This time I’m off on a sailing adventure with my Uncle, he’s bought a Sweden 34 in Sweden, I am joining him and his friend, for the final hop of the delivery home from the Kiel Canal to Cowes, Isle of Wight.
It is a brave move leaving my own sailing school for a week in June of all times and heading to sea and potentially zero communication. But we’ve put a good deal of planning in place and the staff have all been with us three years now, they are good at their jobs and I am confident in them. The lesson here is for me, is to learn to let go of the reigns a little.
There was no stress leaving this time, I’m packed ready to go and at the airport in plenty of time. A quick hop to Manchester, then Easyjet to Hamburg. My instructions are to get the train from Hamburg and meet the boat in Cuxhaven on the south side of the canal after the western lock.
Landing in Hamburg and most of the German I used to know comes flowing through my brain. I manage to get train tickets, times, directions and instructions, and make it to the train! First up is a leg to Hamburg, to then change and go pretty much back where I’ve come from, change in another town for Cuxhaven three hours down the line.
I’d not long been on the train from Hamburg when I receive a text which said “Been trying to call you all day DO NOT GO TO CUXHAVEN”. Sigh, I check my phone again, he definitely hadn’t tried to call me. At least I hadn’t got as far as changing trains yet. I get off and go through the whole times, directions, instructions again. There is a train waiting at the platform for Hamburg, I get on it, without ticket, but I’ll chance it.
I am now on the train to Itsenhoe, to then find a bus to Brunsbuttel, where I hope to find the boat. The train journey was an hour, no one asked me for a ticket, so that was a win. The bus I needed was just there, waiting at the side of the road. But that was too good to be true, buses here are cash only, my card is no good and of course I wasn’t that organised to get cash anywhere. The driver waves to the Geldautomat across the street and tells me he is leaving in two minutes. I dash for cash, but this machine is out of order. The bus drives away and I wait an hour for the next one.
9.30pm and I’m getting off the bus in a tiny place by the canal, two planes, four trains and one bus later! I have no idea where I’m going so I head toward the water. Sure enough there is a small dock with a handful of boats in it. And there they are! We are right next to the lock, just inside the canal. The boat is rafted outside a rather fine looking Nelson 46. I step over the rails and admire her and find my accommodation for the next few hundred miles.
She’s a fabulous boat, plenty of security offered in the cockpit and all lines lead back. We’ve all the cruising essentials including a dodger! Almost all the essentials, no self steering or autopilot, so it will be a human pilot trip. Down below she’s a comfy arrangement, V berth in the forepeak, saloon conversion and a double bunk down aft. This is where I’ll be sleeping, sharing with my new companion – the liferaft. All the berths are on the port side, while the galley, navdesk and storage lockers are on the starboard side. The boat is even equipped with pretty blue curtains throughout, it is very homely, with all the creature comforts about it and none of the sitting on the rail soaking wet parts… did I mention the dodger?
We managed to find an open restaurant, which apparently is not that easy after 9pm in the sticks of Germany. There is one other couple in there. We suspect they look like Nelson 46 owners. We order steak – of course, with a small ration of German beer. Two things now transpire… one being the restaurant, like the bus, does not accept cards, which we discover when the other guy leaves to find the cashpoint. Uncle goes with him, they return a long time later, announcing that we are indeed neighbours for the night. They invite to stop for drinks onboard after dinner. We exchange stories and I listen to tales of their journeys to places i’ve never heard of, all of which sound beautiful, the fairytales leaving me full of adventure and wanderlust.
We are tied up literally right next to the lock at the end of the Kiel Canal. It is a busy spot and all night there are bells and whistles, shouts and the thrumming of engines. It is a fine sight watching the big ships pass through, they are tall enough to obscure the moon as they pass next to the tiny marina.
A ping on wifi reveals that he had been trying to call me, but on Whatsapp. What use is that to anyone without data roaming?
After taking on some more provisions and stopping at the fuel dock, we are tying up alongside a rusty bit of floating dock, just us an another tiny boat in the huge lock. The pontoon goes up and down with the water, good job really as I doubt if we ties all our lies together they’d be long enough to reach up there. One gate closes…. We wait…. Another gate opens. We mustn’t have moved more than a foot up or down! And we are out into the Elbe.
The Elbe, the everlasting Elbe we are against the tide so our progress is not quite painfully slow, there is plenty of breeze and we hoist sails pretty quickly, making a good 6 or 7 knots through the water. Over the ground… well… we’re still in the Elbe. Off Cuxhaven the wind is really blowing, gusting 30 knots at times, it is getting exciting and life at a 50 degree heel angle begins. I must admit it is nice to have a dodger to hide behind and tucked up in cruising mode in the security of the cockpit. The brown water continues to flow out the Elbe, a river so wide you can’t see the other side of it. No wonder it wasn’t possible to get from Cuxhaven to Brusbuttel by train – just across the river!
Some six hours later and slowly the water begins to turn from brown to a more grey hue, and our first indications we are approaching the sea. Firstly we actually start heading the right way, having spent the entire Elbe leg heading NW, now we’re set to 240 heading and the Dutch coast is on our left, it is still blowing a good 20 knots out here and there’s a bit of a sea reflecting that, more short chop than Irish Sea roll. The tide is definitely in our favour out here and the long flat dutch coast starts rolling by, one low headland or island after the other. Our captain turns chef and cooks us spaghetti bolognaise for tea and at 10pm we drop into a night time watch pattern, 2 on 4, off, solo watches, just perfect, my favourite. I get the sunset and the sunrise on my watches tonight and it will never really go dark, since we’re at 53 north approaching the summer solstice.
The nights are short and the watches just 2 hours so they pass painlessly. There’s not much chance for seeing stars, between the light and the clouds I catch a few glimpses of the plough, polaris and venus with the rising moon. Sleeping however, is not so painless. The breeze is up, we are on our ear on port tack. This puts all the bunks on the high side and without lee cloths, saying in the bunk becomes a major challenge. After a few hours of what can best be described as cat-napping, in a cat with its claws in the curtain kind of way, dozing whilst trying to hang on to the bunk. Soon enough the liferaft becomes my bed buddy as I manage to wedge myself in the foetal position in the gap between it and the hull. It is not exactly comfy, but requires considerably less effort to maintain this position. I must have slept because my alarm clock wakes me up.
I get my gear and head out to see 4am on deck. I stumble over a bucket by the other bunk, it appears we may have a casualty, it has been pretty rough since we left the Elbe 12 hours ago. I’d left my Uncle at the helm at midnight and I find he’s still there. I can see why, it is beautiful out here, he’s had a great night sail, one of life’s rare treats. Lucky him!
The wind is slowly backing off and we spend the day changing gears between sailing and motorsailing, the joys of a delivery and deadline, we’re not racing, so when we’re going too slow…. Beep….chug chug chug chug… We are always making progress.
Good progress as it turns out, we are surpassing all expectations, so we intend to press on for Belgium. We are ahead of schedule and there is no need to stick to our original plan of Ijmuden. The Dutch coast keeps on passing. We’ve certainly seen our share of windfarms along the coast, in fact it is impossible to find a horizon without them.
We have chicken and mash for tea and settle in to another night watch pattern.
It is another nice night, calm this time and it never quite gets dark, although I do manage to pick out most of the Plough in the everlasting twilight.
At some point in the night the wind dies and we start motor sailing. I’m on watch from late o’clock until early o’clock, so after my watch I’m straight in my bunk. It is early morning and I’m ready for sleep, no alarm bells ring about the small port of Rotterdam which stood between us and Belgium.
I wake up some hours later to a grey rainy morning. We appear to be in the middle of the shipping lanes – under sail! It turns out we were crossing the major TSS off Rotterdam, it is raining heavily, really grey with vis down to poor. This is possibly the worst place to wake up and have the helm put in your hand. A huge fail on my part, chugging along merrily as crew, taking it all for granted as everything had run so smoothly this far.
A brief visit from three nice young men in the Rotterdam Pilot’s launch and an urgent suggestion that we set course due south immediately, and motor through as quickly as we can. A brief point at the actual chart, which was on the chart table right under the navionigator and the error of our ways is very apparent. We have survived the traffic dodgems and we are back on course making good time 240 degrees…
The day begins to cheer up, the rain stops and the coast line is flat, flat, flat, broken only by the occasional port where cranes and gantries of container ports loom over the horizon like strange island mirages. The only marine life to be had is the occasional seal. The water is beginning to change from North Sea grey to a more turquoise and Caribbean blue as we approach the Belgian coast. The sea is also flat, flat, flat, there is not a breath of wind, our fuel gauge is reading zero and we are not quite there yet.
We are heading for Blakenberg, Belgium, between Ostende and Zeebrugge. The entrance is in sight, but we are not exactly close, so the anchor rigged and ready to go, dock lines prepared and keeping our head up into the tide we glide toward the gap between the piers, staying high so we’ve no chance of missing it. The engine chugs on….. And on….. The anticipation is becoming an exciting game of pure chance. Will we, won’t we? Chug, chug, chug…. Lucky for us it is flat calm, had there been any sea on that last litre in the tank would have been sloshing around providing us with a diesel and air mix.
We make it and even make it alongside a visitors dock in this beautiful little harbour of Blakenberge in Belgium. I’ve never been to Belgium before, the beers are big, showers are hot, sun is shining and so far I like Belgium. Until at 9.45pm we discover that this is the land where restuarants close at 9pm. Three hungry sailors now wander the streets until someone points us to an Italian back by the harbour that is open until 11pm. We eat another great meal, which this time definitely wasn’t steak, enjoy some more Belgian beer, before heading back to the boat.
The forecast is for winds of 20 – 25 knots on the nose tomorrow, we have elected to stay in port until it passes as everything looks a lot more pleasant in 24 hours time, plus we are ahead of schedule. We can relax, go on a fuel quest, catch up with emails and enjoy a treat of fish finger sandwiches for lunch! The lads elected to go on a quest for another fuel tank to dramatically increase our presently unknown fuel capacity. After a considerable and unsuccessful hike round some closed garages (Sunday, of course) they managed to procure a beautiful almost new 20 litre tank from a boat on the dock just a few feet away!
Having enjoyed the Italian the previous night we headed there for another meal where we actually didn’t eat steak this time. This time sitting opposite us are the guys who gave us the fuel tank earlier in the day. Extra round of drinks bought.
Splash, I kick something small off the dock into the sea. The water lights up like an iridescent scatter painting…. Phosphorescence!!! Loads of it, it was really really bright and flicking small droplets onto the surface was enough to make the water shine and flash like a disco for a brief moment.
At 5am we are off the dock and heading back to the sea. It is a beautiful dawn, the moon is just setting in the west as the orange glow of the night starts to fill the north eastern sky. The sun isn’t up yet, but already it is broad daylight outside. Almost midsummer at 52N it never really gets dark.
The going is slow to begin with, but it will all change once the tide turns. I’m in my bunk for the quick bit and back on deck for the slow bit. Bacon butties are served at some point. We motor past the beaches of Dunkirk and spent a good few hours of that watch contemplating the landscape has changed very little since. I spend a long time looking at Calais on my watch too. I’m surprised at how this place that sounds really big on the news is actually really small. We’ve chosen to pass Calais before crossing the TSS in the Dover Strait. My watch is super slow, stuffing tide with the rate accelerated by the waxing moon. There’s a few ferries in and out, but it is surprisingly quiet.
Tide should turn at 5.30pm to favour our trip across the 12nm game of chicken. In fact we saw a grand total of six ships, none passing close enough for concern. Now we are on the English side I feel like I’m in the Shipping Forecast. Dover, Dungeness, Beechy Head…. It is cool to see what these places actually look like. I also conclude that the Dover Coastguard guy must get tired of his job…. He has to ask every ship that passes “What was your previous port and where are you heading….any cargo onboard?…..Any dangerous cargo on board? Number of persons onboard….” Over and over and over again, there is a continuous flow of ships chatting to him.
The sun sets behind Dungeness, which in reality has all the allure of Heysham with its big power station scarring the skyline. The sunset itself is beautiful, the sky layers from deep red through to varying hues of orange as the evening closes in. I will spend the next few hours staring at, but never reaching, Beechy Head.
I’m back on watch as the sun rises on a flat calm morning. The hope of a noreasterly and a chance to play with the kite on the last leg looks unlikely. The sea is like glass. We elect to go for a fuel tank fill while it is calm. Then I’m left on deck on my own to stare at yet another windfarm… for the whole entire watch. At some point i get some company on deck so I decide to make some breakfast, I’m bored and hungry and we are both pretty sure we’ve seen a packet of bacon in the fridge. Having searched the fridge several times now, there is no bacon, just an old packet of not quite bacon ham. Who only buys one packet of bacon? We ponder as I attempt scrambled eggs on toast, with no grill or toaster and without setting the boat on fire!
We spend a long time looking at Selsey Bill when out of the gloom on the horizon ahead our keen eyed crewman spots a greyer lump, pointing out the Isle of Wight just appearing a long way off our bow. There we go, course set, the last hop up the coast. Time to sleep, it’s gonna be a while yet. Sweepstake I’m going for 2pm, Uncle reckons 3.01, and our least optimistic gambler says 4pm.
I wake up to Portsmouth, we start sailing up the Solent and into Cowes it is just gone 2pm.