… at Brandy Hole
Brandy Hole sounds like a made-up name for a pirate story, but it isn’t: Deep in the saltings and mud flats of the upper reaches of an Essex river, it was always said to be a good place for landing contraband; it still could be, for a modern drug, cigarette or illegal immigrant smuggler sneaking in from the Thames Estuary on a dark night. It was also a place for old boats to come to die, sagging their broken bellies into the mud of the creeklets that wander through the saltings. Some were used as weekend houseboats, until the rot and the constant rise and fall did for their ribs and planks, and they began to fill and empty with each flood and ebb tide. They would have made good hiding places.
Sailing a small dinghy from Brandy Hole was a challenge, because the river almost empties at low tide; in between it rushes in one direction or the other as the tide rises and falls, which provides a great lesson in how to manoeuvre with, against and across the currents.
I raced my boat a little, because there was (and still is) a sailing club there. But I spent more time following the tide, up river and into the smaller and even muddier creeks near the tidal head of the river at Battlesbridge, and out again with the ebb. Sometimes I would head down river to Burnham on Crouch, the grand sailing centre of the East Coast; it was a dull passage, between high sea walls that kept the water from the farmland, which could only be glimpsed at the top of the tide when the boat was lifted up. The logic of working the tides dictated that high tide sailing, and the views over the sea wall to fields and woods, were only at the beginning, when leaving Brandy Hole for Burnham on the ebb, and on the return, when arriving back with the current on the top of a rising tide. The rest of the passage was like sailing down a wide drain.
The river was a much lonelier place then than now. The new town of South Woodham Ferrers had not been built, the village of North Fambridge had not expanded, and there was no marina further down river in Althorne Creek. The bleak river did not treat mistakes kindly, as I found when I sailed down towards Burnham on a grey gusty day, using all my weight to hold the boat upright.
I was a regular single-handed sailor as a teenager, since only a couple of my London friends were mad enough to like the idea of muddy Essex sailing. On that day, a sudden powerful wind whipped down on me as I passed a side creek, but it quickly fell away to nothing, as gusts often do inland; it was the drop in the wind that caused the capsize. The boat was pulled on top of me by my own weight, because I had moved outboard to hold her upright, but failed to move back inboard fast enough when the wind fell. I was caught under the boat, struggled out, held onto the hull and began to get my strength up for the righting manoeuvre, where the objective is to stand on the centreboard and use its leverage to pull the boat the right way up. There was not another boat on the river at that moment.
But if one thing can go wrong, several do: the boat was drifting rapidly down river with the tide, and the main sheet, the rope that controls the boom and the mainsail, caught round a mooring buoy. The boat moved on downriver until all the slack in the rope was taken up, and then stopped suddenly, moored to the buoy, but with the current rushing past. With the mast and sail flat on the water, the boat pretended it was a submarine, surging down below the waves; I refused to let go, knowing that, if I did, I’d soon be far down river, unable to get ashore for miles, because the black mud that emerged as the tide fell was dangerous, and to all practical purposes impassable except at certain places where stones had been tipped in, to make landing places for the barges that used to come up to the farms. Thankfully, I was wearing a lifejacket, made of canvas stuffed with kapok fibres.
I don’t know how long I struggled, but after a while I heard a shout to “hold on”, and began to hear the dipping of oars; a large wooden dinghy was approaching crabwise across the tide, from North Fambridge, where I could make out a dilapidated wooden hut on the shore.
I was grabbed and helped into the rescue dinghy. The sheet was disentangled from the buoy, the sails on my boat were somehow pulled down to reduce the water drag, and the painter (the mooring rope at the bow) was retrieved and tied to the stern of the big dinghy, by which time I had enough breath to take in my rescuer. She was old – anybody over 50 appeared very ancient then – and dressed in rough clothes whose detail I cannot remember, though I do recall a brimmed hat and a tanned and deeply lined face.
It must have been with great effort that she rowed her boat and towed my waterlogged dinghy to the shore across the rushing tide. My boat was beached on a small area of gravelly hard landing, the drain plugs opened, a towel flung round my shoulders and I was led up to a wooden cabin smelling of tar, oil and smoke, and packed with bits of boating and fishing gear. I wasn’t lectured on my carelessness, but was sat on a wooden chair by a stove and handed a glass of something translucent and brown, and ordered to sip.
It was harsh and burning at first, but with a delicious peppery after taste once the pain in the mouth and throat had subsided. It was my first taste of brandy. When I had recovered enough and my boat had drained of water, the bungs were put back in, my rescuer helped me launch, and I sailed back, to Brandy Hole, a lot more cheerfully than I deserved.