Dee Estuary Pilotage Notes

Pilotage notes on the Dee estuary

by John Hughes

[Last updated May 2019]
Abbreviations: N S E W directions; HWS high water spring; LWN low water neap; HW-3h, LW+3h, three hours before or after high or low water; NM nautical miles; ca cables (1 ca = 200 yards); m metres; ft feet.

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 1 foot 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 inadvertently grounding.

Sketch chart: The Dee estuary
The Dee estuary dries extensively but two deep channels enter the estuary from the sea: the Welsh Channel from the W around the Point of Air, and the Hilbre Swash from the N off the Wirral shore. Between these lies the West Hoyle Bank, the highest patch of which is close NW of the (green) HE4 buoy SW of Hilbre. Here, the bank starts to dry at HW+3.5, 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 part of a sandstone outcrop from the western extremity of the Wirral peninsula and a tidal island within 2h of HW, likewise its smaller close neighbour Middle Eye.
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 N of a line between the Hilbre Swash buoy HE2 (green) and the Point of Air lighthouse at the northern extremity of mainland Wales (white, tower, disused). The only hazard to avoid in this vicinity (apart from the drying banks) is the wreck of the Nestos (see below), which lies awash at half tide. HE2 (green) marks the eastern extremity of a spit protruding from the W Hoyle Bank, around which the Hilbre Swash turns a dog-leg. N of HE2, the tidal stream in and out of the Dee joins that running E-W along the coast. In offshore winds, boats sailing from the E to enter the estuary round Hilbre against the ebb should stay as close in to the E Hoyle Bank as possible to avoid being carried by the tide out down the Swash.

On the W Hoyle Bank due W 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 from Newfoundland bound for Liverpool. Boilers and other metal work are exposed at LW and start to dry at HW+3. Depth around the wreck is about 4ft at MLW. 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 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 HE4 in the Hilbre Swash and the Dee buoy in the Welsh Channel and was formerly navigable at LW. Now, it starts to dry after HW+4. In very settled conditions, the entrance to the Gut close W 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 S, crossing the estuary diagonally in the direction of Fflint and meeting the main stream of the Dee near 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. S 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 LWN is just possible, but not at LWS. 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 fishing boats 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 inshore of the line of, the seawall between Greenfield and Bagillt. Here it is possible to drop anchor and dry out on a flat sandy beach backed pleasantly by a narrow strip of saltmarsh and coastal footpath. After HW+2.5h, 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 HWS 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 recently (2017) the hull has been painted black and as a consequence 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 higher up and dries extensively to mud farther down. Small boats would find best shelter close inshore. The beach is isolated because the coastal railway line cuts off access from the land.
Photo: Secluded 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 on the NE side. The anchorage is sheltered from W through S to E, but exposed to the N. However, even in a northerly breeze, as long as a boat is well in the gutter and not exposed on the adjacent sandbank, any seas coming in have largely dissipated by the time they reach the anchorage.
Aim to anchor close enough in to lie on sand and mud in the bed of the gutter, but not so close in as to lie on the rocks of the island foreshore. The rocks are mainly flat and smooth and barnacle-encrusted, but they provide no holding and would not be good to dry out on. A good flat area of mud and sand lies opposite a point midway between the main cluster of buildings in the middle of the island and the three cottages at the SE end of the island.
Photo: Hilbre from NE Aim to anchor opposite a point midway between the central cluster of buildings in the middle, and the three cottages to the left.
Gauge the distance off by a handspan held up at arms length towards the island: when the distance between the left-hand wall of the central cluster of buildings and the right-hand wall of the northerly-most of the three cottages on the left corresponds to two handspans, then drop the anchor. Probe the depth around the boat upon drying out to be sure to lie on level sand/mud within the gutter and not on the rocks.
The gutter dries from HW+3.5h. Only at HWS (Liverpool >9.4m) 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-2.5h. It is possible to follow the flood up the estuary 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 with a view overlooking the saltings.
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 N Wirral coast at Meols, but from here it is necessary to sail out round the E Hoyle Bank before entering the estuary at Hilbre. Launch and recovery is generally only feasible within about 2h of HW.

Launching and sailing from Dove Point, Meols

[Last updated May 2019]
The slipway and moorings at Dove Pt are on drying sand and mud which floods only within about 2h of HW (less at neaps). The moorings are sheltered from the open sea by the E Hoyle Bank and drained by a channel running E (towards the Mersey) 1NM parallel and close to the seawall until opposite Leasowe Lighthouse (disused), beyond which the channel drains obliquely out to sea across sand flats. The lighthouse is a prominent white tower forming a conspicuous landmark half way along the north Wirral coast.
Photo: Leasowe LH from offshore.
The E Hoyle Bank is highest in the W, off Hoylake, and slopes away E, past Meols, forming a gradually diminishing spit off Leasowe (locally known as "Spenser's Spit"). At HWS (>9.0m Liverpool) a boat of shallow draught (1ft) may cross the bank and head out to sea directly opposite Dove Pt slipway, and with increasing distance E the bank may be crossed at progressively lower states of the tide. At HWN (<7.5m) it is necessary to keep to the channel.
Instructions to keep in the deepest water to sail to sea from Dove Pt slipway are as follows. Most of the moorings at Dove Pt lie ~1ca off the seawall in a main outer channel, but a few fishing boats lie moored close inshore by the slipway in a minor inner channel.
Photo: Moorings at Dove Pt in two channels, with banks partly exposed, viewed E towards the Mersey.
For maximum depth from the slipway sail E very close to the seawall for ~1.5ca until just before the third orange life ring (mounted at 100yd intervals) at the top of the seawall; this is just past a prominent white house in the dunes behind the seawall (with four sea-facing second storey windows, chimneys at both ends, and a single attic window in roof). Here turn directly away from the seawall towards the main (outer) channel. Once in the main channel (in line with the several mooring buoys) sail E towards the extremity of the groyne protruding from the seawall, keeping offshore of the three perches which mark its extremity. Leasowe LH then comes into view. Sail close in by the seawall until almost level with the LH, to where a gap through the top of the seawall allows access for motor vehicles, then turn obliquely out to sea on a bearing of 45 degrees. 45 degrees corresponds to the transit from the gap in the seawall by the LH to a prominent tower block by the Port of Liverpool Radar Station in Crosby on the Lancashire coast about 5NM distant, beyond the mouth of the Mersey. To identify the tower block, from the five huge red cranes at Seaforth Container Terminal at the mouth of the Mersey, sweep the eye N along the shore past five large wind turbines: the prominent solitary tower block is then obvious a little farther N. Steer for the tower block, passing between two large yellow drum buoys out from the seawall N of the LH, being sure to leave the most westerly of the two yellow buoys to port. Hold the course of 45 degrees until >0.5NM offshore, then head directly out to sea.
If bound to the Dee estuary, the transit from a large tower block on the New Brighton shore (E toward the mouth of the Mersey, to the right of the prominent cranes at Seaforth Container Terminal) and the Great Orme's Head (W on the horizon at the far extremity of the Welsh coast) clears the E Hoyle Bank for shoal-draught boats within about 3h of HW; but pay attention to keep offshore of any surf on the bank, and sound for depth as necessary. Eventually the HE3 and HE2 green Hilbre Swash buoys come into sight. To sail to Hilbre, or to enter the estuary by the Hilbre Swash, leave the buoys well to starboard, and with the buoys abeam alter course toward the northern tip of Hilbre. Keep as close inshore as depth allows to avoid the strength of ebb stream from the estuary, which sets round the northern tip of Hilbre and down the swash. A race forms round the tip of Hilbre at half tide.
To re-enter the channel to Meols, sail the reverse course: within 2h of HW, from >0.5NM offshore, head for Leasowe LH on a bearing of 225 degrees. Pass between the two large yellow drum buoys, leaving the most westerly of the yellow buoys to starboard, until within a few yards of the seawall, then follow the seawall, keeping a few yards off. Pass offshore of the groyne and its perches, leaving them to port, then head towards the outer moorings. If seeking deepest water back to the slipway, continue towards the outer moorings until nearly opposite the most prominent white house in the dunes (with four sea-facing second storey windows, chimneys at both ends, and a single attic window in the roof), then turn directly towards the seawall, aiming for a point on the wall just left of the white house. Then follow the seawall closely to the slipway.

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.