Wednesday, 23 September 2020

The Crossing


Stargazer is close hauled, off Boulogne, in fifteen knots of north east breeze. The afternoon sun glints off her boiling wake. Our weather window has arrived. Our patience is amply rewarded. 

I check Stargazer's projected track, on the plotter. It predicts landfall around Romney Marsh. Fifteen nautical miles south of Dover, where we had planned to close with the British coast; and over thirty nautical miles south of Ramsgate, our intended destination for tonight. The spring tide, our ally, has yet to turn. Stargazer is pushing the last of the southbound tide.

A heat haze hangs in the air, as we pick our way across the shipping lanes. The silhouettes of the silent behemoths clearly discernible, but without detail. Even at a mile - which is as close as Stargazer likes to get. Inexorably the line of our projected track swings north. The fair tide is gathering pace beneath us.

Ahead, the low afternoon sun glints off the chalk buttress of the South Downs. The White Cliffs of Dover. Stargazer is making seven knots over the ground. Loping along, over a low swell, with the easy pace of a long distance runner.

I radio Dover port control, on channel seventy four: 
"Permission to cross east and west entrances, please." 
"Yes, we have you. Crossing the southbound lane. What is your destination?"
I am half expecting a quarantine related challenge, or news of some new clearance formality to be observed.
"Yes, we're coming up from the south, making for Ramsgate"
"You are clear to proceed. Maintain a listening watch, until you are well clear. Have a good trip"
Relief. I double click the transmit button, to acknowledge. And settle back into the tranquil reverie gifted by a sun filled, day long passage, in a fair wind.

Three tacks carry Stargazer up the Gull Stream, the channel inshore of the Goodwin Sands. The forbidding form of a Royal Navy warship looms out of the evening mists. As we pass, I see that she is at anchor. On migrant watch, no doubt. 
I make Stargazer fast under the high stone walls of Ramsgate harbour. Down below, I check forecasts, as a curry brews on the stove. The consensus is: wind swinging into the south west overnight. Building from a three to a five or six over Tuesday. Up to seven, 'perhaps gale eight' on Wednesday. Our weather window still holds. But we will need to press on tomorrow.

I sleep as the tide completes a cycle. Stargazer makes sail as the sun rises, slipping up past De Gallant moored off North Foreland. The former herring schooner, turned modern-day sail driven cargo carrier (, is playing the same timeless game as us. Waiting for a fair tide to carry her into the London River. Lying to her anchor in the blue waters of the Channel. Sheltered by the high chalk cliffs.

Round the Foreland the wind freshens, unimpeded by those sheltering cliffs. Stargazer beats east, towards the Medway. Her rippling bow wave streaks the brown waters with white. Swirling cream into cocoa. The tide gathers pace beneath us and the wind builds. Both apparent and true. We are making good time. Almost too good. Stargazer arrives, at the shoal Copperas Channel, only an hour and a half after low water springs. The wind heads us. We short tack, nervously, making six and a half knots - with less than a metre between the glutinous Kentish mud and Stargazer's keel.

Up into the Medway Stargazer sweeps. Double reefed now. The wind funneling, gusting up and down between fifteen and twenty four knots. Allowing us to pinch up, in the squalls. To squeeze through the serpentine bends, with only a handfull of tacks. The last of the spring flood lending a helping hand. 
Thames grain barge, Edith May, ( runs downriver, over the tide, toward us. Tan mainsail brailed up - not required, to achieve progress, in this breeze. Topsail, jibs and mizzen outstretched. Pennants flying. An East Coast welcome.

Sunday, 20 September 2020



This morning's (southbound) tide, brings boats down from the northern French and Belgian ports. Riding the last of the fresh north easterly breeze.

A yacht club end of season rally arrives from Dunkerque. Full of tales of derring do. Weather bound in port since Friday. Glad to be in Boulogne, after an early start and busy passage.

We northbound boats wait our moment patiently. Peering into the, ever shifting, weather forecasts, upon the brightly glinting screens of our smart phones. Hunting for our gap.

We each have our favoured forecast site. For the past forty eight hours they have all agreed on a jolie breeze from the northeast tomorrow. The picture for Tuesday is less clear. And the predictions vary about the timing of the incoming south westerly gale. Some say Wednesday, some Thursday. Generally its predicted arrival time is creeping forward.

I have filed a Passenger Locator Form. It is based on a crossing tomorrow evening, on the northbound tide. An overnight pit stop at Ramsgate, whilst the tide runs south. Followed by a sharp start on Tuesday morning - to put Stargazer off the North Foreland, to catch the Thames flood, up into the Medway. 

Saturday, 19 September 2020

Crystal Ball


The Covid era New Normal looks to require greater sacrifice than the wearing masks to the beach.  Infection rates are on the climb across Europe. Although perhaps we are paying the price of low compliance, to social distancing and mask wearing advice, earlier in the summer. In the UK, the rule of six has been implemented and further restrictive measures seem likely. Where is the balance point to be found in the teetering seesaw triangle of health, liberty and wealth?

On Boulogne's seafront a sculpture celebrates the Entente Cordiale, between Britain and France. It was conceived in 2004, when Brexit was not even a word. Let alone a reality. How is the UK's relationship, with Europe and the rest of the world, going to look by the end of this year? And what will be the impact for us all?

How will cruising under sail, in Europe, be affected? Will visiting sailors be limited to stays of no more than ninety days (as is currently the case for all non - Schengen countries, other than the UK)? It seems likely. That would rule out a full season European cruise (May through to September). Or an extended cruise, overwintering aboard, to extend horizons. With fundamentals, like a trade deal still to negotiate, such niceties will be well down the list of questions for clarification. Will talks be held? And, if so, when. . . .and what will their outcome be?

A more immediate question weighs on my mind. I take the binoculars out onto the inner harbour mole. Watch as Saturday sailors put to sea and leave the protection of the outer harbour walls. They are setting full sail and are only mildly heeled upwind. I would estimate a force four breeze. True, we are in the lee of the land. And true, there are white caps in the offing. But I begin to doubt the forecasts of a force six - unanimous though they are, across multiple sources. Could we have sailed today? I phone Roger, a sailing friend who lives in Ramsgate. "Its blowing a six here. And there are breaking seas in the harbour mouth. Stay put until Monday!" That is one question quickly answered.

We three northbound boats wait on, for our gap in the weather. The southbound boats have sailed. Twenty five knots of tail wind quickly reduces to a comfortable eighteen knots apparent, on a run. Equally, that same twenty five knots as a headwind becomes thirty knots apparent. A rough ride, to be avoided.
 I will be up at dawn tomorrow to check the forecasts, as usual. If the breeze is down, we have a Passenger Locator Form to file (including Passage Plan to reach our home port), before we may sail. Who knows how officialdom will respond to our need to wait for suitable tides and winds? Or a certain vagueness over time and place? Oh for a crystal ball to answer all these questions!

Friday, 18 September 2020

Mind the Gap


The surf rolls onto the beach, in the outer harbour. Our spell, of north easterly force seven winds, has extended its stay - beyond the forty eight hours originally forecast..

The Border Force believe that the weather is set in too. Aramis is joined by first one cutter. . . .

. . . . and then another. The crews are stood down, ashore. The weather will keep migrant crossings at bay for another day or two.

It is often the way, that a forecast weather window closes. The current blow continues and a full gale, force eight, is now predicted to come in, from the south west, on Wednesday afternoon. Between the two, Stargazer has a hundred or so miles to cover, in order to reach the Medway. There are also some complicated tides to juggle. We are coming up to springs. An ally for a fast passage, but a strict master too. Dictating departure and arrival times. We must keep a close eye, on our moving gap in the weather, to be sure not to miss it.

In the shadow of the old town walls, a group of protesters approach a police line. They march, banners held high, up a sun filled Grande Rue.

They halt before the steps of the Sous Prefecture (Local Government offices). A speaker mounts the podium. Her notes held before her by a colleague. Flanked by standard bearers.

She speaks of an economic gap in society. The damage done by the Covid response measures. Of groups treated as if they do not matter. Berates Macron. Today has been nominated a national day of action, by The CGI (French TUC), to highlight social injustice and to call for policy change.

The crowd listens attentively. But the group is small, almost outnumbered by the police manning the road block. The rhythm and metre Boulogne's daily life continues undisturbed. Traffic flowing along parallel streets.

Back at the port, an American flagged catamaran has joined Stargazer. A couple, and their dog, are flying south, with their new boat - before the north wind. Bound for a Christmas in the Caribbean. Meanwhile, the northbound boats wait patiently, for their gap in the weather.

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The Hungry Gull


The fishing fleet are back alongside early today. The forecast force seven north easterly has begun to blow.

Boats hurry homeward through the harbour entrance. . . .

. . . .to land their catch.

The agent, waiting on the quayside, holds their financial fate in his hands. All eyes are upon him, as the crews come alongside the fish hoist.

He stands, in well shined shoes, phone to his ear. Buying and selling. One eye on the look out for arriving craft. The other on the boat he is negotiating with. He checks the crated fish and sees it swung ashore to be weighed. Watchful as a hungry gull (centre left).

Some of the catch is loaded into queuing vans.

The rest is sold by the fishermen, from counters marked up with their boat's name and bearing her colours.

Leaving lean pickings for a hungry gull.

Wednesday, 16 September 2020

A Brush with the Law


They stand stock still, heads down. A motionless embodiment of dejection, amid a wheeling commotion of wailing sirens and gesticulating police. Four young men. Would be migrants to the United Kingdom. Two cling close together, guarding a forlorn plastic sack of clothing. Brothers perhaps. Friends, at least. Two others stand apart. Alone.

I had walked out on the harbour wall. Felt the breeze begin to increase, swing into the north east. Watched the white horses begin to prance. Reflected that the past few days, of still weather, would have been busy ones for the Border Forces of Britain and France.

Aramis slipped quietly into port. Her low grey form designed to elude the eye. A cacophany of ululating police and ambulance sirens begins as she docks. Cars and vans race to meet her. Lights ablaze, strobes flashing. On her deck lies a small upended rubber dinghy, no bigger than Stargazer's tender. The intended cross channel conveyance of the would-be voyagers.

More detainees are led up from below. They wear the identical maroon sweatshirts issued to them. Their slight figures are corralled by masked sailors standing foursquare, arms folded, in their navy uniforms.

One official, a doctor maybe, wears a white hazard suit. An outward sign of the detachment with which we (sailors, officials and onlookers) watch, as the men are shepherded ashore. Inwardly I, for one, am comparing my lot to theirs. Wondering how I would respond, were our roles to be reversed.  Wondering what quirk of fate determined our differing circumstances?

The men's body language speaks of dejection, humiliation possibly, but not defeat. Backs are unbowed, ramrod straight. Bodies resilient. Seas will run high, in the Channel, over the next forty eight hours. Once the winds abate, another attempt will be made to cross. That is the expectation of the sailors aboard Aramis. These migrants have traveled far to reach this point. Overcome setbacks greater than this. 

Fifty metres away, on the opposite side of the dock, lies Stargazer - returning from her summer cruise. The contrast, between the lives of Aramis' unwillingly passengers, and our own free wheeling lifestyle, could not be more poignant. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2020

Nordic Sauna?


Boulogne basks in a Mediterranean heat wave. Shutters are closed, to prevent rooms becoming saunas. The streets are still. People seek shade.

The boats around Stargazer are returning to either Denmark or Sweden - where Stargazer was built. A Nordic fleet bound north. Our talk is of forecasts. The choice is motoring, in variable winds, now; or sailing, in strong headwinds, later. Or waiting, for a better alternative - and taking advantage, of a good drying day, to do the washing.

Chores done, I set off into town, towards the tall dome on the hill. Tantalising glimpses of it are visible across the city. Peeping between rooftops one moment, gone the next. 

A tall, narrow, arched gateway allows me through the old city walls - which crown the hilltop.

Within lie cobbled streets. . . .

. . . . grand buildings of state. . . .

. . . . and the enigmatic dome, of the cathedral.

Fountains gush cool water.

And statuary surveys the bustling scene below reflectively.