Creek sailor Tony Smith finds respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life on a 37-mile cruise from his Blackwater mooring to Ipswich
A tranquil cruise along the River Orwell, from Harwich to Ipswich
The earliest wheat harvest in living memory was under way as I climbed aboard my miniature gaff cutter Shoal Waters to go cruising. I’d brought my annual Harvest cruise forward by two weeks to coincide and as we set full sail and cruised the north shore margins over the incoming tide, light airs from the north-west blew gently in 30°C temperature and the distant rumble of farm machinery at work on golden fields followed our slow course down the Blackwater. My aim was to reach the Suffolk county town and the international Port of Ipswich at the top of the River Orwell, 37 miles from my mooring.
For those who think we shoal draught yachts have it easy being able to creep along in the shallows, perhaps to stay clear of an unfavourable tide, when others that have to stay in the channel and the full force current have either turned back or switched to iron topsails, the mosquitoes and midges in marshland bite hard, especially at harvest time when they are being evicted en mass! And so I was relieved to anchor at 2335 on the south side of the river at the drainpipe near Weymarks Creek and Sales Point.
Setting the ghoster
Monday I got away at 0935 with rising heat and light airs. I paddled over to the beach to run a piece of line to the bowsprit crans iron as an outhaul so I could hoist my ghoster sail. With the forecast weather I needed it. It’s bright orange, made of lightweight material from a World War II parachute and a little awkward to bend on as I have to stand on deck and lower the jib and use the head to attach it. I don’t use this sail as often as our trump card, the small topsail I carry permanently attached to its bamboo yard, but it has got me home a couple of times and sets and draws best when reaching in the shiest of winds.
Setting the ghoster worked a treat and we caught up with the last of a dozen or so Old Gaffer rally boats leaving the Colne, heading up the coast. With wind strength building I took the ghoster in at midday before we reached south of the Inner Bench Head and Colne Point buoys and held a close course inshore to head east, across the Colne Bar in turbulent water.
The southeast sea breeze came in and for the small yacht sailing up or down this 14-mile stretch of exposed coast, known locally as The Sunshine Coast, particularly in an onshore wind, there is nowhere to run for cover if things start to kick up. But there once was and two hours later I was at the Radar Mast at Holland-on-Sea – almost midway along the coast and the site of a former Gunfleet Estuary.
Like much of marshland Essex, seawalls
were built in the 17th century to reclaim land for farming and have been built across its mouth, the only tell-tale being the sluice outfall for the Holland River. Nevertheless 16th Century maps show it as an important landing place for small trading boats.
I passed inside Stone Banks and into Harwich Harbour. At 1615 the South Shelf buoy fell away to starboard heading north, with half a dozen huge container ships moored at Felixstowe Docks – an awe-inspiring sight when viewed from a tiny cockpit at sea level.
Harwich has long been an important sea port and a popular destination for tourists. Back in the 1800s you could take a regular steamship from London Bridge to Harwich pier.
The misleading lights
On the Harwich shore I could pick out two former leading lights that guided ships into Harwich during the early 19th Century, the High and the Low lighthouses. With the channel constantly moving they were later found to be useless and became known as the misleading lights until they were replaced in 1863 by two lights at Dovercourt about a mile south. Both buildings are local landmarks that add to the depth of history.
For seafarers today entry into Harwich Harbour is made easier and is a regular port of call of the largest container ships in the world, and in season many cruising yachts arrive here from across Europe.
If you stick to the west, ie Harwich side of the channel buoys, the inward bound yacht’s port side and the recommended track for small boats, there should be no problems with shipping.
With a quartering wind I guided Shoal Waters through the deep harbour water and the mouth of the River Stour into the shallows of Shotley Flats, northwest of Shotley Spit, and began working my 8ft Orwell wand – a length of garden bean stick marked up especially for taking soundings in these Suffolk waters. I gybed to cross the fairway at Babergh and over to Fagbury buoy and a cut in the seawall at Trimley Marshes bringing No1 Orwell buoy nicely abeam to take a leisurely quarter along the eastern shore of this king of the Suffolk rivers, the Orwell.
For me the Orwell has a charm of its own. As you leave open water and today’s busy world behind at the docks you can truly relax to a pace of rural Suffolk where trees come down to the sea. I’m inclined to believe many yachting folk think the same as the Orwell has more than its fair share of marinas and, combined with boatyards and sailing clubs, there are literally thousands of small craft berthed in the river.
Thankfully they don’t all come out to play together and as I passed Suffolk Yacht Harbour with its maze of masts I could see a favourite anchorage, Levington Creek, was completely clear of boats.
I furled the headsails as they were
unnecessary with a full mainsail driving effortlessly our wandering pace and stayed with the east shore – though, to be fair, on a rising tide an equally pleasurable experience can be had dead centre of the channel. But given the choice and enough water I’ll take either shore, keeping to the shallows as I cruise upstream.
I chose the east shore which takes the yacht further away from the channel toward Broke Hall and Nacton shore where the river hereabouts is at its widest, a mile wide at high tide, with less than a third in the channel. It leads to deserted bluff beaches adorned by the rustic splinter of driftwood, much of it under canopy of lush green leaves where the chirp and song of land birds mix with the cackle and pheweep of sea waders.
I continued upstream, sounding as we sailed. Every few moments a slight persuasive touch on the tiller with a gentle pull on her mainsheet steered her into inches more water and freed her keel.
Suddenly we’d arrived at an old thatched cottage at Nacton Quay, a pretty, picture postcard kind of place, before slipping south across Potter’s Reach to Pin Mill on the west shore with its charm of characterful boats that line the sweep into the crook of this elbow of river where a Thames barge often sits moored on the hard. Arthur Ransome used Pin Mill for the setting of his novel We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea and the Pin Mill waterside remains largely unchanged today. Absorbing the setting I sailed around many beautiful craft tethered to moorings when a thought came to me: no human inhabits the East Coast rivers, only empty yachts that are the weekend resort for the owner.
I weaved through yachts with dog houses, double enders, a Thames bawley and by Pin Mill Sailing Club which controls an area of marsh and mud moorings for small boats, as does Stoke Sailing Club a short distance upstream.
Just by Royal Harwich Yacht Club and the open water Woolverstone Marina is the Cat House which, along with Clamp House on the shore down from Pin Mill, were involved in smuggling. The story goes a cat was placed in the window of Cat House when the Excise men were not around, giving the signal all was clear to bring up the booty.
I paused for the night in a sweeping bay and agreeable anchorage of accommodating mud at the foot of a Suffolk curiosity, Freston Tower. This six-story red brick folly stands on a hill with sheep bleating below in park grounds. It’s thought to have been built in the 16th Century and one fable has it each floor was dedicated to the study of a different subject for six days of the week. I guess they went sailing on the seventh.
Another plus was the marvellous view of the giant Orwell Bridge up ahead. I set up the sun canopy and settled down for a relaxed evening reading and studying the local wildlife through the binoculars until the sun fell magically behind the bridge.
With HW Ipswich at 1030 I woke to the sound of bleating sheep at 0630 the next morning and was treated to a spectacle of a huge ship threading its way upstream. The main deep-water fairway is rather straight today but it hasn’t always been so and old maps show how meandering and awkward it was for ships to get up to Ipswich. A vast amount of dredging has been done since the 1800s to make the port more accessible.
I heaved up anchor through a schooling of jellyfish drifting up with the tide at 0930 and set off in a light south wind. By 0950 Shoal Waters was dwarfed by the Orwell Bridge and the grind of motor traffic overhead. The huge centre span of the bridge is literally the front doorway to the important commercial Port of Ipswich and immediately through it the river scene changes with ships lining the wharfs to the east. But still the river clings to its rural charm lower down with a short row of swinging yacht moorings up to Ostrich Creek on the west bank, the shared
‘The Orwell has a charm of its own – you can truly relax to a pace of rural Suffolk’
entrance to Foxes Marina and Orwell Yacht Club. I sailed over to this oddly named creek (thought to come from a local landowner Sir Edward Coke whose coat of arms had the ostrich bird on; others have thought it a corruption of Oyster Reach) where miniature port and starboard buoys cheerily mark the gut.
I carried on our slow cruise, moving close to the ships. One was unloading piles of freshly treated timber panels and its resinous smell wafted over the dock in the light breeze, following us to a lock gate and the entrance to the wet dock at 1025. The river carries on along the New Cut for just under a mile to Stoke Bridge where it becomes the River Gipping and, given more time and another wind direction, I may have sailed up it
Many craft visit and stay in the wet dock, which was opened in 1842 and with its lock enables craft to stay afloat at any time of tide. I was sailing back and forth in the port when the barge Thallata appeared through the lock, on way downstream. We both gilled about marking time while a ship made a 180° turn and set sail out of port.
With the ebb beginning to set in I began the journey back down the Orwell behind her, and by the afternoon had to anchor below Colton Creek in 6ft of smooth water in a Force 5 in the lee of Collimer Point to tie in two reefs. I had lunch and set off at 1500 with the intention of getting out of the river and hopefully round to the Backwaters.
At 1700 I was once more south of Shotley Spit and felt the wind begin dropping off a little and Shoal Waters doesn’t sail well at all in light breezes with two reefs in her mainsail.
The middle of Harwich Harbour isn’t the ideal place to hove to but somehow I kept steerageway and shook out both reefs to tackle Harwich Breakwater, our Nemesis trying to leave the harbour.
My persistence paid off as it occasionally does. I have a sailing saying ‘it’s always worth a try’ and it was, we rounded it at 1830 barely making two knots over ground. I passed the old lighthouses at Dovercourt 10 minutes later and trimmed the two headsails to work in unison for a close fetch down into the Backwaters and a magical night beside Horsey Island in Hamford Water.
Working the tide
I began the passage back down the Wallet at 0600, leaving Hamford Water with a light north-west breeze driving us north-east over the flood and with a cheeky short cut over Pye Sands to drop past Naze Ledge and join the full force of tide moving down the coast.
I hoisted the ghoster and as the summer wind blew it drove us whole length of the Wallet, into the Blackwater up to my home creek where I ran out of water at 1550. I came in on the next flood tide under power of the jibsail, alone under a bright moon flickering on warm water, past a lone withie that leans wearily and with a rumble of combine harvesters still at work in the nearby cornfields.
Ghoster sail picks up the lightest of breezes
Shoal Waters has no engine – Tony Smith sails her using wind and tide alone
Orwell Bridge is the gateway to Ipswich
LEFT Passing Wolverstone Marina BELOW Moored off Freston Tower
RIGHT Heading for home: sailing down The Wallet
A magical night in Hamford Water