Reproduced with Permission from Yachting Monthly

Published in January 1993

Five years after the Great Storm that devastated southern Britain, Paul Savage recalls an end-of-season cruise with a dramatic epilogue.

By mid-October, the days have shortened and the nights seem very long, making cruising much less attractive. So this was to be the last mini cruise of the season, probably up to the Walton Backwaters, the Orwell and the Deben or to Aldeburgh.

I joined Antares, my Stella sloop, at Burnham on Crouch the afternoon before, so that I could make the most of the ebb tide. Next morning I was up for breakfast at 0440, and left the mooring at 0730.

The wind was Force 3-4, and we had an uneventful passage to Ipswich, via Harwich Harbour, followed by a short beat back to Woolverstone. I picked up a mooring buoy and rowed ashore to the Royal Harwich Yacht Club. Later in the afternoon, I walked down to Pin Mill along the tree-lined riverbank, before returning on board for supper and early bed.
The 0555 forecast next morning was southerly Force 7-9, moderating to Force 6 for a time, with gale warnings for many other areas. This was not, I decided, weather to be sailing in and out of the Deben or the Ore, and I elected instead to return to Burnham with reefs rolled into the mainsail as far as the bottom batten pocket and the No 1 jib set.

We had a fine sail down the Orwell and out to the Landguard buoy with a southerly Force 4-5. When the wind dropped, I shook the reefs out and, by the time Antares reached Clacton pier, it was all but calm. Then the wind got up again, blowing Force 5-6 from the east. By the time we reached Burnham, the easterly had died again and the rain had stopped. As I cooked supper, I reflected, the strange sail home, with the wind so at variance with the forecast. Then I turned in on the starboard settee and fell quickly into one of those deep, dreamless sleeps from which you awake not quite certain who or where you are. But this was the night of Thursday; 15-16 October, 1987.

In the early hours of the morning, I became vaguely aware that all was not well. It wasn't until I was pitched on to the cabin sole by a sudden 45 degree roll to port that I woke up. Another violent roll to port convinced me that all was not well. It was 0420. I dressed quickly, put on waterproofs and went out into the cockpit.

It was blowing harder than I had ever known it. I judged it to be a southerly storm Force 10 blowing straight across the river, but anemometers ashore in Burnham that night registered wind speeds of over 90mph hurricane Force 12. Although it was half-flood tide, Antares 1ay across the river to the wind. All the elastic sail ties had blown down along the boom and were impacted on the roller reefing claw ring. The mainsail was loose, and everytime she swung slightly to the tide, the belly of the sail filled, causing another 45 degree roll to port. Something had to be done, quickly.

Attempts, to free the ties from the claw ring proved fruitless and I got a black eye into the bargain. I used some old jib sheets to muzzle the mainsail, and then slackened off the topping lift and secured the boom on the coaming.

The tops of the waves were blown off to form a white spume and there was spindrift as high as the top of the mast.

At last I had time to look around. The Crouch is less than 400 yards wide at half-tide at Burnham. With the wind blowing straight across the river there were waves 3ft high. The tops of the waves were blown off to form a white spume and there was spindrift as high as the top of the mast.

My Avon Redcrest dinghy, on a 20ft painter, rose up out of the water to a height of 8ft, hovered like an unstable kite, then turned over and came crashing down on to the water, only to turn over immediately and rise again. It always turned over the same way. By daylight the painter was knotted and twisted like the elastic drive of the model aeroplanes we used to play with as boys, so that it was only 3ft long.

Antares is moored on a trot with two other Stellas. Dimly visible through all the spindrift, in the glare of the yellow sodium lights along the riverbank, the nearest of them could be seen pitching in the most incredible way. One moment the stemhead would be submerged, the next the keel was visible as far back as the echo sounder transducer. The Stellas are moored with the buoy lifted almost to the stemhead. The buoy was clearly l8ft from the stem. Would it part?

I crawled over the coachroof and along the deck to inspect my own mooring. The tail rope from the buoy had certainly stretched; it looked twice as long and half its normal thickness. The ring on the buoy was too far away for me to pass a heavy mooring rope through it, but the 'dog lead' I use to pick up the mooring from the cockpit was closer.

The foredeck plunged up and down while spindrift whipping past stung me in the face. It was reminiscent of the worst sandstorms endured in the western desert in the Second World War.

With difficulty I clipped on to the buoy ring, using a special 3ft boathook. The clip is made of half inch stainless steel and mounted on l4mm nylon rope. When the stemhead was buried in the trough of a wave the rope was made fast round the samson post to take some of the weight off the tail rope. Then, for good measure, the rest of the 'dog lead' was taken back to the foot of the mast and made fast to take some of the weight off the samson post.

Back in the cockpit, I sat for a few moments in the lee of the coachroof, fascinated by the sheer fury of the storm and the antics of the dinghy. I began to wonder what would happen if Antares did part her mooring. If it happened soon, with the mudflats still uncovered, she would go aground beam on to the wind and eventually sink as the tide returned. If this happened, I would stay with her until the mudflats were covered and then take to the dinghy, and go ashore, or swim. In no circumstances would I walk over the mud and risk getting stuck, like an ant that had wandered into a tin of treacle.

The cockpit of a Stella is no place to linger at 0450 in mid-October with a hurricane force wind blowing. I was glad to creep back into the cabin, put back the washboards and close the hatch. Sleep seemed out of the question, so I lit the Tilley lamp and Taylor stove and made a cup of tea. Then, wedged into the corner of the cabin, I wrote up the log. I must have dozed off because it did not seem long before daylight arrived at around 0700.

The wind had dropped somewhat and veered to south-west Force 7-8. I climbed on to the cabin roof and counted ten boats aground on the north shore, three of them on Tucker Brown's hard. I cooked breakfast and started clearing up. At noon, with the wind now south-west Force 5-6, Tony at Tucker Brown's kindly took me ashore in their launch. By now the sun was shining and, as I walked along the river wall, I saw that the Wallasea Bay pontoon had parted its easterly mooring, and lay across the river with all its attached boats, closing the river to traffic completely. I lost count of the number of boats that had come ashore.

Rosemary Prior's Shula, the crack Stella of the Burnham fleet, was one of them, with a broken mast and her starboard bow stove in. The Dragon fleet, moored off the Royal Burnham Yacht Club, had, with one exception, filled and sunk, with just their masts showing - the sole survivor had a well-fitting cockpit cover. So much for the last mini cruise of the season.

Paul Savage started sailing at the age of 11. A retired surgeon, he is the original owner of Antares (Sail No 110), completed by Tucker Brown in 1972. In the days when his wife still sailed and his three sons were at school and university, Antares cruised as far afield as the Isles of Scilly, Alderney, Guernsey, St Malo, St Mawes and the Solent, and occasionally to Ostend and Calais. Now he sails single-handed in the Thames Estuary, from Rochester to Aldeburgh, covering some 1,400 miles a year, and racing in Burnham Week, if crew can be found.
Antares - Sail number: 110