Stories from the Slipway 3 - Sleepless in the Swale

It was spring and time to introduce my girlfriend to the world of sailing. We had survived, I should say my relationship had survived, the near disastrous encounter with the bilge full of water. With an early summer sun warming us and a gentle breeze I proposed we use the weekend to sail across the Thames estuary to the Swale, moor off the Queenborough Yacht Club, have dinner at the Flying Dutchman and sail back on Sunday morning.

Arriving at Benfleet SC we launched the dinghy and rowed down to Othona. With the tide still flooding we loaded our bags and supplies aboard and after a cup of tea and cake prepared to depart. The engine started, relatively easily, it was a Stuart Turner after all, say no more, and we slipped the mooring and with the creek almost at full flood began to motor East down Benfleet Creek. It was lovely but Benfleet Creek is not easy to navigate. Indeed Benfleet Creek club’s website advises that ‘The stream can run hard and whilst it is well buoyed the deep water does not follow the buoys and you need to watch the depth sounder and have a mental picture of the sinuous stream’. Says it all, you need to be mental.

As we eased past Two Tree Island just south of Leigh on Sea, I set main and jib and off we set roughly due east along Hadleigh Ray almost to the tip of Southend pier; the longest in the world at 1.33 miles and now to become the City of Southend in honour of Sir David Amess. Here we swung SSE out into the estuary to begin our crossing of 5 Nm of one of the busiest commercial rivers in the UK. The course was planned to take us across the Yantlet deep sea channel to the Sea Reach 5 North buoy. From there we would aim for the Mid Swatch, NE of the entrance to the Medway and thence to the Grain Edge buoy before motoring SW into the Medway past Garrison Point to the Queenborough Spit Buoy before turning due south into the Swale. With the wind more westerly than south sesterly we looked to be making good progress despite the strong ebb. At this point a quiet voice said ‘when will we get there’ followed by ‘when can we get some tea’. Ah, right away I muttered and then recalled that I had forgotten to fill the hot water flask. I needed to go below, put the kettle on and make a brew. To compound matters Chrissy did not know where the gas taps were so it had to be me and she had no sailing experience and the Thames estuary was not a place to learn.

Now I had very little money so when it came to instrumentation a burgee and depth sounder was the full extent of my navigation kit. However I did have an ‘autohelm’, of sorts. To be precise I had a set of bungees. One of the beauties of a Folkboat as with most long keel yachts is their tracking ability. I had discovered the year before that a suitably adjusted bungee hooked from the starboard push pit, twisted once over the tiller and across to the port push pit, would give me an excellent ‘autohelm’. It was sufficient to allow me to put the kettle on or check the chart or go forward to adjust the jib or main. So setting my ‘autohelm’ and telling my girlfriend to shout if anything approached us I went below to brew and all too frequently popping my head up to see if all was well. Everything worked and I emerged triumphantly with hot tea and biscuits. I was back in favour.

However whilst my ‘autohelm’ was good it was not that good and my galley excursion had allowed us to make considerable leeway. We were headed east across the Nore Swatch toward the No 9 Medway buoy where, a few cables east, lies the SS Richard Montgomery, an absolutely no go place. Below its deck remains to this day over 1,500 Tons of high explosive. With the Ebb now flowing fast out of the Medway and wind over tide at the entrance it was time to get the engine on to gain enough ground to windward. We needed to ensure we stayed well west of the Montgomery, ideally passing close to the No 11 Medway buoy which meant dropping sail and engine on full revs. Well the engine started first time and with full throttle we motor sailed across the remains of the Nore Swatch and swung into the Medway at Number 9 buoy, less than a third of a mile from the Montgomery; much too close, her surrounding warning buoys and lopsided masts clearly visible.

I thought about explaining the meaning of the phalanx of yellow buoys to Chrissy but decided, judiciously, to leave the history of the Montgomery until later. We motored up past Garrison Point, the ebb easing a bit, and keeping close along the South shore headed for Queenborough Spit. Turning to Port we entered the Swale and motored slowly looking for a mooring near Queenborough Yacht Club. The Swale is narrow, runs quite fast and tortuously encircles the Isle of Sheppy before exiting back into the Thames estuary at Shell Ness; we were only going a mile or so to Queenborough. In those days there was usually no problem finding a mooring and we eased up to a suitable can and tied on. Depth checked, engine off, double up the mooring line, a miners oil lamp anchor light lit and hung, everything snugged down for our return later that evening, glass of wine in hand; lovely.

Shortly after we jumped into the dinghy and rowed to the club pontoon before wandering up to the Flying Dutchman for supper. Over a few drinks and supper I explained the history of the Montgomery, its grounding and sinking on 20 August 1944; the substantial munitions still entombed and the risk to the Isle of Sheppey and surrounding area just a mile away. I think it was well that I left it until we were safely ashore. With a warm glow we wandered back, boarded the dinghy and rowed out to Othona. No sign of her!

I was bewildered and worried, she could not have drifted off, the tide was out and someone taking her was so unlikely. It was Chrissy who spotted her, with her mooring light right down on the water; had she sunk? Well she had not sunk but she was on her side in the mud. The wind had swung and Othona had swung with the wind out of the main channel and unknowingly I must have chosen a shallow draft mooring. My relief at finding her evaporated as I realised that my thoughts of a cosy night were consigned to the deep and we were both in for a very uncomfortable few hours before the flood floated her upright.

As gallantly as I could I explained the issue and we managed to rescue enough bedding from the rising bilge water to enable Chrissy to lie down, she did not sleep, on the side of the hull inside the cabin. I sat perched in the cockpit anxious to ensure the hull released itself from the suction of the mud and floated before water made its way over the coaming. However in due course she floated upright, a hot drink was made and we collapsed into our bunks; sleep at last. It was not my finest hour but I had learnt something; when mooring or anchoring double check low water depth for the whole of the swinging area not just the section where you tie up, oh and don’t forget that flask of hot water.


Submitted on 19th October 2021