And so to the Medway
You left us on the SBA buoy after a scrub and paint round on Pin Mill Hard. The next day saw us leaving early to make low water off the Naze with a fair wind for the Medway. Leaving was not without incident. A good breeze northerly was forecast and the topsail was left in gaskets. Just after calling Ipswich to announce departure we let go the buoy and filled away on starboard tack heading upriver for an intended tack and turn to head downriver. It was an hour and a half before low water and the gods were unsure that morning of what should await us. Whether it was the early hour bleary-eyed skipper not checking the depth, the newly serviced buoy laying closer to shallow water (clutching at straws here) or just poor handling the port leeboard found the bottom almost immediately and the barge made a beeline for the Clamp House. “Down foresail” and a speedy ante-diem crew responded brilliantly. “Standby the anchor” but the gods then reviewed their stance and ever so slowly the barge pivoted in the board in the mud as the mizzen sheeted on the rudder pulled her head to wind. “Up foresail” and as many times before Blue Mermaid amazed us by coming round onto the port tack. But that was not enough in itself. The starboard board now found the bottom and it was necessary to quickly wind it up while the foresail was dropped a second time. Then the port board now on the windward side was dropped to turn the barge into the wind and as she responded the foresail was reset and she took us downriver at last. The skipper breathed a sigh of relief not having to call Ipswich again and announce a delayed departure, which in that barge-friendly river would probably be known across the literalle before lunchtime.
As we passed through Harwich Harbour the mate was itching for more sail and as there was no more wind in Pennyhole Bay the topsail went up and the barge fair smoked up the Wallet to be crossing the Spitway and Whitaker at two hours flood and fetch away up Swin. It was a fast and glorious sail without either tack or gybe.
We handed the jib once inside the Garrison to make for a more relaxing sight-seeing of the fascinating Medway. Arriving at Gillingham well ahead of high water and in company with some well-managed yachts it was necessary to come on the wind for Short Reach before reducing sail in short order to anchor on the windward Hoo side below the moorings. We were a little concerned as there used to be a big mooring buoy here, used by Cambria for some time before it sank. We were unsure if Peel Ports had removed the wreckage and asked Ian on Cambria if he knew. He was unsure so we made sure we anchored more inshore than might have been the case. We did not pick anything up, but our position meant we took the ground that low water and moved off a little the next day. So the day was bracketed by groundings! After the Match on Saturday we anchored here again and Alan Pratt commented the buoy and gear remained on the bottom and we should take care. In fact he said there were two sets of wreckage. There is also a gas pipe under this part of the river although the yellow shore markers have succumbed to entropy and redevelopment. Care is clearly needed here.
The Medway Match had not happened for two years in common with most of the matches. It is a credit to all involved it restarted with such a well-organised event. The Medway Yacht Club provided facilities for the Friday night briefing where we met our stalwart party for the event from the nearby Wilsonian Sailing Club. After returning aboard with the full team including Mainsheet Jim Thom and all-round handyman Jim Green with new crew Tom Moody, there was time for a little preparation, dinner and bed.
It was an early start with two classes starting before us and Marjorie at 0730. A combination of porcine sandwich relaxation and the early hour found us struggling to catch Marjorie from a late start. She led to the outer mark, Medway No 1, and at times opened out her lead. It was only the differences in courses adopted back into the Garrison that enabled Blue Mermaid to close and eventually overtake. Tony Winter quotes Jim Didhams as saying it is flood tide on the Cant nine months of the year, and while this might not be literally true there is advantage inshore when working back in against the ebb. If there was any doubt the Orinoco overflowed with local knowledge and took the inshore course. We followed her. Others held up to windward near the Richard Montgomery and no doubt felt fast but had more tide. Coming together with Orinoco at the Garrison there were a few anxious moments as both barges came close to an angling boat receiving a tow from a colleague due to engine trouble. But being a true gentleman Frog gave room and we both passed safely. The long-route barges were now well astern and it remained to sail cleanly to the finish. Each time there was a run in every other reach both leeboards came right up. We were closing with the second staysail barge Repertor but Niagara was comfortably ahead. She saved her 15 minute start on us by a minute and a half and it was scant consolation to learn if we had started better we could have had a shorter elapsed time. It is becoming apparent there is far more to winning the championship than finishing order and as we approach the last race Niagara is several points ahead.
There had been talk of a lay day on the Sunday, and we were all looking forward to the rest. Then the Cambrias announced they were for Essex the next day and common sense gave way to the chance of a race. And so it was that the anchorage saw muffled movement well before daybreak. Guest crew were put ashore in the dark to stumble after their cars and no one heard Cambria get underway. Only a dark shape heading down Gillingham Reach gave away how keen the crew were. Before even her, the Centaur had made an early start. Despite a north or Northeasterly being forecast the light airs at this point were northwest and with the young ebb it took all the concentration available at that hour to avoid being set into the moorings below Gillingham Marina. At Beesness the wind went altogether and the sturdy outboard was engaged for a few minutes to get us clear into Kethole Reach where the Northerly eventually came good. By now Cambria was approaching Garrison Point and there was only three hours of ebb to go. Two tacks in Sheerness Harbour and the jib topsail saw us safely out and cutting close to the Richard Montgomery we could spy Cambria well ahead along the Cant. She had no doubt suffered from a lack of wind and been set well to the east, so when she tacked and crossed us near the Medway Buoy she was less than a mile ahead.
As both barges entered the South-West Reach of the Swin they were tack for tack and made a splendid sight in the bright sunshine. At times it looked like a nice slant off the land would provide a fetch against the new flood, but after the Maplin Buoy the wind died and came ahead. Cambria brought up and we went into shallow water along the edge and dropped the kedge, leaving topsail and mizzen set, and had a couple of quiet hours while the tide made. It was Sunday and the firing range was closed so there were options if the wind returned, either pushing on against the tide to the Spitway or going over the sands and through the Ray Sand Channel, once the usual route to London before it silted up.
With barely two hours flood to run, the wind indeed returned from the north, and we scrambled underway and after half an hour were fetching past the Maplin Middle Buoy with Cambria following. But progress was slow against the tide, so we tacked to the west and found the Crouch buoys after a couple of tacks over the Ridge which we crossed with eight feet of water. It was high water now and with the wind slightly west of north one long tack took us through the Rays’n and to the vicinity of the Buxey Beacon where shoaling depth meant coming round to head inshore again. Coming round again near the southern target posts, which mark where bombing practice targets were placed for Bradwell airfield between the wars, we had Brightlingsea beckoning ahead not many hours away. Cambria had sensibly headed on towards the Spitway and could be seen off near the Whitaker Beacon. By now there was a good breeze, with maybe more offshore and at one point it looked like she dropped her topsail.
Through the chance of fate our tacks took us within a hundred yards of a small red sailing cruiser near Batchelor Spit. It looked to be sailing with just a mainsail set and not to be making much progress in the force four to five. Nevertheless we probably would not have thought anything out of the ordinary had it not been the suspicion of a hale as we passed. We dropped the topsail, tacked and hove to close enough to windward of the boat to ascertain the situation. The one man aboard waved vigorously and shouted that he was taking on water and needed rescue, or words to that effect. We replied we were not in a position ourselves to render assistance but would call the Coastguard and stand by until help arrived. Had we attempted to come alongside with the barge there was every chance of doing considerable damage to the casualty. Were she to be evidently sinking, conditions were just good enough to launch the barge-boat when hove to and this would have been undertaken to effect a rescue. However, the lifeboat would be able to rescue both person and vessel so this was preferable.
Having made contact with Dover Coastguard it was interesting almost their first interest was where the boat came from and where it was headed. We surmised rightly or wrongly the world at Dover is nowadays all about people smuggling which might have affected questions, but our boat was from Point Clear headed for Jaywick just round Colne Point. Or perhaps consideration was given to which lifeboat was best placed to reach the destination. After several passes hove to, we were told the Coastguard had tasked West Mersea lifeboat to attend and we should continue to standby. Showing great presence of mind, the gentleman aboard the boat had already stowed his mainsail and now dropped his anchor. This was very sensible as with a falling tide there was shallow water to leeward. Once called, the lifeboat was there in twenty minutes and immediately passed a lifejacket to the boat and took it in tow, and we were stood down after an hour or so.
By now Cambria was through the Spitway and the day was almost done. We were bound for Brightlingsea for a youth charter during the week so it made sense to get there that night even though it was dead to windward with a foul tide. Otherwise a long fetch to Mersea would have been preferable or even further if bound like Cambria for the upper Blackwater. Her navigation lights could be seen passing the Bench Head as we completed the last few of many short tacks into Colne. The jib was dropped at Second Beach so we could concentrate on keeping in the channel and tacking cleanly. By now we were all ready for our beds, as no doubt would the lifeboat crew be by the time they got home. They passed us at the number 13 buoy outward bound having passed their charge over to Brightlingsea Harbour. We learned later the owner was taken by the Coastguard mobile unit to a hostel in Colchester as he had no home other than the boat. Good for them we thought.
Anchoring at 2200, sixteen hours from Gillingham, no one wanted to hear just as we dropped back on the cable “what’s that by the starboard quarter?” It turned out to be a racing mark in a place not recollected. Luckily it was clear and there was no need to move.
Next day was for catching up on sleep, fish and chips ashore and shopping for the young people due next day. As it turned out the charter fell through giving a few more welcome days at home than planned before returning to the Colne for the last match of the season.