May – at last we’ve gone to sea….

Finally, we got away, covering 180 miles from Cowes to Woolverstone on the Orwell in Suffolk in one go. Conditions were perfect for a fast passage, with Beachy Head crystal clear in the afternoon sun and the white cliffs of Dover actually shining as we passed in the brilliant light of a full moon.

We abandoned plans to stop in Ramsgate when we arrived off the town at dawn with the tide still under us. We kept going, motor sailing with genoa only because there was hardly any wind.

Looking away from the cliffs

The lovely thing about the eastward passage up Channel is that you can keep the tide with you for 11 hours or so past Beachy Head, as the surge of water moves up towards the Dover Straits and the turn of the tidal current gets later. With 2 knots of tide a lot of the way and 3 knots as we approached Dover (it was a day before springs) we coasted along at an easy 7 or 8 knots over the ground from Beachy Head. We weren’t pushing it, because this was our first sail outside the Solent since before the pandemic, and we needed time to get used to everything again.

Leaving Cowes, East Castle Point behind

We had started in light westerly winds with the tide behind us out of the Solent, then the wind got up to a Force 6 right behind us, and we creamed along at 7 knots through the water under genoa only, held back by the tide because it had turned against us.

Approaching Beachy Head

The wind died to a light westerly as we neared Beachy Head, where the tide turned again in our favour and stayed with us into the Thames Estuary. That removed most of the remaining speed from the apparent wind, and we motored past Dungeness, then Dover in the darkness and on to North Foreland.

Sun setting over Bexhill-on-Sea

The light wind had already turned into the North as we passed Ramsgate, and was dead ahead nearly all the rest of the time, mainly because of our own speed under power, so we ended up motoring across the estuary as well. We went through Foulger’s Gat, the shallow small craft route across Long Sand which takes you through a channel in the enormous Thames Array windfarm (clearance 25 metres if you wander too close, 10 metres higher than our mast) and into Black Deep, the main ship channel to London.

We nipped across before anything large appeared, and crossed the Sunk Sand out of Black Deep into the East Swin on a rising tide. There is a flat stretch over the sandbank with 3 metres at low tide, which is easy with satellite navigation but tricky without, because the remains of the old Sunk beacon that used to mark the crossing point are still there under water. There is no marker buoy to show the exact spot, which would make for a nervous crossing without a chart plotter because there are no easy marks for transits. The passage is called the Little Sunk.

From there we cut off as much of the north end of the Gunfleet sand as the tide allowed and headed for the Medusa Buoy, named after Nelson’s ship that daringly used this extremely shallow way out of Harwich Harbour when the wind was preventing departure by the deep water route.

Even in a yacht with 1.9 metre draft the Medusa Channel can take some getting used to. The bottom is so flat that you can safely use it with only a metre or two under the keel in calm weather. Crews who aren’t used to the East Coast get pretty alarmed at that point.

Passing Pin Mill on the way up the Orwell

Once in the harbour we stuck close to the main ship channel because dredging has silted up much of the wide expanse between Felixstowe and Harwich. We then crossed into the Orwell at Shotley Spit and went up past Pin Mill to the buoy we have rented for a month from the MDL marina at Woolverstone.

Tony picking up the mooring at Woolverstone

The Thames Estuary is bleak, with the new giant wind farms and the remains of wartime defences interspersed with sandbanks and busy shipping lanes, and it is mostly featureless on the horizon.

But piloting a boat across it and especially though the swatchways across the sands is always a fascinating exercise. A friend from Leigh on Sea said fishermen he knew did not use charts because they could tell where they were from the signs in the water – the depth contours, the colours, the floating weeds, the current, maybe even the smell. There’s a lot that could still be learnt.

There was nothing exceptional about our passage, which I’ve done often before – just that it was the first time since lockdown that we have properly been go sea, and that made it a memorable event worth recording.

Nowadays there is much useful online information for amateurs about the estuary, including free chartlets showing depths at the various crossing points and also the trickier entrances such as the Ore, the Deben and the Walton Backwaters.

East Coast Pilot, published by Imray, is useful reading, with an excellent accompanying website that is kept up to date. Crossing the Thames Estuary by Roger Gaspar is also recommended, though I don’t have it. The book’s website has useful chartlets including the key crossings, with some of them produced in surveys by the author. They are free to download even if you don’t have the book (maybe I should buy it.)

Admiralty Easy Tide publishes online predictions and tidal curves for four key points out in the estuary, calculated for every day, which can be saved on a phone or downloaded and printed in advance.

We had Imray’s paper chart of the estuary on board but relied mainly on our recently updated C-Map plotter and the full set of 2021 UKHO charts for the UK on a tablet, supplied by VisitMyHarbour in Cowes. Further backup is from Navionics on a phone and from Imray’s 2021 electronic charts of the North Sea, which came as a free download with East Coast Pilot. They are on another tablet. With that number of backups, you can tell what cautious people we are…

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