Monday, 4 June 2018

Postcard from Terneuzen

Stargazer lays companionably alongside a pretty Dutch barge yacht, soaking up the morning sun.

Terneuzen harbour is tranquil and somnolent. This is truly a day to savour - doubly so, because it is my birthday.

A short climb up the grassy sea wall leads me to leafy streets and on through a neatly groomed town square.

Unconsciously my wandering feet carry me to the canal side. There is a mesmerising contrast between the mighty bulk of the deep laden barges, and the delicacy of their manoeuvres within the confines of the locks.

 A deft whisper of ahead here, a burst of astern - with rudders hard over - there, is all it takes to jigsaw four cargo carrying leviathans between the stone walls. Fence post sized baulks of timber dangle, horizontally, bow and stern to serve as fenders. Such is the skill of the unseen bargees, in their glass eyries, that I did not see these put to the test.

The locks convey the barges between the watery inland highways of the canals and sea going trade route of the Westerscheldt.

I look out from the junction of these two great waterways and contemplate which direction the new birthday year ahead of me will lead.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

North Sea Haar

The wind is light as we leave the mooring. Stargazer glides down river on the tide, sails just drawing. Wild fowl wheel overhead, calling in the still air. Its a day too perfect to sully with the sound of an engine, the first day of my holidays. We anchor inside the marshes, at the river mouth, content to wait for the morning tide and the prospect of a breeze.

Stargazer foams out of the Medway in a northerly force 4 to 5, short taking against the last of the flood. Poised to catch the turn of the tide at Garrison Point. I revise our passage plan as we go. With this wind we won't make it to the River Orwell today. But, with the Thames ebb under us we can lay North Foreland in a couple of tacks. Ramsgate will be our first port on this cruise.

I take two reefs in the main and Stargazer romps east. Visibility is down to about a mile. We sail in our own bubble of sunshine, the shore unseen until we reach Ramsgate's familiar stone walls.

We wait out a windless day, then make sail. As we leave, the breeze is back in the north, and a hazy sunrise glints off the sea worn moles.

Stargazer rides a gently undulating swell under cruising chute. Wind and tide urge her south. A fine mist hangs in the humid air, blurring edges rather than obscuring vision.

A soft focus Sandettie Light Vessel slips by to port, beginning to swing as the tide turns. I drop the cruising chute and point Stargazer's bows north east, up the French coast toward Belgium.

We close reach up the inshore channel to Dunkerque, cross the offshore banks at the Passe de Zuydcoote and skim the depth contours of the shelving shoreline. Twelve hours of fair tides, and our north wind, carry us into Nieuwpoort.

We tie up alongside Drum of Drake. Last year she acted as our pilot for the Zuydcoote. We lay hove to off the Passe, at low water, unsure if there was enough depth for us to cross.

 Drum of Drake roared through, square sails set. We followed her track, laying the way points we relied on for today's hazy trip.

I allow Nieuwpoort's sleepy charm to wash over me for a day. Lazily perambulating leafy canal sides. The sound of birdsong and cycle bells punctuating the silence.

Atop the cathedral a golden weather cock reminds me that the wind is fair for the Westerschelde.

Stargazer sails into her familiar bubble of sunshine and the shoreline disappears astern.

The cold damp fingers of a full North Sea Haar close around us. Choking off visibility. We tip toe around the stern of a coaster in the Oostende approach channel (peer hard and you will see it, top right!). We heave to off Zeebrugge, until the AIS screen shows a gap in the shipping, then make a dash across the busy entrance. I breath a sigh of relief as the rumble and thunder of the port drops behind us, replaced by the sigh of the wind and the surge of the sea.

The sluicing Westerschelde tide draws us into Dutch waters. The sun warms my back, drives away the Haar, welcomes us to the Netherlands. 

To starboard, white sandy beaches and a familiar sentinel appear. Stargazer is reaching at 8 knots over the ground. We are in the Westerschelde.

A thunderstorm cracks overhead. The deluge freshens the air, intensifies the evening's colours. We nose into the old ferry berth at Terneuzen to find a delightfully informal club marina.  

I circle the pontoons, seeking out a vacant finger. Some are occupied by an eclectic collection of cherished and individualist craft. Others appear under renovation, with cleats or planking removed. A beaming figure emerges from beneath the gleaming bright work of a rakish gaffer and greets us: "My boat is 70 years old, built in Burnham on Crouch..... You are from England too I think?.... On your own?..... How was the crossing?...... Do you know Woolverstone?.......Yes, yes - tie up here, on B"

While we yarn, I secure Stargazer's lines, in a tranquil basin, sheltered by lush green banks and overlooked by suburban bungalows.

Off the entrance of our peaceful resting place, shipping, in the deep water channel, scurries to and from Antwerpen.

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Through the Looking Glass

An hour ago I was at my office desk. Now Stargazer has slipped through the marina lock, like Alice through her looking glass, into the wondrous weekend world of the river.

We beat downstream, on the ebb, our weekday cares left tossing in our wake. An amphibious, chimeral, landscape - part land part water - rises around us as the tide recedes.

We settle for the night, among the geese and gulls, in 'our' spot at the head of Sharfleet Creek.

A molten sun glides toward the gently undulating Kent horizon. Its long shadows pick out the ever shifting line between slick estuarine mud and rippling river water.

The creek comes to life, as I breakfast in the cockpit on a sun filled Saturday morning. I watch the comings.....

....and goings in a dreamlike state, suspended between sleep and wakefulness.

Stargazer pirouettes gently around her anchor chain, with a rumble and a clank, bringing me out of my reverie, commanding attention. The tide has turned. The first cats-paws of a summer sea breeze are padding across the still anchorage towards us. It is time to make sail.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Here Comes the Sun

A rainbow arcs across Ramsgate Harbour. The spring sun splashes a bright patch of summer blue across the canvas of bleak black winter cloud. The tide is fair, the wind murmurs on the sea wall beside us. It is time to make sail.

Stargazer scuds north, reaching under double reefed main in 25 knots of NW breeze. She carves a boiling white wake across a rhythmically undulating blue green sea.

Mischievous gusts spill down from the high white cliffs above. Our wake squirms sinuously as we duck and weave, playing the shifts 

The waves flatten as we round North Foreland and sniff out the first of the flood tide, to carry us into the London River. Stargazer is hard on the wind now. Casting to port and starboard, scenting out the deepest water, as she tacks. Through the shipping, waiting for orders, at anchor in Margate roadsted; into the Gore Channel, the Copperas Channel, the Horse Channel and the Four Fathom Channel.  

The wind frees as Stargazer slips into the Medway and glides upriver, making the most of slack water in the river. The spring sun quietly retires below the horizon, its work done for the day. Behind, it leaves a sky purged of cloud and the anticipation of a summer's cruising under sail.

Monday, 2 April 2018


The March winds, whistling icily from the arctic, mound Stargazer's decks with snow. It is a month until her eight birthday which, this year, falls on Easter Sunday. A double celebration to commemorate with our first sail of a new season.

But first there is work to do. In the window, between the two March falls of snow, Stargazer is lifted. Temperatures rise just far enough for the anti fouling to dry. Anodes are replaced, topsides polished, the engine serviced and the source of a mysterious leak (eventually) traced to the calorifier.

Rain lashes the deck as I sit snug below on Good Friday, with the refit complete. 

We sail the following morning. The traffic roar and bustle of the upper river falls away as Stargazer spreads her wings and gybes seaward in long boards. Her familiar tiller comes alive in my hand. The silvery song of our wake and the primal chatter of the marsh birds fill my ears.  The metronome of time slows.

We drop anchor in Sharfleet creek. Around us the marshes rise, to provide shelter for the night, as six metres of spring tide ebbs into the North Sea.

A pair of White Fronted Geese, in from the Greenland tundra, patrol the chill foreshore beside us.

We reach gently out of the Medway on a steely grey Easter morning, making for the North Foreland - a fitting celebration of the day on which Stargazer was first launched eight years ago.
 I am wearing two fleeces and a body warmer under my full waterproofs; plus a windproof hat, with earflaps, on top of my balaclava. A warming mug of coffee or soup is seldom far from my, mittened, hand.
We take the 'overland route' close in to the Kentish shore, slipping over the shoals, threading through the ancient Four Fathom and Copperas channels. I break out an easter egg as the twin Reculver Towers come abeam and we clear the shallowest part of our route.

From the Foreland we romp south, Stargazer lifting to the Channel swell. Ahead of us the welcoming breakwaters of Ramsgate Harbour.

We have our pick of berths. I make fast, connect to shore power and fire up the heater!

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

YIN & YANG CRUISE. Part 2: Yin

Our peaceful sojourn in Souhwold is cut short.

I've found enough phone signal to pick up the forecast. It shows a week of winds building steadily from today's F5-7 through Gale 8 to Storm 10. We need to get home before those gales arrive.....and will be beating (into the wind) all the way.

Stargazer puts to sea immediately. She carves her way south, through short steep seas, both main and genoa double reefed.

Pin Mill's sheltering trees give us a lee for the night. We set sail with the sunrise.

The breeze is down to F5-6 today. Stargazer shoulders her way on south under full jib and double reefed main. 

We anchor behind the spit in Pyefleet Creek for the night - now only one 45 mile hop from home. This should work out perfectly. The first gale is not due until tomorrow evening. We will be home by then.

We sail at high water. It's 04.00 dark and foggy. The occulting lights of buoyage appear and disappear in the swirls of mist. An anchored boat rears up dead ahead. I steer to starboard, to avoid her. We glide to a halt. We are aground. I start the engine. Too late. We are hard aground with 4m of tide still to fall. I close the sea cocks and start shifting all heavy gear up to port to encourage Stargazer to fall to the 'uphill' side of the mud bank. If we fall 'downhill' the returning tide will flood and sink us.

Dawn reveals a different fate.The same notoriously glutinous mud-ooze of the Pyefleet, which has entrapped Stargazer, is also her saviour. Yin and Yang. Stargazer has settled, 1.8m fin keel and all, bolt upright into the mud. A curlew feeds to our landward side delightfully oblivious to our presence.

To seaward a family of egrets hungrily stalk the shallows. I settle down to a 10 hour wait for the tide to return with a mug of coffee and a hot breakfast.

Much to my relief Stargazer refloats unscathed as the gale builds. We re anchor further up the Pyefleet to sit it out.

The wind shrieks and moans for 24 hours, until a dramatic thunderclap and rainbow mark the gale's end.

I navigate out of the creek and through the Swin Swatchway, with great care, an hour before dawn the following day. A gibbous moon lights our way. The clear night sky is studded with a magnificence of stars. A good omen for Stargazer.

 The forecast is "westerly 5-7 backing southerly 6-gale 8 perhaps severe gale 9 later." I put Stargazer hard on the wind, under double reefed main and double reefed jib. She flings spray high over her shoulder, letting nothing stand between her and the lee of the Kent shore.

We slip into the tree lined shelter of Upnor Reach as the storm Aileen arrives. Glad to be home.