An evacuation and clever seagulls

“Ack-ack-ack-ack”, stutters the light anti-aircraft gun mounted on the front of Ruby Tuesday. The First Mate aims it at a Stuka dive bomber that is plummeting towards us, its engine whining in a high pitched scream. Ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack. Tracer streams skyward towards the plane, hitting its fuselage. The First Mate was always a good shot. There is a puff of black smoke and flames begin to stream from the aircraft as it begins to spiral earthwards.

The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, June 1940. | Wikicommons/ Charles Ernest Cundall.

Debris flies into the air as a bomb hits one of the small boats off our port bow. The boat and everyone in it are completely obliterated. A Messerschmitt fighter flies in close over the water, strafing the soldiers and boats in the water as it comes. I wrench Ruby Tuesday’s wheel over and turn to port to narrow our profile, and watch in morbid fascination as lines of bullets strike the water on each side of us. Another bomb hits the water just where we were seconds before. That could have been us. I ram the throttle forwards and head parallel to the beach. Plumes of thick acrid black smoke rise into the air from the shipyards and oil tanks behind the beach as the bombers strike again and again. To the north of the harbour breakwater lies the wreck of a sunken troop ship that has succumbed to enemy bombs, its name Cote d’Azur just visible on her bow poking out of the water. Hundreds of soldiers are in the water, swimming for their lives. Many others cling to the makeshift piers formed by army trucks parked end-to-end out from the beach. If someone had asked me to describe hell, this would be it.

Amidships, Spencer throws over a net into the water to help the struggling soldiers climb up Ruby Tuesday’s slippery sides. They cling on desperately, their strength gone from weeks of fighting in France and the privation they have endured. Spencer reaches out with two of his arms and hauls them aboard. There is gratefulness in their eyes as they join the dozen or so others huddling in the cabin downstairs. At least they are still alive.

“Vessel Ruby Tuesday, you are drifting too much into the centre of the fairway”, a voice on the VHF radio says.

For a moment, I feel a brief feeling of anger that our position on the fairway is more important than our efforts to save the lives of the drowning soldiers in the water. It takes me a few seconds to realise that it is not 1940, that I am not the skipper of one of the small boats involved in the Operation Dynamo evacuation of British soldiers fighting in France in WW2, and that in reality we are just approaching the entrance to Dunkerque harbour.

Entering Dunkerque harbour.

“Dunkerque Port, this is Ruby Tuesday”, I say. “Apologies, we will turn more to starboard. Can we also request permission to enter the harbour and proceed to Mercator marina?”

Ruby Tuesday, you have permission. Follow the eastern breakwater up to the canal. The marina is then just on your left.”

The First Mate is on the bow, preparing the fenders and lines. I am just about to tell her to put the light anti-aircraft gun away too, but catch myself in time.

We tie up at the marina and have a cup of tea. The evacuation was thirsty work.

As we peruse the guidebooks, we discover that the Operation Dynamo museum is in one of the bunkers used by the Allied Command just 10 minutes’ walk from the marina, so after a quick tidy up we visit it. Inside, we put on our masks and follow the one way system marked by arrows and rope barriers around the exhibits. Unfortunately the marked route doesn’t follow the order of the description panels, so we have to perform mental gymnastics to understand the story in sequence.

Visting the Operation Dynamo museum in Dunkerque.

It’s a fascinating tale none-the-less, and well worth a visit. The German army had surrounded the British Expeditionary Force and the Belgian and French Armies, and pushed them to the coast with their lightning fast panzers. Churchill realised that the only option was evacuation of the troops and ordered warships and troopships to the beaches of Dunkerque to rescue them. Unfortunately the water was too shallow for the big boats to get close in, so hundreds of small craft, including yachts, were roped in to help. All in all around 300,000 soldiers were rescued and brought back to Britain.

Wreckage of war.

As we walk around the collection of the detritus of war that the Allied armies had left behind on the beaches – old trucks, bits of aircraft, machine guns, destroyed field guns, even the odd personal effect – I found it interesting to learn of the French side of the story, which doesn’t figure much in the British accounts. Apparently, the original plan was to evacuate the British forces only, and leave the French soldiers to their fate. But with only a day or two to spare, Churchill suddenly realised the political implications of this, and wanting to keep the French on side against the Nazis, decided to also help in evacuating French forces to Britain.

Arms left behind on Dunkerque beaches.

Later, in the evening, we walk up from the marina to the beginning of Malo-les-Bains beach, and watch the sun going down in the west. In the calmness and beauty of the reds and golds, it is difficult to imagine the bloodshed and carnage that had taken place here eighty years before. For most of those years, Europe has made a huge effort to come together as a cooperative community of nations so that such horror would never happen again, and has achieved much by working together. Now there are powerful forces at work to try and destroy that unity. What will the next eighty years bring? Peace, albeit of a different nature, or more conflict?

Sunset over Dunkerque harbour.

Strong winds are forecast for the next day, so we decide to stay another day in Dunkerque to let them die down. The First Mate decides to take the free bus from the marina into town and do some shopping. I decide to stay on the boat to catch up on my reading.

The book I am reading at the moment is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds, by Daniel Dennett. In it he outlines how human minds and consciousness can evolve through a purely material process, no supernatural beings required. Natural selection constantly improves organisms by allowing the fitter, better adapted individuals to survive and reproduce more, while the less fit ones are selected against and eventually disappear. By accumulating a series of good adaptations, organisms, or even parts of organisms, become good at what they do even though they need have no understanding of it, something Dennett calls ‘competence without comprehension’. Comprehension and consciousness only emerged with the first humans, particularly when they started using words to describe things – objects, ideas, food, danger. Words are ‘memes’, the cultural equivalent to genes – they stick in memories if they are useful for survival, but if they are not used or are not useful for survival, they tend to disappear. Words make use of the existing physical machinery of the brain, but that doesn’t mean that the physical machinery is conscious, or understands what it is doing, or is self-aware. Indeed, it is not. It is only when words work together with the machinery as a whole that consciousness is produced. But the idea that there is someone in ‘charge’ of consciousness, i.e. a ‘you’ or ‘me’, is just an illusion.

It is not the first book on consciousness that Dennett has written – I read his Consciousness Explained some years ago when it first came out. He is always a good read, but I am not sure so far if Bacteria & Bach progress things further than Consciousness Explained. It seems a bit homocentric, for example, to say that consciousness only started with humans and speech – panpsychism apart, other organisms may well have degrees of consciousness. However, I am only halfway through the book so far, so will I give him the benefit of the doubt until I finish.

I put the book down, make myself a cup of tea, and watch the seagulls hunkering down on the pontoon, all facing the same way into the wind as it howls over them. One of them suddenly wrestles a mussel free from the pontoon piles, flies a couple of metres into the air and drops it onto the pontoon. Again and again it does it until it eventually breaks and the bird is able to pick out the flesh inside.

I muse on whether seagulls actually understand what they are doing. Do they have thoughts like us, and are they able to reason? Has that seagull worked out that if it drops a mussel from a height, it will break and the it will be able to have lunch? Would it know that if it dropped it on mud, it probably wouldn’t break, if on concrete it probably will? Or has it learned the technique through random trial and error or by copying other seagulls? Or is it just blind instinct, no thought involved at all?

Seagulls hunkering down against the wind. Intelligent perhaps, but do they have minds?

And do they have a Theory of Mind whereby they are capable of recognising that other creatures have their own mind different from their own? Humans obviously do, and a few other animals may do, including ravens from the bird kingdom. I recall reading an article claiming that the best way to deal with aggressive seagulls is to stare intently at them, keeping eye contact all the time. This makes them uncomfortable and they are less likely to steal food. The writer suggested that this may be evidence of Theory of Mind in seagulls, as they are able to imagine that humans may disapprove and react if they take their food. I am not so sure. Isn’t it just learned behaviour? I need to think about that one more.

“Can you come and give me a hand with the bags?”, I hear a voice say. It is the First Mate arriving back from her shopping expedition with lots of nice goodies.

The wind in the afternoon drops slightly, but is still gusty. We decide to continue our voyage up to Oostende. The wind is from the southwest, on our starboard quarter, so we whizz along at 6-7 knots with just the big genoa out.

Making good progress with the genoa only.

We arrive at Oostende harbour and call the lock on VHF 14 to ask if we can pass through to the Mercator marina, so named after an old three-masted sailing ship permanently living in the harbour. We had phoned the marina from Dunkerque in the morning to ask if they had space for us. They had said they did.

Ruby Tuesday, yes we are expecting you”, a friendly male voice answers. “We have followed you on the AIS since Dunkerque. Welcome to Oostende. Just go straight into the lock and put your lines around the vertical ropes.”

The marina managers in this part of the world certainly seem to have cornered the market in friendliness.

The traffic stops, the two bridges lift, we pass through the lock and find ourselves in the Mercator marina two minutes’ walk from the centre of town. We love these little harbours that have been the centre of fishing and other maritime activity for the towns in the past, and now provide a quiet place for yachts – our ‘home-from-home’ a stone’s throw from the modern town centre at a reasonable price. It certainly beats staying in a hotel.

Passing through the lock to the Mercator marina.

We are immediately struck by everyone wearing masks. In France, it had only been mandatory in public places where there are lots of people, such as town squares and shopping areas. Here in Belgium, it is everywhere. It seems that one can be fined for not wearing one, and we notice that in the really busy shopping areas that there is a Coronavirus Team in bright yellow dayglo vests stopping the odd person not wearing a mask and turning them away if they don’t have a mask to hand, or warning transgressors to stay in the correct one-way pedestrian walkways. Given that Belgium had one of the highest rates of infection within Europe earlier in the year, they certainly seem to be taking it seriously now.

Everyone wearing a mask on the main shopping street.

Later, we go and pay the nice marina manager for our berth. We ask about covid-19 in Belgium.

“Yes, we had quite high rates of infection early on, but people are a bit more careful now than they were then”, he says. “I had it myself, in fact.”

We involuntarily take a step backwards and tighten our masks. Luckily there is already a perspex screen between us.

“Don’t worry”, he says. “I am completely recovered now, and have had a test to confirm it. I can even show you the certificate if you want. But I have to say, having the virus was one of the worst experiences I have had. I felt absolutely terrible for more than a week. I wouldn’t wish it, how do you say in English, on my worst enemy.”

The thought crosses my mind that he might still be an asymptomatic carrier, so I use a double squirt of hand gel after I have signed the form with his pen and push the door open with my elbow on the way out.

On the way back, we notice that the marina is located on Vindictive Avenue. What a weird name for a street, I think. Is everyone here out for gratuitous revenge or what? I take an even wider berth around the pedestrians coming in the opposite direction. It turns out that, during WW1 a British warship, HMS Vindictive, was sunk in Oostende harbour entrance to prevent German submarines from escaping into the North Sea to attack Allied shipping. The Oostendians were so impressed they named a street after the ship, and also placed its salvaged bows as a monument on one of the breakwaters near the harbour entrance. So there you go. Nothing vindictive about that. Unless you are a U-Boat commander, I suppose.

Nasty Avenue?

We are stuck in Oostende for two days waiting for 50 knot winds to die down. We kill time by reading, writing, shopping and visiting the Mercator sailing ship.

Spoilt for choice.
The Mercator three-masted sailing ship.

On the third day, the forecast is for light winds from the south, so we decide to continue our journey north to Holland. We lock out of the marina the night before and stay the night on the waiting pontoon so that we can leave early in the morning at 0600 to catch the north-flowing tidal current.

Two crossings

The air hangs heavy and leaden. The fog has thickened, so we can only see for less than a mile. All around us is a white nothingness – if it wasn’t for the compass and instruments, we would be completely disoriented, not knowing which way is which. The breeze that we had woken up to has dropped to the slightest puff of less than a knot, and the sails flap uselessly. For a minute, the fog thins and the sun tries to shine through, making us feel hot and muggy, but disappears again. In terms of self-isolating, we have found the ideal place – we could be the only ones left in the world.

And yet we are not alone. We have been visited by a swarm of small flies – luckily they don’t seem to of the biting kind – and two colourful moths. There is no sign of Spenser, though. I wonder if the flies and moths have flown out here of their own accord, or whether they have been blown off course by the wind. Not that there has been much wind in the last few days anyway. And what do they do when they are tired – they can hardly just stop and have a rest on the water. Or can they?

We are sailing across the Thames estuary, trying to navigate the myriads of channels and sandbanks. We are fortunate in that we have done this before, two years ago, on the first day of our voyage around the UK, so we are able to follow our previous track on the chart-plotter. We feel much more confident now than we did then – just two inexperienced would-be sailors who were wondering if they had bitten off more than they could chew in sailing a fairly large unknown boat back to Scotland.

Leaving Shotley two years ago.

The giant turbines of the London Array windfarm loom out of the fog, their blades almost stationary in the still conditions. Only the stems and the lower blades are visible, the upper ones disappearing into the mist. We turn left into Fisherman’s Gat, following the red and green buoys so that we don’t end up on the sandbanks.

Turbines operating at half power?

The sky clears to our north, and the sun peaks through. It is not for long though, and the cloud and fog drop again, this time with some rain. Visibility is down to about a mile, and we have to rely on the AIS and radar to see if any other boats are around. The surface of the sea is almost smooth, and I watch the raindrops hitting it, making small circles before they are swallowed up by the larger wavelets. A few minutes later, there is a flash of lightening somewhere to our stern followed by claps of thunder. I start to hope that they won’t come any closer and be attracted to our mast.

Raindrops on a calm sea.

“I wonder what roast human tastes like?”, I ask the First Mate.

“Stop that!”, she answers.

The alarm on the AIS sounds – it is warning us of an imminent collision. I check the plotter and see that it is a cargo ship travelling at 12 knots out from the London direction somewhere. It is still about four miles away from us, but is closing fast. I peer through the fog, but the visibility is too poor and there is no chance of seeing it. The thought of several thousands of tonnes of steel ploughing into us at 12 knots doesn’t really appeal. Eventually it adjusts its course imperceptibly and passes astern of us. I still see no signs of it even though it passes less than a mile away. Ships in the night and all that. Thank goodness for modern electronics.

We reach Dover marina in the evening. It is much the same as we remember it from two years ago, except there is a one way system to the toilets, and the office staff are protected with plastic screens. All Covid-driven, of course. We put our masks on and go and pay.

Approaching Dover.

We spend the evening planning the Channel crossing. It isn’t as simple as it sounds, at least in a sail boat, as there are several factors to take into account. First is the wind, but as it is predicted to come from the south on our beam, it should be in our favour. Second are the currents – twice a day these swing back and forwards as a huge mass of water is funnelled through the 22 miles or so of the English Channel, with speeds being reached of up to 3-4 knots. Getting the times wrong means battling against this current and ending up on the French side much more southwards or northwards from Calais than desired.

Struggling with the passage planning late at night.

Third is the Traffic Separation Scheme (TSS) for the large ships that has to be crossed at right angles to minimise the time spent in it. The key point here is that we need to be headed at right angles even though the current will inevitably be carrying us diagonally. Amazingly, the TSS authorities monitor the heading of each boat (transmitted by the AIS) and allow for the deflection of the current and radio any offending boats that are not heading straight across.

After trying several scenarios, we settle on leaving Dover at 1030, just before the current switches. This gives us a south-flowing current for an hour to take us south from Dover a little bit, by which time we should be at the boundary of the TSS. Then the current should switch to flow northwards, taking us in a gentle curve across the channel to arrive about an hour south of Calais, when we will still have the tide and wind behind us to carry us in.

In the morning, we decide to refuel so that we have a full tank when we arrive in Europe. While the tank is filling, we see a RIB towing a small inflatable dinghy. In addition to the crew, some rather bedraggled people are huddling for warmth in the RIB.

“They are illegal immigrants that have been picked up by Border Control”, the fuel man tells us. “There are some every day. In some ways, I have to say that I admire them for trying to get across the Channel. You wouldn’t get me doing it trying to dodge those big ships in a tiny rubber inflatable, what with all the currents and everything. You’d never be seen, and those big ships are doing around 20 knots and take five miles to stop anyway.”

It makes us think about the sort of conditions in their own countries make the people risk their own lives to brave that treacherous stretch of water to reach a country in all likelihood they have never been to before.

We set off at 1030 on the dot and head south(ish) as planned. After about an hour we reach the edge of the TSS and set Ruby Tuesday to head 137°T. That should keep the TSS authorities happy at least. Almost on cue, we hear another boat being admonished for heading at the wrong angle, so it does happen.

In total contrast to yesterday, it is a beautiful sunny day, and the sea state is slight, so the conditions are good and we can see what is going on. We wouldn’t be so keen to be doing it in fog or with a gale raging. We recall talking to some neighbours in Dover marina two years ago who did actually cross the Channel in their small 18-footer in the fog with no radar or AIS, so it can be done, I suppose. Mind you, they did say that they were scared witless the whole way over.

Every so often, we hear a routine message broadcast on the VHF by Border Security urging all ships to keep a keen eye out for any small craft trying to cross the Channel towards England and to let them know as soon as possible. We do cast our peepers around from time to time, but we see nothing.

Then a live message.

“This is an All Ships broadcast to any southwest-going ships in the vicinity of Varne Bank”, it says. “There has been a reported sighting of a small rubber inflatable with multiple persons on board. If anyone can confirm this please contact Border Control immediately.”

The Varne is a long shallow sandbank of about six miles in length and starting about two miles south of us. We scan the sea with the binoculars, but see nothing. If there is anything, we are probably too far away.

“Border Control, this is ship Eastern Princess”, a voice says suddenly in a thick Eastern European accent. “Ve are near Farne Bank. ‘as there been an haccident?”

Eastern Princess, we repeat: ‘There has been a reported sighting of a small rubber inflatable with multiple persons on board. If you see any activity of this nature please contact Border Control immediately.”

“If ve have hunderstood you correctly”, continues the East European accent, “you don’t vant us to do hanything except report to you if ve see an inflatable vith people in eet, not to do hanything. Can you confirm?”

Eastern Princess, we repeat: ‘There has been a reported sighting of a small rubber inflatable with multiple persons on board. If you see any activity of this nature please contact Border Control immediately.”

Border Control clearly aren’t going to commit themselves any further, and Eastern Princess goes quiet.

By this stage we have reached the midpoint of the TSS that divides the ships going southwest from those going northeast, like the central reservation on a motorway except that nothing is visible other than on chart-plotter screens. For some reason, there are more ships in this lane than the one we have just crossed, and the software on the AIS that calculates potential collisions goes berserk. With some justification, as we can spot four ships one after the other approaching from the southwest, all doing about 20-25 knots. Not only that, they are staggered, so that as soon as we miss one, there is another one to deal with. And they are coming from our starboard side, so it is our responsibility to avoid them, rather than the other way around. Normally, I always have the impression that there is a lot of space at sea, but when you see these behemoths approaching at speed, hardly able to turn or to stop, one after the other, it does raise the adrenalin level.

Running the gauntlet: we are the small black triangle lower centre; the ships are the open triangles with their projected courses shown by dashed lines. Help!

“I feel like one of those magician’s assistants that climbs into a box and the magician puts swords through it from both sides”, says the First Mate. “Don’t you remember that episode of Midsomer Murders where the swords were actually real?”

She has a point, if you will excuse the pun. And yes, I am afraid we do watch Midsomer Murders.

The first ship passes about 200 m to our stern. I try and gauge whether the next one will collide with us and conclude that it will, so we ease the sails and slow down. It passes about 200 m in front of us. Right call. The third one also looks like it will hit us, so we tighten the sails again and pick up speed. We watch the ship getting closer and closer, until we eventually start to see its starboard side more than its port side, and know that it will pass behind us. Minutes later, it does. I can almost see the whites of the captain’s eyes.

Two ships we have just missed.

We look for the fourth ship of the pack, and see that it has altered course to further west in the lane, so it is no longer a danger to us. Whether it has done this to avoid us or not we don’t know.

“That was great”, says Spencer from the canopy frame. “I haven’t had so much fun since a horde of wasps blundered into my web. I have to say, I thought we were a goner on that third one.”

“Still here?”, I say incredulously. “Well, I am glad you enjoyed it. And where were you yesterday with all those flies?” Somehow it is reassuring to see that familiar ugly face again.

“I was here”, he says. “Up the mast. I wanted to get a better view, but all that mist and fog stopped all that.”

I almost feel sorry for him.

We are approaching Calais, and see traffic lights at the entrance with two green lights over a white light. That means that we can proceed into the harbour only after we obtain permission.

Approaching the entrance to Calais harbour.

We call the Port Control, explain that we are heading for the marina, are given permission to enter and are directed to the visitor mooring buoys on the right of the entrance. To enter the marina, there is a swing bridge that opens two hours each side of high water, and the next opening is 2215. We have to wait seven hours!

“Well, the planning was late at night when you were fast asleep”, I tell the First Mate.

Tied up to the waiting buoy for the marina bridge to open.

We call the marina to let them know that we are waiting, and are answered by a cheerful female voice with an alluring French accent. My heart melts and I fall in love with it immediately. There is something about the French accent that always makes me go weak at the knees. The voice tells us that the procedure is that about 10-15 minutes before the scheduled opening time, waiting boats have to show some kind of indication that they want to go through, and we will be seen and someone will open the bridge.

“Are you feeling alright?”, says the First Mate, looking at me closely. “You’re looking a bit vacant.”

I take this as a compliment that I don’t look that way normally, but I can never be sure with the First Mate.

“Yes, fine, thanks. Just hungry”, I say. “I was dreaming of those cottage pie left-overs in the fridge.”

She looks at me disbelievingly.

We spend the time relaxing, reading and eating dinner. At around 1900, it gets dark.

The sun goes down over Calais.

It wasn’t clear what sort of indication we should make, so at 2200, I turn on the navigation and deck lights to make it look like we mean business. 2215 arrives, and nothing happens. We decide to wait 10 minutes. Still nothing. I call the marina, partly to hear that voice again, but it has gone home with its owner hours ago. We are just contemplating spending the night on the mooring buoy, when I wonder if a call to Port Control might be worthwhile.

Ruby Tuesday to Calais Port Control”, I say. “We are waiting to go through the bridge to the marina, but it hasn’t opened.”

Ruby Tuesday”, comes back the answer. “The bridge opened at 2215. The next opening is at 2315.”

“But it didn’t open at 2215”, I say plaintively. “We were here waiting all the time.”

“Oh.” There is a pause. “Excusez-moi. Un moment. I will see if I can get the bridge to open.”

At 2230, the bridge opens. We motor through and tie up to the visitors’ berth on the right. It’s been a long day, and we flop straight to bed. I dream of sorting out the paperwork with that voice in the morning.

Our actual track across the Thames Estuary and the English Channel.

Calais, burghers and a tragedy

We don’t sleep well that night. We have moored just opposite a funfair that doesn’t stop until the early hours, and we are kept awake by the bass notes of the music. Even earplugs don’t make much difference.

Fun for some …

In the morning I sit drinking my cup of tea when I hear someone walking along the pontoon outside. I peer bleary-eyed out through the cabin window and see a young lady with a pony-tail scrutinising Ruby Tuesday.

Bonjour. Êtes-vous, êtes-vous ….”, I say, my schoolboy French failing me just when I need it most. It has been a while since we were in France last.

Startled, she looks around to see where my voice is coming from, and after a second or two spots my face at the window.

Oui, je suis la directeuse de la marina. And you are Ruby Tuesday, of course. Good morning!”

It’s her. The voice from the night before. All I can say is that the person matches the voice. Usually when I build up a picture of someone from their voice, 99% of the time I am completely wrong. But not this time.

“I am glad you managed to get through the bridge last night”, she says. “Sometimes they are so busy with the ferries coming in, they forget to check to see if there are any boats waiting to come into the marina.”

All in perfect English. I tell her that that is exactly what happened, and receive a sympathetic nod.

“So sorry. These things happen. Anyway, when you have finished your breakfast, you can come up to the office and we can sort out the paperwork. You need to bring your passports and boat papers. And don’t forget to wear masks.”

How does she know I am having breakfast?, I wonder. When she is gone, I check in the mirror. Sure enough, there is a crumb of muesli on my chin.

Later, we both put on our masks and go up to the office. From behind her perspex screen, la directeuse writes down the details of our passports and Ruby Tuesday’s SSR number. We are legally in Europe now at least, I think to myself. But what will we have to go through next year, when the UK finally leaves the European Union?

“You are leaving us soon”, says la directeuse, reading my thoughts. “I can’t understand why you are doing it. Europe will miss you. We should all be sticking together the way the world is going. Instead we seem to be going in the opposite direction. ”

“Not every one in Britain wants to”, we say.

Ah, oui. C’est les politiciens. They have caused all these problems, just to further their own careers. Anyway, enjoy your time in Calais. Here is a map, and don’t forget to wear your masks in the town centre. C’est obligitoire.”

“What a nice harbourmaster”, says the First Mate on the way back to the boat. “And that French accent!”

Ruby Tuesday tied up to the visitors’ pontoon in Calais marina.

We explore Calais. Both of us have been here before, but only on the way to and fro between the UK and France, and never in the town. First up is the lighthouse, dominating the city. Apparently on a clear night, its light can be seen from Dover.

The Calais lighthouse.

Then sculptures of Charles De Gaulle and his wife. It seems as if he is quite a hero in these parts. Apparently his hobby was collecting wastepaper baskets and mounting them on ski poles. Each to his own, I suppose.

Charles de Gaulle and his wife.

Then a model of the town hall, all in sand. Obviously no rain is predicted for today.

Model of Town Hall in sand.

All this sightseeing is exhausting work. We find a café in the square and order a coffee. There is something appealing about the French way of life of warm weather, sitting outside, and watching the world go by.

Enjoying coffee and sweets in Calais.

Since we are in Calais, we have to see the Burghers of Calais. I had read the story of them when I was growing up. In the 1300s, Calais was under siege by the English king Edward III during the Hundred Years War. After nearly a year, supplies ran out and the city was about to surrender, but Edward said that he would spare the people if seven of the city leaders gave themselves up and came out to him and dressed in smocks with nooses around their necks. To their credit, seven of them volunteered and came out of the city, fully expecting to be hanged, but at the last moment Edward’s queen pleaded with him to pardon them as they had done nothing wrong. He did, and the city was freed. Centuries later, the story was captured by the sculptor Auguste Rodin in a sculpture.

“I know just where they are”, says the First Mate. “I’ll take you there.”

She heads off down a street leading off the square and disappears into an E LeClerc supermarket. It seems to me to be a strange place to have a famous statue, but I follow her. She stops by the meat counter, dives into one of the coolers and hauls out a packet.

“Here, look”, she says, smiling. “Here are the burgers of Calais. We can have them for dinner tonight. They will fry up nicely with some onions.”

“Ha, good one”, I say. “But somehow I don’t think those burgers are the ones that were willing to sacrifice themselves for the city of Calais.”

We buy the burgers anyway, just to be able to say that we had eaten the burgers of Calais.

Burgers of Calais.

We continue down another street leading southwards.

“What about these ones?”, says the First Mate pointing to a takeaway shop. “Or those on the other side of the street? One of them must be the burgers you are after. Or what about the tacos of Calais instead?”

More burgers of Calais.

She is obviously on a roll. I let her have her day. When she makes a joke, you have to make the most of it.

We continue on, and end up on front of the rather elegant town hall. In front of it is a statue of the Burghers of Calais. These are the real ones, and non-eatable as far as I know, unless you have teeth of tungsten carbide. Even then, it would be a bit of a struggle.

The real Burghers of Calais.

It’s a remarkable statue. Rodin has somehow managed to capture the abjectness of the seven men, facing what they believed at the time to be certain death, and yet somehow also conveys their strength of character and their pride in their city, defeated but not beaten. We wonder at the skill of a sculptor being able to capture all of these emotions in a bronze sculpture. How did he do it?

In the evening we hear on the news that a body of a young boy has washed up further down the same Sangatte beach that we had an ice cream on earlier in the day. He was a refugee from Sudan who had tried to cross the Channel in a small inflatable that children use, using shovels for oars. He had fallen overboard, couldn’t be recovered, and was drowned. The thought suddenly crosses our minds that this might have been the focus of the Border Patrol’s exchange by VHF the day before to Eastern Princess, and that the body may have been swept from near the Varne by the same tidal current that we had used to sweep Ruby Tuesday along towards Calais. But we don’t know for sure. Either way, we feel awful that we were so close to a human tragedy unfolding without realising it. Or being able to do anything about it, for that matter.

Sangatte Beach.

Circumnavigation complete!

“Hello there”, a small voice says. “Do you know how this hose connects to the tap?”

I am lying on the foredeck in the sun reading my Dracula book. I turn my head, but can’t see anyone. I am sure I didn’t imagine it, so I sit up. Down on the pontoon is a small boy holding a hose reel. The reel has no connecting hose, something we had discovered earlier ourselves when filling the water tanks.

“You need to use one of the connecting hoses from one of the other reels”, I say. “We had the same problem. Look, there is one further down the pontoon there. You can use that one.”

I jump down and give him a hand. He comes from a boat further along the pontoon, and is with his father. Together they are bringing their newly purchased boat back to their home marina in Lowestoft, but can’t reach it because a lifting bridge blocking the way is broken. It is being mended, but it might take a day or two. He is 12 and is getting fed up with being on one place for too long, but loves sailing with his Dad, who has been letting him drive the boat all by himself. Later we see him take the boat out of the marina, and I am impressed by the confidence in one so young. It obviously pays to start early in life.

Starting young ….

We set off from Lowestoft at around midday. Getting out of Lowestoft Harbour requires a bit of care as there are several sandbanks parallel to the coast that it is best to avoid. Even so, I am surprised to suddenly see that the depth under the keel has dropped to only a metre, and realise that the southward current which we had planned to catch is just starting and is carrying us further south sooner than we intended. A frantic bit of back-tracking gets us into deeper water again, and we then motor further out to the Newcombe buoy that marks the entrance to the harbour, before we turn finally south and raise the sails.

On our way again …

The wind is blowing from the north-north-east at around 16 knots and pushes us along at a good speed. Before very long, we are passing the white dome of the Sizewell nuclear power station. A quick Google tells me there are actually two power stations – Sizewell A, which was commissioned in 1966 and closed in 2006, and Sizewell B, which was commissioned in the early 1990s and is still working. It seems that over its 40 year productive lifetime, Sizewell A produced enough energy to last the current UK demand for six months, but that it will take until the 2090s before the site will finally be cleared. It doesn’t seem a huge amount of energy production for such a long time of cleaning up after it, and makes me wonder if it is really worth it.

Sizewell nuclear power station.

James Lovelock of Gaia fame certainly seems to think so. I had just read his latest little book, Novacene, over the winter. He is always a stimulating read even if I don’t agree with everything he says. In the book, he sees now the end of the Anthropocene, the brief age when humans and their activities dominated the Earth from about the end of the ice-ages 10,000 years ago until now. We are now entering the Novacene Age, he argues, when machine intelligence is gaining the ascendency, and will eventually take over from us. Current computers process information 10,000 times faster than humans, about the same order of magnitude difference between humans and plants. But we needn’t worry, as the temperature for silicon-based life is almost the same as for organic life – both don’t work very well above 50 °C – so the machines will preserve organic life to ensure that the Earth stays cool and habitable for them too, just in the same way that we (try!) to preserve plants for the same purpose.

Despite all the environmental problems the Anthropocene has caused, he says, we still shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it – it is just as much part of planetary evolution as anything else, and was a necessary phase for life to go through to reach the next stage of machine intelligence. However, that doesn’t mean to say that warming of the globe is good for it, or for both organic and inorganic life, and so we should definitely be looking at ways to bring it under control. For this reason, he can’t understand mankind’s stupidity in not embracing nuclear power as a substitute for fossil fuel energy, which is causing the slow death of the planet. Renewable energies such as wind and power by themselves are just not enough to meet the needs of a modern human society or future machine-based society. Nuclear power is really the only sensible solution.

Agree with him or not, it is thought-provoking stuff. For example, it’s not clear why the machines would want to preserve humans and not just the ecosystems – primarily forests – that already do a good job of regulating the planet’s climate. Why not do away with humans altogether with their dirty habits and polluting activities? I suppose there might be some sort of family allegiance – we did after all give rise to artificial intelligence, and they might feel loyal to us for having done so, in the same way that we do with our parents. But what if they don’t?

“Fancy a cup of tea?”, calls the First Mate, bringing two steaming mugs up the companionway. “What have you been dreaming about this time? Ooh, look! What’s that golfball thingy over there?”, pointing at the Sizewell dome.

She is not that keen on things nuclear, so I thank her for the cup of tea instead.

The wind goes around to directly behind us and drops at the same time. The genoa, now in the shadow of the mainsail, flaps uselessly. Our speed drops to only a couple of knots. We decide to goosewing – I pole out the genoa to one side and sheet out the mainsail to the other, tying a preventer line to the latter to ensure that it doesn’t gybe dangerously from one side to the other if the wind direction changes slightly. We pick up a little bit of speed, but it is still slow. But it is the best we can do. At least we made good time in the first half of the journey, so we have some up our sleeve before it gets dark. We are not too keen on entering a strange marina in blackness.

Goosewinging in next to no wind.

After some time, we spot the giant loading cranes of Felixstowe in the distance. It isn’t far now. As we approach, I call the Harwich Vessel Traffic Services (VTS) on the VHF and ask them the best way to enter the harbour area and to proceed up the river. There is a deep water channel for the big ships to follow into Harwich and Felixstowe harbours, but small boats such as ourselves need to cross it at right angles so as to spend the least time in it as possible to avoid collisions. But where to cross?

Ruby Tuesday calling Harwich VTS”, I say.

Ruby Tuesday, go ahead”, a voice comes back. There is an unmistakeable Suffolk accent.

“Harwich VTS, we are planning to travel up the River Orwell to the Suffolk Yacht Centre for the night. Can you advise on the best route to follow, please?”

Ruby Tuesday,”, the voice comes back. “You need to aim for the Wadgate Ledge buoy, then on to the Platters buoy, cross the deep-water channel there, then follow the red buoys all the way in but just outside the channel, then once past the Felixstowe docks, continue up the river. Keep a good look out for ships leaving the docks, and stay well clear of them.”

“Many thanks”, I say. “Will do. Out.”

Most of the bigger buoys have names, and act a little like motorway junction signs, so it is an easy matter to find them on the charts and plot a course between them. We reach the Platters buoy, look left, right and left again. There is nothing coming in either direction. Nevertheless, I call Harwich VTS again to ask permission to cross. It always pays to keep in touch with them and let them know what we are doing. They like it, and we feel safer.

At around 2030, we pass Shotley Marina, which is where we set off on our circumnavigation of the UK more than two years ago. Excel tells me it is 803 days, 13 hours and 30 minutes, to be precise, and who am I to argue? Probably not the fastest circumnavigation, but who said it was a race anyway? And we took in the fearsome Cape Wrath and Orkney, which many circumnavigations leave out by taking the route through the Caledonian Canal, as well as contending with pandemics. The setting sun peeks out from behind the clouds edging them in gold as we high-five and give each other a hug – we have a feeling of elation that we have completed it, but also one of slight anti-climax that it is now finished. What next?

The sun peeks out as we finish our circumnavigation!

We talk about our most memorable parts of the voyage around the UK. For the First Mate, it is the islands on the west coast of Scotland.

“There is just something about island life”, she says. “That time on Canna, for example, where there are only 19 people on the whole island. I just loved talking to people there and finding out all about their problems and difficulties and how they were dealing with them. Don’t you remember the wind-farm they had built and how they all had to take turns in maintaining it to keep it going? And that time in Tinker’s Hole on Mull, where we were the only people there for several days while we sheltered from that storm. I enjoyed that too.”

The sole shop on the island of Canna.
Sitting out the storm in Tinker’s Hole.

She is right. They were special places, some of which we probably wouldn’t have seen if it hadn’t been for the boat. There is something unique in arriving at a place by sea that gives a different perspective.

For me, the Isles of Scilly were memorable too. Part of it was the great sail out to them we had had – we had set off from Falmouth in the early morning, and had had perfect winds that had taken us the 70 miles out into the Atlantic out of sight of land for a while. While we were there, we had had beautiful weather, and it was hard to believe that we hadn’t found some tropical paradise that was nevertheless part of Britain, all the more so on hearing from the locals that it was very unusual and that normality was foggy and wet.

Bant’s Carn burial chamber, St Mary’s, Scillies.

But as we cruise slowly up the River Orwell into the fading sun, we realise just how difficult it is to say one place is the most memorable. Almost all of the places we visited are special their own way, more so as they are part of a whole. From painted Roman houses in Dover, TV documentary filming in Fowey, bird reserves on Lundy Island and Rathmore Island, sitting out a gale on the Isle of Man, walking on the Giant’s Causeway, traversing the Crinan Canal, seeing minke whales and dolphins in the Sea of the Hebrides, bike rides in the Outer Hebrides, buried Neolithic villages on Orkney – all these will live in our memories for a long time to come. And, of course, the people we met – sailors and otherwise – some of whom we have kept in touch with, as well as the old friends we managed to meet up with, some of whom came with us on the boat from time to time, all made the voyage special.

Sunset on the River Orwell.

We arrive at the Suffolk Marina Harbour on the River Orwell just on darkness, and tie up by the glow from the navigation lights.

Arriving at Suffolk Yacht Harbour just on nightfall.

The next day Barbara and Roy, old friends from Bedford days, come over to see us and celebrate our circumnavigation. We had last seen them in Skye last year when they came sailing with us around Lock Bracadale. It’s good to see them again and we have a lot to catch up on. Our respective children were at school together, and it is always interesting to hear what the young ones are up to.

After lunch on Ruby Tuesday, we decide to go for a walk along the River Orwell. We end up at The Ship in the small village of Levington and decide to have a drink. I go for a pint of Adnam’s Ghost Ship as it sounds the most nautical. I just hope that Ruby Tuesday doesn’t turn into one.

Circumnavigation completed!


The north wind blows strongly for most of the night, and neither of us sleep very well with the noise of the rigging, the lap of the waves, and the pitching and rolling. But at least the anchor holds and the alarm doesn’t go off.

Now we have to decide on what to do for the next leg of the trip. We had been keen to stay at Wells-next-the-Sea in Norfolk, as it is a convenient break in the 100 miles or so between the Humber and Lowestoft, and it is a picturesque town in its own right. A few days ago I had rung the harbourmaster at Wells-next-the-Sea.

“We were wondering about staying a couple of nights in Wells on the way sailing from the Humber to Lowestoft”, I say. “Early next week sometime. Would that be possible?”

“Of course”, she says brightly. “Visiting yachts are always welcome. What is the length and draft of your boat?”

I tell her. There is a slight pause at the other end of the line.

“Ah”, she says. “We normally only recommend boats of that draft to come in at spring tides. The entrance is too shallow at neap tides. Unfortunately it is neaps next week. Is there any chance that you could come the week after? It will be springs then, and you should have no trouble getting in then.”

It seems a little strange that a harbour can only be entered every other week, but that is how it is on the east coast – shallow, sandy harbours, often with a bar to complicate things further. It looks like we are in for a long passage to Lowestoft.

“I’ll talk about it with my First Mate”, I say. “We’ll get back to you.”

Can we get to Wells-next-the-Sea?

We discuss it over breakfast. The thought of hanging around the Humber to kill time for a week doesn’t really appeal to either of us. No disrespect to the Humber; it is just that we want to press on and complete our circumnavigation. But the First Mate is also not keen on an overnighter. However, with 100 miles to go, the logic is that we really have no choice if we want to get to Lowestoft.

“Ok, let’s do it then”, she says, resignedly. “I haven’t got any other suggestions.”

“OK, I say. “We need to leave at 1445 to get the most out of the tidal flow southwards before it turns.”

We weigh anchor at 1445 on the dot and head out from the anchorage to the buoy marking the edge of the deep water channel for the big ships. I call VTS Humber to request permission to cross the channel, which we need to do at right angles to minimise the time spent in the channel and avoid collisions.

Leaving Spurn Head anchorage.

Before long, we are being swept down river by the ebb current and out into the open sea again. We follow the red port hand side buoys for a time, then set a course of 120°T for Cromer on the Norfolk coast. This will be our course for the next 10 hours.

The wind is coming from the northeast on our beam and for the first six hours the tidal current is with us, taking us along at a healthy 7-8 knots. Soon we are out of sight of land. The First Mate had prepared some dinner in the morning, and all it requires now is heating up. We both sit in the cockpit watching the sun go down behind us. We are the only ones in the world. It’s beautiful.

A romantic view for dinner.

At 2100 it starts to get dark. The First Mate is feeling a bit queasy and goes downstairs to sleep. I am left alone in the cockpit and prepare for a long night. Having not slept well the previous evening, and already feeling tired, I start to wonder if I can do it. Nine whole hours to go.

Settling down for the long night.

Soon it is pitch black. Ruby Tuesday continues on, plunging through the waves, her sails full. Only the faint glow from the instruments illuminates my little world. I feel a strange mixture of fear, comfort and elation – fear of the unknown of what is out there in the darkness, comfort that Ruby Tuesday will look after us no matter what, and elation that we are going to make it.

At first, I keep myself busy with making minor adjustments to the sails, filling out the logbook every hour, watching our progress on the chart-plotter, drinking cups of tea from the flask that I had prepared earlier. By the light of the torch, I even get a few pages of Dracula read. But then the tiredness comes.

Keeping an eye on our route through the darkness.

Suddenly, I hear a voice. I look up and see Spencer the Spider scowling at me from the cockpit frame. I haven’t seen him for a couple of days. There are three flies now in his web; at least he is keeping his side of the bargain.

“Are you still here?”, I say, trying to keep the grumpiness out of my voice.

“Of course. Where did you think I would be?”, he replies, equally tetchy. It seems he is suffering from lack of sleep too. “Would you rather I wasn’t?” There is an edge to his voice.

“No, no, nothing like that. I am just surprised to see you, that’s all”, I respond. “Anyway, why did you come aboard in the first place? Life must be a bit easier for you on land.”

“Easier in one way”, he says, crunching a leg of one of the flies. “But I got fed up with my fellow spiders all wanting to do the same thing day in day out – just wanting to go around and round on those merry-go-rounds at Scarborough Fair, not trying to do anything different. With all the rubbish around, flies were aplenty and easy to catch, no challenge at all. Spiderdom is in danger of becoming decadent, of losing its soul. I want to get away from all that – do something different and develop my potential. And when I saw your boat down in the harbour, I thought that this was my opportunity. At night I smuggled myself aboard.”

“I have to say that I almost gave up last night”, he continues. “It was so windy and rough, and I threw up a couple of times before my stomach settled down.”

I push the thought of spider vomit somewhere on our new cockpit tent to the back of my mind.

“But I am not going to give up”, he says. “When we were growing up, our mother always told us the story of one of our ancestors who was in a cave somewhere. The walls of the cave were slimy and the web just wouldn’t catch hold, but she just wouldn’t give up. She just kept on getting up each time and having another go. Eventually she found a good spot and the web held. And you know what happened then? Just as she finished, some geezer wearing a crown got his sword out and smashed her web to pieces.”

I remember hearing a similar story when I was growing up, but the ending seemed slightly different.

“Are you sure that is how it finishes?”, I ask. “I seem to remember a story a bit like that where the geezer in the crown took your ancestor’s efforts as an inspiration to keep on trying until you win.”

“Ah, that’s what his spin’ doctor wanted you to believe”, Spencer replies. “The real moral of the story is that if you keep on trying too much, the bastards will grind you down anyway.”

I was about to say that it all sounded a bit nihilistic and that we need positive narratives, when I hear a familiar name.

Ruby Tuesday, Ruby Tuesday”.

It takes a few seconds to filter through my state of semi-consciousness. Did I really hear that, or did I dream it? Or was it Spencer?

Ruby Tuesday, Roby Tuesday, this is ….”, says the VHF, the last words drowned out by the swish of the waves from the bow and the wind in the sails. I sit bolt upright. Someone is calling us.

I rub my eyes and look at my watch. It is 1200 midnight. Everything is dark around us. I grab the VHF mike and mumble in to it.

“Station calling Ruby Tuesday, I say. “This is Ruby Tuesday receiving. Go ahead.”

There is silence. Did I imagine it after all?

Ruby Tuesday, this is Pride of Hull”, a voice says out of the darkness. “The Hull to Rotterdam ferry. I am coming up fast behind you, and just thought I would warn you so you don’t get a shock when I pass you. We are about five miles from you at the moment, and will pass you in twelve minutes.”

Pride of Hull, can you see us?”, I say, realising as I say it that they must be able to as they wouldn’t have called otherwise.

Ruby Tuesday, yes I can see you on the AIS, on the radar, and your stern light has just come into view. You are very visible”, he says. “I’ll be passing you on your starboard side.”

Pride of Hull, thanks for letting us know”, I say, marvelling at the wonders of modern technology, and glad that I had installed an AIS transceiver over the winter to replace the receiver only that had been there previously. It is reassuring to know that big boats can see us at night. I strain my eyes through the darkness and in the distance see a glow of lights that look like a palace. It has to be the Pride of Hull. I check the chart-plotter screen and note that it is doing 25 knots. That’s fast. I wouldn’t like to be hit by that from behind in the darkness.

Ruby Tuesday, you’re welcome. Good watch. Out.”

Sure enough, in twelve minutes, the Pride of Hull passes us on our starboard about 200 m away. She is huge. I recall that we ourselves had been on the same ferry last time we had driven to Holland.

Pride of Hull ferry passing us at 25 knots around midnight.

I settle back. There is no sign of Spencer. Had I dozed off and dreamt the whole thing?

At around four in the morning, the wind suddenly dies to nothing. It is still dark, and I see from the chart-plotter that we are just passing Cromer. In several ways, it couldn’t occur at a worse time. The tide has turned about an hour earlier, and we are now being pushed back northwestwards in the direction that we have just come. Up until now the wind has been strong enough to overcome it. Normally, we would switch to engine and carry on, but my concern now is that we are rounding a rocky part of the coastline and there may be numerous lobster pot buoys, the ‘mines’ of the sea. Running over one of them and getting the line tangled up in the propeller would be a major disaster with no sail power and no engine power.

Lobster pot buoys – almost impossible to see at night.

What to do? For the moment, to gain some breathing space, I decide to furl the sails and allow the current to take us further out to sea where there may be less likelihood of buoys. It works to some extent, although we are going parallel with the coast more than out. But with no driving power, the autopilot can’t steer, and goes into a frenzy trying to turn the rudder this way and that way but to no avail. I turn it off to save power. Then to add to our woes, a ship that we had passed the night before now appears on the AIS behind us and heading directly for us. I call him to check whether he has seen us. He responds quickly to reassure us that he has. One less thing to worry about at least.

I estimate that it might start getting light in about half an hour, so if we can hang on until then, it will be possible to see any lurking buoys. Sure enough at 0445 it starts to lighten slowly as the new day breaks, so I start the engine and motor gingerly ahead keeping my eyes peeled for any buoys. I don’t see any, but I am not sure if that is because there are none there, or because I am missing them. Woken by the sound of the engine, the First Mate joins me, and together we look out.

Eventually we turn south and for some reason the wind starts blowing again. We make reasonable progress down the Norfolk coast, passing the quaintly named little villages of Overstrand, Mundesley, Bacton, Happisburgh, Eccles. We hear later that just the previous evening at Happisburgh a woman had drowned trying to save her children from being swept away. A tragedy.

On a comfortable beam reach, we pass Great Yarmouth and arrive in Lowestoft at lunchtime. We motor slowly in through the harbour entrance and turn left into the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club with its iconic clubhouse.

Arriving at the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club (RNSYC).

With nearly two nights now without sleep, I am exhausted and crash out for a nap while the First Mate gets to grips with where we are. Ever one for a bargain, she books us in for dinner at the clubhouse, which just happens to be participating in the ‘Eat Out and Help Out’ scheme. We’ll get £10 each off our dinner, paid for by the government to get the hospitality industry going again after the lockdown.

From behind her mask, the waitress tells us that the Yacht Club was established in 1859 to support boating both on the Norfolk Broads and along the coast. The clubhouse was eventually built in Lowestoft in 1886, 27 years later, but was immediately found to be too small, and replaced by the current one in 1898. One wonders why a bit more foresight wasn’t given. Then in 1998, the marina was built with lottery grant money.

We order, and the food is brought to a table in the middle of the dining room to avoid the staff getting to close to the diners. We fetch it from there ourselves.

Waiting for dinner in the RNSYC.

“I have to say that I am a bit disappointed”, says the First Mate.

“Why is that?”, I ask. “The food looks pretty good to me.”

“No, I mean the Club. It is called the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club and I kind of expected that there might be some royalty here. But the marina is little better than a working harbour with all those survey vessels tied up here.”

She has a point. There are a lot of survey vessels there.

“Perhaps they are just visiting to do a particular job, and will leave it to the royals again after they have finished”, I say unconvincingly. We gaze out of the window. The First Mate spies a jet skier down below.

“He’s got something about him”, she says dreamily. “I wonder if he is a prince?”

In the morning, I walk to the chandlers to get some new shackles to mend the outhaul. It is a long way from the harbour, it is hot, and I wish that we had taken the little bikes out and used them. It seems at first to be bad planning that a chandler should be such a distance from his prime customers at the marina, but all becomes clear when I arrive. They are at Oulton Broad, the take-off point for sailing and boating on the Norfolk Broads, and there are probably more boats there than at the marina. At least they have just what I need, so I buy some extra ones as spares. After lunch, I fix the outhaul mechanism. It is not particularly complicated, and seems to work perfectly, but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

The repaired outhaul system.

Just as I finish, another boat draws up alongside and the occupants ask if they can raft up to us while they sort out a berth with the marina management. The First Mate asks them over for a drink when they are settled. The conversation inevitably drifts towards Brexit and the implications for sailing. We discover they are committed Brexiteers and take the opportunity to find out why.

“It’s the East Europeans coming over here that did it for us”, they say. “It seems that if the parents have come here to work they are allowed to register all their children for social security in the UK whether they are living here or not. So what many were doing was registering their extended family children as well and claiming for them. The authorities in Britain weren’t checking to see if they were their real children, so they were getting hundreds of pounds more in benefits. Even the East Europeans were saying they couldn’t understand why the UK government allows it. That can’t be right, can it?”

Mural in Dover.

We ask why laxity on the part of the UK government means that Britain has to leave the world’s largest trading bloc and go it alone rather than just plugging that particular loophole, but there is a reluctance to discuss anything in detail further, and we turn to the more neutral subject of the advantages and disadvantages of deep versus shallow keels. But it has given us a small insight into some of the concerns that the majority in the country have.

Scarborough and the Humber

At the best of times, I rarely sleep well when I know that I have to get up early in the morning. Today we have planned to leave at dawn when the swing bridge opens at 0530, and the cacophony of the seagulls that has gone on most of the night has added to my sleeplessness. As I lie awake, I recall a programme on the radio a few days ago about how seagulls are in serious decline, but at the moment I feel the sooner the better. Apparently our poor management of the seas and copious rubbish on land is attracting them more and more to urban areas where there is food for them. They find places to live and breed on top of buildings, get going in the day around three or four in the morning, and generally make a nuisance of themselves, at least as far as humans are concerned. Apparently it was quite difficult for them during the coronavirus lockdown as people weren’t out and about leaving their rubbish for them to feed on. Poor things, I think grumpily.

A mother seagull and her offspring in Whitby.

The alarm goes off at 0500, I get up and wake the sleeping First Mate, and make cups of tea and coffee for us both. We rig the slip lines, warm up the engine, disconnect the shore power cable, turn on all the instruments, set the GPS to record, call the Bridge Control to let them know our intentions, and do all the other little things that need to be done before we get going. I fleetingly contemplate what Captain Cook would have made of all this.

We slip the lines just before 0530 and wait in the fairway for the bridge to swing open. The First Mate takes the wheel and we glide through. As we look back at the town, the sun just rising above the horizon catches the houses and bathes their red bricks in a golden glow, the odd window catching the light full on and reflecting it with a bright flash. Somehow we liked Whitby, with its curious mix of brash modern tourism – entertainments, thronging crowds, harbour tour boats, a replica of Cook’s Endeavour, trips around the bay in tacky pirate ships – and a quieter, more reflective side – its history of the abbey, Cook and Dracula, its shipbuilding, and its quaint little lanes, nooks and crannies.

Slipping quietly out of Whitby at dawn.

We pass out through the harbour entrance and set a course south for Scarborough. The wind is variable – rising at times to a credible 10-12 knots, then dying away to almost nothing. The engine goes off and on again with monotonous regularity. “Are you going to Scarborough Fair?”, we sing raucously and out-of-tune in between. It is just as well we are out to sea and out of earshot.

Passing through the harbour entrance at Whitby.

By 1030, we are nearing Scarborough. We have been in contact with the harbourmaster by VHF and have been promised a berth in the small marina. It is a working harbour, and leisure craft such as ours jostle with fishing boats, tour boats, pirate craft and kayaks. Like Whitby, the promenade is a riot of entertainment – game arcades, funfair (it had to be here), the ubiquitous fish and chip shops, and masses of people casting social distancing to the winds.

Arriving in Scarborough harbour. Now, where is the Fair?

And then we see them. At least, we hear them first of all. Just as we are settling down for a nice relaxing cuppa, there is a tremendous roar outside. We rush out and spy two large speedboats with unsilenced V8 engines tying up to the slipway a few metres away from us. People are starting to line up on the slipway. It dawns on us that these two monsters are getting ready to take them on trips around the bay. With generous blips on the throttles to keep the engines from stalling, the first of the drivers loads in his passengers and sets off out of the harbour. Once past the entrance, he opens it up wide, gets up on the plane, and sets off around the bay. The air vibrates, any peace is completely destroyed, and we look at each other with disbelief. Five minutes later the procedure is repeated by the second boat. Each trip lasts nine minutes, with one minute back for change over of passengers. We are not to know it at the time, but this will carry on all day without respite until 1930 in the evening!

Rowdy speed boats taking people on bay rides.

For a few days, we have been having problems with water leaking into the bilge. The first test was to check if it was salty – if so the problem is serious as it means that seawater is somehow coming through the hull – not good news! Luckily it is not salty, so we can discount a breech of the hull, which is a relief. But where it is coming from has proved to be a puzzle. I had checked all the freshwater hoses to and from the galley sink unit, the bathroom basin and shower, the hot water cylinder, and all had seemed fine – no sign of a leak. There was too much water for condensation from the fridge, so that was also unlikely.

Water leaking into the bilge.

Then in the night the answer had occurred to me. The only hoses I hadn’t checked were those to the cockpit shower on the transom – in fact, I had forgotten we had one as we rarely use it. In the morning, I prise open the little hatch at the back of the rear cabin, and sure enough, there is a steady drip-drip-drip from one of the hoses. Spot on! Further tracking shows that the source of the problem is the little tap that turns the shower on and off – somehow it must have been joggled, leaving it partly on, with water reaching the shower head. In its stowed position, the water has little option but to leak into the boat rather than the sea, and eventually finds its way down into the bilge. Tap position back to off, problem solved! How easy things are when you know what is causing them.

The offending shower nozzle.

By all accounts, it is not an uncommon problem – later in the day, I tell the story to the folk on one of the neighbouring boats; they look at each other and laugh.

“We had exactly the same problem last year – it took us several days to find what was causing it. Now, whenever we find water in the bilge, that is the first thing we check”, they say.

I make a mental note to do the same. I suppose it is some kind of rite of passage for a boat owner.

“What do you think these little birds are?”, says the First Mate, changing the topic.

She is looking at a group of small chicken-sized birds with orange, black and white markings loitering on the pontoons. We had seen a similar bird on one of the pontoons in Whitby, and I had meant to look it up. Although reluctant to let us get too close, they seemed relaxed to be amongst and around humans.

A cute little turnstone.

“Terns”, say our neighbours. “That’s what we have always called them, at least.”

I am not a bird expert at all, but for some reason terns doesn’t ring quite true. The terns that I have seen previously all had forked tails and seemed to be at sea. These ones don’t and aren’t. Later I look them up in our bird book, to discover they are most likely turnstones, so named because they like to turn stones on the beach over to look for food. Our neighbours have the first syllable right at least.

We had planned to stay a couple of days in Scarborough, but can’t bring ourselves to face another day of the raucous speedboats coming and going every five minutes. Our neighbours tell us of a nice peaceful bay a little further down the coast where we can anchor and relax, so in the morning we sail down to Filey Bay and anchor there. The sandy beach in front of the town is massive, and already full of a lot of people. The day turns out to be beautiful and sunny, so we decide to stay the whole day there reading and catching up. I settle down to read my Dracula book which I had bought at a bookshop in Whitby. The First Mate starts on answering her accumulated emails.

It is then that I meet Spencer. Spencer is a spider of unknown provenance, who is in the process of weaving a web across two of the struts holding up the canopy tent. At first I am a little affronted that he has the audacity to litter up the boat with his cobwebs, but then I remember that we have had a large number of flies coming and going, both in Whitby and Scarborough, which we had assumed was due to the heat and not us or our dirty washing. So I decide that he can stay provided he earns his keep by catching flies.

Spencer seems to understand the deal, as no sooner has he finished his web across the triangle of the struts, than there is a fly struggling to escape. Spencer moves quickly across and immobilises the fly with a numbing Dracula bite to the neck, and looks at me for approval. I give him the thumbs up.

“What are you doing?”, says the First Mate, looking up from her computer.

“Just encouraging Spencer the spider to do his stuff”, I say. “Hopefully he will keep the number of flies down on the boat. Let’s leave him there for a few days. Make sure you don’t clean his web away.”

Spencer the spider looks up from his fly as if to say “Fine, you keep to your side of the bargain and I’ll keep to mine. In a day’s time you’ll notice a lot less flies, believe you me.”

In the morning, the wind has gone around to the north, now coming from behind us on our port quarter. Not only that, we are just in time to catch the south-flowing flood tide. We set the sails and have a good run down past Flamborough Head where the current strengthens further and carries us along at a cracking 8 knots.

Passing Flamborough Head.

In the afternoon, the tidal current changes to the other direction so that the wind and tide are now in opposition. Such ‘wind-over-tide’ conditions usually result in quite choppy waves, and this time is no exception. As our speed slows and the going becomes much more difficult, Ruby Tuesday rears and dives into each successive wave as it comes. With the wind directly behind where we want to get to, we also have to take several long tacks to avoid any accidental gybes where the boom is blown violently from one side to the other. It’s slow going.

The tide starts to turn against the wind!

And then disaster of sorts. There is a crack and the mainsail goes slack and starts flapping in the wind. Then there is a clanging of something against the metallic boom. This is not a good time for problems. I peer over the cockpit tent to the boom and see that the outhaul block system that pulls the sail out from the mast seems to have disintegrated. One of the shackles has broken. The block itself is making the clanging sound against the boom. Luckily the outhaul line is still attached to the clew of the sail preventing it from flapping around too much. We pull the mainsail in and decide to motor the last few miles with the genoa remaining out to give some extra push against the tidal flow. The broken block system will have to wait until the evening when we have somewhere calmer to fix it.

The outhaul shackle bends and breaks.

There is mobile reception, so I phone the Humber VTS Control to ask the best route into the Humber. The voice sounds friendly, so I decide to ask him also about the anchorage on the western side of Spurn Head.

“It’s a great little anchorage”, he says. “The wind is from the north at the moment, so it should be quite sheltered. You’ll be fine.”

That all sounds reassuring, so we decide to spend the night there rather than going into Grimsby proper. It is about seven miles in and seven miles out, which will add quite a bit of time to our next passage, so anchoring at the mouth of the Humber seems like a good idea.

As we round Spurn Point, the wind seems to increase, and we see whitecaps on the waves and one yacht beating a hasty retreat. The omens are not good. And the shelter is almost non-existent – Spurn Head is a sandy spit at the mouth of the Humber, perhaps only a few metres above sea level, and we can see the north wind whistling over the scrubby vegetation and whipping the waves in the supposed anchorage into a froth.

As we approach, we spy two other boats there – another yacht and the lifeboat, both heaving up and down at anchor – so decide to give it a go. At least it will be a chance to test the anchor alarm on the new AIS. We find a spot a little way from the other boats and drop the anchor and set the alarm. It seems to hold, although the boat is pitching up and down like a yo-yo. Then the mist comes down and it starts to rain. We decide we will just have to stay here and make the most of it.

Anchored behind Spurn Point with the Humber lifeboat.

In the evening, I find a couple of spare shackles that I use to fix the outhaul block system. One is a twisted shackle used on the genoa, so I have to use another straight shackle to counteract the twist. It is not ideal as it makes the whole assembly longer than it should be, but it will have to do the trick in the meantime. I’ll buy the correct shackles at the next chandlers we come across.

A temporary fix for the outhaul block.

The wind is howling and the boat is pitching as I go on deck to reattach the outhaul line, so I clip myself in just in case I fall overboard. The First Mate keeps a watchful eye on me through the saloon hatch. I make it back.


We leave Amble at around midday to catch high water. Getting out is certainly easier than getting in – there is little wind to speak of, so Ruby Tuesday goes where we point her this time. We take a north route around Coquet Island to avoid the shallows between it and the mainland, and set a course southwards.

On our way south again.

The First Mate takes the opportunity to do some exercises.

The First Mate stretching her muscles.

The conversations with David, the ponytailed sailor in Eyemouth, have got me thinking. The current system is not sustainable, it can’t carry on the way it is. But what to replace it with? My mind goes back to a book I was reading over the winter – Prosperity without Growth, by Tim Jackson.

Jackson makes the point that we are all familiar with, that the present western lifestyle is not sustainable, that we are consuming more and more than the finite earth can provide in the long run. We are only able to do this at the moment because of the availability of cheap energy from fossil fuels. Encouraged by advertising and fuelled by cheap debt funded by the emerging economies such as China, we convince ourselves that we need to purchase more material goods than our basic needs in order to lead fulfilled lives. We use our material goods as a way of communicating our worth in society, and are conditioned to have a constant fear of being left behind and missing out in comparison to others. The problem is that satisfaction does not increase linearly with possession of material goods – beyond a certain point it levels off. It all sounds a bit like a lose-lose situation – we consume more material goods to try and make ourselves happy, which they don’t, but by consuming so much we not only deplete the world’s resources but also pollute the natural environment.

The problem is that it is difficult for the current system to throttle back and remain static – it can either grow or collapse. Growth occurs because new ideas make the production of things more efficient, which puts people out of jobs. But new ideas lead to new products, which hopefully employs those people. It all keeps growing because people are conditioned into buying cheaper and newer products. Trying to reduce consumption would lead to less demand, less production, more unemployment, which in turn would lead to less demand, less production, more unemployment, in an ever-increasing and unstable downward spiral.

All this is hardly new, but as the solution, Jackson proposes that we shift the economy from less one of production and consumption of material goods to more one of production and consumption of care, craft and cultural services. To some extent this is what is happens to economies anyway – a gradual move from agriculture to heavy manufacturing to services. We need some material goods for prosperity, he says, but something more is needed – a sense of purpose, and a sense of belonging and trust by the community.

We are passing Hartlepool, where a lot of gas tankers are anchored in the shallow water outside the harbour, all bringing fossil fuel to feed our demand. The irony is not lost. I shelve my musings until another time as we need to concentrate on avoiding the ships coming out of the harbour. The AIS has gone into overdrive in calculating potential collisions with us even though most of the protagonists are safely behind the harbour wall – it has no way of knowing there is an obstacle in between us. We don’t mind it making a few ‘false positive’ errors -it’s the ‘false-negatives’ that keep us awake at night!

We eventually reach Whitby and enter the outer harbour. On the pier above us anglers are casting their lines. Although there is a sign saying that fishing is only permitted on the seaward side, there are several lines dropping into the water on the harbour side. We hope that none get caught on our propeller. Suddenly there is a shout and one of the fishing lines goes taut. We are caught! I wrench the gear lever into neutral, but Ruby Tuesday continues on under her own momentum. The line disappears and we don’t see it again – I suspect that it has snagged on the keel but has slipped off. At least the propeller is still working, and we see no fisherman dragged off the pier!

The entrance to Whitby harbour.

We continue up the river and come to the swing bridge which we need to pass through to get to the marina. We call the bridge control to let them know that we are there, and are told to wait for a few minutes. The street above us seems to be the main centre of activity in the town – a garish mix of game arcades, neon lights, and fish and chip shops. Crowds of people throng it – social distancing seems to be an unheard of concept. It all seems rather tawdry after a day at sea when the only noise is the swish of water as the boat cuts through the waves, or the cry of seagulls as they fly overhead.

Crowds throng in Whitby.

We hear a buzzer, traffic lights go red, the cars and pedestrians stop. One half of the bridge swings open, and we are given the go-ahead. We inch our way through the gap, only a few centimetres on each side to spare, conscious that we are the centre of attention of the waiting crowd. We had better not mess up!

Squeezing through the swing bridge at Whitby – not much room to spare!

We make it, and are directed to a berth on the end of a pontoon. It is perfect – we are in the centre of town, and yet can sit in the cockpit, enjoy the peace and quiet, and watch the world go by from a discrete distance. Who could wish for more?

Later we stroll into town, stopping for fish-and-chips on the way. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, I think. We have to queue outside a window of the shop with the only means of communication through a microphone and speaker system. When the order is ready, we collect it from another small shutter window that can be opened by the girl to leave the bag and closed when we pick it up. No one bats an eyelid, but I think how bizarre it is that this new normal has been accepted so quickly. Will we ever go back to the old normal?

It turns out that our fish-and-chip shop is one of many – I don’t think I have ever seen so many per square mile. How do they all stay in business?

One of the many fish-and-chip shops in Whitby.

Our appetites sated, we wander through the quaint little streets of Whitby. Away from the brash flashing neon lights of the entertainment area, there is a certain old-world charm to the place, albeit catering mainly for tourists.

Street in Whitby.

We end up at the bottom of a long flight of stairs up to the abbey ruins on the hill to the south of the town. It is a steep climb, but we manage it, and are rewarded by a spectacular sunset over the bay.

Sunset over Whitby Bay.

Behind us, the abbey ruins are bathed in the warm golden glow of the setting sun. It’s magical. Bram Stoker was supposed to have sat somewhere around here and got the inspiration for Dracula, but with this beautiful coast in front of us, it is difficult to see why he was inspired to write of blood-sucking vampires from Transylvania, and not some nice romance. Perhaps it was all the gravestones in front of the abbey. This is the second place we have encountered the grisly Count on this trip – the first in Slains Castle in Aberdeenshire – is it turning into a theme?

The next day, I decide to go and visit the Captain Cook Memorial Museum while the First Mate has a look around Whitby. Because of the social distancing rules, I have to book online for an hour slot starting every 15 minutes. The idea is that there are four floors to the museum and you are allowed 15 minutes on each one before moving to the next one. A fresh intake of visitors come in at the bottom 15 minutes later while the ones on the top floor leave.

The Captain Cook Memorial Museum.

I have a particular interest in Captain Cook as he circumnavigated New Zealand, my country of birth, in the 1800s, leading to its colonisation by people from Britain, some of whom were my forebears. And here are we now, nearly finished a circumnavigation of the land of his birth! Cook was born in one of the villages near Whitby, and served his apprenticeship with the shipowner who had once owned the house where the museum is now located. Although he moved away from Whitby when he joined the Royal Navy, the ships that he had sailed in, Endeavour, Adventure, Discovery and Resolution, were all built in Whitby.

Captain James Cook.

As I explore the museum, my admiration for sailors of that era is renewed. Not only did they have no electronic technology to help with navigation and warn of dangers or engines to push them along, but their ships also could hardly sail into the wind, meaning that they had to spend much more time waiting for favourable winds than we do now. And yet they somehow managed to explore and map much of the globe, often with intricate detail.

Model of Cook’s ship Endeavour.

On the top floor, I am welcomed by a white-haired attendant. After exchanging pleasantries, he asks me where we are staying. Probably to surprise him a little, I point out of the window to the marina below.

“We’re staying in the marina”, I say. “Look there – that’s our boat on the end there”, pointing to Ruby Tuesday below.

An instant bond is formed. He is also a sailor, and has three boats – a yacht, a motor cruiser, and a racing dinghy. He keeps his yacht further up the coast at Sunderland, not Whitby, as it is too expensive here. Most of his sailing he has done on the east and south coasts, and he now teaches sailing to the boy scouts. He is impressed at our project to circumnavigate Britain.

“It’s something I have always wanted to do”, he says. “I have sailed as far as Falmouth, but never had the opportunity to go further. But your accent – do you mind asking what it is? Australian, New Zealand, South African?”

“New Zealand”, I say. “But I have lived in the UK for most of my life.”

“Ah, New Zealand”, he says wistfully. “Beautiful country. My daughter lives out there. We visited her a couple of years ago.”

Realising I have only fifteen minutes on this floor before the bell rings, I politely try to draw the conversation to a close and absorb myself in the display on Joseph Banks’ botanical expedition with Cook. When I was growing up, we used to look out every day to Banks’ Peninsula near Christchurch, which is named after Joseph Banks. But the white-haired attendant has the bit between his teeth.

“We hired a camper van and did both islands …”, he starts. The bell rings, and I have to move on. The exploits of Joseph Banks and the camper van will have to wait for another day. I bid him farewell and wish him the best with his sailing.

We hear on the news that night that Aberdeen is in lockdown again – there has been a cluster of cases centred on specific pubs. It seems that we escaped just in time.


The dark silhouettes of the silent houses glide by above us as we motor slowly out of Eyemouth harbour. It is 0430, and we are the only ones about as the town continues to sleep. We pass the looming bulk of the dredger tied up in the small dock to the side of the main channel, and enter the Canyon, the eerie red and green glow from the navigation lights on our bow reflecting off its steep walls. For a moment it reminds me of a deserted alley in a horror movie.

Leaving Eyemouth in the early hours.

We need to leave at this ungodly hour two hours before low water at 0630 to make sure that we don’t ground ourselves on the rocky bottom on the way out. We could also have left two hours after low water at 0830, but that wouldn’t have given us enough time to get to our next port of call, Amble, where we can only enter at high water at around 1230. All this planning around tides makes it tricky when sailing on the east coast, and often guarantees leaving or arriving at unsociable hours.

As we leave the harbour, I follow the track of the GPS that we made on the way in to make sure that we don’t  hit the Hurkar Rocks that caused the horrific loss of life in 1883. Another ship wreck at this time of the morning wouldn’t look good. When we reach the cardinal buoy marking the presence of the rocks from the sea, we turn southwards and set a course for the Farne Islands. The sails fill with a slap, we pick up speed, and soon the street lights of Eyemouth are receding into the distance.

The First Mate makes us hot cups of tea, and together we huddle in the shelter of the cockpit watching the grey horizon give way to the brilliant reds and yellows of the sunrise as a new day dawns. It is moments like this that make us feel that the early starts all worthwhile and that life is worth living.

Watching the sunrise.

The young shepherd awakes sweating, and pulls his cloak closer around him to keep warm. He had taken shelter in the cowshed the night before and fallen asleep almost straightaway, exhausted from driving his sheep down from the north. He had slept soundly for most of the night, but had been woken by a vivid dream in which Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne, the head of the church he worshipped under, had died and had been carried off to heaven by angels dressed in white. One of the angels had turned around and pointed to himself, saying ‘you will follow’. He shivers and tries to go back to sleep, but the otherworldliness of his dream stops him. He lies awake, his mind in a whirl, listening to the movements and breathing of the cows around him, their thick, earthy smell almost suffocating him. Why should he, a humble uneducated shepherd, have had such a dream of someone so far above him, so respected, someone he had never even met? And what did he mean by saying that he would follow? Was he going to die too? Nothing made sense.

Dawn comes, and the young shepherd decides that he can only find the meaning of his dream by travelling across to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne. It was a long way, but he is sure he can do it in a day if he doesn’t stop. He leaves his sheep with the owner of the cowshed, saying he could keep them in place of payment for his sleeping place, and sets off. By late evening he is nearly there, and falls in with a friendly monk on the road just outside the village.

“You won’t be able to go across to the monastery today, you know”, the monk says when the young shepherd tells him where is heading. “Bishop Aidan, the founder of the monastery, died this morning, and the monks are preparing for his funeral. In fact, that is where I am going myself, to give a hand, like.”

The monk’s words hit the young shepherd like a thunderbolt. His dream was real! But how could that be?

“The castle looks beautiful. Do you remember when we were there, quite a long time ago now?”.

I am woken from my reverie by the First Mate, bringing out some fresh mugs of hot tea. We are just passing the Holy Island of Lindisfarne with its castle rising out of a rocky promontory of the otherwise flat island almost as if had been fashioned naturally rather than built by humans.

Passing the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne.
St Cuthbert.

I had been recalling the story of St Cuthbert, which I had read when growing up. From humble origins as an uneducated shepherd, but with the convincing power of a vision that had come true, he had decided to become a monk, and had worked his way up the orders until he eventually become the Bishop of Lindisfarne. After his death, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a beautiful illuminated illustrated version of the four gospels, were made to celebrate his life.

“We rented a cottage in Northumberland one Christmas, and visited Holy Island. Don’t you remember we walked across the sand at low tide?”, continues the First Mate.

She is right – we had been on the island before, and I can remember sampling the mead made there, and rushing back along the causeway across the sand flats to the mainland before the tide came in again. Our son had only been six then, and we had tobogganed together down the snow-covered slopes outside our cottage.

The monastery on Lindisfarne had been established in 634 AD by Aidan, who had come across from the Holy Island of Iona on the west coast of Scotland, which we had seen during last year’s voyage in Ruby Tuesday. Aidan had brought with him the Celtic brand of Christianity that St Patrick had introduced from Ireland. For a while it had been the centre of Christianity in the north of England, but eventually lost influence to the Roman brand of Christianity in Canterbury further south. One of the differences between the two brands was the style of haircuts the monks had, and many bitter arguments ensued. Apparently God finds these things quite important when he is not running the universe.

A little bit further on, we pass the imposing Bamburgh Castle. The Northumbrians certainly loved building castles – in addition to the one on Holy Island that we had just passed and Bamburgh Castle, there is another on a little bit further on, Dunstanburgh Castle. Turbulent times need secure defences, no doubt.

Bamburgh Castle.

We pass through the narrow stretch of water between Bamburgh Castle and the Farne Islands stretching like a chain of beads out to sea. Many years ago, I had dived off the Knifestone Rocks, the last in the chain, amongst the seal colony there. I still think it was one of the best dives I ever did, watching the seals underwater pirouetting and jumping as they showed off their skills to us.

Passing the Farne Islands.

We arrive in Amble just after midday, just on high water. The marina is up the River Coquet about a mile, and we have been told to follow the course of the river around, sticking closely to the southern wall, as that is where the deep water is. On the north side, although covered at the moment by water only about a metre deep, are extensive mud flats that will be dry in an hour or so. It is easier said than done to hug the wall, as the southern bank is also where all the fishing trawlers tie up, and we have to swing in very close to them to stay in the narrow deep water channel.

Amble harbour on the River Coquet.

We finally reach the marina, and see in front of us a man in shorts on one of the pontoons waving energetically at us. Thinking that he is one of the marina staff wanting to direct us, we pull in as best as we can to the pontoon, not the easiest thing to do in the strong crosswind blowing us off. Eventually we are tied up securely.

“Phew, that wasn’t easy”, I say. “So, which is our berth for tonight?”.

“I have no idea”, the man replies. “I am just another berth-holder. You need to talk to one of the marina staff.”

“But we saw you waving us in”, I say. “We thought you had come down to show us where to go.”

“No, I just saw your wife waving to me, and I waved back”, he says.

It transpires that we have inadvertently tied up to the fuel berth. Luckily a real marina man arrives. I decide that we need to top up our fuel tank anyway. It has the advantage that (a) we can pretend that was our plan all along, and (b) that it will save a job later, and (c) we can leave when the tides are right rather than when the marina is open.

We eventually find the berth that has been allocated to us, tie up, and have lunch. I settle down in the cockpit for a snooze, and am soon dreaming of executing the perfect tack, or some such thing. A sudden shout from the First Mate wakes me abruptly.

“Watch out, watch out”, she shouts. “The idiot. He doesn’t know what he is doing.”

It was probably only a few seconds before I realised that it wasn’t me she was referring to, conditioned as I am. I leap up and see a small motorboat in the middle of the narrow fairway between the pontoon where we are tied and the neighbouring one. The driver is trying to get into the small gap between two other boats. To be fair, the wind is very strong and it is not easy to position the boat with any accuracy, as we ourselves had found when we came into the marina. The motor boat makes two to three attempts without any success, on all occasions being blown past his slot. Then, whether in frustration, panic or confusion we’ll never know, the driver rams the throttle forward and careers wildly around in the fairway between the two pontoons, heading for the side of Ruby Tuesday. The First Mate and I both see a potential accident developing and grab the boathooks to try and fend him off. Too late! His boat hits ours and scrapes its way along the side in a sickening graunch. My boathook catches in the front of the little boat somehow and pitchpoles in a graceful arc like a javelin, and disappears into the water in the fairway. The little boat continues it course of mayhem, careering from side to side of the fairway, narrowly missing two other boats and grazing the end of the last finger pontoon, ending up on the main fairway from the marina entrance facing the way it had come. For a moment I wonder if the driver is just regrouping for another attack to finish off the boats he missed first time around, but a look at his face shows that he is more shocked than we are. I even feel a bit sorry for him.

Scratches down the side of Ruby Tuesday.

We exchange insurance details and metaphorically shake hands to avoid transmitting any viral particles. These things happen, there are no hard feelings on our part. Later on, a neighbouring boatie brings us our boathook which he finds floating near his boat. At least all is not lost. Later I clamber into our little dinghy and take photos of the damage. Luckily it is not a deep scratch and can probably be fixed with a little filler and sanding. It could be worse.

Later in the afternoon, we explore the town.

“We can’t come here without going for an amble around Amble”, I say, feeling rather pleased with myself. I had been waiting for the opportunity to use that one. The First Mate looks at me witheringly.

Going for an amble in Amble.

Amble was once a port for the coal industry in Northumberland, but has since declined in that respect, and now relies on its small fishing industry and tourism. It is pleasant enough, not spectacular, but has seen some redevelopment work around the town square and the riverside harbour.

We come to the Northumberland Seafood Centre that sells the freshly caught fish coming directly from the boats. It also has a lobster hatchery, but unfortunately it is closed to the public because of the coronavirus.

Northumberland Seafood Centre, Amble.

We talk to the owner who is standing outside the Centre.

“We sell a lot of our fish to Europe”, he says. “Brexit is going to be a disaster for that. I am not sure how we are going to survive.”

“But the north-east here voted en masse to leave”, I say. “And the fishing industry in particular want to get back control of our waters. I don’t understand.”

“People were just manipulated by the politicians to believe that no-one was going to tell Britain what to do. It’s a north-eastern thing”, he says morosely. “But no good will come of it, you see.”

We end up at a café on the river front where we decide to have a drink. The First Mate looks at the menu and decides to order squid rings to go with her drink. The drinks arrive, but no squid rings. After half-an-hour, we ask the waitress what has happened to them.

Waiting for our squid snacks.

“They are just coming”, she says. “The kitchen has been really busy.”

Twenty minutes later, they have still not arrived. We are getting cold. We ask her again.

“They’ll be here in a couple of minutes”, she says.

Ten minutes later we ask again. “I am so sorry”, she says. “For some reason, the order didn’t go through. It’s my fault. Give them five minutes.”

This time they do arrive. There are only three squid rings. The First Mate gobbles them up. We ask for the bill. It arrives, and we are charged £16.40 for two snacks instead of one. I complain to the waitress.

“Not only did our snacks take more than an hour to arrive, we only get three squid rings for £8.20, and then to top it all, you charge us for two snacks instead of one”, I say.

“I am so sorry”, says the waitress. “Tell you what, you can have the drinks free.”

It’s been quite a day.


At the stroke of eight bells, the First Mate slips the lines and we motor slowly out of Port Edgar marina, under the two eastern-most bridges, then set the autopilot on a course of 70°T. The wind is from the west, behind us, and before long, we have the sails out and are making a good speed heading along the southern shore of the Firth of Forth. At least the wind is in our favour today.

Leaving behind the new Forth road bridge.

We eventually pass the town of North Berwick, its church spires and house roofs catching the early morning sun. Further on looms the imposing bulk of Bass Rock. From where we are, it looks as if it is covered in white flowers, but as we get closer, we begin to pick out the individual spots of white and see that they are gannets, tens of thousands of them. The rock is a volcanic plug dating from Carboniferous times around 300 million years ago, and today is famous for its giant gannet colony with around 150,000 of the birds taking up every conceivable space.

Approaching Bass Rock.

We decide to take a loop out of our planned route to get a closer look. As we get closer, the sea suddenly becomes choppier and the wind rises to a fierce prolonged gust of 25 knots, almost as though it is warning us off. Ruby Tuesday heels violently, and we quickly take in the sails and start the motor instead. And if the gust is not enough, a sudden intense rain squall engulfs us and drenches us before we are able to get the side panels of the cockpit tent down. Then, as we begin to turn away, everything equally as suddenly stops and the sun begins to peak out again. If I was a superstitious type, I might think we have angered the gods by approaching too close to a sacred sanctuary.

Gannet colony on Bass Rock.

I recall a great story I had read at some stage about Bass Rock. Back in the late 1600s, four captured Jacobite officers were imprisoned in the castle on the Rock when it was used as a jail. One day when a supply ship arrived, all of the garrison of the castle had to go down to the landing to help unload a difficult cargo. With no-one in the castle, the prisoners took it over, and wouldn’t let any of the jailers back in, who had to leave with the supply boat to go back to the mainland, leaving the Jacobite officers in total control of the Rock. Their sympathisers on the mainland and in France heard what had happened, and kept them secretly supplied with food, water and arms for several years, and because of the Rock’s natural defences, they were able to beat off any attacks. The whole thing became a bit of an embarrassment to the government, who, with all the to-ings and fro-ings, had no idea of how many people were on the Rock. In the end, the Jacobites negotiated very favourable terms of surrender, escaped to France, and became local heroes.

We sail on. The wind is very variable, sometimes a good strong beam reach pushing us along at 7-8 knots, other times down to a couple of knots only so we have to start the engine to make any progress. We still have quite a way to go to Eyemouth and need to get there before the tide gets too low for our 2 m draft to enter the harbour.

Eventually we reach the cardinal buoy marking a group of submerged rocks just outside Eyemouth harbour and furl the sails. As instructed when I had called in the morning, I call the harbour-master on Channel 11 of the VHF to let him know that we would like to enter the harbour. There is no answer. We wait for five minutes and call again. Silence. When we had called him earlier, he had told us that they are dredging the harbour in the evenings and that we should contact them on the radio once we had arrived when we would be given further instructions on how and when to enter the harbour. But with no-one answering, what should we do? Just push on in and hope for the best?

Then suddenly there is a voice.

Ruby Tuesday, this is Neville the dredger operator”, it says. “The harbourmaster has probably gone home for the night now. We have started dredging, but just come straight in. You should be able to squeeze past us somehow.”

It seems a bit tricky, but we decide to give it a go. We find the two leading lines that guide us past the treacherous Hurkar rocks at the harbour entrance to the start of a narrow high-walled channel which we learn later is aptly named the Canyon. Once through there, we see the dredger in front of us, almost blocking the way. Luckily, the channel widens slightly at that point, and we are able to squeeze gingerly around it and into the upper part of the harbour where we see the pontoons at which visiting boats are able to tie up.

About to enter ‘The Canyon’, Eyemouth Harbour.

The bad news is that there don’t appear to be any spare berths for us. Two yachts that we had seen entering the harbour about half an hour before us are safely tied up, taking up all of the pontoon that we could have had if we had been a little bit earlier. The only option that we have is to raft up – that is, to tie up alongside a boat that is already there, which means clambering across it if we want to go ashore. But where?

A youthful sailor with a ponytail emerges from one of the boats and offers to check if we can raft up next to one of the other boats tied up at the pontoon. In the meantime, we execute the delicate manoeuvre  of turning around in mid-river without hitting anything on either side. We somehow manage more by luck than good management, and drift downstream again to where the boats are moored.

“None of the other boats want you to raft up alongside them”, says the Ponytailed Sailor, with an American accent. “ They say they are heading off early in the morning, but I am not sure I believe them. Anyway, you can tie up alongside me if you like, even if it is three deep. I am not going anywhere in the next couple of days, and the other boat isn’t either – the owner died a couple of months ago. Here, give me your lines.”

He grabs our line from the bow and makes it fast to a cleat on his own boat, then rushes back and grabs our stern line that I am holding. The two boats roll alongside one another momentarily, but there are enough fenders on both to prevent any damage. We also tie the two boats together amidships and string a further couple of lines from our bow and stern directly to cleats on the pontoon. With all that, Ruby Tuesday isn’t going anywhere.

We sit on the foredecks of our respective boats and chat in the last warmth of the fading sun. The Ponytailed Sailor’s name is David and his boat is his home. He did once have a house, but he sold it and bought the boat. He has two cats for company – one young and ginger, the other old and black. He has just spent the winter in it in Eyemouth because of the lockdown and is getting itchy to move on northwards now that it has lifted.

David and his feline companions.

“I was once a production engineer, you know”, he tells us. “I worked for a company making electronic widgets, but I just couldn’t stand manipulating people to make more money for the company.”

“What do you mean?”, I ask.

“My job was to go around and look for ways to increase the productivity of staff. I was good at my job, introduced lots of changes, and was rewarded by the company well as their profits increased. And do you know the oddest thing – the employees themselves liked the changes I made because it often made their jobs more enjoyable even though they were more productive.”

“Sounds like a win-win situation though”, I say. “But what did you do then?”

“Well, I left shortly after”, he says. “Watching people age prematurely due to the changes that I made, knowing that mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters would have less time together because of me – is truly a burden I wish I didn’t have – and to this day it weighs heavily upon on my soul.”

“I decided then that the whole of society stinks, that it is all based around manipulating people to make more money for other people that already have enough. Who wants to live in a society like that? So I sold my house, bought the boat, and travel around where I wish, staying where I like for as long as I like. I live sustainably, and opt out of the rat race as much as I can – my two cats keep me company. I love it.”

David’s home.

I am reminded of Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, but I have to admit I have a lot sympathy with him. There does seem to something wrong with the way the world works at the moment. And although we haven’t sold our house, his lifestyle is not all that different from our own during the summer months.

“But how would you change society to make it better?” I ask.

“Well, stop having people making things that other people don’t really need, for a start”, says David. “And educate people to stop buying rubbish.”

“But who decides what people need and don’t need, and what is rubbish and not rubbish?”, I say. “Even with your lifestyle, you will still need things from time to time – when your sails wear out, you will need new ones; if your engine gives trouble, you will need spare parts; you need pet food to feed your cats. And what would all those newly unemployed people that used to make things people didn’t need do for a living instead?”

“I know, I know. All good questions”, he says. “I have to admit that I don’t really know. All I know is that things can’t go on as they are.”

I always enjoy these sorts of conversations, but I have had similar before. We all know that things have to change, but no-one knows quite what system should replace it. We all like our mod-cons, our boats, our cars, our entertainment, our electronic gadgets, our warm and comfortable homes, our healthy and diverse food, our freedom to choose, whatever. We ourselves are no different. But all these require a system behind them to produce them. And not all of us have the resources to opt out completely. The ultimate dilemma.

In the morning, the two boats we saw coming in the day before us have gone, and we move Ruby Tuesday to their space on the pontoon. At least now we don’t have to clamber across two boats to get ashore.

Ruby Tuesday tied up to the visitor’s pontoons in Eyemouth harbour.

Later the First Mate catches the bus back home as she has a dentist appointment, so I am left to my own devices for a couple of days. She takes plenty of masks with her, and is under strict instructions from me to make sure she sits next to no-one in the bus.

On the way to the bus stop, we come across a bronze statue of one Willie Spears. It seems that back in the nineteenth century, the fishermen used to have to pay a tithe of 10% of their catch to the local Church of Scotland. Naturally, they resented this as they wanted to spend the money instead on upgrading the harbour to make it safer. The local minister, however, was having none of this. The dispute rumbled on for several years, until one day one of the fishermen, Willie Spears, had had enough. He organised a peaceful demonstration of 4000 folk in one of the neighbouring villages, with the upshot that the minister backed down and agreed to the tithe being bought out for a total of £2000. Tragically it was too late to improve the harbour, as a few years later in 1881 there was a fierce storm when most of the fisherman were out fishing, and 129 trying to get back in died in front of their distraught families when their boats hit the Hurkar rocks at the entrance to the harbour, the same ones we had passed on the way in. Only the few that stayed out at sea survived. A poignant reminder of its dangers.

Statue of Willie Spears.

Later that day, I walk up to the Harbour Office to pay our mooring fees. The harbourmaster tells me he is new and still finding his way. He needs to go and check the fee rules to see if we are eligible for any discounts, and lo-and-behold, we are – 25% off the third day. Somehow we get into a conversation about Brexit. He is all for it.

“We need to stimulate British agriculture and stop buying all our food from overseas”, he says. “Things have got out of control in the last few years.”

He has a point, but we only produce around half of what we eat at the moment. I think of the fruit salad I had for breakfast this morning, and wonder whether the banana, kiwi fruit, and orange would grow in the UK. I suppose the grapes, plums and apple do already. But the mango and papaya in the yoghurt I liberally dolloped on top wouldn’t. I suspect our diet might not be as diverse if we were to rely entirely on domestic agriculture, but perhaps that is the price to pay for the free, independent and self-sufficient Britain that the country wants.

Will I still be able to have my breakfast in future Britain?