A look on the Ordnance Survey map shows us that there are, on the East Coast, a dozen or so tidal rivers that indent the coast from North Foreland in the south up to Orfordness in the north, where inside can be found hundreds of smaller creeks just waiting to be explored.
I have slowly been making headway to all of the above mentioned places single-handed in my 16 foot cruiser Shoal Waters during the last two and a half years since I chose to cruise engineless. The associated niggles that go with running an engine such as servicing, obtaining petrol, storing the stuff on board, reliability problems: I could go on and on. They all disappeared in a flash the moment I decided to cruise engineless. This is a whole new concept for the majority of cruising sailors, who use engines as a matter of course, that is in fact an ancient one as our ancestors got around quite admirably for centuries using wind and tide alone to transport commercial cargo, and in the Thames Estuary the practice was carried on right up until 1970 by Bob Roberts, who skippered Cambria, the last sailing barge to trade commercially under sail.
You might even find yourself scratching your head looking for engine problems because it takes a while to get used to the novelty of not having any? And, although I felt quite naked initially, I quickly adjusted to a slightly different mind-set, where instead of being one step ahead I was now thinking two or three. Charles Stock liked to use the phrase “low animal cunning” to describe what is needed to cruise successfully in an engineless yacht and I was amazed at how quickly I had adopted some of these attributes.
I have learnt that sailing single-handed and pure has to be one of the best feelings in the world. Just as a boxer in a ring would do as blows come his way, I bobbed and weaved as weather conditions were dealt to me. That stiff nor-easter was like an overhand right that I ducked and yielded to, and went with its flow. On one particular occasion I had done so when a break in the weather allowed the 33NM mile passage up the inshore coast to explore the forgotten wharf in Johnny All Alone Creek in the River Stour. (You can read about this passage in my book Sea-Country). And on leaving a day later I dodged ships in the river and Harwich Harbour while heading out and scraped over the Deben Bar to get up to Woodbridge. I left on the same tide and went boldly offshore to skirt the Cork Sand and then scarpered back down the coast on a glorious run passed Walton and Clacton. I was feeling on top of the world and began thinking how wide Shoal Waters wings had again spread around her cruising ground in the manner she was accustomed to.
However, I would also learn that, depending on what your expectations are, engineless cruising has as many down sides as up. I then crossed the Colne Bar and could just see the mouth of the Blackwater opening up ahead, when with half hour to go before high tide and suddenly mother nature swung a below the belt blow and the north-westerly was cancelled out by the sea-breeze coming from the south-east. Maybe if I hadn’t gone out to the Cork I would have been safely inside the mouth of the Blackwater by now and would have anchored by the Mersea shore as planned to await the following tide upriver?
The next hour sat in the doldrums would feel as desperate as a set of fingernails scraping on a chalkboard. High tide came and went. I had begun a hopeless drift further out to sea. I passed the North -West Knoll going the wrong way. I was in deep water in more ways than one. And then the flashbacks began of sweetly popping two strokes coming to the rescue – if only… In all truth these were the exact type of situations I wanted to face alone. This was my chain of thought at the time anyhow, as perhaps only then would I emerge from the sea-forge a diversified sailor.
I remained calm and was about to sling the hook over when after what seemed like hours the north-westerly came back in with vengeance and all hell broke loose as sails flogged wildly until I gripped the sheets, reigning them in until taught-rigid and Shoal Waters shot off like a cruise missile. My heart raced as thrillingly I blazed over the ebb into the Blackwater in a 10NM mile trail along the slack margins, and into the shallower northern route of Thirslet Creek, in a record time of three and a half hours when I could go no further and had become stuck-fast in mud teasingly in the lower end of my home creek. Alas, I completed the trip by coming in on the evenings tide around midnight. Not every trip ends with a white knuckle ride of course but to practice the art of sailing a small boat around the Thames Estuary under the whims of the tide and fickleness of the four winds does require certain strength of character and resolve.
There is an aspect of small boat cruising that is likely to appeal to every normal sailor on inland and coastal waters. From my experience, the past time presents an endless mix for exploratory cruising where a spice of uncertainty adds enormously to the pleasure, gratification and satisfaction of undertaking a passage from A to B in an engineless yacht. Good sailing, Tony Smith