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Author series: John McCarthy

Author series: John McCarthy
Image: Jeremy Sutton-Hibbert/Getty

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Writer, journalist and broadcaster John McCarthy on his love of sailing down East Anglia’s River Ore

The afternoon sky darkened suddenly and we closed the hatches just before the rain fell in torrents. So loud was the drumming on the cabin roof, we could only look at each other in surprise, then turn to peer through the portholes. Between the deep mud banks on either side, the water was churned to froth by the downpour.

The storm passed as quickly as it had come and the world fell silent. Climbing back on deck, we looked around for a moment or two. No other boat lay near us and the tide was so low we couldn’t see over the river’s bank. We were quite alone.

“We could be on the upper reaches of the Orinoco or the Congo,” I said.

Anna, my wife, scanned the horizon opening out before us above the mud. “The clouds are shifting, we should have a great sunset.”

We did, and she took some fabulous photographs of it and one of me as I paddled the dinghy around the boat.

As the vessel rose on the flood tide, we sat in the cockpit to watch as the surrounding area revealed itself. Rather than a jungle landscape, it was the wide, flat arable lands of East Anglia that came into view.

We were moored in a little creek, rather grandly known as the Butley River, in Suffolk. The Butley is a tributary of the Ore, itself no great waterway, and looking northwards we could see the keep of Orford Castle. Visiting the small, picturesque village, it’s hard to believe that in the Middle Ages, Orford was an important port; the castle was built by King Henry II to dominate the area.

The village has a couple of great pubs, especially The Jolly Sailor, near the quay, and the famous Butley Orford Oysterage restaurant and smokery. Upriver from Orford, where the River Ore becomes the River Alde, is the town of Aldeburgh. A much bigger place than Orford, Aldeburgh is an elegant holiday resort with hotels, boutiques — and possibly the best fish and chips in the region.

These are great places to explore, but it’s the river and sailing that’s drawn me back and made this somewhere I feel I belong to. Setting off from the shore, with the dinghy loaded with supplies for the next couple of days, always fills me with enormous excitement and joy. And a degree of caution; the tides are fierce and you have a fairly small window of opportunity to ‘cross the bar’ at the river mouth to get to or from the North Sea and venture farther afield.

This river is where I’ve learned most about sailing — taught by my friend James. With a face permanently deep red from the wind and sun, he’s a lovely, serious and gentle man. Though he’s a yachting instructor with the highest qualifications, James never puts on airs and, like all good teachers, is patient. In the early days with my boat, I managed, under full sail, to get snagged on a mooring. We lurched to a halt and, panicking, I raced below for a large knife, announcing I’d go over the side to cut us free.

James put his hand on my arm. “Are you hurt, John?” I shook my head. He went on, “Neither am I. We’re safe.” Then he laughed, “But we are moored unconventionally! Why don’t you drop the sails while I put the kettle on? Then we can figure out what to do.”

After a calming cuppa, we managed to free the boat without cutting any ropes. With the help of others, and through learning from my mistakes, I’ve gained confidence on these waters.

On the seaward side of the river lies Orford Ness, Europe’s largest vegetated shingle spit. Extending for some 10 miles, its low horizon is dominated by the red and white tower of Orfordness Lighthouse and the mysterious ‘pagodas’: concrete structures that were once part of the secret weapons research programmes that ran here throughout much of the previous century.

Perhaps because of the tricky entrance, the river never seems too crowded with boats. Even in high summer, you can have it almost to yourself, gliding silently between the banks, looking out for the occasional seal making its way in over the bar, or for the rare avocets that breed on Havergate Island. It’s the tranquillity, the sense of being far from the busy world, that makes this stretch of water, running under very wide skies, so appealing.

One hot August afternoon, sailing solo and in a world of my own, a rattle of chain made me look astern. There was a beautiful Thames barge gliding along under sail. This craft — massive compared to my own — was being sailed by an old man, puffing contentedly on his pipe. I tucked my ship in near the bank and we exchanged a slow wave as he passed.

Though I no longer own a boat and we’re planning a move away from Suffolk, the Ore will always be close to my heart and somewhere I hope to return to always.
John McCarthy’s latest book, You Can’t Hide the Sun, explores the experiences of the Palestinian citizens of Israel, published by Bantam Press. RRP: £20.


Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)