A novice sailor’s unhealthy enthusiasm for rough weather is doused by the muddy brown waters of the East Coast
Dick Durham knows the East Coast of England better than most. He has sailed it, both deep water and shoal, since putting to sea in the 1960s as mate aboard the last Thames barge trading under sail. When he writes we can see straight away that his knowledge goes far beyond that of the casual yachtsman plying between Harwich and the Crouch.
As a sometime Fleet Street journalist, he has a sharp ear for a story and an encyclopedic memory bank whose offerings flash from scholarly historical anecdotes to comments made by ancient fishermen caught between a rock and a hard place.
Dick has written a number of books. The following extract is taken from On and Offshore, published in 1989. In it, he describes a bread-and-butter passage up the channel known as The Wallet running inshore of the Gunfleet Sand between the Blackwater and Harwich. What in other hands could have been a dull account of the unremarkable is brought to vivid life by the fact that Dick’s crew is a dreamer who has never tasted salt water in anger.
Dick is determined that this short heavy-weather trip in his small wooden cutter will disabuse the lad of any airy notions. He wins the challenge he has set himself, then blows his own cover with a final sentence showing that he, like the rest of us who follow the sea, hides a romantic streak at the bottom of his heart.
From On and Offshore
Cumuli cauliflowers are ballooning on the western skyline and white, ragged streamers of cirrus are already scratching the free blue sky over our heads. The wind is picking up and it looks like a summer gale is on its way. We sit below patiently waiting for the frivolity of the Archers to finish, a strange prelude to the grim march of Atlantic depressions, which the Shipping Forecast duly heralds.
“I’d like to do some real sailing,” announced Tim. Like most novices Tim wanted a gale. His enthusiasm would be quickly extinguished with a North Sea wave down his shirt.
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“Well, don’t start praying for bloody bad weather,” I said and snapped off the radio. We are speeding along with a fair sou’wester and the brown wooden teeth of Clacton Pier a mile inshore. In quieter weather you can hear the tribalistic tattoo stamped out by skinheads bored with the cancellation of summer football.
Tim takes the helm while I hop up on the coachroof and take a third of the mainsail away from her. Immediately Almita raises her lee rail out of the sea. Down below bilge water has rushed up the sides of the hull as she dipped in the gusts, lapped onto the bunk cushions and soaked my sleeping bag.
Up in the cockpit again and I see Tim is straining two-handed on the tiller fighting the weather helm. We still have too much sail up. Working forward in clumsy stages by first grabbing Tim’s shoulder, then rushing to the shrouds, then dashing to the tack of the staysail, I land crouching on the foredeck.
Again, the halyard zips away with a run once it is loosed, and the large triangular red sail collapses with a frenzied clapping. With the sail bowsed down to the bowsprit end and the halyard tightened once more, Almita smokes along through the rising wind. Tim has straightened up, and now with just one hand at the helm is back in control.
“That’s better. Is it a gale yet?” he asks. “Yeah, getting that way, you’d better give her to me,” I say brutally, “and how about a cup of tea?”
“What did your last servant die of?” Tim replied, rather hurt, but goes below nevertheless. When your whole world is at a 45° angle, stubborn old liquid still battles to find its own level. I reckoned a dose of boiling water over the fingers might cure Tim of his insatiable appetite for tempting fate.
The spray which explodes off the occasional wave and splinters into my face tastes fresh, salty and good, but with the amount of gulls seen floating limply, heads down in the sea these days I fear for the health of those swimming off Clacton. For a nation of seafarers we certainly give our waters a lot to swallow: Britain saves £1 billion a year in cheap waste disposal by using the North Sea as a dustbin. So far we have turned a blind eye to where it goes.
Suddenly the le’ward cabin door swings back on its hinges and crashes against the cockpit bench. Tim, struggling to brace himself by use of backside and boot, shuffles out into the air once more holding two cups of anaemic-looking tea. He is grey-green round the gills.
“Coo er, felt a bit off down there,” he said. “The blinkin’ wind kept flattening the gas and the kettle took ages to boil. I’m afraid I spilt some milk in the bilges.” Smelly bilges are a small price to pay to assuage Timothy’s lust for bad weather. He nibbled sadly at a chocolate biscuit, but then the cool air and spray seemed to revive him and soon he was back.
“Have you been out in weather as bad as this before?” I ignored him and spitefully conceived a plan to cure him once and for all. “When you’ve had your tea, do you reckon you could manage to change the staysail for our half-sized jib?” Tim is not a man to avoid a challenge, especially if he can be active in a gale; such a sail change necessitated getting out on the end of the bowsprit.
Abreast of us now, hanging just clear of Walton Pier is the orange and blue Walton lifeboat, twisting and tossing on its mooring. Soon we would have a bit of weather shelter under the Naze cliff, the Essex coast’s only feature, the one occasion when the smudged line of land rears up with anything approaching elevation. Nature is working on this phenomenon however and the sea is gradually licking away the Naze’s feet of clay causing the crumbling cliffside to slump down onto the beach.
Two miles out in the roughening sea a lonely buoy bobs as a memorial to nautical persistence: the Medusa marks a twenty-foot deep way out across the Stone Banks. Admiral Nelson was lying in Harwich Harbour in a gale, unable to get out to sea. His ship was refused passage out by windy local pilots, so he ordered a marine surveyor aboard to get him to sea. The channel he chose was named after Nelson’s ship.
Tim, looking like a man from NASA in his spanking new oilskin suit, is now fearlessly changing the headsails from the bowsprit end. Unfortunately, the flood tide we are pushing is also being pushed by the increasing wind and the seas are picking up. A larger brother of these steep waves lifts Almita’s bows into the sky. Tim is up there staring down at me. Is there just the hint of a snarl?
For as we all know, that which goes up has to come down, and it is now the turn of Almita’s stern to rise into the air, which leaves only one place for the opposite end. The last I see of Tim is a red and blue figure being plunged into a brown-green sea. The next time he is aloft his hair is clinging to his head, a long cowlick stuck down from his forehead to the end of his nose like the protective strip favoured by the Norman infantry.
“Reckon that’s a Force 8 now,” I shout, though fortunately the cruel sentence is snatched away a few feet from my tongue, shredded into vowels and consonants and tossed harmlessly into the spume. A dripping Timothy makes his ungainly way aft on his bottom, dragging the jib with him, Almita’s wild lurching making him move along in a crab-wise, sidling fashion.
“Where are we putting into?” he enquires, unwittingly signifying he is a cured man and becoming a seasoned hand. “We’ll skirt along the Pye Sand until we can feel our way over it and into the channel which runs into the Backwaters.” I am delighted to be more forthcoming.
Suddenly we are in among many little bobbing flags and I warn Tim to watch out; we must take care not to snag Almita’s rudder on the lines of these lobster pots. Reminded of a colleague, Stanley Meagher, whose fastidiousness at the dinner table caused him to return a male lobster and order the sweeter female variety, Tim remarked, as the flags whizzed by: “If Stan was here he’d want those marked with his ’n’ hers signs!” It bodes well that the lad has not lost his sense of humour.
Almita points her stern to the red, flat-topped Stone Banks can buoy and her head to the grey-blue watertower over on the Dovercourt shore, and makes a run straight for the disturbed, frothy, beer-coloured water over the Pye Sand. It is possible to leave the Pye End buoy a good half mile inside, though in this weather you have to ignore what appears to be a collision course with the bank itself.
For Almita now it is a dead beat up into Hamford Water. The channel is not even half a mile wide which means some smart sailing, though if we miss-fetch the relentless flood will carry us into the wind’s eye. The gallant Tim, still with a wave inside his oilskins, tends the fores’l and jib sheet with the precision required in very short boards.
If it were not for the port and starboard buoys, it would be hard to believe there was a channel here at all today, wind and wave has flecked up a bouncing, seething canvas with the brown sand of the Pye running across to merge with the mud on Crab Knoll. The channel has no definition; our horizontal plane looks as though it should be snaring us at any moment. Soon though we weather the corner at Mussel Scarfe, a tight bend studded with red cans.
Now it is a long and a short up the Walton Channel. The long tack on starboard takes us diagonally across the creek faster and faster towards the mud. There’s an oystercatcher ahead: is it floating or walking? It’s walking… ‘Ready ‘bout,’ Tim twirls the jib sheet off the winch, ‘Lee-ho!’ He lets it fly, and leaps to haul in the le’ward sheet. Almita spins round and across the bow of one yacht and under the stern of another, leaving a zig-zag wake up through the moorings.
We suddenly smell delicious wafts of cooking meat and come across a large motor cruiser, her fat owner, complete with gold necklace, is barbecuing his dinner on a huge grill screwed to the craft’s stern. Raising his sunglasses he waves and looks perplexed at the rather damp, oilskin clad figures on Almita. In here the water is flat, the sun is warm, only the wind tells the tale of Walton’s front door, outside in the Wallet.
We moor on the bend leading into the Twizzle, and, sails down, we drop exhausted into the cockpit. Oilskins are stripped off, tea is brewed and we sit staring with satisfaction at the 160ft Naze Tower built by Trinity House in 1720 away to the east. Not much more than an hour ago it was west of us as we walloped through the seas of the Wallet, but now we have hemi-navigated it and come in by the more appropriate tradesman’s entrance.
Sadly it is time Tim was back at work and so we row ashore to the landing steps in Foundry Creek. “Where do you reckon you’ll get to tomorrow?” he asks, gazing out over the brown waves.“Depends if I can get a crew,” I say.
I was lucky. Unlike Tim, my new hand arrives without oilskins, sea boots, sleeping bag, without even an American Express card to pay for them. Baden-Powell would have despaired. Leaving him in the galley, I filled our jerrycans ashore and started the long row back. Astern of Almita there was a puzzling line of black dots.
Empty tin cans bobbing by told me what was in store for dinner. As I sank John’s ham-fisted attempts at waste disposal I read a discouraging menu of stewing steak, sweetcorn and mushrooms, but I should have had more faith. After the master’s touch of garlic, a splash of wine, herbs and whatever else he could find in the lockers, we dined like kings in the cockpit by lamplight.
First published in the June 2019 edition of Yachting World.