Most years our season starts sometime in March but again this year the weather hasn’t been great and also we have had some things we needed to do so our season hasn’t started until the Easter weekend. That is more than six months since we last went out and we have had some work done on the engine since then.
As part of our preparation for going, Lindsay from Seapower spoke to us and wanted to come on board to do a full engine and generator test before we start the season. We all knew it was probably unnecessary but we agreed it was for the best. For a couple of hours we ran the engine in gear to test that there were no leaks, excessive smoke or problems with the drive train. The Yanmar performed fine, with little smoke considering she hadn’t been run for quite a while. Then onto the Onan generator which started easily and purred like Clyde eating prawns! This was all done late afternoon on the Wednesday and it gave us the opportunity to get down the river and moor against Halfpenny Pier in Harwich for the night. This starts the break early and knocks 90 minutes off the journey by the time you have negotiated the lock and transited the River Orwell. After stocking up on essential supplies, our first time through the lock for ages is uneventful, although we are clearly a little rusty and the tying up on the pontoon in the lock isn’t quite as unhurried and calm as usual as we get slightly blown on and Maria has to make a couple of adjustments to get us away from the pontoon and then back on it. After a long time in the lock (there is a lot of water to move), we are on our way.
The wind is shifting from NW to West and so we motor down the Orwell at the speed limit of 6 knots. From an instrument perspective we have no log – I didn’t clean it before we left and some crustaceans have obviously blocked up the wheel. We also have no wind instruments for some reason, I suspect that there is a problem at the top of the mast and the windex was not replaced when we did everything else. Our wind guide is our ensign, it gives us direction and depending on how full of wind it is we can guess the wind strength. We have had to do this on a “sailing holidays” boat before so we are not worried about it at all, Mariadz will tell us if she isn’t happy with the wind. There is nothing on the river at this time, a couple of hours before sunset, and it is very peaceful.
I had spoken to Nick, one of the harbourmasters at Harwich and he said that we can use the ferry berth if the pier is full because we are away early in the morning. We also have to post our overnight fee through his door – you have to love the trust and honesty system on the East coast of the UK. We pass Felixstowe and start heading to Harwich to find the outside of Halfpenny Pier completely empty. Maria approaches into the tide and wind and gently ferry glides Mariadz onto the pier and I tie her off. The wind is actually a fair bit stronger than we expected, blowing around 15-20 knots, so actually it is not as if we really need to tie her off, she is pinned against the pier anyway. Still tied off and with all fenders on the pier side, we are ready to get changed for dinner.
Maria has booked us into the Alma in Harwich for dinner and we have enough time to make ourselves presentable and head into town. The Alma has a really nice atmosphere and the food is excellent, especially their steaks and lobster. At the next table we meet a couple who are moored on the inside of Halfpenny Pier. Now a lot of people will take their dog into a pub or beer garden but these two had their three cats in the pub with them. All five of them were staying on a twenty footer which he’d described as his yacht when they met. I don’t think it was quite what she was expecting when she first went aboard but they seemed very happy and we had a lovely chat. The cats may also have got a few treats from the kitchen too 🙂 I’m not sure it is anything we can do with Bonnie and Clyde but the cats were really well behaved, happy and loved. At the end of another gorgeous meal, we returned to the boat and settled down for the night ready for our early start the next day and the trip down to North Kent.
At 7:30am, a little later than planned, we pull away from Halfpenny Pier and set out to the North Sea for the crossing of the Thames Estuary. Our routing is to head south through the Medusa channel, avoiding Cork Sands and the shallow Stone Banks, before crossing above Gunfleet sands, with its huge windfarm, to head down the Kings Channel to Barrow Deep which gives you a pretty direct south west line to the River Medway. The wind is blowing westerly at about 15 knots and the sky is clear, so pretty much perfect conditions for a southerly and south westerly crossing. The crew are mostly awake and ready to go although Bonnie and Clyde seem to be settling down to sleep in the cockpit and Maria is thinking about setting up for her work day on the move with a number of calls and conferences.
The Medusa channel is quite often covered with lobster pots, with very poorly marked balls or floats on the surface so you have to be vigilant as you progress through the channel to Gunfleet. We also had a quite scary experience a few years ago when we saw two strange “lobster pot” markers on either side of the channel and as we got closer we saw partially submerged floats on a fishing net strewn across the channel. An emergency ninety degree port turn put us parallel to the net and about three metres off it. Disaster averted, we were able to return to our course as we negotiated the end point of the net. Thankfully we recognised what this was in time, the question has to be asked though, why would you put a net across the main channel for south bound travel at the perfect state of tide for a southbound journey? It has made us vigilant in the Medusa channel though! On this day, progress is pretty average, despite keeping the engine running, but the tide is due to go in our favour down the Kings Channel and a couple of hours later we have made our turn south west and with a slight increase in the wind too we are soon bounding along at 8.5 to 9.5 knots under full main, full staysail and approximately 50% of our yankee headsail with the engine off. Even accounting for 1-2 knots of tide helping us along, we are still making good progress and it is a comfortable sail as Maria works in the cockpit. For the next four hours we are making good progress and cover 30 miles to put us squarely in the mouth of the Thames and pointing at the mouth of the Medway. We have been reasonably relaxed about our plans and the weather isn’t perfect over the coming days with some quite strong overnight winds forecast for the back end of the weekend. We decide we will anchor out for the first couple of days and then spend a day or two in a marina. We have had Chatham recommended to us a few times with its historic yard and museum and I call in to see if and when they can fit us in. Unfortunately there is no room at the Inn :(. We decide that we will anchor out as agreed and then work out what we are doing after that. As we proceed South West, we go past a large fort, the Knock John Maunsell Army Fort which looks like a bouncer guarding the Thames and is similar to Sealand, the principality in the North Sea that we often end up sailing around if we go across the channel. These were anti-aircraft platforms during the war apparently but look imposing structures on guard permanently and should be painted black for the full doorman effect. Fortunately it looks like our name is on the list so we can keep going. After this you see the Maunsell Navy Forts which look like Martian tripods from War of the Worlds but from our angle it looks like one has been ostracised – not quite sure what it said but it looks very sorry for itself. It still takes another hour and a half for us to get into the River Medway and as we enter the river we see several yellow buoys and some masts protruding through the water. This is the SS Montgomery, a munitions ship that sank in 1944 and still has 1,400 tonnes of explosives on board. We’ll tip-toe past that then! We are now looking for the creeks since we have decided to anchor in one of the creeks in the Kent marshes. We go into Stangate Creek so that we can find Sharfleet Creek which gets quite shallow at low water with a six metre tidal range at this time and we are pretty much at high tide so it looks very inviting. We have decided to anchor in one of the “holes” which is charted at 4 metres and so should have something like 8 or 9 metres of water at the time we are there. We’re intending to stay for some time so I deploy our heavy rocna anchor in the middle of the hole with forty metres of chain. The thought was that this would give us four times the maximum depth when the wind was likely to be blowing 15-20 knots. The other side though is that when we are around low tide with four metres of water, there is a lot of chain. This has the effect of making us “wander” around a bit on the anchor, although the anchor isn’t moving. We use an app to help us when anchoring, Anchor on the iPad, which shows you a track of how you are moving around your anchor. It is important to remember to switch the app off before you move off though, or the anchor alarm starts going and you are frantically trying to work out what is going on.
Maria has been able to work a full day whilst we travelled and as it gets to the end of the day, we settle down, make our dinner, chill, chat and watch the seals bathing on the muddy banks as the water level falls.
When we arrive everything seems so flat but as the water level lowers, it seems that you are in a muddy canyon and you start to see rocky outcrops appearing from the water, top tip not to go near those when the water rises! A few other boats have come in and start fishing and a larger ketch has also come in as the tide is falling, and anchors in a deeper hole further into the creek.
It is not a late night and we are in bed reasonably early. With the anchor alarm app we use, you set a distance for triggering the alarm. When in the Stour we have generally set this at about 25 metres but of course with a wider tidal range and more chain out, this isn’t nearly enough and so the alarm goes off a few times during the night but when I check our position manually, I can see we are in a good place (and exactly where we should be).
We are not up early and during the morning we discuss our plans. We explore the idea of going to one of the other marinas in the area for when the wind picks up but we are not convinced that there are many other options for a 54 foot boat with davits (another six foot) that draws six feet (1.8 metres). We look towards the Isle of Sheppey and Queenborough Harbour and decide to “go take a look” on our rib, Connie (t/t Mariadz). We have our life jackets on and the waterproof grab bag with a torch, VHF etc and with the hand held nav system, which also fixes to the dash of the rib, we are ready to go. The trip over is not as easy as you’d think, there is a reasonably strong wind at our backs and I am trying to get the rib onto the plane, so that the trip is level and comfortable, without going too fast to make it uncomfortable. With Maria’s recent back injury, from which she is still recovering, the last thing in the world I want to do is to put her back under any pressure. Of course every time I get up on the plane, Connie picks up speed but if I try to reduce the speed she comes off the plane and starts to wallow in the swell. So I am constantly adjusting the throttle trying to keep her on the plane but not going too fast that she crashes over the waves. I also have one eye on the return journey which will be into the wind and waves, I am guessing somebody, most likely me, is going to be getting quite wet! We arrive at Queenborough and tie up Connie on the waiting pontoon while we go and have a chat with the harbour masters, Chris and Dianne who are really friendly. We explain that we are looking to come in the next day and potentially stay for a couple of days and there are a number of options: we can hang off a larger buoy, tie up to the pontoon on the other side of the river and be water-taxied in or we can stay on the harbour masters pontoon and walk ashore whenever we want. We agree that walking ashore sounds best and we are not worried if people raft up to us as long as they are considerate. Before heading off, we decide to have a quick (liquid) lunch stop and see what the town itself is like. Chris and Dianne offer to look after some of our stuff while we walk into town and we gratefully accept. “did you know there is an alarm going off in that room?”, yep that will be our anchor alarm telling us that we have drifted three and a half miles to Queenborough – must remember to disable the app when we go out on the rib! Our first impression is that Queenborough is similar to Harwich, with lots of small backstreets with older cottages, it seems very pleasant. Our first stop is the Old House at Home, which is an old fashioned pub with quite a few people in. Maria checks us in on Facebook and is told that she has checked us into the wrong one. Who knew there would be two pubs called the Old House at Home on the same island! There is a “bullsh1t corner” with a guy sitting there who we listen to intently…. The pub also has live music later in the weekend and so this looks like it could be a good place to go. We decide to wander a little further into town and see what other places are available and find the Flying Dutchman, with a name like that you have to try it… This is a lot larger and more modern with an extensive menu and a parrot (not on the menu!). A quick drink and then we really need to head back to Mariadz. It is now mid-afternoon and we agree that Maria will “drive” us home. That means that I will sit somewhere around the middle and try to help balance the boat. I am also conscious that although the grab bag is waterproof, the wet proof cover on our camera bag is not likely to help much if we are getting soaked. We had out of the River Swale to go back to our creek. Maria sets the throttle and we are going a lot faster than the journey in but certainly not maximum speed. Connie is riding the waves really nicely and we are back in the creek in no time and bone dry! I’m sure Maria will say this was due to her ability behind the wheel! It’s another great sunset in a really peaceful place but with the wind expected to pick up over the next few days we decide that we will pick up anchor first thing tomorrow and head to Queenborough.
A slightly less quiet evening, with Maria doing her “I just want to hear one song” routine, unfortunately she doesn’t seem to tell me which one song she wants and eventually I play about forty before she has had enough. We also did a whole lot of chatting and singing, a capella of Simon and Garfunkel’s, The Boxer! I’m sure a little alcohol must have been involved somewhere! Dinner is duck with Chinese pancakes (enough for four people) followed by home made Thai green curry, also enough for many people. Needless to say we enjoy the pancakes and barely touch the curry, which is lovely, and now joins other meals in the freezer waiting for us to be too lazy to cook properly.
Morning comes and we prepare to leave. I have switched off our anchor light and removed our anchor ball and then set to the anchor itself. As part of our setup we have a ten metre line with a hook that we use as an anchor snubber. This allows us to link the rope to the chain and attach the rope to our bow cleats. It reduces stress on the windlass from the pull of the boat against the anchor and softens this pull. As a backup we also have a deck mounted anchor snubber which comes into its own if there is a problem with our primary. In addition to this we have a trip line and anchor buoy. This has two advantages, firstly it is possible to retrieve the anchor if there is a problem with the chain (like it breaks!) and second it is a good way of knowing where the anchor is which can help with understanding whether the anchor is moving, or dragging. We saw this setup on a Swiss boat in Ramsgate once and decided that this was a good idea for us. It means the whole deploying and retrieving the anchor is extended but we felt the advantages outweighed this disadvantage, although all of this was about to be reviewed. We are at low tide and we know that at places this area is quite shallow at this time. However, we are keen to get away. There is also a North Westerly wind which is quite strong and blowing us towards the shallow centre and southern section. The snubber comes off quite easily and the anchor is on its way up. As the anchor comes up, it comes up to deck height, the wrong way round and so it needs to turn. I lower the anchor again and then allow the twist to free itself. Meanwhile Maria has the boat under power. The anchor turns and comes back up with a quick flick throwing Medway mud all over me and the foredeck. I set about retrieving the anchor float and am getting the ten metres of line in quite well. Unfortunately as Maria is moving forward the float drifts backwards. Maria decides to use the bow thruster for a course correction and despite having nearly all of the line in, the float won’t budge. I call to her to use the bow thruster the other way so that we can free it. She does and the float comes free with some minor damage. However, the combination of the bow thruster and the wind is moving us to starboard and towards the south of the creek….where the shallows are. Maria calls that we are getting low on depth and we quickly agree to turn hard to port, that was when we lost all motion and now we are stuck. I am quickly back in the cockpit and we discuss our options. This is potentially serious despite that we are five minutes prior to low tide (a good decision) and there will be more water lifting us momentarily. At the same time, the wind is blowing us into the shallows so we could just find ourselves being shifted further and further onto the mud as the water rises. Maria is trying to turn hard to port and using the bowthruster while I am starting to contemplate getting the rib deployed and using our anchor to kedge us off. In what seems like an age but was really just a few minutes, Maria starts to get some movement to port and we are unstuck. We now just need to make sure we don’t go slamming into the other bank, but at least that will be easier to get off 🙂 On reflection, we decide that Mariadz didn’t really run aground on the mud but was dredging a channel for smaller yachts!
We are clearly both a little shaken by our mistake but we are safe and starting to move out of the shallow creek and into the deeper creek. Apart from a minor depth alarm warning which isn’t a problem we are fine and heading into the river to head to Queenborough. Maria has to keep one eye on the chart because this part of the river looks really inviting but has some shallow areas so we do our usual and navigate by the buoys to make sure that we are always in a good place with plenty of water.
When we were at Queenborough the day before the pontoon was pretty much empty and with quite a strong tide coming in, we decide we will go past the pontoon before turning and mooring into the tide. Then we see the pontoon and they are rafted four deep next to the part of the pontoon we are meant to be approaching! But it is ok, the large motor boat at the end is coming off and so that should make it easier. Except the motor boat is going back onto the pontoon exactly where we are expected to be. We speak to Chris on the radio who tells us to raft up to the motor boat and Maria starts her approach. We are into a reasonably strong tide and with a strong wind blowing us onto the pontoon but Maria has done this kind of thing at Halfpenny Pier many times before and with a burst of bow thruster, Maria straightens up Mariadz and she nestles nicely against the motorboat where we can tie her off. At this stage, we are told that the motor boat will be leaving at 1pm and then we can move alongside the pontoon.
There is no point leaving the boat and so we contemplate our options. There is a strong tide coming in and with several yachts in a raft behind us, we agree there is no option to come out astern. Not least of all that once we are moving a little we will lose all ability to steer once we are going the same speed as the river water. Can we come off forwards? there isn’t much space and the concern here is that the motorboat has said that they intend to exit that way and so we would be getting in their way with a lot of boats on buoys just past the end of the pontoon. We continue to talk. In the end the option we go for is to turn the wheel as if we are going to starboard. Now this has the effect of moving the stern to port or away from the pontoon. You can then use the bow thruster to counteract the bow going in to the boat/pontoon and effectively come off sideways. This needs to be done with enough revs on the engine for Mariadz not to move in relation to the pontoon despite the incoming water wanting to move her astern and into the happy group of yachts behind us. We test our theory while tied up to check what happens to the stern when you turn full lock and despite a strong wind blowing us in, it looks like it will work. We explain what we are going to do and the motor boat skipper says he is intending to get out very quickly and so we will be able to stay there for a short while before we can get onto the pontoon. We start to untie the boat as Maria readies the helm. We start the manoeuvre and it is going well as we start to come off sideways. Unfortunately Maria has to come off the bow thruster for a second so she can make an adjustment and as she goes to put it back on it inadvertently flicks the other way. There is a safety cut off to stop you constantly changing the direction of the bow thruster and Maria has now been caught out by this as the wind grabs the bow and elegantly knocks it into the motor boat, fortunately not causing any damage to the motorboat. The cut off releases and Maria can get the bow thruster back on and as the bow eases away the motor boat goes out through the gap. We can then approach the pontoon in our usual way and tie off. Quickly another boat approaches and rafts up next to us but we are tied up with extra lines to shore and the rafted boat is well tied to our mid cleats and stern cleat. when we surveyed the bow we saw that we had made contact with the motorboats rubber rubbing strake (bumper) which left a black mark on our hull but there was no other damage – nothing that a little CIF couldn’t get off 🙂
We are now safe and secure and can relax since we will be here for a couple of days. The cats are relaxed as always and decide to have a little explore of the area, I’m sure Clyde is looking for mice or a pigeon to supplement his diet!
Maria and I decide to go into town in the afternoon to do some shopping and have an explore. The co-op is quite a walk and after getting the shopping we decide to break up the return journey with a refreshment break. We found people very friendly in each place we went in during our stay in Queenborough and despite having said we would be back at the boat by 5pm we were a little late. In fact, the reason for the curfew was that we were expecting one of our friends, Deanne that Maria used to work with, to join us overnight. We had decided to cook up a little Mexican menu with tortillas to start, followed by a chilli con carne with all the trimmings washed down with a cheeky Prosecco or two.
We have explained to Deanne where we are and she gets most of the way before calling in to get the last few details of exactly how to get to us. I describe the pub we went in the other day and explain that if she proceeds along the waterfront there is a car park right in front of the pontoon. After a couple of minutes my directions have apparently put her onto a footpath with bollards at the end! I go to find her…with additional instructions from Maria for some more shopping for the meal – I had forgotten a few things. I arrive at the footpath to find Deanne’s car very close to the road to the car park. Unfortunately, she has to reverse out and go around a park to get access to the road to the car park, sorry! We haven’t seen Deanne for some time and it was nice to catch up and the weather was kind so we spent most of the time in the cockpit area protected from the elements by the cockpit tent. It’s a lovely evening but in common with other times when Maria hasn’t seen a friend for a while, she will not go to bed. As the song has it, “it was only 10, how did it get to 3” and this is my life 🙂 Eventually, the girls stop chatting for long enough to realise it is probably time for bed, especially as Deanne has to collect her daughter early in the morning.
The next morning is a slow start. The cats are broken as they always are after a late night. Deanne surfaces and is over an hour late, oops! Maria cannot lift her head from the pillow. I see Deanne off and settle in the cockpit chilling and catching up. Periodically, I pop down to check on her ladyship, who is clearly broken. She isn’t able to get out of bed until 2pm and then it is tomato juice for quite a while! Maria is a traditional girl though and no Sunday would be complete without a roast dinner and this time it is roast beef. Despite her hangover, Maria excels and dinner is fantastic. We also have a couple of pleasant conversations with some of the locals including being described as “proper sailors” because of the amount of mud on our anchor! That’s one in the eye for those who criticise us for having too big a boat with too many creature comforts.
This will be our last night at Queenborough, although we will definitely return in the future. The weather is starting to get worse and some strong winds are predicted for mid-week and despite not very favourable winds, we know we need to go on Monday or we could be stuck in Kent for a number of days. Unfortunately, the tides which were so favourable for us on the way down, will work against us on the return unless we leave in the early hours or in the afternoon and arrive in darkness. Neither of those options is too appetising and so we decide that despite the unfavourable tide we will leave shortly after dawn and recognise that it will be slow. It is also not helped by a 20-30 Knot wind which has shifted round to North East, exactly the direction we will be spending most of our time going!
As part of my clearing up, I have to break down the fishing rods, which haven’t been used again despite £20 of bait being bought. Unfortunately one of them has jammed and after trying several methods, with help from the local fisherman, we are eventually able to free the two halves by using Maria’s posh hairdryer 🙂 After they are broken up, I am having a quick chat to Chris the Harbourmaster who mentions that the other week they were catching large Sea Bass just fifty metres away from where we are standing…..and Maria hasn’t even tried this weekend…..oops 🙂 (Just as discretion is the better part of valour, I have found that cowardice is the better part of discretion and so haven’t told Maria about this. And now she has proof read this post I can add it in 🙂 May be best not to mention it if you see Maria.)
We leave early the next morning with Maria performing a flawless departure with an audience of zero! (isn’t that always the way). The wind isn’t great and is right on the nose and as the tide turns progress is slow. The distance we covered in four hours at the start, now took us over six hours to negotiate. Maria is quite “tired”, hmmm, not going to sleep ’til late will have that effect. She spends a fair amount of her time sleeping while I am on watch. She does allow me to get some rest while she is on watch though. I say she is on watch, I think Clyde probably does as much as she does 🙂 Bonnie doesn’t like to be on the outside and when I lay down to close my eyes for a while she becomes very demanding wanting to be cuddled while I sleep. In the end I have to cuddle her, while she headbutts me and I try to rest.
The trip up Barrow Deep and the Kings Channel is monotonous and slow. We are only making three knots progress at the height of the tide against us with the wind blowing on the nose at nearly 30 knots. Mariadz can handle it and she doesn’t mind a little water over the bow, nothing will get near the cockpit anyway and we are dry, warm and comfortable despite the weather. Maybe that is why some people don’t like our sailing, we aren’t in full wet weather gear, getting lashed by the spray and wind for hours on end! We’ll just accept that we are fans of cruising rather than racing 🙂 We make the turn to the north to head into the Medusa channel and I am finally in a position to get some sail up. The tide has slightly changed and suddenly we are flying like usual with a perfect line all the way into Felixstowe harbour. We continue sailing a fair way up the Orwell river before deciding to take the sail in and motor the final leg home. The weather is clearing now and there are some lovely views as you go up the Orwell. As we proceed up the river we are know that we are now in the last stages before we can tie up. It has felt like a long trip back. As you approach the Orwell Bridge, you need to call up to the lock so that you can get into the locked marina. Maria calls in and we are lucky to be just catching the gates before they are closed. Maria approaches warily because of the quite strong cross wind but handles the boat almost perfectly as this time she did make me jump a few feet rather than the more usual step down to the pontoon.
We come into our home berth bow first, again being blown away from the pontoon which means that I have a slight gap to negotiate as I step off and tie off our lines. There is no fuss and we tie her off.
Its been a great break and despite a little rustiness and a few mistakes we have had a rest and feel refreshed. We will learn from the mistakes but nothing was damaged and I had already cleaned off the dirty mark on the bow before we left Queenborough Harbour. As always, Mariadz behaved impeccably and looked after us despite the weather and our mistakes. Within 30 minutes of stopping, she was back to being a home, waiting for her next adventure.