We enjoyed our few days at anchor in Pyefleet Creek. Although it was much busier than our last visit, it was still a magical place. The birdlife was particularly impressive and we saw four Marsh Harriers in addition to several different kinds of waders. Even with both reefs it was too windy to sail the cog boat. We did try, but ended up being blown into the muddy lee shore. While at anchor we got some useful work done sorting out our well deck, into which we had thrown all the last minute items we wanted to take on our voyage. We also had a day in Brightlingsea and another day in Colchester.
The latter was an impressive place with its remains of the Roman town wall and the Norman Castle. The whole town seemed very well cared for with lots of lovely old and new buildings and beautiful displays of flowers. After a picnic lunch sitting next to a fish pond stocked with huge koi carp we followed the river Colne from the castle park right down to the old harbour area.
There is an old mill that had obviously once received deliveries of grain by barge. Further along the walk there were illustrated signs giving information about the river and the part that it played in the development of Colchester.
We were also surprised to see a modern sign post that gave amongst other places, the distance to Daybreak’s registered port, Hull.
On arriving back in Brighlingsea we met Richard and Hilary from the Sea Change Trust for a drink. It was a great evening talking about sailing barges and other traditional vessels and how they could be used to help disadvantaged young people. The Trust has already raised enough money to start building a new Thames sailing barge for their work, but still needs to raise more for the rigging and fit out (www.seachangesailingtrust.org.uk).
The forecast the next morning was not ideal for a passage from Pyefleet Creek to Harwich, with winds north-easterly winds force 4 to 5. However we had a crew and there did not seem to be anything to be gained by waiting. Pamela had arrived on Wednesday evening and I picked up Ian from Brightlingsea on Thursday morning. Once back on board we stowed the inflatable and raised the anchor (not too muddy this time).
We set off at high water, joining the Colne and then out into the mouth of the Blackwater.We passed the sailing barges Edme and Reminder at anchor and on the way out were overtaken by one of the gravellers still working out of the Colne.Having made sure we were clear of the notorious Colne Bar we headed almost due north up the coast. Although we were going with the tide we were heading straight into the wind, which with Daybreak’s bluff bows slowed us down considerably. As we got out of the Blackwater the seas were also quite short and steep, which meant we were getting quite a bit of spray over the front. It also meant that as soon as we had any wind on the beam we were rolling. We had quite a tricky time keeping the boat motion as comfortable as possible whilst also maintaining our course well clear of the shipping lanes into Harwich and Felixstowe. It was rather like sailing, but without the sails. Although we were pointing north east our actual track was almost due north because we were making so much leeway.
Although it was quite exciting motoring through the choppy waters I think we were all relieved when we got some shelter from the entry into Harwich. We motored around the point and found our mooring, which was clearly marked ‘Strictly no Mooring’. The pier master had told us he would leave the signs up to make sure no-one else moored in the places he had reserved for us.
In the absence of any crew for the weekend Sally and I decided to drop down the river and anchor in Pyefleet Creek, where we had anchored on our previous visit to the Blackwater in 2000. We locked out at 7.30 am, to warm farewells from the staff and volunteers who were operating the lock. The forecast was for variable 3-4, but the river was like a millpond as we wound our way around the withies marking the channel from the lock and the turned around the buoy close to where the spritsail barge Decima was anchored. The morning was hazy with another sailing barge and other masts silhouetted against the morning sun. The wind was so light that it did not seem to be worth raising the sail and the small sailing boats around us did not seem to be getting much help from the wind, so we motored down with the tide. We were on tickover most of the way because we did not want to arrive too early at the mouth of the Colne and have to punch the tide up to Pyefleet Creek.
As we had set off from the lock I had mentioned that we had not yet seen a dolphin or porpoise (except one possible glimpse as we came round from the Crouch). One must have overheard me because at 10.15 we spotted a common dolphin heading upriver not far from our port side. It was arching in and out of the water so we could clearly see its white flank and the scimitar shaped dorsal fin.
The barge that we had seen ahead of us turned out to be Pudge. They had been motoring well ahead of us, but in more open water they raised the sails and turned the engine off. As a result we gradually overhauled them, even with Daybreak’s engine just on tick-over, and we had waves from the passengers and crew. We rounded Bench Head buoy and entered the Colne.
We passed the sailing barge Edme and admired the fine lines of her hull. It was clear just by looking at her why she has won so many trophies.
A bit further on I was surprised to find a beginner’s wakeboarding class going on right in the middle of the deep-water channel. Each time they tried to set off the person on the wakeboard fell off and the speedboat circled round to collect them. As it was not possible to predict which way they would go I held my course to the right hand side of the channel and ended up passing close enough for me to suggest, very politely, that they should move somewhere else.
Shortly after this we met the large Colchester smack ‘Pioneer’ on her way out of the Colne, looking resplendent after a recent restoration. The passengers paused in their sail hoisting to give us friendly waves. The skipper even doffed his cap and I returned the compliment. As we entered Pyfleet Creek we found quite a few boats moored to buoys, which were not there on our previous visit. We motored slowly through the moored craft until we dropped the anchor in a spot far enough away from the buoys and with deep enough water for us to stay afloat.
It was another cloudy morning as we prepared for the next stage of our trip, which was up the Blackwater to Heybridge Basin. Ian and I raised the anchor, this was a particularly messy job because the West Mersea mud seemed particularly sticky, even by East Coast standards.
As we set off up the river we could see several bands of rain coming in our direction and it wasn’t long before we were passing through torrential rain and Ian and I were left peering into the murk while other members of the crew decided it was more comfortable below. The rain did not last long and as the visibility improved we saw many of the vessels that had taken part in the Heybridge Regatta passing down river.
Heybridge Lock is only open one hour either side of high water, so it was important to get the timing right. We did the last part of the journey on tickover while getting final directions from the lock-keeper, Martin, over the phone. We motored past the lock to have a good look at the entrance and then carried on up river until we judged it was time to turn around to arrive as the lock was open. We passed the spritsail barges Kitty and Thistle going downriver and there were several other Thames Sailing Barges anchored below Malden.
We made our turn and slowly followed the rather tortuous channel into the lock. Once in the basin we moored alongside an old lifeboat.
The morning was grey with a cold NW breeze and a sea fret reducing visibility. In view of this we decided to go ashore for a visit to the delightful West Mersea. The inflatable was well laden with 5 people aboard but coped very well even when we were thrown about by a fishing boat passing us very close by at high speed.
It was an interesting trip from the anchorage to the town past the houseboats that look as though they float on only the highest tides. There were some beautiful Colchester smacks and the sailing barge Dawn as well as numerous more modern sailing boats. A very modern large fibreglass motor boat looked very out of place moored amongst all the more traditional craft.
The jetty was buzzing with people young and old and all around us dinghies were being launched and people were being ferried out to their boats. It seems as though everyone in West Mersea spends a lot of time on the water on every conceivable kind of craft from sailing barges to surf boards.
We walked along the harbour front and visited the very well stocked chandlers. We then walked through the picture postcard cottages stretching back from the waterfront. We completed a circular walk and then went to lunch in the West Mersea Yacht Club with Ian’s sister and her family who live on West Mersea and have a yacht there.
As the weather had improved and there was a pleasant breeze Ian and I returned to Daybreak to get ready for a sail. Working together we soon had the sail rigged and were able to set off very soon after the others returned aboard the very efficient harbour ferry service run by Stacey aboard the Lady Grace.
The sun finally broke through the cloud as we raised the anchor and set sail across the Blackwater. The set of the tide and the wind direction meant we were able to sail from West Mersea across to Bradwell and back. I decided to try ‘wearing ship’, rather than tacking. We had done this in the Swale the previous year and I was interested to see how much sea room it took. I was pleasantly surprised how smoothly we turned and how little ground we lost. It was certainly much gentler than tacking. The sail was always filled from behind and so there were no flailing tack chains to contend with. We also did it without using the leeboards, which we had decided were not necessary but because the outgoing tide was pushing us upwind and so we were not making any leeway. I think Ian’s sister Kaye, who was on the helm for most of the time, was quite impressed by how well Daybreak handled and how light she was on the tiller. We had a lovely sail crossing the Blackwater a couple of times before turning back towards our previous anchorage. Several boats came over to take photographs. We were able to anchor under sail quite close to our previous location. However I realised later that we had ended up a bit closer inshore than before and as the last of the tide ebbed away we were sitting in the mud. It was so flat at that point the people sitting inside had not noticed any change.
We had an interesting trip in the inflatable to pick up Kaye’s husband Christian. We had to row much of the way as there was not enough depth of water to use the outboard. We all sat round to have dinner and share more stories. As a glass or two of wine had been consumed we had arranged for Stacey to pick up Kaye and Christian and take them ashore. We really enjoyed our visit to West Mersea and I am sure it is a place we will visit again.
Just before 11 we had a call to say there was sufficient water at the jetty for us to pick up Ian and Lisa. We raised the anchor and motored against the last of the incoming tide. I had some problems trying to come along to the down-tide side of the jetty as there were odd currents created where the tide flowed under the jetty and two large steel piles managed to ensnare the cog boat just as we got close. We managed to extract Daybreak and the cog boat and went round to the upstream side of the jetty where everything went much more smoothly. Sally and Pamela helped Ian and Lisa with their luggage, while I sorted out the £7.50 landing fee with Kevin who was running the yard that day. The boatyard at Paglesham is a delightfully ramshackle place with a wide range of boats in various states of disrepair/restoration.
Having got Leesa and Ian safely aboard we did not have long to wait before the tide had turned and we were able to slip off the jetty and turn to go back down the Roach to the confluence with the Crouch. The river looked very different a high water and the seals we had seen basking on the mud flats were now only to be glimpsed swimming. As we entered the Crouch here was a small ship just raising its anchor and we kept are careful watch on what it was going to do. However she did not seem in a hurry to go anywhere and it seems she was waiting for another ship to vacate a berth a little further upstream. We made good progress with the strong tide under us and we were soon doing over 6 knots.
Although it had been windy for some days previously the sea was relatively smooth and we had a comfortable passage. There was a bit of rolling as we crossed the shallow waters of the Spitway, but this did not go on for long. We arrived much earlier than I had expected, even though we were punching the last of the tide going into the Blackwater.
It was very close to low water when we arrived at West Mersea so we motored in until there was a couple of meters of water and then dropped the anchor. As we surveyed our anchorage and watched the numerous sailing dinghies that came out for their Friday evening sail, Ian bemoaned the fact he had not brought his fishing rod. Sally had been busy in the galley as we finished the trip and it was not long before we were sitting down to one of her fantastic fish pies. Perhaps we should get a fishing rod as it would be rather special to have fish pie made with fish you had caught fresh.
We had planned to stay a few days at anchor on the Crouch while Sally went back to Staines to visit her Mum, but we ended up staying a little longer than expected.
Sally returned with friend Pamela on Wednesday, but we were stuck there another day because of gale force winds all up the East Coast.
A shift in the wind direction and reducing tides also meant that we sat on the bottom for a couple of hours each low tide, but as it was soft mud we decided it was safer to stay put rather than try to move to deeper water.
However it was not such a bad place to be and even when the wind was screaming through the rigging everthing was calm below deck. We were also treated to some beautiful East Coast sunsets.
Today, Thursday, we raised the anchor and went a bit further up the Crouch before turning and heading down river. Although the wind had eased considerably it was very grey and wet, with everyone in their wet weather gear. We had had to leave our anchorage early to make sure we did not go aground and so we cruised as slowly as possible down the river, past the marina where we had stopped alongside Johan’s barge and past Burnham before reaching the point where the Roach joins the Crouch. We went well past the junction before turning and edging our way between the sandbanks guarding the entrance to the Roach. Approaching low tide it was easier to follow the channel between the mud flats on which numerous seals basked. There were quite a few young seals and I am sure some were being given lessons in how to fish from their parents. This seemed to involve a lot of splashing in contrast to the effortless grace seals usually display in the water.
We were all feeling quite cold and damp when we arrived at the boatyard in Paglesham where we had been offered a berth alongside a jetty. We talked about going to a well known pub in Paglesham to warm ourselves with a meal and a glass or two. These pleasant visions evaporated as we approached the jetty only to find it, and all the boats moored to it, sitting high and dry on the mud. The boatyard owner had not mentioned that it was only accessible around high water and I had not thought to check. A shouted conversation with someone on the jetty confirmed that we would not be able to get on until 11 pm and so we said we would anchor for the night and come in the morning to pick up Ian and Lisa. We carried on past the boatyard looking for a suitable place to anchor. As we approached our chosen spot, just after passing the right side of a green buoy, Daybreak slowly came to a halt surrounded by clouds of brown silt. This was obviously a good time to anchor, which we duly did. However it was a little disconcerting to be able to see the anchor just below the surface and while the tide rose over the next few hours I let out more chain to make us secure for the night.
Although we didn’t make it to the pub Sally prepared a super meal which we accompanied with a glass or two of wine.
As there was nowhere suiatble to moor Daybreak in Burnham we decided to go there by train from our anchorage. Our departing crew seemed to take the good weather with them, so we had a damp trip across to the jetty.
We caught the train from North Fambridge into Burnham, which we had not visited before. Although it is a place steeped in history and with many nice old buildings still remaining, we found it a rather unsettling place, somewhere that was not at ease with itself. We visited the museum where we found pictures of the time when the quay was full of sailing barges and oyster smacks, workshops and sail lofts. The same quay is now occupied by some very exclusive yacht clubs, interspersed with bits of public space where people sat and drank tea and ate ice creams.