We made England at 3:15 yesterday afternoon, Monday 19 November.
Even though we had written, on the night before we left, that it was a go for the next morning, we slept uneasily struggling with the decision. As I noted, the wind was supposed to be 25 gusting to over 30. Not so good, especially for a first day out.
We got up this morning, at a cold and pitch black 7:00 a.m. Among the other challenges, it was foggy to boot!
We pulled up the weather again. There wasn’t much change, although one forecast now called for the wind to be 18-25, rather than 25-30.
That settled it. We decided to go.
(But after our safe arrival, I said to Sima, “if we knew before we left what we were in for, we probably wouldn’t have gone, and at the very least would definitely have slept more fitfully!”)
It can get foggy here, and so we had it in the back of our minds that visibility might be an issue.
We left at 8 a.m., with the sun just coming up, and everything around us covered in a pea soup fog. We couldn’t see more than about 50 yards in front of the boat.
We got the boat safely out of the marina, and then began to work out of the mile-long collection of breakwaters and docks that make up Dunkerque’s huge industrial harbor. Sima was below, and I put the boat on autopilot for twenty seconds at a time to snatch the fenders and dock lines before we hit the open ocean.
We haven’t sailed in fog in years. It can be disorienting, and we must rely even more heavily upon the paper charts, the chartplotter, radar, and AIS. I constantly look back and forth from the screen to what I actually see in front of me, especially here, in waters that we had only seen once before, when we entered the harbor, on a clear day.
Getting the lines and fenders in a safe place, but not completely stored, I stayed at the wheel. I seemed to be in the middle of the channel, but as I looked off to port I saw the left hand side of the channel much closer than it should be. I slowed down considerably.
And what was that ahead? Some birds, black and dull in the water?
No, those were rocks, just protruding above the water line. I was slightly off line, but enough to put me on a collision course with a submerged breakwater, which ran along the edge of the now considerably narrowed channel. I slowed down to a crawl, and turned the boat to starboard. There wasn’t much room for error in this part of the exit channel. My heart, which was already beating pretty hard, thumped a little harder. I pushed the glasses a little further up my nose, leaned over the wheel, and continued on slowly. Sima came up to help navigate, and then clean up the lines and fenders.
We got out into the open ocean, and saw nothing around us but the grey blanketing fog. Left, right, back, front, up – it all looked the same, and didn’t look like anything at all.
The wind and current were perfect for the first six-mile run of the trip. We had to proceed almost due west, along the French coast, to avoid the sand banks that ring Dunkerque. We kept the engine on, and set the jib. We were quickly doing six knots, and then seven through the cotton-candy air.
Unable to see, we continued to rely upon radar and AIS to alert us to the presence of channel buoys and other ships. Sima took over the wheel as I finished storing lines and fenders.
“There’s a boat passing us on our port,” Sima said. “I have been following him on radar.”
He was upwind. “I can smell him,” I said. “He’s hauling tar or something. And there he is!” I could barely make out a boat passing not fifty yards away.
“Where?”asked Sima, unable to catch the boat in the mist before it vanished.
Six miles out, we turned a dogleg right, to head towards Ramsgate. We were concerned that the wind and current would not treat us as well after we changed course, but the sail stayed filled, and the current remained aft of the beam. We continued at seven knots. This was great speed.
We got to the shipping lanes. They are each about five miles wide, with one lane for west going traffic and the other for traffic going east. Visibility approved a bit, and we could now see about a quarter of a mile away.
On the chartplotter, AIS showed that four huge tankers were passing just in front of us. Another was coming a couple of miles behind them, but we determined that we should pass in front of him. We picked up speed, and AIS told us that we’d clear in front of him by a half mile.
Nonetheless, when he was two miles off, his foghorn began to bellow. Man, that sends chills down your spine. But it was OK, not only because our instruments indicated we would be well away from him, but also because he must have picked us up on radar, hence the blowing of the horn. And with our VHF radio on and his identification from AIS, we could radio him if it looked like things might get close.
He eventually materialized out of the fog, passing astern, and quickly disappeared from view again.
We wove among several other boats, and passed through the shipping lanes safely.
The wind picked up, and now it was 20-25 out of the SSW, with us traveling NW. It caused a halyard to begin rattling against the mast, and I moved forward to clean it up.
I attached it to a cleat on the boom, and then tightened the line on a winch. “Crack!” went the cleat. It wasn’t meant to support the tension I had put on it from the winch, and a machine screw had given way. Maybe I had too much adrenaline.
The halyard swung free, the shackled end flying off in the stiff breeze some 30 feet from the boat, and then swung back and forth as Leander pitched in the swells.
I briefly tried to reel it in, first by trying to lower it into the water, to pull it closer to the boat, and then by trying to grab it with a boat hook, but had no luck. (Picture that! Paul, one arm wrapped around that boom, and his other hand holding a heavy wooden boat hook up in the air, waving it like a knight would his heavy lance, as the halyard danced about in the air. I tried it for about a minute, and then paused, stared blankly off at the horizon, realized that nothing good could come from the exercise, and moved on to other options.) I did need to control the line, because it can be dangerous, if it gets wrapped around the fore sail, for example, such that we’d later be unable to get the foresail down. And we always find that minor problems breed bigger ones, and try to nip them in the bud.
Finally, it wrapped itself around the flag halyard a couple of times, so I twisted the flag halyard around to capture it, albeit still at a level ten feet above the deck. But it would be unable to cause problems until we got in, and so I could safely leave it be.
Alexander had a tough time on this sail, his first time back at sea in months. He got sick about an hour out, and wailed hardily for about a minute, frustrated because he felt so badly and because of the discomfort caused by the actual process of throwing up.
“Doo, doooooo!” he then cried, catching his breath.
He menat “su,” or water in Turkish. We gave him his water bottle, and he drank with gusto. Finishing, he said “yumm, yumm, yumm,” which, in any language, meant that he wanted food. He was hungry, having just surrendered his breakfast. So we fed him. Two power bars and two bananas later, he was back to playing.
We arrived off Goodwind Sands, five miles from the entry to Ramsgate Harbor, at about 2:00, which was two hours ahead of schedule. We were flying. But the winds had picked up even more, and the sea had now begun to heave. To make matters worse, we needed to turn closer into the wind and waves for these last five miles, due west, into the harbor.
(Making the turn, and looking north, we saw something that grandfather Alexander probably didn’t have to deal with when he was in this neck of the woods – a wall of wind generators jutting above the horizon in the midst of the channel.)
Leander was all over the place in the rough seas. Alexander, who’d been doing OK for a couple of hours, now was faced with a new and more difficult boat motion, and got sick again. But by the time that I realized it had happened, he was already on his second piece of post-sick pizza, trying to make up for the lost energy supply, and giggling in Sima’s lap in the main cabin.
A half hour out, we called Ramsgate Port Control, to advise them of our pending arrival. No problem, they said, but we did need to be aware that there would be a ferry leaving in about forty minutes, and we might have to wait outside for it to clear the port.
That would not be much fun.
We made it in a half hour, and got permission to enter straight away. In came the head sail, which had already been reefed down to not much more than a hanky anyway.
It was a really boisterous entry through the gap in the breakwater. I would love to have video of Leander rocking and rolling in waves as she fought to get in, waves smashing and breaking on the breakwater to either side of us.
But we did get in. Sima readied the lines, and we came up onto an outer pontoon, where we’d be staying for the night. As we approached, we saw that the floating dock seemed to be pitching as much as Leander was. And it turned out to be a very bumpy berth indeed. But we secured Leander, and although a little turbulent, the dock wasn’t unsafe.
Soon after, customs and immigration came. We spent about fifteen minutes talking about our documents, plans, and boat details and then another hour – really – talking about genealogy and Scottish history. One of the officers was a Mackenzie, from Aberdeen. The other, a Reid, reminded me that Reids and Robertsons are from the same clan, Donnachie. He offered guidance on how he had tracked down an elusive great-grandfather of his. It got me eager about picking up the lost thread of my Alexander’s namesake, the Royal Navy Gunner, whose origins are now hidden in a different sort of fog.
But to paraphrase Pershing, Alexander Robertson, we have returned. Here’s hoping we find you.