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.

2 thoughts on “Two crossings

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