Raiding the Borders – Sprint 15 Style
Words and pictures by Jenny Ball
Some of you may have followed the travels of Fleet Commodore Nigel and I in our Sprint 15s last year – which took us the length and breadth of the River Blackwater as well as longer voyages up the Colne to Colchester and round to Burnham on the River Crouch.
This year, we wanted to extend our range further afield and developed a fairly extensive wish list which included the River Stour, River Orwell and the Walton Backwaters. All to be found around the Essex and Suffolk Border and – like our own river – all very beautiful and with a long heritage of being worked by the Thames Sailing Barges, some of whom still call the area home.
Until now, we have referred to our trips as cruises or voyages. But we recently discovered that the F18s made a similar trip which they referred to as a “Raid”. This is clearly much more exciting so hereafter, we will be raiding instead of cruising too.
The first challenge was to talk Fleet Commodore Nigel out of his original thinking that we could sail the 30 miles from Marconi to the entrance of the Orwell/Stour/Backwaters (delete as appropriate), complete a full navigation of the chosen river and then sail the 30 miles back all in one day. And presumably undertake that three times. Actually, it was not that difficult since I flat out refused to even entertain the idea.
Instead, approaches were made to Andy Webb, a sailing colleague at Harwich Town SC who kindly agreed to let us keep our boats in their compound for a week – thereby providing a perfect base from which to explore all three rivers, without the 60 mile round trip from Marconi each day. Harwich Town SC hosted the Sprint 15 Nationals in 2019 so we know them well and many of them have connections with Marconi through the East Coast Piers Race or even being the sister of our Vice Commodore! They are a friendly and welcoming group and we are very grateful to them.
Harwich Old Town is also a fantastic place to spend a few days. If you have never been, I highly commend it to you and don’t let the Felixstowe Docks put you off. It is steeped with maritime history, surrounded by rivers, has a pier, four lightships and four lighthouses (which is the most impressive strike rate of anywhere I have been) and is home to Trinity House operations. It is made up of quaint streets and historic houses and literally has a pub on every street corner – many of which are excellent – and Dovercourt beach is a lovely stretch of award-winning sand.
We planned our visit for the week before the August Bank Holiday, booked accommodation in the Alma Pub and Samuel Pepys Pub, contacted the Harwich Harbour Authority for their excellent yachting guide and tide tables, consulted East Coast Rivers pilot book in detail (well Jenny did, anyway), and hoped for good weather.
Our original Day One plan was to sail from Marconi to Harwich, expecting the usual South Westerlies to make it a straight line sail. However, the wind went round to the north the day before we went and steadfastly stayed there for several weeks. So we adapted and drove the boats double stacked on the trailer on Monday morning. We unloaded the boats with the help of two unsuspecting passers by who had probably never lifted an upside down Sprint 15 off a trailer before and got rigged and ready to go. Nigel’s van and trailer provided a great clubhouse for us during the week.
We had no support boat with us – so made sure we each carried a VHF, a phone, a paddle, tow rope, various spares, tape to temporarily fix anything structural, a manual compass, food, water and spare clothing. We used a navigation app (Navionics) and the Ordnance Survey App to guide us as well as carrying small laminated chartlets as back-up. We also use the RYA SafeTRX app to share our planned route with an emergency contact (Pit Crew Dave) which also provides a location tracker in the event someone needs to come and find you. We consulted several forecasts as well as timing our raids with the tides to maximise the potential of getting to our destination and back again safely. We had no intention of capsizing – particularly as the sailing waters are quite busy with river traffic, let alone the ferries and container ships over on the Felixstowe side of the channel.
Having rigged the boats on Day One, we lost no time to head out and bag our first Raid. The River Stour runs East/West so the Force 3 – 4 Northerly winds presented a perfect opportunity for straight line sailing there and back with the tide under us both ways. At this point, Nigel realised that the A3 ordnance survey maps from 1980 (the Orwell Bridge was not even on them!) that he had laminated were probably not that practical to use on a Sprint 15 at any time, let alone hurtling along at a rate of knots with the mainsheet in one hand, the tiller in the other and hiked out with lots of spray. Turns out the designers of the Sprint 15 completely omitted to fit a chart table as standard.
We set off from the lovely sandy beach, turned left to round the point and then left again past Ha’Penny Pier and Parkston to enter the Stour. I am very fond of the River Stour from various walks along its north and south banks and have wanted to sail it for a long time. When the tide is in, it is a wide expanse of water with a mix of trees and fields along both banks. It is very shallow however at low tide so we were definitely seeing the river at its best. We had the perfect breeze and quickly left Harwich and Parkstone behind and reached past Wrabness on the south bank. A charming collection of moorings, boats and houses nestled along the river front with the river bank rising steeply behind them.
Over on the north bank, the river opened out into Holbrook Bay overlooked by the impressive buildings of the Royal Hospital School – (a number of our Marconi members are alumni of the school). Back over on the south shore, we rapidly reached Mistley – famous for its Thames Barge connections, its towers now bereft of their church and “that fence” put up along the quay in more recent times. The channel does some serious zig zagging from Mistley on the south bank, right across to the north shore and then back on itself again to the town of Manningtree. We were there at the top of the tide and in boats that only draw about 2 feet but Jenny, ever the purist, dutifully followed all the channel markers and, completely out of character, so did Nigel.
From the moorings off Manningtree, it is only a short stretch inland before the navigation ends at the Cattawade railway bridge. I have been over this bridge many times for work in a former life. If you happen to take the train to Ipswich or Norwich, make sure you are awake for the stretch just after Manningtree station, it is beautiful. But its even better if you are on the river itself. Having got as far as we could, we turned back and retraced our steps all the way back out of the Stour.
The wind had increased slightly and shifted further north so it was a tight fetch but still a straight line sail all the way back and with plenty of hiking and spray to go with it. We passed SB Victor coming up river – a splendid sight with full canvas although I did notice they were not hiking very much. As we neared the mouth of the river, the water became much more turbulent as the ebb tide from the Orwell and the Stour rolled over each other and out past Felixtowe and Harwich to the sea. So the final stretch past Ha’Penny Pier round into the main channel was quite challenging and we were relieved to see it flatten out in the final run in to the beach at the sailing club. We had completed 19.3 NM in 2 hours and with a max speed of 16 knots – which constitutes a good day on the water by any standards.
Having battled our boats through the sand and into the compound (there is something to be said for concrete hards) – we walked across to Ha’Penny Pier and sat in the sunshine with a coffee and watched the comings and goings of yachts into and out of Shotley Marina, the Stour and the Orwell. Having checked in to our respective accommodation, we had a great evening meal in the Alma and made plans for our tip up the Orwell the following day.
Day 2 dawned with a forecast of similar Force 4 + breezes but more from the north – and a plan to sail up the Orwell as far as you can get before the river disappears under a road near Ipswich town centre. The Orwell is another river I have visited many times by land and have walked much of its banks. Definitely another river on the bucket list and, of course, the opportunity to sail under the mighty Orwell Bridge. We set off with plenty of time before HW to maximise our chances of getting to the far end. The Orwell is a busy river so we took care to sail along the east edge of the main channel to keep away from the yachts and occasional gin palace. We were the only cats up the river and definitely stood out! Having negotiated our way past the containers at Felixtowe which cast huge wind shadows, we got into better breeze and quickly passed Suffolk Yacht Harbour at Levington on the east bank. We originally thought we would be beating up the river and straight line sailing back – but in fact the wind was very shifty as it blew down the steep river banks on the eastern side and we were doing anything from fetching to broad reaching and back again. It was very changeable.
We passed the famous Pin Mill and neared Woolverstone where Royal Harwich YC were hosting a racing week for young sailors. Andy Webb from Harwich Town was on one of the RIBs as his son was taking part in the regatta (both former Sprint 15 sailors, I might add) – so we sought him out to say hello and thank you. Andy and his RIB crew had the thankless task of trying to lay the windward mark when the wind was shifting about 60 degrees every minute and as it was hard enough just trying to sail in a straight line, we were very sympathetic to that.
We shortly reached the Orwell Bridge which you can’t exactly miss as it is huge but not, in my opinion at least, an unpleasant bridge to look at. But it must have been a big shock to the landscape when it was first built. As is always the way when you just need to sail a straight line between the piers of a bridge, the wind started to be circular. But there is more room under this bridge than most so we were able to get through without crashing, despite being very pre-occupied trying to take artistic photos as we passed under the bridge itself.
The other side of the bridge, the Orwell moved from beautiful Suffolk countryside to the business end of the Port of Ipswich– ie. singularly unattractive and noisy. Immediately, we were met with the sight of container ships and wharves to the right, a mountain of scrap metal to the left and a large abandoned building and wasteland further on. And typically, as the river had now narrowed, we were obliged to start tacking up the channel without hitting steel wharves or the working vessel shifting ballast on the other quay side, moving backwards and forwards in and out of the channel as it worked. To the right is the Ipswich docks, now a marina accessed through a lock where various of the old dock buildings have been regenerated into shops and restaurants. I imagine this is nice place to moor up so long as you close your eyes and ears between the Bridge and the lock and never look back once you are in.
Our target route was to take the New Cut which runs to the left of the marina. We had read that a flood defence had been built at the entrance of the New Cut – similar to the one at Wivenhoe. But we had not anticipated that the gap through the high brick walls would be quite so narrow – it was a bit of shock to see and realise that we needed to tack through it as the wind was still on the nose at this point. Jenny managed to get through in one fetch and was too pre-occupied tacking up a narrow channel between a high concrete bank and moored boats to notice that Nigel took several goes to get through. Jenny finally reached the end of the cut which opens out slightly as the road blocks navigation, providing just about enough room to turn round a Sprint 15. With deep irony, Jenny found herself tacking back out of the same narrow channel she had just tacked up. Nigel had a more straightforward journey out of the cut. We re-grouped the other side of the flood defence and ran back past all the industry towards the Orwell Bridge and the gateway to the pretty part of the river again.
We stuck to the west side of the river on the way out, admiring the 16th century Freston Tower which I have been lucky enough to stay in – a Landmark Trust property with stunning views. We then passed Woolverstone Marina where SB Ironsides was residing temporarily – looking splendid on the end of the pontoon in the sunshine. We then toyed with stopping off at Pin Mill – but with a stiff breeze dead behind us, we did not think there was room to turn round and stop at the end of the channel without launching ourselves literally into the Butt and Oyster. We could have taken our mains down and gone in under bare poles but the tide was well into the ebb now so we felt we should probably keep going.
The breeze and gusts had increased so we had a very lively beat back to Levington and a decidedly boisterous sail out of the mouth of the Orwell, across the Stour entrance and past the Felixtowe container ships. The water really does get turbulent here on the ebb and this time, it did not flatten out at all past Ha’Penny Pier. So we hurtled out of Harwich Harbour, picked a gap between the gusts that were rushing across from the Felixtowe shore, took a deep breath and bore off towards the sailing club beach. Fortunately, we both managed the final stretch without pitchpoling and without hitting the beach in the surf. This time we had completed 20.7 NM and still with a fastest speed of 16 knots – but it had taken us 4 hours, such are the vagaries of being determined to reach the farthest point of navigation!
With the boats packed away, we headed across to Ha’Penny Pier for a coffee and to meet up with Pit Crew Dave who had joined us for the next few days. Dave was working during the day and converted his van to an office with the best views by parking on the river front. After Dave had finished work, we had a lovely meal in the Samuel Pepys where for the first time in my life, I was served cauliflower cheese with a chicken kiev and it was marvellous.
Day 3 had a more favourable wind forecast – a steady 3 – 4 without the gusts of the previous two days and more sunshine. A perfect day to explore the Walton Backwaters without worrying about being sailed halfway up the saltings of a narrow creek in a freak gust. We had a number of goals to tick off today. Sue at Harwich Town SC had told us about the large colony of seals at Oakley Creek. We also wanted to get as close as we could to Beaumont Quay at the far corner of the Backwaters – once a regular haunt for barges although power lines now block the final path from any boats with an upright mast. We also wanted to circumnavigate Horsey Island via Hamford Water, cross the roadway, go up the Twizzle and Foundry Reach as far as the Walton and Frinton YC and then head back out via the Walton Channel. To do any of the above, we needed to time the tides right as – whilst it is a large expanse of water at the top of the tide, much of it disappears very quickly.
Today we were heading right instead of left. We had a quick sail out past the Breakwater where Banksy may, or may not, have created one of his summer holiday art works nearby. We ran out to the Pye End buoy and then fetched across Dovercourt Bay to the buoys marking the entrance of the Backwaters – just like proper sailors. We turned right into Hamford Water and set off to find the entrance to Oakley Creek. It was about two hours before high water so we were not sure how far up the creek we would get. We passed a yacht sailing out who called across to Jenny: “that looks like fun” and she confirmed that indeed it was. The same yacht then told Nigel: “you are letting her beat you” – to which Nigel replied “ladies first”. That’s the 1970s for you.
Nigel then spotted the tops’l of a Thames Barge floating over the top of the land – or, more accurately, sailing out of Oakley Creek. It turned out to be the SB Cygnet – one of the smaller barges at only 16 tons – which meant two things. Firstly, if she could get up the creek at that state of tide, we certainly could and secondly, this would be a great photo opportunity. We crossed paths at the entrance of the creek and took several photos of a majestic, historic craft working the waters the same way she had done for 140 years – who was obliged at this moment to share them with two plastic boats aged four and eight respectively. Cygnet was carrying a full set of sails and – particularly impressively – we are pretty sure she was being sailed single-handed.
Cygnet headed off towards Walton Creek and we headed into Oakley Creek which has a well marked channel – well, several channels in fact. We reached a fork and saw a huge number of seals up on the bank enjoying the sunshine and untroubled by us. As we sailed up the channel, they were along the bank watching us curiously and also swimming in the water. It was lovely to see. We turned round and headed back to the fork. Jenny chose to sail up the left hand channel but Nigel elected not to follow. Jenny got as far as the landing stage at the end of the creek and then commenced the 15 short tacks it took her to get back out to the main creek again.
We then headed back out into Hamford Water – passing the first of many boats of humans that would visit that day so the seals could watch them for their entertainment. Turning right, we left Horsey Island to port and picked up the channel past Skipper Island en route to Beaumont Quay. It was really champagne sailing – a lovely breeze, bright sunshine and a maze of river channels and salt marsh. We reached Landermere Quay with its small group of houses and seriously large pile of kayaks and followed the creek round as far as we could get towards Beaumont Creek. We got within sight of the overhead power cables that block the path and turned round. We had hoped to find a route to leave Skipper Island to port so we had circumnavigated it. But all we could see was tufts of grass sticking up where we thought the channel was and decided that trying to tack through that would not be sensible. So we retraced our steps and tacked up the channel leaving Skipper Island to starboard. 22 tacks in total, in case you are wondering.
As we neared Hamford Water again, we met SB Cygnet who had sailed round Horsey Island since we last saw her. Cygnet turned into the channel we had just left and probably got as far as we did. In fact, in recent years, Cygnet lowered her gear and travelled under the power lines all the way up to Beaumont Quay so she is made of determined stuff. Conversely, we turned right into Kirby Creek from where Cygnet had just travelled. In the distance to our left, we could see a fleet of sailing dinghies from Walton and Frinton YC who we guessed were racing around Horsey Island. We followed Kirby Creek round to the left and were delighted to see another group of seals on the sand bank. The channel then widened out into the Twizzle (does anyone know where it got its name from?) crossing the causeway to Horsey Island and heading across to Titchmarsh Marina. The channel then narrowed again and we dodged a couple of frankly enormous gin palaces making their way into the marina before turning right into Foundry Reach and following the narrow channel with about a million small port and starboard markers all the way up to the Yacht Club. You seriously have no excuse to run aground with this level of markers – all maintained by the Yacht Club, along with the buoys marking the Walton Channel too. We ran out of river just past the Yacht Club and turned round to head back into the Walton Channel for the final sail out of the Backwaters – fortunately, before meeting the large fleet of dinghies were coming in the other way.
We reached Stone Point just after the top of the tide and some two hours after we had entered the Backwaters. Jenny dutifully followed the channel markers out into Dovercourt Bay whilst Nigel returned to form and struck out across the point because “he wanted to make it to Harwich without having to tack”. It was still only a force 3 – 4 so we were not at all overpowered – but the waves across Dovercourt Bay were pretty impressive and it was a wet sail back. Whilst at the Sprint 15 Nationals in Dovercourt Bay in 2019 – we experienced the most challenging sea state I have ever sailed in – so both Nigel and I approached this stretch with a very healthy respect. But it was a cracking sail back to the Breakwater and then a fetch back to the sailing club. It had taken four hours to sail 23.1 NM and we were delighted to have ticked off everything on our wish list.
We packed the boats away and did our post sailing ritual of heading across to Ha’Penny Pier to round off the afternoon and to meet up with Dave at the Pier Hotel for a coffee / beer. Dinner this evening was in The Alma – another excellent meal.
Day 4 – we originally hoped we would be able to venture up the coast and raid the River Deben. But the forecast had been consistently for strong winds gusting up to 30mph from the north. Not really suitable winds for raiding without a support boat, let alone trying to cross the notorious sandbanks at the entrance of the Deben. So we took a lay day and, instead caught the Harwich Foot Ferry across to Languard Point as we were determined to get afloat!. Massively overshadowed by Felixtowe Port and the forlorn/sinister/historic (depending on your point of view) remains of the fort, Languard Point was a melancholy place in strong northerly winds, low cloud and mizzle even in mid-August. We walked around the point and spent some time identifying the different key navigation marks off shore, the various large ships and the strange bridge like structure we could see in the distance out to sea. As we crossed the dunes, a young lad out walking with his parents stopped us out of the blue and asked if we would like to hear a joke. Nigel and I politely said yes. The joke was along the lines of – “Police have been called to the scene of an accident involving a lorry full of cheese. They say there is de-brie everywhere”. He and his family then walked off. Nigel and I were left with the conviction that Pit Crew Dave had planted this young lad so we could not escape his jokes, even though he had to work.
We walked back to the ferry point and had an excellent ice cream and coffee from the little kiosk there. We also took to Google to find out that the bridge like structure was the Principality of Sealand which some of you may have heard of. It features in a book I have read recently where the author visits locations in every one of the Shipping Forecast areas. If you haven’t heard of Sealand, do look it up – its an interesting story.
The ferry journey back to Harwich brought home just how windy it really was but it had been a great way to see another part of this fascinating natural harbour. Nigel and I headed to the Pier Hotel to have a coffee and wait for Dave to finish his meetings. We had a slightly bizarre encounter with a local TV personality from neighbouring Jaywick and his guests that I won’t put into writing – but there is clearly something about Nigel that encourages strangers to talk to us out of the blue. Perhaps they think he is Father Christmas off-duty.
This evening we had dinner at the renowned Thai Up At the Quay. We had tried to go there on Tuesday evening but the earliest time they could offer was 8:30pm on Thursday. So we took that booking on the basis that if it was that fully booked, it must be very good indeed. The restaurant certainly lived up to its reputation. A lovely atmosphere and excellent Thai food – we left very happy.
Day 5 and we had hatched a plan. With the winds still in the north, we had the opportunity to straight line sail from Harwich to Marconi. But there were some logistics associated with this. So we loaded up the road trailer with everything we would need at Marconi including our trollies and change of clothes and Dave kindly drove the trailer back to Marconi. The aim then was for us to leave in good time to have the flood with us and to arrive at Marconi on or before high water at 4pm.
Unlike previous days, we were leaving some time before high water which made launching a bit more challenging and also meant we were going to stick closely to navigation markers so we did not hit the ground half way across Dovercourt Bay. So we headed out to Pye End buoy again and then across towards the Naze Tower. The winds were much lighter but there was still a lot of large waves left over from the strong winds from the day before. It was slow going and quite frustrating with the rolling waves knocking all the wind out of the sails. It took an hour to reach the Naze Tower and there was still a long way to go.
But Walton Pier came into view soon after and the waves started to calm down a bit as we had some shelter from the headland. As anyone who has done the Piers Race will know – the journey between Walton and Clacton Piers takes an absolute age. Fortunately, as we passed Holland on Sea, we were treated to a display by the Red Arrows who were performing for the Clacton (not) Air Show this year. We then reached Clacton Pier and the flotilla of spectator boats in time for the Battle of Britain fly past and were treated to a great display directly overhead. Jenny sailed through the spectator fleet and waited for Nigel on the other side as apparently Nigel was unable to sail and look at the sky at the same time.
The wind was very fickle as we made our way past Point Clear, but finally we cleared the headland past the entrance to the Colne and picked up a more steady northerly wind. And whilst it was not very strong, it was the flattest I had ever seen the Colne Bar and we were still making good progress with the tide under us. We then ticked off all the familiar landmarks – the Moliette, the Nass Beacon, the Baffle, Radio Caroline, Thirslet Buoy and then home. We completed 26NM in 4 ½ hours and arrived at Marconi at the top of the tide, exactly as intended. Pete Richardson was there to help us with the trollies – which was a great help as we were quite tired by then.
The boats were packed away and then Jenny drove Nigel to Chelmsford station to get the train back to Harwich to collect his van and head home. This should have been a straightforward journey – but a 1 ½ hour wait at Manningtree meant that we sailed the distance in less time than it took by train! That’s progress for you.
It was a great week of sailing, notching up 100 miles across four days and only one day lost to the wind. We are grateful to Pit Crew Dave and to everyone at Harwich Town SC who made it possible. We still have plans to go back to the Deben and also the neighbouring Alde – especially as we then found out that Daniel and Maya Sturm had been part of an F18 raid on those two rivers at the same time as our adventure. Hopefully we will be able to read about their adventures in due course. We also have future plans to visit rivers to the south of our county. That’s the beauty of the East Coast, there is always somewhere new to explore. Watch this space …….