Dick Durham takes a look back at the the Great Flood, which saw thousands drowned and in which yachtsmen were a key part of the rescue opperation

Hundreds of laid-up yachts were holed, crushed or simply dashed to kindling in the Great Tide which flooded both sides of the North Sea 70 years ago this year, drowning 2,401 people in the Netherlands, Belgium, Scotland and England.

The death toll included seamen aboard small coasters, fishermen and passengers aboard a capsized ferry.

The worst hit place in the UK was Canvey Island in Essex, the low-lying Dutch-reclaimed marshland in the Thames Estuary, where today a towering concrete sea wall dwarfs the houses below and shuts out the creeks on the seaward side where my gaffer Betty II is moored.

Here 58 either drowned or died from hypothermia as they huddled on the roofs of their pre-fab bungalows.

Yachtsmen from clubs including Thurrock YC; Colne YC; The Royal Burnham YC; The Royal Corinthian YC; The Island YC; Dovercourt and Harwich YC; Leigh-on-Sea Sailing Club and many others were called upon to help.

My father, Richard, was one of many sailors who volunteered their dinghies to help in mop up missions as soon as daylight came on 1 February and the coastguard, police and other emergency services realised what had happened.

They witnessed corpses, still in their nightgowns, hanging from barbed wire fencing as they ferried survivors, and livestock to safety and ragstone, on the return trip, to fill the breaches of the surrounding sea wall.

On many parts of the coastline from Scotland to London surreal incidents occurred that night, the night that a north-westerly storm combined with a spring tide to cause a ‘surge’ – a higher than predicted wave – to swamp the coast in the worst disaster in peacetime history.

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A train steaming from Hunstanton to King’s Lynn was stopped when it collided with a bungalow planing down a breaking wave. At Southwold a fishing boat named Ivy, disappeared only to be trawled up 28 years later in the nets of a fishing boat three miles offshore.

At Grays, 31 cases of looting were reported mostly thefts from gas and electric meters. In the Walton Backwaters the explosives factory on Bramble Island was wrecked with corrugated iron buildings lifted off their bases. In Harwich a mattress was used as a ‘raft’ to float a mother and baby from a flooded apartment to higher ground.

At Jaywick the sailing barge Saxon was up-anchored and driven like a wedge into a breach of the sea wall. A yacht, the Ruddy Sheldrake, broke adrift from her mooring at West Mersea and was driven 100 miles across the North Sea to Holland.

In Tollesbury the wife of a family living aboard the 88ft yacht Herga, recalled: ‘All the sea walls were under. We could see brilliant green flashes as the houseboats
in Mersea broke adrift and their power cables parted.’

In Clacton two pleasure boats were used to rescue 600 people in their nightgowns and had to negotiate ‘submerged fences and gates, dustbins, coal-bunkers, sheds, kennels [and] hutches.’

The landlady of the Creeksea Ferry Inn at Wallasea Bay, on the River Crouch hung over a bar-room door, her feet on the door-handles until a yachtsman in his pram dinghy rowed up, smashed a window and ferried her to safety.

In Great Wakering, on Ministry of Defence land, one sailor using a ‘flattie’ – a flat-bottomed, timber dinghy – saved 30 people by rowing them in relays from their sunken Nissen hut homes to higher ground. On Canvey Island rescuers broke into the Prout Catamaran building shed and took canvas canoes to aid in the rescue. Firemen used even galvanised tin baths to ferry the stranded.

In Poplar and Barking, rubber dinghies were taken from the park to rescue people in West Ham where the streets were ‘like canals’.

With sea levels rising and storms predicted to become more frequent as the climate changes it is reassuring to know that when needed sailors can be relied upon to come to the rescue on land as well as at sea.

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