The East Coast can be a symphony of grey if there is cloud cover and this was certainly the case for my next voyage.
Extending my East Coast voyaging, the plan was to row from Burnham on Crouch through the river Roach and out through a narrow exit called Havengore Creek into the wider Thames Estuary. Then I would row west to finish at Southend.
The river Roach is a quintessential East Coast region, beautiful, flat and desolate, with muddy moody creeks, peaceful and austere at the same time. It is flanked towards the sea by Foulness Island, used by the Ministry of Defence for testing missiles, torpedoes and ballistics. Here wildlife flourish and the area is a haven to colonies of bird, such oystercatchers, avocets, little egrets and Brent geese whose claim to their wintering grounds was an argument for not putting a replacement to Heathrow there in the 1970s . You can only complete the journey to the Thames Estuary when the MoD have ceased firing and can pass through Havengore Creek.
PicoMicroYacht was to exit the Burnham Marina at 5.30 am. But there was a hitch. The tide was almost fully out and the bottom 50 feet of the steep slipway was covered in a thin layer of slippery mud. with insufficient grip to walk, let alone control the boat. So I tied all my halyards together, drove my car down to the mud and used the ropes to do the semi-equivalent of abseiling down the slipway with the trailer.
This was working, but at the bottom, the mud thickened and the wheels started to dig in. I was running out of rope, so I pushed the boat off the trailer on to the mud in order for it to sit there whilst I clambered on. But I lost control and PicoMicroYacht drifted slowly across the mud into the marina, not tethered.
Whilst PicoMicroYacht drifted around and I worried about it going into the river, I then slowly pulled myself up the slipway with the rope, with the trailer in tow. I then rushed to a pontoon entrance to catch PicoMicroYacht, but then realised it was locked and I did not have the code.
Understandably, no one was around and I was getting desperate, with visions of having to call the coast guard and report my boat drifting down the Crouch. But then I saw three men in dry suits getting ready to go, I think divers. The conversation went like this (in the dark):
"er. I am launching my dinghy but it slipped and it is now loose in the marina and I need to get onto the pontoons'
A reasonable story, but somewhat suspicious in the dark, with me wearing my favourite 'hoody.'
As I spoke I realised I needed some credibility, but the only thing I could think of was to take my personal locator beacon out of my pocket and fiddle with it as I spoke. They looked me up and down.
Fortunately they gave me the code and I trotted off onto the pontoon. PicoMicroYacht had drifted close and with the help of a strategically left long oar from another boat, I was able to coax it in.
When I entered the Crouch, my delay meant after a mile the tide turned against me and I hugged the bank until I reached the Roach.
It is here that HMS Beagle, Darwin's ship, served her last watch, stationed just inside the Roach on the lookout for smugglers. Later on the Beagle was laid to rest on a muddy bank further up the Roach, found recently to be about seven metres down in the mud.
I turned into the Roach and doubled my speed as the tide was now my favour.
Some seals started to track me, inquisitive and also nervous if I stopped to view them.
It did not seem to take long to reach Havengore Creek, which connects the Roach's creeks to the Thames Estuary.
This creek has longstanding intrigue and mystery associated with it. In the novel 'Chance' by Joseph Conrad, a villain called Powell keeps mysteriously disappearing from the Thames estuary until the hero, Marlow, eventually hunts him down.
'I don't think he ever wanted to avoid me. But it is a fact that he used to disappear out of the river in a very mysterious manner sometimes... Then as suddenly he would reappear in the river, after one had given him up... The fellow used to run into one of these narrow tidal creeks on the Essex shore. These creeks are so inconspicuous that till I had studied the chart pretty carefully, I did not know of their existence.'
Normally you radio the keeper to request the Havengore Bridge be lifted, this bridge connecting Foulness Island to the mainland. So I did this on channel 72 but to my surprise the same 'divers' as earlier radioed back to say I was too early.
But then I saw that the boom under the bridge was sufficiently high to get under if I dropped my mast.
I was now through and entering the Thames Estuary. I had to row another mile and half before I had sufficient depth to row easily. PicoMicoYacht was floating in about nine inches of water for about a mile.
Out to sea, it really was a Symphony of Grey with the sea and sky in harmony. A few beacons mark part of the Broomway, an ancient track across the mudflats used at low tide to link up Foulness Island with the mainland before they built the Havengore bridge.
This ancient track has only really a few posts for guidance and relies on local knowledge to stop the unwary visitor being disorientated and caught by the tide. Much of the track is done by dead reckoning and involves walking on semi-soft sand or mud avoiding the hidden craters made by Ministry of Defence shells.
The photographer David Quentin is a local guide
I turned westward and settled into the four mile row to Shoeburyness, also going through a gap in a long defence boom, built in 1944 to stop submarines and shipping going up the Thames Estuary.
When I got through there were notices warning me of the dangers I had avoided by prudently going at the right time.
Finally, I was at Southend. Out to sea the Symphony of Grey was still being played as the sun started to poke through.
I enquired at the Thorpe Bay Yacht club as to whether I could leave PicoMicroYacht in their boat park. A group were clustered around a Sandhopper, a tri-keeled small racing keel boat. One of them, Martin Bennindyke, showed me where to go, extending their kindly hospitality by giving me a lift to the train station.
The creek was deserted but for a following seal - eventually the sea seemed to merge with the sky and was in harmony with itself
The plan was to use the last of the tide for three miles down the river Crouch to reach the Roach at slack water. Then entering the Roach, the incoming tide would pick up and I would get to Havengore Bridge and take a break knowing that the bridge is only opened two hours or less before high tide. In practice, because of my delay launching, I was late going into the Roach and I arrived only slightly early. The water runs up the Roach and the various creeks and only starts to change direction in Havengore Creek when the tide eventually crosses the Maplin sands and starts coming in from outside the creek. This happens about one hour before high tide, so I was able to exit the Havengore Creek before the tide turned against me. I then picked up the west going tide up the Thames Estuary to Southend, arriving exactly at high tide.
Low tide on the Crouch: 5.30 am
High tide in the Roach: about 12.30 pm
High tide Southend: about 12:30