Riddle of The Foulness Sands

Stranded off Foulness but an adventure then commenced

By Bernard White

It was around the late nineteen-seventies that, with two shipmates, I was sailing in Sea Beagle a 31 foot cruisier/racer sloop.  We were tacking in the narrow channel between the Buxey and Foulness sands and shaping up to enter the River Crouch, when the helmsman (it wasn’t me) suffered a lapse of concentration and grounded the vessel on the Foulness Sands.  The weather was mildly inclement and the tide was falling.  Oh dear!

The timing could not have been much worse.  It was mid-afternoon and we were faced with several hours of embarrassment until the tide rose sufficiently to float us off again, therefore it was unlikely that we would reach our destination at Burnham-on-Crouch until the early hours of the following morning.

Modern communication systems, which nowadays we take for granted, were not available 45 years ago.  We did not have the luxury of mobile ‘phones, satellite navigation and marine VHF communicating radio, we therefore, were lacking the facilities to warn our wives of our predicament.   Being young(ish), fit(ish) and definitely foolish, I volunteered that as soon as the tide had ebbed sufficiently to leave Sea Beagle high and dry, I would run up the sands, scramble ashore onto Foulness Island, find a telephone and let it be known to our wives that we would be late for supper.  Time and tides permitting, I would then return to Sea Beagle but, if not safe to do so, I would make my way home and my shipmates would eventually bring Sea Beagle back to Burnham without my help.  Sounds a simple plan, doesn’t it?  But it wasn’t.

It was raining so I disembarked wearing my seagoing oilskins and sea boots also carrying a 6ft boat-hook.  I took the boat-hook because I thought it might be handy when crossing saltings etc.  The first few yards were easy, but jogging up the Foulness Sands in full seagoing gear was not very comfortable and very hot, furthermore Foulness Island did not seem to be getting much closer but I had to press on at maximum possible speed to reach terra firma before the tide began to flood again.  Eventually the sand ran out but instead of hard soil I now had to cross sticky mudflats and dangerous creeks all of which would be covered and filled when the flood tide got under way.  I had not realized how arduous and indeed hazardous my trek to dry land was going to be.

It is obvious from the fact that I am able to write this account that eventually I set foot on Foulness.  However I did not have to search for a telephone because a Ministry of Defence (MOD) policeman was waiting with a Land Rover to ‘greet’ me.

The Cold War with the USSR was at its height and Russian ‘trawlers’, bristling with radio masts but with scant, if any, recognisable fishing gear to be seen, were frequently reported in British territorial waters.  Foulness Island was, and still is, MOD property from which armaments of all sorts are developed and tested out to sea, so it should be obvious that security and vigilance would be considered very important to the military.   Apparently Sea Beagle’s grounding and my progress on foot had been noted – hence the welcoming policeman.  While he appeared to accept the explanation for my afternoon’s activity, I was ‘asked’ to ride with him in the Land Rover to the gatehouse to ‘have a word’ with his boss.  Actually I was only too pleased to accept his offer of a seat – after completing my recent challenges, a few seated minutes was quite a relief.  At the gatehouse I was quickly cleared of being a Russian agent; probably because it was highly unlikely that a professional spy would never have been so incompetently stupid.  Following a brief interrogation, I was able to use the MOD’s ‘phone to call home.  Mission accomplished but more embarrassment was to come.

Again by courtesy of the MOD, I was given a lift to Southend Bus Station where I would catch a bus home to East Hanningfield; by this time the weather had improved.   Ashore, the early evening sun was quite warm, so wearing ridiculously inappropriate seagoing oilskins with squelchy water filled sea-boots, also carrying a formidable boat-hook, on a bus, must have appeared rather odd to those around me.  None of my fellow passengers said anything but I suspect they must have thought that this muddy, strangely attired person carrying a 6ft boat-hook looked more than a little out of place and, if not just eccentric, could be a dangerous nutter.  Nonetheless I couldn’t fail to notice several quickly taken querulous looks.  I didn’t feel the need to explain.

Forty-five minutes after leaving Southend Bus Station I arrived home.  Much later Sea Beagle picked up her mooring at Burnham. 

I slept very soundly that night.

Remembered and written 24 July 2020.


This page was added by Mike Westley on 28/07/2020.
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Thank you for putting this story on the website, Bernard.  The sandbanks round Foulness and the estuary of the Thames and Crouch are notoriously dangerous.  You and the Beagle were relatively lucky.  Many ships and sailing barges have been lost there particularly in a great storm in 1886.

By Sue Horncastle
On 25/08/2020
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