Tag Archives: John Simpson

John Simpson remembers cockling and shrimping off Leigh-on-Sea

John Simpson has been thinking about his early days fishing off Leigh, and the value of fishing from yachts. I’m most grateful to him for sharing his thoughts.

The photos show: Leigh a few years ago; John’s father and mother on board boats; and (please forgive the potential confusion) some black and white images of Leigh taken by my father in the mid-50s. The lady on shore is /my/ mother.

Here’s what John has to say:

‘It seems completely normal to me that you would fish whilst sailing, having brought up at Leigh-on-Sea, a small village on the north side of the Thames Estuary. But I found out that fishing is not for everyone.

‘Once while helping a yachtsman called Leslie Powles step his mast I learned that he’d almost starved to death because of his refusal to catch fish on the last of his great voyages – this was a man who had sailed round the world single-handed three times.

‘At Leigh the tide goes way out, and leaves about two miles of mud, and when I was young there was a small fishing industry of shrimp and cockle boats. The fishermen felt their way in or out of a long creek before the banks dried out completely, often using long coloured poles to push the boat around any tight bits.

‘As a lad I worked one of the local cockle boats for £1 a day (I was lucky and had connections, as I went to school with many of the fishermen’s sons. Any money I made went towards buying a GP14 sailing dinghy. This was good money in the late 50’s/early 60’s, and paid paid more than double what a paper round had paid, and I struggled to get up in time for that!

‘But somehow catching an early tide never seemed much of a problem, even though it was a long day and hard graft.

‘At the beginning when eleven or twelve I only made the tea and was general dogsbody!

‘The fishing boats at Leigh are called bawleys, which may be a corruption of ‘boilers’. After the railway came to Leigh during the eighteenth century, the shrimpers could boil their catch on the way back to land and they could then go straight onto the steam train to London to be eaten fresh in the city.

‘Cockles were different, as they were only boiled up back in the sheds.

‘A days fishing at Leigh if given a favoring early morning high tide meant that parts of the long creek could be missed out on the way out by skipping over mud banks. Leaving on the first of the ebb helped take us east towards the grounds, which were shallow banks formed in the estuary beyond Southend Pier due to the east to west tide.

‘On arrival at a known rich bank that only the skipper knew, the boat was used to tow the gear alongside over the sandbanks against the tide.

‘There was either one or two dredges. They were rather like big garden rakes and would heap the cockles together into big banks. As the tide dropped further the boat would then be deliberately grounded close to the heaped piles of cockles.

‘Then came the hard graft as the crew pulled up their thigh boots (most fishermen at Leigh wore them permanently but folded down!). They jumped off the boat onto the bank with two buckets attached on a wooden yoke across the shoulders. Then filled the buckets with cockles and brought them back to the boat, usually by balancing on a plank of wood as the tide dropped. This was back breaking work, and the men knew we lads weren’t strong enough at first.

‘Once the boss had decided we had enough cockles aboard as the flood tide began. The boat would be driven of the bank as she floated.

‘On the journey home (again with a fair tide) if the catch was good the cockles would be bagged and put on the deck. Finally they were taken off to be boiled in the sheds.

‘It could be a knackering 12-14 hour day and I must admit I sometimes bunked off school to do it.

‘My father also had a passion for the sea and owned several lovely old deep keel working fishing boats and yachts. He refitted them at Leigh but preferred to keep them further north on the River Crouch in the summer, where they stayed afloat whatever state of the tide.

‘My Uncle Len who’d been lucky enough to survive four tours of operations in bombers during WWII took care never to waste a day of his life. He and his pal Arthur had a small wooden replica smack built built called Glad Times. Len had to help Arthur on the boat as they said ‘Arthur left one of his legs at Dunkirk’.

‘They used their boat to trawl under sail but it took them quite a while to master the technique.

‘Having been lucky enough to spend a large proportion of my life either racing, delivering or coaching under sail on yachts, it still seems completely mad to me if you don’t troll a line or two from a boat: our cold British waters still abound with fish.’


Sailing slowly and scandalising

John Simpson is back with another of his excellent tales… For more from John, click here.

‘My early-hours-of-the-morning entry into Fort-de-France, Martinique after crossing the pond for the third time in my 22ft boat was definitely the most laid-back – even though it was under sail and at night.

Undoubtedly, I was helped by the fact that I’d owned and sailed Miss Content for six years and had already spent a year sailing her engineless during my first Atlantic circuit.

It had been a slow passage of thirty-five days with unreliable NE trade winds, and I had left the Canaries much later than intended after my sister Pat and partner Janet had both joined me for holidays… possibly we had enjoyed some slow exploring of these warm Spanish islands a little too much, and too long.

Single-handed sailing or being alone on watch during a dark night does allow your imagination to run riot. It brings us all quickly back to primitive man – so I well remember when, standing up looking around in the cockpit on one dark windy night running downwind in the trades, I was punched in the chest by some unknown creature that then flapped around the cockpit close to my bare feet my heart missed a beat! I reached for my torch and found it was just a small flying fish.

The landfall was a bit of a mess. I spotted what I assumed to be Martinique shortly after mid-day, but it was much farther south than my astro fix suggested. Stupidly, I began heading for the high land I could see only to realise I was looking at Saint Lucia!

One shouldn’t take anything for granted navigationally, but convincing myself this didn’t matter wasn’t that hard: for the last couple of nights I’d been enjoying listening to the radio and live test match cricket, West Indies versus Australia from the Wakka in Perth, and with a bit more sailing to do I’d be able to catch the fourth days play!

It was amazing how comfortable I’d become. There was a wonderful feeling inner of peace in the ocean and I was coping easily with my solitude and tiny living space.

As I approached Martinique, the wind lightened as I came under the lee of the land. After weeks of running under large twin jibs (or even using the spinnaker on one side), I hoisted the mainsail and noumber 3 jib. The boat would easily carry a much larger headsail, but this sail was high cut and allowed good forward view underneath it in the slow sailing to come as I entered at night.

Passing Diamond Rock with a few miles to go I recalled the struggles between the British and French during the 18th century Napoleonic wars. The Royal Navy took the 600ft rock and held it for over a year while they harassed the French. They named it HMS Diamond Rock.

It took two ‘74’s and other ships for the French to recapture the rock on Napoleon’s orders.

During my last visit to the Caribbean some bold sailors had come down from English Harbour in a RIB and retaken the rock just before the French Navy sailed in, hoisting the Cross of St George. Unfortunately, even 180 years on, the Admiral of the French fleet had a complete sense of humour failure…

Gently tacking up into the harbour, I eventually spotted other yachts anchored in the bay at Anise des Flames. With my mainsail scandalized I let my anchor slide down and waited for the boat to settle. Finally, at about four o’clock in the morning I dropped the sail and the boat and I quietly congratulated ourselves on making another crossing.

Then, while filling my kettle for a celebratory cup of tea, the water ran out. It had been a close run thing!

Whether you’re entering a strange bay or harbour during the day or at night, if you are tackling it under sail it must be done slowly. Not so slow that you don’t have enough control of the boat and end up possibly running aground, or being blow onto the bows of another moored craft, but clearly also not sailing so fast, that any manoeuvre (particularly gybing) loses this essential control.

What’s required is moderate speed giving enough steerage and directional control, not racing along gunwales-under.

This needs to be experimented with on your own boat, using plenty of space and a variety of wind conditions, and perhaps even different tidal flow situations, if they occur in your local area.

Find out how your boat performs using just the main or jib. One sail might do the job. Generally, three quarter rigged or seven eight rigged (ie, forestay only that far up the mast) dinghies/yachts have much bigger mainsails. Find out if just a jib will do the job, if it’s windy. Masthead-rigged craft have small mainsails that may not be big enough to give sufficient drive, when it’s light, and under just the jib they don’t always beat or even tack well in stronger winds. So a reefed main and slightly furled or smaller jib may well be the answer.

Sails must be ready to be sheeted in or dumped, even backed, or dropped or hoisted.

It’s good to practice using the sails to steer, with the mainsail helping turn the boat into the wind and pulled in to tack. Hanging onto the jib can be good if it helps to bear away for a gybe with the main sheet dumped. The technique needs to be practiced so it can be quickly used to help turn in tighter spaces.

Mainsails may need to be reefed in open water before entry.

Low-cut genoas cut down on all-round vision, so change the headsail early and use a higher cut jib, or roll it up enough so you can see underneath it, unless the wind is extremely light and things are going to happen slowly anyway.

Most importantly, your crew must be familiar, with how all the rig and sails work!

Finally, scandalising the main – on a Bermudan main it can be done by by hoisting the boom up higher with the topping lift – can give you a quick way of de-powering a mainsail or any other sail on a boom. This de-powers the boat temporarily without having to drop the mainsail and enables you to rapidly re-power up, if you have to accelerate out of a tight spot quickly and leaves the sail ready for almost instant use, say, until you are completely sure that the anchor has bitten-in safely, clear of any hazards or the boat is properly secured to a buoy.

It’s wonderful technique to use when manoeuvring under sail and pretty well an essential part of your armoury on an engineless boat.

Having released both sheet and vang, the boom needs to be lifted so it depowers the sail and can’t bang anyone on the head. (Topping lifts are useful in other ways too – for example, when it’s needed a topping lift can make a useful spare main halyard.)

On modern boats, of course, rigid vangs may not allow the boom to raise, fully battened sails can be almost impossible to de-power and some goose-necks can be too rigid to lift sufficiently.

On gaff and gunter rigged boats, scandalising can be achieved the opposite way, by lowering off on the peak of the gaff. Again, after dumping the sheet and taking up the weight of the boom, with the topping lift enough to keep the gear clear of the crew’s heads!

It’s worthwhile playing around with these ideas in light winds and in a crowded place – one day if your engine fails you might need to use this method in anger, and then you’ll be pleased you’ve practised the method beforehand.

For me as an Anglophile my bonus was clear: I’d sneaked into French territory under sail at night, yet again!

Yours aye,
John Simpson

  • On water… Fresh water had been something I’d worried about during that whole of the passage, which was well before the advent of manual desalinators – I had even considered diverting south to Barbados to slightly shorten my crossing…. but in the end I arrived with two emergency gallons in my grab bag. I‘d set off with five gallons less than during  my first crossing, at the end of which I arrived with 15 gallons left, much collected from rain squalls. This passage, however, had taken a week longer, and there had been no proper rain! You can’t assume anything, when dealing with Mother Nature.

A winter aboard – with a sad swan


John Simpson tells a sweet little story of a winter he spent on his boat – and of how he made friends with a lonely swan. Many thanks John!

‘To save money between long voyages, I lived on my small 22 ft. yacht Miss Content for a while in Portsmouth harbour – I had moved the boat there from Southampton in late summer and was lucky enough to be directed to a free alongside berth owned by the Ministry of Defence (MOD), which I worked for at the time.

‘It was just north of the Royal Clarence Victualling Yard, up a shallow, narrow channel named Weevil Creek (which seemed reasonable) at the entrance of Forton Lake.

‘A dozen Mexyfloats (linking sections carried by Army Landing Craft) formed into a U shaped pontoon created a little harbour, which made it an almost ideal spot to spend the winter.

‘It was well sheltered except when the wind was strong in the NE and the tide had covered the mud banks. It was also very secure being close to Priddy’s Hard, a Royal Naval Ammunition Depot, guarded by the MOD Police.

‘When I arrived it had been quite busy with Army yachts, some private, but mainly service-owned, which were generally used at the weekend, but during the week after work in the evenings my only company, were the occasional fisherman on the footbridge access across Forton Lake to the boats, and a pair of swans that used to come round to ask for food by knocking on my varnished teak rubbing strake.

‘Summer gave way to autumn and the army yachts were laid up, some left alongside others mostly taken away to be lifted out. The weekend’s sailing activities slowly ceased for all including myself: I hadn’t been using my own boat much anyway, as I had been teaching mostly on other yachts at the weekend, which earned extra money, and stopped me hammering the little boat to much, before I set off across the Atlantic again.

‘I stripped and stored most of my sailing gear to make more room during the winter months, although I hoped to spend the majority of my weekends staying with a lovely Irish girl I’d met.

‘Unfortunately our relationship hit the rocks just before Christmas, so I spent the coldest months of the winter living aboard, my only company now one of the swans – he’d lost his mate. She had probably died of lead poisoning, an RSPCA man told me – despite the ban some people then were still using lead for weights when rod fishing.

‘Swans mate for life and the loss certainly hit him much harder than my own broken romance. It felt as if we were two ‘sad old bastards’ together, and I thought he might pine to death. He still visited every evening, looking in rag order, without grooming himself properly and weight loss.

‘At first he refused to eat the broken-up bread that I chucked in the water for him. The crisis point reached perhaps, when Forton Lake froze early in February and he half swam half slithered on the broken ice round to the boat, and tapped for food. By that point he’d made the decision to live, and I found myself having to buy extra loaves of bread to feed him – he preferred brown, not white. His spirits seemed to rise further after the cold snap and he started grooming properly again.

‘By spring he looked a different bird as the evenings lightened, not always gracing me with his company. Perhaps he’d found better food available elsewhere. Sometimes he flew in, which was always a buzz when he skidded to a halt, close to Miss C.

‘Sometime later that summer he came to see me after quite a considerable gap in time with a new mate. If a swan can look pleased with himself, I’d say that’s what he looked like then. Funnily enough it must have been, around the same time, I met my present wife! So it turned out to be a better year than we both imagined back in that bleak February… ‘