For the last forty years the little green gaff cutter Shoal Waters has explored the creeks and rivers that make up triangular area of sea, mud and sand known as the Thames Estuary. It starts some forty miles downstream from London Bridge where the River Thames suddenly opens out to over a mile wide. Once it was very much wider before vast areas of salt marsh on each shore were embanked to keep out the high tides. To the south, the Kentish shore continues for another forty miles with high land in the background which eventually closes to the sea to form the white chalk cliffs of the North Foreland with the famous lighthouse warning shipping of the dangerous off lying rock ledges. On the northern Essex shore the seawall rapidly vanishes from view as the off lying sands widen and the main channel heads out into the blue and a maze of deeps, channels, gats and swatchways edging a maze of sand and mudbanks exposed at low water. Twelve navigable rivers flow into this area giving over one hundred and twenty miles of sheltered water with two small local canals and access to England’s network of inland waterways via London.
This area has seen all manner of craft engaged in war and trade from Roman galleys exporting corn, raiding Viking longships, fleets of plodding colliers carrying black diamonds from the northern coalfields among proud east Indiamen with exotic goods from far Cathay and fishing boats everywhere, all the time. Just two of them, the Spritsail barges and the gaff rigged fishing cutters survived into the second half of the twentieth century; just! I built Shoal Waters to incorporate the best of both with her cutter rig and shallow draft which enables her to brave the open water but still reach the old wharves, jetties and watermills deep in the heart of the Essex, Kent and Suffolk countryside such as Canterbury (they brought the stone for the cathedral this route) and Flatford Mill immortalised by the painter Constable. Over the years she has proved her ability to reach the head of every navigation and is much admired everywhere she goes but I am constantly asked,
“How do you manage to live on so small a boat?” In spite of our assurances, few people seem to believe that we live, eat and sleep comfortably. Rule one is to keep the inside of the cabin dry. I never cease to read with amazement of the leaking decks in other craft including many new top of the range yachts. It’s a long standing tradition in boating that there is no such thing as a waterproof fore hatch and some small boats are designed without one but we have one and it does not leak. Let’s face it, life inevitably gets a bit crummy even with only one person cooking and sleeping in such a small space and we take every opportunity to open up the fore hatch and let a draft through to freshen things up. There is an opening porthole on each side of the cabin top.
Problems arise in wet weather. Rule two is to never go into the cabin in oilskins. This means having all essential gear such as charts, tide tables and snacks ready within reach of a person in the cockpit. Any crew have a clear choice; stay dry inside or pad up and come outside. The problem comes when mooring up after a wet trip. Our answer is a tent over the boom enclosing the cockpit in which wet gear can be sponged down, carefully removed and hung to dry. We never wear shoes inside the cabin, preferring our bare or stocking feet on the carpet (out of date samples sold off for a pittance by carpet stores).
Space inside is the main problem. Shoal Waters is sixteen and a half feet long with a transom stern which gives plenty of room in the cockpit (but makes her very heavy on the helm in strong winds. We have to reef to enable us to steer in spite of a longish tiller). The beam is six feet. I built her with nine inch side decks to improve the appearance and provide space to carry paddles and my quant (an eight and a half foot pole for pushing the boat along in shallow water, standard issue for engineless hire craft on the Norfolk Broads). The cabin top gives forty three inches headroom in an area six feet long and nearly four feet wide. The centreboard cuts this area in half and extends for a foot into the cockpit and the same under the raised foredeck. A six foot bench on the starboard side gives just room to sit upright with room for our bare feet. (I am five foot eight inches tall and my wife Joy a little less). All the space forward into the bow is taken up with two tapering bunks with four inch dunlopillow mattresses. In practice Joy likes to spread her feet and recently I have made a board to extend my bunk aft and giver her more room. During the day it stows neatly in the starboard quarter berth, which these days is used as stowage now that our four children are long gone. The port quarter berth has long been blocked off to make a cockpit locker. That part inside the cabin as far as the port bunk is now the galley, just one Gaz stove set in the middle with lockers either side and backed by a rack with spaces for various essentials such as the teapot and caddy, cups and normal small galley items. Two one gallon plastic jerry cans stow either side of the centre board under the bridge deck. The port side also holds the car battery, which is charged from a five watt solar panel on the port side of the cabin top. The space between the centreboard and the galley holds a radiant gas heater and a plastic milk crate, which holds our store of tinned food. It has a plywood top which serves as a working surface and helps Joy crawl into her bunk. The starboard one is easier to slip into but I am the one who gets out quickly during the night should the need arise. The cabin sides extend six inches below the deck level to make a box girder each side of the boat which is divided into three small lockers. Below the lockers at the head of each bunk if a sort of bookcase come junk store. In practice my side tends to hold charts and radio while Joy’s side holds the medical gear.
A set routine, built up over the years, nearly forty of them, is vital. On waking, my first task is to reach over and light the stove under the kettle (filled last night). The lighter is kept in a wood fitting on the after bulkhead. I assemble the teapot and mugs from the rack behind the cooker, warm the pot and put in a teabag from the caddy also in the rack. The milk is in the milk crate. After lingering over the tea and if possible listening to the weather forecast on the radio I wash and shave in a small plastic bowl kept in the cockpit locker complete with soap and sponge. There is a small adjustable mirror at the junction of the after cabin bulkhead and the cabin side. Our flannels hang on the curtain rail of the after port portlight and towels similarly on the starboard side. Once dressed, I move out into the cockpit and drop in the washboards to give Joy twenty or thirty minutes of privacy for her toilet. If moored alongside or dry on firm mud or sand I go for a walk to stretch my legs. If afloat, there are always a few jobs to do and plenty to watch including other craft and wild life galore. When Joy has finished she pushes the sleeping bags etc. right up into the bows out of the way and I pass in the gear that we chucked out into the cockpit last evening. Ready food is kept in two rectangular plastic buckets which she stows on the port bunk leaving the starboard bunk clear for use during the day by reclining feet aft and head on the bedding. When planning forty winks an old sleeping bag is used as a cover as experience has shown that even in warm weather, one seems to cool down rapidly. Among the gear is a curved top for the centreboard case so that the plate can be lowered when the top protrudes into the cabin. At anchor with the plate stowed, a flat top take it’s place and acts as a tiny table. This top stows under the port side of the cockpit in the same area as the scissors boom crutch. Only one can be stowed at anytime; thus I cannot stow the boom crutch and forget to put the curved top on the centreboard case.
Joy takes the helm while I get under way and then sits on the bridge deck with her feet in the cabin. This seat, together with other features in the cockpit, was designed for comfort. It enables the occupant to rest his elbows on the cabin top, particularly when using the binoculars. In fact Joy is better qualified than I as she completed her Royal Yachting Association Day Skippers Certificate practical course but arthritis prevents her spending long periods at the tiller these days although she takes the helm when mooring or going alongside leaving me to handle the sails, lower the anchor or take the mooring lines ashore. We have a strict routine for bringing up. A double topping lift from the port hounds runs under the boom two thirds back from the mast and up to the starboard hounds, down to the foot of the mast and back to the cockpit and serves as a lazy jack. The first step when bringing up is to harden up the topping lift, go forward to cast off the peak and throat halyard and let the gaff come down on top of the boom. This rarely takes over ten seconds. By this Joy has set up the scissors type boom crutch in its` slots on the afterdeck. I ease the topping lift to let the boom (which extends over the transom) into the crutch and use the main sheet to make it fast to the main horse. Now it becomes a firm handhold while we stow the sail with five rope ties. Joy takes over now as she likes a neat harbour stow while I get the tent ready to fling over the boom and we are ready to get the kettle going.
The one aspect of life aboard a small boat that is rarely written about is passing water or evacuating the bowels. Sea toilets are still the rule here along the coast but a few articles are appearing in the magazines about stowage tanks. To date there are few facilities on shore to pump out or empty. Most public toilets have prominent notices banning the emptying of boat or caravan toilets as the chemicals inhibit the functioning of the sewage works. The inland waterways already ban discharge and have reasonable pump out facilities, some in boat yards, others available with a special key available to licensed craft. We use public toilets whenever possible. Afloat I use a plastic bailer for water and the rest is the traditional `bucket and chuck it`. In sheltered areas we use chemical fluid until we are in open water or near the river mouth with an ebb tide. Our bucket stows under the rear seat and is used in the cockpit when the tent is up or we are in a very isolated area but when necessary can be used just inside the cabin with the washboards in for privacy. A last point on this unsavoury subject, don’t use the last quarter of the toilet roll on board; save it to take ashore in you pocket when visiting a public toilet just in case.
A final problem in a small sailing craft is its` inability to tow a sturdy dinghy. All manner of inflatable or folding craft have been devised but the cold statistics show that while few people drown from yachts; a number do so each year while using dinghies. A few towns and villages retain their ancient wharves and jetties while an increasing number of yacht clubs have pontoons afloat at low water but getting ashore remains a major problem if you cannot afford marina prices. With no refrigerator on board and carrying only four gallons of fresh water, getting ashore everyday or two is essential. This is where Shoal Waters` ability to sit upright on the shore like a fat contented duck comes in, for we just beach and walk ashore. It does take an understanding of the tides but mistakes are good tutors. In my early days I beached in an idyllic spot among the Kent marshes close to the seawall with a cherry orchard on the other side at four O’clock on a Wednesday afternoon. The tide came back at eleven on Monday! I soon learnt that the highest tides (springs) occur two days after the full moon, which in this area is 1300 hours. Therefore each high water after 1500hrs is lower than the previous one until 2100 hours. The air of freedom and space aboard a small boat beached out on the sands or near the head of some rural creek; contrasts favourably with a marina berth overshadowed by bigger boats which probably have no alternative berth, but of course getting water and fresh milk will be much easier. Like so much else in the world of sailing you pay your money and take your choice. Life will be easier on a larger craft but I console myself with the old adage; the smaller the boat, the better the sport!