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.

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