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.
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 façade 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.
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.