Many thanks for sharing this amazing story for NUSC. The illustrations used in this story are also on the following link. Shelldrakes Summer Illustrations, The story will also, but in a more condensed format, be in the Q2 NUSC Pennant.
The impatient tide plucked at “Sheldrake”, rural detritus, straw, fence posts, branches and twigs from the grey Usk‘s upper reaches, began drifting slowly seawards and little riffling wakes streamed from the mooring buoys. Elish and Mary were at the pontoon to see me off_ Mary with a surprise gift a much appreciated bottle of malt whisky I loaded a few stores “Sheldrake had already been provisioned Two hugs two kisses and I ready to go I took the lines pushed off and with a confusion of feelings excitement some apprehension the sadness that accompanies a parting, set out on my voyage.
Once clear of the moored yachts I took a last look back, waved and feeling very alone steered Sheldrake” down—river and along the fairway” onto the broad expanses of the Bristol Channel. There was barely wind enough to fill the sails, but the diesel engine purred away the autohelm steered? while I busied myself below. There was then little for me to do but lookout and enjoy the sunshine. Steepholm loomed up and was soon passed, the island deserted except for its flocks of screaming gulls, returning from their scavenging 0n Bristol’s’ rubbish tips;
The generous dressings of their guano? together with a liberal rainfall give this island a fertility that is almost tropical. Once I landed here, early in the season to be astonished by wallflowers that had grown into huge colourful and fragrant bushes. I have yet to enjoy the pleasure of finding the island’s wild peony, brought here from the Mediterranean by monks for their herbarium and still thriving though found nowhere else in northern Europe.
Once past the island and satisfied that my course would take me safely clear to the south of the Culver Sandi a ” culver” is a dove in Somerset? the sandbank so named for its colour I had time to muse on the journey ahead of me It was like being stood at the foot of a mountain, there was something daunting at the thought of all the sea miles that stretched ahead the difficulties and the problems real and imagined to be encountered before the voyage s successful conclusion.
Some travellers set out with a detailed itinerary, anticipating difficulties and having contingency plans prepared. This is enjoyable in itself poring over charts: pilots harbour plans and almanacs. Harmlessly and pleasurably speculating by a winter fireside, that on the twenty first of July? one should be able to catch the flood up the Elbe and make the locks at Brunsbuttel …… This sort of detailed prospectus is a psychological crutch that events and the elements surely kick away.
I reflect and ponder in a more general fashion. It suits my temperament to rely upon improvisation and adaption? dealing with each days problems as they occur. On previous voyages? I believed that I had learned the limits of my own endurance the capabilities of “Sheldrake” and hoped to remain within them.
As the island faded into the haze astern there was a little hesitant movement in the air, the sails began to swell and fill a breeze stirred and then asserted itself from the south. I able to silence the engine and “Sheldrake” lightly heeled on a broad reach was soon making a steady four knots.
Stemming a foul tide is a profitless activity in the Bristol Channel, off Hurlstone Point it turned. I was able to sail into Porlock bay and follow its gentle curve to the anchorage off Porlock Weir. For the first time this trip, I unlashed the anchor and threw it well clear, the chain rattled out over the fairlead, there was an anxious moment or two as the anchor dragged over the boulders a as it always seems to do— at Porlock before the chain tautened and we were held, gently rolling in a swell that rounded the shingle spit of Gore Point.
Satisfied that “Sheldrake” was safe, with the sails neatly lashed I launched the inflatable. Then paddled ashore, waiting a moment for a wave to carry us up onto the boulders, so that I could land dry shod. In the pub I chatted to local sailors and fishermen. One asked if it was my boat anchored out in the bay. He warned me that strong north—easterlies had been forecast and suggested that I brought “Sheldrake” into the shelter of the pool. I hurried to do this while there was water in the channel and light by which to see the withy that marks the entrance. Porlock is a delightful anchorage in settled conditions? but the rounded rocks that form the seabed offer poor holding” the stony shores of the bay are steep and unyielding.
A friendly yachtsman took my lines and helped me to secure in the “pool” a hole in this otherwise drying harbour and in which “Sheldrake” with her single keel could remain comfortably afloat° I was soon able to return to enjoy the company in the bar.
The following day, brought strong southwwesterlies. Not relishing a long windward slog I decided to stay in the sunshine in the lee of Porlock’s sheltering hill. I wandered along the beach the protecting groynes are like sculptures, fantastically carved and eroded by the grinding boulders. The inner harbour behind an ancient lock gate is a sanctuary
for old decaying boats that no one has the heart to write off. A black, tarredg Noah‘s Ark of a craft? a shed on a raft, was guarded by an old sleepy black dog with a grey muzzle, he conjured up a growl to warn me off and duty done immediately fell asleep again” The flowers here have a powerful fragrance and a startling almost fluorescent brilliance, drawn perhaps from the warmth, the Clear light and limestone of this favoured place
Mondays’ forecast was encouraging, a fresh south—easterly veering and later strengthening from the south west I left as soon as there was sufficient water. As “Sheldrake” passed the withy and entered the bay she dipped her modest bowsprit into the first of the waves, a spatter of spray dampened her decks.
The wind funnelled in fierce blasts down the coombes. The coast from here to Ilfracombe is a continuous dramatic rampart, rising sheer to the high plateau of Exmoor. The wind was just off the bow and in order that I might sail as Close to windward as possible I had the engine running* “Sheldrake‘ goes well and efficiently ‘motor-sailing’ in this fashion.
Quite suddenly off Highveer Point a powerful gust, striking like a fist, almost laid “Sheldrake’l flat. The sea creamed over her side decks, dangerously close to the top of the cockpit seaming, the log briefly registered 7.2 knots? a dizzy speed for this old lady; I felt the rudder vibrate in my hand s high waves -white p1umes~ formed each side of the bows, astern there was a boiling wake. This was not sustained for long and as soon as I was able to leave the helm I let “Sheldrake” luff, lowered and secured the jib, took a couple of turns in the roller reefing gear and proceeded more sedately. This was a good test of her spars and rigging? the mast creaked, the sails strained but everything held.
Shelley, Wordsworth and Coleridge came here, drawn by their longing for the wild, the dramatic and the picturesque. These “romantics”, rebels, sought truth, beauty and inspiration in the hills and open places. They did us a great service, establishing a tradition which still urges modern man to escape from the complexities of modern society in a return to nature and simplicity . Thank you Percy Bysshe, William, Samuel Taylor, you are on the bookshelf.
The tumbled rocks and wild gorges that impressed them, remain. From seaward this is a deserted, almost unpeopled coast, the few lonely walkers 0n the switchback coast path are dwarfed by the scale of the landscape. Sheer cliffs plunge a thousand feet to inaccessible stony beaches upon which the swell breaks relentlessly. Here are the “deep romantic chasms slanted down the green hill”, it is this black sunless sea at the foot of these north facing cliffs, that fired the Coleridges’ fevered imagination to create Zanadu.
Soon the distinctive, conical, Great Hangman was abeam and then its little brother. I closed into Combe Martin bay just for a look. Watermouth, a pretty fjord—like natural harbour, almost concealed, its entrance a cleft in the cliff face was tempting. But it is a drying harbour with no wall against which to lie and I did not want the trouble of fitting legs.
I anchored in Ilfracombe‘s outer harbour at two in the afternoon, just sixteen miles recorded on the log in a little over three hours. The days’ progress had been modest, but the tide was about to turn and if I were to press on I would be unlikely to make Lundy or Clovelly, until long after nightfall. I had made tangible “westing” and felt that I was on my way.
This is one of the few havens in the Bristol Channel accessible at all states of the tide? sheltered by the surrounding cliffs, safe and snug with the wind from any quarter but the north” I was invited aboard “Fair Winds”, a small yacht from my own club. Her crew, father and son, were looking forward to a fast passage home, the wind was freshening from the west and with a strong spring tide they should get one.
It was evening before I could enter the inner harbour and berth on the wall. The forecast was unfavourable and I resigned myself to what might be a long wait for a fair wind for my passage west.
“Sheldrake” is a capable yacht, safe in any conditions that I was likely to encounter, but she is small and consequently slow. Padstow, the next comfortable all weather harbour is more than sixty miles distant along an exposed coast with little shelter. This long beat to windward would be taxing. A large yacht strongly crewed could force a windward passage, some of the time punching a foul tide,she would be guaranteed a hard time.
I wandered ashore and after fish and chips and an exploration , spent some time in a quayside pub chatting to a lorry driver. A big, black man from Cardiff, he was an amusing character full of good stories about unfairly notorious “Tiger Bay”, where he was born and still has his home. I know the place, from runs ashore as a sailor, and more recently working there for a little while as a security guard. Despite re development that has levelled the streets of small terraced houses, it remains a closely—knit community. Here Somalis, West Indians, Chinese, Arabs and native Welsh, » almost all the peoples of the world — are represented here and live tolerantly and peacefully together, in civilised neighbourliness, with no nonsense about “rivers of blood”. Most of the older men, the fathers of the community, were merchant seamen, remaining here when paid off, many married local girls. The sea is a great leveller, as is sharing a messdeck or fo‘csle, only very rarely have I met a seaman who was a racist.
The lorry driver is one of those favoured men” who without conventional good looks, nonetheless possess great charm. Like a latter day Othello, he has the girl behind the bar — a pretty blonde half his age — captivated by stories of his travels and escapades.
This early in the season the few holiday makers were retired couples, taking advantage of low season rates. They had all the time in the world to chat and I had some good conversations over the guard rail. One elderly gentleman, I learned, spent most of his working life as a boat builder in the yard at Pill, a little creek near the mouth of the Avon where many of the famous Bristol Channel pilot cutters were built. He talked about his working life with pride and satisfaction. I listened as he described the construction of those vessels, renowned among sailors for their speed, ease of handling, and fine sea keeping qualities in some of the most difficult waters about the British Isles. He cast an approving eye over “Sheldrake’s” lines and gave me some parting advice – never to use “strongers” (a solution of soda and soap) in the bilge — “it will de-nature the wood and corrode the copper fastenings”.
The morning was grey, the forecast discouraging — southerly force four soon becoming westerly five or six . I passed the time walking the cliff top path and called in the coastguard station. The coastguard was,as always, helpful but held out little hope of an early improvement. The weather map showed one depression after another queuing to sweep over the British Isles. This delay was at a bad time for me psychologically, stalled before I was properly under way, and the voyage had developed momentum. I did have the consolation that I was holed up in safety and where there was plenty to entertain me.
I passed another evening in the local yacht club. There, an ancient mariner regaled the company with his recollections. He held local politicians in deep contempt, regarding them all as hopelessly corrupt and self seeking. He went on to tell us about all the dubious harbourside property deals that he remembered. Only the poor and the very rich can slander this freely. His scurrilous denunciations were voiced in colourful waterfront language; he gave a frequent nod and a “scuse me m‘ dear” in the direction of the ladies present, no—one could be offended. He told us that the clubroom where we were sitting was once the sailors” “bethel”, and that.. “there was no cussin yere‘. in them days”, or beer, “der me no”. He brought the past alive as he described the characters who congregated here, puffing at their long Clay pipes and yarning, while they waited for a tide, or for the lookout in the tower to report the arrival of sprats, herring or mackerel in the bay.
It was Thursday before I was able to sail, the wind had moderated albeit temporarily. I made a good fast passage, fishermen were hauling great quantities of mackerel but I was sailing too fast to stream my feathers. At about seven in the evening I anchored off Lundy, in the corner tucked in behind Rat Island. Later that evening I landed, the road uphill to the top of the island is steep and stony. I found myself making frequent halts to catch my breath and to take in the view, broken water swirled and seethed across the sound to Morte Point and to Hartland.
The island’s pub, restaurant, stores, community centre and “parliament” is the “Marisco” tavern and a very friendly and welcoming place its Meals are taken communally around a long table and the food excellent. I spent some time chatting to John, the island’s deputy agent and boatman. He is an amiable character, an ex-petty officer. We talk about old ships and the navy we remembered, when we slept in hammocks, the tot was a daily pleasure and messdecks never quite lost their slight pervasive fragrance of rum.
The island, administered by a trust, is visited by day trippers, but is also a resort for a small number of discriminating people, many are regular visitors who come here year after year, drawn by its solitude, the abundant bird life and a sense of distance from the world. Divers come here too, to explore the wrecks and to observe the marine life in the clear plankton rich waters around the island.
I passed a pleasant evening, but the late night weather forecast was worrying, the wind a strong southerly—force seven, later veering south—west force five. My next port of call, Padstow nearly forty miles distant.
When I awoke strong winds funnelled over Rat Island causing fierce down draughts, I reconciled myself to a day at anchor. Later, I packed some food, filled a flask, landed and spent the day exploring the island. The eastern sheltered side of this granite hump is wild but softened with vegetation, in places it is overgrown with dense thickets of rhododendron, an unwanted introduction, difficult to eradicate, but pretty enough When in flower. Towards the islands‘ northern point sheep and agile feral goats graze among pinnacles of rock. A cliff path winds along the island’s edge offering dizzy prospects of the sea crashing onto a wild boulder strewn shore far below.
The island’s western coast is quite different in character, facing as it does out to the Atlantic, it bears the full force of the frequent gales, what little vegetation there is is seared by the salt laden wind. This is a gaunt,elemental shore.
On the island’s spine atop a slight rise, stands the island’s church, a folly, conceived on a scale absurdly inappropriate to the needs of the islands’ tiny population. Starkly impressive it has a monumental tower bearing a clock face, informing indifferent gulls the time of day. Built of the islands‘ grey granite, its interior is clad in a red engineering brick, stained and discoloured by driven rain and spray. There is a small grave yard in a hollow beside the church, its stones recording among others, the names of those who came here for their health.
The forecast reached its fruition with a southerly gale, stray gusts rounded Rat Island and the smaller islets. The anchorage remained safe, just, but uncomfortable as a swell rolled into the bay. Other yachts arrived seeking shelter — “Escapade”, “Or Mor” and “Yolande” a big ferro ketch from Bristol with children aboard.
The following day the strong winds persisted. “Sheldrake” rolled and pitched at her mooring. A fishing boat appropriately named “Quo Vadis” arriVed and caused some anxiety as she dragged her anchor and drifted out of control between the anchored yachts. Reluctantly I yielded her my place at the mooring buoy, and lay astern of her at the end of two long warps. I was apprehensive and remained alert and watchful, lest a stray gust sends “Sheldrake” crashing into her steel transom. This was a day to just endure, wedged in my bunk, trying to find some distraction in a book, all the time alert for the subtle changes in sound or motion that would indicate something amiss.
It was late evening before the wind and swell eased sufficiently for me to land. I enjoyed a little excitement cresting the steep seas that were breaking on the shingle beach, trying to time my arrival so that the inflatable was carried high on a wavecrest.
Over the bar in the “Marisco” there is a wind speed indicator, the pointer wavered about twenty knots registering frequent gusts to thirty knots and beyond. I chatted to John, he compared the island to a ship, its inhabitants to a ship’s company. The visitors (passengers) a civilised and cultured sort causes few problems. I asked about the fishermen, if they use the tavern, at which the bar maid rolled her eyes expressively. “The fishermen, they’re different, they’re Cornishmen , they‘re rough said John. For several days the depressions rolled in with no respite. Some of the yachts left for destinations that could be made on a reach or a run. My way lay directly upwind and I had no alternative but to wait. I moved and anchored closer inshore where it was marginally more sheltered and took a long time over my breakfast.
Later I landed again to resume my explorations, but this time there was little spring in my step. I was met by the islands agent. Elish, concerned at the lack of news, aware of the weather had contacted the Coastguard who obligingly traced me here. I was able to telephone and reassure her that I was safe.
I was invited aboard “Or Mor” ~ a fine roomy Sea Dog ketch— for a drink, a chat, a listen to the forecast on their radio. They told me that they once sailed a yacht like “Sheldrake” and spoke very highly of her.
The following morning was deceptively quiet, but the forecast again was for strong winds from the south to south-West force, five to six occasionally gale eight. I toyed with the idea of making a run for Appledore or Clovelly but was reluctant to forfeit any wasting. I was not in high spirits, nine days after setting out in fine style and full of optimism, I was barely sixty miles down channel.
Twenty—four hours later there had been some moderation; the forecast now for westerlies force five to six, gusting to
seven. Too strong for the windward haul to Padstow, but fine for a short, fast reach to Clovelly. I weighed and sailed, well reefed, for a while steering east to Clear the tide race that was creating broken seas around Rat Island.
I soon found myself among large seas, great swells built up during the long unbroken spell of strong winds. These waves had crossed the Atlantic steepening and building, but their tops remained intact and though awsome, they posed no threat. “Sheldrake” ran down their slopes in a giddy fashion. From time to time, when we both co-incidentally crested a swell, I caught a glimpse of a fishing boat rolling wildly as the crew hauled pots.
Reaching, “Sheldrake” maintained a steady five knots and in a little over two hours we were in relative calm under the lee of Hartland Point. Two hours of this exuberant sailing had been quite enough, and I was relieved to be able to
anchor off Clovelly beside the lifeboat, until there was water enough in the harbour for me to enter and berth alongside the wall.
More than ready for a change, I enjoyed the bustle and activity. Holiday makers poured in an unending stream down the narrow winding street to the beach and the harbour. By nightfall however, the quay was almost deserted only the tireless anglers remained manning their rods in all weathers.
The fishermen were landing great quantities of spider crabs. In conversation, I expressed some surprise, for I had always considered that these unlovely creatures to be inedible, if not actually poisonous. A fisherman told me that they were destined for France and Spain? “where they will eat anything” He has bravely tried the crabs himself but found them too sweet for his palate. “It’s like having sugar in your tea if you don’t normally take it.” He observed that scores of spider crabs were landed for every lobster and speculated that it would be only a matter of time before these creatures too would be fished out. It will then be necessary to find yet another crustacean or lowly life form to satisfy the European craving for the fruits of the sea, perhaps a lugworm pate. In the meantime, the fishermen are making a respectable, if hard won living.
There was concern among the fishing community at the withdrawal of the lifeboat, that had been permanently stationed here, on grounds of economy, a decision that will inevitably be paid for with lives. A combination of factors: strong tidal streams, headlands and banks with severe races and overfalls, high Atlantic seas and west of Hartland, an exposed shore without shelter or refuge , make this a hazardous coast. The fishermen argue that a substantial powerful lifeboat is needed, one capable of towing a disabled yacht or fishing boat out of trouble.
I have direct experience of Hartland’s tide race, on an earlier voyage in “Sheldrake”. Elish with me, and as on this occasion we had spent some time in Clovelly, waiting for a break in unrelenting westerlies to make a passage to Padstow.
I timed our departure to Clear Hartland Point at or a little past slack water, aware the tides were high springs and the race could be dangerous. It was a grey, cold and uninviting morning. As we cleared the harbour entrance, a returning fisherman reported a “bit of a lump” : he went on to make the
unhelpful but well-meant suggestion that we, “should have left yesterday”.
We were going well on a broad reach for perhaps an hour, standing well out to give Hartland a good offing, when the wind began to veer west. Our progress slowed” we were drawn by a quickening tide inexorably towards the race. Elish was below making tea; I was helming on the port tack, when to my disbelief I heard what sounded like a distant train rumbling over its tracks. I looked about, then as we crested a wave I saw ahead an unbroken line of white breakers which stretched from Hartland Point seawardsy across my entire horizon. Behind the wall of breakers, I could see curious conical waves which seemed to be forming and collapsing with some rapidity.
Retreat was impossible. We could hardly make way enough to beat the tide and for the next three hours it would continue to strengthen. The elderly engine quietly rusting below the cockpit floor could be discounted attempting to coax it into life could be a lengthy and, in the end, futile business. Altering course away from the danger, sailing downwind,
would only postpone the confrontation. There would also be the indignity of meeting the danger stern first.
While I pondered these matters, Elish rose from the cabin bearing mugs of tea. Though reluctant to alarm her, I suggested that she passed up the life jackets and that we put them on n a most unusual request” aboard “Sheldrake”i I
explained the situation9 though by this time she could see for herself. I assured her that “Sheldrake” was a good sea— boat and there was really no danger. I also asked her to pass me up the camera, anticipating getting some good pictures. It is quite difficult to get a really satisfying photograph of a rough sea. This she declined to do, justifying her small mutiny by saying that she thought that I should concentrate on the helming, aware of my tendency to be distracted from practical matters.
We crested a series of steepening seas before they began to tumble and we then found ourselves breaching the wall of breakers. Wild white water boiled over the foredeck and the coach roof, stuff with weight and power but little buoyancy. Elish in her customary position – perched just inside the hatch — ducked and a dollop came over her head into the cockpit. We were then for a little time, how long I could not guess, among the conical heaped up waves. The steep
slopes, aerated a pale green, streaked with white foam, seemed to tower above us in a threatening fashion. For a few moments they were static, hung, poised, defying gravity before its pull caused their sides to first swell then fall leaving the topmost peak to tumble and break” These waves formed one after another in unbroken succession. They were, I should estimate perhaps ten to fifteen feet high, unusually
steep and viewed from the vantage point of the cockpit of a small boat, barely three feet above sea level, awesome enough. There is a painting by the Japanese master Hokusai, that adequately conveys the feeling.
In the depths of the troughs where the wind could exert little pressure on our sails, we all but lost steerage way. Smooth swirling currents and eddies set “Sheldrake’s” bows swinging first one way and then another. I could do little to influence events, I might as well have been taking pictures. I remember feeling apprehensive, speculating on what would be the outcome if one of these waves should actually form under us, bear us aloft and then collapse. For some reason it did not happen, perhaps “Sheldrake’s” own not inconsiderable weight compelled the seas to find a course of less resistance.
Then quite suddenly we were through, the seas while continuing high and steep, taking a more normal form, they ceased to break, and we soon gathered way. Elish, eyes sparkling, said that she found it all exciting, an experience, but one that she was not anxious to repeat.
Although we did not then carry a radio, it was a source of some comfort to us that we were under the eye of the Coastguard in their station on the point. If we should have been overwhelmed and swamped our plight would have been seen and help summoned. Others coming afterwards will be less fortunate and in much greater danger, for the coastguard station on this notoriously dangerous headland has been closed. This despite the protests of the fishing community, and when fishing, sea angling and sailing in the area are fast developing activities.
Anxious to make my next rounding of the Hartland in more settled conditions, I waited secured alongside the wall. I kept myself in condition walking the coast path. This is a magnificent walk, the path plunging deep into the dark wooded coombes and then climbing steeply to the cliff tops. To the south there is a prospect of rolling hills and valleys, to the north a wrinkled crawling sea, flecked ominously white out beyond the lee of the headland.
That evening in the “Red Lion” a young fisherman asked if it was my boat that he saw out at sea . On hearing that it was he questioned my sanity in colourful, colloquial fashion. “Those swells were up to twenty feet high on our echo sounder …”. In fact, “Sheldrake” with her ample keel and displacement hull, the roll effectively damped by the wind in her sails and the pressure of the water on her keel, would have been decidedly more comfortable than their fishing boat, and they were working.
By Friday morning I was anxious to sail, but a look over the harbour wall at the steep broken seas and the dire reports of returning fishermen dissuaded me. By the evening it became calmer and I sailed as soon “Sheldrake” was afloat intending a night passage. My progress proved slow and reluctantly anchored once more off Lundy,
It became a black moonless and starless night, the island hardly Visible. The light on Rat Island was obscured as I groped my way in trying to locate the anchorage, fortunately the lifeboat was on station and her riding lights were a useful guide. Unusually I slept only fitfully, I prepared for the night sail with a cup of strong coffee; the caffiene and the rolling combined to keep me awake. I must have slept though, for I woke startled by bright sunlight. The forecast was good enough, north~west three backing west later and increasingi
I weighed, at long last under way for Padstow. The wind alone would not give me more than three knots. I started the engine and made good progress westwards, remaining well offshore to gain the best benefit from the ebb, then as it turned closed inshore to breast the first of the flood around the headlands and the weaker streams in the bays. In this way I made slow but positive progress uptide.
I always experience a feeling of unease approaching Padstow from the east; there is a submerged rock, the “Roscarrock”, between Rumps Point and the Newland islet, that is difficult to pinpoint. The sea here often takes on an almost sinister appearance a dark inky blue—black .
I anchored for a couple of hours under Stepper Point. By this time the wind had freshened but this is a sheltered spot and the time passed pleasantly enough until there was sufficient water for me to cross the bar and enter the basin.
On a cold wet and windy morning, I took a pile of clothes ashore to the bagwash, shopped to replenish stores, enjoyed simple pleasures, fresh crusty bread and a well filled genuine Cornish pasty. I bought a large cod steak straight off the trawler and for my supper broiled it in the billy can with an onion and black pepper. I told myself it was quite as good as anything I could buy in one of the smart and expensive quayside restaurants. In the pub I palled up with Simon and Michelle, a friendly young couple, setting off, they don’t quite know where, in a handsome wooden sloop. Later a distinctive double—ender secured astern, I resolved to take a closer look at her in the morning.
After midnight and for a considerable time thereafter, there was great excitement in the harbour. A young dolphin about four feet in length put on an energetic and spectacular display. He or she made a series of prodigious leaps in the air, well clear of the surface and landing created a mighty splash and plume of spray. It Clearly and consciously enjoyed creating a spectacle, choosing the most brightly lit area of the harbour for the display.
The following morning the dolphin gave a repeat performance on a falling tide; made an error of judgement and stranded himself on a mudbank. Local fishermen rescued the unfortunate creature and returned it to its element, safely outside the bar.
I fell into conversation with John , owner of the pretty double~ended sloop. He told me that she was built by his cabinet—maker father, she was a work of art, a labour of love, the quality of the joinery and the standard of finish superb. She was based on a design of Harrison Butler but her builder incorporated many ideas of his own. John had sailed “Serena” from Preston, with friends as far as Milford Haven, alone from there. She bore out the sailors axiom that if “a boat looks right, she‘ll go right”.
Simon and Michelle took off for a day‘s fishing. They hoped for a shark, but would be satisfied with anything. Late in the evening they arrived in the pub bearing shopping bags full of fish: cod, pollack, mackerel and some flatties. After a couple of pints they were both too bushed to cook and invited me to prepare and help them to eat their supper. They had a good heavy lidded pan, into this I put some garlic, thinly sliced onion, carrot and a diced potato. I let these sweat a little in some butter then let them simmer in a stock of dry cider before cutting the fish into chunks and adding them to cook for another ten minutes. The resulting stew eaten with crusty bread and the remaining cider was ambrosial.
Simon is of that happy age and disposition that enables him to cheerfully contemplate life as an endless, aimless voyage, a picaresque novel. Michelle seems happy to share his adventure, to a point, but in our conversation, it became clear that she also has a feminine need for roots, a secure place to which she can return. I feel my age, for I too now recognise my need for a home port. Happily, replete, we talked the evening away until fatigue overcame us all.
With a fair forecast, I was able to resume my passage. Closely followed by “Serena”, we cleared the harbour and motored out down the estuary. Progress at first was slow as we punched the last of the incoming flood so that we would have the benefit of the full six hours of west—going stream.
There was a series of steep little waves, like a flight of small stairs across the bar, and breasting these we wet the foredeck, there was then only a slight swell as we altered to clear Trevose Head, passing inside the offwlying rocks and reefs.
A satisfying breeze came over the starboard quarter. I was able to bear the staysail out with the boathook; the wind having once served, spilled over into the genoa/jib, with all her sails filled and pulling “Sheldrake” went well, so nicely balanced there was little for the aut0*helm to do and we tramped along at a steady four and a half knots.
Only slightly heeled I could lie comfortably in the sun on the coach roof keeping a listening watch on Radio Three, first “Die Fledermaus”, then “Bachianas Brasilieros”; seldom did music sound so sweet to me. The sear for weeks dark and brooding, seemed that day a friendly, congenial element. The wake rippled away astern, and as the miles steadily clocked up on the log, the frustrations and disappointments of the past weeks were soon forgotten.
“Serena” slowly overhauled me, only marginally faster she closed, and we chatted for a little while as she was abeam. Two other yachts came up from astern, “Clemene” and a Wharram catamaran. We all turned into the bay at St. Ives and anchored off the pier. It was much less comfortable than when sailing, we all rocked in a swell that rolled into the bay. The others entered the harbour as soon as the tide permitted. I remained outside at anchor, anxious to gain the full advantage of this settled weather, I intended sailing on as soon as I was rested and had a fair tide.
I studied the chart and decided on a night passage. It was a black moonless night but there are good marks and with fixes on the Longships and Pendeen lights I should be able to
round the Longships safely. I weighed and steered a north— westerly course intending to come about to the south—west when the Pendeen light became Visible; this I calculated would see me safely clear of the Carracks and Gurnard Head. I held my course for an hour, but the crucial light did not appear. I called the coastguard who answered from Falmouth. He checked and was able to tell me that visibility at Lands End was poor, down to one or two miles. It would be foolhardy to continue without the aid of a positive fix. Reluctantly I decided to return to St. Ives while there was still water enough for me to enter the harbour.
There is an especial magic about a night sail that is enhanced by being alone. On a dark night such as this there is no visible horizon, the impression is of sailing into a void, the boat a private and self—contained world. Only occasionally are the wave tops visible, caught in the lurid red or green of the navigation lights. It is important to avoid having any bright lights aboard, for “night Vision”
— the enhanced sensitivity to light that develops in darkness — is quickly impaired. I keep a gimballed paraffin lamp burning in the cabin with its wick turned right down5 the merest glimmer of light enough, a reassuring and comforting warmth wafted up through the open hatcthventually the shore lights broke through the encircling dark and I was able to make my way back into Ste Ives and secure astern of Serena”
John came over to take my lines and stayed for a nightcap. It was almost midnight, but my work was not over it would be two more hours before “Sheldrake” grounded and I must see her safely down.
The following morning there were a couple of hours to kill before “Sheldrake” came afloat. I passed the time enjoying a “full house” breakfast in a quayside cafe, while browsing my way through a morning paper. I toured the town’s numerous galleries, shopped, and feeling very refreshed and relaxed from my contact with civilisation and culture, returned to the boat
In company with “Serena” I put out to round Lands End Overnight the sea had become heavier and steeper” Just outside the harbour entrance there was some disturbed water that sent the two yachts pitching and tossing wildly We put on a lively display for the holiday makers who lined the ramparts of the piera cheered and waved us on. Despite the roughish seas, it was a good run down this rugged coast” The Gurnard dark and brooding against a backdrop of granite cliffs. The high moorland with its outcrops of weathered stone had a gaunt silhouette like the backbone of a starved nag. Although “Serena” was quite Close, she was frequently lost to view 3 in the troughs only her masthead was Visible
Lands End is easily identifiable crested as it is with a permanent fringe of Visitors, crowded perilously along the cliff top, trying apparently to out-west one another. Off shore the Longships light stands sentinel over its rocks and between the lighthouse and the mainland the seas break white over the “Shark‘s Fin” and its attendant shoals.
Just beyond Lands End the “Armed Knight” presents an unmistakeable profile and ahead Gwennap Head marks the beginning of the South Coast It was entirely in keeping with the character of this voyage5 that as We turned and for the first time sailed eastwards, so did the wind, the tide also against us. “Serena” and Sheldrake, tracks crossing and re—crossing, motor—sailed and tacked towards Mounts Bay. Fortunately, there was little meat in the tide and once in the bay the tidal streams were weak. We passed Mousehole and Newlyn and finally secured at the foot of the pierhead steps alongside “Clemene”. A spontaneous party ensued as we visited one another’s boats to celebrate the rounding of our own “Cape Horn”.
There was no hurry to sail, and a few hours in which to relax. I strolled ashore, bought fresh bread, a newspaper and made a leisurely breakfast before sailing at eleven. My intention was to round the Lizard and hopefully make Falmouth. At first the going was good This was enjoyable sailing and as I closed St. Michael’s Mountr in the haze its turreted pinnacled profile an illustration from a childs’ story book. As I neared Prussia Cove the wind began to freshen and by the time that Porthleven came abeam it was obvious that I was making little progress against wind and sea. In an attempt to make way I shook out a reef. set the jib, then over~pressed} reset the reef and furled the jib
dropped the staysail, and tried to motor sail all within twenty minutes. It was wet work on the foredeck as green water swirled over the bows. but ‘Sheldrake” is happily well— mannered in these situations and lay comfortably 9 just off the wind.
Under way again “Sheldrake” simply buried her bow at each steep sea and stopped, a drenching shower of spray was flung right aft into the cockpit. I reluctantly had to come to terms with the obvious – I was getting nowhere – and put about. “Serena” passed me? John determindly pushing on; his boat pitching in quite a spectacular way. Some time later we met in Plymouth, he confirmed that he had a hard passage-
Once turned downwind “Sheldrake” surged ahead like a colt aware that it is returning to its stable and scenting the hay. I re—entered the basin, the gates conveniently open. I was directed by the harbour master to secure alongside “Papa Mia”, a large Westerly ketch. Her owner introduced himself as “Porky” Dane, He is a retired airline pilot and an experienced and knowledgeable sailor, who in his younger days raced Folkboats on the East Coast; He has his substantial craft thoughtfully rigged for single—handed sailing; all the sheets and halyards led aft to the cockpit. He proved to be an entertaining character with a store of good stories. He had sailed from Lymington his home port, and planned to spend some time exploring the, to him; unfamiliar coast of Wales. Later we exchanged Charts and passage notes. For an elderly man with an injured back that severely restricted movement this demanding trip was a brave venture.
A young man in his twenties arrived with his girlfriend, they boarded a large powerful yacht and prepared to take her to sea. They were setting off in difficult conditions for the Solent. With a strong wind on the nose it would be a hard motor all the way. I learned that he had owned the boat for just two weeks. It seems very strange to me that such a young chap should own a yacht that would probably cost more than six miners or steelworkers would earn for a year’s work.
I reflect on this to “Porky”, who Solent based was more accustomed than I to mingling with the affluent, saw nothing at all exceptional about the situation. It is to him part of the natural order of things. “Ah, you see these City chaps burn themselves out, they are done for at forty!” “So too are many miners”, I observe, “and they are not taking off in lavish and luxurious yachts, or small ones either”.
The following day the wind remained in the east and I reconciled myself to another day in harbour” It’s a fair wind for “Porky” howeverr and he locked out and sailed off into the West.
A young unemployed Brummie arrived in the Wharram style catamaran that I last saw in St. Ives. Her owner/builder constructed her in Salford beside the Manchester Ship Canal. He told me that he had to give up his job in a factory because of an allerqu to factories? I suspect. Uninhibited by a lack of knowledge of boatwbuilding, young Brum simply and intelligently used what skills and techniques he possessed to put together a tough, practical boat that would take him wherever he wanted to go. He explained to me that he had to move his boat half completed to make way for developers who were building “yuppie” flats, Denied permission to take his boat on the Ship Canal, he took it to Liverpool on a lorry and launched it there.
Somewhere along the way he had acquired ~’Shep”, an amiable and well mannered collie. “Shep”, he told me proved a valuable navigation aid, becoming excited and “pointing whenever he neared land; Brums ensign staff was a scaffold pole, he steered from a plastic garden seat! secured to a slatted floor aft of the cabin , a pile of redundant car
tires on the foredeck were his fenders In the cabin which bore a resemblance to that of Charlie Chaplin’s in The Gold Rush”, seated on a wooden bench beneath a hurricane lamp surrounded by paperbacks and cartons of dog food» he gestured expansively and exclaimed “This is like a yuppyis flat. We talked for a while about our plans, berths and anchorages. ” So far I haven’t found yacht clubs very helpful” Brum confided» “No, mate, you wouldn’t”, I thought to myself, while “Shep” dozed contentedly on his blanket.
The strong winds persisted for several days. There were easterly gales in Portland and Wightg but by Monday the forecast Was that the wind would be fresh from the northheast and then decline in strength, I locked out of the basin as soon as the gate opened at 05.20. My intention was to anchor in one of the coves between Porth Melin and the headland and wait for a fair tide before rounding the Lizard. In the event the tidal streams were weak and making good progress
I persevered. During the slack I stood well out to seaward and then set a course north to benefit from a northeast—going stream off Dodman Point. The wind died away\ just enough left to fill the sails as I motored through a glassy smooth sea. I had hoped to make Plymouth? but it turned out to be too ambitious a destination? and after a long day at sea I gladly put in for Fowey.
Entering a haven as lovely as this is a pleasure to be savoured. I slowed the engine and motored between the headlands. The narrow entrance opens out into a large sheltered natural harbour. As I cruised about looking for a berth or an anchorage, I passed a couple of young men propelling their small yacht with paddles. I offered a tow but they declined with thanks; explaining that they did not want to disturb the peace of the evening with the sound of an engine. I appreciated their sensitivity; apologised for the sound of my own motora explaining that I had made a long passage. I asked about berths and they helpfully directed me to a Visitors‘ pontoon.
I prepared head and stern ropes, put out fenders well in advance and cautiously approached, easing “Sheldrake” along with just steerage way. There were a number of yachts already berthed, as confidently expecting some assistance, I Closed. The owners and their crews were sitting in their cockpits enjoying the calm evening. Although it was obvious that I intended berthing and would have to berth on another boat, no~one made any move to take the lines l which I proffered expectantly.
I soon realised that they were looking through me or around me carefully avoiding any eye contact, intently studying clouds or trees» Feeling like the invisible man, I circled the pontoons vainly seeking some recognition of my existence. I then notice a sour faced woman glaring at me with malignity, attempting to warn me off, her plain but unspoken message; “don’t you dare come alongside our posh new yacht with that old tub”. I brazened her hostility with a broad smile and prepared to berth on her boat whether she liked it or not, when my attention was caught by the crew of a Dutch yacht.
The crew of the “Orion” waved me in, took my lines. Secured, they offered me coffee. In short, observed the basic courtesies that one expects of one‘s fellow men,and extends in return” I was offered cognac to go with the coffee, and in return produced a bottle of rum. We passed a pleasant hour exchanging stories and information. While this Cheerful, spontaneous social event was taking place the smart yachties were talking to no«-one5 not even apparently among themselves.
I speculated on the reasons for their ill manners. I keep myself and my boat in good order. “Sheldrake” is old but she has not lost her looks I polish her brightworka shine her brass scuttles, wash down her decks and generally present a seamanlike appearance. It must be the cap I Later I loosed the Dutchmens lines and wished them a safe and pleasant journey home. The evening light faded first to a golden haze then to cool blue twilight and a chill descended over the haven. I went below, put some Schubert on the Sony, poured a measure of the malt and relaxed in the warm soft flickering glow of the paraffin lamp with a feeling of great contentment.
The morning sun tried to burn through the veil of mist, I vaguely recalled as a child peering through a sheet of thinly beaten cold leaf. I made a good breakfast and with a mug of tea warming my hands, cleared the pontoon and its sleeping occupants, dreaming no doubt of a Paradise where everything was new and posh, the peasants knew their place and stayed there, a bit like ” Howards Way”.
Clear of the estuary I busied myself for a little while, making sail to benefit from a gentle offshore breeze. Just one fisherman up before his mates was out working pots. Sharing this fine morning made comrades of us and we exchanged greetings. He made a familiar gesture spreading palms upward smiling at the sky and at me in appreciation of the beauty of the morning. The breeze and our progress was gentle, “Sheldrake” slipped along at a little more than three knots and given another by an obliging eastgoing tide.
I was utterly content with this progress and the opportunity it gave me to inspect this splendid coast) Pencarrow and Pollperrow passed, I stood outside Looe Island and made across the bay for Rams Head. That point rounded” I found myself in once familiar waters. Entering Plymouth Sound my mind went back to the scores of times that I had made the same passage on the foc’sle of Naval ships, always cable party, never a quarter—deck man. I could almost feel again the coarse tape of the chinstay securing my cap against the wind, and the chill wind through the thin serge of my jumper. I little imagined in those days that I would make the same entrance at the helm of my own — albeit modest ~ command.
I had a number of tasks ahead of me before I could proceed on my journey, and for convenience took a Marina berth close to the Hoe, near the cityecentre. There was a pleasant excitement in being caught up in the bustle of a great city, perceptions sharpened by weeks of being almost continuously alone. It was a pleasure heightened by the awareness that escape was conveniently at hand with a simple casting off of lines.
I spent a pleasant few minutes chatting with a young woman at the bank exchange counter. She asked me about my plansB was interested, asked how I navigated and confessed herself a frustrated travellern All day and every day she counted out pesetasg guildersg drachma and dollars dreaming all the while of the journeys that she longed to make herself.
She thought my voyage in a’Sheldrake a very bold adventure and no doubt began quietly plotting her own escape~ Perhaps it was the sunshine and the unaccustomed warmth but it seemed that morning as if all Plymouth had a smile for me, gladly reciprocated. I relished the simple pleasures that a good city life offers a pint and a pasty in a Barbican pub a slow browse in a book shop that yielded treasures for Sheldrake’s book shelf the Oxford Keats and Eric Newton s Arts of Man”.
While at Clovelly, in an effort to prevent the boat ranging in the swell that rolled into the harbour, I had secured a preventer to the hawse that carried the mainsheets. A weld gave way under the strain and I improvised a repair splicing an eye at each end of a short length of rope using a spare block as a ” traveller’ to which to secure the mainsheet. This arrangement worked so well I decided to make it permanent. I purchased two long galvanised eyebolts, two thimbles and a length of nylon rope and in a couple of hours congenial work? fashioned a good substitute for the hawsea
One of the great advantages of a wooden boat is the relative ease with which repairs like this can be carried out I keep on board some basic woodworking tools copper and galvanised nails and bolts some lengths of timber and marine plywood, together with a coil of galvanised rigging wire, assorted cordage? a sailmaker’s palm and needles am able to Keep my little enterprise self—sufficient and independent”
In the evening my tasks completedr I took a walk down a personal memory lane . Union Street is Plymouth 5 sailor town tolerant tolerated. By day a drab and nondescript enough thoroughfare. At night lit with garish neonr ablast with loud rock music thronged with sailors and those who live off them “Maggie May is alive and well in Union Street In my time the street was physically separated from the rest of the town by a low and unlit railway bridgeJ Passing beyond this frontier was a conscious act. One entered the street accepted its values and took any attendant risks» how a few confused souls find themselves in the street by accident” This apart little had changed over thirty years” The music sounded much the same perhaps more sleazy, some bars openly advertising strippers for the gaze of matelots who needed reminding what a woman looks like” Although the atmosphere was quite good humoured; I could no longer feel at ease there? I had long left all this behind”
That evening in a Barbican pub I got into conversation with a fisherman. He told me that he often used to go down the Street for the entertainment, but does not go there any more. “There‘s some nasty bastards there now”; he observed. He went on to tell a familiar story older than Babylon. about a “respectable sort of chap, oldish, just wanting to get his leg over He gets picked up by this young piece, goes to her placed Before he can get started these blokes burst in and One says that‘s my wife you are messing about with How would you like it to get around that you are messing with young girls?'” The unfortunate ‘John of course was robbed and given a hiding for good measure
With, only a short sail ahead of me I spent the morning dawdling about the Barbicans narrow* streets. I left in the afternoon with Sheldrake fuelled up provisioned and all running repairs completed
It was choppy in the sound again there was lots of activity coastersi warships and their tenders at anchor and scores of yachts beating back and forth across the sound Like a Turner seascape the scene was full of movement interest and incident Off the Mewstone outside the shelter of the breakwater it became positively rough Sheldrake creamed along on an eastward reach as I took her on towards Bigbury Bay? hoping to find something of a lee under the Bolt Taill Beyond this headland however, it continued turbulent out to Bolt Head and all the way to SalcombeF that loveliest 0f harbours. There was ample water over the bar as I lined up the leading marks and passed close under the strangely serrateda contorted cliffs that overhang the entrance.
The crew of “Fluter”, a Services owned Contessa, kindly agreed to let me share their buoy. “Fluter” was manned by a most unlikely crew: three senior cavalry officers n so they described themselves « spurs and nosebags having been left ashore, a corporal in the “Engineers” — who was the skipper – and a young civil servant The cavalry were affectedly Blimpish. They regarded the Civil servant as a dangerous radical, he read the “Guardian . At a conference to determine their next port of call, they over-ruled a suggestion of the corporal’s that their next destination should be Weymouthr that would see them well on their way back to their home port, Gosport. In their plummy ripe accents they condemned that popular resort as.. ” rather down market”. The corporal looked bewildered and overwhelmed by all the rank around him. Nonetheless they seemed amiable enough old chaps, who I was assured took their turn with the washing up They questioned me about my trip were interested and encouraging “Fluter” left early the following morning; saving the Ministry of Defence the harbour dues I was discouraged by
a thick and impenetrable sea fret that limited visibility to a few yards, reluctant to attempt the passage over the bar. I waited supping tea until there was an improvement. When I sailed the high ground about the harbour was still a dark featureless bulk. Prawle Point my last mark as I set out across the broad expanses of Lyme Bay.
From my point of departure off Prawle Point to a position five miles south of Portland Bill is almost fifty—five miles. For most of the way the Dorset coast lay twenty—five miles distant over the northern horizon. Careful navigation is required to safely clear Portland’s notorious tide race without making excessive southingq dead reckoning would not suffice.
I made the decision that during this voyage I would rely upon traditional navigation rather than use electronic means of position finding These systems are becoming inexpensive and popular‘ there is howevera a penalty to be paid their use promotes dependency — time honoured skills are becoming forgotten‘ and a small boat is an uncongenial environment for electronic instruments. There are also aesthetic
considerations there seems a contradiction in owning and sailing a traditional boat and relying on modern equipment for its navigation I have compromised? I have a diesel engine. a pocket calculator and a quartz wristwatch My lightweight Ziess yacht sextant is a pleasure to use, first setting the light filters to suit the conditions, adjusting the arc to the approximate setting and sweeping the sky until the sun is caught dancing in the mirror. Then making first the coarse and the fine adjustments with the micrometer to bring the bottom edge of the sun resting precisely on the horizon — there‘s power! V and by a gentle movement of the knurled adjuster keeping it there for a moment. Not difficult when the sea is calm, around mid—day when the sun‘s movement is slow, much more tricky in the early morning or evening when the sun is low and the alteration in the angle rapid.
My chronometer is an inexpensive quartz wristwatch that gains precisely and consistently a second every five days, easily checked with radio time signals. The scientific calculator that I use permits me to work conveniently in sixtieths, for that is how time and angles are both measured. The approved method for small boat navigation” where the movement would make any single sight unreliable, is to take a series of sights and deckwatch times, averaging these before entering the tables and beginning the calculations. The whole satisfying operation takes only a few minutes\
While on passage I made it my practise to take at least one set of sights each day, determining a position line and then cross checking with a cross bearing fix or a transit. I found that I soon gained speed and accuracy, usually obtaining a position within a half mile of that determined visually.
In fitful and desultory winds, I sailed and motored across the broad open waters of the bay. “Sheldrake” wallowing at first in a swell left over from the recent strong winds. As the sun climbed higher the remnants of the sea fret dispersed and the swell diminished The smooth oily surface of the sea only occasionally rippled by light airs. One or two coasting ships passed byi a small trawler, and then nothing but an empty sear until nearing Portland there was a great deal of naval activity. British and German frigates were exercising, I noted with disapproval the persistence of the “gash bucket” in an environmentally conscious age? the track of some of the ships clearly defined by a trail of rubbish_ some of it in plastic bags.
Portland appeared well down on the port how a faint low silhouette against a rapidly darkening sky. As it came into view it was positively identified by its light, four flashes~ an interval w and another four As I was about to alter course to the north I was diverted A frigate was bearing down upon me and clearly did not intend altering her course. She was joined by a fleet auxiliary and they steered close, parallel courses both vessels carefully synchronising their speed as the frigate took on oil fuel through hoses suspended from derricks. Once a familiar exercise. I kept well clear of these juggernauts before resuming a course that would bring me inshore. The tide was flooding and I relied on its stream to keep me clear of the ” Shambles”, another tide race and a hazard for small craft.
I decided to anchor in Portland‘s harboury rather than trouble to find a berth in Weymouth. I entered the harbour at its northern entrance and as I was looking for a quiet spot well away from the brightly lit warships, a departing yachtsman kindly offered me his buoya I soon made all secure ,hung a paraffin hurricane lamp from the forestay and well satisfied with the days progress, closed the hatch and rested up in the warm lamplit cabin.
Morning brought fresh breezes, clear skies and the slight haze that often precedes a fine day. I had a tide to catch and made an early start, by SIX”thiIty I was clear of the breakwater. The wind was a little north of east on the port bow and I motor sailed until I was around Durlestone Head. This is a fine coast, unfamiliar to me and full of interest. Lulworth Cove opened up invitingly but I resisted the temptation to enter and explore more attractive bays opened toward St4 Albans point, where there was turbulent water offshore. I managed to avoid the worst of it by passing close under the cliffs. To seaward some yachts sailing downwind were having a lively sail, burying their bows at each steep wave. For the next few miles before Durlestone the coast is intricately creviced with caves. Some youngsters were having a great time exploring these in kayaks. Around the head just before Swanage bay there is a tide race, small in area but spectacular as the ebbing tide broke over a submerged ledge where the water shallowed. The breezes still fresh, lifted the spray several feet into the air creating a dramatic effect.
I entered Poole harbour stemming the tide making great way through the water with the wind astern and the engine driving, but making only painfully slowly over the ground; The ferry seemed to come perilously closea passing just ahead of me, but I assumed that the skipper knew what he was about. Once through the narrows and into the harbour there was little current and I followed the buoyed Channel to Pooles town quay,
Berthing was tricky, there was quite a strong current to stem and I had to Winkle “Sheldrake into a narrow space between other boats, as soon as I secured I was joined by “Ophelia . She was OWned by a naval rating about to leave the service; he planned to take her south to the Mediterranean; he had a mate aboard. They are both amusing characters with the jocular, dry humour of the lower deck. A pretty young woman came to collect the harbour dues, the sailors engaged her in banter, chatted her up, offered a cup of tea or anything else she fancied, but they have to pay all the same. They had caught some mackerel and invited me aboard their boat to share it with them. The skipper joked about his boat’s name,” you know what happened to Ophelia I”. They were all ready for a run ashore and kindly invited me to join them, I declined. I couldn‘t stand the pace.
I took a day for rest and recreation. An aunt and an uncle paid me a visit; they should be elderly but are not. They once sailed themselves and seem quite impressed with little “Sheldrake”
A local shopkeeper agreed to let me plug the battery charger for my VHF radio into a socket overnight; it melted” and I had to alter my plans in order to secure a replacement at a Chandlers in Southampton. This was an irritating diversion; I had hoped to simply sail into the Solent at one end and out the other} perhaps anchoring somewhere for the night.
There were few boats about despite its being a fine Sunday morning with the promise of a fine day. With wind and tide in my favour I was soon out of the harbour and enjoying a broad reach right across Poole bay. I sailed north of the Shingles bank and close inshore to Hurst Point and the entrance to the Solent. There the breeze died away and I had to resort to the engine to take “Sheldrake” through eddies and overfalls off the point. Scores of yachts, a white procession, emerged from the Lymington and Beaulieu rivers, spilling out onto the broad open water for a day‘s sailing. The Solent seemed alive with sails. I watched a ‘J” class yacht ghosting along under what seemed an acre of sail and making good way although there was only a breath of wind. Off Fawley, in company with a number of other small yachts and some dinghies, I was “buzzed” by some yobs in a speedboat who quite deliberately swung close to “burn up” the sailing dinghies. Their considerable wake nearly capsised one elderly couple. Then satisfiedg having demonstrated their manhood they roared off in a cloud of exhaust smoke. I reflected how fortunate I was to have my home port in the Bristol Channel, where there are fewer boats and better manners.
A fine spritsail barge was being tacked up Southampton Water, making stately progress. I watched with interest as she “went about, the lee boards being raised and lowered and her headsails being held out to windward, to help her bows slowly but surely come around through the wind.
I found a berth in the “Ocean Village” marina that occupies a redundant dock. Some square-rigged sailing ships were in the process of being restored and enlivened the approach? for marinas are dull places. On this fine Sunday with fair winds and clear blue skies there were few vacant berths; most of the yachts are in the process of being energetically polished, their owners protecting their investments with unguents and chammy leathers. This being the Solentt no one offered to take my lines and there was no conversation, until I meet Denis.
He is an amusing and engaging Character, who ran off to sea for the second time in his life at an age when most people are putting their feet up. Denis is an ex—matelot whose naval career was as undistinguished as my own. Denis had sold up his bungalow and taxi business in Lincoln and now lived aboard his immaculate Iittle yacht “Blue Wave” of Grimsby. He picks up odd jobs as and where he can’t usually crewing for richer men than himselfg who in Denis get a good practical sailor and an amusing companion. Denis has a lively and droll sense of humour and given his precarious life stylet needs it.
I found the chandler out of stock of suitable battery chargers, some energetic telephoning took place on my behalf and I was promised a replacement the next morning. Sceptical‘ nonetheless, I decided to wait, chafing at the delay. I shopped, cleaned ship and chatted to Denis.
That evening on my way ashore for a beer I stopped to investigate a large and impressive dockside building, its double doors opened into a spacious foyer grandiose with murals, sculpture and great hanging chandeliers. A young man
who was polishing the floor put down his mop, glad of the excuse, and told me its history. It seems that this was once a grand hotel used by trans-atlantic passengers in the heyday of the ocean—liner. The rich and privileged who thronged this place were able to step from their Pullman cars into the foyer, and from the hotel be transported the few yards to their luxurious ships, without ever having to soil their shoes on the pavements of the real world. The artificiality of their lives is repellent to me and their passing not worth one seconds nostalgia. Modest comfort is civilised” luxury rots the soul.
I found good fish and chips, a lively pub with music, the pianist had brought along a fan — a life sized dummy — that gazed at his master with an appreciative and rapt expression as the riffs and rills of cool jazz rolled from his fingers.
In the morning I visited first a well-known Chart dealer, the exquisite, decorative young men who staff the establishment gave the impression that my calling so early” before they have completed their toilette, wasa gross an error of taste. Perhaps they are more accustomed to the patronage of Cunard navigators. The place, however, was well stocked and after some browsing I left with the several folders of beautifully printed Dutch Charts over which to pore and speculate.
Predictably the charger for the radio had not arrived. I decided not to waste any more time waiting and to sail. The berthing master of the marina helpfully charged up my radio for me which would suffice until I reached Holland. I am accustomed to sailing without a radio,as a concession to family pressure I agreed to carry one on this my most ambitious cruise. I was also swayed by the instruction in the nautical almanac that yachts wishing to enter Dover ~ a possible port—of—callw , without radio should announce their arrival with signal flags I
I said goodbye to Denisx sailed, and made great progress down Southampton Water and out into the Solentﬁ the wind a northerly force five to six . These are the conditions that “Sheldrake” likes best and under full sail I was bowling along at five and a half, sometimes six knots. I found myself actually passing other yachts, a most infrequent occurrence. Off Portsmouth the wind strengthened, and the water became rough. there was a lot of spry flying and the side decks were permanently submerged. It was time to reef; under shortened sail we still made a respectable and comfortable four knots.
Out in the fairway I was beset and confused by ferries coming and going in all directions at seeming phenomenal speeds. I started the engine to avoid one giant twin~hulled vessel that was hearing down on me. As I luffed up to windward under sail and motor; the exhaust began to emit black smoke, there
was a loss of power, and vibration from the propeller told me that it was fouled. This happened in a most inconvenient place, I studied the chart to decide what best to do. I sailed behind the ” No Mans” fort and then headed inshore for Eastney with the intention to anchor off in sheltered shallow water. Anchored, I was prodding and probing with the boathook, when a young chap arrived on a sailboard. He had on a wetsuit and offered his help. Most grateful not to have to immerse myself in the cold and uninviting water, I
gladly accepted. The propeller was shrinkwwrapped in a plastic bag. It was soon removed and my helper came aboard for a drink and a chat. He turned out to be an R.S.P.C.A. inspector by profession, and has worked in South Wales. He asked about my travels and my plans and later said that talking to me has awakened a sense of adventure and a desire to travel in him too. How many more will I subvert in the course of my voyage?
The delay cost me a lot of time; the wind which had died a little with the evening began to freshen again as I weighed and set off once more to round Selsey Bill. I set a course for the Boulder buoy, with the intention to take the Looe channel; I soon identified its green light right ahead and flashing every two and a half seconds I under estimated the strength of the tide and the speed at which I was being
borne down onto it. The distance rapidly closed, until I suddenly realised that the buoy was right under my bows. I had to put the helm hard over and increase the rev’s to avoid a collision. We passed perilously close and I shuddered to see the buoy’s “bow wave” and the considerable wake that streamed downtiden My intention was to anchor off Selsey village , but first I had to continue east through the Looe Passage until a red light in the village would indicate that I was clear of the Nixon shoal.
Selsey is a messy headland, no clear promontory; here the land and sea merge, the low ground giving way to first a spit of sand and then to shoals and banks that extend for five miles offshore. There is no light tower or prominent mark to guide a small vessel. Rounding Selsey at night or in conditions of poor Visibility demands careful navigation.
I located the red light — difficult to distinguish among the other lights of the Village — and took frequent hearings on it, when it was to the north it would be safe for me to turn and head inshore. As I was making my way in I was disconcerted when my guiding light was suddenly extinguished. I called the coastguard and they confirmed that it should be lit. I closed cautiously until I could just make out the dark shapes of fishing boats at their moorings ahead of me. At last I could anchor for what was left of the night and was able to eat and sleep, secure in that the wind was offshore and the forecast assured me, set to remain so.
I woke to a grey dawn, a Chill north wind and despite it being just one day past mid-summer, Selsey looked and felt like Alaska. I burrowed back into my sleeping bag, content to defer the day’s business until the sun took the chill off the world. The shipping forecast was encouraging, the wind to be a little to the east of north, force four sometimes five. I prepared myself a breakfast of porridge with dark tarry brown sugar and several mugs of hot tea, and so fortified weighed anchor.
I steered east towards Beachy Head with no other plan than to make as much progress as possible. I calculated that with these steady northerly winds I should be able to find a safe anchorage. Conditions were near perfect with the fresh offshore wind, “Sheldrake” goes well on a close reach. We were soon passing Bognor , then Littlehampton, where “Sheldrake” was built half a century ago. I speculated whether some of the men who so conscientiously laboured over her planking, fastening and caulking were still alive and perhaps remembered her? They built a lot of life into her sturdy hull and she seemed good for at least another fifty years.
I was about five miles offshore but had to keep a sharp lookout for buoys marking pots, and worse – nets — with their float lines just below the surface. These are almost invisible in a lop until they are right under the bows. One after another the channel towns came up and receded. The sun reflected from a thousand windows as I came abeam of the hotels of Brighton. The wind then died away and again I had to motor. When about four miles south of Newhaven, quite suddenly and without any warning, there was a ferocious blast of wind from the south. This wind and the tide were in direct opposition and in less that a minute a short steep sea developed. “Sheldrake” pitched wildly, to the accompaniment of cheers from a fishing boat? anglers like taking the piss out of yachtsmen , “yeller wellies”, as they derisively call us.
It became clear that there would be no point in pressing on, with the wind in this quarter there would be no shelter anywhere to the east, Most reluctantly I came about and bolted for the shelter of Newhaven, it was a dead run all the way to the harbour entrance. It was good fast sailing, and it only seemed minutes before we were safely in the harbour. There seemed no alternative to a marina bertha I luffed up beside the pontoon, dropped the sails and secured, helped by some German yachtsmen who took my lines.
The marina manager was a pleasant chap, apologetic about the charges that he must levy. It cost an exorbitant twelve pounds for just one night. There was little in return for this; the ablutions spartan and a considerable distance from the pontoon. One chap from the foredeck of his motorboat
told me that he spends over three thousand pounds a year, “of hard earned money” to keep his boat here, I wondered what he did.
Newhaven is the first portmofmcall for many yachtsmen from Europe and these charges cause justified resentment. British yachtsmen cruising their waters can expect to pay perhaps a quarter of the dues charged here, for facilities that are usually far superior. Newhaven is redeemed by its yacht club, rather plush but welcoming nonetheless. The barman is an amusing and entertaining character; while I was there he was collecting donations in aid of the R.N.L.I. He observed that it is the wealthiest customers who are the tightest. He makes a sport out of coaxing donations from them. One or two refused, while others made a barely decent minimal offering
He confided that the local lads call these characters “German Bankers”q He made an explanatory gesture cupping his right hand, placing forefinger and thumb together and making a rapid movement from his wrist.
Later I found myself in conversation with a young city chap; aggrieved by “hippies”, much in the news at the time. Principally it seemed because they were not paying taxes.
A festering parcel of resentements, his real grievance I suspected, was that they appear to be enjoying freedoms: sexual, sartorial, of movement, from work that he forfeited for security and a career. I suggested that a few years out of the routine of life, spent finding oneself, preferably while still young, was a good idea. We discussed this and he seemed to come to find the notion attractive, viewing me as some sort of aging maritime hippy, I suspect.
Back aboard “Sheldrake” I speculated on the sudden unpredicted wind shift that compelled me to seek shelter Perhaps as the northerly declined the land surface warmed in the sun. The rising air causing an area of low pressure, a partial vacuum waiting to be filled. The northerly wind weakened, until it was no longer able to hold off a latent pent up onshore sea breeze. The situation would be one of increasing tension, until the onshore wind broke like a wave. The wind died away with the nightfall.
With a long passage ahead, I slipped early and by six cleared the harbour and headed seawards towards Beachy head parallel to the cliffs. It was quite calm, only the occasional catspaw ruffled the surface. The cliffs were at first shaded, then the morning sun caught them in their prominences, jutting pillars. crags and buttresses lit up, thrown into sharp relief against deep blue shadows, where the sun had yet to penetrate. A little way along the shore there was a break in the cliffs, a bay that in settled weather would make a most pleasant anchorage. There a village, a cluster of cottages that had a Dickensian look, huddled under the rolling downland. Beyond, the Seven Sisters curved
gracefully and chastely to the headland, their gleaming white chalk unsullied. The lighthouse, stood on its tiny islet, dwarfed by the great cliffs that towered above it diminished its scale and rendered it almost puny.
A channel crossing is not a simple matter of setting a course and sailing. Much of the seashorne traffic between the ports of northern Europe and the rest of the world passes through this relatively narrow and constricted waterway. The strong tidal streams, shoals, frequent mists and sea frets, that are features of these waters, have a potential for disaster. Some of these ships are large, heavily laden and with a very restricted capacity for manoeuvre. Their considerable bulk is being propelled at speeds up to twenty knotsj and they do not have brakes.
Disaster is avoided by careful regulation, east and west bound traffic move in their own defined and separated lanes. A watch is maintained by the Coastguard who will prosecute those who put themSelves or others at risk by failing to observe the rules. The regulations for yachts and_ other small craft making a crossing are clear and unequivocal. The traffic lanes should be crossed as nearly as possible at a right angle, The practice is less simple. Every small boat skipper soon realises that where a boat is pointing is not necessarily where she is going. Wind and tide can exert as great or greater effect on the course actually made, as the boat’s own sails or engine. A yacht may well steer an impeccable course at a right angle to the traffic lane, and yet a radar track could show that she was crossing obliquely.
Despite this a course set at a right angle will, in the normal course of events, take a boat across in the shortest time. It will also have the advantage of presenting its largest profile to a lookout, and make it easier for him to determine her heading;
It was with these considerations in mind that I decided to make my crossing from Beachy Head. Steering in a south— easterly direction, until safely in the inshore traffic zone, on the French side of the Channel, from there setting a course directly for Boulogne. The alternative, following the English coast to Dover or Folkestone would entail a lengthy passage along an exposed coast As the passage notes on the Stanford chart succinctly put it, “The English coast between Selsey Bill and Dover is very exposed to strong winds from the southeast to southwest, and there is little natural shelter, most of the harbours being inaccessible in strong onshore winds.
The English coast was soon swallowed up on the morning haze, and the Royal Sovereign lightship away to port remained invisible. Here still out of the traffic lanes I could afford to relax and let the autohelm and engine do the work. When I reached the shipping lane where a greater degree of Vigilance was called for, there was a surprising lack of traffic. For hours it seemed as if I had the Channel to
myself, I calculated that the east going tidal stream should set me down near the Bassurelle buoy. When my calculations and dead reckoning told me that it should be in view I sharpened my lookout. I took a sunsight» and established a position line that told me that I was in the right place. I took another sweep with the binoculars, and there was the buoy. perhaps half a mile distant all but lost in a blaze of sunlight reflected from the seal
Then a procession of ships came into view; they loomed up, and closed with startling speed. First a salt—stained and rust streaked Soviet freighter, then a huge car transporter; not like a ship at all, simply a rectangular box barely modified at its forefoot and stern. Other ships followed; I altered course and steered parallel, but to the north of the eastbound lane, awaiting an opportunity to cross safely.
From my leaving Beachy Head the sea had been quite calm, just a vestige of a swell giving ‘Sheldrake” a gentle motion. At about five in the afternoona the sails fluttered and filled. The surface of the sea broke into wavelets, and then into a lively chop as the wind rapidly increased in strength backing from south to north—east as it freshened. At first I thought that this was to be a re—enactment of yesterday’s sudden onshore breeze. It soon became clear that this was a more significant change of weather. A dark grey cloud, drawn like a curtain, divided the sky from north to south” and from horizon to horizon. To the west of the divide all remained calm and sunlit, to the east of the division, overcast. brooding and threatening. I speculated that the unsettled weather the B.B.C. forecast had predicted for the German Bight was making its way south.
As the wind continued to strengthen against a north going tide the sea quickly built up. I took advantage of a break in the shipping to reach quickly across the traffic lane. The coast of France, previously shrouded in haze, was revealed, a dark featureless shadow. With the tide in my favour I motor~sailed to windward, making good if wet progress. The engine was quietly purring, the auto~helm steering and I was able to sit in the comfort and security of the hatchway, ducking the occasional shower of spray thrown back from the bows, well satisfied and confident in my little boats capacity to handle anything that was flung at her.
The harbour was difficult to distinguish against the dark shadows, but I identified the north cardinal Vergoyer buoy and set a course to the northeast. The entrance was identified for me by a departing ferry, and I was soon passing between its high portals. In the sheltered water inside, I hoisted flag “Q” to fly beside the tricolour of France and the dark blue pennant of my own Club.
I found a berth beside Banjo”, a beamy Maurice Griffiths Bawley and a fine family cruiser. I had logged sixty seven miles since leaving Newhaven, just fifteen hours ago, an average speed of almost four and a half knows. I deferred any exploration of the town until the following day, just heated a can of soup, poured a generous dram of Mary‘s malt and rested in the warm glow of the lamps While the wind, now considerably freshened, howled impotently in the rigging.
This was a day to rest and adjust to my new surroundings. I watched for a while the activity of the harbour ; the crews of the English yachts were labouring to load their boats with beer. The allowance is a generous eight crates per person. Once this cargo was stowed some of the smaller yachts had perilously little freeboard. I wished them a calm passage. The Customs seemed disinterested in me, and after a decent interval I landed. I found the bustle of this busy port
confusing; it was years since I was last in France, After a little futile wandering about, confused by the crowds, the language; and the money I retreated for a while to “Sheldrake’s” cabin, deciding that I would cope better when I had caught up on some sleep.
When I woke the tide had ebbed ; the harbour emptied except for the river Lianne, a noisome black drain, its stench pervaded the whole waterfront. I landeda and rested coped better. The town seemed full of English school children. They were uninhibitedly practising their halting French on the patient and amused citizens of Boulogne, well accustomed to these invasions. There were some Asian girls, who were very animated? enjoying an unaccustomed freedom: their eyes sparking, their smiles broad and infectious.
I first shoppedg and then explored Boulogne’s old town. This is dominated by the cathedral of Notre Dame; like the smaller church on far off Lundy, this is the legacy of another obsessed priest. This however is a “folie de grandeur” on an extravagant scale. Built in the mid—nineteenth century in a gallic Romanesque style. Sadly: the construction does not match the conception5 it is hopelessly jerry—built. The stucco collapsing to reveal decaying brickwork. A sorry attempt to revive the art of the fresco is a failure; the pigments faded or darkenedS while the supporting plaster falling away in slabs. The surrounding city walls are much more substantial and durable. I walked around them and enjoyed the broad prospects of sea and city.
The owner of “Banjo”, who regularly makes the beer—run, recommended that I eat in the old town, where there are a number of small restaurants. I made a bad choice; my first meal in France, which should have been memorable was a disappointment. The proprietor of the cafe was oily and ingratiating, the meal ~ a meagre portion of skate in a butter sauce with a scrappy salad n served with a flourish that it did not deserve. It was also obvious that the French
customers were getting much better deal. I lacked the command of language and the energy to make an appropriate complaint and resolved to be more discriminating in the future.
The following morning I left early to take advantage of the north going tide. The wind a fresh northerly, and outside the shelter of the harbour it was rough, but manageable. I speculated that once around Cap Griz Nez I would be able to bring “Sheldrake” around on a close reach, the turning tide would no longer confront the wind directly, and the going should get easier. Off the Cap I found myself among overfalls, the sea became wild and confused, and the tide turned and ran against me. I considered turning back and perhaps anchoring inshore, wherever I could find some shelter.
The situation was resolved for me, when to my horror I looked below and saw a foot of seawater sloshing about over the floors. I backed the staysail and hove—to while I investigated. My first fear and anxiety was that in the pounding that “Sheldrake has been taking she may have sprung a plank, or caulking may have been forced through a seam. I first checked the valves of the sea toilet; and to my relief found the trouble there. I had neglected to properly close the valve, the pressure in the waste pipe as “Sheldrake” plunged into the seas had forced the hose from its seating. The jubilee clip securing the pipe that I had assumed to be stainless and painted) was in fact rusted and useless. The valve safely closed, I was able to begin the long task of pumping “Sheldrake” free of her burden.
The tide had by this time set me down several miles back towards Boulogne. I accepted defeat for the day as my hard fought for miles were forfeited. Set downwind ‘Sheldrake” hared off, little hampered by the weight of water remaining in her bilges.
That evening by way of compensation I ate splendidly. I chose an unpretentious “self—service” cafeteria that was being well patronised by working class families, a good sign. I enjoyed a large tomato stuffed with erabmeat, a generous plate of Boef Bourgoine with half a bottle of wine: and finished with an apricot tart, coffee and a Calvados. Replete, restored and refreshed, I returned to “Sheldrake”, ready for another crack at Cap Griz Nez in the morning.
In the restaurant I took the opportunity to study the television weather chart. It seemed that this part of Europe was at the confluence of two weather systems, the strong northerlies we were experiencing funnelling between them, a pattern that looked as if it will persist for some time
Back aboard as I wrote up my journal the yachts rocked at the pontoons, a swell rolled into the harbour, and the rain rattled on ’Sheldrake’s” decks. I was warm and snug in the cabin; I poured the remaining whisky, put “The Magic Flute” into the Sonys my preferred music for these occasions, and just let the waves of fatigue roll over me until I succumbed.
Once more I sailed early. Slipping at about seven thirtya to retrace my course to the Cap. Conditions were if anything a little worse , the wind a regular five, gusting six, on the bow. It was impossible to make much headway through the water. Sails and engine together just giving me some steerage wayD while the tide set me down towards the Cap. Once more off the headland the seas were steep, high and sometimes breaking The sea was turbid, a curious cloudy opalescent green, from limestone in suspension. I was reminded that this is the “Cote Opale”.
Once around the Cap it all became a little easier. “Sheldrake” goes well on a Close reach. and the sailing was bracing. I found myself crossing an attractive bay; there was a small neat holiday resort backed by gentle wooded hills. As I was buffeted about, I reflected that this would be good rambling country There were a few fishing boats of a curious design at sea, not unlike the Flamborough cobles that I remembered from my childhood. They have a similar tumblehome, and a high freeboard that gives them a curious high waisted appearance” These craft have evolved to suit local conditions, the high gunwales over which the fishermen can safely lean, reassuring while working pots or nets in the steep broken seas that are a feature of this coast.
Bernard Leach described how he was once moved, holding in his hand a simple but exquisite rice bowl, by the realisation that such perfect form could not result from the labour of a single individual” however giftedt but could come only as a result of a tradition, the refinement by generations of craftsmen. It is the same with boats. The current notion that good design and fitness for purpose spring from the drawing board of an innovative ‘genius‘, usually proves a fallacy, cultivated by those who market designs and profit from changes in fashion, helped by the yachting press. “Sheldrake” aware of her long workboat ancestry smugly agreed.
There was more good country as I neared Cap Blane Nez, high undulating downland, sheep grazing on the topsg the lower slopes a patch work of fields. Once around this second headlandr the approach to Calais is straightforward. There were more steep confused seas. and again the same curious opalescence where the waves were caught in shafts of sunlight. A chap in a small dinghy, little more than a surfboard with a sail, came out and disported around “Sheldrake” surfing and planing from crest to crest. It was a busy day for ferry traffic and I had to wait to enter . I berthed beside a tug in the outer harbour until the gates opened, and I was able to move to the comfort and security of the inner basin.
The last few days must have been harder on me than I felt — I had a sore throat and swollen glands in my neck — I resolved to take things easy for a little while and get as much rest as possible. I took a bundle of washing to the launderette, where I could sit and read in comfort and warmth and enjoy the sensation of putting on warm, dry clothes.
In the neighbourhood launderette a drunk, florid faced, declamatory, was holding forth to a captive audience of nervous but amused housewives. The source of the man’s rage a dryer that was out of order and causing him some delay. He launched into wild and extravagant denunciations of — in turn — the proprietor of the establishment, the government of the day, the E.E.C. and the whole capitalist system with Gallic eloquence. He continued his tirade tirelessly until the women, becoming anxious to see him on his way, dried and folded his clothes for him. I was astonished when he left and got into a small car, which he started and drove away unsteadily with an unnatural studied deliberation.
When I was rested enough to enjoy the place, I found Calais a most pleasant town, good for provisioning, a lively market, with specialist cheese stalls. In the Chandlers I bought some fenders, and chatted for a while to the young couple who ran the place. The French are much more gregarious than ourselves and find it difficult to understand why anyone in their right mind should want to make a voyage on their own. I told them about my misadventure off Cap Griz Nez and they generously made me a present of two jubilee clips for the toilet hose.
I had a good social life in Calais with a round of visits. An elderly couple, an English yachtsman and his Belgian wife called on me; long ago they had a boat like “Sheldrake”. They set in the cabin, gazed about, almost visibly reviving memories, afterwards they entertained me aboard their fine motor yacht. I was moored beside the yacht “Swankebast” of Lelystadt. Her owner, a doctor, kindly made me the very generous offer of some Dutch charts, which I declined with thanks- having them already—.
The forecast the following day was fair ; the wind to be northerly, force three to four. That would do me very well, on a close reach I should comfortably make Nieuwport or even Ostend. I sailed eastwards, comfortably coasting with only a slight sea. There was little to see before the great steelworks at Dunkerque,impressive in a sombre way, grey against a darker grey sky,belching great clouds of black smoke and white steam. Dunkerque proved very different from my imaginings, schooled by stiIl remembered photographs in Picture Post”, of groups of soldiers sheltering among the dunes, or wading in columns far out into the shallow sea, awaiting their turn for a boat home.
For several hours this nondescript coast slipped by, grey and almost featureless. Nieuwport came abeami but by the time that I had picked out the piers that mark the entrance to its harbour I was swept past by the tide. Ostend loomed ups the port having a busy day, and I had to tack back and forth for almost an hour; before the pierhead signals indicated that it was safe for me to enters
I motored up the long fairway between the piers and turned into the basin of the North Sea Yacht Club_ I had to berth ‘bows to” the pontoon a manoeuvre unfamiliar to me, but as I was to learn common in the crowded yacht harbours of Europe! I slipped a line through the ring atop a buoy to hold off my stern, and paid out until my bows were just near enough for me to use the bowsprit as a gangplankx stepped off and made fast.
A large German ketch was moored nearby. Its owner invited me aboard for a drink. “Hans”? I will call him, keeps his yacht in Dusseldorf two hundred miles from the sea on the Rhine. He motors down for his summer holiday? and then negotiates a tow back upriver with a bargemaster ~ a formidable journey in both directions. His yacht is luxuriously fitted outi and expensively equipped. One corner of the spacious saloon is entirely given over to electronic gadgetry. As we talked coloured lights blinked and flashed, an impressive instrument bleeped, chattered and emitted paper like ectoplasm. This bore a wealth of navigational data, a buoy off Teneriffe has lost its topmark, there is an unmarked wreck in the approaches to Goole and the like.
Hans, like a seagoing sorcerer s apprentice? seemed in danger of being overwhelmed. The paper spewed out relentlessly. A waste basket was filled, emptied and quickly filled again. Probably ninety nine point nine per cent of the information fed by this instrument is irrelevant, but there’s the rub, switch it off, and the one item that would justify the huge expense of such a device could be lost
Hans clearly enjoys his yacht much of his pleasure derived from owning and using its equipment. To each his own. In my view_ there are very real dangers latent in this approach to sailing The sailor who depends upon instruments blunts his own sensibilities Relying upon information, rather than upon observation he is deprived of developing sea sense” an intuition and awareness which heightens our enjoyment? but also warns us when something is about to go wrong.
There are yachtsmen, wealthy men, concerned to protect their substantial investments, who simply do not have the time to acquire a sailor‘s knowledge and skills. They compensate by attempting to buy safety and security. Any problem can be solved in advance, if you throw enough money at it,is their naive belief. They are encouraged by the persuasive salesmen of a large and lucrative marine equipment industry. When things go wrong~ as they inevitably do? there is always the equipment to take the blame”
I had an idle morning waiting for the west—going stream to weaken” There was only a catspaw of wind and I motored in company with perhaps a dozen other yachts making the same passage. This is a dreary coastline in the haze the clumps of tower blocks have the regularity of castellations Blankenberghe from the sea is simply a rectangular mass not unlike a nuclear power station. Slender cranes working about its peripheryg steadily extending its bulk. A new wall of concrete is being constructed behind the crumbling remains of Hitler’s less sinister, but hardly more attractive
As I passed the moles of Zeebrugeu the dunes of Walcheren showed faintly white, like distant cliffs, on the port bow. Gradually the broad estuary of the Scheldt opened ahead and to starboard. A northerly breeze freshened and I was able to sail, making a little over three knots Like a Dutch marine painting, the Scheldt was full of interest, I counted no less than fifteen substantial ships at anchor awaiting a fair tide for the passage upriver to Antwerp. There were a number of tankers, ugly specialist freighters, and one large passenger liner. As I crossed the Scheldt the tide began to run against me at first tentatively, but soon gathering force as if the great volume of water pent in the estuary was eager to rejoin the North Sea.
Being set down by the strengthening tide it was necessary to start the engine. Off Flushing I found myself motoring through a small Sargasso of floating rubbish. I quickly slipped the engine out of gear to stop the propeller‘s rotation but too late to avoid a fouling, The engine began to vibrate in an ominous way and black smoke belched from the exhaust. It could hardly have happened at worse time and place‘ There was a real danger that the fast ebbing tide would set “Sheldrake down into the intricate shoals and sandbanks that stretch between Flushing and Westkapelle The chart bears an ominous warning — “Navigation in this area without reference to a large scale Chart is not recommended”. Too close to the fairway and shipping to safely anchor, I had no alternative but to proceed. I slowed the engine until I was just making way, and closed inshore as much as I dared to avoid the strength of the stream. Painfully slowly” I gained ground, until I could ease “Sheldrake” into the still water of the Buitenhaven Just outside the lock gates I stopped the engine and probed with the boathookw trying to get a purchase on the obstruction As I was doing so some
Belgian lads, crew of a tug, who were swimming came over to help. One dived and soon broke surface holding a “bird’s nest” of plastic tape; scraps of fishing net and weed. I passed over a half full bottle of whiskya Delightedg he swam back to the tug: bearing it aloft in triumph
The lock—keeper had been watching the activity and as soon as I was free and motoring, opened the lock gates for me. The lock seemed vast” and Sheldrake” tiny The rise however was only a few feet and in minutes the gates opened and we were in the inner harbour” It was a strange feeling for weeks our progresss or lack of itz had been determined by wind and tide. We had been subject to natural forces and their rhythms. Nowﬁ like the rest of the modern world we will be governed by the clock,
There is a small Crowded yacht haven just inside the harbour” I found a berth” booked in and made my way ashore to clear customs and officially enter the Netherlands The officials were cheerful and helpful young men” the formalities quickly completed they wished me a good trip”
I wandered into the town and changed some money in a bar, they gave the full rate There I soon found myself in conversation with a former seaman,about my own age, he spoke good “Geordie” english having spent many years working on tugs and dredgers in the north—east Like so many others, he was a victim of “flags of conveniencer, a device by which profit hungry shipowners bypass agreements with seamen‘s unions, crewing their ships with cheap labour from poor third world countries. An added bonus? they are able to use officers with very dubious qualifications, Safety standards are much less rigorous than those of traditional sea faring nations
Today, the old sailor was cheerfully celebrating his birthday. He told me that he has worked in a factory, but couldn‘t settle to it. There is a job he would love, to work on —a bunkering barge a sort of canal~side filling station. “That job would suit me fine”,he said wistfully longing for green water and the passage of boats and barges. I wished him luck and bought him a birthday drink. His womanl raucous as a parrot, loudly laid claim to one too. Dutchmen start work early, and I was wakened by barge traffic? the wash sending “Sheldrake” gently rolling. I soon slipped my lines and followed a large barge through the bridges to Middleburg. It was a most enjoyable sensation, slipping along this bucolic waterway under the gentle incurious gaze of cows from the canvas of Albert Cuyp.
I stopped at Middleburg just long enough to shop for fresh bread and milkﬁ and to fill the tank with diesel. I then continued north and locked out of the canal into the Versemeer. Once a tidal waterway part of the huge delta of the Scheldt this Versemeer has been dammed at its seaward end. Still slightly salt? I tasted? but tideless. The once turbid water calm and clear. The many exposed shoals and sandbanks have been grassed and planted with trees and shrubs, small young willows, hazels, maples, and oaks. Beautiful now, when these trees have grown and matured this will be a ravishing landscapem
The extensive reedbeds are a haven and a refuge for thousands of birds: herons; grebes, gulls and everywhere the little ubiquitous Dutch duck multicoloured from misegenation. Most of the islets have wooden jetties or landing placesa the only restriction is that no visitor may stay longer than twenty—four hours . On the larger islands there are broad pathways through the plantations, brick hearths have been built for barbecues. The whole project is impeccably maintained and nowhere abused or misused A generous and imaginative investment has been made to give the people of this crowded little country access to air, light and water, without any taint 0f commercialism.
As I threaded my way through the islets? the sky blackened and a drenching downpour whitened the surface of the meere. “Sheldrake‘s” wooden topsides had opened up in the short spell of warm dry weather, and trickles of water found their way into the cabin. I decided to call it a day and get a cover over her. I moored for the night at a diminutive islet, perhaps ten metres wide and a hundred in length. There were some small shrubby trees, tall grass and reeds. The islet one of a group that border a small lagoon it is home to swans and cygnetsa neat little waders and a delicate gull with a fine turned down bill.
When I landed some of the waterfowl became agitatedn and I saw incredibly small fledglings mere flecks of down being schooled, introduced to their element and given their first swim. I quietly retreated to the boat and left them to their peace. I watched from the cockpit — as so often after rain~ the sky cleared brilliantly and in the last rays of the sunlight this land and waterscape took on a quiet tranquil beauty”
With no tide to catch I made a leisurely breakfasttand sailed out onto the meere. There was a fair and gentle breeze, sufficient to get “Sheldrake” slipping along at a steady three and a half knots. I was pleased that I did not have to disturb the peace by starting the engine. My way, part buoyed and part staked out with withies, lay between more islets and ready expanses of shallow water. Huge flocks of gulls were wheeling and crying” The North Beveland shore to the south is mainly wooded and apparently deserted. Here the breeze began to freshen, gave me another half knot, and a very satisfying broad reach. Off Kortgene there was some activity: yachts detaching themselves from the forest of masts and emerging out onto the meere. I followed them to the Zandkreeksluis and passed through looks into the Oosterschelde.
The contrast was stark, this is a broad and bracing waterway, still tidals out to the west a long slender road bridge connects what were once the islands oi Noord Beveland and Duiveland. Further west a great dyke was under construction that will tame this tidal branch of the delta. The Oosterschelde can be spiteful, but that day it was good humoured. I took the northern passage through the Engelsche Vaarweater; then east into the Keeten. Like all Dutch waterways, the buoyage is thorough,sensible insurance in these channels that carry a huge volume of commercial traffic”
By the time that I reached the Mastgat the wind had freshened considerably. “Sheldrake”, still ~under full sail burying her lee rail and making a wet five knots through short steep seas. I met first a fleet of fine modern yachts, evidently racing and going Well to windward. Then a truly splendid sight, perhaps a score of large beamy traditional boats thrashing to windward? their bluff bows sending clouds of spray flying. I marvelled that these seeming Clumsy lumpish craft could sail so well, point so high. They were rigged as gaff cutters, each with a formidable area of canvas, a vast mainsail, staysaill jib and flying jib streamed from a long bowsprit. Below each rounded how was a huge tumbling bow— wave.
They were making perhaps ten knots My speed was half of that and they were soon far astern. I rounded into the Krammer, where there was yet another sluice to negotiate before the Volkerakl Securing to the waiting pier was quite difficult in the teeth of the wind that threatened to drive us into the lock gates. The sky was rapidly darkening and rain squalls came with a blustery freshening wind. I helped a Dutchman who arrived in a small pretty yacht built on traditional lines, a much smaller version of the large boats that so impressed me in the Mastgat. We both took the opportunity to reef right down? I secured the mainsail to its boom and left just the staysail rigged. There was a long delay inside the lock, the Dutchman explained that they were exchanging the salt water for fresh before opening the lock gates.
Out into the Volkerak conditions quickly worsened. As we rounded into the Noord Volkerak the wind that had now reached storm force whipped up the surface into an angry maelstrom. Even the modest staysail was really too large for comfort, and I regretted not exchanging it for the smaller, stronger storm jib. I had the engine ticking over for safetya but there was no need to put it into gear as “Sheldrake” surged through the steep seas under staysail alone. The buoyed fairway narrowed, the buoys became difficult to locate in the deteriorating light and the tumult of white water. The waves were perhaps a metre high, but their crests were less than “Sheldrake‘s” length apart. I was drenched in spray blown back from the hows. it was hard to see through the moisture filled air with stinging eyes. I then found myself among a seeming unbroken line of huge barges, travelling in both directions, for this is the main route for commercial traffic between Rotterdam and Antwerp.
Outside the buoyed fairway the water shoals rapidly to perhaps a metre. I was aware that if I strayed outside the channel “Sheldrake” could ground in the troughs between the waves; lift and ground again, perhaps broaching and filling. I had no alternative but to remain in the channel. where the giant barges were imperturbably butting their way through the seas, Sending great sheets of spray aft to the bridge.
In these conditions with so much flying spray, it would be difficult to distinguish the small echo of a yachts radar reflector among the clutter on a screen. I saw a small haven to port and tried to come about, but I found that I could make no progress to windward I resumed my downwind passage, dodging the barges, but now also concerned with the problem of entering and securing in the lock. With her substantial spars and rigging “Sheldrake” could make more than three knots downwind, without sail She has only limited power and manoeuvrability astern. she was going to be a handful.
As I was weighing these concerns, I was surprised to see the small Dutch yacht9 perhaps two hundred yards ahead of me, make a ninety degree turn towards the bank. I checked the chart and saw that he was making for the little port of Ooltgensplaat. There seemed to be plenty of water in the channel, and I decided to follow him in. There were some sluice gates, fortunately open, and a short stretch of canal. Once inside all was calm and tranquil as I motored into the small harbour. The Dutchman came over to take my lines; his boat with its weight and raked bows, was better suited to these waters than “Sheldrake”, but like myself, he was clearly relieved to be secure in the harbour.
Like most of the small towns in the delta, Ooltgensplaat was once a fishing port: Its small harbour is now, however, given over to pleasure craft, there were many fine comfortable Dutch barge yachts with gleaming brass and varnish. The town was a pleasant enough place to spend a night. The narrow cobbled streets wind between small but attractive town houses. There is little in the way of night life. The Dutch are not the most gregarious of people; they seem reluctant to leave their cosy domestic interiors — glimpsed through net curtains- for a pub or club.
In the morning the fragrance of baking bread wafted over the harbour. I followed the scent upwind and joined a queue of housewives waiting for the baker’s to open. Although it was quite early stall holders were already at work in a small street market. There was a fine display of fruit and vegetablesﬂ cheeses, meat and fish. Provisioning was pleasantly and quickly completed. After a substantial breakfast of hot rolls and a Jaffa orange, I made a leisurely start.
The Volkerak was still unsettled, dark , brooding, sullen, as if hungover from its riot of the previous day. It is only a short distance to the sluice gates that open into the Noord Hollandsche Diep. This once more is salt tidal water; there are shoals and sand bars, but the buoyage is more than adequate and supplemented by withies that stake out the middle grounds. Once past the picturesque old fortified town of Willemstadt, the southern shore of the Diep is mainly industrial. As on so many of these waterways, there is a strange juxtaposition of industry and wilderness, tank farms and bird sanctuaries side by side, in a carefully managed landscape.
The northern shore is pleasantly wooded. It is along this that I sailed, away from the commercial shipping following a meandering line of withies. To the east the way seemed blocked by a great suspension bridge, but just before it is reached there is an opening to a smaller canal3 the Dordtsche Kil, a bleak featureless stretch of water that leads on into the Dude Maas. This in contrast is broad, expansive and impressive. The shores lined with shipyards, engineers, shipbreakers, repairers and scrapyards. Much of the activity is concerned with the fleets of barges and specialised craft that crowd these inland waters.
These vessels, flying the ensigns of many lands, form an international communitye Home is where the boat is, and that could be anywhere, from Basle to the Baltic. There are nice domestic touches, window boxes of geraniums line the wheelhouses, the family wash flutters in the breeze, and often a small family car sits atop the cabin with a davit and a winch, so that it can be put ashore for a Sunday jaunt. Few ships can be so meticulously maintained, at each halt, out comes the chipping hammer, wire brush and paint pot, to protect the family‘s investment from the insidious erosion of rust.
Ahead the massive bridge of Dordrecht barred my way. The almanac told me that it would not open until the following day. I headed westwards along the Maas, in search of a berth. It was necessary to find a sheltered place, the great ocean going ships that use this waterway send a prodigious wash curling and breaking along the banks. Puttershoek looked a possibility, but its tiny harbour was almost filled by two large traditional sailing barges. I saw* from the chart that there is a small creek just before the harbour. I searched out its entrance, hidden among reeds. There was barely room for me between the small boats that lined each bank, and my echo sounder showed little water under my keel as I cautiously made my way in.
A young man aboard one of the boats directed me to a visitors’ pontoon, and I was soon safely secured for the night. It was a pleasing rural setting with a traditional windmill set among fields. The evening sun cast long shadows, and sheep and cows came down to the waters’ edge to look at this new arrival. “Sheldrake”, small, but with a purposeful seagoing look about her, seemed out of place and incongruous among these inland boats with high freeboard and large windowed cabins.
A pleasant young couple invited me aboard their motor cruiser. They had fitted it out themselves and it was their pride and joy. Pete is a fitter at a nearby sugar mill; his wife Eva also works there. They explained that they lived on a large, crowded housing estate and in the evenings they like nothing so much as to just come down to the boat to rest and relax.
I invited them aboard “Sheldrake”. They marvelled that I had travelled so far in such a small boat. They told me that mine is the first British yacht to visit Puttershoek ; they had a German here once. We chatted well into the night and I enjoyed the company of this pleasant, warm hearted couple. Before they left Pete made me a present of an A.N.W.B. map of the waterways ahead. a most useful gift. Eva placed a warm hand on each side of my face and gave me a smacking great kiss, I was touched.
I rose early to make the first opening of the Dordrecht bridge. Once again out of the Maas it turned out to be a wild and blustery morning, there was a decided lop on the river. I had to wait for the bridge to opens in company with a large Dutch ketch; the green light showed, accompanied by a red.
Upriver with the right of way, who would dispute it? There approached a formidable wall of black steel. Huge rectangular barges, deeply laden, pushed by a powerful tug were ploughing their way downstream, the bow~wave was prodigious. The Dutchman, experienced in such matters, sheered off into midstream. I was reluctant to cross the bows of this juggernaut, and did technically the correct thing and waited beside a wooden quay on the right bank‘ The barges and their tug passed about ten metres clear of my port side. The wash was horrific and combined with the rebounding backwash from the quay to produce a series of high turbid yellow waves breaking at their crests. “Sheldrake” danced on their peaks, then rolled her gunwales under in a manner ill— befitting her years. It was a heart—stopping business, I had Visions of “Sheldrakes‘” progress coming to an ignominious end in the branches of a tree. I was learning that these inland waters are no soft option; they present their own hazards that come with a disconcerting rapidity.
I continued to Ablasserdam, where I was to meet John, a family friend working in Holland. I enjoyed having a companion aboard after so long sailing alone. John had some unwanted excitement minutes after boarding. We were approaching the great bridge at Krimpen. The green light gave the gchahead and the span began to lift, when the now familiar and ominous vibration told me that we have picked up yet another obstruction on the propeller. We struggled on at much reduced speed; but the bridge keeper could not wait and lowered the span in our faces. I put “Sheldrake” about and secured to an ancient and rickety wooden jetty. Prodding with the boathook proved futile; the obstinate white membrane wafted about the rudder, just visible in the khaki water.
There was nothing else for it; I lowered a ladder and immersing myself to the chin, pulled the plastic shopping bag Clear. The water was cold and uninviting on this bleak grey morning. No sooner had I reached the deck when another yacht arrived and the bridge began to open . We quickly cast off our lines, and still in my wet pants, goosepimpled from the cold, followed him through. The bridge keeper, watching the proceedings, came out to give us a cheery wave.
The canal to Gouda is a pleasant enough waterway, and with a fresh southerly breeze we were able to sail much of the way. The fresh wind made “Sheldrake” hard to handle in the Juliana look. I was glad to have John’s assistance with ropes and fenders. He was unused to boats and at first found it all confusing, but he learned quickly and soon was a useful hand. A barge was secured in the lock just ahead of us, her stern towered above “Sheldrake’s” bows. As she was about to leave her headrope jammed at the eyesplice in a steel ring set in the wall. The skipper resolved the problem by simply putting his engines “full ahead” with the helm hard over. The resulting wash, right under “Sheldrake’s” bows, sent her halfway up the wall, and then she dropped onto a floating timber. Once more I was glad of her sturdy construction.
We secured against the canal bank? just outside Gouda and taking advantage of John’s hospitality I left with him to spend the night at his home in Leiden. This was my first night ashore since leaving home. We enjoyed a spicy Indonesian meal and ended the evening in a lively pub with a good atmosphere and excellent jazz. A group of youngsters were playing their hearts out; one, a talented violinist, improvised in an exuberant way. After so long alone I found company quite as intoxicating as the beer. At John‘s flat in the few moments before sleep overwhelmed me, I found myself concerned about ropes and fenders.
The following day was a working day for John. I made my way back to Gouda by train, spending an hour or so exploring the city, taking a leisurely lunch before returning to “Sheldrake”. It was late afternoon when I slipped, with no plan other than to make my way northwards. There was still a fresh southerly, but the bridges were too close together for it to be practicable to sail.
I found myself in company with a number of other yachts, and we proceeded in convoy, the bridges opening for us in turn. We all gave way to the barges, these came up from astern, Closed and passed at an alarming speed. Deeply laden, taking up much of the width of the canal, they approach blind bends without Checking their way. I speculated on the spectacular collision that would result if two were to meet. It seems not to happen, they co—ordinate their movements, keeping in touch with V.H.F. Where it merges with the Brasseremere, the canal seemed to peter out amond reedbeds. There were enticing detours among numerous islets; I was enticed. I found a sheltered creek that felt as remote as if it were the Nile Delta and anchored for the night. Grebes emerged from the rushes and swam inquisitively about the boat. The skies cleared and the wind died away leaving the surface of the lake an unruffled calm. The barometer began to rise, and with it my hopes for better weather. I found some opera on a German radio station, poured a generous rum, lit up the lamp and read, utterly content. Just before turning in, I sat out in the cockpit for a little while, beneath a clear sky, under the great arch of the Milky Way.
Despite the promise of the night and its indications of finer weather, I woke to What the Irish call a “soft morning”. A matt grey sky and penetrating drizzle. However, I was in no hurry to get anywhere. The engine was due for a service, the dirty oil had to be pumped up from its sump into a plastic bottle for disposal ashore later. I changed the oil, fitted a new filter, went over the moving parts with an oilcan, and finally shone the engine with a clean rag. It must be imagination, but I would swear that it appreciated and ran the sweeter for these little attentions.
Once “Sheldrake” had a two—stroke petrol engine of a famous make. With its nicely turned brass control rods and smart dark green enamel it looked pretty. Sometimes when the mood took it, it would run sweetly, but it proved hopelessly unreliable. Once off Skomer an errant wave broke white over the bows and rolled the length of the boat to pour into the cockpit and stopped the engine as the tide was setting us down towards the rocks west of the Bishop. Disaster was only averted by a desperate spraying of damp start over the magneto and plug leads.
These experiences and others lowered my expectations of engines to the extent that I began sailing defensively, never allowing “Sheldrake” to be set upwind and uptide of a hazard, taking care that I timed my arrival at her mooring as near as possible to slack water, so that if necessary I could secure under sail.
It is a source of wonderment to me that this neat, clean and quiet diesel engine, could start and run with total reliability, delivering its ten horse power and a charge for the battery, in return for a trickle of fuel.
The grebes of the Brasseremeere, crestfallen, remained in hiding in the reeds. I weighed and damply made for the north—western corner of the lake and the canal . I found myself in a strange landscape, half land, half water. There were rectangular islands, some industrial, some with houses, some nurseries for trees and shrubs, while others were apparently just wildernesses, a shelter for birds among dense willows and alder.
Just beyond Alassadam, waiting for a bridge to open, I secured beside a large steel Dutch barge yacht. She had only recently been built, her owner has yet to complete her fitting out. She was a sturdy and purposeful looking vessel. Her bows high and raked, to quell the short vicious seas of the Isselmeer. Her owner showed me over, and we talked boats for perhaps an hour. He is a pastry cook by profession, and an enthusiast for his trade. He told me that in his holidays he likes nothing better than to travel Europe in his boat, sampling the skills of his fellows. The Germans are good, the Belgians better, but the French — he gestures, superb,. serious stuff here, pastry.
The commuter traffic began to thin and the bridge eventually opened for us. There was yet another stretch of canal, increasingly urban, and the screaming of jets landing at Schipol told me that we were at the gates of Amsterdam. First we must traverse the Niuwe Meer,a small but attractive lake. At its northern end near the sailing club, yachts were secured to pontoons waiting for the passage through Amsterdam.
The next bridge carries a motorway; it opens once at eleven at night for northbound traffic, and again in the early hours of the morning for those going south. Yachts passing through the city must travel in convoy. When eventually a green light showed below the red, indicating that we should stand by, there was a great deal of utterly pointless jostling for position. Most of the yachts making the trip were large, powerful and expensive. Their owners, wealthy and assertive men who spend their lives trying to get in front; it is unrealistic to expect them to change their natures while on holiday. These men handle their boats competitively and aggressively. A Belgian cap‘n. Toad, in a jaunty Errol Flynn yachting cap turned his boat directly into “Sheldrake’s” path. I had to put my engine full astern to avoid him; he peered fixedly ahead. “Sheldrake’s” bowsprit, fashioned from a railway sleeper and chain bobstay, would make an awful mess of his G.R.P. transom. After much competitive manoeuvring a pecking order was finally establishedt “Sheldrake” comfortably in the rear.
The bridges opened in turn to allow our passage through the heart 0fthe city.Viewed this way? from the canal, night—time Amsterdam is a beautiful and romantic place. Dark trees arch overhead and through their branches there are fleeting glimpses of nocturnal life. Lonely insomniacs lean on the railings, lovers in a post—coital reverie stare from their windows at the dream like procession of boats, threading its way through their city. I found these glimpses of a warm and comfortable domesticity strangely appealing as I waited for the last bridge. It was a long wait, I secured “Sheldrake” to the black hull of a moored barge, slipping hurriedly like a startled remora, when the sudden vibration of her engines indicated that she was about to move. Eventually a train rumbled over the latticed span of a steel bridge, the last carriage scarcely cleared5 before ponderously, the span began to lift, and the green light gave us the signal to proceed.
Once through, the restraints and certainties of the canal were behind us, there was a liveliness of the surface as we emerged with a startling suddeness into another bewildering and confusing world. Here clear of the sheltering buildings, there was a fresh chill breeze, a vast expanse of dark water, large ships, and myriads of city lights doubled and then multiplied by their reflections in the choppy water. Out here on the broad Noord See Canal I had only the vaguest notion of which way to go. A string of lights that I assumed to be a pier, became a ferry that was bearing down on me. I managed to round her stern and saw other yachts that seemed to know* where they were going. I followed their jinking sternlights across the broad canal into the Sixhaven. Here it was just a question of finding something, anything, to put a line to, all else could wait until daylight.
The shared adventure of the nocturnal passage created an atmosphere of bonhomie, rivalries were forgotten. A genial German beside whom I was moored invited me to join him for breakfast, over coffee we talked about our travels. I found like most Europeans, he has only the haziest of notions about Wales. I tried to explain in my abysmal German, “eine kleine, schone Celtische land, zwischen Engeland und Ireland.” Germans like many Europeans have a romantic view of the celtic peoples, reinforced for my friend by my pretty little boat flying the Red Dragon. Like many continental yacht harbours? the Sixhaven is a non— profitmaking trust or foundation. It was originally established by the workers in nearby shipyards, a place in which to keep their own boats. Over the years it has grown into a first rate yacht haven. The income generated by visiting yachtsmen has been re—invested, there are pontoons at which to berth, shOWers, and a clubhouse. The whole efficiently run, while remaining friendly and informal. The entrance is narrow and almost concealed from the Ship Canal, angled to prevent the wash from passing ships disturbing the yachts. The immediate surroundings are quiet and peaceful, there are well kept lawns and tall mature trees mute the sounds of the city.
Sadly, developers, predators, who like barracudas shoal around every city, have their glittering eyes fixed on the Sixhaven. The club members are resisting “by all legal means”, to save their haven from those who intend to take it from them, fill it with rubble and build yet another tower block. This friendly and appreciated little haven could be lost. The “market” has its own remorseless logic that rides roughshod over the dreams and enterprises of ordinary folk.
Conveniently, just a few metres from the haven there is a ferry, every few minutes day and night it transports its passengers to a quay behind the railway station at the very heart of the city. Amsterdam was already a great city before the canal was dug and does not present her best prospect to those arriving by water, it is nonetheless a fine and pleasing sight. The constant passage of ships and barges lends the scene an air of bustling commerce. Most of the ferry‘s passengers are commuters from large working class housing estates to the north of the city. The fresh breezes carry with them a suggestion of salt from the North Sea, and the slapping wavelets under the bows send a little fine spray that moistens the air, enlivening the journey to work and no doubt helping to shed fatigue on the homeward run. A very satisfactory alternative to the tube or traffic jam.
I intended spending a few days here, resting,provisioning, and I had charts to buy. Most of all I relished the opportunity to just be in the same place for a few days.
Amsterdam is a city of sharp and dramatic contrasts, like the Chiaroscuro of Rembrandt, its honoured son, light and dark, great wealth and poverty, squalor and luxury co—exist. While this is true of most great cities, Paris, London or New York for example, in those cities the rich and privileged are not immediately assailed by the stench of stale urine, do not quite fall over the drugged and the drunk. Here in Amsterdam there is a stark juxtaposition, a liveried flunky opening the door of a limousine, while in an alley five metres away there is a furtive and sordid business taking place with silver paper and syringes.
The City has an aura, a reputation for an easy going tolerance that makes it a magnet for the young and adventurous . Sadly and inevitably, many become its victims trapped and never leave, they stay to become the shadowy figures that lurk in doorways, concerned only with the next fix and acquiring the means to pay for it. Policing seems to be relaxed, easy-going and unassertive, but I noticed an attractive, blonde, tough looking, lady cop, she was slapping the palm of one hand gently with her nightstick, an unambiguous statement of preparedness.
The chart dealer that I must Visit has his premises in the “Schrierestoren”, literally — the “tower of tears”. This is where the lists of lost and missing ships was posted, when Amsterdam traded with the world and her great Indiamen Were her link with her colonial empire.
The tower now stands at the edge of a red light district, even in the forenoon bored looking women sat in shop windows trying to catch the attention of any likely punters. One, a slim fierce negress, with long lurid finger nails and a shock of bleached hair, strode back and forth like a caged panther. In another window an incongruously homely and generously proportioned Dutchwoman caught my eye, she puckered her lips in a travesty of a kiss, cupped a large breast in her hand proffering it like a fruit in my direction. She was dressed in high black boots, and a matching costume of open weaved fishnet, her flesh bulged through giving her an odd quilted appearance that was most unalluring. I smiled, acknowledged her greeting and passed on untempted.
As I left the area I heard shouting, a party of Japanese tourists insensitively, without asking leave had been photographing the ladies. They got a loud Dutch bawling out for their pains, seemed stunned by the outburst and they beat a swift retreat.
The Dutch can be charming, they can also be uninhibitedly coarse. In a small side street I saw a garbage collector drop his pants and bare his backside towards a woman with whom he had been loudly quarreling, in a gesture that was pure Breughel.
Amsterdam’s quiet back streets are a delight, offering prospects of green water, the fine town houses displaying a wealth of fine ornament and detailv Unlike our own prosperous bourgeoisie,the Dutch had no hinterland, no open countryside in which to emulate the life of a squire or country gentleman, their riches and treasures were concentrated in her cities, lavished on architecture and decoration, painting and sculpture, both public and private. The Dutch have made a great virtue of town life, it is their not negligible, contribution to western civilisation.
It was good to sit with a beer under the overhanging trees, and watch the busy and varied life and particularly the Amsterdammers, cosmopolitan, lively , and extrovert going about their bustling city.
In a large open area in front of the station, there is a perpetual street entertainment, that attracts a crowd of young people. They lean back on their bedrolls and rucksacks, a colony of travellers. I watched and listened for a while to an apparantly inexhaustible little blues singer. She strutted, danced and sang with a volume incongruous from such a small figure.
That evening I ate splendidly at a rough Indonesian cafe near the station. I sat among foreign immigrant workers, and for a few guilders, feasted on great lumps of spiced and marinaded meat served on a bed of rice and vegetables. Afterwards, for the price of a drink or two, enjoyed the entertainment of the Cities bars.
Later, I returned and before turning in studied the charts and tide tables for the next stages of my journey northwards through the Isselmeer and out into the Waddensee. Then on to the Elbe and the Baltic. After just two days,I found myself impatient, restless, to get under way again.
John was to rejoin me for the weekend, he arrived in the evening after work. Tommorow Saturday, the Juliana Sluice is to close for repairs.I was anxious to leave as soon as possible, for John it was a pierhead jump, scarcely had his bags hit the deck, before we were heading out of the haven. It is only a short distance to the sluice, but once there we had a long wait. Commercial traffic has priority, and there were scores of yachts waiting to pass through the lock.
There was once more much jostling for position. I was disadvantaged, by temperament, but also by ‘Sheldrakes” lack of maneuverability ; it takes a little time for her to respond to increased revs. , or her rudder. The lighter modern yachts have an advantage. My technique was to proceed slowly, unassertively but with deliberation, attempting to convey by my demeanour that it was now my turn. “Sheldrakes” stubby bowsprit and bobstay d0 inhibit those driving powerful, but more delicately constructed craft.
It was late by the time that we cleared the lock; the sky was overcast and it soon darkened. With a fresh breeze over the port quarter we made good progress, “Sheldrake” seemed to relish this lively water after the dull green stuff of the canals. There always seemed to be a steep wave poised over the transom, but they never quite caught up with us. We pressed on until nearly midnight, when we found a quiet anchorage in the lee of a small pier near Edam.
After breakfast we sailed on to Enkhuisen, and the looks that allow passage into the northern half of the Isselmeer. Here there is a fine harbourﬁ crowded with traditional boats of all sizes and descriptions. Many have been lovingly and faithfully restored, they earn their upkeep. and a living for their owners by Charter. Most carry parties of schoolchildren and teachers, holidaying from the great inland conurbations of Europe. They must find hauling on hallyards, helming, scrubbing decks and the like an exciting and memorable experience.
We spent the day exploring the town, enjoyed a beer or two, a fish and chip lunch, climbed a high tower for a view of the ships and the harbour” returning for an afternoon nap. That night we dined on Pizza, sharing a table with Hans and Yvonne. Hans proudly owns “Seehund”, a lean wooden yacht, built in 1935. She has long overhangs. deep draught _ very like a large Dragon _ the cabin is tiny, a tunnel in which one or two can just crouch. A previous owner, evidently a brave man, sailed her as far as Spitzbergen. She looked fast, but I imagine she would be a wet uncomfortable boat at sea.
John returned to work on Monday morning, and we limited our sailing to a crossing of the Isselmeer. We made for Hindeloop, not far from a station where John can catch a train home. Overnight the wind had freshened, we set out in a force five, gusting to six and occasionally more. Wind and sea were on our starboard quarter. I had the mainsail reefed right down to the points, and only a small staysail’ it was quite enough. Once clear of the shore and its leea we rattled across this inland sea. Crashing from wave crest to wave crest in a welter of spray” covering the fifteen miles in well under three hours. It was bracing sailing, quite enough for me, a little too much for John. less used to these situations: he did not complain but was clearly relieved when it stopped.
We had a good opportunity to watch the traditional apple— bowed dutchmen that met and passed us going to windward, pointing high, and making good progresss under a huge spread of tautly sheeted canvas” In comparison” the few modern conventional yachts similarly beating were making heavy weather of things. We watched them plunging. rearing, working hard and getting nowhere.
Experienced Dutch sailors remind Visitors that the Isselmeer should always be treated with respect; that it is not a lake, but an inland sea. The rescue services do a brisk trade. Later I discussed the difficult conditions I experienced here and in the Volkerakg with a Dutch yaohtsman. It seems that the fresh water, with a lower specific gravity than salt, is more easily excited into waves. The distance between wavecrests is shorter, and the waves steeper. These features, combined with shallow depths, produce wave forms that can be at least as dangerous to small craft as those of the open sea.
We identified Hindeloopﬁ almost hidden from the sea behind the dyke, by its curious church tower and red tiled roofs. Well offshore wind surfers were skimming back and forth over a shallow bank. From a distance they had the appearance of moths, closer with their brightly coloured sails and phenomenal speeds they were like soaring birdsw
Hindeloop once owed its living to fishing, its squat little boats worked the tides that ran between the Isselmeers shoals and sender to satisfy the Dutch craving for eels and herring. The smell of fish is no longer dominant, though there are stalls at the quayside selling a variety of fried and smoked fillets of fish5 with the inevitable accompaniment of frites and mayonaise. The harbour is now almost entirely given over to yachtsmen, the inner harbour a permanent berth for hundreds of yachts. In the near gale the din of halyards slatting against aluminium masts was deafening.
The town is charming and picturesque? surrounded, crossed and recrossed by scores of small waterways. Each narrow street has its hump—backed bridges. An important industry is the production of the distinctive “Hindeloop ware”; small artifacts in wood or pottery, elaborately painted in a style reminiscent of our own narrow boat painting but perhaps a little more tasteful and restrained” for this is Frieslandv and the Fries are a sober, even dour people;
I secured” for lack of an empty berth? beside a large German yacht. The owner and his wife were correct but cool~ they would rather I was elsewhere. The harbourmaster came around to collect the dues) he is a cheery chap. He addressed me in English and welcomed me to Hindeloop. When he recorded “Sheldrake’s” port of registry, he exclaimed, x’Ah you are Britishr I thought that you were German? you are doubly welcome.” His observations, within earshot of my neighbours, did not improve the atmosphere. I crossed the German yacht as quietly and unobtrusively as possible. As I did so I noted the title of the book in which their adolescent son was absorbed ~ “Time is Money”- a young chap bound to succeed.
Two English yachts arrived. I chatted for a little while with the owner and crew of “Greybeard”, and enjoyed a very civil welcome. I was offered afternoon tea and cake and gladly accepted, They are kind folk, one a clergyman, and questioned me about my trip. Later the skipper of the second boat came over, a Yorkshire farmer who arranges his cultivations and rotations to suit his sailing. He told me of a disturbing incident: crossing the North Sea, fortunately keeping a radio watch he was called up by a Dutch naval vessel and instructed to make a considerable detour to avoid a plume of toxic gas. As far as I know, news of this incident did not reach the press, how many similar incidents occur that are not made public, and news of which is suppressed ?
Ashore that evening,I found myself in conversation with a young couple who explained to me the significance of being Fries. Fries, not Dutch, is the cherished language of their community. Certainly Friesland has a charm and a character of its own, much less densely populated than the provinces to the south , it has an air of spaciousness. This is an expansive country? of reedmargined meres, marching windbreaks of tall sighing poplarsS broad horizons and the feel of the north
During the last few days I had developed an inflamed ear, and sore glands in my neck m a recurrence of the trouble that I experienced in Calais— I decided to see a doctor and the following morning sailed for Harlingen. There was still a lively chop as I left the harbour and put “Sheldrake” on a broad reach for the sluice through which to pass into the tidal Waddensee.
Once through the lockgates there was only a short sail along a well buoyed fairway. There was a lot of activity= most of the yachts seemed to be on a course for Texel, the first of the Frisian Islands, below the horizon.
At Harlingen I secured in the outer harbour alongside the catamaran “Tou Mu” of Hamburg. Bodo the skipper and Angelica were making their way south to the Mediterranean. Frustrated by the unrelenting strong westerliess they have decided to take the same “mast up” route through Holland that I have followed on my way north. I helped them to plot their way. In return Bodo went Over my charts of the Waddensea and the German Binnenwatera areas with which he is familiar, and marked in anchorages. He also advised me which “Seegats” — openings to the North sea ~ are safe for a small vessel , and which are best avoided. They are a friendly and charming couple, Bodo” a capable and knowledgeable sailor. They told me that they bought their catamaran cheaply, a hulk, after a previous owner had capsized her off the Sharhorn near the mouth of the notorious Elbe.
The harbour « masters secretary arranged an appointment for me with a local doctor, he turned out to be a most kindly and jovial man. We chatted for a little while about my trip, he dismissed my offer of payment ” he was glad to help a single handed sailor”. He prescribed an antimbiotic that soon put me right.
Harlingen is a real sea ports a busy bustling little town, it has a fishing fleet, ferries are constantly entering and leaving for and from the Frisian Islands, Coasters were loading and discharging cargo at the quays. There is a good Chandlers that sells fishermens gear, oiled wool jerseys, hanks of spunyarn3 shackles: paraffin lamps. good solid stuff at sensible prices. As in all Dutch towns provisioning was a pleasure, I loaded up “Sheldrake” with fresh fruit, vegetables I bread and meat anticipating that these would be dearer on the Islands.
As I was making my preparations to leave, a police car drew up on the quayside. A policeman emerged and asked if my name was Mcleod. Instantly alarmed, all sorts of fears descended upon me, I tried to recall any regulations that I may unwittingly have breached. It seemed that I left my briefcase in a shop where I was photocopying some pages from Bodos‘ pilot books. The case contained all the boats papers, travellers Cheques and passport? its loss would have been a disaster. Seeing that I was alone and about to sail the policeman kindly arranged to have the case brought to the quay for me. He explained that he too sails, and knows how inconvenient it can be to miss a tide.
This forgetfullness was worrying, it indicated that as a result of malaise, fatigue, or both I was not functioning as efficiently as I should. A lapse of memory ashore can bring problems, at sea it can carry a severe penalty. I left Harlingen with warm feelings for the place, the kindly doctor, Bodo and Angelica and the helpful policemen.
Once clear of the harbour outside the shelter of the piers there was a stiff breeze from the south of south—west. The surface of the Waddensee was still relatively smooth, and unhindered on a broad reach, with a fast ebbing tide to help her on her way “Sheldrake” bowled along. Our dizzy speed over the ground was evident by the rapidity with which we passed the weed covered boulders of the training wallg under our lee. I had to keep close to the wall to keep outside the narrow fair way and clear of the island ferries that had little room for manouvre. The wall uncovered by the tide, is marked at regular intervals by beacons.
Out in open water, the buoyage, as usual in Dutch waters was eXCellent and together with the clear large scale charts simplified the business of pilotage. Four miles of boisterous sailing and we were out in the Blauwe Slenk, the channel widened and I turned to bring the wind abeam.
The sea here, out of the lee of the land, was much livelier. I could see and hear the seas breaking cream in a smother of foam on the blue black mussel beds to windward. This was exciting and interesting sailing? “Sheldrake” as ever light and responsive to helm. Long familiarity had led to that satisfying feeling that she was in some way an extension of myself, helming had become as easy and natural an activity as walking. There was an affinity: a sense of engagement with her as she drove through the short steep seas, that was as direct and physical as if I were a boy on a surf board.
I met a large bluff bowed Dutch sailing ship, driving to windward and drenching her decks with spray as she crashed through the waves, as she passed I could hear a diesel engine thumping away in her bowels. She was engaged in charter, and her complement of pale schoolchildren kitted out in yellow oilskinsg look overwhelmed, a little apprehensive , as they lined her decks. I watched as she lowered her huge billowing mainsail, some of the youngsters were struggling with the canvas, trying to smother it and gather it in. One lost his hold on a halyard and it streamed out down—wind a I heard him being cussed by the mate.
These children and teenagers from prosperous, comfortable, urban Europe, were experiencing a life that is raw and elemental, far removed from the comfortable affluence with which they are familiar.
The wind continued to freshen and backed south, the tide slackened, then turned and confronted the wind. The sea became short and spiteful, waves curling and breaking at their crests. “Sheldrake” was by this time carrying too much sail, burying her lee rail. It was time to reef her down and this was an opportunity, where the channel is broad, and I had sea room. I simply left the helm, and Sheldrake” obediently ” came to” , her head just off the wind , and stopped, her fore—sails flapping, her main quivering. I lowered the jib and secured it with a series of hitches t0 the pulpit rail, trying to ignore the waves that were breaking over the bows. Like the Dutchman that I had just passed, I disgraced myself by losing the tail of a fore— halyard, it streamed down wind horizontally from the masthead. I made a mental note to retrieve it before I entered harbour and found myself subject to public gaze. Reefing the main was drier, I squatted on the coachroof, wrapped my legs around the mast, cranking the roller reefing gear with one hand, keeping tension on the main halyard with the other, both hands for the ship and my legs for myself.
There was another four miles downwind sailing across an increasing rough and turbid Vliestroom, before the tip of the light—tower appeared over the horizon to announce the imminence of Terschelling. High dunes loomed up, and then I could identify the clustered buildings of the town at their foot. I located the entrance to the Shutengat which winds tortuously between shoals, here I had to check the numbers painted on the buoys and take them in sequence. An inadvertent cutting of corners would lead to an almost certain grounding, an unpleasant prospect, with a falling tide and a freshening wind, a mistake here could cost me dear.
The channel eventually merged with a deeper more sheltered fairway, this in turn led on to the harbour entrance. The yacht berths are at the head of the commercial harbour, in a newly dredged basin. The yacht harbour was crowded but I managed to find a berth beside “Freya”, a beautiful and graceful Dutch ketch. She was the same age as “Sheldrake” of an unusual clinker steel construction. Her young owners had made a creditable job of restoring her, and she were her years lightly.
Once more I made all secure, closed the hatch, lit up the lamps, prepared a simple meal and revelled in that delicious, smug, feeling that rewards the safe completion of an interesting passage.
This Waddensee is a wild place, with a stark austere beauty of its own. It is enclosed to the West and the North by a string of islands that stretch in an arc, nearly a hundred and fifty miles from Den Helder to the Elbe. Despite its being small, as seas go, it has the feel of a much greater expanse. The islands and the mainland coast are all low lying , much of the time below the horizon of a small boat making a passage, or obscured in the haze and the sea frets that often shroud this area. At high tide the frequent withies — treetops or bushy branches – each with an attendant cormorant seem a strange intrusion in a watery world.
This is a terrain of wide skies, shifting ever changing light, the sea in constant movement, draining and flooding the vast almost level mudflats and sands of the wadd to a slow relentless rhythm. Always there are sea —birds, countless gulls, cormorants and waders, wheeling and soaring, crying and mewing, gathering in huge flocks, or journeying singly direct and straight on mysterious errands. At its southern limit, where a great defensive sea wall from Friesland to Den Helder encloses the Issemeer, the sea is nearly twenty-five miles across. Further north Norderney is barely two miles from the German Ost — Friesland coast. Deep channels , “See Gats”, are scoured by the action of the tides between the islands and through which the Waddensee is repeatedly drained and flooded by the waters of the North Sea.
These tide scoured channels become shallower, more intricate and meandering5 as the volume of the water is dispersed over the expanses of mud and sand. Towards the watershed, where the incoming tides, meeting after rounding the islands extremities are stilled, they deposit their load of waterborne silt and sand, the channels becoming barely perceptible depressions.
The watersheds are called “Wantij” by the Dutch, “Wattenhoch” by the German Frieslanders. The ways over them, the Dutch “Vaarwater”, the German “Wattfahrwasser”, are well buoyed at their approaches. As the channels shallow they are marked out by withies, twigged hazel or willow branches implanted in the mud, at high water only their very tops may be showing.
The “range”of the tide, the difference in height between high and low water is about two metres, the watersheds may dry by as much as a metre, careful timing is eSSential for a successful passage. The usual practise is to try to time ones arrival at the crest of the watershed at, or a little before high water. The Dutch tide tables give the depths with some precision, to a decametre; however in these shallow waters persistent strong winds and variations in atmospheric presssure exert a considerable influence and can dramatically alter all predictions.
All night it rained, the promise of yesterdays falling barometer and grey skies was fulfilled. I was awakened by loud thunderclaps and lightening flashes that left an image of “Sheldrakes” interior on my retinag the rain rattled on the deck over my head. I snuggled gratefully deeper into my sleeping bag. The mornings forecast was once more discouraging, the wind predicted to be a northwesterly strength five to six, increasing to seven. Crossing a “seegat” in these conditions would be uncomfortable, even dangerous. The passage over the “wantij” would be hazardous, the marks, buoys and withies, difficult to distinguish in confused breaking seas. One error and the strong near ~ gale force wind from astern would drive “Sheldrake” onto the wadd.
Once more I must sit out a spell of bad weather, but much more safely and comfortably than my long wait behind Lundy. After breakfasting and cleaning self and shipg I packed a flask and some food into a rucsack and took an exploratory walk ashore. A few metres inland the dunes were planted with spruce, further these give way to native groves of alder and willow. These in turn open out into broad expanses of heathland, the older dunes covered with scrub and heather. In the valleys there were small reedy meres. In the woodland I took up a handful 0f soil, beneath the dead leaves there ‘was just one centimetre of loam, below that, white sand; The total absence of any native rock or stone gives this landscape an impermanent feel, as if one _great storm could disperse it back into the sea from which it has emerged.
Inland the islands are rich in wildlife, from the summit of a dune I watched a gliding buzzard become the target of persecuting crows. There were herons standing sentinel over the numerous small meres, and everywhere close cropped grass and droppings betrayed the presence of rabbits. Returning along a road to the village I noticed a green sign indicating the presence of a Commonwealth war cemetery. I entered and was moved, I read the names and dates, where known, and pondered on the events that brought these young men of the Royal, Commonwealth, and Polish airforces to lie here in this sandy soil. They are it seems mostly the crews of bombers, that failed to make it back from raids on Germany. Some who died together, in the same aircraft, have their graves grouped together. There is just one sailor among these airmen, an able seaman from a landing craft. I remembered from my boyhood men like these, amiable unwarlike Civilians in ill- fitting battledress, who thronged the small town in which I lived. The enormity of their sacrifice and loss can only be fully appreciated by those who have good lives, and are privileged to live them to the full.
Terschelling village is dominated by its light—tower, a great brick pillar that sweeps the night sky with its rhythmic flashing. At its foot, dwarfed, the red brick buildings shops and houses are neat and pleasing. There are good shops and cafes grouped around small squares and courts, on a modest and unassuming scale appropriate to an island
community. Back at the waterfront there was interesting work going on, a lighter, moored just offshore was engaged in lifting with its crane great rocks from the hold of a barge, which it dropped with a satisfying splash onto mats of woven withies. A new sea wall was being constructed to enclose an extension to the harbour, a surer foundation than Frisian sand is required if it is not to be quickly undermined by breaking seas.
On my return, I noticed with some surprise that “Freya” had sailed. She was bound north for the Elbe? and would be unlikely to be able to force a windward passage in the teeth of the northwesterly gale that has blown all day. There is no shelter to seaward of the islands, and attempting the entrance of a “Seegat” would be a perilous business. If caught out, the only possible course for her would be to run, with wind and sea on her quarter, to make as much westing as possible, attempting to clear the shoal water inshore and ride out the storm out in the North Sea, an uninviting prospect, short handed in a small boat.
That night I set the alarm for the morning weather forecast, I was well rewarded , here in the German Bight the winds will will be westerly easing to force four to five, but freshening again laterﬂ I could wait a long time for a better. After a hurried breakfast I, slipped to catch a fair and rising tide. The passage over the wadda my first was successful, but not without anxieties , the buoys came up just where they should but they are only just large enough for their purpose. It was impossible to see more than one, or at the most two marks ahead. I experienced an uncomfortable feeling of sailing into a void, of being led into a great grey vacancy.
As I approached the watershed where the buoys gave way to withies, I glanced astern and saw to my delight a large schooner under full sail. She was reaching and came up quite quickly, her young crew waved a greeting. I follOWed her out into the Blauwe Beig, she must “come about” in narrow and constricted water, and I watched with interest as her crew backed her forsail hearing it well out to windward with a pole to help to bring her bows around, hauling up one lee board and lowering the other , before she slowly ponderously but surely settled onto her new tack.
We sailed north into the Boschgat, then the Borndiep and turned south to close the western shore of Ameland. There is wide deep water here and in the Molengat that leads on to the small harbour and ferryport of Nes. While we have been making our passage, the wind had freshened to considerably more than the force five that was forecast. The sky, hitherto a dark greyy blackened. I was relieved to have gained the shelter of the harbour before the weather deteriorated further.
There was very little room for manouvreg the harbour simply a narrow dredged creek between a pier and a mudbank. I lowered and secured the sails, prepared ropes and fenders before entering to seek a berth. I closed with the intention of securing onto a small Dutch yacht, all the other boats in the harbour were already rafted up two or three deep. As I approached the owner was standing on her foredeck, I confidently expected him to take my lines. To my dismay he affected not to understand, in order to make my intentions clear I threw a line onto his foredeck, and another across his stern, this his wife made fast. Good, I thought, he has the message, then to my utter astonishment he simply tossed the bow line over the side. The wind by this time had freshened to perhaps a seven and threatened to drive “Sheldrake” onto the mud as still held by the stern line we swung across the creek. I was much too busy trying to retrieve the situation to impale the Boer with the spike at the end of my boathook, as in the heat of the moment I surely would have done.
The incident was watched by other yachtsmen, who loudly voiced their disapproval of the mans actions, jeering and booing. The surlya morose yachtsman easily weathered the hostility, he just shrugged his shoulders and went below. I was made welcome alongside another yacht, also crewed by Dutchmen, who more typically were helpful and welcoming. This unpleasant incident marred an otherwise good day with a satisfying passage completed.
By late afternoon the wind reached storm force, and shrieked in the rigging of the charter craft. Everyone began doubling up mooring lines, an over – enthusiastic young chap from the next boat getting quite carried away. He engaged himself busily, being helpful, putting jamming turns on all the cleats; that in any emergency weuld be immpossible to free, making up the tails of everyones lines into artistic coils. The language barrier prevented my improving his nautical education, I just let him get on with it. Ashore, in the towns Natural History museum there was a satellite photograph of Northern Europe. The cloud looked like soap suds draining through a plughole, the Waddensee its vortex. Back at the yachthaven the gulls had suspended activity, a disconsolate cormorant desperately clutching at a stump a few yards away had decided that this is not fishing weather. The sky was an unrelieved grey, the barometer low and plunging, and the driving rain confined me to the cabin.
I passed some time calculating progress and checking my funds, there was a bankdraft awaiting me in Cuxhaven. But that was a long way, my progress slow, island hopping one wadd at a time. There was a very real likelihood that I might run out of cash before I got there. On the credit side
I had food enough – though limited in variety — a tank full of diesel, and self and boat were in good nick. A threatening cold virus had given up, defeated by my healthy lifestyle.
While I studied the charts and counted miles and days, it seemed that only a sudden change to optimum conditions, would permit my passage of the Nord – Ost See canal by the 25th., when Elish was due to arrive at Esbjerg, from there the intention was that she would travel by train to join me, in Kiel, or hopefully further north.
While I was pondering, there was the noise of great merriment, the effects of wind and tide combined had raised the sea level a foot above the quay. The mooring lines were taut as steel rods as the yachts were held off by the wind. Then slowly, the wind began backing north and eased.
By the afternoon the weather had improved sufficiently for me to land and take a look at Ameland. This island, less developed than Terschelling, is chiefly remarkable for the seeming thousands of children that throng its dunes, coppices and open spaces. Of about junior school age, these children come mainly from the industrial cities of Germany, they were sleeping in barns and other farm buildings converted for the purpose. For a little while I watched a spirited football match between schoolboy sides from Dusseldorf and Berlin. The children were accompanied by their teachers, who seemed very young — more like big brothers and sisters— there seemed to be a healthy mutual affection I saw one small Child, perhaps smitten with a pang of home~sickness, holding up her arms for and getting, a “cwtch”.
This Ameland is a favoured place, more cultivated than Terschelling. The houses are neat, the well tended gardens colourful with summer flowers, and much thought has been given to treeplanting to give shelter from the wind. As I made my explorations, the skies began to clear, and the air had all the brilliance and clarity that seems to come with dunes and sandy soils.
The Wadden seascape has a timeless quality the yachts were still all in harbour, out in the Waddensee there were just one or two of the larger traditional boats, that had ridden out the storm at anchor. Their patched tan sails, and the characteristic squat profile of their workmanlike low aspect rig could have come straight from the canvas of a Dutch marine painter”
The morning broke bright and clear, I sailed speculatively, with no plan other than to make as much progress as possible while the present spell of fine weather held. There was a light westerly breeze that gave “Sheldrake” a comfortable three or four knots, about right for following the meandering course of the withies over the Wadd.
I found myself in company with perhaps a dozen other boats making the same passage. the smaller craft and the traditional shoal draft Dutchmen led. “Sheldrake” midway in the procession, astern there were some larger yachts, carefully feeling their way, sometimes stopping and then nudging over a patch of mud.
I grounded, and losing steerage way was immediatley carried broadside onto the mud by the tide. “Sheldrake” fetched up just a metre or so outside the channel, the wrong side of a withy. I retrieved the situation by starting the engine, securing the helm5 and hanging outboard from the shrouds reduced “Sheldrakes” draught by rocking and healing her. As she came free, I had to leap to the tiller to prevent her grounding on the other side.
I reached the watershed at high water, and having the advantage of the ebb, I came about and steered northeast through the Holwerderbalg. There was another winding channel to negotiate between the Het Rif and the level featureless eXpanSe of the Engelsmanplat, familiar to readers of Erskine Childers. Back in Harlingen Bodo marked this as a good and safe anchorage in almost any conditions. The Westgat, a broad fairway was alive with fishing boats and yachts out for the day from Lauwersoog, a mainland harbour from which it is possible to lock out of tidal water into the extensive, broadlikea inland Frisian meres.
The clear weather provided me with an opportunity that was too good to waste, instead of following the other boats eastwards for Schiermonikoog, I turned north and steered for the open sea. My intention, to make a seaward offshore passage to Borkum and to “leapfrog” an island. Here the shoal water of the Plaatgat extends for nearly three miles offshore, even in these settled conditions the seas steepened d over the shallows. To me the seas presented their innocuous rounded backs? only a little wind blown spray, betrayed that from shorewards they would present a very different aspect, as they tumbled and collapsed in a great tumult of white surf onto the broad empty beaches.
At the number four buoy, with four metres under my keel, I set a course north — east to pick up the clearly buoyed fairway that leads direct and straight to Borkum. The B.B.C. shipping forecast at 1350 justified my decision to press on, Yet another low was forming in sea area Fisher that would generate more strong south westerlies. From Borkum, I speculated, I could continue despite fresh winds, to make some progress eastwards across the Watt. The Seegat between Borkum and Rottumeroog is broad deep and well buoyed. It is divided by a middleground shoal, the Huibertplaat, to the north of this bank another smaller seegat — the Rifgat — opens to the sea. My approach from the west was along the Huibertgat that leads straight towards the town at the islands western extremity. With good visibility and settled conditions the passage posed no problems.
Not all Seegats are as well marked, and all must be approached with caution. Shoalwater extends for many miles offshore, the coast is low – lying and almost without natural features. In_ daylight, distant and low on the horizon, one lighttower looks much like another. This coast can only be safely closed from a mark that has been positively and unambiguously identified. The departure out through a seegat can be almost as fraught. The fast ebbing tide, constrained between barely covered banks, confronting the prevailing wind, and the ever present swell rolling in from the North Sea, can produce tumbling, breaking seas that will quickly overwhelm small craft. Many good and experienced sailors have lost ships and lives on this bleak and uncompromising coast. Most Dutch and German yachtsmen confine their sailing to the safer Binnenwaters , “Sheldrake” had the sea to herself. It was good satisfying passage making, slipping along comfortably with a breeze over the quarter, untroubled by the swell, and when mounting the crests gaining a view of the distant coast.
Borkum surprised, I found it was not at all the picturesque huddle of fishermens cottages that for some reason I had imagined. The town is almost a miniature Brighton, with tall hotels and apartment blocks. The beach was curiously crowded with what look like upturned coffins, I discovered as I neared, they were in fact wicker bathing huts. The beach is steep, and a row of beacons close inshore defines the Channel. The yacht harbour is four miles to the southeast of the town, and approached around a long training wall at the extremity of which stands a prominent beacon. The harbour is simply a sandpit, scooped out of the sand, dredged and provided with pontoons. I found a convenient place on an outer pontoon and berthed beside a welcoming German couple, they took my lines and joined me in a glass of whisky to celebrate my arrival in Germany, albeit its extreme southwestern tip.
The sky had resumed its usual grey aspect, the barometer fell yet again, and flurries of wind disturbed the surface of the harbour. The next morning I planned to sail for Norderney, across the Watt, but first there were formalities to observe. I must clear customs, not to do so would incur a heavy fine. The customs men arrived but spent a long time in their car, reluctant to leave its comfort and in no great haste to brave the morning air. The “facilities” were a minimal,the laid back harbourmaster sat in his but surrounded by piles of empty beer bottles,
conducting the mornings business in a relaxed manner.
The shower was housed in a rickety privvy —like wooden shed, with the controls on the outside . That morning the contraption looked about to take off, leaving any unfortunate occupant revealed to the world in goosefleshed nakedness. Some yachtsmen arrived at the but to collect their morning “brotchen” hot fresh bread rolls, a ritual in German yacht harbours. It seemed that they were all ordered in advance from a local baker, there was no surplus. A kindly German yachtsman would not allow me to be deprived of my daily bread, sharing his own with me and refusing my offer of payment.
The customs examination did eventually take place, it was perfunctory. An officer boarded, looked about, and rightly judged us most unlikely traffickers.
By the time that breakfast and the formalities were completed the weather had deteriorated.The fine grey sand was lifted by spiralling winds into whorls, and deposited on decks and paintwork. The wind had veered from south to west and freshened. The combination of a long fetch, and shallow
water produced a steep sea that was being lashed by the wind into a white fury. The marks that lead over the Watt could well prove to be invisible, lost in the spray, the wind could also significantly reduce charted depths. Most reluctantly I decided to stay put and hope for better things tomorrow.
Later I joined the queue of yachtsmen waiting for a bus into town. Borkum was disappointing – almost entirely modern —if ever there was a picturesque village here, it has long disappeared under concrete and new developments. The place had taken on that windswept and forlorn look of holiday resorts anywhere in bad weather. The beach was deserted, the surf prodigious. DriVen sand and yellow foam blew down the main street, the streets were full of holiday—makers in plastic macs, bravely trying to enjoy their hard worked for holiday despite the elements.
Back aboard “Sheldrake”, I was visited by a young Swedish couple. I had earlier admired their yacht, a small but purposeful looking little double ender, a miniature Colin Archer. Later, they told me that a previous owner had her especially rigged for an Atlantic crossing. These youngsters were Mediterranean bound. From the Baltic and unused to tidal waters, they had a hard time. They found themselves overstretched in the confused seas at the confluence of the Elbe, Weser and Jade. There the shoals extend for up to fifteen miles offshore, there is the additional hazard of commercial shipping _ at a high density~ bound into and out of the rivers and often poor visibility. They had a very uncomfortable thirtysix hours at sea, were cold and sick and now just wanted to rest and recover from exhaustion.
They had a disagreement, and asked me to mediate. It seems that their tiny boat has an extensive sail wardrobe, more headsails than the Cutty Sark ! The young man was convinced that they would all be needed, though they almost fill the boat and leave little room for living. The girl would like to parcel up some of the sails and send them home. I took her part, on the side of quality of life.
A little later after the Swedes had left,I had more Visitors. Margot and Marcella came aboard for tea, they were delivered, and after a suitable interval collected by their father. They drank their tea and then sipped a very little wine, they talked long and animatedly, in excellent English about their schooldays, books,painting and music.They enjoyed themselves and admired “Sheldrakes” cosy lamplit interior. Margot has classic Dutch features, the oval face and high hairline of Vermeers ” Lacemaker “, she is the serious older sister. Marcella pretty in a different way, is more pert and modern. To me they seemed like a couple of teenagers. I was surprised to learn that they were both in their twenties. Dutch youngsters of respectable families take their time about growing up, and there is nothing wrong with that.
Overnight the weather changed yet again, the barometer was rising, the skies had cleared, and there was a prediction from the forecasters that we would have several days of fine weather. I made my preparations, said good – bye to my new friends and sailed. I departed just two hours before high water, intending to cross the Watt on a rising tide.
The passage over the Borkumer Wattfahrwasser took just an hour of good sailing, the withies passed to Close to port, two larger and bushier than their brothers marking the Wattenhoch, the crest of the watershed, from here its downhill. The channel then leads Close inshore towards the Hohe Horn off Borkums easterly point, and then out into the broad deep Osterems. So far in the lee of Borkum the sea had been smooth, now it began to get a little rough, The fresh breeze came straight in from the North Sea against the tide which was beginning to ebb. Soon however, I was back in smooth water under the lee of Memmert, the islands dunes gleamed in the clear morning light; the channel here close inshore.
The “Wattfahrwasser” behind Memmert and the larger island of Juist is relatively deep, drying only at its very crest. I crossed the Wattenhoch safely, against all my instincts on a falling tide, having checked and re—checked my calculations. With only a moderate breeze there was little effect on the predicted height of the tide. Memmert and Juist both surprised, the first by its apparent absence of human life, the second by what appeared from a distance to be a long red Cliff, as I closed this resolved into rows of brick houses. At its eastern end Juist remains undeveloped, an open area of coppice and dune.
Here the channel winds tortuously out into the Norderneyer Gat, this is protected to some extent by offlying banks, not quite submerged and over which the seas are breaking, a reminder of the very different conditions out in the North Sea , where the swell, a left — over from yesterdays strong winds would make sailing most uncomfortable. Here it was good sailing all the way to the striking curved mole that protects the entrance of the yacht harbour of Norderney.
This is the largest and most developed yacht harbour that I had seen since Southampton. Communications with the mainland are good, with regular ferries to and from Norddeich. There are scores of large and expensive yachts based here, some fine boats, and also a number less beautiful, of a type known derisively as “Taiwan Clippers”. Built of G.R.P. simulating wood, poorly finished teak trim, crude moulded figure—heads, plastic “gingerbread ” work around their sterns, they were obviously constructed for buyers with little knowledge of boats and with more money than taste.
Despite the big money, this was a pleasant relaxed, even matey sort of place. I showered, put my clothes through the washing machine and dryer, and chores completed enjoyed a beer in the cluhouse bar and a fish supper ashore. The days sailing had been some of the most interesting and enjoyable of my voyage, perhaps just twenty miles as a gull flies, half as much again through the channels, but every mile opened up new prospects and presented subtly differing conditions of wind and tide.
The weather looked like remaining settled, the morning forecast was for continuing westerlies force four to five in the German Bight. I had be decisive, Elish was due in just a week, and while these Binnenwater passages were fascinating , they were time consuming. I decided on a “knights move”, and set out seaward, then north for Helgoland. A route that would take me well clear of the offshore banks and shoals with their confused seas. Helgoland to the Elbe and Cuxhaven looked a direct and uncomplicated passage.
In the Norderneyer Seegat the sea was grey and lumpy, and the going continued hard as I headed out through the Dovetief. There was an hour of plunging and rearing to just grin and bear, until offshore the seas lengthened into a more regular and not uncomfortable swell. The sky was totally overcast, the sun veiled behind a blanket of cloud. Just once or twice it showed briefly and fleetingly, a pale yellow disc. Each time as I reached for the sextant it faded from view, I was being tantalised. It was necessary to rely upon ” dead reckoning”, unsatisfactory in this area of strong tidal streams and sets into the Seegats.
I was unable to relax my lookout, for there were many ships, bound to and from the ports of Hamburg and Bremerhaven. I failed to see any buoys or marks, until three red flashes, a twelve second interval and three more, told me that I had reached the Weser buoy. I was then able to set a course for Helgoland, several hours later as the visibility improved a distant grey smudge appeared on the horizon when “Sheldrake” crested a swell, gradually almost imperceptibly its edges hardened and it took on a firm outline.
As I neared, a shaft of sunlight, the first of the day , illumined the cliffs of Helgoland pink and carmine, the colours of sugary seaside rock. The islands stacks and its strata clearly defined. Lovely though it is, this strange intrusion of rock, in this area of water, mud and sand, Helgoland is really quite a modest isle. Not at all the great bastion of rock I had imagined, more like our modest Bristol Channels’ Flatholm. However, by way of making the most of small things, the island has been considerably extended by long moles that curve to enclose a fine harbour.
I found a billet in an area set aside for small yachts in a corner of the harbour, near the “Lotse” or pilot boats. My eye was caught by the lifeboat, a sturdy, powerful looking vessel, its sides decorated by a black ” iron cross”. It had a smaller lifeboat almost a miniature version of its parent, riding “piggy—back” on a rail over her stern, purpose built for the rescue of crews of yachts or fishing boats caught up in shoal water. “Here are the real sailors”, said a welcoming Dutch man, coming out on deck to take my lines. Later I was invited aboard his yacht. Like myself the couple who own the boat were secondary school teachers, it was obvious that they had a much higher standard of living than their British contemporaries, they possesed the confidence and assurance that accompanies high status in a community.
We talked late into the night about education in our respective countries, and about politicians who purport to know more about teaching than those who spend their working lives engaged in it. They were surprisingly well informed about developments in Britain, they professed an admiration for the quality of our state education and its traditional commitment to “equality of educational opportunity”. They were bewildered, however, by the apparent ease with which the government have been able to force their plans on the schools, and the way in which long accepted aims had been reverseda I suggested that all is not lost, many teachers would fail to carry through the governments policies because the demands placed upon them are too great and they are under—resourced, a few would muddle through, the best and most creative would find ways of subverting the “reforms”.
A good teachers overiding loyalty and commitment is not to the Department of Education and Science, a Director of Education or a Headmaster, and certainly not to such abstract and amorphous entities as the “labour market” or “industry”. The first concern of the professional teacher should always be Kevin and Wayne, Mandy and Tracey… and all the rest, who give us the enormous compliment of their affection and trust, to give what help we can towards a realising of their talents and a flowering of their personalities. That anyway is my unfashionable view.
I had to sail early to get the full benefit of the tide and not have it turn and sweep me ignominiously out of the Elbe, for this is not a river to be trifled with. I walked ashore , paid my dues, and bought my morning brotchen. I took advantage of Helgolands status as a free port to buy a litre of duty~free whisky.
For Coleridge who sailed this way on the Yarmouth—Hamburg packet,and has left us an entertaining account of his voyage, this was a place to be avoided. He wrote that it was — “an ugly island rock at some distance to our left called Heiligeland, well known to many passengers from Yarmouth to Hamburg who have been obliged by stormy weather to spend weeks and weeks of weary captivity on itg stripped of all their money by the exorbitant demands of the wretches who inhabit it.” From my brief examination I would say that the island has considerable charm, and certainly no wretch, the pleasant smiling lass who neatly bagged my brotchen and whisky and wished me a good day and a good voyage, “auf weidersehen”. Provisioned, breakfasted and with the cargo safely stowed, I said farewell to my new friends, accepted the lines that they had neatly coiled for me in a seamanlike fashion and
set out once more onto the North sea. There was little wind to disturb the surface, an oily swell, this was a day for the engine. I steered first south to clear Helgolands diminutive sister isle of Dunen, little more than a sandbar, then east for the Elbe. The pilot boats, a useful mark, were on their station.
I found myself motoring through large expanses, of a sinister seeming orange algae, unfortunate jellyfish caught up in it were disintegrating, motionless and helpless, falling apart. A similar phenomena was reported off the Norwegian coast earlier in the year. The North seas capacity for digesting the rubbish poured into it is becoming visibly overstrained.
The fairway was clearly buoyed to the Sharhorn Riff, then marked at close and regular intervals by prominent beacons standing high out of the water, on spindly legs they looked like Wellsian invaders. With these visible aids to pilotage, and radar and R.D.F. it would seem difficult to get things wrong, but a huge hulk in the last stages of disintegration, a twisted mess of rusting steel, breaking surface beyond the Vogelsand, is a reminder of the unforgiving nature of these waters with their strong tides, shifting sands and poor Visibility. For small craft there is the additional hazard of dangerous seas whipped up whenever a fresh westerly wind opposes an ebb tide.
The channel continues eastwards and then turns more to the south first low mysterious Scharhorn, then the little island of Neuwerk were the first indications of land. A succession of large ships, in an almost unbroken line, came up from astern, and passed, each carrying thousands of tons of cargo, for Hamburg, or the canal and the Baltic» an indication of the volume of trade through these ports. I kept just outside the buoyed channel and distanced myself as far as possible from their wake.
From the Mittelgrund, a training wall, marked at kilometre intervals, leads all the way to the Kugelbakke. This beacon, a curious timber construction, like a huge primitive African doll, stands at the approach to Cuxhaven. Below it “greens” had strung a banner exhorting sailors to ” keep the seas clean”, it was in English still the language of the sea, despite the dearth of ships flying the red ensign.
The strength of the current here where the channel narrows and runs beside the qyays, is formidable, even by Bristol Channel standards. “Sheldrake” was borne at a giddy rate past the quays and the berthed ships. It was necessary to keep Close inshore, and having identified the entrance to the yacht harbour, put the helm hard over without hesitation. “Sheldrake” momentarily breasted the Stream, cleared the eddies that swirled around the ends of the piers. and we were released into the calm still water of the haven. I located a vacant berth and secured, I could relax contentedly, a potentially difficult stage of the voyage safely behind me.
The yacht club is prestigious and plush, as befits its clientele, prosperous executives from the hinterland, some of whom drive their Mercedes half way across Europe, to take their yachts out onto the Elbe. Despite its exclusivity, the club provides a secure and inexpensive berth for the visiting sailor, made equally welcome whether he arrives in a Y’gin palace” or a modest vessel like my own.
Anticipating the bankdraft that I hoped to cash on the morrow, I blew my remaining funds on a fish supper at a cafe on the dyke, a huge pan » fried plaice with capers, buttery fried potatoes and excellent beer. Later I called in again at the yacht club for what I intended to be a final beer. The bar or “sailors mess”, as it is titled was quite unlike any sailors mess that I have ever known. The generously upholstered furniture occupied with well cushioned ladies enjoying large wedges of rich and elaborate gateux.
I was soon in conversation at the bar with some of the clubs elders, amiable and hospitable chaps, prosperous professional men. They were curious about my voyage. I explained my premature — though not entirely unwelcome — redundancy and retirement, and told them in my halting German that.. ” Margaret Thatcher gave me my freedom”. They seemed to find this remark very droll, there was a lot of laughter and I had to repeat it for others as they arrive. Generously plied with beer by these old boys, it soon seemed funny to me too.
One of the elders leaned over to me confidingly, “you know we in this country have a name for your Prime Minister — we call her…. The Iron Lady !. ” I said to myself, beginning to think in German… ” Ja in bear, herz und lacheln”. He continued… ” We think she is good for your country, you English require a strong leaders”. With a strong personal aversion to being led by anyone, and being by this time quite befuddled, I realised that it would be futile to argue. It would be tactless to get into a discussion about the merits and dangers of “strong leadership” here in these surroundings and in this company .
I received the impression, that while on a superficial level these men may have envied me my freedom, they themselves would regard a similar situation as a disaster, even a disgrace. The British, accept unusual even eccentric behaviour with a greater tolerance, than our cousins across the North Sea. There the pressures to conform are more powerful. Here in this land of the “economic miracle”, life is a serious business, work and wealth are the proper preoccupations of all worthy citizens.
Helgoland, is a regular port of call for these yachtsmen, though one told me that he would not attempt the passage in a force four wind or more. He went on to tell me something of the islands post-war history. It seems that the occupying forces having a great quantity of explosives to dispose of, together with a military predeliction for pyrotechnic display, stuffed the islands many cavities with surplus shells and bombs. These were detonated in a single great, prodigious, explosion that blew out windows on the mainland, more than twenty miles away. The battered, tortured rock was then used by the R.A.F. as a bombing range, so that they could keep their hand in. When the islands inhabitants were allowed to return, for thoughtfullyt they had been evacuateda the terrain was so distorted there was simply no identifiable point of reference for their title deeds. The island had to be re—surveyed and parcelled out afresh.
This and similar humiliations still rankle, the immediate post ~ war period of occupation following their defeat, has been allowed to recede and fester in the collective subconscious.
I like Cuxhaven, and know the town well, in the mid fifties, then a young naval rating, I was stationed ashore here in a former German naval barracks.In those days the town was a hard working fishing port. The North sea had been rested during the war years: the extensive mine fields provided safe reserves in which fish could breed and mature. Post – war Europe however, was desperately hungry for protein, record catches were landed for a few years, then began the inevitable diminution. The local fishing grounds were stripped and the fleet had to venture ever further afield. I remember the pungent stench of the fishmeal factories as small fishes, shellfish, even starfish and weed were scraped from the seabed and ground into feed and fertilizer.
The grounds offshore remain a sterile desert? still not recovered from its punishing exploitation by the beam trawlers. A huge fishdock and markets built to service the fishing fleets stands empty and deserted. The pollution of the sea by the great rivers that drain into it, laced with nitrates and worse, from Britain and continental Europe prevent recovery.
Physically, the town had little changed, and soon memories started flooding back. The working people then had a grey, careeworn look, from the long years of being ill fed, ill clad, and never warm enough. Just staying alive grafting to lay the foundations of the present prosperity for another generation had prematurely aged them. At the Naval barracks here in Cuxhaven, there was a civilian armourer, bullet headed, a Wehrmacht veteran, and a meticulous craftsman. He arrived punctually each day with his lunch box and copy of the “Soldaten Zietung”. Taff, a naval gunnery rating, his “mate”, would frequently turn up late, often with a pair of football boots strung around his neck. “Sorry Helmut, I won’t be in this afternoon, got a match”. Helmut was exasperated by this frivolous and casual attitude to work, once in my hearing he angrily burst out…. ” Fussball, fussball all you English sink about is fockink fussball, how you Vin the fockink war, focked if I know.” I remembered sitting in a bar with my friend Ivor, who was almost distraught with an unreturned love for the landlords‘ exquisite Dresden doll—like a daughter Like myself Ivor had passed the years of his adolesence and young manhood in the amiable but bleak, masculine environment of the mess deck. He was experiencing the pangs late, well into his twenties. Ivor would sit all night hoping for a glimpse of this delicate, fair beauty, impossibly young and inaccessible.
On one of these occasions the bar became quite silent as in walked four of the toughest, hardest men I have ever seen in my life, of indeterminate age, they were lean, gaunt, their faces tanned, deeply lined and leathery. They had been drinking heavily and appeared to be near the end of a prodigious and prolonged binge. They were regarded by the other customers with both awe and compassion. One man told me quietly, that they had just arrived home from the east, they had been taken prisoner at Stalingrad, thirteen years previously.
I remembered too, my friend Sylvie, who – until she teamed up with a saxaphone player – I used to meet beside the “wasserturm”, a great red brick watertower,that still dominates the main street. A little older than I in years, an age in experience, Sylvie had been recruited without much understanding into the Hitler Jugend. At an age when most girls have barely given up playing with dolls, Sylvie had been taken from her home and sent into the horrors of the bombing of Hamburg, to man a searchlight battery. Sylvie I calculated would be now in her sixties, she might well be one of those large matrons enjoying a rich gateux in the “Seglers Messe”. Sylvie had a capacious appetite for all the good things in life
I was maudlin with the beer and memories of my young manhood when I eventuallys unsteadily returned to “Sheldrake”.
In the morning only slightly hung—over, I landed , cashed my bank draft, provisioned and prepared to sail with the flood tide. There was a fresh south westerly wind, but it was offshore and across the tide? it promised a fast reach up— river. Again as I left the still water of the haven “Sheldrake” was caught in the formidable current of the mighty Elbe and swept quickly past the quays. Near the entrance to the naval harbour, I caught just a fleeting glimpse of the barrack building in which I lived. It was derelict the roof caved in, hemmed in by newer buildings, that had become abandoned in their turn.
The helpful harbour-master advised I should leave the haven an hour and a half after low water, to arrive at Brunsbuttel and the locks at, or near, the slack . There was a lively lop on the river, but not enough to hinder our passage. “Sheldrake” had a bone in her teeth and surged along, well reefed we averaged four and a half knots through the water, there was perhaps a four knot tide with us and the banks of the river flashed past. The banks were built up, and almost concealed the many small townships and villages, their presence betrayed only by their red tiled roofs and spires. There were a number of small creeks or pills opening from the river, these would be fascinating places to explore, but there was no stopping, as the great river bore “Sheldrake” swiftly upstream.
The sky overcast, an unrelieved grey, the Elbe its usual dirty washing up water colour except where the wavelets were breaking a lighter grey as the broad expanses of mud and sand were being covered by the tide. However, the surface was almost smooth and close to the windward bank there were no waves to impede our passage.
I was quietly enjoying the fine sailing, when to my surprise and initial disbelief, I heared the thin sound of a distant trumpet. The notes became more audible as a yacht some distance astern came up, and closed. Her skipper was a jazz trumpeter, he salutes my Red Ensign with a swinging version of the national anthem. I thanked him, but told him that it was not really my song, indicating the Red Dragon that fluttered from my topping lift. He did not know “Mae hen Gwlad”, so I sang it for him — after a fashion —, he tried, without much success, to pick up the tune. He asked for a
request and did much better with “Mack the Knife” a particular favourite. I often sing when sailing alone, to keep up my spirits, especially when the going is hard. I like best a song with a touch of defiance about it, I have rounded many a headland to “Jerusalem” or the ” The Red Flag”. I was amused by the fancy that my song, windblown, may be carried far distances, to descend upon some baffled field worker hoeing cabbages or beets in the grey fields of Holstein to the north. Still playing, the trumpeter sailed on up the Elbe, while I crossed over for the northern bank and Brunsbuttel.
As I left the sheltered weather shore the river got steadily rougher . Off Brunsbuttel it was uncomfortably choppy, I sought a partial lee and relief from the strong current, as close inshore as I dared. It was then neccesary to wait, stemming the powerful tide, for the appropriate signal to enter the basin before the enormous lock gates of the canal. Just inside the entrance, within the stone quays, the river was wildly confused by wake from tugs and the shipping passing close inshore. The wash and back wash nastily combined with the waves from the river. There were perhaps a score of yachts of all types waiting to enter, some of the skippers, used only to inland waters were clearly uneasy, even frightened, by the strong wind and rough conditions.
I helped an elderly Dutch sailor, a capable man, to secure several of the larger luxurious motor yachts. Of shallow draught and light construction, their high upper works, saloons, bridges and flying bridges, creating an enormous amount of “windage”, made them difficult to manouvre at low speeds. Their skippers tried to compensate for the unhandiness of their craft by the brute application of power, furiously revving their engines.
I was amused that their owners — humble, grateful, subdued men while needing help — recovered an arrogant, aplomb, as soon as their craft were safely secured. They did not thank us for our assistance, rather, tried to give the impression to their spouses or mistresses, that they had been in charge all the time.
Soon the gates opened we entered the great clammy brick chamber, and were in calm still water. Brunsbuttels’ yacht— haven is conveniently situated just beside the entrance lock. The yachts dwarfed and overshadowed by the great bulk of the seagoing ships that pass through. It is a small haven and incredibly crowded, a port of call for all the yachts making the canal passage. Unusually, this yacht haven is presided over by a woman, an elderly but alert lady who keeps a motherly eye on things and is hospitably concerned that all her charges should be comfortable. She is very proud of the newspaper cuttings she displays, they record that in all the years she has held the post of Haven Meister ~ she has never set foot aboard a boat – nor ever would, she emphatically declares.
With money in my pocket and “Sheldrake” secured, I set out to explore Brunsbuttel. It seemed a prosperous – but away from the canal — a rather dull little town. I experimentally dined in a Balkan restaurant, choosing a “Prager Snitzel” it was good and nicely presented on a bed of vegetables. These establishments can now be found throughout Germany, set up by and originally for the “gastarbeiter”, immigrant workers from Turkey and southern Europe. Like our own Asian and Chinese restaurants they are inexpensive and popular eating places, no longer exotic but a familiar part of the social fabric. The food is good value, a satisfying alternative to the dull bockwurst and potato salad – often all that is on offer in the small German cafes and bars.
Close to the canals administrative offices there is a museum and information centre. There are diagrams and models illustrating the working of the locks, and also the control and signalling system by which the traffic is regulated. While now used mainly by commercial shipping, the canal owes its existence to Prussian military ambitions. It represented the fulfillment of a strategists dream, a means by which the Baltic and North Sea fleets could rapidly re—inforce one another, without having to run the gauntlet of the narrow, easily blockaded Skagerrak.
A video compiled from old documentary film records the opening. The ceremonial reflecting the militaristic culture of the Kaisers Germany, strutting troops, mounted officers, escort representatives of all the the royal houses of Europe, then a multitudinous tribe, grand in tossing eagles feathers, and caparisoned carriages. They form an unending procession, cantering unknowingly to an oblivion that would begin in distant Sarajevo. All recorded, and made more remote, by the flickering time stained celluloid images and the jerky motion of a hand cranked camera.
Prominent at the occasion are representatives of the canals craftsmen, masons, bricklayers, working men stiff and awkward in black suits, each with a small white apron. They were given a central place in the ceremonial, in Britain, then or even now artisans would be banished to the outer periphery of such a celebration.
These scenes are inappropriatley accompanied on a sound track, by the very English music of Elgars “Pomp and Circumstance”. For Britain was implacably hostile to the the canal, seeing it as a Challenge to her own naval superiority. ” Germany was waiving the rule, that Brittania ruled the waves.”
Also recorded on the film are some of the anonymous “navigators”, the men from the land, from Connemara to the Carpathians, who shovelled, toiled and spent themselves, wherever there was a canal to be dug, a railway or road to be constructed, These men hollow cheeked, drawn, gaunt with exhaustion, stare out of the screen, as they pause momentarily from their labour for the camera.
Shown too, the monstrous steam shovels and grabs, whose invention made possible this great excavation through the wet dank clay of Holstein.
Once the ” Kaiser Wilhelm Kanal”, it is now renamed more prosiacally the ” Nord — Ost See”. There are few visible reminders of the canals imperial pastg the ornate crested and spiked helmet, epaulettes and tasseled sabre, of a Canal Inspector are preserved in a museum showcase. And high on the side of a huge brick pier, all that remains of a demolished road bridge… a great battered carved relief of the scowling eagle of the Hohenzollerns has survived, a mute witness…like the frowning visage of Ozymandius, gazing stoniley, uncomprehendingly over the plains of the Federal Republic.
The Nord-Ostsee Canal still impresses as a great feat of civil engineering. It is a broad and deep waterway, capable of taking all but the very largest ocean-going ships. But I must confess that its splendour eluded me as I set out to traverse its ninety—eight kilometres on a grey, cold and wet morning.
The rain driving and unrelenting, found its insidious way into my waterproofs and through to my skin. I was as securely chained to my tiller as a galley slave to his oar, it was impossible to leave the helm for a moment, for a hot drink, or even for a towel to put around my neck. I kept as close as I judged safe, to the bank when a coaster passed, and was astonished as “Sheldrake” briefly grounded as the ship came abeam her iron keel jarring on the stones of the canal bed. I observed that in front of the ship the level of the water rose; pushed by the vessels displacement, abeam the level significantly fell as the propellors drew in the water to provide thrust, she then left another “hump” in the level astern. The phenomena is proportionate to the speed and displacement of the vessel. I was fortunate to learn this lesson with the passing of a small ship, I later observed that some of the larger ships lowered the level by as much as half a metre.
Stopping on the canal is strictly forbidden, but I eventually reached a lay—by where it is permitted to secure, a quiet wooded bay with sandy shores, I simply put a bowline line onto a wooden pile, and soon enjoyed what I consider to be one of the most memorable pots of tea of my life.
While I was moored the skies began tentatively to clear, first there were some gaps in the cloud, the sun occasionally broke through. A breeze appeared and freshened and when I resumed my passage I was able to hoist the genoa and sail. The canal regulations permit sailing, but the engine must be kept running.
Every ten metres there was a blue umbrella, and beneath it a patient angler. In the course of my traverse of the canal I saw just two tiny wriggling fish landed, too small for the table, and hardly offering much in the way of sport. I noticed that some anglers in an attempt to improve productivity were tending a battery of rods. It was the weekend and scores of families were out walking and cycling, most waved, I reciprocated and in this way the miles steadily rolled by.
The canal is sixtyone miles in length, too much to comfortably traverse in a single day with a cruising speed under power of about five knots. Yachts are only permitted to use the canal in daylight hours, and in Germany rules are rules.
The small town of Rendsburg, where I planned to spend the night is conveniently situated about two thirds the way from Brunsbuttel to Kiel. It lies at the head of a pleasant natural lake opening up from the canals northern bank. The entrance is narrow and winding, the wooded shores steep—to, it then broadens out into a substantial body of water. There is a small and friendly yacht club, the berthing master coaxed me into a narrow berth, bows on to a wooden quay. This was a warm and sheltered place on a balmy evening, and it was most pleasant to sit out on the terrace beneath the overhanging trees in the last rays of sunlight and gaze out over the lake.
There were just twenty—five kilometres to navigate before Holtenau the canals northern exit, and this is the most pleasant and interesting reach. There are reeded meres opening off, herons standing sentinel and frequent glimpses of a flash of the white tail feathers of moorhens diving for cover into the reeds. The flat plain gives way to low wooded bills, the canal hitherto almost ruler straight, now takes a series of gentle curves as it follows contours, through the trees there are glimpses of elaborate castellated and turreted Villas in a style which we call “Victorian”, most ingeniously constructed in wooden boarding.
Soon there was that feeling of light and space ahead, which accompanies open water. Around the final bend there are some wharves, berthed ships, and then the final lock gates which open into the tideless Baltic.
There were many other yachts awaiting entry,and as the gates opened we swarmed in, the lock is huge and could comfortably accomodate hundreds more. The procedure for the paying of dues is quite dotty, and contrasts with the efficiency with which the canal is operated. After securing the boat it is necessary to land and pay for ones passage at a small newspaper and icecream kiosk, situated on the left bank of the canal. A receipt is given which must then be taken to an office on the third floor of a large administrative building on the right bank, where it is duly stamped. There were scores of yachtsmen and women, for most skippers seemed to delegate this duty to their wivesg crossing and recrossing bridges, climbing steps and stairs.
One of these wives seeing that I was unfamiliar with the procedure, literally took me by the hand. Her husband glowered, shouted at her and waved a fist, telling her not to bother with me but to get a move on. She; however, is her own woman, and ignored him, securely held in tow mildly flattered at being flaunted, I went along with her assertion of independence.
The charge for a small yacht making the passage and saving many hundreds of miles rounding Jutland, was a very modest four pounds.
In a few minutes the gates opened and “Sheldrake” for the first time, to my knowledge, wet her keel in the Baltic. The Kieler Hafen is a fine natural harbour, once Germanys‘ principal naval port. There are still warships, but most of the traffic is now commercial. Kiel is an important ferry terminal for services to the Scandinavian ports. Opposite the city there are shipyards, evidently busy, the sound of hammering provided a counterpoint to the rumble of city traffic, and the evening sky was prettily lit up by the glow of welding torches.
Elish was soon to arrive by train and I looked for a berth as close as possible to the city centree I first secured in the Academic Haven, home of the university yacht club. There were a number of Polish yachts berthed there, and I chatted to their crews. The boats were not privatley owned, but maintained and operated by trade unions for the use of their members. This seemed a good idea to me, one our own labour movement could emulate. Our trade unions seem woefully lacking in imagination in such mattersn sponsoring mainly conference centres and convalescent homes. I was amused at the notion of the South Wales N.U M. sailing a boat at Cowes week .
This haven while convenient to the city proved to be very uncomfortable) There was a great deal of activity and bustle in the harbour, ferries crossing to the small towns on the eastern bank? while in the shipyard a tethered ship was undergoing engine trials, its wash combined with that of the water~borne traffic set “Sheldrake” rolling. The stolid Poles seemed not to mind, and were less disturbed for their boats were much larger.
I found a better billet in another yacht harbour, a mile to the north, opposite the large and splendid hotel—Iike Kiel Yacht Club, built for the 1936 Olympic games. These German clubs are quite unlike those with which I am familiar. Germanys’ coastline is short proportionate to populationa and much of it is unsuitable for sailing. The prosperity that has resulted from the “economic miracle”, the desire to
get afloat, and the operation of market forces, with the German predeliction for rationing by price, has made sailing an expensive business. Yachting here seems to be exclusively a rich mans sport, yacht Clubs are smart places in which to be seen and in which to dine. The Kiel Yacht Clubs restaurant is in the four star gourmet class, or so I have been told, for I did not eat there. Afloat or ashore these wealthy yachtsmen demand their creature comforts.
All this is far removed from my own Club on the Usk, which is in the fullest sense of the word amateur. It is welcoming to all who want to saili and being Welsh, has no pretensions to any sort of exclusivity. Managed and operated by its members, costs are kept down by the sharing of labour. Members can receive instruction and tuition, a mooring and use of a clubhouse. More to my taste, despite the mud, than the dull impersonality of marinas, or the opulence of clubs like these.
Kiel is a fine modern city, which owes its prosperity to the ferries to Scandinavia, its busy ship building and repair yards, and its university. The approach to the city centre from the quays however, is unfortunate, a miniature Soho. There are strip clubs, blue movie houses, pubs with a rough clientele and just off the main street, bathed in a lurid crimson light, the “Eros Centre”. Here a few bored looking whores postured and pouted in shop widows a in a manner intended to be seductive and enticing. Curious adolescents their principal audience. There seemed a scarcity of serious punters, perhaps as in Amsterdam the fear of Aids had frightened off the custom. And in answer to your unspoken question . … I didn‘t.
Close to the yacht-haven, set in parkland in a fine nineteenth century building is Kiels art gallery. Knowing little of German painting, its very unfamiliarity increased my enjoyment of the hundreds of fine pictures. I found that I especially liked the paintings of a transitional romantic period, as the stiff nineteenth century academic painting, began to give way to less formal and less stereotyped art. German painters discovered immpressionism and adapted that style to the soft muted colours of their own landscape with distinctive results. There is some fine sculpture, both modern and classical and a large gallery of powerful modern painting.
With perceptions and sensibilities sharpened, for that is the point and purpose of art, I visited Kiels magnificent aquarium, the most impressive that I have eVer seen. There is a tank of Sea anemones as exotic as tropic orchids, sinister conger eels bare their teeth and grimace at the children, who with great boldness press their wet noses flat against the glass. In a large tank a whole shoal of herring? an uncountable multitude, endlessly Circuit their alloted
space with hypnotic effect. Outside in a large pool on the promenade, “seehunden”5 seals, lithe extroverts disport themselves , a continuous display that delight the children for whom this is the happy focus for an evening stroll.
Across the haven, doubled, for the surface was quite calm and unruffled, the skyline was exquisite. The shipyard cranes and scaffolds formed a delicate spidery tracery against an evening sky, darkening as I watched from a pale green to a deep mauve. The occasional flare and shower of golden sparks from a welding torch gave the scene something of the atmosphere of a Whistler “nocturne”, See how the painting had worked on me.
While I had been wandering about Kiel, Elish was crossing the North Sea, and Was to travel by train from Esbjerg to meet me. I spent the morning making “Sheldrake” ship shape , polished the brass scuttles, gave the mahogany a wipe with linseed oil until it gleamed. I plumped up the cushions, with the lamps lit the effect was warm and cosy, and I would not trade it for the stateroom of a Cunarder.
When Elish arrived I had to abandon my plan to celebrate by dining her in the Rowing Club, driving rain confined us to “Sheldrake”, we ate simply but well aboard and I was happy to have her to myself !. Elish loves “Sheldrake”, has cruised many miles with me in fair weather and foul. She has a confidence in me, sometimes mis—placed, and in the boat that is justified, which enables her to be happily relaxed in almost any situation.
Overnight the rain had cleared the air, it was a fine clear morning and we sailed for Holtenau where there are shops conveniently beside the quay. We loaded “Sheldrake” with beer, we had been warned that Danish beer, while excellent in quality is expensive. Provisioning soon completed we sailed for the open sea. By the time we reached the narrOWS at Freidrichsort we had a spanking force five or so over the port quarter. It was an offshore wind and the sea remained fairly smooth. To starboard we passed a World War two U-boat a memorial to the crews that failed to return, beside it a soaring tower of red brick, suggesting the prow of a Viking ship another monument to those who died at sea, for Kiel was Germanys’ principal naval port. I thought of the monument to British seamen on Plymouth Hoe and the folly of war.
When we crossed the Ekernforder Bucht the seas quickly built up, a result of a longer fetch; but we were soon in calm water again. “Sheldrake” went well, showing off to Elish, I suspected. For most of the time the log showed that we were making five knots, bowling along a most attractive coastline of low dunes backed with woodland. Elish, happily, is quite untroubled with seasickness. We were content with a modest distance and having sailed just twenty miles decided to enter the river Schlei.
From seaward the entrance is unremarkable, a narrow opening between piers, giving little promise of the fine open expanses of lagoon within. While we had been sailing the wind had backed south and then east and we Were able to sail through the entrance and follow the buoyed fairway of the river which winds through shallows on to Kappeln and then continues to Schlesvig the provincial capital of this northern province. The blue waters of the lagoon are the home for thousands of swans, as we passed they were resting or roosting, a continuous band of gleaming white like surf across our horizon.
Among the many yachts and boats out on the lagoon I noted a fine old naval cutter, a German version of the cutters on which I learned to sail as a “Ganges” boy. She was being skillfully handled and was a joy to watch as she tacked up to windward. We continued up the winding river stemming a modest current, threading our way between the wooded banks to the quays of Kappeln. This is an old town with a lot of charm, formerly a Hausa port, once an important trading centre. Its quays are still busy with coasters unloading timber. There was a berth for us at a pleasantly rural yacht wharf, perhaps half a mile from the town, a swan hustled her cygnets aside to make room for us.
Once secured, we landed and followed a dusty track that wound through fields of maize into town. We ate well at a Greek restaurant on the quayside, lingering over the complimentary ouzo which £0110wed. In the fading light of a fine evening we wandered through the winding cobbled streets, until drawn by the unlikely strains of Irish music, we found ourselves in a most friendly and gregarious bar, where to Elishs’ surprise and gratification draught Guinness was served. We thoroughly enjoyed Kappeln
It was a pristine morning, and we sailed early for Denmark With a light westerly wind and clear skies, we were able to sail all the way out of the river and into the open sea. Once more it was an easy reach in calm water all the way to the Kalkgrunda there a tall beacon marks the entrance to the Flensburger Forde~ Out to seaward a grey naval ” schnellboot” was on station at the boundary with Danish waters,
Ahead of us were the low wooded shores of the Danish islands of Kegnas and Als, as we closed, I watched the shoreline with interest, the low wooded hills alternating with fields of grain, reminded me of that part of the East Riding of Yorkshire where I spent much of my boyhood. At the southern tip of Als, workers in the fields were combining barley, we were near enough to smell the dust and the chaff, but totally absorbed in their labour, the workers were oblivious to our passing
This point rounded I set a course north east for Skjoldnaes Point, the northern tip of the island of Aero. It was a good sail across the Lille Baelt, scores of yachts brought out to enjoy the fresh breeze. We soon rounded Skjoldnaes, a long sandy spit, and made for Sobyﬁ our first Danish port. We helped ourselves to a berth, bows to a small somewhat rickety wooden jettyl
We flew flag “Q” beside our Danish courtesy flag, but there was no reaction. the customs man had called it a day? as had the harbourmaster.
My eye was caught by the local fishing craft, their principally use is to tend the fish traps, the stakes protruding above the surface are a feature of these waters and often difficult to see in poor light or rough conditions. These clinker double—ended boats have a blunt bow and stern, and are very strongly built sturdy boats, they look as if they would convert into fine cruisers.
The sun was out and some small tow~haired children were bathing from a pebble beach beside the harbour? rashly, I decided to join them. I was quite unprepared for the shock, the water felt bitterly cold to my feet as I waded in, continuing for dignity rather than pleasure; I plunged in, swam a very few strokes and duly braced, returned, reflecting that they breed hardy Vikings in these parts.
We found Soby a rather dull little town» there are just one or two picturesque old houses and a fine windmill. We returned to “Sheldrake” to eat and as we made our way back the weather rapidly deteriorated. In a now familiar pattern? the skies darkened, the wind freshenedr the barometer plunged and it began to rain. It seemed that yet another depression — that had been giving Britain foul weather — was drifting inexorably northeastwards.
Waking, we found there had been no improvement, a friendly German yachtsman gave us a forecast, “sechs bis sieben, sehr stark”. We planned only a modest sail along the shore to Aeroskjobing, a little over ten miles, and the strong wind being offshore did not deter us. My pilot hook warns of shoals half a mile southeast of the harbour, and we stood out to clear them. “Sheldrake” was well reefed, but even under much reduced sail she still tramped along at five knots, we received an occasional dowsing as a wave larger than its brothers broke over the bow. It is an advantage that this water is fresh and clothes quickly dry.
My small scale passage chart proved unsuitable for inshore navigation in these intricate, shoal strewn waters. I was mistaken in the location of our destination —Aeroskjobing~, assuming it to lie at the northern side of a long narrow, appendix like peninsula. I failed to see a harbour entrance where I expected one to be and realised that we were fast closing a lee shore. Rather than press on in poor visibility into what may be a dangerous situation I brought “Sheldrake” about and anchored in a small bay under the shelter of some cliffs, taking a pause to reflect and look about. We then saw masts above the trees, a closer examination of the chart and pilot revealed that the harbour was the other side of the headland.
Getting there, motoring dead to windward, before coming about on a run was hard wet work. “Sheldrake’s” crashing through the steep seas filled the air with spray to the point that even breathing got difficult, Fortunatley it was only a short trip, once around the point we gained a lee, there was a buoyed fairway into the harbour.
There were scores of yachts sheltering here and the harbour was crowded, we made a couple of circuits before finding a berth alongside “Nordfarer”,a fine wooden folkboat. As he took our lines, Eric the skipper observed that, “this is a day for tough sailors”. We learned later that Eric was
an A.B. in the Danish merchant marine and like the Dutchman in Flushing and thousands of other seamen throughout Europe a casualty of hard—nosed shipowners and their “flags of convenience”. Annette, Erics wife and a baby were also aboard “Nordfarer”, They had arrived only a little while before us and also experienced a rough passage. Eric was fitting out the boat himself, and hadn’t yet got around to fitting reefing gear. We saw his sails while we were on passage, well to seaward … they were travelling.
Aeroskjobing turned out to be a delightful town its narrow streets lined with distinctive timber framed, pan—tiled houses, all freshly and brightly painted in harmonious liquorice allsorts shades. Hollyhocks flourished sprouting everywhere between the cobble stones beneath the dappled shade of sycamores. We just dawdled about the town before settling on a small hotel in which to eat»
It was crowded, a good sign and we had a long wait for a table. Guided by the friendly proprietor we chose a Danish speciality, and were rewarded by a tall tiered platter displaying, pink shrimps dusted with black caviar, wafer thin ham, small fishesi cheeses and countless other good things, beautifully garnished. This was a do—it—yourself smorgasbord kit, served with slices of rye and white bread and butter, we artfully composed our own open sandwiches. Accompanied with cool lager and ice cold schnapps it was a memorable meal.
Later we took advantage of a break in the weather to walk out along the narrow sandspit towards the islet that we had wetly rounded to reach Aeroskobing. There were perhaps a score of small wooden beach huts, of pleasing and idiosyncratic design and construction, each a little distant from its neighbor pleasantly situated in the lee of the bank , among wild roses that seem to grow everywhere. We collected some of the more mature hips to sow in our own garden.
Denmark is a most favoured little country, most of it tucked in behind the large peninsula of Jutland” The multitude of islands, some tiny, give her citizens an extensive and intricate shore line for their rest and recreation. Today however, the little houses stood empty and abandoned, the Danes like other Europeans are tending to join the mass migration to warmer sunnier Costas, with their more exuberant night life. As we climbed over the grass covered dune we were struck by the fierce blast of the strong westerly wind. Sizable waves were breaking upon the shore, I was relieved that I stood off and went about when I did, for this would be an inhospitable strand upon which to run aground.
In the face of yet more strong winds we abandoned our plans to sail on for Faaborg, and continued our exploration of Aeroskjobing. We visited a small but fascinating museum, the nineteenth century home of a respectably but not ostentatiously prosperous family, the intimate rather stuffy atmosphere has been carefully preserved as if in aspic, there is a wealth of domestic minutiae. The cupboards contain old shoes, wrinkled and with bulges that a century ago contained the wearers throbbing bunionsg the wardrobes are still full of clothes” There is some fine furniture and interesting paintings by accomplished amateurs.
The scale is modest, these people were cultured and restrained, there is less bombast and assertiveness than the households of our own contemporaneous Victorians. A reflection perhaps of Denmarks being a small and modest nation without the imperial pretensions of her larger ambitious neighbors to the south and west.
There are however. some faded photographs, and on a rack, the rifles of the local militia, a reminder of Denmarks prickly relationship with Germany. In a later conversation with Eric he summarised this chapter of his countries history for me, ” the Germans tried to take our land and we gave them a beating, then they came back with the Prussians and beat us, after 1918 we got the land ( Holstein) back again, the next time they came they had tanks and we had only rifles, we could do nothing.” The Germans come now as sailors and tourists, and get the same civilised welcome as everyone else.
We were reminded of the high cost of living when we suffered the indignity of having to return some of our purchases to the supermarket shelves. not having enough cash to pay for them. Denmark is expensive for the Visitorg but wages and the quality of life enjoyed by all Danes is high.
On returning to the boat we found that Annette had left with the baby, returning home by ferry. Eric had been left alone on his folkboat. We invited him aboard to join us for a drink, and enjoyed his cheerful company. We spent a long evening; talking about ships and the sea and our respective countries until it was time for us all to turn in.
Westerly winds forecast againa. force four to five. In the event they prove to be much stronger. With the main deep reefed and a small staysail we set out for Faaaborg. The principal town and seaport on the much larger island of Fyn.
My pilot book warns that …”this is a complex area and navigation can be tricky in reduced visibility . Aero and Fyn are separated by a line of islands and shoals”. I found that we were closing this hazardous lee shore at a brisk five to six knots, with a lively quartering sea and a strong boisterous wind. There are no distinctive marks or beacons to act as a guide. While the seas were of only a modest height, they were steep and short and frequently breaking. The small fairway buoys were difficult to find in the lively sea conditions.
Prudently I decided to turn and make once more for Soby, the approach is straightforward, easily identifiable and the harbour sheltered. Before I could come about, however, the problem was resolved for us. A ferry bound for Soby from Faaborg emerged from the islands, and from her track I was able to locate the passage west of the little island of Avernako. Elish did well sitting up on the coachroof, hanging on spotting the buoys among the Spindrift. We rounded a small island and negotiated more narrows, until we found ouselves in the well buoyed fairway that leads on to Faaborg. We had sailed a little over fifteen miles in less than three hours. Despite the effort and the concentration that was required to sail and navigate in these taxing conditions, we were able to appreciate the charm of these islands. This is a cruising ground that could be sailed for a lifetime without exhausting its rich store of islets‘ creeks, little fiords and secluded anchorages.
Faaborg is impressive viewed from the sea, a handsome town with a fine long waterfront. Again the harbour was crowded with yachts sheltering3 waiting for better weather before making their passages. We found a comfortable billet, tucked into a corner astern of a beautifully restored Baltic trading schooner. We saw another red ensign, it belonged to a yacht from the services yacht club in Kiel. The skipper, an army officer was a pleasant chap, cruising with his family. They made the same passage as ourselves and he tells us that his hand held anemometer was recording wind speeds of force eight gusting nine. “Sheldrake” does not have this sophisticated instrumentation, wind speed and direction being measured by the wet finger in the air method.
Our first call was the bank, then with a little money in our pockets we set out to explore the town. Like all Danish towns the place is full of pleasures. Small alley ways open off the busy main street into tree shaded,cobbled,courtyards closed in and shelterd by the traditional timber-framed houses. Most have seats and these are good places in which to loaf in the sunlight and out of the wind. In the centre of the town is a fine bronze sculpture, based on Danish mythology, a cow is suckling an extremly muscular and well endowed young man. The dark patina is missing in just one place, the bold feature stands out pale and polished from the laying on of many hands, for luck in love, we speculate.
We were pleasantly surprised in the evening when Eric turned up at the quayside with Annette and a pert and lively child in their small car. They had come to invite us to see their home. We gladly accepted, they live out in the countryside in a fine old farmhouse, a single storied timber — framed building very like our traditional Welsh longhouses. They were restoring the place beautifully and faithfully and making a fine family home. At the same time they were skillfully cultivating a large flower and vegetable garden.
Inside Eric shows us the fine pine furniture that he has made himself. He told us about his technique, and mimed a visit to an expensive furniture store. In the manner of a serious prospective purchaser he would examine and appraise the piece in which he was interested, making suitably appreciative noises and gestures. Until eventually he would leave with the air of one who is just about to make a decision. He would return to his workshop and make the piece himself, only better.
Annette is a florist, in Denmark an appreciated and recognised craft, she presented us with a long plaited garland of deep purple Rugosa roses, they hang beside me and still have their fragrance as I write.
This was our most northerly port and from this point we were homeward bound, albeit deviously . We threaded our way out between the islands into the Lille Baelt, our plan to make for Sonderborg. We were dissuaded by a fresh south westerly wind, and rather than make a long windward passage on a cool grey morning, decided instead to take what looked like a more interesting route to the north of Ala. We first passed close to the pretty undulating island of Lvo and headed out across the sound. A mile or so offshore the visibility deteriorated, I was no longer able to see the shore ahead or astern. Not anticipating this change in the weather I had simply been steering a course, neglecting dead reckoning.
Suddenly I was disconcerted to find myself well to the south of a north cardinal buoy, I realised that I had failed to give charted shoals in the middle of the Baelt sufficient offing. The echo sounder revealed that there was little water under “Sheldrakes” keel. Swiftly coming about,” duck your head Elish!” I steered a reciprocal course until we were out of danger. This was a salutory lesson, it does not do to ever become complacent, tidal water may not have been so forgiving.
The weather worsened for a while as we rounded the grey north coast of Als. We then turned into the sound that seperates Als from the mainland , we saw an inviting looking creek opening up to port. We identified this from our pilot as the Stegvig, and tempted by its description continued on to Dyfig. As we did so, the clouds rolled away and the coast was transformed for us by the evening sunlight.
At the head of the creek there is a channel marked by diminutive buoys, they lead to the narrowest of entrances. To port there is a long curving sandy spit,a resting place for swans, to starboard, a rickety landing stage with a few small clinker fishing boats. Among the trees there is a but and some locals loiter at the waters edge, just messing about on their boats. It is a real “Huckleberry Finn” sort of place, we passed close, to within an “oars length” of the shore.
Once through we found ourselves in a large almost totally land locked lagoon with other smaller creeks opening off, a fine natural harbour. There is a small marina with yacht berths and pontoons, but we chose to anchor close inshore almost in among the reeds in a quiet corner of the harbour. A calm came with the evening in this peaceful and pleasant place, we sat out contentedly in the cockpit and watched the first stars appear.
A brilliant morning, a blue sky, a light northwesterly breeze, and a high and steady barometer gave every promise of a good day. We sailed quite early, reluctant to disturb any of our neighbors and for the pleasure of it, we weighed and departed under sail. I backed the foresail to bring the bows around, the sails filled, I felt their weight as “Sheldrake” heeled just perceptibly, then slowly gathered way as we ghosted silently between the anchored yachts. Once through the narrows the wind was ahead of us and tacking first close under one grassy bank, then back under the other three or four times until we cleared the Stegvig.
Once out in the AIS sound the wind was over the quarter with enough strength to give “Sheldrake” a steady three and a half knots. Quite fast enough, for this strait is in every way a classic passage, to be savoured, this comfortable walking pace was about right for its appreciation. Perhaps a mile wide at its northern end, much narrower to the south, there are no distracting shoals or hazards. The sunlit landscape, a patchwork of fields and woodland spreads over a gently undulating terrain rolled slowly by. There were two hours of this incomparable sailing before the fjord divided. An inviting branch opened up to port which leads to Stevening, a larger opening to Augustenborg and the Danish royal palace.
Our way lay through a narrow opening to the AIS Sund, difficult to spot among the trees. The channel now barely half a mile wide, the banks high and densely wooded. The sun, warming as it climbed, had brought many more yachts out onto the water. Just enough wind funnelled down between the trees to give us way.
As we neared Sonderborg the sound narrowed further and curved, just around the corner we saw ahead of us the town and its bridge. This sadly was to be our last port of call in Denmark, we secured to the town quay to land, explore, and spend the last of our kroner. There is a fine church near the quayside, through its windows we caught tantalising glimpses of the hanging models of old ships, votive offerings, donated to ensure the protection of their crews, sadly the church was locked.
Sonderborg is a fine prosperous town, the streets thronged with shoppers. By fine calculation, we ate in a cafeteria, bought postcards and stamps, a pair of cotton check shirts, two ice creams and returned with only one or two small coins.
We had enjoyed our brief visit to Denmark, I was repeatedly struck by the similarity of people and countryside to East Yorkshire. Scarcely surprising, for that part of Britain was forcibly and thoroughly colonised by the ancestors of these Danes. Many of the dialect words that we used so freely as children have their origins here. With their traditional concern for the quality of life, good education, health care and housing, a spacious unspoiled countryside, these modern Danes are largely free of the problems of our inner cities and conurbations. A U.N.E.S.C.O. comparative survey, taking into account all
We followed a cruise ship through the raised bridge and out into the open sea. By this time the wind had freshened to a stiff breeze, once out of the lee of the land, as we re – entered German waters, the sea quickly became quite rough. We had a wet and boisterous sail across the Flensburger Fjord, and it continued that way until we obtain something of a lee off the Kalkgrund. We had another three hours of lively sailing before our next port of ca11,the unpromisingly named harbour of Damp.
This is a purpose built, functional holiday resort, enormous rectangular apartment blocks, tower above and overshadow the harbour. It is much like our own Porthcawl, but smaller in scale and cleaner , an affordable holiday place for working class people. There is a short promenade, funfair, bars and a supermarket. I enjoyed the feeling of being among a crowd of people themselves and rather liked Damp.
In the morning I took my place in the queue for brotchen, by this time my German was just about good enough for me to carry through this sort of transaction without betraying that I am a foreigner, or so I liked to think ! It was a pleasant task making a Choice from all the rich variety of bread, cakes and pastries that were on display, especially to watch the children sent to shop, agonising over which of the enticing “kuche” they should buy with the pfennigs they have been given to spend on themselves. They will take away good memories of Damp .. the long uncrowded sandy beaches, backed by dunes and woodland, and perhaps a trip on the cruise ship around the beautiful islands of Denmark.
We made a good gentle passage south, slowly in light winds, as if reluctant to leave the Baltic. The wind was almost astern, I boomed out the staysail and it backwinded and filled the genoaV generously goose – winged we make a stately progress south to the Kieler Bucht. Yachts seemed to emerge from every creek and inlet, and there was plenty for us to see and enjoy as we entered the haven to secure at Holtenau.
The brief formalities at the canal were soon completed, we wandered about as if we had all the time in the world, lingering among the lawns and rosebeds. in the dappled shade of the trees . Once in the canal however, we met a strong headwind, it was case of motoring dead to windward, not the most satisfying form of progress. We were glad to reach Rendesburg, where I berthed in the same slot as on my last visit.
This proved to be a charming town, approached from the yacht haven through mature wooded parkland. There are modest but fine old buildings and an air of quiet prosperity,good bookshops, a little theatre and pavement cafes. That evening we ate splendidly in a Balkan restaurant treating ourselves to a “Dalmatian Gourmet Platter”, a rich variety of cutlets and sausages, artfully garnished and served on a bed of rice. We enjoyed good beer and the complimentary slivovitch. A young Yugoslav “gast arbeiter” joined us at our table, we made conversation as well as we could, he had little English and less German. We gathered that he is here to work in an electronics factory, in this cafe he can enjoy conversation with his countrymen and a little relief from the loneliness of exile.
During the night the wind freshened and remained obstinately in the south west. It was a long slog, again motoring dead to windward, “Sheldrake”s progress impeded by the windage of her mast and rigging. Incessant driving rain added to the misery , the kilometre posts passed painfully slowly. It was a relief that this time with Elish aboard, I could get a watch below and make tea.
In the early evening we berthed in Brunsbuttel, landed to provision, and tempted by the label, which shows an incredibly hale and healthy old chap setting off barefoot across the Watt, boots suspended about his neck, treated ourselves to a bottle of ” Wattenlauper” Frisian hitters. This proved excellent aromatic stuff, just right for defeating the north German chill.
We were in the midst of yet another depression, the strong southwesterlies that were rolling in would make the passage down the Elbe a difficult and uncomfortable business, the wind against tide creating dangerous short seas. We decided on a rest day, it proved anything but, we were out of gas and I scoured the town before finding a supplier, a helpful plumber who dropped what he was doing to refill a bottle for me.
The following morning things had improved and we joined the flottila of yachts that were milling around in the canal, like ourselves held up by the weather, and waiting for the lockgates to open. Our journey down river was lively and fast. We had some unlocked for excitement when we reached Cuxhaven and the yacht harbour. I motored close to the quay, so as not to get swept past the entrance by the current, when suddenly we were caught by the wash from a passing ship that set us pitching, at the same time a powerful gust ,a downdraught from the quay set “Sheldrake” rolling onto her beam ends. The boom came adrift from its crutch and the eddies spun the boat around. Inevitably all this took place under the eyes of fascinated holidaymakers lining the harbour wall. It all came right as we were carried into the calm water inside the haven.
Beside our berth on the pontoon a party of youngsters were rigging a naval cutter, it took them perhaps an hour to sort the tangle of spars, sails, running and standing rigging. I watched them sympathetically as I remembered being drilled to do the same task in a minute and a half. All the same they did well, and left in good style for a regatta at a riverside village.
That evening we tuned to the appropriate channel on Nordeich radio for the English language weather forecast, the channel was otherwise engaged, by the announcer tells the world, “zwie englisher frauen”. We were embarrassed for them as we heared their exchange of inanities. “Oh its you!”. “Yes its us”. “We thought it was you”, “how lovely”. “Come for drinkies” They prattled on and on in a similar vein in defiance of all the conventions that ban chatter from the V.H.F. wavebands. The airwaves were effectively blocked by these women, to the irritation of all the seamen, fishermen and yachtsmen who were waiting for the forecast. We suspected that they were aboard two large “gin palaces” which had just arrived and were moored to the outer wall of the haven.
The forecast was broadcast, after some delay on an adjacent channel, and it was well worth waiting for, taken with a steadily rising barometer and clearing skies, we seemed to be in for a short spell of fine weather.
Our morning passage down the Elbe was magnificent,the wind a gentle easterly , warmed as it has passed over Europe, gave us a comfortable four knots. With wind and tide together the river was calm, scores of yachts left the yacht harbour behind us, and in due course overtook us, all bound down river for Helgoland. Once again the commercial traffic was heavy and I took “Sheldrake” back along her old track close to the port hand marks.
Visibility was excellent and we got a good View of Neuwerk with its scattering of small buildings and its single small spire. We could just make out the line of withies that mark the winding channel to the islands harbour, it would be an interesting port of call, but sadly not this trip.
For the first time on the voyage I was becoming conscious of the passage of the days. Elish had to be at her schooldesk at the end of August. I would like to have “Sheldrake” back on her Usk mooring before the onset of the gales that so often come in October, and before shortening days and low temperatures begin to erode the pleasures of sailing.
With this good visibility and settled weather,to sail for Helgoland would be an uneccessary and lengthly detour. Once clear of the Scharhorn I set a course to the southwest. With the benefit of fixes on the Elbe and Weser lightvessels we were able to keep judiciously offshore of Wangerooge and Spiekerooge. Our progress was slower than I expected, it became clear that we would not make Norderney before nightfall. I altered for the Spiekerooge Seegat, the approach was not simple and straightforward, the shoals extend for nearly three miles offshore. The conditions however were at their optimum, we located the red and white buoy of the Otzumer Balje and then followed the buoyed fairway.
For a little while we had been breasting the flooding tide, now it was with us as it streamed through the Spiekerooge Seegat. We passed the buoys at a speed which hardly gave us time to identify them. In the uncertain light it was difficult to distinguish the green and red middle ground buoy which marks the divergence of the channels. East for
Spiekerooge, south—east for Neuharlinger—seil, south for Benserseil, our way is to the south-west and then west for the yacht harbour of Langeooge. All the channels are winding, taking an apparently aimless route to their destinations. It seemed at first that we would never be able to unravel our route from the confusion of marks. But we do find our buoys, these soon give way to withies that meandered ahead of us following a convoluted courSe across the Watt. By this time it was late evening, the sky overhead a dramatic deep indigo, before us pale light slanted between gaps in the Cloud, momentarily revealing the harbour, before it was lost again.
The island to the north was veiled and indistinct in the evening haze. The improbable withies, almost completely submerged _ for this was a spring tide— stretched ahead of us like the remnants of a long drowned forest. Yachts making an easterly passage came up, they passed so close that we could have exchange handshakes, I had to smartly haul in the mainsheets to avoid fouling their shrouds. We found ourselves led to the piers that enclose the harbour, both tired, for though pleasureable, this had been a long and demanding day, we gladly secured in the first vacant berth. I landed to pay my dues and also to change some Guilders for Marks. The harbour master readily agreed, indeed offered to change as much as I liked, some visiting Dutch sailors indignantly protested when they noticed that he was giving me a very unfavourable rate, insisting that I recieved the correct amount.
Scarcely has the transaction been completed, when with a wave of his hand, the harbourmaster drew my attention to the fine collection of pennants that hung about the bar. He invited me to contribute to his collection. I told him that I flew a very beautiful pennant, that of the “Royal Welsh Cruising Squadron”!. Inventing as I went along,I described it : a crowned red dragon rampant ( or erect?), clutching an anchor, against a background of green white and gold. His appetite thoroughly whetted, I gave him the bad news, it is “sehr exclusive”, members strictly forbidden to give them away.
With clear skies and the reassurance of a gently rising barometer, we set out for another passage west, seaward of the islands. We stemmed the last of the flood tide through the Seegat, so that once offshore out in the North Sea, we should have the benefit of the full six hours west—going tide. We crossed the shoal ground beyond the Accumer Tief, the incoming swell was steep and sent “Sheldrake” pitching, dipping her bowsprit with each wave. I could hear the crashing of pots and cutlery and protests, as Elish caught unawares, strove to restore order. Then as we reached deeper water and met a longer rolling swell the motion became easier.
I kept five miles offshore, with the wind abeam making a steady three knots. Up wind, to the south, the islands Baltrum, Norderney, Juist slowly slipped by, pale silhouettes, low on the horizon. The autohlem did the work silently, efficiently, tirelessly, unlike a helmsman it has no mind to wander. Elish was absorbed in her book and I was free to lie on the foredeck the sun warm on my back, gazing down the stem to the waterline, the water parted and slipped by cleanly , except when a slight pitching sent the bobstay under the surface and created a little disturbance, there was then a brief transient rainbow as the spray caught the light, so the miles pleasantly slipped by.
I passed more time taking sunsights. At this distance from the shore there was little to distinguish one island from another, with the everpresent risk of a sudden deterioration in visibility 3 it was important to know just where we were before closing the shore. As we approached Memmert, little more than a sandbar with a tower, a refuge for the shipwrecked, or stranded Wattenlauperen, a certain riffle of the surface , some excited sea birds , stirred a predatory instinct.
I paid out the feathers and hooks astern and scarcely had the line streamed,before I was rewarded with an unmistakeable powerful resistance and wild vibration. The the lures broke surface and there was a flash of silver in the wake. I hauled away and had four substantial mackerel, they came in quivering, dancing, shedding scales, over the transom. In minutes I had filled the bucket, I could have filled the boat. However, it is our practise to take no more than we can use, with a few extra , gifts for the yachtsmen in Borkum. I noticed that just as the mackerel came inboard so the wind died, as if there was some mysterious synchronism of elemental forces.
The Osterems opened invitingly to port, but a glance at the tidal stream atlas told me that long before we could hope to reach Delfzijl we would be stemming a powerful ebbing tide,. better to press on to the west and Borkum.
Off Borkum, to the east, there is an inshore passage inside the wedge of the Hohes Riff, which thrusts out nearly seven miles to seaward of the of the northwestern point of the island. It is a tempting short cut but an examination of the chart showed that this channel is not buoyed, it is strictly for fishermen or yachtsmen with local knowledge. Prudently I continued westwards until we reached the Riffgat buoy and I calculated that we could safely venture across the Geldsakplatte. I took the precaution of having Elish keep watch on the echo—sounder and report Changes in depth.
A dying wind in the middle of the day, is often an indication that it is about to change direction and blow from another quarter. By the time we were over the sand and in the broad, deep and safe buoyed channel of the Westerems, the wind had piped up once more and veered almost due west. It rapidly increased in strength to a point where in the gusts we are over-canvassed, but I do not reef, for now we were just off Borkum and closing in great style. “Sheldtake” had a bone in her teeth, with wind and tide with us we must have presented a brave sight to watchers on the shore. It seemed only minutes before we turned into the Fischerbalje and sailed along the training wall that curves round to the entrance to the yachthaven.
We find the mackerel almost impossible to give away. The yachtsmen whose consumption of seafood ashore is remarkable, who will wolf dawn the most dubious oysters, shrimps and mussels, turned their noses up at the fresh natural article, still with a sparkle in the eye. A Dutchman took some, once he was satisfied that we are giving and not selling. We ate well frying as many as we can manage and pickling the rest to enjoy later. We carry malt vinegar, peppercorns, mace and bayleaves for the purpose.
The following morning we took the bus into town, walked the prom, visited the museum and squandered almost all our Marks, returning laden with beer and victuals. Waiting for the bus, we fell into conversation with a young woman who spoke good American, she had her young son with her an engaging little chap, a coloured boy . Before we boarded the bus we emptied our pockets and gave him all our remaining small change, “kleingeld”, explaining that we were leaving Germany later that day, his eyes lit up, Christmas had come early.
We had some hard decision making to do? my preference would be to make an offshore passage westwards from Borkum to the Hook of Holland, or Flushing and the entrance to the English Channel. The Westerschelde however, is more than three hundred miles distant, along a lee shore. The shallow water offshore creates notoriously nasty seas and there are few safe havens for a small craft in strong onshore winds. The brief spell of fine weather that we had been enjoying was
forecast to come to an end. The inshore passage, island hopping over the Wadd was another possibility, but progress would be slow, it is usually only possible to take one watershed at a time, and there was a real risk of being held up if the winds become very strong.
I decided to take the “mast—up” canal route through Friesland to the Isselmeer, and then to retrace the inland route that I had taken on my northward passage. We sailed in the late afternoon, and had a fair tide up the Ems, we enjoyed a favourable light wind as we make our way through the Oostfriesche Gaatje. The Visibility however was poor, the island and mainland were soon completly obscured and we had only the buoys to guide us through the banks
The breeze failed completely and we were motoring, when we saw a yacht ahead aimlessly wallowing about. As we neared, her crew, a woman, sounded a horn to attract our attention, only her husbands backside was visible, he was bent over the engine. She told us that their engine was “kaput”. We gladly towed them into the Zeehaven canal, the approach to Delfzijl the most northern Dutch port. Here they seemed to become uncomfortable with the arrangement, they slipped the tow, allthough it was obvious to us that their engine was still not working properly. We speculated that they may be afraid that we would make a claim for salvage, unaware of the convention among British yachtsmen that claims are not made in these situations. We did stand by them, until we were satisfied that they are at least safe, before entering the harbour and securing.
We berthed in the yachthaven beside a small cruising yacht, our neighbors, a friendly elderly German couple, welcomed us. Hearing Elish complain of the cold,the skipper handed over two generous measures of whisky, observing that a ” cold woman is no good to anyone”. Perhaps an hour later we had a caller, the woman from the disabled yacht, she presented Elish with a bottle of a sweet Danish cherry liquor,it tasted exactly like a cough medicine I enjoyed as a child.
Delfzijl is a busy commercial port, close to the yacht-haven huge logs of tropical timber were being unloaded, dwarfing the dockers. It was grey, cold, very industrial and uninviting, there seemed little to tempt us to stay. We made for the entrance to the Eems canal at the opposite side of the harbour and were quickly locked through, once more we were in tideless water.
There was an excellent ships stores and chandler beside the canal, the sort of place that caters principally for working boats, barges and fishermen, quite unlike the marina “Chandlers” that seem to stock only: high fashion, posy, waterproofs, American style caps with “Captain” in imitation gold leaf, electronic gadgetry, tiny stainless steel objects at jewellers prices and other crap. I bought some rope, whipping twine, paraffin and packing for the sterngland that after millions of revolutions was beginning to dribble.
There were few bridges to hinder us on the way to Groningen and only a light headwind, as we made our way between ranks of poplars that line the canal. We had one un—looked for moment of excitement, approaching a bridge I saw a barge coming up from astern, he was still some distance and I decided that I have time enough to pass through the narrowed gap of the bridge before he reached it. My calculations turned out to be uncomfortably fine, it became Clear when it was too late for me to turn into the hank, that I was barely going to make it. He did not slow, we surged through on the downward slope of the rise in waterlevel that preceded his bow —wave.
Groningen, is a fine and handsome city9 a university town interlaced and surrounded by waterways, a northern Venice. It seemed as if this is a last resting place for all the old boats of Holland; Ancient craft of all shapesa types and sizes, find a last refuge here from the buffetings of wind, waves and tide and gently moulderw rust flaking from their old riveted iron. There are features lovingly treserved, windlasses like old backyard mangles, spars ropes and blocks that never again will strain to flogging canvas, redundant wheels and binnacles. The Dutch seem never to throw anything away while it has a scrap of use; or indeed no use at all, these craft floating, or perhaps even resting on the bottom, were enjoying a new lease of life as houseboats.
Old ships invite speculation about their histories and are never quite written off, never so decrepit, that they will not stir in some hopeless romantic £001 a dream of one more voyage.
It was a strange and unfamiliar sensation to be moored for the night in the centre of a city . We joined other yachts making the same passage at the visitors pontoon of the Motor Yacht club. Both tired, we decided to eat ashore, we had a couple of frugal days and decided to treat ourselves to an Indonesian Rijkstaffel. We picked a rather grand, for us, restaurant, the meal was both delicious and interesting, we were kept amused for most of the evening sampling the strange, exotic delicacies each in its own little bowl, atop a spirit lamp to keep them warm.
Getting clear of the city was a slow business, there were several bridges with just one operator . We had to wait for him to close the bridge after us and cycle to the next. It was pleasant enough in the clear light of the early morning and gave us an opportunity to enjoy the handsome town houses that line the canal. There were more houseboats, if anything more decrepit than those we had seen the day before some of the most ancient and leaky taking on a list, leaning like old men.
We emerged from the City into the Reitdiep, a fine waterway, the banks unusually, are low and as we motored along we were able to gaze out over the broad expanses of countryside, under skies that in Holland seem wider than elsewhere. There were many small hamlets, each with its church and spire. We encountered large flocks of moorhensﬁ grazing the waterside meadows, looking just like black chickens. There were goats, and plump, almost pig like fat sheep, remote cousins of our lean scrawny Welsh Mountain ewes.
All day the wind freshened and whipped up the surface of the canal into wavelets that had their tops blown off, enough of this came inboard to remind us what conditions must be like at sea. Even the Binnen waters inside the islands would be difficult to navigate with safety on a day like this.
The Rietdiep ends at the small town of Zoutkamp, where we secured alongside the quay. This is a pleasant place; the houses low under their tiled roofs snugly huddled behind the sheltering dyke. There is a little protection here from the winds of the North Sea that funnel through the Friesche Zeegat, and then across the ready wastes of the Lauwersmere, for we are once more near the coast.
We spent part of the evening in a bar kept by a former fisherman, ashore much to his regret because of health problems, he has had to give up the sea while still a young man, ” It was the best life”, he tells us. He has furnished his bar with mementoes of his fishing daysa there are some spectacular photographs of trawlers in heavy seas. The bar was quiet, as elsewhere in Holland the locals here are not gregariousr pubby people”
We locked out into a reedy winding river, as vicious squalls set the reeds dancing and the moorhens scuttling for cover. Our decision to take this longer inland route was justified, there would be no safe crossing of the Wadd, in the face of these strong westerlies, and the North sea did not bear thinking about. Here the scudding masses of grey storm cloud and the wildness made this a dramatic landscape. We emerged from the confines of the river onto the broader expanses of the Lauwersmere an extensive shallow lake. Our way once more marked by withies which threaded in a convoluted way through reedbeds and islets to open water.
To the north through the mist and driving rain we could just make out the seawall and the lockgates of Lauwersoog,a fishing and sailing centre, with access to the Waddensea.
We turned south and followed yet another winding channel to the Dokkumer Tief9 here the pattern of islets, inlets, creeks and waterways became even more intricate. We caught glimpses of Dutch yachts at anchor in secluded natural havens. This is a real “Swallows and Amazons” country? in good weather it would be a most congenial place in which to spend a week or so exploring.
The Dokkumer Tief is an ambiguous waterway, as if it can’t make up its mind whether it is river or canal. Once more we had the pleasure of motoring along, while enjoying the broad expanses of open country, well wooded and with the patchwork pattern of fields constantly changing in the light and shadow. Friesland is much less densly populated than the rest of Holland to the south, and even here most people live in the towns. Much of the province is water, canal, river and meeres, broad expanses, like our Norfolk Broads but more extensive and with far fewer pleasure craft.
With these inland waters, the Versemeer and Grevelingenmeere in the south of the country, the Isselmeer and the Wadensee at their disposal, Dutch and German yachtsmen, particularly those with small yachts, are little inclined to venture out into the North Sea, and not knowing it, they invest it with more dangers than it possesses. I got used to being asked.. “did you cross the English canallehannel) in that little boat?” On hearing my reply.t they would shake their heads, tapping a forefinger against the side of the head.
With the wind directly ahead, we were compelled to motor, the craft coming downwind were under no such constraint, with few bridges to interrupt their progress; they were able to sail. A succession of traditional boats made a brave sight as they swiftly bore down on us, making perhaps four knots under headsails alone, they passed almost silently, except for the faint sussuration of the tumbling wave under the bow, and the sighing note of the wind in their rigging.
On these Frisian waterways dues, or “bruggeld” is collected in an efficient and very Dutch manner. A clog is lowered at the end of a fishing rod and line, this is skillfully wielded by the bridge keeper or his young assistants and swung out to the passing boat. Elish soon became adept at catching the clog, and dropping in the coins. I was glad not to be single handed.
We tired early of the hard unrelenting slog to windward, and finding ourselves on the outskirts of a quiet but congenial looking village, decided to call it a day. Birdaard has a scattering of small houses, a working windmill, and just one pub. As is the nature of Village establishments, this had several roles: corner shop, snack bar, ice cream parlour and meeting place for the local youngsters. We called in to use the telephone, enjoy a glass of beer, then another, anticipating an early night. Soon however, folk started arriving, they all attempted to engage us in conversation and despite the difficulties with language we found ourselves enjoying a very convivial evening.
We were befriended by a young couple who spoke good English, the girl a most attractive blonds, was currently deep into a novel about the Rhonnda Valley. She was fascinated to learn that we are from South Walesl and were in a small way involved in the miners strike. “Sheldrake” was neglected that summer, as together with a group of friends we collected food and money for the whole duration of the strike, to give relief and support to miners and their famillies. It was moving and inspiring to see trucks laden with food and clothing arriving in the valley towns of South Wales and bearing greetings and messages of support sent by people like these , from all over Europe. Seen from here our friends told us, it looked like a heroic struggle, it looked like that to us too.
The young man has quite a reputation locally as an athlete, he has several times been winner winner of a traditional Friesiah contest, in which the competitors have to get a small boat around the province by wind, or muscle power, they can sail, row or tow? a considerable test of skill and endurance. Like all the Frieslanders we met, this couple talked with a great deal of pride about their native province, and told us they would regard living anywhere else a most unwelcome exile.
We went through the ritual exchange of names, addresses and invitations. We speculated that one day all the people that we have invited may turn upl perhaps together, what a great party that would be.
The canal between Birdaard and Leuwarden seemed dull, but our appraisal of landscape is always subjective, a shift in the light, a change in perspective, or indeed in ourselves, and what has seemed prosaic can become suddenly magical.
Leuwarden is the worthy capital Of Friesland, and by any standards a handsome city. We were soon through its industrial outskirts and into the centre, here the canal winds through an area of parkland, wooded, and with an artificial hillock like the mottes» that occur so frequently in Gwent.
Having secured “Sheldrake” against a green grassy bank, bowline to a bollard, sternline to a thorn bush. We scoured the tOWn looking for somewhere where we can cash some travellers cheques, out Of luck? we just wandered around the winding cobbled alleys of the old part of the town. There is much fine architecture, the tree shaded squares are surrounded by handsome churches and civic buildings. But most memorable was the carved inscription on the wall of a small, modest building,moving in its plain simplicity. Jewish School, closed in 1943″, forty five years on, it still evoked terrible disturbing images: thin, pale, frightened Children, cardboard suitcases, teachers, soldiers, the waiting trucks, Anne Frank.
There is an art gallery in the park, outside in the sunlight sculptors were working at their craft. One, a young man was carving granite with an angle grinder, he stood in a cloud of granite dust, the particles glinting in the sunlight. What would Michelangelo have done with such a tool? Leuwarden would reward a thorough exploration and we reluctantly leave to resume our passage,
At Franeker we found a small branch in the canal that led into the town, it seemed to offers a good billet , out of the disturbing wash of the passing traffic. We landed in the evening and found ourselves in a rather dull bar, full of morose characters, brooding over their beer. Something about the place lead us to feel unwelcome, I believe it was a “gay” establishment
I landed on the quay to fill a container with water, as I was looking for a tap a police car stopped beside me. I was addressed very curtly, rudely shouted at E”Hey…~ ” and something in Dutch, that I interpreted as “Come here”. Allthough I was clean and reasonably dressedﬁ I had been living aboard “Sheldrake” for four months and perhaps I was beginning to look a little wild and weatherbeaten. The top probably thought that I was some sort of, hobo, or illegal immigrant and fair game. I hammed up my response a little, smiling and politely answering “Good afternoon, can I help on?” in as near as I can get to an upper clarss accent. When I had explained, in response to his further enquiry that it was my boat that is moored alongside the quay, he realised that I was not a tramp but an English eccentric and was politeness itself. All the same, the incident did give me a Chill feeling of unease.
Once more butting a headwind, we set out for Harlingen, we arrived at a lowered rail bridge mid—way between the two towns and waited and waited. Another yacht arrived, the skipper consulted his almanac, and informed us that it is a Sunday and the bridge will remain closed. We had at least the pleasure of a short downwind sail back to Franeker, as we were sailing we realised that this was our first halt since leaving Brunsbuttel, and that it was probably for the best , for we were both tired and needed a break.
Franeker turned out to be a town of considerable character with a splendidly ornamented Guildhall and interesting back streets. Out of the wind and in the sun it was good to just relax and join the tourists — mostly Dutch— that thronged its streets. Franekers most famous son is one Erne Einega. As a young man, a premature rationalist, Erne, who had already distinguished himself as a prodigy by writing a mathematical textbook while a child, was much disturbed by the response of his superstitious fellow Citizens to the sudden darkening of the sky during an eclipse of the sun. Erne then devoted a substantial part of his energies, and the earnings of his woolcombing business into what became his obsession —the design and construction of a great planetarium – to instruct and enlighten his fellow citizens and banish their fears of the unknown.
The huge, largely wooden instrument was laboriously assembled in the loft of his home, an intricate and elaborate series of wheels within wheels, the outer and greater turning just once — every thirty three years~. The whole contrivance is driven by a system of hanging weights, regulated by a simple escapement like a cuckoo Clock.
Like so many other great men, it was Ernes’ misfortune to be born ahead of his time. His attempt to bring the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century to his townsfellows unappreciated, the planetarium regarded with as much apprehension as the eclipse. Ernes’ geared wheels it was thought, might interfere with the smooth and regular progression of the spheres they represented. A scientific commission was convened in a vain attempt to re—assure his fellow citizens.
Sadly any happy ending was to be long delayed, Erne found himself on the losing side in a small rebellion, was banished and spent long years in exile. During which time his young wife, whom he had fondly embraced beneath the gilded stars and planets, died. But Erne was eventually pardoned, and in his old age could return to gather the recognition and honours that he deserved. His house is now a fine museum, the planetarium still recording the passage of time, and the movement of the heavens, a worthy monument to folk science.
Harlingen is only few kilometres away, the bridge, yesterdays obstruction, readily opened for us, and we were soon entering Harlingen by its back door. The little yacht haven is a shaded bosky place, with barely a square metre of unoccupied water, it was tricky finding a berth and getting “Sheldrake” secured bows -on to a wooden jetty. Here enclosed by the tall trees which surrounded us, gales would not cause the duckweed to ripple . It was a perfect resting place for a sailor surfieted with salt water. We were moored beside a small motor cruiser called “Wally”, like most of the similar boats it had a broad step at the base of its transom just a centimetre or so above the waterline, a most convenient latrine for the ducks. Each of these craft had accumulated a great heap of droppings.
At the head of the haven there is a small wrought iron bridge and behind it a park, there is an artificial hillock crowned with an aviary. The town is a short and pleasant stroll away, through an interesting quarter of Chandlers, timber merchants, ropemakers and Shipwrights. There were several traditional boats being repaired. A large fishing boat was having her bulwarks renewed, large dark hardwood planks were being sawn and adzed, producing piles of bright blood red chippihgs and shavings.
ISSELMEER — AMSTERDAM
We looked out once more for a brief voyage through the salt Waddensee, before entering the Isselmeer. At the entrance to the sluice we waited in line for the gates to open, when they did we moved slowly forwards. I left a suitable interval between “Sheldrake” and the next boat ahead. A large German flagged ” Taiwan Clipper” came up swiftly on the starboard side, and was driven in a manouvre reminiscent of a rugby teams “flying wedge”, straight into the line ahead of me. There was a young woman at the helm obeying the instructions of the owner. He stood, bull necked, jaws clamped around a cigar, one of Georg Groz’s caricature capitalists, in yachting gear, ignoring all others, imperiously issuing helm orders from the foredeck.
He conned his craft to an advantageous position at the front of the lock, where he could be first away. I secured astern of him and engaged the helmswoman in conversation, “a real competitor, your old man, a proper go—getter, I expect he’s a big capitalist back in Dusseldorf..”. I realised from her expression and demeanor that she regarded his behaviour as entirly normal, I was the odd chap, who hadn’t learned the first rule of life… the big guys belong in front.
The Isselmeer was calmer and greener than on my journey north, now thick with algae it was beginning to resemble pea soup. A few more weeks sunlight and walking on it would not require a miracle. We made good progress running before the wind, until it finally expired with the cool of the late evening. We secured in Enkhuisen and much too tired to think about cooking landed and dined well in a fish restaurant. This is a most lively town, clearly in a holiday mood, there was live music in the bars and cheerful groups were sat outside enjoying what had become a warm and balmy night.
Journeying south , there was not a breath of wind to break the surface of the Isselmeer. As the sun climbed there was a shimmering haze that affected Visibility. The shore and its features, houses, trees, navigation marks appeared oddly suspended above the horizon, quivering like mercury.
For our lunch we entered Volendam and secured at the town quay. A delicious fragrance wafted over us from the fish smoking sheds on the pier, shrouded in a blue haze of wood smoke . I joined the queue at the smokery and we ate well, small fillets of herring, warm from the smokery, damp from the sea with fresh crusty bread. Replete, we made a brief exploration of the town. This is a cheerful and congenial place, the archetypal tourist town, the locals dress up obligingly for the coachloads of Visitors, from all the countries of the world who disembark to experience and photograph what they fondly believe to be authentic Holland. There were scores of street stalls selling postcards, ice cream and the fishy snacks beloved by both the Japanese tourists and the Dutch.
As we approached Amsterdam we passed a lighthouse, quite disproportionate in size to its present function In these tideless waters, it is a reminder of the Isselmeers turbulent past, as the tidal Zuider Zee.
While waiting to pass through the locks into the Nord See canal, we secured alongside a large charter schooner, its complement were schoolchildren from Paris5 together with some of their teachers. We were surprised to learn that the young man who took our lines – perhaps twenty years old ~ was the skipper. With just one other paid hand, even younger than himself, he sails this great ship with up to twenty passengers, the greenest of crews, about the Isselmeer and sometimes out to the Frisian Islands. Handling a vessel such as this in and out of incredibly crowded harbours, with such a cargo demands confidence and good seamanship. It seemed to be a trait, and an admirable one among the Dutch, that they are prepared to give considerable responsibility to young men and women.
At a similar age to the skipper of the schooner, I was being still being told by my Petty Officers, “you’re not paid to think lad!”
We enjoyed a rest day in the Six Haven. We found ourselves befriended by a single handed sailor, he had just arrived in a smart new steel ycht that he has built and fitted out himself. It is a fine handsome vessel. He was at first plausible, a good talker and had a lot of amusing stories, as he grew more confident and assurred in our company, his stories got more and more improbable. We recognised that we have been adopted by a ” bullshitter”, a virtuoso of the genre. He regaled us with colourful accounts of his exploits, each a little wilder than the last. Like the original ancient mariner he held us captive, until to our great relief he fixed upon another target, a poor chap who had flown over from Britain to join a yacht that seemed to have sailed on without him.
Such characters are harmless enough? if a little tragic, for I am quite sure that he could have been equally entertaining staying within the bounds of truth, or like Mark Twain in the manner of all good story tellers just ” stretching ” a little Later we crossed over to the city to meet old friends, dining out in good style at Kapitan Zeppo’s. In the late evening we returned to prepare for our passage south. We secured first in the Bout Haven, there to wait to take our place in the convoy through the city. It was a wet, wild and blustery night, there was inevitably much waiting about. It was tricky, trying to balance all the forces that were acting on the boat attempting to get her to remain still and not be driven into the bank, where the overhanging trees would entangle the rigging. The wind funnelled down the city streets, around the tall buildings, and came at us from all directions. Through the city, we were both Chilled and glad to simply drop the anchor in a small creek off the Alkemeer, we slept until mid-day.
Later we reached Gouda, and negotiated a succession of lifting bridges into the City centre. All day the wind had continued to freshen, maneuvering was difficult for everyone, but particularly for the family motor cruisers with their generous free~board and windage. These vessels seemed to go sideways as readily as forwards. Dodging them, and keeping “Sheldrake” off the leeward bank was difficult under way, stopped while waiting, it became problematic.
The weather worsened, another day of strong winds. Near Dordrecht we were buffeted against a steel barge where we secured while waiting for the bridge to open. Elish trying to fend us off, got the boathook jammed, the solid ash handle snapped like a carrot, we were both aware that it could easily have been her arm. That night we found a berth at the visitors jetty in the yacht haven of Strijenas, a quiet place of reeds and willows, an attractive village of small red brick houses clustered under the dyke. We enjoyed an evening stroll to the “local” , a good pub with old faded photographs of the old harbour filled with fishing boats, a reminder of the days when these were tidal waters, the harbour now given over almost entirely to pleasure craft.
When sailing I usually leave a line coiled down on the foredeck, but that morning absentmindedly failed to secure it. We motored to windward into a small sea until the boat slowed — a now familiar Vibration— told me that the screw was fouled. Over the stern I could just make out the tail of the offending rope trailing in the green water astern. We were rigged for sailing, and I tacked “Sheldrake” through the commercial shipping, looking for a sheltered spot where I could clear the obstruction. We anchored near Willemstadt, and not at all relishing a bathe on this cold wet day, I prepared to go over the side.
I put out the wire rope ladder, braved the cold water and half immersed pulled and tugged at the strands of rope. At frequent intervals each time a barge passed, we were caught in the wash and rolled . I simply hung onto the bumpkin stays with my elbows, as the waves broke over my head. With much worrying and tugging the knotted tangle finally came clear.
After putting on dry Clothes and thawing out with a hot drink, we set off once more for the Volkeraak. There again the seas were short and angry looking , but nothing like as wild as on my first Visit. We passed Ooltgenplaat and tired from our exertions put into the tiny Galatheese Haven for the night.
This is a small but alltogether delightful and convenient little harbour, there is just one building ashore, a small cafe. This is evidently a popular spot to which to drive out on a fine evening, and enjoy a simple meal or a drink, while watching the steady unending stream of commercial traffic. This is like a liquid motorway, great barges are constantly passing with a variety of cargoes, building material, chemicals, agricultural machinery, cars, even a barge loaded with tanks (military), south to Antwerp and the Scheldt, or northbound for Rotterdam.
We walked the foreshore and returned with the last of the light along the dyke, the poplars thrashing in the wind overhead. We dined in the cafe, the object of much curiosity from the regulars, unused to visitors. Back at the boat, yet another Dutch yachtsman called on us and questioned our sanity in the now familiar way.
When we left the harbour it was still rough, it remained heavy going until off Sikken, we were able to come about and reach northeast for the look into the Krammer. Here back in salt water we noticed the difference in the seas, here noticeably longer and the motion easier.
In the Keeten we again experiencede some hard sailing, well reefed, tacking to windward getting some help from the engine. The way to the Versemeer through the Zandkreeksluis is barred by a great shoal that divides the Oosterschelde. I Chose to pass it to the south, passing through the Brabantsche Vaarwater. The downwind run was bracing, the steep seas breaking on the banks and mussel beds to each side of us. Some mussel dredgers were working the banks, striving to satisfy the Belgian craving for the tasty morsel that each contains. These are fine modern vessels. Their antecedents can be found still afloat. On an earlier cruise in “Sheldrake”, we berthed on them, in of all places, Wexford. There a whole squadron of ancient Dutch and Belgian trawlers under the Irish flag but still bearing their Flemish names, dredge Wexford Bay for shellfish.
Soon we were closing the wooded shore of Zuid Beveland, there is deep water Close inshore here, scoured by the tides. Not for long however, soon the last stages of the dyke will be constructed, then all South Holland will be protected from the encroaching sea, all these waters will be tideless, and the Belgians will have to look elsewhere for their mussels. A crisis for Europe, and Irelands opportunity !
We had a long wait for the sluice, but it was pleasant enough out of the wind in the warm sun that had just burnt through the cloud. Out into the Versemeer the weather took a turn for the better. We made an enjoyable and relaxing passage through the islets. The wind eased back to a force three, just enough to keep “Sheldrake” sailing. For a little while we enjoyed a spontaneous tacking duel with a German yachtsman in a boat of similar length to our own. Like most of his countrymen, he was a competitor and enjoyed pitting his boat against mine. “Sheldrake”, with her large sail area and heavy displacement hull enabling her to carry her way from one lull to the next, has the edge. Its all good humoured, as I pull away I ask, …” fancy the Americas cup next year old Chap?”
At Veerse we entered the canal once more, this is a quiet pleasant rural stretch with the inevitable moorhens and sentinel like herons. Soon we were at Middleburg and looked forward to setting out for the Schelde and points south the following day.
It was not to be, for that night the barometer dived, another depression rolled up from the southwest. Strong winds shook the trees over our heads. A number of large yachts came in for shelter including some fine craft belonging to the Ocean Sailing club, their crew told us that they had a rough passage across the North Sea.
Middleburg must be as good a town as any in which to be holed up. There are some fine surviving buildings, but most of the town has been lovingly and thoughtfully restored after the ravages of war and flood. We had ample time to enjoy and absorb its attractions, for it was to be three days before the promise of better conditions prompted our sailing for Flushing. There we would be poised to continue to the south when the better weather arrives.
We said goodbye to new friends and headed south. As we were passing under a bridge at the outskirts of Flushing the engine began to Vibrate in an ominous manner. No plastic bag this time, evidently something much more serious. I tried reducing, then increasing the revolutions, the vibrations and shuddering eased a little. I investigated and found that the holding down bolts on the engines flexible mounts were loose. I tightened them but there was no imprOVement.
Using the very minimum power, barely enough to give “Sheldrake” steerage way, I eased her into the yacht haven — fortunately close at hand — the haven is managed by pleasant and helpful people and they recommended an engineer.
The next morning ” Mr. Mercury”, as I will call him arrived with his young aSsistant Jan. They made an inspection in a very professional manner and diagnosed the failure of an engine mount. No spares were immediatley available, it would be several days before the repair can be made.
Elish, who had hoped to accompany me to my first English landfall, had to return by ferry and train. I saw her off at the ferry terminal, we both felt sad at parting. We had shared many adventures and travelled a long way together, it had been a happy time for us both. The boat seemed strangely empty.
I did not have long to brood, soon after my return to the boat Jan arrived, he quickly got down to work and I asissted. He is a good and meticulous engineer, and welcomed the opportunity to practise his English . He maintained a running commentary while he worked. I found it amusing when he told me, in all seriousness that he thought he was getting too old for the job, he grunted and groaned from the bowels of the boat, he was all of twenty—three!
Finally the engine was secure on its new mounts, an older more experienced engineer came and checked its alignment with a micrometer. All seemed to be in good order when we took the boat out for a trial run around the harbour.
That evening in the bar I settled with Mr.Mercury, concluding business in the civilised Dutch fashion with several beers, the price was fair and I was well satisfied. Later, the harbourmaster told me that there was to be a break in the weather, but the respite from the strong winds is to be short lived, he told me that while I was welcome to stay, he advised me to take advantage of the “window”. I thanked him, paid my dues and returned to “Sheldrake” to study the Charts and tide tables. I set the alarm for an early start to benefit from the full south going stream offshore.
It was still dark when I eased “Sheldrake” from her berth, and out between the closely packed yachts. It took a little time to raise the lockmaster on the radio and for the lock gates to open for me.
“Sheldrake” lifted to the swell in the Scheldt, she seemed livelier in this her element. More buoyant, as if relieved to be away from the duckweed, the fresh water worms,slime, fungi and bugs that rot wooden boats, left too long in that unhealthy environment.
The wind was fresh offshore, perhaps between a three and a four in strength. Reaching, with a fair tide we made good progress seawards. Past Breskens I could just make out the sails of other yachts detaching themselves from the shore. Several of the larger yachts slowly came up and overhauled us, waving as they pass. I then saw the distinctive yellow hull of “Carla”, a beamy much loved family cruiser whose home port is Rye. She was built in Cardiff, in the same year as “Sheldrake”. I had met her owner his wife and son in Flushing, where we exchanged paper—backs,and chatted about boats and our travels. Now we exchanged greetings as she came up and overtook me.
Reluctantly I started the engine. As I altered to the south for Ostend, the wind became fine on the port bow, a few revs. would help me to windward. A little more than a mile offshore I could Clearly distinguish the fragrances of the land, the cloying sweetness of oilseed rape, the sharp tang of silage and the warm rich aroma of freshly dunged fields. I was actually crossing the border, lowering the red white and blue courtesy flag of Holland and replacing it with the red, black and gold of Belgium, I enjoy these little ceremonies. When to my amazement and utter surprise, I heard a high pitched warning signal , there was a fault with the engine.
The oil warning light was glowing,I had trouble believing this, the oil level is checked daily. I stopped the engine, hove to, and investigated. The dipstick came up dry, the engine oil was in the bilge, it appeared to have leaked from around the filter. After some investigation I determined the cause, the engine on being re—aligned had been set in a slightly different position, only millemetres but enough to bring the oil filter cover into contact with an engine bearer. As the engine vibrated, so the cover had split and distorted on its spline. I did not have a spare.
I weighed the situation, the wind still on the port bow was rapidly freshening, the sky had become black and threatening, the barometer quickly dropping from an already low reading. It looked as if the “window” in the weather was about to be slammed shut. The nearest shelter, Ostend was a good two hours to windward, the tide had a little less than that to run, my other option was to run back for the Scheldt and perhaps Breskens, but I was most reluctant to forfeit distance gained and to have to risk negotiating the shoal waters of the Scheldt and an unknown harbour in darkness, under sail in what promised to be foul weather.
I called up Ostend port radio and asked for permission to enter under sail, they referred me to the port pilots who replied that there was no problem about that. They asked me to describe my boat and instructed me to lay off the harbour entrance until the signals indicated that it was clear for me to enter.
Hitherto I had been reefed, I shook out the reefs in the mainsail, hoisted the genoa/jib. I sailed “Sheldrake” just as hard as if I were racing around the buoys in the Bristol Channel. This was a much more serious race, if I lost and could not make against the tide, I would have no alternative but to retreat to the Scheldt. By this time the wind had freshened to a robust five, with the promise of much more in the offing. The seas were a turbid brown, except where the wind taking the tops off the waves created a creamy yellow froth of spume. It was a hard windward thrash but exciting sailing, a feeling heightened by the many weeks of lifeless inland water.
Off the harbour entrance, a large yacht offered a tow, I declined — a touch of bravado— deciding to see this one through with my own resources. The pilots gave me clearance to enter, and I tacked between the long piers that thrust seaward. My progress was watched by seeming hundreds of holiday makers, but old “Sheldrake” did me proud, despite the flukey wind, she not once missed stays. At one point a dredger came up and blews his siren impatiently, “sorry pal”, I said to myself , “you’ll just have to be patient”. He was — sensing the situation — and gave me an encouraging wave when he passed.
Berthing in the yacht harbour was problematical, it was directly downwind of the fishery haven into which I first turned. I luffed up and dropped all the sails except the staysail, put out fenders, prepared lines, and then sailed under the staysail alone spilling wind as I went, just maintaining steerage way. “Sheldrake” came neatly down wind and I dropped the sail, brought her around and berthed onto a tugboat, where Jamie, second mate of “Carla”, was waiting to take my lines.
I felt well satisfied, I had been tested , but the problems had been safely surmounted. The day had been a good preparation for the long open sea passages that lay ahead.
The harbour master was a friendly and helpful chap, he had watched my arrival, he came over in his launch and towed me to a suitable yacht berth. He recommended some local engineers where I might pick up another oil filter, and then ferried me across the harbour, to save me a long walk arranging to collect me again in an hour, waving aside any offer of payment.
While I fruitlessly searched for an engineer who stocked Yanmar parts, the wind howled up to storm force, accompanied by lashing hail and rain. I was relieved to be safely secured in harbour, not somewhere off the Scheldt desperately seeking shelter.
Ostend has good associations for me, once it was a favourite run ashore. I have called here on a frigate, several times in a minesweeeper, and once riotously aboard a destroyer. The trouble started as I remember, when a young seamen was discovered by the Belgian naval shore patrol, pushing a juke box along the street. What fascinations these machines held for us, back in the nineteen fifties. When questioned, the sailor claimed, improbably, that it had been given him as a souvenier. The Belgians disbelieved him, and proceeded to handle the confused young man with their accustomed insensitivity, with truncheons, attempting to take him in. Some of his mates arrived and remonstrated with the Belgians, who ignored their protestations and continued with their arrest. An attempt at a rescue followed, that provoked a near riot as more sailors, British and Belgian, arrived to help their mates. The locals dived for cover as paddy wagons and bruised and battered sailors roared through the streets. “Showing the flag,” or “trailing the coat” , something like that, these visits were called.
Ostend had improved, and so hopefully had I. The town seemed now to be dedicated to the pleasures of gastronomy. Food is the major preoccupation of its visitors and citizens. The kiosks and stalls are a spectacle, a feast for the eye as much as for the stomach, there are piles of russet smoked eels, freshly boiled crabs and shrimps, I saw a magnificent smoked halibut, its flesh where carved a pale opal. These foods are prepared and cooked behind market stalls, they fill the air with a fragrance which draws the crowds and their money.
In the morning I set out for Nieuwport, by tram , I had located an oil filter. On my way through Ostend I passed through a busy open air market that filled a large square and spilled over into the side streets. It was a lively and interesting place. There were exotic and humble birds, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, chickens. Little pigs tethered, straining and squealing, as if aware that they were soon destined to end on a platter with an apple in their mouths. There were flowers, fruits and fine vegetables in profusion, junk stalls, book stalls, the crowds slowly meandered through the confusion enjoying the smells, sights and sounds.
The tram ,no archaic vehicle this, but fast and comfortable, quite unlike the clattering,shuddering, juggernauts of my boyhood, with a frame on the front to thrust aside the cyclists. The route was along the shoreline, with the wind offshore the sea looked deceptively smooth and calm. The waves had their backs to the shore, but an occasional flash of white water revealed breaking seas.
Viewed from the shore the tower blocks were no more attractive than they appeared from the sea. It seems strange that the Belgians with their great love of decoration, a florid “art nouveau” is the dominant style in Ostend, should suffer such a failure of imagination. The buildings are of an unrelieved uglinesss, under grey skies, with swirling flurries of blown sand, these holiday places seemed grim, desperate, last resorts.
Along the few remaining undeveloped stretches of coastline, crazed and cracked remnants of Hitlers costly and futile Atlantic wall settle into the dunes, they lie oddly askew, frowning at the sea as if still awaiting invaders. I fitted the filter did a little work with a file and chisel to increase the clearance and checked that there was nothing else amiss. As I worked I became aware of pains in my joints and the odd shiver, I settled for an early night with whisky and paracetamol. In the morning I still felt groggy, certainly not up to a tussle with the sea.
The wind was still strong, it had hardly abated during the night. The forecast was that it would be force six to seven, then easing during the next twenty four hours to a five and backing south. Encouragingly there were hints of better weather to come, perhaps an Indian Summer, some sort of compensation for the last three months of unseasonable grey skies and cold winds.
That evening I landed to exercise legs and elbow, I enjoyed a pizza , beer and some excellent jazz from a trio of musicians in a waterfront bar. On the way back to “Sheldrake”, I was invited aboard a small Belgian yacht for a nightcap, “we have Jameson Irish whiskey”. The captain and crew, two young men were curious about “Sheldrake” and my voyage. Like all the Belgians I have ever met, they were enthusiasts for the Common Market and for an active British participation to balance the larger nations. ” Why?” they ask “is there still so much reservation about the market among the British people? Why do they still not see themselves as part of Europeans ?”. They divined from my replies, correctly, that I am of the left “Can you not see?” they ask, that “the market is socialist, the standards of living, health care, education and unemployment benefits are all higher in Europe, than in old re-actionary and conservative Britain.” It was difficult to argue.
They conceded that the E.E.C. was undemocratic, that there were problems of administration, that the bureaucracy was stifling and unwieldy. ” But you British with your fine democratic tradition, your great love of freedom,” he went on naively. ” You have so much to contribute.” One of the lads then advanced what was for him the most potent argument for the E.E.C. ” Look,the young guys on the next yacht they are Germans, their fathers and their grandfathers invaded our country. It is inconceivable, inconceiveable,” — savouring the word,—” that it could ever happen again.”
I awoke still feeling groggy, not the Belgians whisky, for my consumption had been modest. I would like to have just put my feet up, but conditions were good and I was reluctant to forfiet a days progress. Young Jamie from “Carla” came aboard for the next stage, eager to try my sextant and work some sunsights. Still in a frail condition, I was glad to have him aboard. We sailed in company with “Carla”, the going good. We enjoyed a fresh offshore breeze and were able to reach all the way to Dunkirkw There it became quite hard going for a little while, as the wind confronted a tide that was running with some strength through a narrow channel between sandbanks. This is a feature of the southern North Sea, tidal streams are strong where they become concentrated in the narrow entrance to the Channel. The shoals run parallel to the shore, in winds from west to north the swell is steep and breaks over the banks.
It became clear that Calais our hoped for destination, was beyond our comfortable reach. We entered Dunkirka relieved to gain the shelter of the harbour. I restored Jamie to the bosom of his family, having enjoyed his company.
The clubhouse that evening was full of amiable, jovial Frenchmen, yachtsmen who were planning a trip to Hastings. They asked for advice, which I was quite unqualified to give, never having been there, I reminded them that there is no harbour. I told them that they would have to land on the beach, like their countryman “William the Bastard”. This reference to the Conqueror provoked a merry response. The Frenchmen began fantasizing about their project. One wondered if they could be met on the beach by vestal virgins, “in short supply nowadays” I observed. It went on for some time getting more and more ribald and Rabelesian as the beer flowed and the evening wore on. I dont know whether the Frenchmen ever made it, were indeed serious about going, or just satisfied with romantic speculations about a second, perhaps amorous conquest.
I rose early, landed shopped and returned to “Sheldrake” with a baton and some cider. When I sailed again it was in company with “Carla”. For a while it was quite good going, then the seas steeped considerably, “Sheldrake” began to plunge wildly, and was progressing only very slowly. I speculated that conditions could only worsen as the wind and tide came into opposition. I tried taking “Sheldrake’ closer inshore, to seek some benefit from the lee formed by the projecting moles of the port of Dunkirk East . But was beset with fishermens lines and buoys and the passage chart was vague about the depth of water close inshore.
As the wind freshened it became necessary to reduce sail. I found it hard, tricky work on the pitching foredeck, I clung on lowered and secured the jib as best I could. The motion did not become any easier, most reluctantly I turned back and ran downwind for Dunkirk. “Carla”, larger than “Sheldrake” pressed on, but she too was making heavy weather of things.
Once I was sailing downwind progress was lively, old “Sheldrake” as if forgetting her mature years skittishly tried to plane down the slopes of the following seas. Whenever I looked over my shoulder there always seemed to be a wave poised there, green and threatening high above my head, as if about to tumble into the cockpit. I stopped looking, for they almost never do. In all the years and the thousands of of miles that I have sailed in “Sheldrake”, much of it in waters with a reputation for their turbulence, the only green water ever to reach the cockpit came the long way, over the bows.
By way of compensation for my retreat, I had a good run ashore in Dunkirk. It seemed a prosperous sort of place, a bustling and friendly town. I took my time browsing around the shops, lingering in the sunlight in the open squares. I returned to “Sheldrake” bearing my spoils, a ready to heat eassoulet from the butchers, bread, Cheese, and a special treat — a bottle of Calvados- to be taken with my coffee. That evening I entertained a couple cruising in a small yacht which berthed beside me, they had a very young baby aboard, I could hardly believe my ears when I heard its cries, the mother was from Swansea, a charming Welsh girl. beach, like their countryman “William the Bastard”. This reference to the Conqueror provoked a merry response, The Frenchmen began fantasizing about their project. One wondered if they could be met on the beach by vestal virgins, “in short supply nowadays” I observed. It went on for some time getting more and more ribald and Rabelesian as the beer flowed and the evening wore on. I dont know whether the Frenchmen ever made it, were indeed serious about going, or just satisfied with romantic speculations about a second, perhaps amorous conquest.
I rose early, landed shopped and returned to “Sheldrake” with a baton and some cider. When I sailed again it was in company with “Carla”. For a while it was quite good going, then the seas steeped considerably, “Sheldrake” began to plunge wildly, and was progressing only very slowly. I speculated that conditions would worsen as the wind and tide came into opposition. I tried taking “Sheldrake” closer inshore, to seek some benefit from the lee formed by the projecting moles of the port of Dunkirk East . But was beset with fishermens lines and buoys and the passage chart was vague about the depth of water close inshore.
As the wind freshened it became necessary to reduce sail. I found it hard, tricky work on the pitching foredeckﬁ I clung on lowered and secured the jib as best I could. The motion did not become any easier, most reluctantly I turned back and ran downwind for Dunkirk. iCarla”? larger than “Sheldrake” pressed on, but she too was making heavy weather of things.
Once I was sailing downwind progress was lively, old “Sheldrake” as if forgetting her mature years skittishly tried to plane down the slopes of the following seas. Whenever I looked over my shoulder there always seemed to be a wave poised there7 green and threatening high above my head, as if about to tumble into the cockpit. I stopped looking, for they almost never do. In all the years and the thousands of of miles that I have sailed in “Sheldraker, much of it in waters with a reputation for turbulence, the only green water ever to reach the cockpit came the long way5 over the bows.
By way of compensation for my retreat, I had a good run ashore in Dunkirk. It seemed a prosperous place, a bustling and friendly town. I took my time browsing around the shops, lingering in the sunlight in the open squares. I returned to “Sheldrake” bearing spoils, a ready to heat cassoulet from the butchers, bread, cheese, and a special treat — a bottle of Calvados~ to be taken with my coffee. That evening I entertained a couple cruising in a small yacht which herthed beside men they had a very young baby aboard, I could hardly believe my ears when I heard its cries, the mother a charming Welsh girl , was from Swansea.
ENGLISH CHANNEL – westing.
The next morning brought a high, I sailed in perfect conditions for Buologne. The wind light offshore, again it was a reach all the way to Calais. There was a great deal of activity in the appproaches to the port, ferries and hovercraft entering and leaving in an almost uninterrupted procession. I had to wait my opportunity to jink through. Just beyond Calais there was the growing mountain of spoil from the Channel Tunnel that could dramatically reduce this traffic.
Cap Blane Nez gleamed in the late afternoon sun, the lenghthening shadows created a pattern of light and shade, accenting the gentle slopes of the downland. Off Cap Griz Nez, the light Changed with the onset of the evening, the land became flushed pink, the headland seen against it dark and brooding. The wind died right away and I finished the trip with the engine. The sea was quite smooth, except for a series of curious small linear waves that rippled along the boundary between the Channel and the North Sea. They were hardly felt, a contrast to my turbulent passage around this Cape on my journey north.
By the time that I had secured it was already dark, Jamie came over for a chat, he accompanied me ashore, where I returned to the cafeteria and finished off another great plateful of their wonderful Boef Bourgoine. I then began an anxious but fruitless tour of service stations trying to find one still open and selling diesel. I needed to make an early start and did not want to set out on a long journey without a full tank.
The skipper of the ” Samuel Whitbread”, a sail training ship kindly offered to sell me some from their emergency supply. I filled a couple of containers and made a donation to their funds. This trip the ship had aboard some pert and lively lads from the East End of London. They were an engaging lot, they vainly tried to chat up any girls that appeared, the strollers on the quayside were amused by the boys banter and their posing as real sailormen, on the strength of one short channel crossing. The Ocean Youth Club, the trust that owns these ships does good work, expanding the horizons of kids like these.
The forecast was fair and I prepared to follow “Carla” out to sea, but was frustrated by a red signal light that barred my way, a ferry was about to leave. When I did clear the harbour entrance it was to see “Carla” disappearing into the mist way ahead of me. Visibility was poor and soon worsened, barely a catspaw of wind ruffled the surface. The engine quietly did its work without faltering, and the autohelm steered .
I had made sail, to present as large a silhouette as possible to any lookout and hoisted the radar reflector to the cross trees. Before the shore disappeared completely, I plotted a last fix and then took care with my dead reckoning.
For hours I saw nothing save the occasional gull that entered and left the grey cave. Once or twice the sun glowed paley, a polished disc, but without a horizon I was unable to use it to obtain a position. Just once I heared, or thought that I heated, the rhythmic muffled thump of a ships engine, it came from far astern. I calculated that I was well clear of the eastbound shipping lane, the only traffic I was likely to meet in mid—channel would be a fishing boat or perhaps another yacht.
As I made northing so the visibility gradually improved. I cautiously crossed the traffic lane for west—bound shipping, there a succession of dark shapes loomed up and disappeared. Another hour and estimating that by this time I was well clear of the traffic lane I altered course to the north west. As I did so I caught a fleeting glimpse of “Carla’s” yellow hull. I knew that she was equipped with Decca, and saw that she had made a similar alteration comfirming my own reckoning.
Seconds later to my utter astonishment, a tanker appeared ahead crossing my bows, either we were both wrong, or he was dangerously and illegaly cutting corners.
All doubts about my position were soon resolved as a darkening area ahead took on a harder outline, vapour becoming re—assuringly solid, I identified the hump as Fairlight Down. The visibility improved, the veils were lifted and the shore revealed itself. Soon I was in Pevensey bay, then Hastings came abeam, its fishing boats drawn up high on the shingle beach, out of reach of the highest seas. It was calm and peaceful enough, but the broken and fragmented remains of a massive concrete breakwater were silent evidence of the seas harsher moods. Hastings has a comfortable Edwardian look about it, but I had little time to appreciate it as I sped past. The tide should have been running against me but my rapid progress relative to the shore told me that I had found an eddy or counter current. As I neared Beachy Head so the sun sank spectacularly behind it, the absence of any twylight seemed almost tropical, for as soon as the last rays dwindled and disappeared? it became quite darki Precisely as I reached the headland, a breeze freshened from the south. It strengthened rapidly and soon I was running before wind and sea. It became exciting even awesome sailing, cresting one , steep but unseen following wave after another. The blackness was relieved only by the flashing light of the Beachy Head light cutting a swathe through the dark. The long unbroken expanse of chalk cliffs beside me were briefly, rhythmically lit by the beam of light swept across their face, an incredibly rapid strobe.
I was concerned when I saw, what I took to be a ships lights astern of me. I was uncomfortably aware that in this following sea my small stern light would only be briefly visible as the stern was lifted by the seas, screened while in the troughs. I shone my torch in the direction of the light and immediatley received an answering flash. Good, I thought this chap is keeping a lookout and has seen me. The strange thing was that the vessel, if that is what it was then simply disappeared. Where the answering flash came from, I simply do not know. Time for a song !
The harbour lights of Newhaven ahead were soon lost among those of the shore, but not being a candidate for a second fleecing, I continued on for Brighton. The modest entrance light was difficult to spot from seaward, but I did eventually distinguish it from the lights of the promenade. There was a nasty confused lop between the piers, and the general aspect of the place, harsh raw concrete and a cold yellow light was about as inviting as a submarine pen. I found a berth without any trouble, simply serving myself, for no—one was keeping a radio watch. Tired, but well satisfied with the days progress, I poured a large Calvados and placed it beside my sleeping bag , in the morning it was still there untouched.
By the time that I was ready to leave there were no customs in attendance, I paid my dues, a sensible three pounds “if you don’t want to bother with a receipt, and as you are leaving right away”. I breakfasted, and with a ” paunch full of hot porridge, nerves strengthened with strong tea”, sailed for the Solent, the flag “Q” at the crosstrees, indicating that I had not yet made an official return to the United Kingdom.
The wind remained strong from the south, and it was a lumpy close reach all the way out to the Sentinel buoy to the south of Selsey Bill and I was anxious that I might fail to see this important mark. There was white water to the south of the Bill for this is a messy merging of sand and sea, I much prefer a more decisive promontory. The buoy was there, where it should be, on the starboard bow, once round it there was a sudden and welcome change in the nature of the sea. It became quite calm, and I realised that I was in the Solent. The breeze continued fresh, and I sailed before it into the entrance to Portsmouth harbour.
I secured a berth at Camper Nicholsons marina, phoned the customs, and waited the required two hours before leaving the boat. For the present I was happy just to be there, Boulogne to Portsmouth in two days, not bad for two old timers.
The following nothing I sallied ashore and loaded the washing machine. Treating myself to a ’full house” breakfast— bacon, e . black pudding ané beans. fried bread, another mug of tea ?” . in a caff near the marina The first impressions after what seemed to have been a long time away, were good. Everyone was helpful and pleasant the supermarkets at least as good as those in Europe. The sun shone and a moderate breeze promised good sailing”
It was with a feeling of great wellmbeing engenderd by breakfast, clean dry clothes and a balmy morning that I set out into the Solentu The wind was in the northwest. and the sun had brought out the yachts I suspect that there were many truants among the sailors. and the telephone lines to city offices will have been be busy as excuses were made, sudden illnesses funeralsi migraines.
I was quite content to take things quietly and as the wind eased, so did I. There was turbulence off Burst Point but that was all, it was a day of gentle relaxed progress and calm seas. The Needles were splendid in the evening light. their northern flanks in shadow a deep indigoq their western pinnacles aflame with orange light.
I decided to enter Poole harbourr it was an ill thought out lazy decision I would have saved time and money simply anchoring in what were perfect conditions in Studland Bay.
I must have been mentally as well as physically fatigued. I found a marina aﬂvertised in “Reeds”a called them up and secured a berth As soon as I sailed between the concrete piers I realised that this was arong I found myself steering old salt encrusted “Sheldrake”, under curious eyes: between serried ranks of huge chrome and plastic motor yachts the products of serious tax evasion, her tan sails, wooden mast,galv.rigging ané bowsprit bravely anachronistic. Manouvering was difficult3 for the place was crammed — to realise maximum profit mfor this is a world of big spenders, every square metre of water represents valuable real estate;
I dined ashore? a modest bar meal in an hotel beside the marina . As I ate I looked about, feeling like an anthropologist landed among a strange tribe. These men and women are by their own standards successﬁul2 by anybodies standards wealthy, keeping a yacht here is expensive and tangible evidence that they have made it. But there seemed no joy hereu none of the spontaneous and uninhibited merriment of the Frenchmen in Dunkirk These people were guardedgformal with one another as if their ambition, the effort that they have made to get here, has burned out their capacity for simple and direct pleasure. I do not like the rich, neither do I envy them? let s get out of here I
I anchored in clear blue water under the gleaming white cliffs of Studland. There I made a leisurely breakfast and waited for the tide. I weighed , rounded Old Harry Rock and set a course to take me well to the south of Portland Bill. Off Swanage I saw a large yacht ahead, she looked familiar, as did the stolid silhouette of her helmsman. The long peaked American cap was a giveaway, it was Porky Dane. We passed quite close and exchanged greetings, he told me that he made it as far north as Bangor. Good going for an old chap single handing, this boisterous and inclement season.
The wind was northerly and fitful, I alternately sailed and motor sailed to the west. Portland loomed up and then receded as I passed a good five miles to the south. As the day drew on I decided against pressing on across Lyme Bay and steered northwest for Bridport. The Dorset coast was magnificent, the chequered downland sweeping down to the shore. As the light began to fade and the shore darkened to deep shadow, I closed, just able to make out the twin piers that are the narrow entrance to the harbour. I saw that the harbour was crowded. I learned that the sprats were in, all the fishing boats from miles around here to reap the harvest.
There was little room for yachts, one Chap from Bristol had secured his dinghy alongside, a deterrent to others who may wish to berth on him, just like the person who places a hat or briefcase on the next seat on a crowded train, a prat !
I looked elsewhere and found a billet on the fishing boat “Hearts of Oak” of Exmouth. I knew that they would want to be away early, but that would suit me. I ate well and inexpensively in a quayside pub, enjoyed sampling the local beer and listening to the fishermens gossip.
I woke to the blast of exhausts as the fishermen started their engines. I breakfast quickly and pepared to slip, so that they could put to sea unhindered. The skipper of the “Hearts of Oak”, on which I was berthed, is a friendly chap and we chatted for a little while about fishing, while his engine warmed. His crew, both youngsters were not talkative, they had that wan, desolate look Of young people in the early morning. One I was surprised to discover was a girl5 wearing a boys anorak, rather strained over her bosom. I expressed my surprise, and remarked that I thought only East German and Russian girls went of to sea fishing. I asked her if she enjoyed the life, she replied that she loved it. “I just wish I could do it full time, better than working in hotels”, said the waif, with a sidelong look at her dad.
There was little wind and what there was a against me— when I left the harbour and motored along the coast towards Lyme Regis. Behind me the fishing boats began their work, trawling close inshore right at the outer edge of the breaking surf. They were rolling gunwhales under, as they fished parallel to the shore line. It is hard dangerous work gathering in the silver shoals of sprats, handling the heavy nets, on slippery precariously tilting decks while ankle deep in fish.
This is the coast so well evoked in the “French Lieutenants Woman”, the cliffs are not sheer, rather they form a series of natural terraces , sheltered from the prevailing westerlies, and much overgrown. There are small woodlands, and secluded places among the tumbled rocks and crags.
Good for sunbathing, the F.L.W. would concur. Gradually the chalk and the curious grey and warm ochre, fossil bearing, cliffs of Dorset, give way to the deep red sandstone of Devon.
As the day drew on, the wind freshened from the south. I had several hours of hard sailing. The seas slowed “Sheldrake”, and it was a long windward slog. I kept well offshore and passed Exmouth, Torquay, Brixham all five or six miles distant, pressing on for Dartmouth.
This is one of Britains loveliest harbours – almost a fiord— winding far inland between high wooded banks, sheltered from the winds from any quarter. There are many coves and small bays about the entrance, inviting picnic places in settled weather. It was now late in rhe season and there was a Visitors berth at the pontoon on the town side of the river, above the Ferry slip. It could not be be more convenient for the sailing Club, the shops and the amenities of this attractive little town.
A two and a half ton Hillyard, little sister of “Sheldrake”, a pretty miniature yacht berthed beside me at the pontoon. The owner and his wife had sailed her from Deal and were planning to winter here, if they could find a cottage. Also on the pontoon was a very spry septuanarian with an immaculate Centaur, he had single-handed her to the Azores and back to celebrate his retirement.
That night the weather resumed its familiar pattern, low pressure over the North Sea, and a high, stationary, off Finisterre, a chill northerly tunnelling down between them, The cold winds were sending late holiday makers packing for home. I was half tempted to sail in the lulls, but was aware that the offshore winds give the sea a deceptively smooth appearance , once around the headland and out into Bigbury Bay conditions could be hard.
I walked out to the headland beyond the castle that once guarded the harbour entrance. While I was lazing, out of the wind on the short sea washed turf, a spectacular lightening storm developed just offshore. The sky blackened, lightening flashed, crackled and burned over the sea. The thunder—claps were of an awesome, shattering volume and frequency. The storm was accompanied, as these events usually are, by Violent squalls that whitened the surface of the sea as if it were boiling. As a squall drove inland, I dived for cover under an overhanging bank, the rabbits undismayed continued with their frolics. The one or two yachts caught out were running for shelter.
Back at the boat I palled up with Hal, berthed at the same pontoon. An interesting young chap, also single—handing in a small yacht. For some time he had been following me across Lyme bay, but put into Brixham for a night. I remembered watching his sail for some hours, a tiny white fleck a long way astern.
Hal proved good company, well and broadly educated, he has been both an archaeologist and an art historian. We had many interests in common, and having been single—handing for some time, enjoyed the opportunity for rambling conversation. We supped ale, sipped calvados, listened to Mozart and from very different philosophical perspectives put the world to rights.
In the morning “Joanna” a pretty little Scandinavian double- ender arrived at the pontoon, her owner told me that she was an early prototype for the Folkboat. Similar in conception, but beamier and of a heavier construction than the final design, she is planked in oak, a very sturdy handsome little yacht, reminiscent of the fishing boats that I so admired in Denmark. Her skipper, an actor, is a droll and amusing character, his boat seemed to be full of lively kids and attractive women. They were all out in the thunderstorm that I watched from the Shore, and were caught in some of the vicious squalls. No problem, for “Joanna” , a very able and sea—worthy little boat.
The harbour master is a man with a fearsome reputation, apparantly he terrorises bad payers and relentlessly pursues those who try to slip away without paying their dues. I found him an amiable chap, helpful, with a ready smile as he soooted about the harbour, his considerable bulk wedged into a small motor-dory that he manouvres skillfully.
Harbour dues are usually modest, and fair enough for those who use a pontoon, jetty or a laid mooring. They are an imposition, when levied on boats that lie to their own anchors, out of a fairway. Increasingly all along the South Coast yachtsmen are conned, bullied or browbeaten into paying for using their own ground tackle. Being respectable middle class chaps, respecters of authority and property, they pay without complaint or challenge and forfeiting yet another freedom. It started with the enclosing of the commons.
A couple of curious chaps wandered over to take a look at “Sheldrake”, I invited them aboard . They stayed a little while for a drink and a chat, later they returned my hospitality, inviting Hal and me aboard their yacht, a magnificent, Polish built, 13 metre sloop. A fine boat3 the woodwork below decks perfectly and tastefully fitted. I express some surprise that a country like Poland, then still socialist, and presumably without very many wealthy individuals should be constructing yachts like this. These Chaps are ex—patriate Poles and the owners. They explain that these large yachts were usually bought by organisations, trade unions, youth clubs and the like.
I was reminded of the Polish yachts in Kiel. Also of a large wooden yacht in Amsterdam which I was invited to board, introductions made with a degree of formality, slightly comical on such a small vessel, “I am the Captain, this is my First Officer, and my Second Officer and Engineer”, with a short bow from each in turn, if they had not been wearing daps I do believe they would have clicked their heels. There were also some girls who were not introduced, and who simply nodded while carrying on with the washing.
The weather remained wild and the sea continued uninviting. I was then joined by my son Jim. He had a short holiday from the farm where he worked and fancied a few days aboard “Sheldrake”, he quickly adapted to the life. We both enjoyed a young mans run ashore, played pool, a bar meal and more pints than I am used to. We were later joined by Hal. There was live music, incredibly loud but Jim and Hal, seemed to like it and were able to talk through it, perhaps they lip— read.
We sailed early for Falmouth, no problem for Jim, who is well accustomed to early starts. There were nearly sixty miles ahead of us, a long day at sea. The wind light northerly, offshore and a smooth sea, it was good sailing out to Start Point, then west for Prawle Point and Bolt Head. We stood off just sufficiently to get full benefit of the wind, but close enough to enjoy this interesting and varied coast, backed by rolling hills, fields and woodland.
Jim sat on the coachroof, taking a professional interest in the agriculture and maintaining a commentary on the cultivations that were taking place. I received the impression that though he was enjoying his hard—earned break, he was nonetheless uneasy at finding himself watching others work. The tractors were crawling up steep banks, the ploughs burying stubble and upturning the fertile dark red soil of Devon. The opportunistic gulls had forsaken the sea and were following the plough, wheeling in great flocks.
The Yacht Club notice board informed those sailing to the West that there was firing on the Wembury gunnery range. I called up the range control to inform them of my passage. The rating who handled the message thanked me, and requested that I keep six miles south of the shore. I well remembered spending several weeks at Wemhury, guns crew on a Four Inch mounting, we fired hundreds of rounds, testing ammunition,”- hang—, that one worked”. The blast was deafening, and started a ringing in the ears that seemed to last for days. Always glad of an excuse to cease firing, we would quietly Cheer the occasional obstinate fisherman who stubbornly, but legitimately, insisted on exercising his right of passage across the bay.
Once Clear of the land the wind died away, we motored endlessly across a glassy smooth sea. The autohelm took the boredom out of it, and we immersed ourselves in our books. We passed close to Eddystone and its rocks, some fishing boats, lobstermen, were out tending their pots. No problem today but in rough weather this is a long haul offshore from the harbour at Plymouth. Once past Eddystone we began to get a foul tide and the distant humpback of Dodman Point grew only slowly. As the light faded we noticed just a few pinpricks of light from the scattered farms and villages. Falmouth tucked in behind St.Anthony Head remained hidden from us. The entrance to the harbour is difficult to locate from the north east, the entrance light and leading marks obscured until we were south of the headland.
We noticed another small yacht ahead of us, she stopped for a little while, I closed to check that she was allright. She was the yacht “Tango” of Bristol, and our paths were to cross and recross during the next few days. Her skipper told us that all was well, and we proceeded. A little later, we saw ahead the lights of a coaster suddenly extinguished as she passed behind the darkly silhouetted high ground, indicating for us the approach to Falmouth.
As we prepared to follow her in, I studied the chart and decided that rather than carrying on all the way into Falmouth, we should anchor off St. Mawes. I turned into that branch of the estuary, but a heavy swell rolling into the harbour dissuaded me. Reluctant to continue further at night into congested and unfamiliar waters, we turned back into the fairway and followed the buoyed Channel that winds on towards Falmouth. For the last hour or so the wind had freshened from the north, rather than attempt to find an alongside berth and having to cope with lines and fenders in the dark we anchored close inshore, snug in the lee of high ground opposite the harbour.
In the morning we crossed and secured on a fishing boat, the owner working on her, dabbing red lead, he admired “Sheldrake”, and said that she looked a good sea boat. He is quite knowledgeable about yachts and told us that he made a number of delivery trips, taking “Falmouth Pilots” to buyers all over Britain, when those fine sturdy wooden yachts were being built locally.
We provisioned, and I equipped myself with a thick chunky Cornish sweater, for the days were shortening and temperatures falling. Fed and fuelled we sailed for Penzance, the wind now northwesterly freshening perhaps a five but frequently gusting harder. I shook out the reefs for the fun of it, and to give Jim a little excitement. We made spanking progress around the Manacles and on to Black Head. Nearing the Lizard the wind freshened further, progress would be impossible if the tide were not in our favour. Tide and wind however were contrary and the seas quickly built up.
This sea was quite unlike the steep” short and confused waters off the Dutch and French coasts. Those can be uncomfortable, even impossible. These seas are the result of swells that have their origin far off in the Atlantic, and have rolled on for hundreds, even thousands of miles, building mass and power. Here their majestic progress is halted by shoal water and by the confusing effect of tidal streams. Further inshore the many offlying rocks and reefs showed a stark black in white broken water.
We stayed well outside all that. Carried away by the exciting sailing, I had left reefing rather late, now there was nothing for it but to get up onto the plunging foredeck and hand the jib. Jim was on the helm with instructions to keep her just off the wind, “and if she looks like coming about, shout”. My technique in this sort of situation is just to concentrate all my attention on the particular part of the task that I am engaged in. There is nothing that I could do about the waves poised to collapse onto the deck, I was confident in “Sheldrakes” qualities a seaboat, or I wouldn”t have got this far. I freed the jib halyard from its cleat and with it in hand slid forr’d on my knees, wrapped my legs around the sansom post and tucked my feet under the inboard end of the bowsprit. Then taking care not to lose the halyard from my grasp, leaned out over the pulpit, grabbed the tack of the jib and hauled away, easing the halyard as she came, smothering the billowing bulk of the sail as best I can. The sail once tamed must be bundled and lashed like a sailors hammock along the pulpit rail. A much safer procedure, than trying to unclip and then carry a great bundle of sail back to the cockpit. Opening the forehatch to stow the sail below Was out of the question.
An unapologetic Luddite, I regard roller reefing headsails with suspicion , as unnecessary complications and a potential source of trouble. There are times when it is Vital that sail area is quickly reduced, a fouled line, or a siezed drum and the sailor can be in the fraught situation of having a sail that he can neither lower or reef. The unwanted sail will at best, make handling his boat difficult – in bad conditions -it may even become uncontrollable. The sail can become impossible to sheet in and left to flap in strong winds, it will slat and destroy itself to shreds in a surprisingly short time. Or much worse , the wild powerful vibrations that are set up, can overstress spars and rigging, leading to their failure and to a dismasting. I will take my Chance with the occasional wet arse.
Once the sail was reduced “Sheldrake” became more maneagable. Jim remained at the helm while I put on some dry Clothes and made a hot drink . He then returned for a watch below with the “Rape of the Fair Country”, in which he was totally absorbed . I closed the shore looking for shelter and found a lee under the cliffs. Port Melin looked inviting, but without directions and a harbour plan I was reluctant to attempt an entrance with an onshore wind. This is a fine and dramatic stretch of coast, near Prussia cove the cliff stained mettalic copper green below the abandoned mine workings. We kept close inshore right into the cove, to avoid a charted rock, then out to St.Micheals Mount.
As we neared Penzance we were met by a Customs Officer in an inflateable boat. Once satisfied that we have properly cleared customs, and were not attempting a surreptitious entry, he waved us on. There is a marked increase in the degree of surveillance both here and on the European coast, an attempt to counter the growing traffic in drugs. Which given the corruption and exploitation of youngsters by the dealers, is necessary and should not be resented. Sadly it seems that some yachtsmen are prepared to pay for their sport by carrying drugs.
We arrived at high water and were able to motor right into the basin and secure. Just ahead was “Tango” who arrived a little while before us. Sadly, Jim had to return to work, he planned to catch a train the following morning. We landed and we dined splendidly ashore in the “Turks Head”, one of the best pubs of the trip.
Jim left to catch the first train, and once more I was a single—hander. Just before the dock gates were due to close, I slipped and left in company with “Tango”, a Westerly Longbow. From conversation with Andrew, her skipper, I learned that his little boat was in the final stages of a Clockwise circumnavigation of Britain, through the Caledonian canal and down the East coast, all without the benefit of an autohelm. She left Bristol, her home port, about the same time that I left Newport, and had about the same number of miles under her keel. He probably had the harder trip, I have had the advantage of being able to make a substantial part of my voyage in inland water.
The forecast was fair, light to fresh northerlies, decreasing later to force three. We would have the wind directly ahead as we made the Longships passage, and then fine on the port bow. A fisherman warns us as we leave, that it will be lumpy once we round the corner. There was little point in arriving off Lands End while the tide was still running strongly south, we took it easy lazily reaching in company, keeping close under the cliffs to Gwennap Head.
As we neared that headland we saw ahead scores of small fishing boats, each with just one or two men aboard. They were fishing for cod with handlines, and seemed to be doing well. One happy man caught a fine coda perhaps a ten pounder, he proudly flourished it, holding it high for his mates admiration. The fishemen were working in a slight sea, almost a calm. Once around the promontory conditions changed dramatically. The tide still had a little time to run against us as we beat to windward laboriously making ground. The sea was uncomfortable and worsened as we lost what little lee we had.
Our progress was watched by hundreds of holiday makers crowded along the clifftopy behind them, there are the buildings of the Lands End Development, soon apparently to become a “Theme Park”, as if nature herself had not endowed this place with sufficient drama and significance. I have an antipathy for such places. Disneyland and similar locations are among the saddest places on earth, grave yards of the imagination.
We sailed this grey, gaunt, granite coast with its abandoned mine workings, painfully slowly. To seaward the aptly named “Sharks Fin” rock in the centre of the channel, between Lands End and the Longships reef, cleaved the tidal stream, white broken water boiling in its wake.
Motor sailing to windward in any sort of sea is a hard business, here with these steep lumpy seas into which “Sheldrake” thrust her bow, reared and then plunged, it verged on the impossible. I took “Sheldrake” well offshore to see if things got easier, they did not. Only when the tide turned in our favour did we begin making ground. Though the going was hard, there was the consolation of tangible progress. “Sheldrake” coped with things far better than the lighter “Tango”, her scrap of white sail soon far astern was then lost below my horizon.
Off St. Ives the seas were particulary steep, a backwash from the cliffs combined with the swell from the north to produce a nasty lop. There was to be no shelter here. I pressed on for Newquay, hoping that as I arrived the wind would have eased as forecast. Clearing Godrevy Point the wind backed a little, I was able to bring “Sheldrake” a few more degrees off the wind and in easier conditions left steering to the autohelm . At last I could brew up, heat a tin of soup, grab some bread and cheese and suddenly things were looking up.
It darkened as I crossed Perran Bay, all day it had been overcast grey under a blanket of low cloud and evening was quickly over. By the time that Kelsey Head was abeam the features of the shore became difficult to distinguish. I continued steering by compass, a little east of north until the lights of Newquay came into view once I had rounded Towan Head. I am unfamiliar with this coast and it was not easy locating the harbour lights at the head of the piers. The entrance almost completely screened by a high cliff that shelters it from all but northerlies.
I took “Sheldrake” cautiously into the harbour, concerned to avoid the many mooring ropes, secured alongside the wall and looked forward to a long nights sleep, it was not to be. I calculated that “Sheldrake” would ground at one a.m., and I must see her safely down. The harbour wall slopes from its base, and I know that left to her own devices, “Sheldrake” could lean at too much of an angle, possibly resting on her spreader. I searched for and found a suitable plank, and hung this outside her fenders. Andrew arrived about two hours later, he joined me for a nightcap and we chatted about the days voyaging — as is usual after a hard day — it was all much more enjoyable in retrospect. When “Seldrake” did eventually ground, the arrangement worked well, the spreader just touched, no harm in that, and her list was not so great as to deny me a good sleep. Andrew had no such problem, His boat has bilge keels and dried out nicely upright on the firm hard sand.
The awakening was rude and thorough as a fishermans diesel loudly backfired on being started. “Sheldrake” came afloat at seven, and by that time I had breakfasted and was ready to leave. I had two hours fair tide, just time enough to round Pentire Point. The tides were low neaps and I calculated that I should be able to continue northeast, stemming the weaker streams inshore. “Tango” closely
followed me out, we had not conferred, but I assumed that his reasoning paralleled my own. The wind was still in the north and fresh, I motor sailed, “Tango” simply motored dead to windward, while I made a series of tacks coming off the wind. She was plunging, regularly burying her bows, my progress seemed to be more comfortable, but we reached the headland together.
As we neared Trevose Head we received the benefit of a lee and could look about. It was a grand seascape, the rocky islets and rocks offshore black against a grey sky, the sea, as so often in this place a cold blue~black. A thin shaft of weak light illumined Trevose Head Here “Tango” turned inshore, Andrew had decided to enter Padstow. I pressed on, while the weather was not good, it was forecast to improve. My VOyage was now near its end, it would be frustrating to be held up at this stage.
I followed my intention and kept inshore, stemming the tide off the headlands, but making good progress even finding the occasional back eddy inside the bays. It was a good opportunity to observe this wild rugged coastline. North facing, its beaches and coves are sunless and attract few visitors. There is little vegetation to soften the harsh outlines of the rock. Only at Tintagel is there any sign of activity. That great rock stands stark and magnificent, the remains of the castle crumbling , scarcely distinguishable from the live rock from which its stones were hewn.
Carn Beak always impresses, its tortured strata several times turned back upon itself, and behind it great slabs of smooth rock tilted, descending sheer into the sea. From this point the coast becomes a little softer and more gentle. The cliffs about Widemouth Bay are less rugged, towards Bude, they give way to dunes which back the splendid surfing beaches.
Pleasantly surprised with my progress, with the tide due to turn in my favour, the wind moderating and veering a little west, I decided that Ilfracombe was within reach and pressed on, resisting the temptation to put into Lundy or Clovelly. I stood well out to give Hartlands Race a wide berth, though with a slack tide there should be little if any disturbance.
As I neared Morte Point the light quickly faded, it was a Clear night the stars out in all their brilliance the Milky Way arching overhead, it was moonless and soon quite dark. I was concerned that the tide might carry me Closer than I would wish to rocks that stretch nearly haf a mile west of the Point. I steered north of northwest to give myself plenty of offing, not coming about until the distinctive three flashes of Bull Point bore south. It took a long time, and the wind started to freshen again from the north.
I felt some apprehension, aware that I must be cautious, closing a lee shore at night is potentially hazardous, but there was no alternative. There was no sheltered anchorage nearer than the Gower Bays, they were twenty five miles away and I had already been at sea for fifteen hours, more than half of that time in uncomfortable conditions.
I Closed the shore cautiously, the lights of Ilfracombe dominated the skyline, below them were dark voids that could be sea or something more solid and threatening. Below the Capstone there was a black hole, soon to my relief the green lights of the pierhead came abeam. I turned and headed for the entrance to the outer harbour, still perhaps a mile away. It was just at this point that the wind rapidly gained strength and force, blowing directly onshore. There was a steep sea running inshore? the black mass of the waves intermittently obscuring the shore lights. “Sheldrake” surged down the forward slopes, her mainsail full and driving, I was Very rapidly past the point of no return, when an attempt to put the boat about and claw off would be more problematical than pressing on. There was no way of slowing her, let alone stopping her if I had got it wrong. The sheer cliff beyond the harbour entrance, dimly lit by reflected light seemed a solid wall towards which we were driving, below it every dark shadow suggested a rock. I had the awful feeling that my cruise could end here, ignominiously and near home.
I then realised that I was fair and square in the fairway. Relieved, I passed the pier-head and anchored in the outer harbour, it was low neaps and there was no danger of grounding. For what I expected to be the last time on this voyage I lit the little Chinese hurricane lamp and hung it from the forestay. Then the pleasant ritual of preparing a simple supper, pouring a generous whisky and after setting the alarm, turning in, enjoying the comfort warmth and snugness of “Sheldrakes” cabin, all the more appreciated after a long hard day, not without its share of anxieties.
It was still dark as I weighed , the sea was calm and the sky Clear and starlit. For a while I steered keeping Polaris above the port spreader, until the breaking dawn “put the star to flight “. For some time the Foreland light continued to punctuate the dark moorland, until that too was lost in a sea fret that came with the breaking dawn, obscuring all except a circle of grey water immediately around me.
The neap tide had little strength and did not give me the seating that I expected. The first Welsh mark to appear was the East Middle Nash buoy, had I failed to spot it I could haVe carried on, perhaps into the breaking seas that even on a calm day crash over the Nash sand. Fatigue, the result of pressing on, driving self and boat had led to carelessness, my failure to properly use the information that is in the almanac. Perversely, as I reached the Nash, the wind freshened from the east. It was a dull slow plod to windward all the way to Barry, the engine did not seem to be delivering its full measure of power. Off Breaksea the tide turned, my progress was painfully slow around Rhoose Point. I then closed well into the bays to take advantage of the slacker water there. After what seemed an interminable time I made the harbour entrance and picked up a mooring. I discovared the reason for my slow progress, a collection of fibres and old fishing line wound tightly about the propeller.
I landed to telephone home and report my imminent arrival. Barry was scruffy, litter, Chip wrappers, old newspapers strewed the streets. The shops and houses on the hilltop above the harbour were dirty, unpainted and neglected. There was an seedy impoverished air about the place that contrasted starkly with the affluence both of northern Europe and southern England. Wales, you are certainly one of Europes poor relations. In the public house however, the pretty blonde barmaid smiled broadly, dimpled , called me “darlin” —as she did everyone else -, when I asked for a phone she smiled , “it’s over by there my lovely I”. I felt that I had truly landed on my native shore, a feeling re—inforced by the hoppy tang of the first pint of Cardiff bitter.
There was time to catch a couple of hours sleep, while waiting for the flood tide that would help me to the Usk. The evening light was splendid as I made my way through the familiar but always interesting waters. Sully Island aglow with a pink light, Lavernock point dark violet, beyond7 the lights of Cardiff twinkling against a fast darkening sky. As I neared Newport and the tall power station chimneys that are its distinguishing mark, the Channel was glassy smooth. The immaculate surface broken only by “Sheldrakes ” curving wake which rippled out of sight into far distances. In my minds eye, I could see it rippling on, forming wavelets, out around Lands End, to Cap Griz Nezg on and on to the distant Frisian Isles, Helgoland and the isles of Denmark.
I reached the river a little while before my own mooring had sufficient water for me. I put a line onto to a vacant buoy and tidied up, concerned that I should not leave this little boat that has served me so well, in an undignified mess. Finally I secured to my own buoy, launched the inflateable and paddled up between the rows of moored yachts. At the pontoon I saw a familiar silhouette and was greeted, “All right dad ?”, Jim had come to meet me, my voyage was over.