Saturday, 10 June 2017

Battle of the Medway

The Dutch warship 'Holland' is moored in the dock basin behind my house.

She crouches at the quayside like a snow leopard ready to pounce. Sleek and powerful...... claws at the ready...

...her tail held high and proud.

Two weeks ago Stargazer sailed to Breskens. Now Breskens boats have crossed the North Sea to her home port.

Boats of all shapes....


...and eras.

350 years ago the Royal Dutch Navy sailed up The River Medway to Chatham Naval Dockyard. They sacked Upnor Castle, captured the cream of the British fleet as prizes and burned the remaining warships on their moorings.

Today the atmosphere in front of Upnor's stone battlements is more relaxed. Flags, flown by British and Netherlands boats alike, crack in a stiff westerly breeze.

Racing gigs pitch gamely in the wind over tide chop of the heaving river...

...and a bluff bowed Botter puts purposefully to sea.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Homeward Bound

A sea breeze ruffles the water. The sluicing Schelde ebb begins to flow. It is time to head homeward. Stargazer beats seaward from Breskens, then hoists her cruising chute for a leisurely reach south past the bustling harbour mouths of Zeebrugge and Oostende. We gybe close in off Cadzand - a newly built marina at the mouth of the Westerschelde. I mark the entrance channel with waypoints on the plotter. A possible landfall for our next North Sea crossing.

In from the rolling sea, we come alongside at Nieuwpoort....

.....with its shaded square...

.....chiming bells....

.......and watchful gargoyles.

Stargazer plunges and rears through wind over tide seas, beating in 26 knots of breeze, We short tack (every 6-7 minutes all day long) between the Banc Smal to starboard and the Trapgeer bank to port, feeling our way down to the Passe de Zuydcoote spitway. We've made good time. Maybe too good. Its dead low water when we arrive. We heave to, waiting for some rise of tide. Then 'Jantje' thunders up through the channel to greet us. In we tack. We make it in one long board, with two metres to spare beneath our keel.

One last tack carries us down the approach canal, into Dunkerque. Out of the tearing wind and driving salt spray.

Up on the quayside a fisherman mends his nets in the sun. Aboard Stargazer I cook myself a large reviving curry.

Fog closes in off Ruytingen, as we enter the shipping lanes. We cross The Channel in a tiny world of our own. Grey sea merges with grey fog. Visibility is 50 metres. Beyond our 50 metre bubble the world of commerce continues. Ships rumble by with fog horns lowing and engines pounding like the hooves of stampeding cattle.

I sleep late into the afternoon and awake to the cries of seagulls echoing off Ramsgate's familiar stone walls

We push the southbound tide for an hour, up past North Foreland, to catch the first of the London River flood off Margate. Its a calm day, with marginal breeze. Ideal to sound our way through 'The Overland Route' into the Medway. Charts and pilot books are contradictory on the location of buoyage. One thing they are agreed on is that depths at low water are generally insufficient to float us.

We ghost east, allowing the flooding tide to lift us up and over the shoals. I lay way points and note depths under keel versus rise of tide. The sky darkens. Thunder cracks. Lightening sizzles. Rain smokes off Stargazer's deck. The storm clears as quickly as it appeared and visibility begins to lift. Ahead, as if appearing through the mists of time, a Thames barge stands into The Swale. We are home.

Friday, 26 May 2017

The "We Didn't Mean To Go To Sea" Cruise

Stargazer rests in Stangate Creek, with the Barnacle Geese, at anchor on a squally 'sunshine & showers' evening. On her saloon bulkhead the barometer rises. A good portent for our first summer cruise from The Medway.

Morning brings a southwesterly force three. Stargazer spreads her wings and rides the northbound ebb out of the London River.

We sneak over the Swin Spitway with a meter under the keel.....

....and romp into the Colne. We are chased by a 30 knot line squall lurking beneath a glowering black cloud. I scramble into waterproofs, but there's no need. The rain rumbles off inland.

 A laughing sun picks out the colours in Pyefleet Creek. We sound in behind the Bawley 'Pioneer' and drop anchor in the lee of West Mersea Island

The breeze backs South Easterly for a broad reach up the Wallet and.....

.......into the River Orwell. Past the spired skyline of Harwich to port.....

.....and the outstretched cranes of Felixstowe to starboard. 

 We're in good company as we wind our way upriver, sails bellied taut in the breeze, bow wave chuckling.

Under a molten sunset, Stargazer drops anchor in the timeless peace of Pin Mill. One time home of Arthur Ransome.

The swirl of the tide and the calls of the Oyster Catchers stir deep held memories. My first cruising forays, aboard Missee Lee (named after Arthur Ransome's book), were from this river. We linger a day.  The wind swings West North West, now perfect for a North Sea crossing.

Night is falling as we slip into Oostende and pick up an unoccupied hammerhead by the glow of our navigation lights.

On the quayside, tall ships muster for the Oostende Vor Anker festival.

There's no time to tarry though - a fair tide awaits to carry us north....

...into the Westerscheldt. In the wake of Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons, aboard 'Goblin' (after which my previous boat was named).They 'Didn't Mean To Go To Sea' - but accidentally cross from Harwich to Vlissingen when Goblin's anchor drags in fog.

Today is perfect sailing weather. a truly memorable passage. Hard on the wind, 18-20 knots of breeze and (a tide assisted) 9-10 knots over the ground. Stargazer barrels past the busy derricks of Zeebrugge and the matelot striped finger of the Nieuwe Sluis light.

We moor in Breskens

It's a short ferry ride over to Vlissingen..

....with its windmill on the harbour wall,

pilots at the ready, deep walled locks,

and bustling bicycles. Landfall of the Goblin.

                                        Stargazer waits patiently on her berth, whilst I indulge myself in a  Ransome inspired reverie ashore. She is ready to discover what the second half of our cruise will bring. Eager to be underway on new adventures of our own.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Under Big Skies

Vital Spark

The Clyde Puffer Vital Spark, bluff and black, blows smoke rings from her tall funnel. (The resemblence is so close, it seems Munroe’s fictitious steam ship has come to life before us). She  swaggers, with a rolling seaman’s gait, across a sea marbled blue and brown. Here, at the mouth of the London River, clear blue Atlantic seas mingle in an exotic cocktail with tea brown East Coast waters.

Vital Spark is bound down Channel, past the North Foreland; the irascible Para Handy, no doubt, inside the gleaming, upright, varnished wheelhouse of the “smertest boat in the trade.” Stargazer crosses her wake, reaching in 12 knots of south west breeze, seeking out the first of the flood amid the unseen Thames Estuary sand banks.

Our jib luff flutters. The tide has begun to draw us into The Princes Channel. I harden sheets. Stargazer leans to the breeze and accelerates. Her bow wave turns from a sleepy chuckle to a passage making rush of white water. We’re hard on the wind now, urged on by the tide; tight under the windward side of the Whitstable Wind Farm.

To the north shipping scurries past the Red Sand Towers and on towards the capital. Stargazer beats south and west towards the River Medway.

Our pace slows. A Thames Barge glides along the river towards us. A lone figure at the helm delicately tends her heavy main sheet; shaping her flax sails, catching the zephyrs, coaxing her out over the flood. Birdsong, from the lush green marshes, replaces the rush of water and the roar of wind.

Stangate Creek opens up to port. I furl the jib. Stargazer runs in under main, rounds up under Slaughterhouse Point and settles to her anchor. I have that same impulse “to row silently around… the still of the night in Stangate Creek, miles from civilisation” as Maurice Griffiths (Magic of the Swatchways).  

Barnacle Geese honk raucously from the tawny twilit marsh and settle on the water around me as I scull the dinghy. The rowlocks creak back our reply. The lone, small, sounds amplify the timeless silence of the creek.

Of Chalk and Shingle

Two weeks before, Stargazer had raised her anchor from beneath the familiar chalk sentinel of Old Harry, in Studland Bay, Poole.

She romped South East with 25- 27 knots of Westerly breeze on her starboard quarter. We broad reached under full main and no jib, shouldering our way over the swell. By nightfall, we’d crossed the shipping lanes. The breeze fell to 16- 18 knots. On we plunged, under full main and jib now, into a moonless night. Phosphorescence glittering in our boiling wake. Myriad stars hanging low above our masthead and on into a velvet infinity.

At dawn we sighted the gothic skyline of Fecamp.

In the lingering chill, from the spring night, I noisily slurped down a warming bowl of rice pudding and a steaming mug of coffee. The sun clambered rapidly, high into a clear blue sky. The surf sucked and seethed at the sea worn white shingle. Stargazer slipped between the moles into the harbour mouth.

 We had arrived at the home of Benedictine Liqueur. Our cruise had begun.

Normandy Lions

Two proud Normandy lions prowl above the waterfront in the shimmering mid morning heat…

 … Stargazer puts into Dieppe.

We moor beneath the welcoming, tall windowed, open shuttered fa├žade on a languid sunny Samedi.

I re-provision in the street market, practicing my French, spending my Euros, picking my produce, taking my time - savoring, what feels like, the beginning of summer proper.

We arrive off Boulogne…..

 ……as the sun begins to set - honeying the stone of the city walls.

Stargazer moors in the basin below.She is serenaded by 1940's jazz refrains drifting over from Victory in Europe Day celebrations ashore .

I set off, through a maze of cobbled streets, to trace their source.

Tres Griz

 Cap Griz Nez lives up to its name – although the rain front adds strength to the light breeze. We need it. I have miscalculated our arrival. We have several hours of sluicing tide to push! Stargazer holds station north of Griz Nez. I eat lunch... and drink coffee.....and watch the Cap Griz Nez inch slowly astern.

The tide turns. The skies clear. Stargazer swoops into Dunkerque; beating in long, tide assisted boards, making 9 knots over the ground in 18 knots of apparent wind. We tie up to the outstretched arm of the welcoming visitors' pontoon, and I tumble below, before the heavens open for a rumbling evening thunderstorm.

Under Big Skies

Stargazer feels her way across a fog shrouded Channel. The visibility closed in off Sandettie Light. We are committed to cross the shipping lanes by the northbound tide running hard beneath us. I engage the tiller pilot, to better watch the AIS arrows. They probe and flick across the chart plotter screen like a field of jousting knights, lances lowered, thundering along on heavy mounts. Each arrow is a ship. Fog horns bellow. Whiteness swirls. Deep throated engines rumble. Nerves jangle. Eyes play tricks. The red arches of Ramsgate Harbour are a welcome sight.

 We’ve crossed back to the UK, in front of a forecast blow, to arrive at this frontier between the English South and East coasts. Here Belgian and Dutch flags outnumber Red Ensigns. It’s a fitting port in which to ponder the promise of the East. I snug Stargazer well in under the high granite harbour wall, dry my washing in the breeze, dig out my old charts of the Orwell and Blackwater - and buy new charts for Holland.

Now Stargazer lies under the Big Skies of the East Coast.In the evocative stillness of Stangate Creek, I re read my tattered boyhood copy of Arthur Ramsome's 'We Didn't Mean to go to Sea.' For a day I'm lost in that tale of an inadvertent, fog bound, crossing from the Orwell to Flushing (Vlissingen).

We have a new berth now, below the turreted battlements of Upnor Castle.....and the promise of the East before us.