Rookie skipper Nick Imber and his friends have more of an adventure than they bargained for on their first proper passage

A satisfying feature of looking after this column for the last 16 years has been the latitude granted me by editors for selecting material. This has delivered enough slack to celebrate the less spectacular among the yarns of derring-do and sheer survival. Travels with my Nan, published by the ever-inventive Lodestar Books and written by Nick Imber, tells of three generations of a family growing up with a small barge yacht in the Thames estuary.

The opening lines set the scene perfectly: ‘I first met her in Tollesbury and immediately fell for her. She was Essex Girl through and through, but not like the others, although she was shallow. There were only two problems. The age difference – she was born in 1904 and I was ten back then in 1959. None of this mattered to me but the second problem would be trickier; my Dad loved her too.’

We join Nick on his inaugural passage as a teenage skipper with a crew of fellow students. Like many a first trip, it doesn’t go as smoothly as he’d have liked, but the account smacks of an earlier, more innocent age than ours. The buoys may have changed, but the sands have not as the crew stand bravely out across the wide, cluttered waters of the Thames, aided only by steel leeboards and a Seagull outboard engine.

From Travels With My Nan

We slipped our mooring and set off along Gravesend Reach bound for Leigh. Flo volunteered to go below and make a hot drink. “Nick,” she shouted up the companion way, “why is there water over the floor boards?”

“There shouldn’t be!” I said. Handing the tiller to a startled Pete I ducked below. Flo started pumping as I lifted the boards and mattresses, to see water weeping in on the chine between port side and bottom skin a third of the way forward from the stern. I climbed into the cockpit to report the news to the crew. I noticed Pete had swapped steering for pumping with Flo, and that Philippa (Phil) was looking a little concerned.

“We have a small leak. I think we holed her on those piles by the jetty when I picked you guys up. My fault. It’s not coming in very fast but it will have to be repaired. We’d better stop and have a good look at it.” We started the outboard and moored up alongside some empty lighters. I went below and had another look at the leak while the others worked the pump in relays.

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I stuffed some cotton waste into the damage and nailed a piece of wood across to keep it in place and to mark the spot for the ultimate repairers. In true Hornblower fashion I considered the merits of dragging a piece of sailcloth round the boat to seal the outside. “How would you do that?” asked Phil.

“Stand in the stern with a long line held between two of us. Sling a weight on it – say a pig from the ballast ­– and walk forward until we reach the hole. Tie the cloth to both ends of the rope and pull it round over the damage.” I explained nautically. “Oh, just like putting a bra on,” said Flo. We pumped every hour or so and each time we were sucking air after a dozen strokes. A manageable outcome.

A little later as we were all in the cockpit eating a pasta supper, a River Police launch ghosted up alongside to see if we were all right. I explained our situation and asked if we were OK here for the night. They had no problem with that and suggested a Queenborough boatyard, then glided off as quietly as they had come.


Nan on the Blackwater during her first season with the Imber family

Early the next afternoon, almost at the top of the tide, Nan edged her way into Queenborough Creek and moored up outside the boatyard, the name of which is lost in the mists of time and my rotten memory. The yardmen thought it wasn’t too serious. It needed doing, but it would take a couple of days for the tides to be right. They would let in a new piece of wood and put a copper patch over it.

With no Dad present to discuss the passage plan, I went through it on my own. The weather looked set fair and the tide would give us almost five hours of help if we left at the right time. Just how much help I wasn’t quite sure, as my data was from the leisure chart and not the Almanac.

This would be the longest passage I had attempted to date, so I was cautious and made two plans. Plan A was to cross the Thames and make for Havengore Creek. If we did better, Plan B headed north for the Blackwater, being careful to avoid the menace of the Foulness and Buxey sands.


Nick Imber with his siblings and mum in Nan’s newly varnished cabin in 1960

And so it was a couple of days later the crew of Nan reconvened and heard the master plan in her cockpit. The tides predicated a late start but the winds were forecast to be a little stronger than recently. At Force 4, 5 later, they re­mained south-easterly and excellent for our passage.

The yard had done a great job on the repair and the copper tingle was beautifully fixed and completely watertight. Re-victualled, re-crewed and recently lunched, we were ready to go. Nevertheless it was with a feeling of nervous trepidation that we slipped out of Queenborough to the Grain Hard buoy at the Medway mouth where, avoiding the submerged wartime ammunition ship that is still waiting to surprise the unwary, we set a course almost due north.

I was undoubtedly being over­cautious but it would mean we would cross the deep water Sea Reach channel at right angles and minimise our chances of being run down. We had no radar reflector but maybe our steel leeboards would show up. And so began a day of buoy counting. “The Mid Swatch is the first one,” I told Pete at the helm. “Steer north until you see it, then steer on the buoy.”

A close shave

I went below to make my first marks on the chart and stayed awhile to review the passage plan again. I came up just in time to help the helmsman swerve round the Mid Swatch. It passed astern just feet away. “Excellent steering,” I said. “Perhaps a little too literal? Leave that next buoy well to starboard as we cross the Sea Reach deep water channel.”

In the event, the huge amount of traffic of my imagination didn’t materialise and apart from an early course change to pass astern of a ship leaving London, there were no dramas. In no time it seemed we sailed along the edge of the Maplin Sands past the Mid and South Shoebury buoys. As we came up on the East Shoebury, it was decision time. Plan A or Plan B? We would need to turn for Havengore after the buoy.

Was Havengore the right thing or should we push on to the north while conditions were with us? We were making good time and there was still plenty of tide. Live firing from the nearby artillery range made our minds up. Nobody fancied deliberately sailing towards gunfire.


Travels with my Nan by Nick Imber is published by Lodestar Books, RRP: £14

Nan seemed to know what was required of her now and she sped along with a creaming white wake. Growing in confidence as the sailing and chart work was going to plan, I set the course more northerly to the North East Maplin, then the South East Middle. Once there we made for the South Buxey.

On the last leg now, I set a new half-tide course across the Buxey Sand towards the river Colne and Brightlingsea. The wind was lessening and although still warm the sun was thinking about setting. It was relaxation time as the sails were set for the new course.

Flo was way ahead of me as always and came from below with a round of gins and tonic. Nan was tooting along now and we were all enjoying the late afternoon when suddenly, without warning, Nan shuddered and came to a halt as if she had hit something.

I sat up so fast I nearly spilled my gin. I looked ahead. We hadn’t hit anything – the next buoy was at the mouth of the Colne, and well ahead. I looked over the stern but there was nothing round the rudder. Just then Nan began to turn.

I looked over the lee side and was surprised to see sand and mud swirling up in great clouds. We were aground! But only a bit. I lunged for the leeboard tackle and heaved it up. Immediately Nan started to make way again. The benefits of an 18in draught. I steered for the North Buxey buoy to be sure we were in deep water be­fore I dropped the leeboard again and we sailed on without incident to the mouth of the Colne.

Resuming our peaceful early evening sail we had another sundowner (possibly not wise) and I apologised for cutting it so fine. With Mersea Island coming up to port we took down the sails, fired up the Seagull and motored in to Brightlingsea harbour.


At anchor off East Mersea in 1960

We made a good clean anchorage at the first attempt and I asked Flo to let out plenty of chain because this was the first time I had moored here on my own. Dad had said to be careful because of the strong tide race on the ebb.

We tidied the boat and went ashore in the dinghy where a good deal more drink and a good supper were had. As it was now getting dark and we were all tipsy I decided to row folk back one at a time. I installed Phil in the stern and pulled out into the harbour.

Wheres the boat?

“I can’t see Nan” she says. “Course you can, she’s over that way,” I say, swivelling on the thwart to point. “But she isn’t. Oh cluck!” I frantically scan the darkness for a sight of her. Nothing. With a tightening of the chest I set to rowing with a will. My thoughts are full of dragged anchors, lost boats, lost face and more.


A refit and fresh coat of paint in 1963

So I do what any new skipper who has just lost his command would do. I panic and, with conduct most unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman, I row even harder swearing loudly. I think I manage a new swear word with every stroke. It is certainly several minutes before I repeat myself. Now I am frantic and rowing noisily in air that is blue.

Phil looks appalled and horrifically impressed by turns. The tide is still coming in when we reach our anchoring spot. I turn up Brightlingsea Creek looking for what I fully expect to be the wreck of Nan and the trail of carnage and destruction she (but mostly I) has caused. Still nothing.

Then I see a familiar mast and crosstrees against the sky over by the fishing boat moorings. Rowing closer we see she hasn’t crashed against them but is moored up alongside. And moored properly: fore and aft lines, springs and big tyre fenders.


Skipper and author Nick Imber

At this point I remember to breathe, the ache in my chest lessens and the blood pounding in my ears drops to a dull roar. I lean on the oars and with no one around to talk to I drop Phil and go back for Pete and Flo.

After a peaceful night we woke to activity on the fishing boats. The fishermen said I had moored right in the middle of the channel and would make leaving that morning very difficult for them so they moved Nan last night.

I apologised for all the trouble I’d caused and thanked them for treating us so well. They didn’t appear too upset but they didn’t speak much, so we slipped our moorings and made for West Mersea.

So my first proper passage was a success… ish. The sailing was great… mostly. The crew were excellent… wholly. The skippering, however, was distinctly ‘curate’s egg’.

First published in the March 2020 edition of Yachting World.