forward and back, and as the unsettled sea raced by flashes of moonlight that were so dazzling reflected off it and distracted from the urgency of the situation I was in. It dawned on me then we didn’t seem to be moving with it… I checked the sails with haste and could make out they were filled with wind. I realized she must be pivoting on the plate and we were, in fact, being pinned down by the force of the wind acting on the tide. Suddenly I was living my worst nightmare of grounding on the sands alone, in the dark and in a hellish sea-state.

  I stabbed anxiously at the sand with the six foot cane only to confirm we were in an average two foot of water, with less on the bottom of troughs, and then almost swallowed my tongue in shock as waves began breaking on the weather side and I pictured the worst scenario of being broken up during the coming moments on the unforgiving, hard sand. Oh dear, maybe we are done for this time, I thought. I was puzzled somewhat as I hadn’t heard the usual warning sound from the centerplate, but then a Force 6 makes some racket and add to that I had a woolly hat on covering my ears, I reasoned. Whatever the case, there was no time for judge and jury so, instinctively, I released the rudder downhaul and hauled the plate fully up in such a hurried fashion five stone in weight of cold steel could have come flying out the casing into my bare hands.
 Next, I threw myself into the companion way to grab hold of the paddle and began working it savagely over the lee rail in an attempt to move her along. To cross the sands should take no more than 20 minutes and our time was up. The North Ray buoy should be somewhere in an arc off the bow, to the north, but it was a hopeless case looking for it in this darkness. She stayed  pointing north on the compass and I paddled for a good few more minutes and was relieved the cane appeared to be going deeper and deeper. It was only inches more water but sure evidence we were moving again and had cleared the shallowest point of the swatchway.
 The short amount of time all this played out in felt like days yet was roughly only a few minutes window. Finally, when I knew we were completely clear of the sands, the relief was overwhelming.  Our high adventure on low water wasn’t over yet though. I was starting to feel tired but it wasn’t safe to anchor as the wind was picking up even more, whipping the shallow sea into a cauldron, and I had to press on regardless. There’s a point of no return when one heads out to sea on a running tide and for Shoal Waters and I it was back near Shore Ends - long gone…
 She thrashed along the Dengie coast throughout the night over-canvassed, every so often a spray of sea water rained down over the whole boat. I ducked down behind the cabin to avoid the stinging salt water and trimmed the sheets from there to keep us sailing off her one-reefed mainsail’s leach, and small jib set tight, until we reached an area a couple of miles offshore, east of St Peter’s Chaple, I call The Point.
  There are times when it is safer to keep a boat moving than it is to anchor her still and this was one of them, and as we met the force of the ebb coming out of the Blackwater and pushed the tiller away for a turn west endured two further hours of arduous sailing against wind, and now a foul tide…
I made Bradwell Creek inside the Blackwater just after low water when, as so often is the case, the harsh wind had all but vanished to a distant memory. We arrived home a few hours later, at 0645. Good sailing adventure to all, Tony Smith

Home again, with Shoal Waters safely on her mooring

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Sixth season sailing Shoal Waters comes to a close

The sixth season sailing Shoal Waters has come to a close. Down the creek the creekstas say I’m a jammy bugger as I always have perfect weather, be it launching day or laying up day. I say I pick the weather well as if a storm were imminent I would have rung you and cancelled to suffer the consequent re-planning! I must also say the past six seasons have passed incredibly quickly, and I’ve learn't a percentage more about handling a small yacht under sail in my wider cruising area each year.
 It was a strange season in many ways that almost didn’t get started as I felt the warm weather arrived late and went away again all too quick. Most mornings at sea started with woolly hats and fleeces, that were soon shred but we had some excellent trips, some of them rather scary, especially a couple of night passages where we seemed to catch a dose of de ja vue with rain and strong winds more often than not making for not to pleasant cruising. But then those trips were passages and a means to an end in the knowledge that once done we would be inside another river system safe again when the weather would brighten up for us to enjoy some truly wonderful creek cruising. And I may not have sailed every day throughout the season but every time I went out we sailed every hour we could and so our overall volume increased. I just love to keep sailing and one trip sailed non-stop for over 24 hours. And 18 hour non-stop sails were again common. . 
  Charlie said to me once, it took him ten years to fathom a preferred way to lower Shoal Waters mast alone. And so I suspect it will probably take me just as many to finally come to my own preferences and nuances of sailing her. One of them is with regards to laying up. On laying up day I would prepare the boat for sailing and then sail the relative short distance upriver to where we put her trailer. Now, anyone who’s laid a boat up will know there is so much to do on the day that lists are written to remind one of other lists, and on top of this, in our case, it takes a whole day to de rig her and empty the cabin so last year I chose to walk her upriver as soon a she floated and found I had more time to prepare her, so have done the same this year and think I’ll stick with this - for now anyhow…
    Creek in Flood (Mike) and Armchair Creek (Brian) lent a hand again this year and as always I am grateful. We have the whole procedure down to military precision now and sometimes launch three boats at once. This year, as we stood against Shoal Waters sharing banter we took the opportunity to synchronize our watches to the arrival of one of the wonders of cruising - the tide. I said it will be here at 1530 and to the minute it came swirling around our boots. … For those laying a boat up over the coming weeks I hope it goes smoothly for you, Tony
Image: the three amigos (creekstas) waiting for the tide.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

New Cruising Feature Published

Published in the October edition of PBO magazine, read our latest cruising feature 'Lesser Known Haunts of the River Blackwater'.  Happy reading, and sailing, Tony

Saturday, 27 August 2016

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Tuesday, 19 July 2016


With such fine weather it's time to celebrate. One glory of small-boat cruising in and around the Thames Estuary is one can run aground at will and put the kettle on for a brew...
Here's to the Thames Estuary, England-On-Sea...

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Anchored beside that street on the seawall, just inside the Inner Bench Head. The sailing was easy, by all accounts a stolen passage. Fettle Shoal Waters lines here and there and, like rubbing a genie bottle, she moves under her own breath. A man that knows this coast must come back to it once in a while, and watch the sky melt into the sea...

Monday, 2 May 2016

Adventure in Broadland

It Takes Wistfulness and skill to sail the fluky waters between the bungalows of the River Thurne at Potter Heigham in Norfolk. The river and dyke sailing on the inland Broads is a close match to the ‘short board’ creek sailing around the Kent, Essex and Suffolk coastal marshes that I partake in. In that respect my skills for this type of smooth water sailing were already honed. But I admit to never feeling completely comfortable with trailering a boat. And yet I’ve only ever owned small trailer sailors for one of the handful of main reasons that they have ability to trail to new waters as and when it suits. This is, perhaps, the Joker in the small boat sailor’s hand and I played this card when I began the 2014 sailing season by trailering Shoal Waters up to the north Norfolk Broads for an extended period based at Hickling Broad.

   I launched the boat on Saturday with the help of yard staff at Whispering Reeds. She slipped into the quaint little dyke where I tied her to the staithe and prepared her for sailing. To save time I had rigged her back at the club the previous week but she still took a few hours to load all the gear. The yard was a fantastic help in accommodating us, and found room for her to sit when I returned so I could leave her up in Norfolk for as long as I wanted to. For the trailer-sailor owner planning a visit here the yard is well placed with all the amenities either on hand or close by and in such a wonderful setting. They have ample parking, toilets and a shower if needed, and will do all they can to fit you in or find you a space to moor. They even hire their own fleet of day boats, some of them classic wooden half-deckers that would appeal to the most discerning sailors. Three of these are very special old-timers indeed and undergo a program of restoration. There’s ‘Silver Tip’, ‘Cigarette’ and the 106 year old ‘Marigold’. There are lugsail dinghies too, and the more usual motor launches.

  Hickling Broad is a reed-fringed nature reserve and at a mile long is the largest of the Broads. It is shallow throughout with an average depth in the main channel, which is marked by wooden port and starboard posts, of 5 feet.  Anywhere above Potter Heigham Bridge, the lowest bridge in Broadland, sees less traffic from the flybridge-decked all-mod-cons motor cruisers that proliferate the southern waters.  Mainly because these type of vessels are too large to fit under the old bridge at Potter.
  I had put aside seven days for this first cruise and had three main objectives to aim for. The 1st was to get up to Horsey Mere and Dyke, moor at Horsey Wind Pump, and walk the short distance across the marshes to climb the sand-dunes at the seashore.
Now, Hickling has its gems, Catfield Dyke with its resident kingfishers and Mrs Myhill’s Marsh being just a few of them, but the one and a quarter mile long sail through Meadow Dyke, which meanders in a north-easterly direction, to reach Horsey, with a southerly wind and a fading sun was absolute bliss. Every sailor who comes to sample inland Norfolk should experience tackling this charmed stretch of reed-lined water...

Meadow Dyke - a charmed stretch of reed-lined water
  I had hoped to pop into the Nelson Head pub and grab a refreshing pint but it was almost dark by the time I had finished quanting to the top of Horsey Dyke. Instead I made the walk through glistening sedge at 04.45 and witnessed a glorious sunrise and herds of wild deer galloping through the misty marshes.
  On my return from the seashore I poled us out to the mere; past silent cruisers moored in their dyke haven, and enjoyed a lone dawn sail on the broad flanks of Horsey Mere. I anchored by the reeds for breakfast and then headed over to an aperture in the north-west corner of the mere where trees waved beside the entrance to my 2nd cruise objective; Waxham New Cut. The aim was to reach the limit of navigation in the cut. Rarely does a wide-beamed or lengthy Broads motor cruiser enter the confined water of this cut as it narrows down to around 10 feet in a couple of places with overhanging trees and bushes adding more obstacles to negotiate and no suitable turning place to get out again. For the small sailing boat this is a peaceful and safe cut to explore and positively a challenge in anything other than a favorable wind.
 The wind had backed to north-east and disappeared completely between the covering trees. I resorted to quanting into the cut and round a couple of delightful bends to where the trees thinned out and swaying reeds began to whisper as they brushed together in the warm breeze. I stood up on the lazarette and steered with my foot while quanting. With a joint effort of the quant and staysail driving her Shoal Waters slipped upstream quite happily and I found I could peer over the 6 foot high reeds and across the marshes to the sandy Marram Hills that buffered the coast, about half a mile away, from Winterton to Sea Palling.
Brograve Mill in Waxham New Cut
   It was a gloriously sunny day and the sky a canopy of deep blue.  I was enjoying some of the most charming cruising that is to be had in a small boat. This tiny cut was simply stunning. It even had its own wind mill, albeit the crumbling ruins of Brograve Drainage Mill, which made an impressive image as I approached. I made a stop here to look over the site, before sailing the remaining straight line up to a picturesque setting by the bridge at Waxham. There are half a dozen small motor boats moored here, and a few in a small area beyond the bridge, in what is a hidden gem of a place in the quieter backwaters of the Norfolk Broads. When the time came to leave the wind had veered to the south again which meant a hard slog on the quant pole to get back down to Brograve Mill but a turn in the cut here allowed me to hoist the mains’l and harness the afternoon sea breeze that came in over the marsh and charge down the remainder of the tight waterway, which was barely wider than the boat itself, under sail with Shoal Waters on her beam ends and with the close bushes and overhanging branches clipping the terylene material of the mains’l as we scraped past.
On the way out of the cut I met with a chap cruising in his West Wight Potter Roamer. I pulled over for a chat and was delighted to learn he knew of Shoal Waters and he was overjoyed to meet up with her again with her new owner. We eventually sailed in company down to Candle Dyke where both boats moored for the night against a neatly carpentered quay heading. I was beginning to enjoy this novelty of pulling alongside a staithe and stepping cleanly out of the boat. Everything seemed to be laid on to make the cruising easy and pleasant. Quite a contrast to the mud ooze I was accustomed to on the East Coast!
  I slipped away at 06.00, about 20 minutes before high water, and began the drop downriver for my 3rd and final objective of this cruise which was to reach the disused North Walsham and Dilham Canal. This was the first time on this cruise I had to make any real allowance for the tide as it begins to make itself felt the further south you go from Hickling. The tide times on the Broads are worked from Gorleston and are given at low water as this is what is more important for passing under bridges but the skipper of a sailing boat will still want the predicted high water times for passage planning.
The new day found Shoal Waters mast going up and down like a well-oiled yo-yo to clear bridges. I left the paddle to hand just in case she failed to tack while sailing in close-quarters with the bungalows on the River Thurne. I exchanged compliments with some of the chalet owners who were sat watching as the world floated by and received a couple of comments like “I like your boat” and in return I gave them marks out of 10 for the quirkiness of their chalets as most of them are unique little structures.
River Thurne chalet
 I passed the entrance to Womack Water, home to the Wherry Trusts Albion and then felt the true grip of the tide for the first time on this cruise. I had to concentrate as we carefully made way south down to Thurne Mouth and took a turn starboard headed west along the River Bure, past the ancient ruins of St Bennets Abbey and starboard again this time heading north up the River Ant.  By the time we were under the Ant’s Ludham Bridge I had the whole procedure of dropping the mast down to an average of 5 minutes, and if I could find a space near enough on the other side of the bridge, there are designated Mast Lowering Only Moorings near bridges, I would be sailing on barely 15 minutes after I had begun the whole process.
Ludham Bridge dedicated mooring space for sailing vessels
The last time I sailed up the River Ant was with my family and we had hired the 28 footer Lustre, one of the Hunter Fleet of engine-less, gaff rig, classic Broads cruisers. We had ventured up to Ludham Bridge but never went further. This time I was alone and in my own boat and would be sailing all the way up. After Ludham I pulled into Howe Hill Staithe, at the free moorings, to speak to a local reed and sedge cutter. One of the joys of this area is to be able to see people practising the old ways of the marsh - that of cutting and gathering Norfolk Reed. At certain times of year you can see the ancient sight that is bunches of reed stacked beside the river on Turf Fen or Reedham Marsh, among other places, where it was cut, or stacked up on the staithe beside the moorings.
Reed cutter at Howe Hill staithe
There are around 20 reed cutters in the Broads area and each has his own patch, or area. The reed is cut every two years and most , if not all, Norfolk Reed stays in the county as there is only so much that can be cut and demand for it is high. Sedge is another matter as not much of this is used by the thatchers. I was told me he only cuts reed in dry weather as mould growth can take hold on a wet thatch. I had a lovely evening at Howe Hill chatting to and watching the reed cutter come and go with his boat load of thatch before piling it upon the staithe and taking off again to collect more.
The Barometer fell that evening and as I lay in the bunk watching the bright stars twinkle over Howe Hill through the porthole in the forward hatch. I reflected on the sailing I had done up the Ant earlier and how picturesque Toad Hall and Turf Fen Mill were while coming up, and soon dozed off to sleep. Church bells chimed on the hour throughout the night and, while untying the mooring rope the following morning, I watched a muntjack dear slipped through a nearby hedge literally 20 feet away. I was away early again, at 04.45. There was no wind and the Ant was a mirror image of the patterned sky. An hour later I was still paddling through Irstead - past some very pretty thatched residences and one of the prettiest village staithes in the whole of Norfolk. At 06.00 Barton Broad opened up and we were swarmed by swans. I hoisted the mains’l and ghosted across the magical landscape. A breeze eventually picked up and we sailed further on; up the glorious Ant...
Turf Fen Mill, and Toad Hall at Howe Hill, River Ant
  Above Howe Hill, mature trees, taller than Shoal Waters mast, curtain the banks and curtail any hope of a driving wind. I resorted to the odd paddle stroke and grabbed whatever ‘lift’ of favorable wind would come our way. One soon gets used to the frustration of four winds coming at him at once, a trait of Broads river sailing, and somehow we reached Wayford Bridge. I downed the mast and was under the bridge and gently ambling along the disused canal by 11.30. The overhanging branches and choked water put paid to sailing in the traditional manner between Wayford Bridge and Tonnage Bridge but Shoal Waters carries just the sail for these conditions: a bridgesail in the form of our topsail which I set low from the tabernacle and pole out the clew with a sounding cane attached to the sheet. The Norfolk Wherry once used this canal to transport goods all the way to North Walsham and though the canal is overgrown there is a consistent depth of four feet and there is talk of clearing it and opening it up to marine traffic again. At present only small craft like canoes are able to access the waterway but I revelled in the jungle-like terrain and enjoyed every moment of our slow African Queen style amble. Our cruising pace of 1knot per hour was sedate to say the least but I wouldn’t dare go any quicker. This is a part of the journey I wanted to last forever.  It was worth the effort to reach this canal as it was as wild and as peaceful as I had hoped - another of north Broadland’s secret gems.
The delightfully wild North Walsham and Dilham Canal

Thinking of visiting the Broads?
  • Pubs: Hickling Broad: Pleasure Boat Inn, and a pub I really liked, The Greyhound - a ten minute walk away.
  • Horsey Mere: The Nelson Head
  • Top of River Ant: Wayford Bridge.
  • Supplies can be got at Lathams in Potter Higham and the Pleasure Boat Inn has begun selling basics.
  • For a small fee water can be obtained from most boatyards.
  • Nature reserves like you to use the Free Moorings provided in most areas.
  • On rivers like the Ant many cruisers find a gap in the trees and go ‘wild mooring’
  • For Sailing vessels there are designated Mast Lowering Only Moorings near bridges.
  • Recommend taking a Ordnance Survey map of The Norfolk Broads
  • In local stores pick up a free 'What To Do on the Broads' users guide - a newspaper which has basic river maps and things to do.
  • Broads Authority tide tables.
  • Learn your boat's 'air height' for going under bridges, which have height markers placed either side.

Wildlife is everywhere on the North Broads. Deer can be seen in the marshes around Horsey and rare birds such as the Bittern in Hickling, Horsey Sound and Martham Broad. Kingfishers were notable in Catfield Dyke marshes.
Three Rivers Races takes place in May and is when the whole place is taken over by sailing boats. Best bet is either join in or plan your cruise around this weekend.

Last, but no means least, have a fantastic trip, Tony