Close Encounter (Too Close!)
Jon Walmsley

Every sailing season leaves individual memories that distinguish it from others. 1997 is no different in this respect; the following  unforgettable event took place on the Orwell one Sunday evening in August.

I had set off with a friend for the Orwell from Paglesham on the Friday evening, catching the ebb tide to anchor in Quay Reach for the night. On the Saturday we left before seven, but due to light winds and my reluctance to use the engine, did not arrive at Pin Mill until five in the afternoon. No sooner had we put the kettle on, than Eric arrived in Meris and picked up his daughter's mooring, a couple of buoys upstream of us, his daughter being away at the time. We were invited aboard Meris for a tipple before going ashore for a meal in a very crowded Butt and Oyster. Eric, sensibly, declined to join us.

On Sunday we awoke to the familiar sight of Meris astern. After a leisurely breakfast we went ashore and walked to Woolverstone. In the afternoon we sailed under the bridge and then back downstream to Suffolk Yacht Harbour, where we picked up a buoy upstream of the entrance. I had decided not to take Stravaig into the marina as we had an early start the following day and anyway the dinghy was already inflated. After a filling meal on the lightship, washed down with Guiness, we set off in search of the dinghy.

We managed to get into the dinghy and negotiate various hazards, (pontoons, other boats etc.), until we were clear of the entrance and out in the river. It was flat calm with an overcast sky making it very dark, once we were away from the lights of the Marina. The tide was flooding, so I let it do most of the work and slowly rowed out towards the trot of moorings. At this moment a seal appeared a couple of hundred feet behind us. He had caught a large fish and was splashing around while he ate it. We decided to see if we could get closer. I started rowing slowly in his direction, making sufficient way to stem the tide.

The seal had disposed of the fish, and was going through a cycle of diving, surfacing for a few seconds, (usually where we least expected him), and then diving again. Each surface brought him nearer. As we were now very close to the seal, his last dive was only thirty feet away, I had stopped rowing leaving the oars cocked in the air. The port oar had a large piece of seaweed hanging from it which left circles of phosphorescence on the surface of the water as it dripped. The seal then surfaced, breathing noisily, only ten feet away from us. We sat there rigid, fearing any movement would frighten him away, (little did we know). Then, after a brief look around, he was gone. 

Suddenly the seal surfaced and removed the seaweed from the oar, making us both jump. This was a bit too close for comfort, so I decided to take us out of harm's way. I started rowing. To our surprise behind us we could see the seal following, the round shape of his head marking the bottom of a vee that spread out across the flat water. I didn't seem to be outrunning him. I wondered if the splash of the oars attracted him. I stopped rowing and we sat watching the surface for telltale ripples for a couple of minutes. No sign of the seal so we assumed he had gone. I was about to resume our journey back to Stravaig when the seal appeared directly alongside the dinghy. He reared up out of the water so that his head was a couple of feet above the surface and seemed to be peering into the inflatable. Then, again, he was gone. This was getting beyond a joke, I didn't like to think of the consequences of sharing the Avon with another large mammal. I decided it was time to make a hasty getaway.

I started rowing as hard as a soft dinghy and plastic oars would allow. Again the seal followed, but did not seem to be catching us. I could see Stravaig now, and we were soon alongside. We scrambled into the cockpit, and stood there anxiously looking for our bÍte noir. The silence was broken by the outboard of a loaded dinghy returning to a nearby yacht. I put the kettle on. We did not see the seal again.

We had an uneventful trip back to Paglesham on the Monday. Meris overtook us mid morning while we were drifting in light airs off Walton, I started the engine and followed her out to the Spitway. Looking astern, Eric would have seen Stravaig marking the bottom of a vee that spread out across the flat water. 

We were back at the mooring by two.