If you sailed the River Crouch back in the 1990s there is every chance you would have come across Gerry Lee.

Described as a “river hippy” he would often be seen taking parties of bird watchers and photographers for trips on his boat the Hazel May.

In more than one way he helped save the day for those who lived, worked or enjoyed the river whether it be hosting an annual barbecue on his vessel or saving the lives of a family whose yacht had run aground.

Today marks 20 years since Gerry, aged 64, took one last journey along the River Crouch.

Despite be best efforts of his crewmates, the RNLI and RAF search and rescue helicopter he died after suffering a heart attack.

His ashes were later scattered in Heybridge Basin.

Now two decades on his friends remember him as “an adventurer, sailor, pacifist, lifesaving hero and eccentric.”

Peter Williams, of Holland on Sea, had met Gerry ten years earlier. At the time Peter was rear commodore of The Brandy Hole Yacht Club.

“He would spin yarns at the club bar or in his homely barge, yarns that often seemed too extreme to be true, but indeed were,” he said.

Gerry would moor his boat at Battlesbridge, with the iconic boat being painted by artists who came to the river.

Peter said: “Gerry taught navigation in this unique venue and had plans for an on-board miniature steam model museum.

“He was happy to show strangers around and they would experience the charm of the old boat and the hold that had been converted into a state room with a piano in the corner, or the ancient diesel engine that Gerry claimed would run in excess of four hours to the gallon.

“When Gerry bought the barge she was full of rotten onions, enough to make you cry.

“Gerry told stories of the adventures of the barge during the war in Holland and how the Germans used it to carry ammunition among other less palatable assignments.

“Gerry bought her and in helping to forget her past named her after his adorable wife. He was proud to say that this honestly built barge was again making people happy.”

One summer Gerry heard that the Brandy Hole Yacht Club could not find a suitable location for its annual barbecue, which was traditionally held on a deserted beach.

Peter added: “Gerry being the good-hearted soul that he was responded by offering the Hazel May as a mid-stream barbecue venue.

“This was very well received and very well attended with up to twenty yachts rafting alongside the Hazel May which sat idly at anchor.

“It worked well until the tide turned and started running and the anchor quietly dragged while all and sundry were down below in the Hazel May’s state room having a merry time with the piano in full swing and beer flowing.

“Upwards of seventeen skippers downed their beer glasses and leapt for their tillers and start buttons as the entire floating tangled circus headed for the seawall and calamity in total darkness.”

But it wasn’t just from the river that Gerry was doing his bit to help others.

He was also a pilot and owned a twin engine Dove aircraft.

One day when he was returning from Rotterdam to Southend airport he spotted a yacht on the rocks with a stranded family of four.

Peter said: “Gerry answered the distress call and circled the situation twice.

“Knowing there was no time to lose and seeing there was no rescue launch, ship nor lifeboat in one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes within range, decided to take the madcap and very high risk of landing his plane on the sand and carry out a rescue.

“He managed to land and the frantic family managed to climb aboard without the plane stopping to avoid getting bogged in.

“After a very bouncy run up managed to take off before the limit of the sand and ending up in the turbulent sea, plane and all.”

Gerry was later recognized by the RNLI for his good deed.

He continued to “his nomadic existence” along the River Crouch, taking people to see the seal colonies in the backwaters of the River Roach.

But on Sunday, October 11, 1998, it came to an end.

He dropped off his passengers at Essex Marina at Wallasea Island and just a mile up the coast he suffered a heart attack.

Peter said: “He had been unwell for some time and had recently decided to cease taking his prescribed pills.”

Despite efforts by the RNLI, RAF helicopter and others on the water Gerry sadly died.

At his funeral the theme tune to Star Trek was played and later his fellow sailors took his boat back to Battlesbridge, where it remains.

But for his friends left behind the spirit of Gerry lives on.

“I had the honour of briefly knowing Gerry and found that he was a man with an incredible background. Hopefully he has left an autobiography somewhere that one day we can all enjoy.”