‘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

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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…

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).

Sailing to the upper limit of the River Crouch

Just about to send this dinghy cruise report off to the Wanderer Dinghy Association for their newsletter, but I might as well use it to see if my blog is still alive.

Wanderer Dinghy Cruise Report
Date: 22nd September 2010
Helm: Tom Loosemore Crew: Kass Schmitt
Route: Creeksea to Battlesbridge and return. Total distance sailed: 20Nm

Creeksea to Battlesbridge GPS track log

We meet just in time to catch the 0740 to Burnham-on-Crouch, conversation difficult after racing across London on our bicycles. Was such an early train really essential? my crew Kass gently enquires, as we glide through the capital’s urban sprawl. Tide and time wait for no man, I patronise smugly. Kass has forgotten more about sailing than I’ll ever know, but manages a smile. We have to make it to Battlesbridge well before the 1320 high tide, as there’s only water for an hour or so either side of high water, and even then it’s but a few feet.

We launch W917 from a dew-strewn Creeksea SC at 0930. Creeksea is my kind of sailing club. An all-tide slipway a mile upstream from Burnham-on-Crouch, it has no clubhouse and zero pretensions. Tucked behind a wooded headland, it might as well be a million miles upstream from Burnham’s regal posturing.

The wind fills in as if to order, blowing away the last vestiges of morning mist. It’s a warm F2 from the south, and we enjoy a fine sunny reach upstream. Helped along by the flooding tide, we zip past North Fambridge (great pub with self-catering) and the delightful Brandy Hole Yacht Station (friendly folk, good food) averaging a very respectable 5 knots. We’re well ahead of schedule, but fall becalmed in the lee of a hillside copse near The Anchor (looks posh) at Hullbridge. The plastic paddle was deployed to avoid bumping into moored yachts, albeit for only a few minutes.

The final two miles are a delightful challenge. The river narrows, shallows and wiggles all over the shop. Trees, electricity pylons and the odd caravan park cause the breeze to turn fickle and frisky. Some quickfire short tacking is in order, our half-raised centreboard doubling as a sounding pole – on hitting bottom, we crash tack. As a tactic, it works well in the muddy upper reaches of an East coast river. Please don’t try it in Cornwall. We nearly make it to Battlesbridge, eventually stymied by encroaching reeds and shallows a couple of hundred metres below the low iron girder Bailey bridge marking the limit of the navigable Crouch. We row the last stretch, past an 80 foot barge preparing to leave on the tide (how they turned round I’ll never know) before mooring up alongside the visitors’ landing stage.

Wanderer W917 moored up at Battlesbridge visitors landing stage, near high tide

Truth be told, we are early. It’s only just midday, and there is barely enough water. The real reason I’d wanted to leave London so early was to make sure we’d have time in hand to enjoy the fine view from the café in the top floor of the Old Granary. Now an antiques market, this five-storey structure dominates Battlesbridge, a black, wooden testament to the days when the river was the region’s main trade route to London and beyond. The proprietors and clientele of the café are a sitcom waiting to be written, and provide copious entertainment as we munch our baked potatoes.

The sail back to Creeksea is a joy. The sun is at our backs, the wind abeam and we’re sailing together well. Past Brandy Hole the river opens out into marshland and the wind steadies and freshens to a F4. The odd gust sees W917 lifting her skirt onto the plane. We leave leaden yachts chuntering in our wake, grinning with joy as we munch Kass’ homemade treacle flapjack. All is good with the world.

We take a detour into lonely saltings to explore Bridgemarsh marina, a lovely sleepy backwater of a marina. Rejoining the Crouch proper, the final mile to Creeksea is a properly bumpy wind-against-tide close-hauled thrash. Kass fulfils the crew’s key function of keeping the helm dry. She doesn’t seem to mind a jot. We haul W917 out just after 1500, and pedal off into Burnham for a riverside drink or two before catching the 1709 back to mad, bad London life.

Thank you Kass. Thank you W917 – you may not have a name, but you’re so much more than a number.