Sailing from Brightlingsea to Burnham and back – 8 Oct 2022

Back in October, my friend Chris and I went for a long day sail in Spiders, my 16ft Wayfarer dinghy. We decided to take advantage of a rare combination of Westerly offshore breeze and ideally-timed tides (High Tide was at noon) and head for Burnham on Crouch.

Route taken to and from Burnham on Crouch.

We left Brightlingsea at 0815, quickly putting in a reef to better handle the 18knots gusts as we reached down the River Colne and across the mouth of the River Blackwater. The spring tide was barrelling in at over 2 knots, and as we crossed the main Blackwater channel the wind against tide bumpiness was slightly testing, but nothing too scary.

Having fun in gusty conditions as we leave the River Colne and start to cross the mouth of the Blackwater.

The sea state calmed once we’d crossed over onto the Dengie flats, and we were averaging almost 7 knots as we passed the 7th century St Peter on the Wall chapel and headed towards the Ray Sands channel on the rising tide. This is a short-cut across the mud flats and into the River Crouch. It had very nearly caught me out back in 2008, when my route planning was less careful.

There’s a very useful informal chartlet of the Ray Sands channel available on the Crossing The Thames website. It’s from surveys done in Aug/Sept 2022. We crossed the shallowest part of the Ray Sands channel at 1000, with plenty of water to spare so we went straight from Ray Sands Middle buoy to Crouch No.3 buoy, which avoids the dogleg via the yellow Ray Sands buoy.

However the wind against tide conditions as we tacked into the mouth of the River Crouch were bumpy and wet, and we hove-to to put on another layer and have some chocolate. Luckily the sea state eased a little as the we passed the entrance to the River Roach, and the final beat towards Burnham was enlivened by having to avoid trashing the start of the first Endeavour Trophy race, which is the champion-of-champions for UK dinghy racing.

We moored up at the Rice and Cole jetty at 1115, and had a welcome Cornish pasty for lunch in the bar of the Royal Corinthians Yacht Club. We returned to the Wayfarer at midday, just in time for the tide to turn, and the sea state to dramatically flatten as a consequence. The gusts had also lessened, and so we raised full sail and enjoyed an easy run back down the Crouch (video). We then turned up across the Ray Sands channel again for a close reach across the Dengie flats (video). Conditions were ideal, with a nice F3 from WNW, so Chris had a go at helming, without incident.

Chris helming as we head back up across the Dengie Flats towards the Blackwater.

It took us a while to plug the outgoing tide across the Blackwater, until we finally spotted the beacon marking the wreck of the Molliette which for me marks the start of the River Colne. We hugged the shallows of the Mersea Flats to escape the ebb tide as we made our way back to Brightlingsea, sailing onto our mooring at 1530.

Chris sharing his reflections on the day, as we wait to be picked up from the mooring by Brightlingsea water taxi.

32 Nautical Miles sailed, at an average of 4.8knots. Our only big mistake was thinking it was too late in the season to need sun cream. That’s a good day on the water.

Chart of waters between Brightlingsea (top right) and Burnham on Crouch (bottom left)

‘No pay, no prospects, not much pleasure’*

H.W.Tilman’s accounts of his mountaineering and sailing escapades have long swirled around the edges of my consciousness.

Now I’ve no excuse, with a gorgeous new collected edition of Tilman’s work being published over the next couple of years. I mean, just look at them…

Slider-Mischief-in-Patagonia Slider-Snow-on-the-Equator

* So stated a crew recruitment advertisement allegedly placed in The Times by Tilman circa 1960

Dinghy desire paths

GPS tracks of sailing the river blackwater

GPS tracks after 3 years sailing the River Blackwater.

I bought Wanderer 446 (a 14 foot sailing dinghy) nearly three years ago.

She’s given me much joy as we’ve explored the River Blackwater in Essex.

We do day trips, each destination determined by state of tide, wind and mind. The picture above shows desire paths of moon, mood and meteo.

“You get to this nowhere land where your brain is utterly disconnected, and I think…I think that [is at] the root of all this… obsession. It’s trying to get into that little slot of your brain where things don’t exist and yet they’re working perfectly. It’s a sort of heaven. A nirvana.” – Alexander Waugh

Sailing home to Bradwell...

Sailing home to Bradwell…

“Let’s prod the beast, and see if it’ll move”

In last week’s Spectator there’s an article by Peter Lilley. It is subtitled thus:  “Today’s MPs are no longer scared of the whips. Instead, they are scared of their constituents. That’s a good thing.”

The piece heralds the role TheyWorkForYou has played in helping constituents hold their MP to account.


It’s ten years since we* started building TheyWorkForYou – a decade’s lag between cause and effect.

Back in 2003 our aim was to force MPs to remember who they worked for. As in, us. Not their party. Not the whips. Not the executive. But us, their constituents.

For Stef and I, the motivation came from having prodded the parliamentary beast while using the web to educate MPs on the importance of sane digital legislation.

As the TheyWorkForYou ‘About Us’ page  puts it:

For all its faults and foibles, our democracy is a profound gift from previous generations. Yet most people don’t know the name of their MP, nor their constituency, let alone what their MP does or says in their name.

We aim to help bridge this growing democratic disconnect, in the belief that there is little wrong with Parliament that a healthy mixture of transparency and public engagement won’t fix.

Hence this website.

It took a while, but job done, I reckon.  The beast moved.

Early sketch of TheyWorkForYou, then using working title of EasyParliament

Early sketch of TheyWorkForYou (working title was EasyParliament)

* “We” were a bunch of about a dozen volunteers. Most of the legwork was done by the likes of Francis, Phil & Matthew. The charity mySociety kindly took over the site in about 2005 and has since expanded the concept internationally.


Google Earth as a tool for planning dinghy cruises

I enjoy cruising my sailing dinghy around the rivers and coastline of Essex and Suffolk, and have recently discovered a feature in Google Earth which makes planning trips that little bit easier.

Google Earth now has a ‘historial images’ tool, which on my mac is in the form of a clockface-meets-arrow icon, and brings up a tool looking like this:

The 'historical imagery' tool on Google Earth

Moving the slider lets you change the date of satellite images.

Somewhat wonderfully for sailors on the River Blackwater, and seemingly also for most of Essex and Suffolk, a couple of the recent series of images seem to have been taken at spring tides, both high and low.

For shallow draught dinghy cruisers, happy to dice with a mudbank or two, this lets you now plan new routes thanks to the offer of accuracy with which a nautical chart can’t compete.

For example, to the south west of Bradwell Waterside, on the River Blackwater in Essex, there is a large mudflat, through which flows a narrow and winding channel known as St Lawrence Creek.

At anything other than high or low tide, this route is a bit iffy, since it’s hard to know when you’re in the channel when the whole mudflat covers with water, albeit not to a depth to let you sail safely.

This is a shame, as it’s a nice shortcut home to my base at Bradwell Waterside, where I keep my 14 foot Wanderer sailing dinghy.

Here’s the Navionics chart of the St Lawrence creek:

Navionics chart of St Lawrence Creek

(Check out the new, free Navionics chart web app – it’s great, as are the Navionics smartphone apps)

Now, here’s the same area at spring low tide from Google Earth, complete with a series of waypoints which I then use on my GPS to let me follow the channel whatever the state of the tide.

Following this route carefully means I don’t have to worry about my rudder hitting the bottom were I to stray onto barely-covered mudbanks at mid-tide.

St Lawrence Creek at low tide

To be fair, there’s no need to follow this route at or near high tide, shown below, as there’s enough water everywhere. But at mid tide, it’s a reassurance that you won’t hit the bottom.

St Lawrence Creek at high tide

I’ve tested the route a couple of times mid-tide, and am happy to share waypoints if anyone’s interested (YMMV, mud shifts etc).

Ansel Adams on digital photography, from 1983

Ansel Adams exhibition banner

An exhibition of Ansel Adams photographs is on at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until April 28.

We duly took our eldest, who likes to take the odd photo.

Sadly, the exhibition was heaving. There was neither space nor time to dwell.

So we escaped into the side room showing a 1983 BBC television interview with Adams.

I struggle to think of another artist able to explain their creative process with such easy grace. Grayson Perry, maybe?

Whatever, we were entranced, notably by this clip, in which Adams gets excited about the new creative opportunities about to be opened up by what he terms ‘electronic’ photography.

This was from 1983, remember. Adams was 81 years old.

He had spent his working life slaving in darkrooms and under the hood of quarter plate cameras, perfecting his craft. Yet his mastery of an analogue craft counts for little compared with his excitement about the new frontiers of his artform soon to be opened up by digital technology.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

In praise of Malcolm Barnsley

A decade ago I read an article about two men setting out to break the outright world speed sailing record – then just over 45 knots.

They were proposing to build a radical new kind of sailing boat.

There were pictures; a remote controlled scale model, clearly sailing at high speed.


Wow. My inner engineer stirred. The forces on such craft were, at least in theory, as balanced and as aligned as possible. Balanced. Aligned. Zen sailing. Fast.

The piece also included a photo of the two men behind the bid, taken at the 2003 Southampton Boat Show


Last weekend, the man on the right, Aussie Paul Larsen, finally helmed Vestas Sailrocket2 to a new world record of over 65 knots.


For decades the 500m record had been inching up in tiny increments, fraction of knot by fraction of knot. Assorted kiteboarders were the most recent holders. Sailrocket2 obliterated the record by over 10 knots. Paul, an Australian, put it thus: “We’ve smashed the arse off it!

Indeed, Sailrocket2’s peak speed was 68 knots. That’s 78mph. Over 125 km/h. Wow.

You should read Paul’s blog, watch the video and thank Vestas Wind Systems and the team’s other sponsors. The whole project fills me with joy.

But I want to return to the other man in that 2003 photo. He’s on the left in the photo below, wearing a wooly hat. He and Paul are walking back up a Namibian beach. They’re carrying the all-important GPS data logger so the new record can be verified by the World Sailing Speed Record Council.


His name is Malcolm Barnsley. He’s a British engineer. He designed Sailrocket2, and she’s very much his baby. Malcolm has spent most of his adult life trying to break the speed sailing record, and for over a decade has doggedly been tweaking and fettling this particular design.

It’s not always been plain sailing. The first version of Sailrocket proved somewhat unstable.

Paul found himself underwater, unconscious, after that one. Many designers would have given up. (Many helms, too!)

You can tell from the photos and videos that Malcolm doesn’t much fancy the limelight. He’d rather be designing foils, or modelling cavitation, the sworn enemy of all speed sailors. He’s very keen on proper attribution, notably for Bernard Smith, whose musings Malcolm has made real.


But the brutal fact of the matter is that ideas are cheap. Malcolm spent a decade making a potentially great idea work.

This wonderful bit of video, shot straight after the record breaking run, is purest engineering valediction:

“All those bloody sums… and all that stuff… it does actually mean something in the end. But you’ve got to do a lot of work to make it mean something. And we’ve done all the work.”

Malcolm Barnsley, I salute you.