Solo, septuagenarian sailor, Anthony Newman, rediscovers the joys, magic and mystery of England’s East Coast rivers, sailing over four bars and under two bridges

The East Coast is an acquired taste for sailing and, after fossicking about the creeks and swatchways of the estuaries over the past 65 years, I have acquired it. My personal favourites are the northern rivers in Suffolk – the Deben, Alde and Ore.

They are quieter and evoke the history and mystery of the area more profoundly than their southern neighbours. They are protected, too, by the shifting shingle bars at their entrances. These have always held a certain notoriety amongst sailing folk.

The Pilots’ Guide to the Thames Estuary, 1934, was not encouraging, suggesting that ‘a passage over the bar (into the Ore) is very dangerous, while with any sea the result might easily be disastrous.’ Modern pilotage books are more inviting, advising that ‘The bar and knolls shift frequently and the tides run in and out of the rivers very strongly indeed, these combine to make Orford Haven difficult, but no more difficult to enter than the Deben’. Many boats now cross these bars regularly and safely.

My family began sailing the Deben in the 1950s, chartering a Deben Cherub from Russell Upson at Everson’s boatyard, now Woodbridge Boatyard.

Anthony’s Samphire 26 Sarantina anchored under Iken Cliffs on the River Alde. Photo: Anthony Newman

A modest cruise My journey was to begin as far up the River Deben as I could and to travel as far up the River Alde as was possible, using a dinghy when the bridges were too low or the water too shallow. High tide at the railway bridge above Melton, on the Deben, was a tight fit and the dinghy came to a stop amongst the reeds and meadows just below Ufford.

Returning to the Tidemill Yacht Harbour in Woodbridge, to collect Sarantina, my Samphire 26, I carried on down the river under just a genoa, past the Sutton Hoo Anglo Saxon burial ship, in a blustery north-easterly wind and grey skies.

By the time I reached the mouth of the Deben at Felixstowe Ferry the ebb tide was running hard, the wind definitely strong and the light was beginning to go. I returned upriver to Ramsholt and picked up a mooring by the quay, sheltered from the wind.

A delightful, peaceful place.

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Brisk beat from Bawdsey

The morning brought a brisk forecast so I tied in a reef in the calm of the moorings. It seemed a bit like the ‘old sailor’ syndrome but easier to shake out than take in once underway. At The Ferry, the wind headed and strengthened but I could have walked faster than I motor-sailed over the bar at the mouth of the Deben. The wind, now fresh from the north east, left a five-mile beat up the coast to Orford Haven against the flooding tide.

Progress up the coast was slow and wet. Counting down the Martello towers to Shingle Street seemed to take forever. I was late at the River Ore entrance but the tide was still just flooding giving a roly-poly, white water reach into the river from the Haven Buoy.

I averaged just under two knots from the Deben, and with nine miles still to go to Aldeburgh, and a head wind all the way, I took down the sails. Motoring gently on the last of the flood, past Havergate Island with its multitude of wading birds, then Orford Town, guarded by the castle, and the mysterious Orfordness with its Cobra Mist masts, pagodas and Black Beacon.

Crossing the bar into the River Ore, which joins the Alde further inland. Photo: Anthony Newman

And so into the River Alde and on to a mooring off Slaughden Quay, arriving just as the ebb was setting in and the sun was going down.

After a peaceful night, it was a busy morning, scrubbing the dinghy, topping up the diesel tank and the stores and then having a catch-up coffee with some old friends. The high tide at Iken, our next stop, was late afternoon.

Setting off at about half tide from Slaughden, I sailed in a light northeast breeze to just beyond Barber’s Point, where I had the river to myself – except for a Shrimper, motoring along behind me. Hazlewood Marshes, behind Barber’s Point, are now flooded after the surge tide in 2013, covering the recent archaeological dig. Fortunately, the Roman outpost and Anglo-Saxon settlement were excavated before the land was abandoned to the waves.

After Barber’s Point the river widens out to almost a mile across, but the channel is little more than a gut at low tide, and twists and turns like a serpent. Acres of mud, a trickle of water and a fickle wind: sailing wasn’t a practical option. Withies – strong, vertical, willow stems – mark the channel. Miss one and you know immediately as the boat slows in the mud.

I motored slowly past each and this worked well for the first four but then, carelessly, I tried to cut a corner. The boat stopped in the mud and I saw the missed withy off to starboard. The Shrimper motored past, some 5m away.

Black Beacon at Orfordness is an early (1929) radio navigation system. Photo: Anthony Newman

Engaging reverse gear and gently rocking the boat usually works; it did this time. With the Shrimper ahead, I had a pilot to follow so the next mile or so to Iken Church was straightforward. The Church is on the site of St Botolph’s Priory, founded in 694 AD and later sacked by the vikings.

Here the channel, appropriately named Upper Troublesome Reach and Lower Troublesome Reach, boxes the compass as it meanders aimlessly towards Iken Cliff. The Shrimper ahead missed a withy and went aground. Passing them not 2m away, we had a brief conversation about the quality of the mud.

Meandering up Snape

Two more twists and a few turns later, I arrived off Iken Cliff and dropped the anchor in about 4m of water. ‘Rocks’ and ‘Cliff’ are relative terms in East Anglia. Iken Cliffs are Coralline Crag, consisting of fossilised shells and sand deposited when this was a part of the delta shared by the Rhine and the Thames.

Looking across to Iken church in the early morning sunshine. Photo: Anthony Newman

The cliffs rise about 10m, topped with ageing oaks that give Iken its name (its translation from Old English is ‘wood or forest’). They provide excellent shelter when the wind has any south in it. Today it was from the northeast but light and soft, and the anchorage was perfect.

The channel up to Snape from Iken winds its way between broken grassy river walls and extensive areas of flooded marshland. It was now almost high tide and venturing further in Sarantina was not prudent, and faced with the second bridge to shoot at Snape, it was time for the dinghy.

Sailing this stretch is a challenge with its very narrow, shallow, twisting channel, but crossing the wide mudflats and winding through the reeds crowding in on either hand was a straightforward ride with the outboard. The quay was busy with a Thames barge and Baltic ketch tied up alongside.

The air draught under the bridge was just sufficient if I took off my hat. There is a sheltered, quiet pool on the other side with a wooden jetty. I tied up the dinghy and crossed the road to the Plough and Sail for a plate of fish and chips accompanied by a pint of Adnams.

The sun was beginning to set as I returned to the dinghy and took the ebb back through the marshes to Iken. It was a very still, clear night, the peace broken only by the lonely cry of a curlew feeding as the tide ebbed.

Sunset at Slaughden on the River Alde. Photo: Anthony Newman

Up the Creek

It was important to get away from Iken and back to Barber’s Point and the deeper channel before the tide turned. This required an early 0500 start on a beautiful July morning, when I downed a cup of tea, raised the anchor and motored gently against the flood. No missed withies this time.

The tide was just turning as I picked up a mooring off Slaughden. It was time for a full English and another cup of tea.

The next stop on my nostalgic tour was the Butley Creek, some 10 miles down-river, beyond Orford. By the time I had finished breakfast the wind had filled in from the northeast, so I raised the sails, let go of the mooring and glided past Slaughden Quay with a fair tide and wind.

A delightful sail down to Orford and beyond, the mysterious masts and pagodas of the old Atomic Weapons Research Establishment seemed almost serene in the warm sunshine. Taking the long way round to Butley Creek, I sailed up the narrows on the east shore of Havergate Island, past the RSPB hides, then round Dove Point, passing a seal basking on the mud, and then into the creek itself.

The 1881 spritsail barge Cygnet makes her way up to her home berth at Snape.

Anchoring in the creek is a delicate business. The channel is narrow and if you leave too much scope on the chain you can end up aground on one side as the tide falls. Choosing a spot beyond the ruined barn that featured in the film The Dig, and before the Butley Ferry jetty, I came to rest in about 3m of water.

This is one of the most tranquil anchorages on the East Coast. The ferry here, run by volunteers with the Alde and Ore Association, is the smallest licensed ferry in Europe and a very popular diversion into Orford for walkers on the East Coast Path. A stroll ashore to RSPB Boyton Marshes before collecting samphire for supper completed a perfect evening.

There’s a good amount of space for boats to lie alongside the quay at Snape. Photo: Jon Arnold Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Barges and kedges

Another fine morning and it was time for lunch with friends in Orford. Passing Havergate Island again, I was delighted to see a Shelduck nursery – where just two adult birds are left in charge of a clutch of youngsters whilst the others fly off to Heligoland to moult. There were 15 ducklings in the flock and the adult pair certainly had their wings full.

After a good lunch at the Jolly Sailor in Orford, we caught the last of the ebb down to the mouth. The tide had turned by the time we reached Shingle Street and, crossing the bar, met a Thames barge coming in under sail. Very gently, the barge was taken by the wind and tide onto the shingle banks on the south side of the channel.

Whilst these barges are said to ‘sail on a dew’ this one found something shallower and slowed to a stop as it ‘kissed’ the shingle. With practised efficiency, the sails came down and the kedge was laid as they waited for the dew to deepen.

The wind was fair as we sailed down to the Woodbridge buoy. After crossing the Deben bar, we dropped the sails before entering the harbour and completing my ‘Four bars and Two Bridges’ cruise.

Top tips for Cruising England’s East Coast rivers

The Elbow’ on the River Alde at Slaughden where the river turns away from the sea towards Snape. Photo: Aerial Essex / Getty

The bars

There is helpful information on crossing both the Deben and Ore Bars in the form of up-to-date chartlets, videos, and advice. The following websites are useful:, includes downloadable chartlets of both entrances, provides a live video feed of the Deben entrance.

Pilots and charts

East Coast Pilot, Garth Cooper & Dick Holness.
East Coast Rivers, Jan Harber.
2000 Suffolk and Essex Chart Pack.

Felixstowe ferry, where the River Deben meets the sea. Photo: Rob Atherton / Getty Images


The Tidemill Yacht Harbour, Woodbridge.


Deben: Woodbridge (tidal), Waldringfield, Ramsholt and Felixstowe Ferry. Alde: Orford and Slaughden. You will always need to check on availability with the harbourmaster. Details in the Pilots.

Further reading

The Magic of the Swatchways, Maurice Griffiths
East Anglian Shores, David Fairhall
Orwell Estuary and Suffolk Estuary, W.G. Arnott
Seagates to the Saxon Shore, Kenneth Wenham Strugnell
Once Upon a Tide, Hervey Benham

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