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…..in 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…

 …..as 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.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Into the Mystic

Smell the sea and feel the sky, Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic.” – Van Morrisson

O’Donovan’s Store

The road beneath my feet feels strangely solid, after a month on passage. It climbs steeply from the water side, between close set pastel houses, towards the brow of a hill. Half way to that summit a thickset broad boled tree, branches spread wide, forces Castle Townshend’s high street to squeeze past, one carriageway  to either side of it - like a Jack in the Green indignantly risen through the tarmac to reclaim his natural realm. I pause to gather my breath and stand in the calm shade of the ancient tree. Below me a fleeting zephyr of breeze affectionately ruffles Stargazer’s reflection in the bay.

From my resting place beneath the tree, O’Donovan’s store stands out clearly -  marked by a posey of daffodil yellow gas bottles and a weather beaten petrol pump set before it on the pavement. A gentle murmur of conversational voices carries through the open door. I step inside and pause for my eyes to adjust to the dimmed light. The voices fall silent….a throat is softly cleared…. “You’ve had a long walk up that hill, maybe you’ve come a long way with your boat too.... You seemed to be asleep there all yesterday after you anchored?”

The Traveler's Tale

O’Donovan and his customers gently extract my tale in the friendly Irish way; long considered softly spoken questions, well pondered reflections, nods, smiles, silences, encouragements. I tell of provisioning Stargazer at the head of the creek in Penryn. A place where some boats come ashore to rest, their voyaging over; whilst others prepare to set out on new adventures – and where the rhythm of the tide slows the metronome of life to a reflective tempo.

I tell of sounding into the dimly perceived shelter of The Cove in the dawn twilight, after a night passage to Scilly, and awakening to tropical white sands.

Of Stargazer settling for the night, amid the roosting gulls, in Old Grimsby Sound.Travelers in from the sea.

Of rambles ashore, amid Treasure Island flora - whilst waiting for a fair breeze to carry us north across the Celtic Sea.

Of our breeze arriving, and of hoisting the cruising chute one fair morning; bound for Ireland.

Of  leaving the silent sentinel of Bishop Rock to port in the heat haze of a summer’s day.

Of a night spent romping across a dark shadowed sea beneath a swirling snowstorm of stars. Of the dawn sun gathering pearls of dew, one by one, from Strargazer’s deck in readiness for the day .

….and of landfall in the Emerald Isle. My hosts, in O’Donovan’s, pack my rucksack with fresh milk and bread, recommend some fruit cake and promise me that cruising riches beyond my imagining lie to the west. A fresh buzz of conversation rises from the doorway, as I walk back down the hill laden with provisions and buoyed by anticipation.

Riches Beyond Compare

In Baltimore Stargazer lies to the town jetty, amid the bustle of a working port. A family from Schull rafts gently alongside, after hailing for advice  – then confides it’s their first time out in a borrowed boat. “Slow is good” we agree. I catch the lines of a trawler yacht. The crew have tales to tell – bouncing off rocks on the way in, using an uncharted channel they had heard rumour of….and of a snug ‘secret’ anchorage in Barloge Creek.

In Barloge Creek the song of the Lough Hyne rapids hangs in the air. The muscular shoulder of Bullock Island, where rocky sinews ripple the tawny green slopes, provides our shelter.

A watchful stalking Egret provides our company.

Stargazer comes alive beneath me, hard on the wind bound for the Fastnet, in a jolie brise from the South West. She shoulders her way across the swell, deck drains gurgling, shrouds humming and diamonds of spray cascading back from the bow.

A pod of dolphins torpedoes past, darting to and fro beneath the bow before spearing off northwards. “Come on, keep up, follow us, we’ll show you the sights of the west coast,” they seem to say.

Somnolent seals sun themselves on the uncovering spit…..

…..whilst Stargazer draws breath in the lee of Bark Island. Beyond the green foliage and craggy islands, which shelter Glengarriff, a piercing westerly 5-6 whips white horses down the long arm of Bantry Bay, beneath misty mauve hillsides.

Back at sea, a gull skims the building Atlantic swell. Stargazer swoops north past the black bulk of the wave pieced, guano streaked, lighthouse capped Bull Rock under double reefed main.

A rhythm builds: I put the helm up, Stargazer climbs the wave; we level off at its crest; I bear off. Stargazer surfs downwards, helm vibrating, bow wave climbing aft, speed rising, me whooping! Our view of the 89m Bull Rock is all but eclipsed as I put the helm up to begin our next ascent.

An innocent, post downpour, sun boils saintly white whisps of cumulus off the hillside above Dingle Bay- to welcome us between outstretched arms clad in Irish green.

Ponies streak around the Dingle track, divets flying high behind them, the thunder of their hooves vibrating the ground. Bets are on, faces are intent. At the finishing post smiles are wide for punters and riders alike.

Into the Mystic

I walk through lush rolling countryside, stopping at cottages to ask my way, in search of the Reask Stone. It’s an intricately carved Celtic standing stone become Christian cross. For a time it formed the centrepiece of a drystone built monastery of beehive huts. Now only the reconstructed foundations of the Christian edifice remain. The ancient Reask Stone stands on, proud and mysterious, at one with the enduring timeless constants: sun dappled hillsides, the sighing wind, birdsong, and the unifying blue of sea and sky.

A contemplative peregrine falcon is perched on the sea wall above Stargazer when I return. I sit nestled in the corner of the cockpit - at peace. My arm is draped over the cabin top, the chime of lapping water fills my ears, the sun warms my face, and the wind tousles my hair. Van Morrisson’s song runs unbidden through my mind:

“We were born before the wind
Also younger than the sun
Ere the bonnie boat was won as we sailed into the mystic
Hark now hear the sailors cry
Smell the sea and feel the sky
Let your soul and spirit fly into the mystic.”

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Winter's Veil

Warm spring sunshine has lifted winter's veil of morning mist, and brought the boatyard out of its hibernation.

I've been lucky with my choice of Stargazer's week ashore. The weather is perfect for polishing and antifouling.

All around me the air is perfumed with the evocative scent of wood shavings, varnish, paint and polish. Ravens caw raucously from the rigging.

We relaunch next week. Once the weather settles, we'll sail east and north for our new berth on the River Medway. Past Selsey Bill, Beachy Head, Dungeness, The Goodwin Sands, The Forelands and on into The London River.

The call of the curlew, across the East Coast cruising grounds, has become too strong for us to ignore.

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Location:Woodlands Avenue,Poole,United Kingdom