Sitting at anchor in these often unspoilt natural environments is an opportunity to relax and unwind, while watching the sea birds and other rich marine life. Equally, just as when Arthur Ransome wrote Secret Water, set in the Walton Backwaters, today’s children can be seen enjoying themselves in the east coast rivers, Chichester and Newtown in the Solent, the upper reaches of the Exe, Tamar and Fal estuaries in the West Country, Milford Haven in Wales and countless other locations.
So what type of boat is best for creek crawling? One answer to that is the vessel you already have – many apparently small inlets have surprisingly deep pools in which a fin keel yacht can remain afloat at all states of the tide. In other cases the mud is so soft the keel will just sink in vertically as if the boat is still afloat, although it’s not advisable to try this until you know for sure.
However, a shoal draught boat will allow many more options, especially if it can be happily dried out at low water. Bilge keel vessels have the advantage that the hull is supported above stones, shingle and other obstructions on the seabed that may cause damage. While a design with a lifting keel that retracts completely into the hull may allow more flexibility in exploring shallow areas, it’s important to remember that many of these boats have impaired manoeuvrability, even under power, when the keel and rudder are raised.
Multihulls can also be a good choice. Those with twin engines combine shallow draught with good manoeuvrability, although larger boats may feel out of scale with the surroundings when in very narrow channels. On the other hand, a smaller fast multihull can offer a very enticing combination of vast deck space, adrenaline pumping performance and minimal draught that allows the shallowest of creeks to be explored.
These were hugely popular in the 1970s and 80s, even though their sailing performance is best described as modest. Nevertheless, the boats always fetch a decent price and huge numbers were built, so they are easy to find on the second hand market.
The appeal is in a combination of simplicity and space for day sailing. The yawl lug rig means the boat can be rigged on a trailer by one person in 15 minutes, yet there’s space for up to half a dozen guests in the big cockpit and there’s no boom to sweep across their heads. What’s more, annual maintenance needs no more than servicing the outboard, a coat of antifoul if the boat is kept afloat, plus a coat of varnish on the oars and spars.
This catamaran offers shoal draught, a huge amount of deck space, stunning performance and reassuring stability. For day sailing and occasional weekends it would certainly be among my first choices for creek crawling. A small cabin in each hull, each with two single berths and either a camping style galley or heads, adds to the boat’s flexibility.
Another alternative for those look for a fast boat that is also capable of exploring shallow water is the F24 and its larger sister the F27 trimaran. Both these designs, particularly the larger boat, offer more space within the cabin in the central hull than the divided accommodation of the Strider.
For nearly 40 years this British boat builder produced some of the most comfortable and well made lifting keel yachts. A key selling point from the outset was that the keel retracts totally into the hull, and there’s an iron grounding plate built into the bottom of the hull that protects it from damage when beached at low water. The later and larger models also often made good choices for long-distance cruising.
The 110 is a spacious aft cockpit 36-footer from 1999 with more modern styling than the yard’s earlier models, along with twin rudders that improve steering under sail without compromising the shoal draught concept. Key accommodation features in the airy semi-deck saloon layout include a spacious owner’s aft cabin and excellent galley.
Hunter Legend 36
Most bilge keel yachts were built before the mid 1990s, but one manufacturer, Legend Yachts, has continued to offer them thanks to a continuing demand from those who are looking for a larger or newer twin keel boat. The Legend 36 is a development of the earlier 356, built from 2002 onwards. It offers excellent accommodation for its size, with two large cabins, a spacious saloon and one of the best galleys on any 36ft boat.
Beneteau Oceanis 31
While the preference on the north side of the English Channel has traditionally been for bilge keels, most French designs opted for lifting keels for to achieve shoal draught. In many cases, these are pivoting centreboards that swing up into a stub keel, combined with twin rudders to give the boat lateral support when dried out.
The Oceanis 31 is a Finot design that has been produced from 2006 onwards. It offers a bright and spacious contemporary two cabin layout, along with a comfortable cockpit with open transom that makes boarding from a dinghy, or from the water when swimming, an easy matter.
This 19ft modern classic has an enthusiastic following thanks to low maintenance, plus a gaff rig that appeals to traditionalists and can be handled from the large cockpit. The lifting keel makes it an ideal choice for creek crawling – the boat floats in only a few inches of water – and there’s cosy accommodation for two, with sitting headroom and a small galley. The Shrimper has been in continuous production since 1978 and more than 1,000 have been built.
A few more creek crawling ideas
Other good choices for creek crawling include the 20ft Red Fox 200E – see 5 best first sailing yachts and the Ovni 36, which is also suitable for long-distance sailing – see 5 great lifting keel cruising yachts. Also take a look at our features on bilge keel and shoal draught fin keeled yachts.
Looking for ideas of where to explore? See 8 of the best UK estuaries for cruising.