My better instincts did a bunk, seduced by a lie-in
Ihad all the excuses I needed to return to the warmth of my bunk and not get under way. The wind was still fresh from the south-west when it should have veered to the west-north-west and eased. It was still dark and my rudimentary navigation lights had yet to be sorted. And my VHF wasn’t working: communication would be necessary if we decided to take the short cut via the military lifting bridge at Havengore. I told my crew to resume his snoring. We weren’t leaving at 0500 after all.
Back in my bag I shuddered blissfully, shrugging off the cold of the cockpit and curling into my own warmth. But I knew I would pay. Two hours later the world was a much more welcoming place: the sun shone brightly the wind had veered west and had eased, but the flood was now running strongly against us. It had been this flood we needed to ride. And had we left Burnham-on-crouch when we should have done, taking the last two hours of ebb down the river, we would have doubled the Whitaker Spit and would by now, indeed, be riding it up Swin to the Thames Estuary.
‘We’ll have breakfast underway,’ I stated nobly, as though somehow this would make up for lost time.
Under full sail and against the shallows of the north bank we pushed reasonably well over the tide, in the shadow of the sea wall.
By the time we were out beyond Shore Ends we only had three-and-a-half hours of flood left to run, but at least this meant we could take a shortcut and scouring the chart I noticed a low way over the sands used as a firing ground on weekdays. No guns – from the MOD range at Shoeburyness – were trained on this great shoal at the weekend, though, so we steered 150° from the Sunken Buxey No 1 buoy straight across the top of the Foulness Sand.
I watched the shallow water start to ripple up. Just as Archimedes had discovered while taking a morning bath, Betty II’S hull, four feet from the bottom, was displacing what soundings were available.
Fingers crossed, and in silence, we continued to the highest ridge, and then started talking again once I could make out the greener water of the West Swin. We were over.
‘We’ve got an hour back,’ I said. ‘We should go like a rocket now, with wind and tide.’
And indeed, the wind had gone north of west, giving us a quartering breeze as we ticked off the navigation buoys of the Swin channel.
‘If we can make the Blacktail Spit before the tide’s shot, we can at least creep along the edge of the Maplin Sands the way the wind is.’ Sure enough we did have the Blacktail abeam as the flood died but, alas, the wind backed, too. It was now due west, a dead-noser. With the whole of the Thames Estuary open to us, I tried first of all tacking towards the Kent shore, kidding myself we were getting a lift here and there, and then, having been forced to admit we were just falling away eastward on the ebb, back towards the Essex shore. In neither direction was there anything like a ‘making tack’. Just the flapping leech of the headsails announcing that in seeking a better angle I was simply luffing and slowing the boat down.
After half ebb the tide began to ease and we crawled slowly into the estuary. Too late to get back on my berth, I at least hoped to make it into the shallow Hadleigh Ray where I could anchor her until the night tide. I pushed on into ever shallower water until she ran aground.
Turning on the engine, putting her full in reverse and with both of us hanging the rigging, we got off. In doing so we jammed the centre-plate case with mud and shingle, only remedied with a lift-out three days later.
Those two extra hours of kip were a pricey indulgence.
Fingers crossed, and in silence, we continued