Fortunately the midnight shipping forecast coincided with high water. As I reached out from my cosy sleeping bag to switch on the radio, the little gaff cutter 'Shoal Waters' was afloat in smooth water in the lee of the tree-lined saltings just above Pin Mill, rocking gently to the swell from the main. If there was a chance of getting down the coast to Brightlingsea later in the day I would get under way at once and drop down to the nearest sheltered deep water at Stone Heaps, ready to pop out of Harwich in time to catch the first of the flood tide south. In fact, the gale warning was still in force for Thames and Dover and after a quick peep out into the clear moonlight to see that the boat was still where she was meant to be and note the wind screaming through the tops of the sheltering trees, I snuggled back into my sleeping bag and left her to settle back on to the soft mud as the tide fell. Next morning I learnt that things had been distinctly lively out on the deep water moorings. One couple on an Elizabethan found it so intolerable that they reefed right down, donned oilskins and safety harnesses and got underway at first light. For the sailor who likes his kip there's a lot to be said for a boat that can take the mud!
"I suppose you just run her up the beach anywhere." said a friend.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Deciding when and where to beach and the steps to take to avoid settling on a rock, tipping over in a gully or refloating on a lee shore with a rising gale is almost a science. First you must realize that beaching is a decisive step. Once the tide has left, you're stuck there until it returns. Never dry right on the top of the tide for you may not float on the next high water due to rising barometric pressure, prevailing winds or other whims that led Davis in 'The Riddle of the Sands' to describe tides as `Queer things' . Just how much you let the tide fall before grounding will depend on the range in your area and whether the tides are making or running down to neaps. On my first cruise in an old half decker in 1949 I had a rough handling in the West Swale and fled deep into the marshes near Halstow where I dried out among the saltings against the grass bank close to the sea wall at 1600hrs BST on Wednesday, right on the top of the tide. Father Neptune came back for me at 1100hrs on Monday morning! Thus I learnt that the highest tides in this area occur at 0200/0300hrs and 1400/1500hrs and that for seven days afterwards, each high water is lower than its predecessor. It's a lesson that sailors are still learning the hard way for I noticed a Macwester neaped in the Roach towards the end of the '88 season.
It's hardly necessary to stress the danger of beaching on a lee shore in anything more than a light air ('lee' applies to the lee side of the boat and this means that the wind is blowing on to the beach) but remember that the wind can change by the time the tide returns. However settled the weather seems, get the latest forecast before drying, even if it means waiting another hour or so. If beaching for the day to give the kids a spell building sand castles while dad has an afternoon nap, remember the effect of the onshore/offshore winds. At 0900hrs the dying offshore breeze can give a false sense of security. The chances are you will have chosen a hot day which will almost certainly bring in an onshore breeze up to Force 3 or even 4 by the time you refloat. Real danger can develop in this case if the forecast wind for the area is in the same direction as the onshore breeze. It will kill off the night offshore breeze early but magnify the onshore breeze, i.e. at Walton a forecast of East Force 3 will boost an onshore breeze S.E. Force 3 to Force 5 or even 6. I remember listening to a skipper who left Brightlingsea on the midday ebb for Harwich and met such conditions off the Naze.
"I wish I had had that b------ y forecaster on board as I reefed down off the Naze. I would have given him Force 3!"
There are two precautions that can help. If possible dry with a bank to windward so that the boat settles and refloats in smooth water and always lay out your anchor so once the boat lifts, you can haul out into deeper water rather than let the boat pound for fifteen or twenty minutes. I have even beached on the northern side of the Isle of Sheppey but only after receiving a forecast of southerly 1 to 2!
Give a lot of thought to the neighbours. If you don't like them there's not much you can do once the water has gone. In some areas small boys will throw stones, particularly from cliffs. Joy loves beef in small pieces in the frying pan but not by the hundredweight peering into the back of the tent. It's as well to steer clear of nesting birds, mostly for their sake but also for your own in the case of swans. I once chucked the anchor into some tall reeds and it landed next to a swans' nest complete with a young family. Retrieving it was a hazardous game. On Saturdays watch out for signs of loudspeakers being erected and/or stacks of booze being unloaded. Shore based beach parties are becoming increasingly popular with 'lager-louts'.
The nature of the bottom is vital, particularly for centreboarders where the whole hull will take the load. The old bargeman's trick of arriving well before high water in time to inspect the bottom before it covers cannot be bettered. Select a level area, pick up any stones and mark your site with a couple of sticks. If you do arrive after it covers, watch out for the seaweed with bladders in the leaves for it doesn't grow on mud, only on stones, stakes and old Austin Seven engines once used as mooring weights. At the height of summer, it's best to paddle about to see that the bottom is clear but earlier in the season the temperature will compel you to make do by poking about with an oar or pole. The natural tendency of the boat to swing about in wind and tide will assist here. Bilge-keelers should be safe from harm to the hull but getting the keels to dry level is much more crucial. On Whit Saturday some years ago I dried on the sand outside Margate harbour (to save the harbour charges) and that evening met a slightly wealthier bilge-keeler type who had paid up in order to make sure of a good night's sleep. To his dismay one keel settled on an old tractor tyre leaving him at an awkward angle until the small hours. Normally it's best to dry head-to-wind for then, the after end of the cabin can be left open to enable you to watch the waders take over the sands and mudflats. If there's a danger of a large passing craft causing heavy wash once the weight of the boat is firmly on the bottom but before the water has left, it will be best to point the bows towards the deep water channel, otherwise such wash may well burst right over the stranded craft, flooding the cockpit and even the cabin. This is particularly relevant on the tidal Thames with its powerful tugboats. When beaching there it's always a relief once the tide has retreated fifty or sixty yards and their furious surf cannot disturb me any more. At such times I find the opening portholes a delight; it enables me to reach out and raise two fingers!
Of course there's little point in finding smooth level mud clear of obstructions on which to dry if you then settle on your own anchor. This is unlikely when using rope warp since the slightest wind or tide will swing the boat clear on the full scope of the cable. Chain is a different matter. If you anchored on the flood, lazy neap tides and light airs may not be powerful enough to drag all the chain over the bottom when the tide turns, particularly if you've been generous with it, so the vessel effectively lays to half the chain rather than the anchor. On two occasions soon after I changed from warp to chain (because at last I could afford it) I woke to find the boat aground a few yards from the fisherman anchor. Half the chain I had chucked out on the young flood was still laying upstream of the anchor. The other half had been dragged through 180 degrees by the tide bringing the boat neatly back to her anchor. The answer of course is to use just enough chain to hold at high water and check it before the boat dries, even if it does mean leaving a warm bunk.
Walking ashore is normally the first thought on all but the softest mud and here, knee length water-boots are essential. Waders are even better but may tempt you into deeper mud where you could get stuck firm. People seem to fall into two groups, those who can walk over mud and those who sink. The secret is to use a slightly skating action and keep going for this is one sport in which he who hesitates is lost! Another method of getting over the mud is by pushing a dinghy and it's possible to do this with one or even two people in it. Joy has never mastered the secret of mobility on mud and regularly travels out to the mooring in this manner. Lastly, mud walking will get you back to the boat with very sticky boots but no water in which to wash them until the tide returns. Don't just leave them in the mud beside the boat for they quickly float away if you happen to forget them. Hang them from the stern with shockcord clips. (Once all boots had holes at the back near the top as they were sold tied together in pairs. Now they come in hygienic plastic bags you may have to use the office punch.)
Remember, when dry, the marine toilet won't work. Which means it's back to the bucket unless there's a public loo within walking distance. This was the case at Bembridge where I found yachts drying out for the night on a spit of sand inside the harbour.
The most pleasant factor in deciding how and where to dry is whether you want the setting sun or the rising sun to shine into the cabin. `Shoal Waters' finished the '88 season on the mud by West Mersea church, drying as darkness closed in. When I opened the stern of the tent next morning the late October sun shone right through into the forepeak, a perfect finale to another grand season.
A stranded boat is the perfect hide for bird watching, luxurious in the extreme compared with the draughty huts that litter the R.S.P.B. reserves. All manner of waders will follow the retreating tide and return again ahead of it. Between times, the gulls will call to find even more worms and small crustaceans while lonely herons stalk the shallows like sentries. If you can stand the bitter cold early in the season you can enjoy the company of vast flocks of geese. One of my most vivid sailing memories is of laying snug in my sleeping bag in `Shoal Waters' on the mud somewhere behind Osea Island listening to hundreds of geese honking and quarrelling as they fed in the moonlight.
Most important of all, a boat that can take the mud is your passport to all manner of delightful quiet places far away from the madding crowds of other craft. This was brought home to me forcefully while serving in a Royal Marines' landing craft when dreary days tied up in sleazy dockyards contrasted vividly with idyllic days spent beached on the golden sands at Instow in North Devon. In short, the argument for beaching grows stronger each year as more and more boats flood on to the waters around our coasts ...