For the past dozen or so years I’ve been paddling down the Thames in a variety of folding kayaks every time I’ve visited England. My goal has been to paddle the entire length from the first lock at Richmond until it reaches the estuary and enters the North Sea. The past few legs I had made in what has become my favorite traveling kayak, the Pakboats Puffin 10.5. This year I would attempt the most difficult leg of the route; I would go sixteen miles from the ominously named Gravesend, out into the estuary itself, and then double back up the Medway River for eleven miles where I would land near the historic dockyards at Chatham. This was a technically challenging paddle because not only would I be dealing with river current, large tidal swings, and strong winds, but also I’d be paddling near and in one of the most heavily trafficked shipping lanes in the world, which is flanked by some of the most dangerous mudflats in the world save only for those found in the Friesian Island chain across the North Sea in Holland and western Germany.
My plan was to paddle from Gravesend to Chatham, and catch the tidal shift just off the Isle of Grain so that I would firstly ride the falling tide down to Grain, and then float up it to Chatham. To best do this, I needed to depart Gravesend by 1:00 on Saturday the 24th and arrive at the confluence of the Thames and Medway at 5:36 when, the official tide table said, would be the high tide at Southend-on-Sea across the river/estuary.
In the event my responsibilities in London prevented me from starting on time, and so I didn’t get my Puffin assembled and launched until 2:10 (14:10). I figured if I paddled hard I’d make up some of the lost time, and what I didn’t make up I would muscle through against the tide. I’ve paddled against tides and river currents before, but normally not half-through a long journey when I’m fatigued. Oh well, there was no choice.
I launched at Gravesend near that little church down by the river just east of the bigger church where Pocahontas was buried. I was immediately met with a stiffish breeze in my face and a moderately active river. The wind served to invigorate me more than it retarded me and so I paddled away jubilant to be on Old Father Thames once again and “in command” of my own little ship. My ten foot kayak strikes many as being too small for turbulent conditions, but I’ve had it out on the North Sea before, and in many trying sea states. It’s flexible enough that it absorbs most buffets with a gentle little bend and roll. I’ve never turned turtle in it, and it ships only thimble-fulls of water even after long paddles.
Trying to make my rendezvous with the tidal shift was the only thing on my mind as I cranked away hour by hour. There were many ships going up and down river, and an occasional yachtsman. Most of the latter waved to me and one who was close enough to ask me where I was bound was surprised at my reply and called out cheerily, “I’ve read about you in the paper!” Huh?
The wind stiffened as I made the turn towards east just past Lower Hope Point and soon I found myself in nasty water with sharp, choppy waves. Occasional ocean swells came against me, but mostly the river had developed into an unpredictable confusion of opposing waves, which sometimes broke with small whitecaps due to the wind. Something in the back of my head said, “Bay of Biscay”, and that caused me to look closely at the water near my gunwales. Sure enough the water itself was cloudy with brown particles. I was now in shallow water directly over the Blythe Sands.
I knew these were the Blythe Sands because I had brought a map with me… yes, I said ‘map’, not chart. I had intended to purchase a proper chart when I arrived in London from Arthur Beale’s, the long-established chandlery on Shaftsbury Avenue, not far from my hotel, however Friday had gotten away from me before I knew it and so by the time I could get to Beale’s they were closed. I instead found an Ordnance Survey Map 178 at a nearby bookstore and purchased that instead.
It was much better than nothing, but it was woefully lacking in important navigational details as I soon would find out.
I stopped paddling briefly to consider my options. It was nearing 16:00 hrs and Grain was at least nine miles away. It would be a near run thing, but considering I had made the first approximately seven miles in just under two hours, I might be able to make up most the distance to Grain in two and a half. That would put me just under an hour late for the tide shift, but towards Grain the island begins to slope southwards and maybe I’d get lucky and…
I took a swig of water, stowed my map, and set off with renewed energy. Within thirty minutes I could distinguish a vague whiteness on my starboard bow which I soon determined to be Allhallows-on-Sea. Yes! If I could make that in another hour I’d definitely catch my rising tide and get to Chatham sometime that evening! As I paddled along I began to notice large flocks of sea birds apparently floating on the water in front of my boat. Eventually I saw that these birds weren’t floating, they were WALKING on mudflats. Almost immediately I felt my starboard paddle scrape bottom. The water around me was its usually murky, silty self, but somehow the boat seemed to be dragging. I tested left and right with my paddle tips, and sure enough I was in shallow water. Even though I was a couple hundred yards from shore, and surrounded by water, I found myself in only a few inches, perhaps eight, of water. I paddled to port about fifty yards to get into deeper water and kept cranking away for Allhallows.
Time and again my paddle scrapped bottom, and even though I continually worked my way northwest to get into deeper water by 17:00 I was scraping not only my paddle blades, but the hull itself. I frequently now grounded, and had to use my paddle as a pole to push off. My mind raced with what to do because I just HAD to turn Grain in the next thirty minutes to an hour, and with each grounding that seemed less and less likely. I decided to turn hard to port and paddle straight for the shipping lane north of me. Just as I dipped the blade in to head out to assuredly deep water, I grounded again. Balancing my paddle on the sprayskirt above my knees I used my two hands over either side of the cockpit rim to push the boat off the bottom. I made a few feet using this awkward approach, but I found myself with each lunge less able to move the boat. Looking around I saw that the water all around the boat was disappearing. The tide was still falling and I was now completely grounded on an ever-broadening mudflat. I was well and truly stranded.
At 17:10hrs on Saturday, the 24th I found myself grounded in my ten foot Puffin kayak on the Blythe Sands a few hundred yards north of the Hoo Peninsula. My first feeling was anger, anger at not being able to reach Grain by the tide shift which according to the tide table I had would occur in 26 minutes. Missing that tide would make it almost impossible for me to reach Chatham that night. Next I felt some recrimination towards myself for getting a late start. Had I started when I had intended certainly I’d be bounding my way around Grain at the moment instead of being stuck in an increasing ocean of mud. I then realized that I had started as soon as possible, and that self-recrimination was not only misplaced, but counterproductive. There had to be a positive side to all this.
As I surveyed my brown surroundings, with Allhallows laying a few miles off, Canvey Island directly across the estuary, and Southend-on-Sea further along the north shore, I reasoned that if the tide turned in 26 minutes, then in only another 26 minutes I should be afloat again. I calculated that I had less than an hour to wait before I would be able to get moving along again, and even though I would be fighting a rising tide, I’d only have to do this for a few miles. I’d then round Grain, find the Medway, and if it took till midnight to raise Chatham at least I’d get there and complete my journey. Much depended too, that I land where I could find a train back to London, and since I knew Chatham was on the a main route from Dover-Canterbury to London I figured that even after midnight I’d find some transport. With these thoughts in mind I decided that I would use the next hour to recuperate from nearly three hours of heavy paddling.
During this time I never once considered getting out of the boat and trying to drag it out to the shipping channel, or back to the shoreline of Hoo. I’ve read Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands umpteen times, along with lots of Arthur Ransome, and Maurice Griffiths, and so I was well acquainted with the deadly dangers of muddy tidal flats. Every year a handful of people lose their lives trying to cross these flats only to get stuck in the mud, and then drowned by the returning tide. Two events earlier in my life had also prepared me. Once, when I was very young, I was walking in the woods behind my house near a creek and I sank to my knees in the mud. I couldn’t get out. A few minutes later I was rescued by another boy who just happened by. Years later, inspired by Childers’ classic novel, I visited East Friesland in Germany with the intention of paddling my folding kayak from Norddeich to Norderney island in the wake of the fictional Dulcibella. Before I did so I took the ferry out to Norderney to survey the route. That brief passage convinced me that, what with my lack of a local chart, a tide table, and only having a day to do this, I had to perform the hardest maneuver that any skipper or pilot can ever execute… and that is a 180. I had to turn around and give up the voyage for the time being. So I never made the passage across the mud to Norderney, but I did gain a profound respect for tidal flats and all their attendant dangers.
During my hour wait I tried to nap a bit, but the newness of the situation and the exciting prospect all around me made that mostly impossible. I tried to establish my exact location with the Ordnance Survey map (178), but I couldn’t quite fix where the oil refinery across the river ended, or where some towers that I could see in front of me, and behind me, lay. I spent a lot of time on this as, probably like most kayakers, I love maps and orienteering. I briefly considered trying to make some sort of crude pelorus out of torn paper, but realized that it was difficult enough just unfolding two panels of the map in the strong wind then present, let alone fiddling with a map, and bits of paper while trying to take sightings.
Every few minutes I looked at my watch and then down towards the North Sea hoping every time to see a little wall of tidal water come my way. With each minor disappointment I said, “It’ll be here next time.”
Instead I busied myself surveying the mud around me. There are millions of tiny little seashells in the mud everywhere. I considered myself lucky not to have holed the fabric hull of my Puffin as I ground along them. It’s much tougher than it looks. Each time I had struck bottom with my paddle, and especially later when I had tried to move the boat along with my two hands pushing down into the muck, I imagined what I might be touching at any moment. I had mental images of pushing down on long lost Roman swords, or ritually jettisoned votive offerings to Mithras. I seemed to remember that a lot of WWII junk was still strewn about the estuary and I wondered if I might strike a Luftwaffe UXB (unexploded bomb). There had been an article in the paper recently about UXBs jeopardizing the construction of the new Olympic sites near London.
Boredom breeds silly thoughts like those, but it was no silly thought when I heard what sounded like shotgun blasts behind me. I turned in my seat but could make out no one on the shore. Was someone shooting at the myriad birds around me? Duck hunting? I had seen some very beautiful ducks earlier in the day. Then it occurred to me that maybe someone was trying to signal me. Maybe they figured I was stuck and in need of rescue. I certainly didn’t want to be “rescued”, but even more so, I didn’t want to waste the time and efforts of any emergency service that might think I needed rescuing. I didn’t know if the RNLI had a station on the estuary, or if the local police covered the area, but I certainly didn’t want them to expend any effort on me and my hare-brained operation. As part of my emergency kit I had brought along an orange smoke grenade, two night time red flares, and a portable VHF radio. I switched the VHF on to channel 16 to see if anyone was discussing the twit stuck in the mud offshore. I heard nothing other than about 10,000 seagulls laughing at me from the safety of the mudflats in the distance. I scanned the channels for several minutes, but the only signal traffic concerned some ships that would be picking up their pilots later that evening. It was only much later that night that I believe I found out what the blasts were all about.
At 18:36 hrs, an hour after the tide should have turned, there was NO sign of rising water. If low tide had been at 17:36 then certainly at 18:36 I should see the water rushing back in. But it was nowhere to be seen. Did the Thames only have one tide per day? No. Could I have misread the tide table? Very possible. Was there some sort of flood control system that redirected the tide in the evening? Not that I knew, and unlikely.
Where the heck was the tide? This voyage had turned into the Riddle of the Mudflats. I had been sitting high and muddy for an hour and a half now. It didn’t make sense. There was no possible way that I could make Chatham that night. I began to worry about making ANYWHERE that had a train station. Allhallows didn’t have one. The only one in paddle distance was across the river. Would the tide come in before dark so I could cross the Thames? If so, could I cross the river, and the shipping lanes, in the dark in a ten foot kayak? Where would I land? What would the wind and weather be like at sundown? It seemed to me then that I needed some help, or at least an answer to the question of where was the tide, but I had neither.
The most frustrating part of the hour and a half that I had till then spent stuck in the mud was that the world as I knew it seemed to no longer be working. It was as if gravity had somehow gone into reverse, or the Sun was rising in the west. Tides were supposed to be as regular as clockwork, and yet there I was, more than an hour after high tide, according to the tide table, surrounded by only mud and a few streams of water set shimmering by the wind blowing along their thin tops. How could the tide NOT be in yet? The more I looked out to sea, the more frustrated I became. I considered trying to slide my boat out towards the shipping channel using it as a body board. I rejected that idea as being too dangerous, both to the boat’s thin hull, and because of the possibility of my slipping and falling in the mud bodily. I knew that people who had gotten stuck in the mud drowned when tides came back in. Surely if I waited a little while longer the tide must come back?
To amuse myself while I waited I turned back to my map, and soon I established my exact longitude. Straight ahead of me, with my monocular, I could see some sort of ancient stone tower. Almost directly behind me was another tower in the far distance. The map showed “castle” for the first tower and “power station” for the second. I therefore placed myself on about the halfway point of the Blythe Sands at line 81 (Ordnance Survey Map 178). The shore south of me is called St. Mary’s Marshes.
Additional entertainment came my way in the form of the steady parade of big ships that floated left and right across my view. These big fellows were in the shipping channel just a few hundred yards, it seemed, in front of me. I took a lot of pictures of them with my digital camera, but two that I missed snapping were one called the Express RoRo, a smallish roll-on-roll-off carrier, and another a grey HMS Customs ship.
The mud around my boat also caught my interest and I tried to understand what the little strings of mud that looked like worms, or spaghetti noodles, were. How were they formed? My initial thought that they were actually worms was dispelled when I saw one being formed. It looked like someone was extruding cookie dough from the depths of the mudflat through a very small nozzle. What had caused that? Gases?
It was now 19:30 hrs and I had been sitting with reasonable patience for two and a half hours. I had finished the two packages of peanut butter crackers I had brought with me, as well as half my pint of water. I wasn’t really hungry, or in any sort of physical discomfort, I was just utterly flummoxed by the fact that there was NO tide hours after one was due in. How? HOW? HOW!!
For the past hour I had been playing a little mental game where I would set a limit as to how much longer I would wait. “I’ll wait till 6:45 and if nothing happens by then I’ll risk trying to get to shore.” At 6:43 I’d reset the departure time to 7:00. At 6:58 the departure was moved back to 7:15, and then 7:30. I knew that lying to one’s self is a dangerous thing to do, and that I needed to make a decision soon. I couldn’t understand why no tide had come in, but after three hours something had to be very wrong, including the possibility that somehow I had misread low tide for high tide. It just didn’t make sense, but there I was stuck in the same place with the sun getting ready to disappear in another hour and a half. I needed to be on the move one way or the other. I had to make a decision now.
I decided to get out of the boat. This was virtually a last resort decision, and I didn’t make it lightly. It occurred to me that perhaps the mud wasn’t as soft as test probes with my paddle blade had made it seem to be. Maybe if I trod on it carefully and slowly, I could drag the boat behind me to shore. I’d use the paddle to help carry my weight. With this thin hope I undid my spray skirt and gingerly stood up in the boat. I hoped my concentrated weight wouldn’t drive the hull fabric through a sharp seashell. Scanning the horizon towards the sea I saw no sign of the returning tide… as usual. That steeled my resolve to give the mud a try. All this time I was mindful that the people who had died in mudflat drownings probably only attempted the mud as a last resort like I was about to do. I was extremely wary.
My right foot, shod in a neoprene kayak boot, landed on the mud evenly, and I shifted half my weight down on it. It sank about two inches into the mud and held. That was good. I next raised my left foot out of the boat and lifted it over the starboard gunwale, but as I did so, my right foot took all my weight and I sank down to the ankle. The mud was too soft! I was quite frightened by this, but told myself to get a grip and not let one step determine my whole plan. There were little pools of water everywhere and the mud was bound to be firmer and less firm depending on where I stepped. Perhaps I could find a vein of more solid mud and follow it to shore. I guided by left foot over the gunwale and gently set it in the mud. With two feet in the mud, and feeling that just a few inches down things were reasonably solid, I felt that maybe, just maybe, this might work. I determined not to step away from the boat further than I could fall back on its hull if I needed to. As long as I could lie on that hull, even if the water came rushing back in, I felt I could rescue myself.
I took about a ten baby steps around the hull, and a little towards shore, before I concluded that there was no way I could trust that mud to support me, and that there was no way for me to drag the hull through the glue-like grip of the brown-black muck. I was a damned fool to get out of the boat, and I would just have to get back in it and wait for the mysteriously missing tide. I again looked vainly to sea.
It was heartbreaking to drop back down into the boat and swing in my mud-caked boots. As punishment for my foolish attempt to test the mud, I now had to sit in a tiny cockpit with blobs of the slimy ooze everywhere, including on my camera bag, my camera, my map, my pants. I sighed and looked west towards the descending, red sun and lamented my plight. And it was at that moment that I noticed something dancing distantly off my port quarter. It was water! There was water coming towards me NOT from the east, and the North Sea, but from the west, and the Thames. How could the tide be coming in from the west?
I was so happy I didn’t really care. The water was definitely flooding in, and it was no illusion. Within thirty seconds the first fingers gained my hull and in another thirty my Puffin was rocking gently in the surrounding water. As I waited for enough to float the kayak, I surveyed left and right and saw what had happened. I had grounded on a mudflat that rose to the east and north. The tide had come around this slope and had reached me through the lower flats on the west and south. I would soon be off the mud!! The time was 20:00. I had been stuck for two hours and fifty minutes. How was that possible?
My initial elation soon deflated when I got my boat unstuck from the mud only to find that as I paddled northwards to the shipping channel, the ground rose and I was continually striking bottom again. It got worse the further north I went. I had no choice but to balance the paddle on my knees (having tied my painter to it as an ersatz paddle leash) and do my “ape walk” along the mud. With both arms over the side I pushed down in the mud with my fingers and lifted with my legs to get the boat to move forward. What I thought would take a few minutes took almost forty. My shoulders, arms, and fingers screeched with pain with every lift and shove as I tried to gain the channel. Occasionally large ships would come pounding along in front of me and I welcomed their presence. Their bow and stern waves made the water rise momentarily around me and I could get in some quick paddle strokes. But just as quickly as these waves came, they were gone, and I was back to ape walking the boat forward. The shipping lane seemed like it must have been two miles away as I worked frantically trying to reach it before the sun went down. I had determined that the only hope I had that night was to reach the shipping lane, dodge my way between any traffic, and get to Canvey Island. I didn’t know what I would find on Canvey, but the map showed a road that led west to South Benfleet and there was a railroad station there. My arms were killing me, but I had no choice but to move forward and hope for the best. I had paddled at night before, but never across shipping lanes.
When I felt that I just couldn’t take it any more, I saw in the near distance the water changing color. The reddening sun in the west played along the top of a little ridge of water. It was the shipping lane! For the first time in five hours I could paddle stroke without touching bottom. It was now up to me to cross the last mile to Canvey before the sun disappeared completely. I could do it if I didn’t have to slow down for a ship.
I scanned the route to the right and left, and though I saw the lights of many ships, none was near enough to stop me from making a dash north. I paddled with all I had left and kept my eyes glued to the thin strip of beach on Canvey. In just a few minutes a miracle happened. From a white building I had earlier discerned in the gloom, a long strip of neon light flickered on. It must be some sort of beach club, or a pub, I thought. People! Maybe I could catch a ride to South Benfleet.
In twenty minutes I crunched up onto the shore of Canvey. I found myself on a little sandy beach below a seawall on which I saw several people standing. They were teenaged girls. “Is there a train station near here?” I called getting out of my boat. They giggled something to each other and one of them called back, “We’re not from here. We don’t know.” With that they disappeared. My hopes for a ride sank. But what about that club? Couldn’t they get me a taxi? As I was thinking about that and dragging my boat up on shore, some other people came walking along the seawall with dogs. They stopped to look at me and my little red and yellow boat. I lifted it up clear of the sand and brought it to the top of the seawall to take apart and stow in the wheeled bag which I kept under the rear deck. The sight of me taking apart the Puffin always has the same effect on people… it’s a conversation starter. Within minutes one of the dog walkers offered me a ride to South Benfleet, despite the wetness of my bag and the mud on my boots and pants. I arrived back in London before midnight.
Even though I didn’t paddle from Gravesend to Chatham in one day, as I had intended, I wasn’t disappointed. The experience on the mud had been fun (in retrospect) and I had learned much from it. On the train ride back to London that night I wondered when I would ever be able to complete it, though. Another year? Maybe three years, like the time that separated my Greenwich to Gravesend voyage from this Gravesend to Canvey one?
The River God smiled on me Sunday morning. To my surprise my duties that day were called off, and I was free to do what I wanted. Though my arms still ached from the exertion the night before, I grabbed my muddy, bagged boat and hurried back to Fenchurch St. station to catch the train for South Benfleet. At 10:10 my boat was assembled on the same beach where I had landed the night before, and I set off to cross the river/estuary. I knew when I left that morning in front of a crowd of on-lookers that I would face contrary tides the entire way, and opposing winds the first half of the voyage. I didn’t care. As the man said, “With the help of God, and true friends / I come to realize / I still have two strong legs / And even wings to fly / So I ain’t wastin’ time no more /.” Off I raced across the shipping lane which, that morning was clogged with traffic. I zipped a merry path through the brutes as if they weren’t there and in two hours had reached Allhallows.
Many fun things happened along the way, including my coming up to some sort of column, or plinth, about halfway between Allhallows and Grain. This yellow stone obelisk a hundred yards, or so, off shore looks to be 18th century and has a list of weather-worn names carved into it. One name I noticed, if I recall, was John Humphries. Does anyone know what this is?
Not long after passing this I came to the confluence of the Thames and Medway, and as my boat skipped a little jig in celebration on a very active sea, with driving wind, and some spots of rain, I checked off another box on Life’s “To Do” list. I had wanted to someday reach this point ever since I had seen J.M.W. Turner’s dramatic painting The Junction of the Thames and Medway. The water wasn’t as steep and alive that morning as it was in the painting, but it didn’t matter. I was thrilled. I knew now that I’d get to Chatham by sometime that evening.
The Medway’s mouth was wider than I expected and after fighting the flow for an hour or so I reached Elphinstone Point. The current was so strong here that I decided to hug the shore where I knew it would be slightly weaker due to drag. Inch by inch I crawled up the tide and current. Ahead of me I saw a large ship moored to a jetty that stuck out far from shore. I intended to work my way under the jetty to save working around the ship, but when I got to within fifty yards of the jetty a uniformed man on it told me to go around the ship.
Easier said than done. I paddled back to the bow of the ship, and out into the river proper. The tide and flow were tremendous. I couldn’t make ANY headway. As I fought against it, a crewmember of a tug that was tied off to the bow of the big ship told me to hurry along as the ship was about to cast off. Hurry along? I was pumping as hard as I could to just to maintain my position. Then the inevitable happened. I saw the blue, white, and orange colors of a police boat heading towards me. River police in various nations, and I, are old acquaintances. I varied my course to port to try to cross the river to its inside bend where I knew the current would be less strong. I had gone a little way when the police boat came alongside. I turned to see an officer in the bow pulpit holding out a line. Were they going to take me aboard?
Instead of doing that, he asked me where I was bound. I shouted back, “Chatham”.
“In that?” he said.
“You’re not allowed within 250 metres of a gas tanker,” he said. So that’s what the big ship was. It had been unloading its cargo at the nearby power plant evidently.
I said I’d stay away and cross to the other side of the river, to which he said that would be impossible because of the ship traffic, including a yellow monster just then coming down river. I said I’d cross quickly and it wouldn’t be a problem.
“That one will knock you over,” he said pointing to the yellow cargo ship. He didn’t realize the power of a Puffin! I paddled straight at the big ship timing my strokes so that it would be past me by the time I reached its wake. My boat bobbed easily over the big bow wave and I kept going. The last thing I heard the policeman say was, “Just stay out of the way of everything!”
To make a long story short, I reached Chatham at 21:00 hours that night. It was a very hard pull, and once, when trying to force a short cut, at the Hoo Salt Marsh, I got out of the boat and sank to my knees in mud. It was quite a job to get back into the cockpit, but suffice it to say I did. I landed at some sort of pier at the east end of Limehouse Reach above the historic naval yard and was so stiff from the day’s effort that I literally could not get out of the boat. A kindly old retiree fishing off the pier lowered himself down with an extended arm so that I could climb up out of the boat. Thus I had completed my journey from Gravesend to Chatham.
After my return to the United States a British maritime historian colleague of mine explained the Riddle of the Mudflats to me. He said that even though I was paddling just down river from Greenwich, England is not always on Greenwich Mean Time, it sometimes goes to BST, British Summer Time, when clocks are moved forward an hour. This, the distance between Blythe Sands and Southend-on-Sea, and variations due to local geography and the wind, all account for the tide being effectively one hour and twenty-five minutes late (2hrs 50 min divided by 2).
The sandy spaghetti noodles I saw were in fact caused by worms, the
Arenicola marina, or more commonly the ‘lugworm’. These creatures ingest and expel sand as they dig their microscopic burrows. They are food for curlews and bait for local fishermen.
My “silly” thoughts about Luftwaffe UXBs in the estuary was hardly that at all according to my historian friend who lives in Southend-on-Sea. He told me that just three weeks before my voyage a large 1000kg German UXB from the war was discovered and blown up very close to where I was paddling. Such bombs still litter the area.
By the way, the noises that I had supposed to be shotgun blasts I now believe to have been bursts of propane being used to fill a hot air balloon. Just as I reached the shipping lane the previous night I turned to see what looked like a solid black hot air balloon rising over Hoo Peninsula.
June 30, 2006