Dee Estuary Pilotage Notes

Pilotage notes on the Dee estuary

by John Hughes

[Last updated May 2017]

The Dee estuary, some five miles wide at its mouth and twice as long, divides the Wirral peninsula of north west England from the coast of north Wales. It is a rewarding area to explore under sail but, dominated by a large tidal range, it can be demanding too. I hope these notes might encourage some to make the exploration and make the experience worthwhile. They are written from the point of view of sailing a small boat of about 1ft draught (plate up), from which depth can be probed with pole or oar, and assume that skipper or crew is able, if necessary, to hop overboard to drag the boat off after inadvertantly grounding.

Sketch chart: The Dee estuary
The Dee estuary dries extensively at LW but two channels enter the estuary from the sea: the Welsh Channel from the west around the Point of Air, and the Hilbre Swash from the north, off the Wirral shore. Between these lies the West Hoyle Bank, the highest patch of which is close north of the (green) HE4 buoy, southwest of Hilbre. Here, the bank starts to dry at HW+3, and a colony of grey seals hauls out to bask on the sand.
Photo: Seals hauled out on the West Hoyle Bank
Photo: HE4 and seals on the West Hoyle Bank

Hilbre is a sandstone outcrop from the western extremity of the Wirral peninsula and a tidal island within 2h of HW.
Photo: Middle Eye and Hilbre from the Wirral shore at HW
Photo: Hilbre and Middle Eye from 'Seldom Seen' at HW

From the high spot by HE4, the W Hoyle Bank slopes away northward and can be crossed at most states of the tide north of a line between the Hilbre Swash buoy HE2 (green) and the Point of Air lighthouse at the northern extremity of mainland Wales. HE3 (green) marks the eastern extremity of a spit protruding from the W Hoyle Bank, around which the Hilbre Swash turns a dog-leg. North of this, the tidal stream in and out of the Dee joins that running east-west along the coast. In offshore winds, boats sailing from the east to enter the estuary round Hilbre on the ebb should stay as close in to the E Hoyle Bank as possible to avoid being swept out down the Swash.

On the W Hoyle Bank due west of HE2 lie the remains of the wreck of the Nestos, a freighter that grounded in fog during World War II having become separated from its convoy bound from Newfoundland to Liverpool. Boilers and other metal work are exposed at LW and start to dry at HW+3. The transit HE2 to the Pt of Air lighthouse clears the Nestos to the south.
Photo: Remains of the Nestos
Photo: Pt of Air lighthouse seen from HE4

Off the Welsh shore the tide runs swiftly in and out of the Welsh Channel and the Wild Road and can create lively conditions against the wind. The ebb here runs for 7h. For boats making passage eastwards up the Welsh coast towards the Dee, an offshore breeze at Rhyl will be deflected by the Clwydian Hills such that it comes right on the nose off Prestatyn; under such conditions it is rarely worth trying to beat against the ebb, but rather wait until the tide turns.

Welshman's Gut crosses the estuary south of the W Hoyle Bank between the HE4 buoy on the Hilbre side and the Dee buoy on the Welsh side and used to be navigable at LW. Now, it is just possible to scrape through at HW+4 with 1ft draught. In very settled conditions, the entrance to the gut close west of HE4 makes a delightful overnight anchorage, with shelter afforded by the bank (and you are guaranteed to be visited by seals.)
Photo: HE4 (as used to be) on the tip of the W Hoyle Bank at the entrance to the Welshman's Gut, viewed towards Hilbre
Photo: At anchor in the Welshman's Gut

From HE4 a broad channel opens to the South, crossing the estuary diagonally in the direction of Fflint and meeting the main stream of the Dee on the Welsh shore off Greenfield. Fflint is where tall blocks of flats are visible from a distance, hunched at the foot of the hill. The channel is buoyed for barges that freight Airbus wings down the Dee at HW from Broughton to Mostyn. South from HE4 a series of fairway (red/white) buoys are numbered: 1, 1a and 3, approaching Greenfield, and thence consecutively up the main channel of the Dee close along the Welsh shore towards Fflint. The shallowest depth is in the vicinity of buoy 3, where passage at LW is just possible on neap but not spring tides. Farther up, the limit of navigation at LW lies somewhere near Fflint.
Photo: On the edge of the Holywell Bank, neap LW
Sailing farther up with the flood into the canalized stretch of the Dee towards Chester is limited by the need to lower the mast at bridges.

An extensive drainage from the marshes of the upper estuary, from around Parkgate and Neston, joins the main Dee channel opposite the village of Bagillt. This is navigable towards HW (with careful probing for depth, best with the flood) well up into the saltings towards Parkgate.
Photo: Approaching Parkgate through the saltings on the flood
The mouth of the drainage opposite Bagillt is sheltered on the NW side by a significant sandbank that would provide shelter for possible anchorage.
Photo: Drainage from Parkgate and adjacent sandbank
To enter the drainage, turn out of the main Dee channel when in line with pylons that appear in a saddle on the skyline above the village of Bagillt.
Photo: Pylons on the hilltop above Bagillt opposite the drainage from Parkgate

The Welsh shore of the estuary is generally rather inhospitable, being an artificial seawall composed of boulders and rubble dropping steeply into the main channel. A narrow, steep-sided gutter runs down into the main channel at Greenfield, where a few boats are drawn up and trawlers lie moored; and similarly a few boats are drawn up in a small creek a little farther up near Bagillt.
Photo: Greenfield Dock
During the first half of the ebb, before the banks start to dry, a northwesterly breeze can turn the channel into a wild roller-coaster ride with steep waves. Shelter can be had within 2.5h of HW by dodging out of the channel into one of several small bays upstream beyond the end of, and inside the line of, the seawall between Greenfield and Bagillt. Here it is posible to drop anchor and dry out on a flat sandy beach backed pleasantly by a narrow strip of saltmarsh and coastal footpath. After HW+2.5, the beach dries out beyond the line of the seawall and slopes steeply into the main channel, where there would be no shelter.
Photo: Camping on the beach near Bagillt

Farther downstream at Llanerch-y-mor, the Irish ferry the Duke of Lancaster was driven ashore on a high spring tide and concreted in, to be used for commercial purposes. The scheme failed and now she remains forlorn. Formerly the ship was painted white and made a prominent landmark, but now the hull has been painted black and is much less prominent.
Photo: The Duke of Lancaster aground at Llanerch-y-mor (as she appeared formerly.)

Downstream farther still lies the commercial port of Mostyn, which amongst other things serves the local windfarms and offshore gas fields.

Between Mostyn and the former colliery at Talacre, near the estuary mouth, are two sandy bays where overnight drying anchorage could be had. The bays are sheltered from the NW by the Pt of Air and from the SE by the mole at Mostyn dock. The ground is gently shelving sand and dries extensively. Small boats would find best shelter by sailing close inshore close to HW. The beach is isolated because the coastal railway line cuts off access from the land.
Photo: Seccluded beach close SE of Talacre colliery

Back on the Wirral side of the estuary, Hilbre is simply the nicest anchorage along this whole coast. Anchor in sand and mud in the gutter that runs close to and parallel to the island shore on the north east side. Best shelter is had higher up, opposite the three small wooden cottages at the south eastern end of the island.
Photo: Hilbre from NE
Gauge the distance off by a handspan held up at arms length to the three cottages: when the your handspan corresponds to half the distance between the first and third cottage, then drop the anchor. Do not stand closer in as the island foreshore is rocky. The rocks are mainly flat and smooth and barnacle-encrusted, but they provide poor holding and would not be good to dry out on. The gutter dries at HW+3.5 and is sheltered from the S and W, and to some extent from the N and E by the sandbank. Check the depth around the boat as you dry out to be sure to lie on sand/mud within the gutter and not on the edge of the bank or on the rocks. A mooring has been laid within the gutter and is currently (May 2017) marked with a pink buoy, and this can be used. Only at the top of a spring tide (Liverpool 9.2m+) is it possible to sail around Little Eye and through the gap between Hilbre and Middle Eye.
Photo: Anchorage at Hilbre (1)
Photo: Anchorage at Hilbre (2)
Photo: Anchorage at Hilbre (3)
Photo: Anchorage at Hilbre (4)
Photo: Anchorage at Hilbre (5)

The beach dries extensively off West Kirby and the limit of LW navigation on this side of the estuary is near where numerous yacht moorings are laid in sand and mud between West Kirby and the Dee SC at Thurstaston.

Off Thurstaston, the flood enters the gutter at the foot of the causeway by the Dee SC at about HW-2.5. It is possible to follow the flood along the shore eventually to enter the narrow channel into the saltings (marked by withies) to the boatyard at Heswall at HW. Generally, the line of mooring buoys indicates the course of the channel, the sides of which are steep. Here, Sheldrakes restaurant is a fine place to enjoy a beer outside on the terrace overlooking the saltings towards Wales.
Photo: The causeway flooding below the Dee SC
Photo: Looking towards Wales from the shore near Heswall

Launching is possible into the estuary from the Welsh shore at Connah's Quay, Fflint and Greenfield, and from the Wirral shore at the boatyard by Sheldrakes at Heswall, off the beach by the Dee SC at Thurstaston, and at West Kirby SC at the southern end of the marine lake (although extensive mud here makes it less attractive). Larger boats might find it most convenient to launch from the wide concrete slipway at Dove Point on the north Wirral shore at Meols, but from here it is necessary to sail out round the E Hoyle Bank before entering the estuary at Hilbre. Launching is generally limited to within about 2h of HW.

Launching and sailing from Dove Point, Meols
The slipway and moorings at Dove Pt are flooded only within 2h of HW, less at neaps. They are sheltered from the open sea by the E Hoyle Bank, and lie in a shallow, drying, tidal lagoon, "the Lake" - all that remains of the Hoyle Lake, which used to be a significant anchorage at LW. Access to the sea is eastward following the seawall 1NM towards the Mersey. Photo: Moorings at Dove Pt, LW, viewed towards the Mersey The outer bank is highest towards the west, off Hoylake, and diminishes, sloping away eastward, towards the Mersey. It can be crossed directly opposite Dove Pt slipway at HWS (9.0m or more), and with increasing distance eastward it may be crossed at progressively lower states of the tide. At HWN (7.5m or less) it is necessary to follow the channel all the way down, keeping in the deepest water by staying close to the seawall until passed Leasowe Lighthouse, when head out bearing 030(M) from Leasowe LH, roughly towards a distant prominent white building at the northern extremity of building development in Crosby, on the Lancashire shore beyond the Mersey. Once in sufficient depth, shape a course westward to pass offshore round the E Hoyle Bank towards the Dee Estuary. The transit from the large tower block on the New Brighton shore to the Great Orme mostly clears the Bank within about 2h of HW. To re-enter the channel to Meols, sail the reciprocal course of 210(M) towards Leasowe LH until within a few yards of the seawall, then follow the seawall westward up to Dove Pt. [From offshore, 210(M) is when Moel Famau, the 1,818ft highest summit of the distant Clwydian Hills, appears just open to the left of Leasowe LH.
Photo: Moel Famau open to the left of Leasowe LH

I would appreciate your comments on these pilotage notes - criticisms and corrections or whether they have been of use or of interest. Please email me.