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

north”.

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

buoys”.

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

Brightlingsea.

Moral? It hardly needs saying. Cautionary tale would be

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

better

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