Having explored most of the inland waterways of Britain that are accessible to a broad boat, I decided this summer to explore the last major section of coast-land that I hadn't been in a boat: the south east corner of England. I'd been up most of the east coast as far as the Humber. I'd been on the west coast on the way to Ireland and the Bristol Channel on the way back. I'd explored the southwest coast as far as the Scilly Isles in a previous sail-boat. So the ancient cinque ports of the south-east beckoned.

Getting there involved some careful planning. For a start a period of quiet weather was essential. The Dover Straights funnel the wind between Britain and the continent and I didn't want to get caught in large seas, nor did I want to get trapped on the south coast without being able to return to my base on the Thames. There were also tides to worry about. Many of the hops between harbours are of the order of 50 miles, and in a boat that can only do 5 knots one has to plan carefully to avoid spending most of the time fighting tides that can halve that figure.

So it wasn't till the European medium-range weather forecasts started showing a consistent lack of isobars on their charts in the period between one and two weeks at the end of July that I made up my mind to go. In answer to my requests for crew I soon had Ken, a narrowboater who's been with me on many sea trips and Will, who has a dutch barge based at Limehouse, also expressed an interest.

So finally on Monday 18th July I set out properly from Bourne End, above Maidenhead on the Thames, after a false start the day before: when I got to the second lock I realised that I'd left the dinghy behind sitting on the bank next to my mooring. By the time I got back, it was too late to make it worth while setting out that day, but the next day had the advantage that I had Ken with me.

The plan was to leave Limehouse on Wednesday 20th July and get back to the Swale in time for the Thames Sailing barge race on 6th August. In the outcome we kept remarkably close to that timetable, though we only saw the end of the race -- more about that later. Tuesday saw us leaving Teddington lock at 05:30, the first of several early days due to the tides, reaching Limehouse before 09:00. With Will on board we set out for Queenborough on the Isle of Sheppey, but since we arrived by lunch time we decided to continue through the Swale and moor up at Faversham which would give us an easier run the next day. We even found a mooring buoy that would take Watergeus.


The next day was fine until we rounded North Foreland when we ran into some choppy water on the way down to Pegwell Bay. We had started about an hour before I thought we needed, to get the tide to take us the Stour into Sandwich, and it was as well we did, because I hadn't allowed for the tide being against us in the stretch down to Ramsgate, the first of several times my tide tables didn't work as planned on that coast. In the outcome, when we called up the Sandwich harbour master he told us to come up right away and he even came down in his small trip boat to accompany us past the many moored-up plastic boats on the windy river up to the town.

We were soon moored on the quay, which dries out after high tide, leaving the boat at somewhat of an angle, and able to explore the romantic old cinque port which was once the main entry point into the Thames. Up to the fifteenth century it was possible to sail inland of the Isle of Thanet, which contains Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate, and straight into the Thames. This is shown clearly on the Gough map from the 14th century, the first known British map since Roman times. The river Stour and its tributary the Wantsum still follows the old course of the channel of that name.

Early course of Wantsum Channel

We were soon joined by Ken and my partners neither of whom enjoy sea passages. We spent the next morning exploring Sandwich, including walking round the old walls, whilst Will took a trip up the river to explore a possible over-winter mooring for his boat before heading back to London. We then set off with the tide upriver, getting through the old swing bridge before it needed to be swung. Although the guide book says they need 24 hours notice to swing it, we were assured by the locals that an hour or two was really enough. Many of the corners of the river that we edged round were so tight that Ken on the bows was blowing the horn frequently. Once we were well away from the town the landscape becomes flat arable land and we didn't stop till we reached Grove Ferry, where the river is definitely blocked by a fixed bridge that has only 7 foot clearance at low tide. We struggled to tie up at a quay next to the boat club which said firmly 'No overnight mooring'. But the local boaters were very friendly and we soon had the phone number of the warden who might give us permission to stay. We eventually tracked him down when he came to shut up the camp site, by which time we were well established in the local having our evening meal.

The following morning we caught the local bus into Canterbury and our early start was rewarded by by beating most of the crowds which flock around the Cathedral and mediaeval parts of the city. In the afternoon, we headed back down the river to catch the incoming tide and were lucky to creep through the swing bridge with about 3" above our roof. Donna and Patricia departed as we were planning to make an early start the next morning, although after a talk with the harbour master we thought we wouldn't leave quite so early. He was convinced that to get to Rye on one tide, as we were planning, required a boat that could do 8 knots. It's always worth listening to local knowledge so we decided to stop in Dover and take two days.

Rough ride to Dungeness

This meant we didn't leave till the top of the tide the next morning, but when we got out into Pegwell Bay we were surprised to find the tide going with us and to our surprise were at Dover harbour by 11:00, which would leave us another 6 hours to get to Rye. Some quick recalculations suggested it was possible so we informed Dover port control that we weren't after all coming into the marina and carried on. Unfortunately, because of the changes of plan, I hadn't looked carefully at the weather forecast for the afternoon beyond Dover and we were in for some surprises.

As we approached Dungeness the wind was increasing and with it the swell, in a classic case of wind against tide. I had plotted a course quite close in to the headland and soon realised that it would be impossible to turn in towards Rye as there were breaking waves. We had an uncomfortable few hours keeping heading straight into the waves before the tide changed. Though there was only about 3m swell, the waves were only about 30m apart and that meant it felt like a big dipper on Watergeus which is only lightly ballasted.

Mercifully we still had an hour and a half before high tide to reach Rye and it was a relief to get into the channel and tie up by the harbour master's office.


Rye is a beautiful old town. Ken, a faithful Cornishman compared it favourably to Clovelly, which was quite a complement. We got a place on the town quay, which surprisingly cost £25 a night though it was a lovely spot. But for our money we did get showers etc. One thing we wanted to explore was the river Rother, which forms the start of the Royal Military Canal. We read different opinions about whether a boat of Watergeus' size could get through the sea lock onto the river and - finally got hold of the lock keeper who told us the maximum size was 50 feet and we could only go a few miles before we'd reach a bridge with maximum air draught of 5 feet. So the next day we decided to walk to it instead and when we found the lock it seemed to us we could have got through it, though it was scarcely worth the trouble since it was only possible at high tide. An unusual type of lock consisting of two booms raised in opposite directions.

But the biggest challenge occurred on the second evening when we decided to turn the boat at high tide in preparation for our early departure the next morning. The quay, between two walls having posts and ladders at regular intervals, was almost exactly as wide as Watergeus is long and the first time we tried to turn we pushed the rudder past a ladder, got stuck and I seriously wondered whether we'd ever get out. But we did and one of the crowd that was rapidly gathering suggested the quay was slightly wider further on. So with some misgivings we gave it a try. Again we got to the point where the rudder would go no further, held back by the sand at the edge. We were agonizingly close and a team formed at bows and stern to pull us round with our mooring lines. The team at the bows were eventually successful, which is just as well as the tide was by this time beginning to drop and we heartily cheered all our helpers.

In the morning we were glad we had turned, as we only just got off the mooring, the tides tending :~ towards neaps. A Swedish couple in a sailing boat a few places beyond us were also having trouble and when we floated we pulled them of: when we met them later they said that if we hadn't, they'd still be in Rye!


Our next stop was Shoreham, which was past Beachy Head, the next great headland. This day the winds weren't so bad and we had a very pleasant trip, though we'd had some difficulty establishing a place to tie up. One boatyard accused me of playing games when I said my boat was 57 foot long. In the end, the Lady Bee marina which was through the lock in the port, found us a place beyond the end of their marina, next to a large keteh. But we didn't arrive till after they had gone home and it wasn't at all clear how far beyond their marina we were supposed to go. It turned out in the end to be nearly a mile and we were paying more than at Rye to tie up on a wall with no facilities in sight.

I attempted to catch a bus into town but they were few and far between in the evening and I eventually gave up. What I'd been trying to discover was whether the old toll bridge which led to the river Adar had a gap we could go through. So the next morning, after we had refilled with diesel at a very good price we tried going up the river. By this time the tide was falling and we only got through the first two bridges and about a quarter mile from the reconstructed toll bridge when the water was becoming seriously shallow, and my electronic chart ran out of depth information. We decided not to risk running aground which would probably delay us a full day.

Chichester Harbour

So We headed out to sea once more, round Selsey Bill and into Chichester Harbour. Our partners were due to meet us the next day and we had decided to try and find the quay at Bosham for the night. As we cruised past what seemed like hundreds of moored yachts we began to wonder if there was anywhere we could safely find a drying-out spot, but as we came to the village, suddenly we saw two lines of posts lining a channel which could only be the quay. What is more, there were enough sailing folk around to ask whether there was a good bottom. A perfect spot to moor and we were soon having a glass in the sailing club and an excellent meal in the local pub.

The next day we headed for Hayling Island and a boatyard run by the honorary local representative of the Cruising Association, who I had consulted about places to dry out. It's only accessible for a couple of hours either side of high tide but it seemed the ideal place to leave Donna's car safely for the weekend. By this time in any cruise there are some minor repairs that need to be done: our stern gland was letting in more water than it should and we needed some expert advice. It also ' proved an excellent post box as I'd ordered some new L.E.D. navigation lights a few weeks before and they hadn't arrived. I finally discovered they had never been sent and they promised to send them there -- by the time we returned, the port and starboard lights had arrive and we were able to install them, though the steaming light only came the morning of our departure. The liveaboards on nearby pontoons were most helpful.

The Isle of Wight and Portsmouth

Donna asked how far it was to Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight as she wanted to visit some old friends. I was pleasantly surprised to find it was only 8 miles across the Solent and we set out the next morning. As we came into the estuary we were hailed by a guy in water taxi who fixed us up with a mooring alongside a bigger barge. More charges, but it was worth it as Donna's friend arrived shortly to pick us up. Later we enjoyed walks along the shore.

The following day we crossed back over the Solent to Portsmouth and tied up for a few hours in Haslar Marina in Gosport. We took the ferry across to the old town, although there wasn't in truth very much "old town" about it. Later we took the boat round to Stokes Bay with Ken's son and his wife who live in Gosport, with the intention of anchoring overnight. Patricia was preparing a meal and several times had to rescue saucepans of boiling water when the wake of passing ferries disturbed us. We managed to get through the meal but there was a straight split between the women and men: the women certainly didn't want to stay any longer, even though the men believed the water would settle down once the ferries got less frequent. (Ken's son and his wife were returning home anyway.) We returned to Haslar for the night.

Ken and Patricia returned to London the next day, and Donna and I sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour to return to Langstone Harbour. There was the typical melée as ferries, sailing boats and motor boats all jostled to get out at once against the last incoming tide and it didn't really settle down once we were clear of the harbour. Donna lay patiently in the back of the cockpit and said nothing till we were finally in the calmer waters of Langstone. Once there, I wasn't sure whether to stay there or to go through the Langstone bridge back into Chichester Harbour. Indeed I wasn't totally sure that Watergeus could get under the bridge. Nobody I asked could give any estimate of air height and I had only the memory from ten years back when I took my sailing boat up to the bridge and knew that it wouldn't go through. Since it yet wasn't quite high tide, I decided to try and got through with a couple of feet to spare, though the radio aerial scraped alarmingly.

Aground at Emsworth

Where I wanted to go was the lovely sailing village of Emsworth and as we approached, a helpful yottie told us where to go to get on the quay. Once there we were told first that only members of the Slipper Yacht Club could moor up on one part of the quay and secondly, more worryingly, that there was concrete below. Whilst we were debating what to do, the harbour master arrived in a launch and told us that if we moored on the part of the quay at right angles, then that was free, and the concrete didn't extend more than half the length of our boat. So we tied up and waited for the water to go down.

It wasn't quite as he claimed. It's true that one stretch of concrete finished, but there was another slipway that extended out about 1O feet and as the water went out it was obvious that the stern of the boat was sitting squarely on the skeg and rudder. Donna reported a loud thud at some point, which I interpreted as a settlement down the slipway, although things seemed stable.

There was nothing that could be done until the tide returned at around 11pm when I used a long line to the other side of the quay to ensure the boat was placed diagonally so that the rudder did indeed go into a hole in the mud.

The next day a second cousin of mine turned up with her husband and two sons for a day out on the water. We intended to bring them back to a pontoon that was accessible at most stages of the tide, but when we got down near the entrance of the harbour at a place I hoped to have lunch, then for the first time I had to turn the rudder hard to port. It wouldn't go and I had flashbacks to another occasion when the steering jammed -- and collapsed altogether. This time, mercifully, I was pretty sure it was a mechanical problem with the rudder due to our fateful grounding the night before. But I knew I needed help, quickly and that meant an unscheduled return to the Hayling Island boatyard so that I could get in on today's tide. So my cousin's trip had to be cut short, though we enjoyed our lunch in more peaceful surroundings, and I took her husband back to Emsworth in our car to collect his.

The mechanic turned up trumps. He brought along his son who was the expert on steering systems and they quickly found that a bolt had sheered and a sleeve had shifted and talk of having to lift the boat out of the water disappeared as they repaired the damage in a very short time. Maybe I could have done it myself, but we were working against time as we only had a couple of hours before the sea would disappear and we would again be sitting on the mud, when doing anything useful would have been out of the question.

In the meanwhile, Donna had been laid low by a flu which we all caught from Ken, who had himself been put out of action by it for a half-day earlier. But she got it really bad and I doubted she'd be able to drive back to Buckinghamshire the next day as planned. But I now had a free evening, so I drove her back and returned, on the train at the same time as Ken returned from London.

Littlehampton and Arundel

We were ready to start our homeward journey back eastwards along the coast. By this time the tides had changed so that we had to leave Chichester Harbour in the late afternoon. We wanted to visit Littlehampton and the river Arun on the way back and the harbour master told us that we couldn't get into the river before 10pm. After rounding Selsey Bill we cut back to idling speed and we still arrived outside the approach to Littlehampton well before 9. We called up the harbour master and explained that the sea was dead flat and wouldn't it mean we might get in a little earlier? He explained carefully the best route to take to get over the bar and how to proceed up the channel.

So around 9.20 we approached gingerly. At this time the tide is still setting strongly west to east and we had to point well west to approach the river, but with GPS that is a fairly simple operation and soon we were down to a foot or so under the keel. As we edged forward the depth gauge suddenly went up to 2.5m and I called to Ken who was watching in the bows that we were over the bar. Then came some huge grinding noises which sounded like solid rock, and we came to a halt. No way was I prepared to force the boat further. The bows started swinging with the cross-tide and Ken quickly put dawn the anchor so that we didn't drift too far off route. We waited some minutes till the boat lifted off and retreated back outside of what we now realised was the bar. At 10 we decided to try again; this time we touched briefly but it didn't stop us and after a few anxious moments we were through.

After that it was simple and ten minutes later we were mooring up alongside a lovely Cornish-built pilot cutter on the town quay as instructed by our helpful harbour master.

The river Arun which comes out at Littlehampton once gave rise to the only navigable link between the south coast of England and the Thames. The Wey and Arun Canal is now being restored by volunteers and maybe one day boats will again travel between the Arun and the Wey. Currently, small boats can ride 22 miles up on the tide, but for a boat the size of Watergeus the limit is Arundel, about 5 miles from Littlehampton, where a low bridge bars the way.

At lunchtime we set out, passing comfortably under several bridges in the town until we were being propelled up the river by the tide. In the distance we could see the magnificent castle and cathedral of Arundel and it was like approaching a mediaeval town up the estuary. Just before the bridge there is a new pontoon we would be mooring up on, but it wasn't clear how wide the last section of river was, after a newer roadbridge we could get under. As we were being pushed by several knots of tide, I turned the boat before the first bridge where the river was rather wider and we did the last quarter of a mile facing into the stream.

Dash for the Thames

We were able to spend several enjoyable hours in the town before heading back to Littlehampton. Here we greeted Will who was coming to help us on the return trip. But the omens for the next day were not good. Although the website that I regularly use for wind predictions ( talked of winds force 3-4, the met office was predicting strong wind: ie. force 5-6. Today was mild and peaceful and I struggled to find why my regular site should be so wrong.

The skipper of the pilot cutter explained it to me: the free wind websites nearly all use the American NSF computer models from NASA, for the simple reason they are free. But weather fronts can't always be deduced from the pressure models. They also require inputs from cloud data and what appears to happen is that the NSF models don't always spot these fronts and so miss the stronger winds that come with them.

It was now Wednesday and we were hoping to get back to the Swale by Friday. We had hoped to do a long trip up to Dover starting at 05:00 and arrive there late evening, finishing the trip the next day. If the met forecast was right, there was no way we could do it. We decided to get up early as planned and make our decision then. At 4 am it started raining heavily and soon the wind was blowing hard We weren't going anywhere that day.

The medium range forecasts were discouraging: there was a lot more bad weather on the way and the only period when the fronts weren't disfiguring the weather charts was a 24 hour period from Friday lunchtime to Saturday lunchtime. If we stopped in Dover, we might end up staying there for three or four days and my memories of Dover made that a dismal prospect. It looked like the only way to get back into the Thames estuary was to keep going: do an all-nighter on Friday. So we spent Thursday doing small things in Littlehampton, which included bus rides out to a nearby store to get a new windscreen wiper for the boat.

Though Friday started briskly, by lunchtime it had settled down as predicted and we set out against the tide at midday. It took us 8 hours to cover the 30 miles to Beachy Head and we were doing a miserable 2 and a half knots as we rounded the point. As soon as we could, we ducked inshore and thankfully the contrary tides disappeared. From then on things improved as we kept the tide with us all the way past Dover and almost to Ramsgate. With three of us, we used a 3 hour rota after dark, with 6 hours on and 3 hours off. The two on duty took turns with the steering. Once we could see the Dungeness lighthouse it was pretty easy to keep track of where we were, though distinguishing fishing boats from the traffic in the shipping lanes wasn't easy at first. We reached Dover at 06:30 in the morning.

The barge match

Once lost the tide at Ramsgate we didn't really pick it up again, though I expected to, but as we approached Whitstable the welcoming sails of Thames barges greeted us and as we approached the Swale we were able to pass some of the tail-enders as they tacked and finally at 14:30 we were anchored among our friends of the Barges Association. Will decided to row in to Faversham Creek for the hog roast that evening, but Ken and I were quite happy to sleep.

But the trip wasn't yet over. The wind predictions for Sheerness were 5-6 for the following day and it was obvious that we needed to get well clear of the Medway before the tide turned and caused another wind against tide situation. In fact I wanted to be well out of the Sea Reach by that time. Unfortunately I wasn't thinking too clearly and underestimated the time it would take to get round the Swale, so that although we were well on our way to Canvey Island before the waves started getting up, it was pretty rough along the Blyth Sands and the Lower Hope Reach. Another thing I missed was calling Limehouse the day before, because it would probably be after 18:00 that we would be getting in. But the rest of the trip up the Thames was uneventful and though we reached Limehouse by 18:30 we couldn't moor up on the pontoon outside because of a disabled barge sitting there and so we went up to the Heritage moorings where we had a great welcome from that enterprising cooperative, getting into Limehouse first thing in the morning.

I had several tasks to complete in Limehouse so we couldn't leave till the evening and in fact left just as Bill Cozens, who had come up overnight came in in Izambard. This meant that we didn't reach Teddington before dark, despite for the first time going through Richmond lock, instead of though the weir. However by 22:00 we were moored up in Kingston and safe beyond the reach of the tides.