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Rhythms of the river

As flights were grounded and borders began to close with Britain’s first lockdown, travel writer Nicola Moyne found herself turning to the inky depths of the Suffolk coast for fresh perspective and purpose.

It’s 6.13 am and I’m watching the sky slice itself into layers of red and purple and pink while I bob in a ribbon of steely blue. The peace is broken minutes later by a whistling kettle on the stove downstairs and I languidly transition from teak deck to galley, my tanned limbs aching from hours spent hoisting, hauling and swimming in strong, salty currents the day before. There’s no need to hurry.The morning is still young and there’s not another soul in sight.  The river is glass-like. Marsh harriers chatter as they dip and dive along the reeds.  The air smells of moss and morning dew.

The River Orwell at Erwarton Ness

My partner Rich and I are anchored near Erwarton Ness and feeling a little hazy from a bottle of blush rosé we sank the night before. Our talk of passage plans are interrupted by starling murmurations above, while sips of hot, silky coffee slowly bring us back to life.

We decide a cold-water plunge is the only thing for it: the effects of total submersion proving transformative, addictive even. We emerge from the Orwell’s depths looking mottled and raw, but we feel revived and reborn. It has become a morning ritual – each day beginning with a baptism of sorts, a blessing from the elements.

It hasn’t always been like this, of course. Neither of us had any solid experience of handling a boat 12 months ago – we didn’t grow up dangling off the side of dinghies or racing fancy yachts in prestigious regattas. But cut us open and we bleed saltwater. Wakeboarding, water skiing, surfing, scuba diving – we’ve tried them all. So, it was always the dream to one day own our own boat – a wooden womb to call our own that would gently suspend us between sea and sky, simultaneously immersing us in the tidal adventures we’d come to crave, and removing us from the digital maelstrom that is modern life.

Into lockdown

The dream to buy a boat was first seeded back in 2012 when Rich and I travelled around Australia and New Zealand together. Both adventure-hungry water junkies, we were drawn to the Whitsunday Islands and found ourselves on a week-long island-hopping voyage aboard a beautiful, classic wooden ketch. Days at sea watching the waves blur into sky and the sun dip over billowing sails triggered a yearning to buy our own vintage vessel. I had visions of us bareboating in Greece – one hand firmly on the tiller, the other gripping a G&T. Neither of us had ever sailed before, but that was a mere technicality. We’d just have to learn.

Back in the UK, Rich promptly booked himself onto a five-day Competent Crew course, picking up the basics during a passage along the River Stour. Six years later, I somewhat sheepishly did the same. And then? Nothing. We talked about buying a boat; about setting sail for the Azores, tacking our way to the Isles of Scilly, and navigating the rocky outcrops of Croatia before diving off the deck for a sun-soaked swim. We talked about that a lot. But we didn’t do it. Life always seemed to get in the way. Until, of course, in March 2020 a corona-shaped stillness dropped anchor and a series of lockdowns descended. Finally, with nowhere to go and no plans to keep, it was time to start sailing.

As restrictions eased, we drove down to the Solent and spent days wandering around old boat yards and moneyed marinas. We climbed aboard mid-size Moodys and snooped around snug Cornish Shrimpers. Then I spotted a 30-year-old 32ft Hallberg-Rassy – the same mahogany-dipped classic cruiser we’d both learned the ropes in on our Comp Crew courses – moored just 20 miles away from our home on the Essex/Suffolk border. My heart silenced any lingering doubts. Lockdown had left us weary of staring at our four walls, but now, the grey-green waters of the River Orwell promised freedom.

While money can buy you a boat, it can’t buy you experience. Our first few trips out were hair-raising for all the wrong reasons. Moorings were heart-pounding events; reefings (reducing the sail) regularly went awry. Our first passage aboard Elle – tentatively moving her from Walton-on-the-Naze in Essex to Woolverstone in Suffolk – proved far from plain sailing. Westerly winds ripped through the foresail and spears of horizontal rain lashed us from leaden skies. A freight ferry, en-route for the industrial docks of Harwich, careered towards our starboard side, then the channel-marking red and green buoys disappeared among fingers of wet fog. Not the most auspicious of starts.

Calmer waters

Since then, though, the Orwell has provided a gentle gateway into the world of sailing; its wide, meandering banks teaching us to read the wind and water. Always preferring to sail and tack than kick-start the engine, we’ve become part of this beautiful waterway’s quiet, fragile tranquility. When we heel off the shores of Shotley, it’s not uncommon for grey seals to appear port of our bow, their heads bobbing up in the surf like silky sea dancers pirouetting across a fluid stage. Where once I’d have struggled to pinpoint which way the wind was blowing, now I speak fluent whitecaps, diligently watching their whipped cream peaks pitch in squalls and rise like yurts as storm clouds gather. Nature has become our clock, too, the tide a daily pendulum that marks morning, noon and night with predictably angled swing-moored boats and sun-bleached buoys.

Slowly, we’ve learned to relax into the practicalities of owning our own vessel and, rather than fixate on our points of sail, we’ve stepped into the everyday rhythms of the river, taking each day at nature’s pace. Sailing stamps out impatience and encourages respect: you simply have to wait for the wind. Now, we watch the low-cruising clouds of Canada geese at dusk and try to read the celestial nighttime canopy that follows – its stars spread sporadically like crotchets and semi quavers across an inky blue jazz sheet.

Sailing near Shotley on the River Orwell

We’ve come to know the sounds of the estuary, too. How it gurgles under anchor as we dip wedges of bread into balsamic, or slaps at the stern as we pass picturesque Pin Mill – its secluded sandy shoreline a nostalgic rendering of rural England. We can decipher between the shrill of a swift and trill of a swallow. But we’re still listening out for the ‘chuff’ of Suffolk’s elusive harbour porpoises, which we’ve yet to spot but know journey somewhere off the coastline’s syrup-smooth horizon.

Living out lockdowns on the river has rewilded us and, despite the hardships, hostility and heartbreak it has caused, we have COVID-19 to thank. If it hadn’t pressed pause on normal life, this unfiltered immersion in nature would have continued to elude us. But now the wind pinches our faces and chivvies us forward. Being sandwiched somewhere between the sea, sails and sky really does make us happier.

Mudflats near the Orwell Bridge

In 1910, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau wrote: “The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.”  What he omitted from his love letter to the waves was how having the wind in your hair and salt on your face frees you from anxiety too. Sailing the River Orwell these past six months has taught me not only how to reconnect with nature, but has navigated me through a worldwide pandemic in one piece. Blue mind? Exploring the psychology behind our emotional, behavioural and physical relationships with the ocean is undoubtedly fascinating. But those early morning deep dives are what matter to me most.

  • This is a guest blog and is an extract from Nicola Moyne’s article in Ernest, a journal for curious minds. You can read the full article in issue 11, available to purchase at Enter the code ‘ERNESTSUFFOLK10’ at the checkout and you’ll get 10% off the cover price.