Friday 25 November 2012
That was Leander’s crew breathing a shared sigh of relief.
We’re safely moored at St. Katherine’s Dock, in Central London, done sailing for the year.
It took us another week or so to get here after our initial landfall in Ramsgate, from where we last wrote.
We didn’t much enjoy Ramsgate. The days were short. The weather was foul. And the town is being put to sleep by England’s economic difficulties. It’s true that some of the Victorian buildings were magnificent, and though crowded, most homes were sturdy-looking and quaint, and the whole place would have made a fitting backdrop for a remake of Mary Poppins. But for every three stores we saw along High Street, one was lively and interesting, one was not in good health, and another one was mothballed and empty, sometimes boarded up. Townsfolk didn’t seem very happy about any of this. Perhaps all northern towns feel somewhat shuttered as winter begins to assert herself, with cloudy skies, fewer hours of sun, and winds that blow away what little warmth might otherwise be lingering about. Ramsgate certainly felt this way, as if it were collectively tucking its chin into its coat.
Whatever goodwill we might have mustered for the place was further quashed by a terrible berth at the marina. When we arrived, we were directed to an outside dock close to the breakwater’s exposed opening. With very windy weather and big seas, a sizeable ocean swell penetrated into the marina, and set Leander rocking violently against its lines and the dock.
“Can’t you put us somewhere more protected?!” we asked before we fully secured our lines.
Your boat is too big to go elsewhere, we were told. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine here, they said.
Well, no. It took us a while to figure it out, but Leander was not too big to move to a number of alternative, safer berths. And no, we weren’t at all fine where we were.
When the tide was slack, as it was when we first tied our lines, the boat’s motion was just barely acceptable. But as the tide came up, and the current increased, the boat began to sway.
We awoke at 4:00 a.m., at max flood. The swell was coming in with great force, and the boat danced wickedly, yanking against its lines and rolling against the fenders we used to separate it from the dock. It was noisy and violent. We didn’t sleep much.
We spoke to others and investigated the large marina. We determined that we needed to be within Ramsgate’s inner harbor, on the other side of a lock. The problem now was that the lock was only open at high tide, and we missed the next two openings because the weather had deteriorated so much that it was not possible to get away from the dock safely. We spent another rough day and night against the dock.
We studied the weather and tides, and determined that, on our third day there, there was to be a break in the wind, a slack current, high water, and an open lock at the same time, about two hours after dark. We waited and readied Leander, although the winds continued to howl about the boat. But lo and behold, right on time, the front passed and the winds calmed. With the help of three fellows from a nearby Dutch boat, we got Leander off the dock, through the lock, and into the inner marina.
Safely tied up at our new spot, the difference in comfort was like night and day. Leander sat as if on a pond. For the first time in several nights, the three of us slept like babies.
Now we went back to watching the weather to plan the next part of our trip, a day sail halfway up the Thames towards London. Although the wind picked up again the next morning, we saw that it was to clear two days later, on 24 November. But this weather window was to then close pretty quickly, with a forecast for Force 9 (50 knots) for the night of the 24th into the 25th. We decided to go, but would need to find another safe place to hide the boat again.
We were able to depart Ramsgate early in the morning of the 24. We set off to go around the North Foreland Cape, into the Thames Estuary, and from there to take a left hand turn off of the River Thames into the River Medway, and finally then into the mouth of the River Swale. We planned to spend two nights at a pier belonging to the Queenborough Yacht Club.
The seas outside of Ramsgate were not all that big, but we had to go for a couple of miles against wind and current, before taking a left hand turn up the coast. It was bumpy and slow. We were, however, gradually able to bear off of the wind, and eventually picked up following seas as we completed a giant U-turn to head into the Thames estuary.
The day was cloudy and raw, and the visibility was not good, but the sail itself was not unpleasant.
We arrived at the entry to the Medway at about 2 p.m., passing through the Nore anchorage, the site of an infamous 18th century Royal Navy strike. We continued on through Sheerness Harbor. Roughly twenty years after the Nore mutiny, and a little less than 200 years ago, ancestor Alexander Robertson was at this very site, staying for months here on the Hospital Ship Sussex.
We nosed Leander up through the shoals of the Swale under yet another gray and heavy sky. We had emailed the Queenborough Yacht Club to ask if we could tie up on their pier to hide out from the coming weather. We received a response from Ray Adams, the Club’s Commodore. Yes, he’d make sure that the dock would be available for us, and would help us with our lines when we got in.
As we approached the Queenborough pier, there he was. He took our lines, and then told us we’d be safer on the other side of the dock, closer to the beach. He helped us move, and then spent the better part of an hour telling us about the area.
We took in the surroundings. “It sure is stark around here, Ray!” I said.
Ray laughed, and then told this story:
“I got a call from a film director a couple of years ago, looking for a place to shoot a movie scene. ‘Bleak, I want bleak,’ the director had said. ‘I think you’ll like it here,” Ray had told him. Arriving to check it out, the director had said, ‘Hey, this is bleak!’ So he came back with his crew, and they used my boat to film the needed scene.”
I asked about the movie.
“A fellow has his girl over on his boat. She falls off and drowns. So he shoots himself. Then the move ends.”
We stopped talking, and looked around again. Yup, that scene could be filmed here, I thought.
Leaving, Ray handed us a bag full of tokens for the secure gate. We felt welcome.
It did blow hard that night, and I was awake between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m., when the wind arrived at its promised Force 9. At one point, as the boat bowed in the wind, it became clear that the bimini was creating too much windage, and was at risk of being damaged. Surprisingly, even in the dark, it wasn’t too hard of a task to take it down.
Ray called in the morning to make sure we had fared OK, and to invite us to join his family for Sunday roast later in the day. He picked us up in the early afternoon, and showed us the sights as we drove through town.
Dinner was wonderful.
We stayed another day at Queensborough to wait for a fair tide. We departed on Tuesday, 26 November, as soon as it was light.
It was tricky getting away. We were able to get the boat back from the narrow space between the beach and the dock, but as we moved to complete the turn the current pushed Leander sideways, and pinned her against the back end of the dock. We were able to move her back down to the end, and then use the current to our advantage to get her pointed in the right direction, before finally gunning the engine to get away.
The tides and currents on the Thames are significant, such that one can really only go upstream with the flood tide. But you can also only travel during daylight hours. With the days so short, it can be tricky to find a sufficient amount of favorable current during daylight hours.
We hoped to do the 36 miles to Greenwich Yacht Club before the tide turned at 12:30. We had to run the first hour against the current, going back downstream on the Swale and Medway, and so had about 30 miles to do in four and a half hours by the time we made it back to the Thames. But we timed the current just right, and the boat flew along at eight plus knots.
We had called ahead to Greenwich Yacht Club, and got another royal welcome. Dave Houman, the Club’s Chair of the House, gave us detailed guidance over the phone, and then was there to help us with our lines when we arrived at the dock. Tied up, he invited us to dine with the membership at the club that night.
Before dinner, we packed up Alexander and took the Underground to explore the two London marinas that we were considering. We first visited South Dock, located between Greenwich and London. It would be considerably less expensive to stay there. We liked it OK, but the facilities were a little tired, the neighborhood wasn’t great, and the commute to get into London would not be easy.
We got back on the tube and travelled to our second option, St. Katherine’s Dock. Exiting from the nearby Tower Hill Tube stop, we were greeted by the historic Tower of London, and, just behind it, the Tower Bridge. We then moved into the marina basin itself.
“Wow,” we both said. Twinkling Christmas lights. Magnificent architecture. Bustling shops and restaurants. Folk everywhere. Yet, somehow, there was also a wonderful tranquility about the place.
There was little doubt, then. We’d come to St. Kat’s.
We made our way back to the Greenwich Yacht Club and joined the membership for dinner. The food and drink tasted especially good, no doubt enhanced by our feeling of accomplishment.
Dave introduced us around the club, and at the end of the night handed us several publications, including a club history, maps of the area, and other assorted welcoming goodies. It was another wonderful example of English hospitality.
We traveled the remaining five miles up the Thames to St. Kat’s the next day. Turning off the river and into the lock for the marina, the current and the wind yanked at Leander a few times, and the entrance was a bit more challenging than we expected. But we got in. Waiting for us were fellow Americans Gus Wilson from a sailboat called Wings and Dick Stevenson from a boat called Alchemy. We’d been introduced to them by email. Yet another warm welcome.
We signed some papers at the marina office, and then moved from the lock to our berth.
Finally tied up, we turned off the motor, and sat down. We’d left Turkey in May, with London as our goal. Seven months later, here we were.
It feels good.