We had hoped to depart Dunkerque last week but the winds were too strong (F7), so we had purposely waited for a fair wind, anything from a NE to S would have been ideal but it was more likely to be SW. We were in no rush as we had found Dunkerque to be quite a good place to be with a free bus to town and reasonable mooring fees.
The forecast on the 7th August was to be SW 4-5, occasionally 6 later – sea state slight becoming moderate. This would give us about 12 nautical miles having to sail close to the wind out of Dunkerque and then a nice reach across the channel with another leg sailing close to the wind from the outer Goodwin sands.
We departed at 06-40 UTC, having put two reefs in the main and hanked on the staysail and small yankee. Many yachts put their sails up in the shelter of the harbour but if anything goes wrong you could find your self in the way of other shipping or stone walls etc. We waited until we cleared the harbour before hoisting the sails, the wind was fresh, and the first problem was I had used the wrong reef point on the mainsail so had to reset the reefing cringle whilst the crew held the boat into the wind – no big deal but it was irritating as the reef was put in before departing to make life easy. Eventually the main was up, so next was the yankee, and when that went up it was clear the sheet was the wrong side of the cord for the french courtesy flag, no big deal, would sort that later. Now the next challenge was the wind had picked up to force 5, and we were having to tack across the narrow channel at low water, i.e. sand banks were either side of us where we might run aground – unfortunately with two reefs in the main the small yankee unbalanced the sail plan and kept pulling us too far off the wind – so I cheated and used the engine to keep us close to the wind.
The sail was ‘bouncy’ so the crew sensibly went to lie down, the electric auto helm would not keep us on the required course so it was a case of tacking and hand steering all down the channel – this was tiring and thoughts turned to returning to Dunkerque – oh for a beer moored against a calm pontoon berth. Anyway at the West entrance of Dunkerque a final tack was put in which gave us a course up to a point where we could cross the channel. Now the wind had picked up to force 6 ,,,,, mmmm so much for it coming later. Although we were still beating, we were a little further off the wind and the auto helm was holding a course – time for something to eat from the goody bag … sweets and chocolate and blissfully turning the engine off. Crossing one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world takes care, and the last thing you want to hear is poor visibility but thats what came – thank god for AIS which calculates the closest point of approach for the big ships.
The next challenge was the wind picked up to F7, not funny this is just what we took care to avoid last week …. so poor visibility, and seas that were building . For the avoidance of any doubt this was not fun and I took zero pleasure from the experience. On the bright side we were doing some 7 – 8 knots over the ground at times, and lady luck was with us in that we were able to avoid the shipping.
Next was the Goodwin sands, and to get close enough to make a course for Ramsgate and far enough off not to become another wreck …. I did look behind us to see there was another Yacht behind – some comfort.
By this point I had made an absolute pledge never to set sail again where there was any chance of having to sail close to the wind, in a narrow channel where the wind was above a 3. If I had my time again I would have stayed in Dunkerque …. all of this because Calais was closed and we were having to sail dog legs.
Now anyone thinking the crew got off lightly would be mistaken, because of the large waves the oil lamps had bounced around and one fitting come loose and so depositing paraffin throughout the cabin – the smell was horrible – I managed one clean up session on passage but not fully appreciating the source, more came and I simply did not have the strength to go down below to do it again. And as with astronauts you might also ponder how the simple tasks such as relieving your bladder are achieved when your being thrown around.
This pledge was then written in tablets of stone when a couple of large waves broke into the cockpit, completely soaking me, thank god we had gone for the life jackets that only inflate when after being submerged in water for more than a few seconds. Next problem – as the water hit the touch screen it jumped around placing way points here and there – worse still the screen lost its sensitivity to receive commends. So … do we go for a restart or live with what we have … sod it go for the restart …. phew it worked. This needs further thought for the future.
The sun came out and the poor visibility lifted, the wind dropped to 6, better still it had a little more south in it to help us make for Ramsgate, the seas dropped above the goodwin sands and Ramsgate was in sight.
Still there was the prospect of getting the sails down, again some sail into the outer harbour, yet that has the same risks as hoisting them. The crew were summoned for fender duty and taking the helm whilst the sails were dropped, on this occasion working on the fore deck brought no satisfaction, and I will swear I had a dream of roller reefing (hold that thought).
Once inside Ramsgate we then had to berth the lady in a strong wind, thankfully there was an easy berth allocated and we had help tying up. Once again the crew excelled in allocating and tying up the boat – and very shortly afterwards delivering a beer against a relatively stable pontoon.
Oh the halyard for the courtesy flag parted and is hanging from the pulley halfway up the mast, a little job for later, but thankfully it did not wrap round the propeller.
We helped a couple of other boats tie up, amazingly one which had departed Dunkerque an hour before us, not often we recover ground – perhaps he had more skill to tack down the channel when I had used the engine. Anyway I was relived that when I shared my feelings about the passage he replied “yes it was b…..y awful, and the size of the waves he exclaimed”.
Now the next chap who we helped came to thank us later and explained his roller reefing had failed and left him with the horrible passage of only being able to use the main …. I think in just about every marina we have heard a tale of furling causing problems … the simple hanked sails have their challenges but the simplicity also has some benefits.
So note to self and crew, for coastal, single / light handed sailing never consider a passage that requires sailinig close to a wind greater than force 3, particularly when there are narrow channels. Never have my arms ached so much – more accurately hurt so much.
Thank you to Cariad – Y- Mor who took the weather far better than her occupants, who assure she will be given due care and attention in years to come.
Final thoughts before departing Dunkerque …………………