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You must be brave!

The second time I heard those words I began to worry. Maybe I was rash to be setting off in Puffin, my 22 foot Pandora International, alone at night, on such a voyage. I wanted my first crossing of the estuary to be in company of other boats and the Hoo Ness Yacht Club cruise to Tollesbury was my last opportunity of the year. My crew had let me down but it was now or never…

Tony Lavelle at the Helm of Puffin in the Swale
Tony Lavelle at the helm of Puffin in the Swale

As I slipped the mooring at 3 am to catch the ebb down the Medway I was thankful that it was a clear night. The full August moon peeped from the patchy clouds as my outboard desecrated the peace of the deserted river. Holding a folded chart in one hand as the tide carried my little boat downstream, I peered into the chilly darkness trying to distinguish the twinkling green and red lights as I followed the wide bends down to the Thames Estuary.

I had only once been as far as the Estuary, and that was the previous weekend with two friends. That had seemed quite an adventure but this was altogether different. Almost immediately my carefully made plans went awry. According to my hand-held GPS, the first waypoint, only a couple of bends down the river, was 63 miles away! I must have got a digit wrong in the latitude so I would have to fall back on what I could remember from Day Skipper navigation lessons.

Strangely there was no sign of the other boats with which I had hoped to stay in contact. My attempts to contact them on my hand-held VHF produced no response.

As the grey light of dawn illuminated the ugly skyline of Garrison Point at 5.30 am, other yachts overtook me from the direction of Queenborough. Were these my club-mates? Certainly it would have been a smart move to get a couple of extra hours' sleep by stopping there overnight, so close to Sheerness. The wind was now steady enough for me to stop the engine, which was at the same time soporific and grating on the nerves. The swish of the water was exhilarating as the boat forged ahead unaided through the turbid water.

Speaking of which, what were those strangely chaotic waves and whirlpools all around? At half-ebb on a spring tide, the current was at its strongest and I remembered the warning on my Imray chart about keeping clear of Garrison Point. For a few tense minutes I willed the wind to carry me through.

With half the ebb gone already, the awful reality of the distance before me began to register. With light winds and a relatively slow boat I needed to round the South Whitaker buoy, more than 20 miles ahead, when the tide turned in three hours time. At my current rate of progress this was not going to happen and I began anxiously to consider my options.

The late summer barnacle growth on the boat's bottom was clearly worse than I thought but, now that I was out in the estuary proper, the tide gave me a reasonable four knots or so. Rather than cross the path of half a dozen large ships in the dredged channel at right angles towards the South Shoebury buoy in the approved manner, I decided to follow the other yachts that were heading diagonally towards the Swin.

The Maplin Sands to my left were emerging from the water, much closer than I expected, though my echo sounder showed plenty of depth. A cormorant, seeming as large as a man with outstretched arms, was drying its wings and watching my slow progress from the edge of the sands. When the Blacktail Spit buoy bobbed past on my port side, I realised that the two strange tower structures I had been puzzling over for some time were clearly shown on the chart as Blacktail East and West. Lack of sleep was making me incapable of basic chart-reading.

With the northerly breeze, I had hoped to get up the West Swin without tacking, but the boat was making excessive leeway towards the West Swin buoy. I put in a tack but the boat was caught in irons. As we slowly picked up steerage way again on the port tack I realised that the tide had turned and I was heading straight for the West Barrow sandbank. The second tack was more successful but the current was too strong for the little boat under sail alone. My attempts to start the outboard became more and more frantic but, just as I was thinking of dropping anchor, it churlishly sputtered into life. The expressionless black head of a curious seal a few yards away mocked my unseamanlike progress.

The fickle breeze was coming from dead ahead so I continued to motor sail, taking advantage of the occasional favourable puff of wind and enduring the monotonous drone of the outboard for hour after hour as the sun rose higher. All hope was now gone of getting into Tollesbury Marina today. The East Swin was like a motorway with other yachts coming and going on almost the same track. Though I could not hear their engines over the din of my own, I assumed that they too were cheating as they overtook me.

Passing the Wallet Spitway Buoy
Passing the Wallet Spitway buoy

As low water was now well past I decided to skip the South Whitaker and take a short cut across the Whitaker Spit, leaving the North cardinal mark to starboard, and head straight for the Spitway. With only three metres on the echo sounder, the brown water simmered with a slightly nauseating motion. Soon the tall red and white Swin Spitway buoy was glinting in the sunlight ahead. I chugged over the Spitway and deliberately passed close to the spherical Wallet Spitway buoy with a sense of triumph. Now strange, ancient names like the Wallet and the Nass from Maurice Griffiths' sailing classic of eighty years ago, Magic of the Swatchways, were becoming real in my own experience.

As I set course towards Mersea Quarters, a gentle easterly sea breeze came up but I kept the engine running in the hope of getting to my destination before low water. Ebb tides from the Colne to the north and Ray Sand Channel to the south were converging with the strong eastwards ebb from the Blackwater over the shallows of the Knoll and the Colne Bar. The following waves were breaking steeply on the boat's quarter despite the breeze being slight. Running goose-winged with wind against tide made the boat roll uncomfortably.

The Nass beacon, when it eventually appeared dead ahead, was a disappointment after its romantic description in Magic of the Swatchways. Though I had studied the approach to Tollesbury Marina on large scale charts and in my almanac and pilot book, it all seemed very different from what I imagined. One by one I picked off the red can buoys marking the left side of the narrow channel, getting shallower by the minute, that led in a curve towards Tollesbury Fleet. What a desolate place! Mournful withies reached high out of the mud towards the sky on either side. Deserted boats lay at their moorings in the channel with their masts at alarming angles.

At about 6 pm I took my pick of the dirty orange visitors' buoys at the point where a now almost imperceptible channel branched off to the left towards Tollesbury. I tried to call the marina on the radio with no response. After trying to call the other boats on the radio and mobile phone, I inflated my dinghy and attempted to go ashore. Half an hour later, after getting very wet and covered in mud, I resigned myself to a quiet night alone in the marshes.

The night was balmy enough to leave the hatchway open but, exhausted, I slept like a log. As the tide ebbed, flowed, ebbed and flowed again, my little boat swung back and forth on the mooring. Each time I poked my head out, the scenery had changed round and, as the water rose, the adjacent island that previously loomed above me had disappeared completely. The landscape was transformed from muddy desolation into a major waterway.

At a respectable hour on Sunday morning I finally succeeded in making contact with a human being via my radio. A friendly voice from the marina assured me that local high water was to be at 2.30 pm. With a draft of 3ft 9in (my Pandora has a fin keel) I could enter any time from 12.30.

At the appointed time the tidal gauge, which had previously towered at a seemingly improbable height, confirmed 4 feet over the sill so I motored up the creek with as much confidence as I could muster. After dodging a couple of other boats and berthing without too much embarrassment, I bounded up to the cruising club building and was warmly welcomed by my fellow Hoo Ness Yacht Club members, who were tucking into their Sunday roast.

I had used up nearly all my petrol and did not fancy the return passage without any. Though the marina did not sell petrol, they assured me that I could get some from the village. However when I was about to set off to get some they pointed out that the garage would be shut on a Sunday. Though our commodore gladly lent me a gallon can, I was anxious to get more.

At 3.30 pm, I motored out to West Mersea and rafted up against two other club boats so I could make an early start next morning. I accepted a lift to the garage from three yottie strangers who overheard our conversation. My three petrol cans got very heavy on the walk back to West Mersea Yacht Club but after a very civilised beer or two there I enjoyed dinner aboard our commodore’s yacht – a very different experience from dinner on Puffin.

The wind picked up in the night and I did not sleep well. A dinghy that was attached to the same buoy was bumping against the hull and the halyards were slapping despite the strop I had frapped them with.

At 5.30 am as dawn broke, I hoisted the mainsail and let slip without starting the engine to avoid waking anyone. My clumsy activities on deck woke my neighbour nonetheless and he helped slip the lines.

As I passed the Nass beacon I was tempted to shake out my cautionary single reef but my knot fortunately proved hard to undo. The northerly wind soon picked up to the forecast force 4 to 5 under grey skies. With a decent following wind this time, this was going to be a very different return trip.

After rounding the Wallet Spitway fairway buoy the boat pitched and rolled, at times alarmingly, making about six knots running before the wind over the Spitway and the Whitaker Spit. Every so often I heard the commodore's voice on Channel 77 enquiring after Puffin's progress. It was comforting to be in contact with other club boats, somewhere behind me over the horizon.

This time I was where I wanted to be, south of the Whitaker, when the tide turned at about 8.40 am. I was now able to go with the flow for the next six or seven hours if need be, with a strong following wind. Halfway across the estuary, making an impressive seven knots, I was astonished to hear my name called. I thought I was dreaming but, as I looked round, a welcome hot bacon sandwich appeared before me, dangled in a bag on a boathook from the commodore’s boat.

Some large ships entering the Medway channel forced me to sail just outside the starboard hand buoys and rather too close to the Montgomery wreck for comfort. With such a fair wind, the trip up the Medway was quick and uneventful. Puffin was back on her trot mooring at 2 pm.

For fellow sailors with more experience this account may seem melodramatic. If so, maybe you have forgotten the sense of adventure when you first set out to sea alone. Now I must find out how to use the scrubbing dock...

Date Published 18th Sep 2011