Leigh Ray Gut.


It seems disrespectful to say so, for a river that has

seen “the dreams of men, the seed of commonwealth, the germs

of Empires, crowded with memories of men and ships it had

borne to the rest of home or to the battles of the sea”,

(Joseph Conrad) but the fact is the Sea Reach of the Thames is

now one of the dreariest places imaginable. Or, in the words

of E.F. Knight “dismal”.

It does not help of course that the river is no longer

crowded with commerce, which to be fair, at the time Conrad

was writing, was a sight to quicken the heart of any true

Englishman, nor that the “marsh and pasture, looking very much

like a Dutch landscape” (E.F. Knight again) have become

industrial wasteland, punctuated by oil storage tanks, power

stations and the occasional tower block. And to cap it all

there are, in the words of Jack H. Coote, writing in 1957

“very few comfortable or attractive anchorages”. Political

correctness would not now allow one to say such a thing, but

of political correctness in 1957, there was none.

There is however, just beyond Hole Haven, or “Holy Haven”

as it used to be named, a kind of ditch rejoicing in the name

of Leigh Ray Gut, off which run Hadleigh Ray and Leigh Creek,

rivulets at low tide, snaking through the cockle beds somewhat

to the west of Southend Pier, a place which for some reason

always puts me in mind of jellied eels and chips soused with

malt vinegar.

And it was to this dubious shelter that Sauntress, after

the long refit, was bound, at the behest of that old showman,

James (Jimmy) Lawrence. On, effectively her maiden voyage,

than which there is nothing more perilous as history has

proven time and time again.

And the reason is simple. The ship is untried, the crew

likewise, and the sudden transition from the stuff of dreams,

which is the restoration of an old wooden boat, to the

reality, which is a cold, impersonal, wet and exhausting

exposure to the rigors of an English spring, are apt to be too

much. And so it was that May.

At first however, all went well. We locked out of St

Katherine’s Dock without undue incident, other that the

retrieving, by a passing waterman, of the little pram dinghy,

remarking with admirable restraint in the circumstances “one

round turn and two half hitches, mate, if you do not want to

lose it”. True the engine, oh that engine, of which more anon,

leaked oil. True too the loss of the Blackwall caulking,

alias, for the uninitiated, mud, had caused an undersized bolt

to weep, and true too, the compass was hopelessly inaccurate,

but these were mere trifles, teething troubles on a shakedown

cruise, for was not the skipper now Yachtmaster Ocean (shore-

based) And the Thames Estuary sheltered waters, almost beneath

his notice.

But Yachtmaster or not, at the buoy marking the entrance

to Leigh Ray Gut, he found his way in by the simple expedient

of asking “Hail and are guided in by local vessel”, reads the

log, with a touch of hauteur. And here we anchored. To

seaward, if such a term serves we were sheltered by a long

spit, uncovered at low water, called Chapman Sand. Wine was

broken out, halyards were tied back to prevent that annoying

tap, tap, tap against the mast and in a haze of contentment,

the shipping forecast was forgotten.

A practised eye, which now would be cocked automatically

at the sky, would have smelt trouble, for something was

massing and that something was an old fashioned front. Thus

the scene was set for the morrow’s drama, for, to quote Jack

Coote once more, “there is enough water to stay afloat in

Hadleigh Ray, but there is little protection except from the


The wine must have been responsible, for what finally

awoke the skipper and his crew was the motion of the yacht,

violent in the extreme. Gone at high water was the protection

of Chapman Sand, gone were the little wavelets that had lulled

us to sleep. Instead Sauntress was plunging and rearing, spray

flying in a rising onshore wind. For the Yachtmaster had

committed the cardinal sin of putting his ship in grave danger

on a lee shore.

It would be nice, but untrue to say that wiser counsels

now prevailed, for they did not. We reached for the starter

button, that refuge of the novice, broke out, of all things,

the jib, left the main, albeit with two reefs in, secured on

the boom gallows and broke out the anchor. Sauntress did the

only thing she could have done in the circumstances, which was

to pay off and drive shore-wards at an alarming rate.

Panicked, the main was set, the gallows dismantled and chucked

below and so began a fight to claw off those lethal sands,

under the most idiotic rig imaginable, for with no foresail

the poor girl could not hope to make up to windward

effectively. And to cap it all, the jib sheet, which I had

failed to knot, disappeared up forward to flog itself into an

insane tangle.

She did nonetheless claw off, after a fashion, clearing

Southend Pier by a whisker, whilst crew turned ashen and the

skipper, belatedly attempted to set the foresail “but skid

around all over the place and crew unable to control the

boat”. This, the log notes, consumed about an hour (anybody

would think we were in mid Atlantic, not in the skipper’s

fatuous “sheltered waters) and is abandoned when hailed by a

police launch. “Offers to take crew off, leave us be or tow us

back. Elect for tow”.

Which was about the only sensible decision taken that

day, however shameful to record.

“Apparently it blew 7”

Crew, Philip (feeling ill – frightened? Reads the log)

and Marianne, neither of whom had been nearer the sea than a

narrow boat on the Grand Union Canal, decided terra firma was

in order and were put ashore, which is to say that at low tide

they were rowed to the edge of the flats to walk the mile back

to Leigh on Sea. But flats is a deceptive word, the tide was

making, and the rills and gullies were filling. A local would

have known better. That they escaped with nothing worse than a

wetting was down to the Grace of God.

Left alone and chastened, the skipper, belatedly began to

treat this place with the respect it deserved. But not without

a couple more lessons. First, setting out under engine and

foresail (not jib this time, he was just beginning to learn),

“standing out to sea whilst doing some small job I was

startled by the depth sounder alarm and hurried to the chart.

What I saw send me flying to the tiller. There is no such

thing as open sea in the Thames Estuary as I well knew, but

had simply ignored. But now things got better and soon we were

slipping along under main and foresail/jib, counting off the


But we were not quite out of the woods yet. Sauntress, in

those days, had a very pretty plywood pram dinghy a “nutshell”

by name and this, by rights, should be carried on the coach-

roof. But I elected to tow. “11.40. A new problem! Dinghy

filling rapidly through centre-case. Either I had to get it

aboard or lose it, and I really had not the heart to lose it

so early in the game, so followed a monumental tussle to get

the waterlogged little devil aboard, varnished surface

skidding on varnished surface, but finally the job was done

and Sauntress filled away nicely again”.

But I was alone, cold and nervous, so when a squall (by

my then standards) had me reefing, I got the main down and

buoy hopped, slowly, to Colne Bar Buoy and thence and here is

the first time the word appears “a pleasant run” into


Moral? It hardly needs saying. Cautionary tale would be

more like it. After which, things did, slowly begin to get


The writ nailed to the mast

The writ nailed to the mast.


“In the High Court of Justice

Queen’s Bench Division

Admiralty Court

Admiralty action in rem against:


Before the Honourable Mr Justice Sheen


Upon hearing the plaintiff..”

But wait. What on earth is all this about? For the Admiralty Court is not just any court. It is the most venerable, the most resistant to change, and the most imposing in the land. Not for nothing did the Victorians go in for monumental architecture. They did it to impress. And with the law courts in the Strand, they most certainly succeeded. Eight years in the building, the place was opened on 4th December 1882 by Queen Victoria, appropriately enough, for it is a riot of Imperial self-confidence, dripping with symbolism, presided over by the figures of Jesus, Solomon and Alfred the Great.

And the supplicant, for which read plaintiff, is reduced, as intended to a state resembling jelly, before even entering those hallowed portals. Inside all is echoing marble, soaring columns, scurrying clerks, bewigged barristers, and to the uninitiated, utter confusion. The clock ticks inexorably on.

“Where is court number three?”

“Where is your counsel?”

“You have no counsel? No-one, but no-one has appeared unrepresented before the Admiralty Court in the last hundred years”.

But that, gentle reader, was about to change.

For you see, whether your ship be the Titanic, the Queen Mary or Sauntress, the procedure is the same. That is to say she is that holiest of holies a British Registered Ship. No nasty foreigners allowed (Nigel Farage will be glad to hear). Instead, provided you can clear the hurdles deliberately lain in your path, you will be provided a Certificate Of British Registry which is a parchment of prodigious proportions in which are recorded the particulars of your ship, her official number, the number, date and Port Of Registry and a good many references to those despised foreigners. “Particulars of propelling engines. Whether British or foreign made. Should the vessel be lost, sold to foreigners or broken up” being but two examples. For this is John Buchan land beyond a doubt.

Now an action in rem as the terminology goes, means, as any Latin scholar will tell you, is that you sue an inanimate object, in this case the ship. Yours is not, at this point, to reason why. If the rules say you sue the ship, you sue the ship. It would have been preferable, but unprofitable to sue those roguish Welshmen who failed to provide a proper Bill of Sale, for they did not “have power in the manner aforesaid the premises hereinbefore expressed to be transferred” to wit 64/64 shares in the good ship Sauntress.

And that being the case The Registrar of British Ships in Lowestoft, being her Port of Registry was not about to bend the rules (heaven forfend). For, as the note at the foot of the, now useless as I had discovered, Bill of Sale, reminds the buyer “A purchase of a registered British Vessel does not obtain complete title until the Bill of Sale has been recorded at the Port of Registry, and neglect of this precaution may entail serious consequences”.

Too damn right.

As I was saying

“Upon hearing the Plaintiff (that is me, in person to wit) and upon reading both of his Affidavits sworn on 10th March 1982 (a century after Queen Victoria opened the Law Courts), no acknowledgement of service having been lodged by the defendants, the Judge on this day declared that the plaintiff is the sole owner of sixty-four sixty fourth shares in the vessel “SAUNTRESS” and is entitled to be registered as such.”


I smell the blood

Of an Englishman.

Toodle pip.

Like Old Boats?

Like old boats?

Like a good yarn?

Respect tradition?

Respect craftsmanship?

Nominally that child of modernity, an author’s website, here you can rummage, as in an old and

dusty not quite junkshop for whatever takes your fancy, be it a discussion of the virtues (and there

are many) of the square sail, or confessions of an inept Yachtmaster or books which tickle your

fancy, including possibly my own, or pictures, or techniques, they are all here and more.

For in my not quite threescore years and ten I have knocked about a bit, lived in some odd places,

done things I am proud of and others of which I am ashamed, but above all lived. The pride and joy

of my life, the jewel in my particular crown is a century old boat called Sauntress, my only


And I sail her as such boats used to be sailed, with no engine, no electronics, no winches, driven by

wind and waves (cabin lit by oil lamps), Walker trailing log, Wickham Martin furling gear and that

wonder of wonders, beloved of such as Conor O’Brien and William Albert Robinson, to name but

two, the square sail, straining, as this summer it will be at that lovingly fashioned spruce square yard.