Navigating The Orwell

When looking out onto the Orwell from its banks, one sees a calm and peaceful river flowing from an urban port-town to a busy container port. It seems even calmer on a clear sunny day when several barges and yachts sail past quietly. Without noise, rough waves or being able to see under the water, these boats float past without any issues, making the river seem tranquil and easy to navigate. 

maritime, ipswich, orwell quay

However, under the surface and when the tidal Orwell recedes, you can see the meandering river and how shallow it can be at low tide, with large areas of marsh and mudflats. For hundreds of years pilots assisted boats up the Orwell from the estuary to the town, or part way from Pin Mill to Ipswich. Tight bends in the river hampered vessels’ progress following narrow channels, and shoals many times entirely prevented large craft approaching the town. Vessels had difficulty negotiating areas of the river, such as Mulberry Middle and Back-Again Reach, leading to the town port and before the Wet Dock was built the port consisted of wooden sided quays, mudflats and marshland, something totally indistinguishable to today’s modern quays and Wet Dock.

These and many other navigational issues on the Orwell have been there for hundreds of years and, as ships visiting Ipswich grew bigger between the 1500s and late 1700s, the river needed to be made more navigable and in many places needed widening and dredging. It was one of the reasons and necessities for the Wet Dock in the 1830s. 

This map of the Orwell from 1872 shows how hard it could be to navigate the river, with all its shoals and channels. It is true that today navigation along the Orwell is easier than ever before thanks to modern technology, but along with most of the East Anglian coast, it is still difficult for many sailors and those that can master these waterways are set to sail the world. As Hammond Innes, the great novelist, famously stated;

 “The man or woman who serves their sailing and navigational apprenticeship on the coastal waters of East Anglia can subsequently sail all other waters with reasonable confidence.” Hammond Innes