top of page

River Deben

22 September 2014


Titchmarsh is a good place to launch.
It's just over 90 minutes from Cambridge; not quite the nearest piece of tidal water, but better than many.

There was a new regime at Woolverstone, on the Orwell. The new manager was a nice, friendly chap, prepared to let Opal launch for half price: just £16.00. It still seemed like a lot of money for a few hours on the water. The next time, he was off-duty: his accomplice (sorry, assistant) charged the full £30.00. That's £1.67 per foot. Somewhat bank-breaking. On the other hand, the crew gets access to the heads and showers: quite necessary after a few hours on Opal. The Buttery is pretty good, too.
But Titchmarsh charges half that rate. It has excellent showers and a good restaurant. The slipway is a little bit easier, too.


Opal always takes longer to rig than she should. People stop, and talk, and ask questions.
That's all very pleasant and friendly, but the tide had turned at 1140, and the channel was long and winding.

By 1230UTC she was on the water, wheels stowed, Mirage drive fitted and skipper settled with his laminated charts, VHF and coffee flask.

The Eastward branch of Twizzle Creek was downwind; a fast, smooth run between the moored boats. Walton Channel was a fast reach. At Island Point NCM the channel had become tortuous: the Mirage drive again showed its worth, making the transition from sail to "power" effortless and smooth.
The channel across Pennyhole Bay was straight, NE by N, and Opal was making for Landguard Point.
The only danger was being carried too far East by the tide ebbing from the Stour and the Orwell.
And, of course, the ships in the deep water channel out of Felixstowe and Harwich.
With the gentle breeze and the North-going tide Opal made 6 knots over the bay and across the channel: not a moving ship in sight!

By 1535, off Felixstowe town, a small chop had developed. Opal began to leap from crest to crest, hurling clouds of spray and volumes of water to drench her exhilerated skipper.

At 1600 Bawdsey SWM came into transit with W Knoll PHM, and Opal hove to. She was nearly 2 hours too early for the first flood into the haven. In all probability, water would continue to pour out of the Deben long after the new flood had started.

A small trawler moved South, turned at the SWM and moved North. It turned again, coming South a mile to the East. North again, on its endless search for bottom fish. Finally, it turned into the Deben, demonstrating to Opal's skipper that, at slack water in the open sea, the river basin was still draining.

The dilemma began to crystallise. Opal needed a friendly beach before nightfall. She must go in soon, ebb or not.
The mile or so between W Knoll and the anchorage seemed endless. Not directly upwind, it was still too close for the sail to help much. For an hour or more the skipper's legs pumped at the pedals: the occasional spasm of cramp had to be ignored: to stop pedalling would mean being swept back to sea. Opal slowly gained ground.
In the breakers, outside the shingle, a young man paddled his board out to sea, then rode the crests in toward the bank. At the end of each run he was hurled head over heels by the tumbling breakers. Then he emerged, stood on his board and paddled out to sea.
He was still there, still playing, as Opal passed the ferry and slipped into the placid waters of the anchorage.

As the sky darkened the tide began to help. But there was still light enough to see that the banks were wide expanses of mud. East Coast mud. Black, stinking mud. Thigh-deep, sticky mud. Mud conquered by Charles Stock, with his long wooden planks,  his splatchers.
Mud that an exhausted old man could not cross hauling his boat, however light.

'Round the bend, in the gloom, was a miracle crossing all the mud into the water. A floating pontoon. Opal moored alongside, and her gear was carried to the shore. In the wind-lee of the flood bank a few square metres of grass was perfect for the tent. The tea was black and bitter and hot. The meal was tasty and varied and hot. The sleeping bag was warm. The geese and the curlews sang a cheerful lullaby. The crew slept. 


23 September

The engine was quiet, but getting louder and closer. They would discover him trespassing on their pontoon, confiscate his ship and leave him marooned on the desert island. Pleading for his life would be futile. At least, the dishes had been washed . . .

Six thirty. He watched the two anglers motor slowly upriver. Behind the scudding grey and black clouds the sun had risen high. Again, the tea was hot and welcome. The porridge was hot and laced with condensed milk. The washing-up was easy. Striking camp was swift.

By 0830 Opal was drifting upriver on the tide. The wind on the water, though strong and driving thick clouds at altitude, came in fits and starts, now and then. Sometimes drifting, occasionally pedalling and often fast, brisk sailing.

The anglers had anchored their dinghy below the moorings at Ramsholt: Opal swept past, ignored and ignoring.
A couple of barges moored, or laid up, in the corner above Hemley, and then toward Waldringfield.
West of the island, the village and moorings at Waldringfield were from a picture book. The water was sheltered from the Westerly wind; pedalling gently was enough to maintain steerage way with the tide.
A long reach up toward Martlesham Creek, the little island almost covered by the Spring tide. Again, the mooring was sheltered, and the Mirage drive made easy work.


By midday Opal was gliding into Woodbridge. Pottering around the anchorage, she irritated a single scull teaching a very scared girl.
It's never really clear whether Opal is sailing or 'motor-sailing': the transition is easy and smooth, and she carries no cone. Most sailors are not irritated: more fascinated and questioning. The instructor was irritated, but probably had no concept of sailing or motoring. Other vessels were simply in the way, and he wanted to get his frightened student back to the boathouse ramp. Ferry-gliding is a sophisticated technique, difficult to teach even when on the same boat.

Opal moved out of their way.


The skipper knew Woodbridge well, but not from the water. The boatyards and boathouses were all there, but different. Most of the boats were there, but closer, more intimate, more real.
Luncheon afloat, drifting in the slack high water. Boat-watching. People-watching. Part of the scene, but detached, alone. Relaxed. Content. Cold pasta bake and water.

Then there was enough ebb to create a sailing breeze. Toward Martlesham Creek the wind strengthened. Flat water and a strong wind are the conditions for which Opal was created. The hull and l'ward ama hissed across the surface. Five times Opal skimmed along the reach, to and fro, flashing past the moored yachts, her skipper's heart singing with the wind and screaming with joy.


And then on down the estuary.

The moorings at Waldringfield were sheltered by the hill from the wind, which then swirled around the sailing club and sent Opal flying on again.
Past the moored barges the river turned South and a little West. Then Opal was drawing long boards across the water, changing tack in the shallows close to each bank.
Then South and East, with the wind on the beam, and Opal lifted her windward ama and hurtled on.

By 1500 she had reached her isolated pontoon and moored alongside.


A long walk along the flood bank to Felixstowe Ferry, and a cup of tea and slice of cake at the cafe.
A stroll around the boatyard and then a chat with the Assistant Habour Master.
"Take the flood down to the Backwaters." said he.
"Catch the last of the ebb out of the river: you'll have plenty of water for that little boat. Watch the buoys and keep away from the shoal opposite the tower."

At 1800, back at the campsite, the skipper pitched his tent and cooked supper.
A seal surfaced close to the water's edge, and surveyed the domestic arrangements. Satisfied, it slipped below the surface and vanished.
Low water would be at 0607UTC.


24 September

If the Autumn leaves continue to fall at this rate the bivvy will be completely camouflaged and no-one will ever know. Heavy, fast-falling leaves like storm-driven spray on the coachroof . . .

At 0330 a sharp shower rattled on the tent.
Breakfast, as always, was tea and porridge: hot fluids and slow-release carbohydrate: warming and 'wakening.

0530. The night was black. The all-round white on Opal's pole was blinding. The river was black, the anchorage was dark. No useful lights near the ferry: the entrance was invisible. The buoys in the channel were all un-lit. This was impossible: to leave in these conditions would be folly.

So back to the pontoon for a second breakfast, and more sleep.


At 1030 another shower of rain rattled on the tent. Again, the little camp was struck, the boat loaded and embarked. Slack high water would be around 1240, when the channel should be calm and, in daylight, visible. It would mean sailing South against the ebb, but the wind had strengthened again from the West.
At the ferry crossing the water was calm. In the channel the water was flat and calm, while the wind over the sea wall pushed Opal along. She was half reefed so as not to overtake the yacht ahead: it might show the way to the SWM.

At sea the wind had backed into the S'West, and freshened again. Opal bounced across a short chop, now and then slicing through in a shower of salt water. The yacht ahead stayed close inshore. Unable to sail as close to the wind Opal moved further out, heading South but making leeway to the East.

As the sea built Opal began to leap from crest to crest, often plunging through the next wave, never stopping.
A big yacht came close to the port quarter, its crew apparently anxious about Opal's intentions and safety. Satisfied, they bore away to overtake, then thrashed away through the chop on a fine reach to the South.


The ebb out of the Stour and the Orwell again became a worry. Opal's leeway threatened to take her East of the Wadgate Ledge beacon which, in these conditions, was too far. She needed to be close inshore as she passed Landguard Point to have any hope of reaching the Backwaters.

On the port tack she began to lose ground to the North. In 5 minutes she seemed to lose 15 minutes of ground gained, but she closed the shore. Now she could brave the deep water channel.


Onto the starboard tack again: a wild, wet, bouncing ride over the white caps: where had they come from? Again the wind had strengthened. Then the channel.

A vast container ship, leaving Felixstowe, was turning the corner at Landguard NCM. Opal would be swallowed by the bow wave and shredded by the screws. Onto the port tack again and close Landguard Point. Then onto the starboard tack to cross as close behind as possible.
Past Beach End SHM and there, approaching the corner, an even bigger ship.

No stopping now.

Opal flew across the channel, drifting downtide as fast as she moved forward. For a full minute, as it turned to port, the ship pointed its bows directly at the little canoe. Then they were clear, Opal South of the channel in the lee of Deane PHM, the ship presenting her vast starboard side.

Pennyhole Bay was a maelstrom.
The ebb from the Wallet meeting the mixing ebbs from the Backwaters and from Harwich was turned into a cauldron of white, breaking water by the S'Westerly breeze.
This was not exhilerating. This was hard, concentrated work. Keep the boat as close to the wind as possible, but keep her moving as fast as possible. This was frightening: a long, cold, hard fear that focussed the skipper's mind, lifted it above the thrashing breakers, and allowed it navigate and sail the tiny boat.
Transits on the Gunfleet Array showed that she was moving up to windward, but not fast enough. She would make landfall a mile to the East of Walton Channel, a little North of the Naze. Time to tack again.
Five attempts failed. The sixth, with speed and hard pedalling, succeeded. Once again, Opal was losing ground to the North.
Close to Pye End SWM she reached the channel, and again changed to the starboard tack. Now, in the lee of the land, it was plain, fast sailing.

Four o'clock, with the tide still ebbing out of Walton Backwaters. Titchmarsh Marina would close the inner gate at five thirty and Opal would spend the night in the dinghy compound. The campsite would be flat and fresh mown, the restaurant would be warm and friendly and the delights of Walton would be 5 minutes away. The tide of life was flooding again, even as the ebb of water slowed the boat.

Island Point NCM appeared on the starboard bow, the dogleg was easy with the wind on the beam and Walton Channel was a fast smooth fine reach through the moorings.
The Twizzle was hard work against the breeze and the tide, and then Opal slipped into the pool, the port ama was folded and she came alongside.
Fifteen minutes later, with five to spare, she was on her trailer, through the gate and into the car park. It took the exhausted skipper a further 90 minutes to load her gear and to secure the car and trailer.

Three days of high tides and low, high emotion and despair, exhileration and naked fear; the little boat had conquered it all and come home.

John Starkie


'Land guard' NCM

bottom of page