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 cracking. 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 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 - 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 an auspicious omen.

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.