Arriving on the afternoon flood tide from Whitstable, we felt our way tentatively through the drying mud flats around Leigh on Sea in search of a safe mooring for the night. 4 metre tides and the very real danger of Lexi May and her crew being stranded high and dry for the next 12 hours added to the underlying apprehension we all felt.
Our passage planning the previous day had suggested that a ‘walk ashore’ berth might be available at Leigh Marina, so we pushed onwards, creeping carefully upstream on the last half hour of tide. A hasty stop alongside a fishing boat and enquiry at the boatyard office, followed by helpful directions encouraged us to seek out Steve, the owner of Leigh Marina. After shaking off his surprise at four bearded knobbly kneed rowers, Steve pointed at the berth for his rib – “You can stick the boat there, no problem fellas.” Fantastic, problem number one sorted. Next, where to sleep for the night? We explained our predicament to Steve, telling him we were waiting to hear about a possible place to rest up, which had tentatively been suggested by Southend Rowing Club. “No problem fellas, you can stay in ‘Iceni’”. We all followed Steve’s pointed finger to a 45 foot steel shell icebreaker yacht. This would have been one of the quirkiest places we’d stayed, but as it turned out, Penny, a coastal rower who owns the Gleneagles guest house in Southend responded to a Facebook call for help and very kindly offered to put us up for the night. We thanked Steve, who allowed us to leave our roll mats, sleeping bags and other boat kit in his shed and caught a train to Southend.
The next morning after breakfast Penny very kindly drove two of the crew to a foam shop to address boat num bum syndrome, an excruciating dull ache that develops into full blown pain after a typical seven or eight hour rowing day. This left the remaining crew to continue repairing and replacing the boat electrical system which had shorted out after the boat mooring rope got snagged in Rye, dragging the boat underwater and frazzling the fusebox… but that’s another story…
After refuelling the water bottles and shopping to restock with essential rowing snacks, but in the process missing a lunch stop to take on valuable calories due to an appointment with the tide, we all assembled at Leigh to catch the afternoon ebb and make passage to our next destination, Brightlingsea. All started well enough. We passed the very, very long Southend Pier and prepared for a midnight arrival in Brightlingsea, which would necessitate pushing ourselves in order to make our passage before the tide turned against us.
Several contributing factors conspired against us during the epic row that followed:
- We had to make several course deviations to dodge the scattered sandbanks and drying mud flats, all with the danger of being stranded on a falling tide, which increased our planned 34 miles to 40 miles.
- General tiredness and crew fatigue slowed our boat speed due to the rigors of rowing a marathon on the water most days.
- The additional weight of equipment we were now carrying due to being self-sufficient – we had said goodbye to the van several days before – had dramatically decreased our average boat speed, which meant we didn’t make the passage on a fair tide, resulting in a massive increase in passage duration from 8 hours to 12.
- The physical drain of rowing at night – the disorientation, maze of navigation lights and cold all reduced our ability to keep the boat moving at best boat speed.
- Missing our lunchtime essential calorie intake added to our general state of fatigue.
All these factors contributed to our final arrival in Brightlingsea at 4:30am, 12 hours and 40 miles after we left Leigh. But the final stages of the row weren’t without incident. We’d seen sunset, moon rise, moon set, stars, sunrise and as we closed in on our destination, the arrival of the big orange RNLI lifeboat top trumped everything else…
Pushed to the limit of endurance after ten hours rowing, Sean began to be seasick. Ordinarily, not a life threatening ailment, but the sickness increased in frequency and Sean was struggling to keep fluids down. A precautionary call to the coastguard to advise of our delayed arrival and Sean’s predicament resulted in a joint agreement to monitor the situation and update the coastguard hourly. Fortunately, we didn’t wait that long. Twenty minutes later we called the coastguard again to request assistance, resulting in the three man RNLI lifeboat arriving in a roar of twin engines and spectacular reassuring bow wave to take Sean to hospital, his first time in a lifeboat and ambulance!
The weary crew carried on rowing Lexi May to shore, making steady progress until the lifeboat returned to offer us a tow. Despite our resolve to row the last mile or so without their assistance, we were gently persuaded to gracefully accept the RNLI’s offer and arrived in Brightlingsea at 5am, to be greeted by Pete, a rower from Brightlingsea Rowing Club, who had been waiting there since 2am to show us to a local campsite he’d very kindly booked for us. Pete very kindly drove us and all our gear to Colchester hospital to meet up with Sean. Pete even rang around the local hotels to try and find us some accommodation, finally departing at 7am to go home and shower before towing his club trailer to a rowing regatta where he was due to race himself. (he won the race!) Pete, you were amazing, thank you so much! The coastguard and RNLI were absolutely amazing too – we owe you!
At Colchester Hospital we found Sean, exhausted but in good spirits, despite having the micky taken from the rest of the crew and being made to suffer the obligatory ‘in the moment’ photograph. That left the rest of us to try and catch some sleep in the A&E waiting area until the hospital café opened at 8am for a much needed fortifying cup of tea and cooked breakfast.
The arrival of Sean’s worried girlfriend, Hannah, and Mark’s wife, Nicky, helped to boost crew morale, and with their help we were transported to the Brewers Arms pub in Brightlingsea, where rooms were available for the night. Thanks to help with the room bill and free laundry service from Landlord Dennis and his wife, we were able to recuperate with a 24 hour rest stop, before a 5am alarm call the day after saw us grab a hasty breakfast, carry all the equipment to the boat and get underway by 6:30am for the 25 mile passage to Felixstowe Ferry Harbour. We dodged international cargo ships and ferries, this time benefiting from a decent push from the tide.
The irony of this drama was that an English lifeboat came to the aid of an Australian lifesaving surf boat!
There’s never a dull, or restful moment with the UK Charity Row crew…