As far as the weather was concerned, I’d seen better Junes than the one we had just experienced – and the longest day had come and gone all too soon for my liking. However, if the weather hadn’t seemed much like summer, the sailing had been pretty good, and I had made some decent trips up the coast to places like Mistley on the River Stour and down to the Thames, and had even circumnavigated one of Essex’s smallest built-upon marsh islands up the River Crouch at Stow Creek, a fair distance inland.
For those of us based on the East Coast, summer eventually arrived in July – and with it the prospect of some balmy days afloat on the River Blackwater in Essex, my home river which holds 64 named creeks (and many more which I have visited). The river has a wide and inviting entrance, and from Sales Point, the line of sunken barges used as a wave-break at the mouth of the river on the south side, over to Mersea Island on its northern edge, is approximately one-and-a-half miles long – and from there up to Maldon is a tad over 10 miles.
|Saltings at Post Beach, Osea Island|
Now, as the crow flies, it takes 12 minutes and 800 footsteps from the roadside to reach my boat Shoal Waters on her mooring in the creek. A trivial fact perhaps, but I only know this as cars are not allowed into our club because we are sited on an organic strawberry farm (which produces the sweet but rare Little Scarlet variety). I use these minutes wisely when walking along the sea wall to get a feel for the conditions, and change or adapt a plan accordingly before I step on board.
One option for a short cruise on a flood tide is to a destination area a couple of miles upriver, west-north-west toward the salty town of Maldon, home to the largest fleet of active Thames sailing barges on the East Coast. If plenty of boats and people are your thing it’s a wonderful place to head for, arriving at Hythe Quay by high water with time for a relaxed sail back on the ebb, waving at a few smiling faces on the promenade and popping into a couple of small, remote creeks on the way – and still having enough water to get back on the mooring.
Another potential flood-tide cruise is the hop across the river (heading south) and into Lawling Creek, then on into Mayland or Mundon creeks – and with the wind anywhere but north, sailing back quite easily to the mooring over the last of the flood tide or the beginning of the ebb. Ebb-tide cruises are in the general direction of east-north-east toward Mersea or Bradwell; and, with prevailing south-westerlies, I’ve found that these invariably involve a lengthy interlude of beating back upriver, returning on the flood when the earliest I can get in the creek to my mooring is three hours before high water. Of course, skippers who sail without an engine must use the tide to their advantage – but that’s not to say we can’t and don’t sail over it when and where conditions allow.
Lovely small beaches
And that is just how I began a short cruise with the aim of visiting a few creeks, beaches and saltings, and circumnavigating Osea Island into the bargain. With a forecast of variable Force 3-4 becoming south-easterly 3-4 – and high water at 1230 – I raised the mainsail. It shook as I clambered forward and let us free from the mooring buoy, and once again we glided off to go cruising under sail. Sheeting in, the sail filled with wind and her nose came round a little more, enough to unfurl the jib
so it too filled. We sailed a straight, close-hauled course over the Stumble to Hulk Beach on Osea Island. ‘HMS Osea’, as it was once named, was used as a naval training base in the First World War and was defended in the Second World War, so it has numerous curiosities from the past lying around on its shores. With its manor house and smaller cottages it was once regarded as a centre for abstinence, but in recent times it has become an island retreat, with people coming to stay from all over the world.
There are some lovely small beaches, and even with the place becoming better known, solitude can still be found in the island’s margins – and Swallows and Amazons-style fun and adventure can be had. I ran Shoal Waters’ nose into the beach and stepped into the water. Beside us, a derelict post leaned wearily to one side. How soothing and cool the water was as the air temperature was 32°, the highest it had yet been all year.
|Two black and red danger marks|
I had a look in at Bulham Beach on the outside of Gore Saltings and picked some more sea lavender, and after a cuppa sailed over to the north of the two target buoys close to starboard – then I felt the breeze suddenly pick up. I freed off the main and jib, then unfurled the staysail. With the wind now gusting south-easterly Force 4 I turned toward Skinners Wick and one of Essex’s red hills, an interesting stop-off. Broad-reaching with a fair tide, we were there in a few minutes. I furled the headsails, dropped the main and, at 1345, hopped barefoot into 2ft of flowing water.
Mud squelched between my toes, and as I stood and pondered this piece of ancient history the pressing thought occurred to me that the tide was running: I had a job to keep Shoal Waters from grounding and cutting even shorter our short cruise! Red hills are a distinctive feature of the Essex coast and are thought to be up to 2,000 years old – ancient industrial waste sites formed over time by waterside communities that once resided here producing salt, then a very valuable commodity. These communities would have created piles of broken, discarded pottery vessels used for the boiling of seawater – and from this ancient salt-making industry, local creek and place names such as Saltcote and Salcott came about.
|Author, literally standing on the site of an ancient Red Hill|
Being the largest, this one extends out into the river and is known locally for tripping up visitors unfamiliar with the underwater terrain here. There’s also a Second World War pillbox that was originally on the sea wall, but which has sunk into the sea due to erosion. In addition, there was once a pier where paddle steamers stopped to pick up day-trippers from Tollesbury’s former crab-and-winkle railway line that terminated here. Its remains are revealed at low-water Springs by two rows of cut-down wooden stumps: I like to anchor just below them as the spit gives shelter to a small boat.
Sailing on over the Nass, we proceeded into the deep green water at Mersea Quarters and up to Packing Shed Island, where oysters were once farmed. The whole island is awash with oyster shells, and at low water the large black shed towers above the creeks. This local landmark is maintained by the Packing Shed Trust, but in its late-19th-century heyday up to 60 fishermen worked here, sorting and packing oysters that were sent down to London or across the Channel to Europe. Oysters are still farmed in the surrounding creeks, and more than 1,000 boat owners keep their vessels in this attractive, charming spot.
Moving on, I hardened up again and pointed at the twin towers of the now closed and partially decommissioned Bradwell Nuclear Power Station to find open, shallow and smooth water. (The towers are still used by mariners near and far for navigation.) I anchored at 1640 in a depth of 4ft for dinner in the lee of the sea wall at Weymarks Creek, a small cut in the saltings. Low water was predicted at 1835 and the following high water at 0047 the next day. We were still afloat, just, and with the south-easterly wind becoming a lighter but more consistent Force 3, I was perfectly set up for one of my favourite excursions in the main river: an evening sail at low water with the sun setting and the wind eased, following the south side of the river on the edge of the mudflats at St Lawrence Bay.
|Classic East Coast creek sailing in St Lawrence Creek|
With the second high water the following day being at 1313, I chose to dry out for the night in a position 100 yards from the beach in mud where I could get some sound sleep but still be afloat early (four hours before high water, 5.2m). However, as a rule I find soft sand about 60ft offshore here, with steep-to shingle on the shore so a boat can get close in and stay floating nearer high water.
By sticking to the main channel, boats with deeper draught can enjoy much of the low-water sailing on offer in the Blackwater, and many choose to anchor by Osea Pier and await the tide before moving on upriver to Heybridge or Maldon. With another hot, blue-sky day emerging, the wind backed east as I walked the boat inshore with the rising tide so I could have another refreshing swim. The river suddenly seemed to come alive with yachts, and two sailing barges that passed by were filled with passengers enjoying the setting.
|Small yacht moored at Osea Island|
With so much to do in a small boat on the Blackwater, I hadn’t noticed how quickly time had passed: and as I took a gentle sail back across the Stumble to my mooring at 1430, I contemplated cruising to many other haunts along the river on another hot and balmy summer day…
About The Author
Tony Smith sails the rivers and creeks of the Thames Estuary in a variety of dinghies, but for the most part can be found cruising in his 16ft 6in miniature wooden gaff cutter Shoal Waters, which he keeps on a drying mud mooring in a picturesque creek in the River Blackwater.
Further reading: learn more about cruising the River Blackwater and its 64 named creeks here
All images and text copyright Tony Smith