Last year we had taken our four month old son, Thomas, on his first week away on Triola, our sturdy 30 foot 1970’s Albin Ballad, with relative ease. We thought that as Thomas grew, things could only get easier as our ‘crew’ matured to be more hardy, capable and patient. Little did we know…
This year, when we set off for our summer holiday, Thomas was 14 months old. To make our trip possible we had to make a few modifications over the spring to Triola, these included:
- Buying a feeding chair which could be clipped around the after locker lid and the pushpit giving Thomas somewhere secure to sit when the boat was upright.
- Adding a Lee cloth to the front cabin to make the double berth into a large ‘cot’ for Thomas to sleep in.
- Installing an ISOfix base (originally intended for a Ford) into the main saloon so that Thomas’s car seat could be clipped it so he could be safely secured at sea.
Our intended route was once again up the East Coast, this time venturing across the (certainly to me) ferocious and terrifying entrance to the river Deben which has a perilous bar across its mouth. A frantic day of preparation ensued before we set off; water and diesel were filled up, myriad stores and mountains of toys were carried on board.
Finally we scrubbed off before heading down the Medway for our first night at anchor in Sharfleet Creek, which would be our jumping off point for the Suffolk coast the next morning. I had recently purchased my Rocna anchor so was keen to chuck it over the bows for the night, the trouble was, that after all that work preparing the boat, we had set off quite late and Thomas was in bed by the time we arrived at Stangate.
The chain locker sits at the front of Thomas’s ‘cabin’ so imagine his shock when the anchor chain started running out. The poor little fellow was rather beside himself and spent the rest of the holiday pointing accusingly at the chain locker, trying to open the hatch that covers it and clamber in.
That evening Thomas would not settle, the tranquillity of our little anchorage was shattered by the wails of our unsettled child. If Thomas were in the cot at home, we could have walked away and left him to cry and he would have been asleep in 10 minutes, however, as it was, I was unsure of the strength of the lee cloth I had set up for him. In his despair he railed against it with all his might, leaving me with visions of him toppling out of his makeshift ‘cot’ onto the forecabin sole. This kept us dashing in and out of the forecabin to make sure everything was holding up, having the added effect of winding Thomas up even more and keeping the little chap awake. Two hours of traumatic and wearing screaming later, he finally went to sleep!
The next day, we woke early to a beautiful morning to fight the last of the flood out of the Medway in time to catch the Ebb down the Thames. Predictably, the anchor chain being raised woke Thomas up with a start, but as soon as he was eating his breakfast, all was once again well with the world.
Before we set off, we had been given grave advice that per year of the age of your child, it was only possible to do that many hours of passage. Using that logic, Thomas being a wee one year old, and us keeping Triola on the remote and wild (ish) river Medway, would mean we could, in fact, go nowhere. The crossing to the River Orwell to reach our first stop of Suffolk Yacht Harbour is a full eight hours from the mouth of the Medway, so we scoffed at the advice and got on with it. The sun shone bright and the crossing was still and glassy (with a small child staggering around on board, this is one of the few occasions we were glad for having no wind at all).
This being our first port of call for this years holiday, my boat handling skills were still a little rusty resulting in a less than graceful entrance into our berth and a fair few heated words of advice coming from the 1st mate, who was thankfully available to help as Thomas looked on patiently from his feeding chair, strapped to the aft locker, with an expression of great mirth. Finally in our berth with little more than a small scuff in the gel coat and a mildly dented ego, we got off and had an explore.
The next day we took a walk towards Harwich docks, picnicked on the beach and spent far too much money in their excellent chandlers there. After an evening meal in the yacht club (housed within the lightship in the marina) and one of their signature steaks, we decided that the next day it was time to move on to another one of our other favourite destinations on the Orwell, Woolverstone. Only a mile or so further up river, we drifted along with what little wind there was and the tide and berthed with considerably more ease (and less drama!) than we had in SYH.
By pure serendipity we ended up in the same berth in Woolverstone that we had ended up in last year. After mooring up and having a quick natter with the harbour master, we set off on our yearly pilgrimage up to Pin Mill. Disappointingly, when we arrived, the small coffee and art shop was closed (which sells some pretty legendary cake), so we spread out the picnic blanket and had our lunch basking in the summer sun.
When we returned to the marina, we thought we’d pop into the rather splendid newly rebuilt Harwich Yacht Club. When going anywhere with a child, especially to eat somewhere nice, you are always keenly aware you don’t want to ruin the dining experience for others and also whether children are welcome where you are going. There are some yacht clubs (we shall not mention names) which you may go into where children (which, after all, are noisy slimy things at the best of time) are frowned upon, however we were thrilled to find HYC both friendly, welcoming, already packed full of young mariners and with a great big box of toys and books nestled in the corner of their exceedingly posh yacht club.
To top it all off, the food was quite spectacular and the other clientèle and members were very patient of Thomas’s scampering about the yacht clubs floor.
The next day the weather was calm and a gentle breeze blew, so we made the decision to leave Woolverstone and head north up the coast to the River Deben and to brave the bar across its entrance. We aimed to get to the entrance an hour before high water, and aware we would need to punch the tide out of the Orwell and certainly not wishing to enter on a falling tide I left somewhat earlier than I needed to. Halfway down the Orwell, I realised my folly and that I was actually due to arrive two and a half hours before high water, so with a gentle breeze on the bow and punching the tide, Liz hoisted the sails, and we beat down the narrow river against the tide (this I presumed would have the net result of us making zero progress).
Things did not exactly go to plan though as Triola is a witch to windward, and even with the little breeze we had and a foul tide against us we still made fine progress down river.
The sun shone bright as we exited the Orwell and crossed the channel, the wind died even more, but we were still set to arrive two hours before high water. I called up John White, the sage-like harbourmaster of Felixstow ferry (callsign “Oddtimes” on VHF channel 08) on his mobile who assured me that two hours before high water would be fine, and warned me that the flood of the Thames would sweep us at an alarming rate to the West and gave me a transit of the Green entrance buoy to the Martello tower that proved very useful indeed.
By the point we were through and into the beautiful river Deben, Thomas had had enough and wanted to get off, as by this point, did the 1st mate who had been looking after him the whole way. With the bar out of the way, and figuring the pilotage challenge was at an end, I gave Liz a break, glanced at the chart and told her that the middle of the river was deep, “so just stay between the banks and she would be fine”. With those words, Thomas and I disappeared below decks to read some books and play with his toys and let mummy enjoy the river and a bit of time without the child attached. About an hour later, Liz called down to me that the middle of the river was getting rather shallow, I put Thomas down and shot up just as we ran hard aground!
I had a brief moment of panic where I thought we were at the top of the tide (being stuck there all night with a small child high and dry would not have been pleasant!), but then I remembered we were an hour ahead of schedule and after a bit of frantic gunning the engine astern we broke free and were gratefully on our way again.
We arrived at Woodbridge an hour later right at the top of the tide, Mike “the Pipe”, another friendly Deben harbour master, radioed us as we approached and advised us we would ‘probably’ be okay to get across the bar. We moored up, relatively exhausted considering the short passage – most of the exhaustion coming from the consistent entertainment that young Thomas required!
We were only supposed to be staying a single day at Woodbridge as we needed to start making our way back home so I could get back to work, but due to a combination of a shocking forecast, delightful food and abundant hospitality at Woodbridge, we decided to stay another night.
The next day our plan was to leave in the evening at high tide and tie up to a mooring at Felixtow Ferry, at the end of the Deben so we can hop across the bar at 8 am, two hours before high tide the next morning, we would then carry the remainder of the flood halfway up the Wallet, eventually arriving in Brightlingsea. High tide that evening was set for 9pm and Mike “the Pipe” assured us we should be able to get out half an hour before that. So we loosed our lines at 8:30pm and off we set, little did we consider the high pressure that had been creating all of the lovely weather we had been having. As we approached the bar, the depth stick showed 1.3 meters, not nearly enough for us to get across, so we tied up again and waited and watched. The water level crept up, and at 8:55pm it was just up to 1.5 meters and I decided it was now or never, and with a little knock, we bumped across the bar at the very top of the tide.
The drawback to this delayed start was that it was now somewhat later and darkness was starting to set.
None of the buoys on the Deben are lit, making navigation at night challenging at best and dangerous at worst. A full moon lit our way down river, and I carried on as far as I dared. The thought of trying to pick up a mooring single handedly (as Thomas was on his way to bed) in the darkness didn’t appeal to me, so we got as far as the ‘rocks’ anchorage and dropped anchor for the night. And what a beautiful night! (Thomas screaming aside as he complained once again about the anchor being run out…)
The next morning we set out early and as planned got to the entrance at two hours before high water where we found three French boats milled around by the bar, unwilling to yet take the plunge and go across. I had called up John, the harbour master of Felixstow ferry, one last time the day before to confirm I would be able to get out two hours before high water, and he had once again (very patiently considering I had asked the same question only two days before) told me that I would be fine. This fact did not make me feel any more comfortable as I approached the entrance and felt the tidal eddies start to swirl around the boat, the three French boats stepped into line behind me and followed me through (clearly thinking me a local who had some idea of what he was doing – little did they know!).
Safely across the bar, we headed downwind to Brightlingsea in increasingly breezy conditions to anchor in Pyefleet creek. My father had recommended a slipway we could get ashore, and after an hour of dinghy wrestling, outboard wrestling and motoring through chop, we finally arrived at a slipway… only to find it covered in two foot of mud. Thomas, thoroughly depressed by the whole affair decided sleep was the best method of dealing with the situation.
Admitting defeat, we returned to the boat as the wind started to howl through the rigging. In order to catch the tide and get back to the Medway we needed to leave at 4am the next morning to use the last of the ebb out of the Colne and then catch the flood all the way up the Thames. When I woke, the wind was howling from the east meaning, until the tide turned with us, it was going to be a pretty rough ride along the Wallet until we cross the Swin spitway. Every forecast I could lay my hands (iphone) on showed a fair day ahead and this was our last opportunity to get home in time to get back for work, so we upped anchor, and set off. Thomas had some quick breakfast and then went straight back to sleep in his car seat all clipped in to the bunk below.
As we left the Colne, the false dawn came up and another more dangerous factor than the wind or chop became apparent. There was a dense fog restricting visibility, as we left the shelter of the river and approached the Swin Spitway the sea state grew, with Triolas bows digging into the troughs of angry steep chop and scooping water across her decks. As we approached the Swin spitway, as hard as I tried, I couldn’t make out the Wallet buoy, which marks the entrance and safe water, then suddenly through the fog, there it was. Into my passage plan, I hadn’t put a bearing in from the Wallet across to the Swin (which marks the exit of the Spitway) as, being only a mile away, it is usually easy enough to pick out and head towards. I dived below to check on the chart, and whipped out my iPhone (not, unfortunately, in its waterproof case!) and worked out the bearing we needed to steer. Halfway across, we could see neither mark, all we had was a decreasing reading on the echo sounder, heavy chop and a wall of fog, frequent checks of my iPhone (under my oilies as spray continued to buffet down on us) confirmed we were still on course, then Liz piped up she had seen the buoy. By the time we reached the South Whittaker, the tide was with us, the wind had dropped as predicted and had become more of a following breeze and the sea state had decreased considerably.
A check down below showed that poor Thomas had not only woken up, but he had just brought his breakfast back up too – poor little fellow, at 14 months his first experience of sea sickness. Mummy came and looked after him, and once he was out in the fresh air his green pallor was starting to fade and he was chomping again happily on biscuits.
The crossing back to the Medway was the fastest we have ever managed, the tides worked perfectly for us and the following breeze pushed us along (and finally the fog away) and we arrived home, to the Medway Yacht Club, before lunchtime.
We had initially scoffed at the sombre warnings of those that said a one hour sail would be quite enough for a one year old, and in hindsight, if you wanted an easy life, then they were probably right. There were times on our week away where we had questioned just what the hell we were doing and whether it was fair on Thomas. On the other hand, if we had wanted an easy life then we would have hopped on a plane and gone somewhere where its all inclusive and full of tourists. Sailing isn’t about making things easy, its about having an adventure and overcoming adversity and we certainly did that and have some cracking memories to take away from it.