River Exe cruise: Conrad’s River Journeys

Conrad Humphreys returns to his roots with a River Exe cruise in his 17th century replica lugger, Bounty’s End

Conrad Humphreys returns to his roots with a River Exe cruise in his 17th century replica lugger, Bounty’s End

Growing up in Exmoor as a child, I got to know almost every inch of the River Exe.

Our family home was less than 100m from Exmouth seafront, and an equal distance between Exmouth Sailing Club and the rugby club.

At the age of nine I would spend the summer sailing and racing on the Exe and in the winter I played rugby for Exmouth Rugby Club.

As the youngest of four siblings, I loved competitive sport and the freedom away from school that it offered.

Exe Sailing Club was less than a mile from my house and to get there, I would pass McNamara Sails and boat builders, Rowsell & Morrison.

Exmouth is a popular sailing ground, with regular racing. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

Exmouth is a popular sailing ground, with regular racing. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

After school, I’d find myself either in X Sails cutting out sail numbers with Mike Mac, or sweeping up the sawdust from Spud Rowsell’s boatyard – little did I know where this early passion would ultimately lead.

The River Exe is one of the best locations to learn to sail and our local club, Exe Sailing Club has produced many National, World and Olympic sailors over the years.

The reason for this is the variety of conditions the Exe offers.

Out beyond Dawlish Warren, you have open water and some great wave sailing.

In the river, you might be short tacking along the shoreline trying to avoid the strong tides.

It’s a place that sharpens your boat handling but also tests your ability to really use the elements, the tides, the back eddies, the acceleration zones, and the sand banks.

Bounty on River Exe cruise. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

Bounty on her River Exe cruise. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

I’ve often felt that growing up, racing on the Exe, surrounded by amazing sailors like Mike McNamara, Phil Morrison and Spud Rowsell who coached and inspired us, that it was these early experiences that really formulated my own sailing achievements later in life.

So to be back on the Exe at the start of this series of River Journeys, after more than 30 years, was fantastic.

Luckily there was just enough water to launch Bounty’s End at Exe Sailing Club before I sailed out into the ‘Gut’, via a small little tributary that joins the main river.

From there, I headed west to Dawlish Warren and the No.13 buoy, a large green channel marker that lies to the south of Bull Hill Bank and a favourite racing mark for the sailors at Exe Sailing Club.

The tides were on the flood, so with current underneath the hull and a light northerly wind, I was going to have to beat to Topsham, which was far from ideal for a small lug-sailed boat like Bounty that doesn’t sail well upwind!

River Exe cruise: Powderham Castle is a fortified Grade-One listed manor house and is open to visitors. Look out for it on a River Exe cruise. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

Powderham Castle is a fortified Grade-One listed manor house and is open to visitors. Look out for it on a River Exe cruise. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

As I headed north, I caught a glimpse of an old steam train on the railway line that runs next to the river at Starcross.

It was a stark reminder that the railways would effectively end much of the transportation of goods up and down this river and transform many of the UK’s waterways.

It would soon become uneconomical for the larger schooners and cutters to trade up and down the Exe, leading to their demise.

From Starcross you might catch a glimpse of Powderham Castle, the family home of the Earl of Devon, with its large estate enjoying three miles of uninterrupted river views.

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The shallow mudflats are a constant concern, so it is vital to keep well inside the main channel from here on.

The breeze was quite steady and with the current underneath my bow, I made good progress on my River Exe cruise.

My plan was to reach Turf Lock around midday, before sailing on to the very picturesque riverside town of Topsham.

Turf Lock is famous for its pound lock gates which were the first in the UK and paved the way for similar lock gate systems across the country.

The lock marks the start of the Exeter Ship Canal, which was built in the 17th century to enable larger ships, up to 400 tonnes to get up to the city of Exeter.

River Exe cruise: Conrad had to row to reach Turf Lock as this stretch of the river is well sheltered. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

Conrad had to row to reach Turf Lock as this stretch of the river is well sheltered. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

Whilst I spent the first 10 years of my life exploring the River Exe, I’d never actually taken a boat through the lock.

The sheltered water meant that I needed to row the final stretch up to the lock, which is always challenging.

Bounty weighs over a ton and is quite difficult to row singlehanded.

The lock keeper and harbourmaster must have thought it quite surreal to see a traditional boat being rowed into the entrance of the lock.

Now alongside, I chatted to Graham Forshaw, the harbourmaster responsible for the Exeter Ship Canal about its history.

Once inside, the lock gates shut behind me and the water levels started to rise as the top gates were opened, allowing the canal water to flood in.

The 23ft Bounty has a 1m draught. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

The 23ft Bounty has a 1m draught. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

When the water level had risen enough, the gates were opened fully allowing Bounty to pass into the canal.

Unfortunately, the warm weather had resulted in a lot of algae and weed in the canal, so after less than 50m, I ground to a halt, unable to row any further.

It would be impossible to make our way to Exeter, so I decided to grab a bite to eat at the pub and then head onto Topsham.

Back on the river and with the weed all clear from the rudder, I had just over an hour to reach Topsham before the tide turned.

This part of the river is stunning – the marshlands are a haven for wildlife.

Ship-building in Topsham was massive in the early 18th century, with local farmer-turned boat builder, Robert Davey, building more than 27 warships for the Royal Navy, including HMS Terror, Franklin’s expedition ship that got stranded in the ice when trying to find a route through the North West Passage.

There is also a strong Dutch influence in the houses in Topsham, which came from ships trading with the Lowlands throughout this period.

Passage Planner for a River Exe cruise

The approach to Exmouth can be tricky and should be avoided in heavy swell during easterly or onshore winds.

Pole Sands is a shifting sand bar that narrows the channel, making navigation a real challenge.

Whilst as kids we used to love playing on the bar, learning to surf the shallow, breaking waves, it’s certainly not a place to be in strong winds if you are not comfortable with your approach.

However, once you get through Pole Sands and into the main channel running parallel to the beach, the waves do calm down.

Pole Sand is a shifting sand bar and shouldn’t be approached in heavy swell. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

Pole Sand is a shifting sand bar and shouldn’t be approached in heavy swell. Credit: Conrad Humphreys

I would suggest the ideal time to approach Exmouth would be a few hours before high water, when the bar is just showing, so you can clearly see the main channel.

Choose a calm, settled day and maybe not a spring tide, as the flow out of the main channel past the old docks can run at 4-5 knots.

As you pass Exmouth Pier head, the channel opens up round to the west passing Dawlish Warren, a magnificent nature reserve and bird sanctuary, perfect for a family picnic stop.

There are some visitor moorings here in the deepwater, south of Bull Hill Bank that can be accessed with the local water taxi collecting the mooring fees.

Note that the tides run very fast here, so make sure you are well organised if you are picking up a buoy.

The route of Conrad's River Exe cruise. Credit: Maxine Heath

The route of Conrad’s River Exe cruise. Credit: Maxine Heath

Once past Bull Hill, the river bends around to the north and the tidal flow reduces.

From here on the river widens, but is still very shallow and dries in places. Keep to the buoyed channel at all times, otherwise you will find yourself on a sand bank or mudflat, particularly if your boat draws more than 1m.

Once past Lympstone, the channel meanders up to Turf Lock, one of the oldest pound locks in the country with a fantastic pub and hotel.

Here you can access the Exeter Ship Canal, although in late September, we found a lot of weed hampered our progress north.

Conrad Humphreys is a very experienced yachtsman and presenter who has spent over two decades leading teams in some of the most hostile places on the planet. As a professional yachtsman, Conrad has raced three times around the world, has won the BT Global Challenge and became the fifth British sailor in history to complete the legendary Vendée Globe. More recently, Conrad was the professional skipper for Channel 4’s recreation of Captain Bligh’s 4,000-mile open boat journey, Mutiny.

Conrad Humphreys is a very experienced yachtsman and presenter who has spent over two decades leading teams in some of the most hostile places on the planet. As a professional yachtsman, Conrad has raced three times around the world, has won the BT Global Challenge and became the fifth British sailor in history to complete the legendary Vendée Globe. More recently, Conrad was the professional skipper for Channel 4’s recreation of Captain Bligh’s 4,000-mile open boat journey, Mutiny.

The canal will take you all the way up to Exeter and is a wonderful haven for wildlife and tranquility if you are not pushed for time.

Back on the river and the final mile will see you arrive at the picturesque village of Topsham, with its rich boat building and trading history.

It’s well worth timing your arrival with high water so you can get up as far as the M5 bridge (10m height limit).

Topsham Maritime Museum (www.topshammuseum.org.uk) is well worth a visit, and look out for the Dutch influence on the houses on The Strand.

 

History Hit has been working with international yachtsman Conrad Humphreys on a new documentary series, Conrad’s River Journeys, exploring the rivers of Devon and the Salcombe Estuary.

The series sees Conrad explore each river from top to bottom in his one-of-a-kind lugger, Bounty’s End, meeting a myriad of interesting people along the way to talk about history of the rivers and the sailing boats that have shaped the local area.

Watch the series at: access.historyhit.com/river-journeys-with-conrad-humphreys Use the promo code FREEMONTH to get a two months free subscription.


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Source: Yachting Monthly

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