Friday, March 19, 2010

'Apple Charlotte', part 9

Track across Thames Estuary

Friday, 7th August

As quite often happens, the weather forecast for the sea area of Thames did not match reality. We were expecting winds of force 4 to 5, from the northeast, but we experienced no more than force 2 from the northwest. Yet again, according to the Met Office, fog and thundery rain were items on the menu. We had to bear this in mind, plus the fact that we would have to endure at least two to three hours of tide against us while skirting Maplin Sands. Our intention was to make it back to Burnham before nightfall.

Early that morning at Harty Ferry, a fine mist cloaked the River Swale, but it was not thick enough to prevent us from seeing the Horse Sand Buoy, which was near the entrance of Faversham Creek. We made sail at 0710 hours, knowing full-well that if we didn’t maintain accurate courses from one buoy to the next we may end up on the sands. Having rounded the bend at Horse Sand, our course was to the northeast, and when we were at Shellness Point we could pick out Pollard Spit Buoy. There, two trawlers were hauling nets over the shallows of Whitstable Bay.

The only sounds we could hear were the chuckling of water along the hull, and the faint drone of the trawlers’ engines. A World War Two pillbox at Shellness Point was just visible in the mist. The eerie, spooky scene stimulated my imagination so that it went into overdrive. Were we being watched by ghosts of the past, ghouls with their rifles, faint figures gaping from dark recesses within that concrete tomb? ‘Apple Charlotte’ sailed on, and the time capsule was left behind. We arrived at Columbine Spit where the sound of foaming waves wakened me from my silent dream, so that it was no more. To accentuate my loss, I utterly killed the prospect of further dreams by starting the engine. Our course was directly into the wind.

The sea mist persisted, but in those shallow waters there was no danger from shipping, until our course would take us at right angles across the buoyed fairway which led to the Medway. Things worked out well, since we were not harassed by passing vessels. We only glimpsed the outlines of two ships anchored at Shoebury Roads. Our course took us over the shallows of the Cant, and from Sea Reach we headed due north to the East Shoebury Buoy, which marked the southern limit of Maplin Sands.

These Sands are to be avoided, because the Shoebury Firing Range extends across them. Unwary sailors who stray into the area are likely to be apprehended by uniformed officers, and their yachts could be confiscated. Today, soldiers are trained at the Range to immobilise the sort of improvised bombs favoured by the Taliban in Afghanistan. We could not hear the sound of firing as we felt our way north-eastwards along the edge of the sands, and assumed there would be none, because of the poor visibility. There we gave respite to the engine, and quietness to our souls as the wind did the honours.

Unexpectedly, we encountered a Naval Patrol Vessel that was on a reciprocal course. Seeing her come out of the gloom was a frightening experience. She had obviously picked us up on her radar, but she sounded no fog signals, neither can I recollect seeing her navigation lights. To all intents and purposes she was a rogue vessel, except she was engaged on Her Majesty’s business, whatever that may have been. Our tiny yacht posed no threat to her, by way of our slow speed and miniscule size; yet she would have gone right through ‘AC’ as if she were a fragile egg.

As the tide turned against us, our speed correspondingly decreased, and the light wind was insufficient for us to make over the ground. Of necessity we restarted the engine, but ‘Apple Charlotte’ barely held her own. By then it was early afternoon, our time for lunch. Should we anchor, or should we continue? The mist began to lift, and ahead there was a fine traditional yacht on a reciprocal course. We passed port to port, and a close inspection revealed that her name was ‘Ocean Slipper’. Her sail number was 2870Y. At 1430 the Whitaker Beacon bore due west as we headed true north towards the Whitaker Buoy. From there we took the flood into the Whitaker Channel. Our almanac confirmed that high water at Burnham would be at 1706 which gave us five-and-a-half hours of favourable current – plenty of time for reaching Burnham before the ebb.

The entrance to the River Crouch was well buoyed. Several yachts were making to sea in the wake of a coaster heading towards the Sunken Buxey. We guessed rightly that she would take the channel to the north; accordingly we chose the shallower passage to the south. Our petrol was running low, but by the skin of our teeth, we made it to the Royal Burnham Yacht Club were we tied up to their pontoon. The time was 1718. Continuous drizzle dampened our arrival, but not our spirit. My gallant brother volunteered to buy petrol, so that we could press on. Within the hour we were motoring through the moorings when we came across the sullen crew of the Creeksea Sailing Club’s rescue craft. Their engine had broken down, and they desperately needed a tow to get them back to the Club. We brought them alongside and gave them cups of tea before leaving them at their Club’s slipway.

Our trip up the River Crouch to Hullbridge was uneventful, but notable, because of the pervasive drizzle which trickled down our necks and got up our sleeves. The dinghy was still attached to ‘AC’s’ mooring, but she was full of water. Despite the damp ending to our holiday we were as happy as Larry, and chuckled all the way home. It had been a fantastic cruise.

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