Here in Scotland, many of the smaller harbours dry out at low tide, and the boats settle down onto the mud. This means that bilge keeled boats are common, since their two fins means that the boat can sit upright. Usually, you would hope to be safely back onto terra firma by the time this happens since the mud at the bottom of a harbour can be, well, ‘exciting’. But sometimes you might need to traverse the mud – perhaps to check on your riser chains.
The first thing to know is that going out onto deep mud is, like many thing, potentially dangerous. Trying to cross deep mud in welly boots is likely to end up with the boots stuck in the mud. Sandals tied tightly onto your feet works somewhat better, although you will still have to deal with sinking. Using a long wooden pole, e.g. a handle from a broom, is a good idea since it both acts like a third leg and allows you to probe the mud ahead to detect shallow/deep areas.
Fortunately, there’s a group of people who have got this ‘walking on mud’ thing all figured out. They’re wildfowlers – people who hunt ducks – and since ducks like mud, the people who hunt duck need to figure out mud too. Their solution is pretty ingenious. In the same way that snowshoes allow people to walk across snow by spreading their weight over a large area, “mud pattens” are simply wooden boards that you strap to your feet and enable you to cross mud without sinking. However, mud creates much more suction than snow does, and so mud pattens have a simple-but-clever design to help you stay unstuck. The idea is simply this: rather than having your feet centrally on the wooden board, you instead have your toes protruding over the front edge a bit. This means that as you start to lift your heel to take a step, the board pivots at a point near the ball of your foot with the back of the board lifting up and breaking the suction. In this way, it is possible to carefully walk across mud without sinking in and without your feet getting stuck.
Here’s what mud pattens looks like:
They are simply a 12″ square of plywood. To get the position of everything correct, you should position the boot so it’s central in the left/right direction, but towards the front edge so that the toes protrude over the front by a few centimetres. Draw the outline of the boot in pencil onto the plywood. Drill holes to allow a loop of yellow rope to pass at ankle height on each side of the boot, with the front hole alongside the ball of your foot and the back hole towards the back of your heel. A figure-eight knot on the underside of the board keeps the loops in place. A few scraps of plywood are nailed in an H shape to provide grip – with a gap left between each piece to make it easier to clean out mud later. Clearly, marine or exterior ply is going to last longer, but any plywood will be sufficient if you’re not requiring them to give a long service life.
To attach the boot to the pattens, a further length of rope is used, passing first round the back of the boots, looping underneath the yellow rope, making a simple knot (like the start of tying shoelaces) at the front before one more loop under the yellow rope and finishing in a tight reef knot. These should be tied as tight as you can. Walking around a bit, then retightening the knots is a good idea. Wearing thick socks with the welly boots helps make it more tolerable to really pull the ropes down hard.
Using mud pattens it’s possible to walk across mud without sinking in. You still need to be careful – particularly avoiding catching one foot on the other’s patten – since falling over will spoil your day. But with mud pattens on your feet, and a stout stick in your hand you can make quick and confident progress across the mud.
If you’re not able to make your own mud pattens, there is a commercial alternative in Mudder Boots which achieve a similar result using foldout rubbery wings. However, these are not cheap items – currently around £150 versus the sub-£10 material cost to make plywood pattens.