Saturday, 22 September 2018

Weather Bound

 For four days and nights the south wind howls and shrieks. Sometimes down to force 7, one night up to storm 10, mainly  it's around gale 8. I pace the Ramsgate waterfront, weather bound.

Fishing boats remain in port. The 'windcat,' windfarm service fleet, briefly set off on the first day but return en masse and remain in harbour for the week.

Only the stalwart pilot boats venture out, in clouds of spume.

The intrepid crew of, the ocean crossing, 34 footer 'Zen Again' arrive reporting only a "fast passage" up from Cowes. There's a team that's been some places and has some stories to tell.....  

The talk on the pontoons is of weather windows. We all have our favourite forecast sites. Most point to a westerly 5 on Saturday, followed by another gale within 12 to 18 hours (take your pick).

I set the alarm for 03.00 Saturday. The harbour is silent when it wakes me. No groaning of mooring lines. No howl of wind. I rig Stargazer and radio for clearance to leave port. We reach north, past the light house, up to The Foreland. The inky darkness turns to an indigo pre dawn twilight.

By sunrise Stargazer is hard on the wind in 18 to 20 knots of breeze. She tacks west with the Thames flood helping her to make ground.

We thread our way through the shoals off the Reculver Towers, helped by a lucky wind shift.

The breeze picks up to 22 knots as thunder clouds roll in. I tuck in two reefs.Stargazer shoulders her way, tack by tack, past the Whitstable wind farm...

.....and into the Medway. We ease our sheets. The water flattens. The wind stills. Ripples from our bow wave run musically aft. A curlew calls from the uncovering mud flats. I belly Stargazer's sails, to make the most of the fading evening breeze; and let it slowly carry us upriver over the ebb - delighting in the soundscape of our river.

Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Shepherd's Warning

An hour before the dawn; Stargazer makes ready for sea - by the light reflected from Blankenberge's streetlamps, in the still waters of the harbour.

A scarlet dawn breaks as we set sail from the pier heads. The shepherd's warning. The tail of Hurricane Helene is on its way across the Atlantic towards us, followed by Storm Ali.

We beat down the Belgian coast over lightly ruffled cobalt seas, in 15 knots of breeze, as a pale autumn sun rises into a clear sky.

By mid afternoon we are through the Zuydcoote Passe, into French waters and past Dunkerque. There are nine hours of fair tide to be had, headed southbound down this coast, and Stargazer is making the most of them - to outrun the gales.

By evening it is time to ease our sheets and reach up Channel towards the Kent coast. 

Our turning point is the Sandettie light vessel, guarding the southern end of the offshore shoals. We catch the turn of the tide and ride it north.

The sun sets over Pegwell Bay as we approach the English shoreline. The breeze is fading but the evening is too perfect to sully with the sound of an engine. We ghost on into the twilight. Stargazer makes her landfall two hours after dark, following the occulting road of red and green flashes into the embrace of Ramsgate's rock breakwaters.

Overnight the wind builds to a full southerly gale. By dawn a resonating booming in the sky overlays the banshee shriek of gusts.

The Dutch top sail schooner 'Oosterschelde' too has heeded the shepherd's warning; and run in for shelter.

Stargazer lies moored tight in under the lee of the granite harbour wall, waiting for a weather window for her passage home to the Medway.

Saturday, 15 September 2018

Border Crossing

I drink in the view from high on the sea wall, out at the Breskens light near Nieuwesluis. The candy striped sentinel at the gateway to the Westerschelde.

Ten metres, or more, below us to landward; homesteads and woods perch on scarcely perceptible rises in an otherwise flat plain, which shimmers silver blue with still marsh waters.

To seaward, a fishing boat lowers its trawl and motors against the ebb, filling its nets with a tide bourn bounty.

Stargazer sails the next morning.

She beats out of the Westerschelde, in a SW force 5, showering shimmering diamonds of spray high over her shoulder.

There's a surge in the Blankenberge entrance. We lie off, waiting for another half metre of tide to rise (in case we ground in a wave trough) before nosing in. The canal turns sharp left. The cry of the wind and the crash of the swell disappear in an instant, like a radio song being abruptly turned off.

We find ourselves suddenly in the heart of town. A different music drifts across the harbour. A troop of wandering players stroll....

......tree lined Saturday afternoon streets.

Stargazer rests in the evening sunshine, back in Belgium. Her fourth border crossing in the past week of cruising. I enjoy a pot of coffee; savouring our freedom to roam where ever, in Europe, wind and whim take us - and wonder what changes Brexit may bring to our sailing.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

The Red Penguins of Breskens

In the salt marsh, a patient grey heron coils ready to spring. The whistling south west wind gusts to force 7 and 8, flattening the sun bleached reeds around it.

Stargazer stays snug on her berth today, well sheltered beneath the sea wall, biding her time to continue our autumn cruise.

I walk into Nieuwpoort, enjoying the warm sunshine on my back and the breeze tugging at the folds of my shirt.

I watch the tugs come and go on the river....

...and try to stay out of the way of legion milling cyclists, bells pinging.

Next day, Stargazer thunders north. She's hard on the wind in 22 - 25 knots of breeze, shouldering her way through the swell in a day long welter of spray.

The powerful flood tide gathers us up off Zeebrugge. Stargazer is logging 9 knots over the ground as it sweeps us into the Westerschelde....

.....past the Nieuwesluis light. The seas mound higher as our wind, from the north east, battles the west going tide.

Stargazer makes fast alongside an older sister: 'Mi Dushi,' a Hallberg Rassy 31 - predecessor to the 310 (Stargazer's model).

We have arrived in the easy going Zeeland port of Breskens, part working fishing port, part sailing resort,

 - under the watchful gaze of the quayside red penguin sculpture.

Monday, 10 September 2018

The Call of the Curlew

Stargazer sweeps out of Sharfleet Creek, her ensign crackling in the breeze. There's a passage-making South Westerly force 5 on her quarter. A warm autumn sun is climbing into the clear blue morning sky.

A rufous feathered Godwit forages intently for breakfast, on the spit, as we forge past.

Down towards the Foreland we romp, wind and tide urging us on. We round the familiar chalk headland and harden our sheets, skimming close inshore.The sun sinks towards the horizon, casting long equinoctial afternoon shadows across the cliffs and coves of Broadstairs.

We wait for our Channel crossing tide in Ramsgate.

As dawn breaks, we are in the shipping lanes, riding the tide south to the West Ruytingen cardinal (off Calais). We arrive as the tide turns.

It sweeps us majestically up the French coast, with the wind now on our beam. Stargazer foams past Dunkerque.

The scantily clad mermaid, off the harbour entrance, demurely turns her back to us. Fortunate for Stargazer and I - for it is bad luck to look a mermaid in the eye!

We thread the Zuydcoote Passe, over the sandbanks, and into Belgian waters. Nieuwpoort's welcoming whitewashed breakwaters reach out towards us, just as our twelve hours of fair tide begins to run out.

We make fast in a tranquil corner at the top of the harbour. Birdsong fills the air: the bubbling call of a curlew; the insistent shrieks of a giant skua; and the piercing staccato of sanderling on the wing.

A seal pup looks up in surprise at this new visitor to his realm.

The curlew strides forward purposefully, trilling its haunting melody.

I sit in Stargazer's cockpit, drinking a post passage pot of coffee, watching the sun set. A sleek black head gently surfaces astern. Two limpid eyes meet mine. This meeting of eyes feels like a good luck charm.