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To the Swale and Medway 12 to 17 August 2007

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Map showing area of our summer cruise in 2007

Our plan to sail to the Medway last year was thwarted by the breakdown of the Havengore lifting bridge, but this year the bridge was in working order so we decided to give it another try. Our fleet consisted of HSC club owned wayfarer dinghy Merganser crewed by Richard F. and Mark T., Josephine and myself in our home made boat and Len W. single handed in his strongly built 14 foot dinghy. We met on the hard at Paglesham on the morning of departure which meant that we were in a bit of a rush to get our boats ready and because of that we failed to have any discussion of our plans, there was just a general understanding that we were heading for Kent. In previous years we have generally met the evening before departure which does give an opportunity to check over the equipment and discuss plans.

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Leaving Havengore bridge astern

About midday we left Havengore bridge astern and headed out into the wide waters of the Thames estuary, close hauled against a light south westerly. I set a course towards the eastern entrance to the Swale and Len followed. As we carried on sailing we gradually became aware that the Wayfarer was getting further and further to the west of us, but we assumed that at some point they would tack and sail over towards us. The breeze strengthened and someway beyond the halfway point to Kent we took in a reef and Len did likewise. We now realised that the Wayfarer was out of sight somewhere to the west of us so we called Richard by mobile phone to ask what was going on. It turned out that Richard's plan was to head for Sheerness, and I recalled that his last words before our hasty departure had included a request to rendezvous at Queenborough. Not having sailed in this area for a few years, it had not registered in my mind that Queenborough is upriver from Sheerness and a long way from the east end of the Swale. Feeling a bit guilty about this, I told Richard that we would be happy to sail to either Sheerness or the East Swale, from our present position it was just a choice of close hauled on starboard tack or close hauled on port tack, although Sheerness was up tide so would be a slower sail. After a short phone discussion it was agreed that Merganser would continue to Sheerness and we would go to East Swale, then if possible we would meet up again the following day. We tried to communicate this to Len, but his phone was not switched on. We sailed on, occasionally looking behind to see that Len was following and at one point turning back to sail round astern of him so that we did not get too much separated. I wished later that we had actually come alongside him so that we could communicate. Then one time we looked round and Len was nowhere to be seen. We tried phoning again but without success so we sailed into shallow water off Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey and here we dropped anchor and waited for Len to come back into sight. From this position we could see right accross the entrance to the East Swale and over towards Whitstable. After an hour or so at anchor we decided we might as well cook some hot food while we had the chance, so we opened a couple of tins and lit the stove. There was no sign of Len and I can say that we were getting worried about this. The wind had increased and the sea was rougher than it had been when we left Havengore but Len is a very experienced sailor and the sailing conditions were not such that we thought it likely that Len had capsized. We did wonder if something else might have gone wrong with Len's boat or if he might have decided to turn round and sail back to Essex, although that seemed unlikely since we were not far from Kent when we last saw him and sailing back would mean arriving on a featureless shore in the middle of the night.  We did think about calling the coastgaurd but we felt that this could not be justified simply on the grounds that we did not know where Len might be, after all we had not made any definite plans to meet at any particular time and place or to keep in communication with each other. After about two and a half hours of waiting at anchor the daylight was fading and there was no longer a chance to spot Len's boat, so we raised our anchor and sailed round the shallows into the entrance to the Swale, thinking that Len must have somehow slipped past us and was probably already at anchor in the Swale and perhaps wondering where we were. However there was still no sign of Len as we sailed up the Swale, finally anchoring for the night a little upriver from Harty Ferry. In the morning we phoned Len's wife and we were very glad to hear that she had recieved a call from Len in the early hours to say that he was back in Essex.  (We met up with Len a week later and he said his boat had been taking a lot of spray on board sailing to windward and that being single handed it was not so easy for him to bail it out. He was tired after a long day and had decided to turn back down wind.)

After phoning Len's wife we phoned Richard and learnt that the Wayfarer crew had spent the night camping on a small island somewhere in the Medway marshes. This island was actually so small there was no space to put up Mark's tent and Richard's tiny tent is only a one person tent so Mark had to sleep outside. We set off up the Swale to meet up with them, tacking against the wind but with the tide helping us we had quite a quick sail up to the Sheppey bridges. Last time we sailed these waters there was only one Sheppey bridge, that being a lifting bridge carrying both a road and a railway. Now there is a second massive bridge which is high enough not to need to be a lifting bridge. As we approached we saw the traffic queing up on the road as the old lifting bridge went up and as we got closer we were delighted to see that the reason it was being raised was that Richard and Mark were about to sail underneath. Now at least two of our boats were together again.

We lunched at anchor behind Fowley island just to the east of Conyer creek. Richard had more knowledge of these waters than the rest of us and reckoned that we could get ashore and camp the night here, which we did, later taking a walk to Conyer where we enjoyed a pub supper.

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Big colourfull spider seen near seawall at Conyer

The weather next morning was pretty awful. I did not have my anemometer with me but I am pretty sure it was blowing a gale and there was intermittent heavy rain. Despite this we decided to try and sail to Faversham, this decision being at least in part due to the difficulty we were having in anchoring the Wayfarer in such a way that back eddies swirling over the sea wall would not carry it onto the boulders along the sea wall. My boat was lying better off the sea wall, probably because we have much longer anchor lines allowing us to set an anchor well out in the creek. We knew this was going to be a windy sail so on my boat we set our small mainsail with no jib and the Wayfarer crew fully reefed their brand new mainsail. This sail looks good and seems to be quite flat cut which is no bad thing for a sailing dinghy which will be going out to sea. It also has the advantage of bouyancy in the head of the sail, although the more you reef the less effective this is likely to be. We can no longer spot Merganser by her dappled mud stained mainsail, at least not for a while. At first we sailed along in the lee of the sea wall which at low tide gave quite a lot of shielding from the wind. Then as we came up to Faversham creek we needed to head out from the shore and we caught the full force of the gale. It was only a few hundred yards further on to gain shelter in the entrance to Faversham creek but in that short distance our boats were smothered in flying spray. Although the cargo stayed dry on our boat that was not the case on board the Wayfarer. The luggage strapped under the seats in the Wayfarer was soaked from the spray and from the rapidly rising bilge water and even the luggage in the rear stowage compartment was awash since the hatch seals on the Wayfarer have never been as good as one would like. We tacked up the creek and arriving at Faversham we tied up to a pontoon berth adjacent to some modern flats. We only intended this to be temporary, but a local resident passing by told us that it was an unused berth and that we should be all right to stay overnight. Richard and Mark decided to find a b+b for the night. Since we were moored in the middle of a town there was nowhere to put up their tents and also most of their clothing and bedding needed to be dried out. We arrived at the Tourist Information Office just after it closed, but a lady in the local newspaper office was very helpful and found us a list of local accomodation.

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Pontoon berth at Faversham

Incidentally, this picture shows a method we have sometimes found useful for mooring one or more dinghies in a pontoon berth. By taking lines to pontoons on both sides and also lines between the boats if there is more than one boat, you can avoid the risk of the boats getting caught under the edges of the pontoons when the tide comes in.

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View down the creek from this berth at low tide

The weather was still unsettled on Wednesday morning so we decided to leave the boats on the pontoon and spend the day exploring the town. We made a very thorough visit to the town museum, which included exhibits and a video film about gunpowder and later high explosives manufacture, these being a principle industry in the area from 1573 until the end of the first world war. A few years befor the last explosive factory closed there was a dreadful explosion in a TNT store which killed over 100 empolyees. There were also exhibits about the local industries of brickmaking and beer which is still made at a large brewery in the town, hops being a local crop.  We then took a walk along the creekside where several restored Thames barges are berthed. We got chatting to the owner of the Brent, an ex-naval steam tug, and it turned out that he had aquired this as a wreck then fitted it with a new boiler and with a marine steam engine which had originally powered a naval harbour launch. It looked very smart and must have been a massive project taking many years. I think he said it does about 100 miles to a ton of coal. Richard and Mark spent another night in B+B.

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Some very old warehouse buildings near the creek at Faversham

Next day we had the option of either getting up at about 4am or alternatively not sailing until mid afternoon. We decided on the former option (Len should take note since he has sometimes critised our organisation for not getting away promptly!) which gave us a full day allowing us to sail all the way to Lower Halstead at the head of a creek on the south side of the Medway estuary. This was the second time this week that Josephine and I had sailed east along the Swale, but this time it was much harder since the tide was low and was against us for much of the way. Although the Swale is a wide estuary at high tide, at low tide there is just a narrow and shallow channel which meant innumerable short tacks dead against the wind.

I thought the creek at Lower Halstow was a nice spot, with a nature reserve over the sea wall and a village pub within a few hundred yards. I noticed that the Thames sailing barge Edith May was up on blocks at the head of the creek undergoing a major refit. This was one of the crack racing barges 30+ years ago and I remember talk of it cheeting in the barge matches by having aerofoil section bargeboards. Members of the local yacht club noticed our boats arriving and the Commodore of the yacht club invited us to camp in the yacht club grounds, all so very pleasant and helpful. Josephine's brother lives quite nearby and he came over for an hour to see what we were up to. Although he did not say so, I had the impression that he was a bit perplexed as to why anyone would want to spend a holiday grubbing around in these muddy creeks.

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Creek at Lower Halstow

On Friday we again set off at first light. It was flat calm so we just floated down Stangate creek on the ebb tide, making breakfast on the way, see picture below.

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Breakfast in Stangate creek

Arriving at Sheerness befor low water we felt that it was a bit early to set off for Havengore since we understood that the Havengore bridge normally only opens two hours each side of high water. We spent a while at a steep shingle beach near Sheerness and just round the corner from the Medway entrance, then had a quick and easy sail downwind to Havengore. Allthough we sailed through shallow water approaching Havengore on the flood tide, there was a reasonable depth actually in Havengore creek itself and the bridge opened for us as we sailed up to it. Then it was back to Paglesham to unload and recover my boat onto its road trailer, after that we all went to Stevenage to have supper and to stay overnight at Mark T.s house, thanks Mark. Alltogether a good trip despite some difficult weather for sailing.

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Glad to be safely home - Unloading luggage on the pontoon jetty at Paglesham