Sunday 20th July and time to get across the English Channel.
Another not quite to schedule start as, despite the recent thunderstorms, I awoke to the sound of fog signals and on looking out at the world, found I could not even see Dover Castle on the hill behind me. Dilemma, if I waited too long for the visibility to improve I would have adverse tide for the crossing as well as the haul from Calais to Dunkerque. Setting off into poor visibility is not a choice I make lightly, so having rechecked the boat and personal safety equipment I set about listening in on every radio report in respect of visibility. Dover Coastguard require all vessels in the channel to provide visibility reports under such conditions plus the port authority are constantly updating ships using the port.
I delay my departure from the planned 06:00 start to 09:00 when vis has improved slightly and is reported as 2 miles on the French side, plus it was now possible to see the harbour entrance from the marina, a bit of a bonus. I was a little surprised when leaving the marina that the crew of a French boat pointed out to me that I had my nav lights on - maybe they have different fog routines!
I was given the all clear by Dover Port Control to leave, however, my route to the NE that would normally have had me leave via the East Entrance was changed and they requested me to leave by the West Entrance and head straight out from Dover for two miles parallel to the ferry traffic before turning NE to the TSS traffic lanes. Relieved that I had completed the installation of the active radar reflector the previous day and re-assured by its flashing alarm signals I called Dover Coastguard when a mile off shore to file a passage notification and request a radar identification from them. To my initial concern they reported no target seen at my location, yet I am supposed to mimic a mega target. A second check gives the same response, which I put down to still being in their radar shadow area.
As I head on into the murk the visibility remains around 300m with a light F3 NE wind, on the nose again but it matters not as I am under power in these conditions. Visibility updates continue with vis ranging from a worst of 50m in heavy rain to half a mile on the English side but improving to 1 mile or more from mid-channel. I have my AIS receiver CPA distance alarm set to 300m and time alarm set to 12 minutes, tight but avoids handling continual alarms in busy traffic. On route to the TSS I note from their AIS indicated course changes that the ferries are seeing me on radar (relief), I also note as their ghostly high speed outlines pass parallel to me that their idea of a safe passing distance in these conditions is not much different to my 300m alarm range! There is also the occasional shape of a yacht passing in the murk.
By mid-channel visibility is much better other than during the torrential rain showers which seem to know when I plan on removing my wet weather gear. At 11:50 I clear the eastern TSS lane only 1NM south of my intended position, down to the reduced favourable tide.
By 12:40 I am N of the RCW cardinal bouy and on the run up to Dunkerque but fighting the tide.
At 16:15 I am off DW11 buoy with the tide now in my favour and back up to a heady 4.7 knots SOG. Around this time I get a VHF call from the boat "Alice Pellow" a Cornish Crabber Pilot Cutter which left Dover about an hour after me and is also heading for the Dutch OGA tour. Our courses converge and we arrive together at the waypoint of DW29 for the entrance to Dunkerque. We take it in turns to exercise our abysmal french language skills in contacting the Port du Grand Large marina office for berthing and conclude that we both have to raft out on the visitors pontoon, nicely located adjacent to the fish dock. Suffice to say that the overnight experience for both boats was such that neither of use would use that facility again, and not have Dunkerque as a first choice for a stop-over.
"Alice Pellow" in company on the run up to Dunkerque.
All said it was a challenging day but a rewarding one in terms of practicing skills and making a different landfall. On a personal note it also fulfilled a long term wish to repeat the route my father took when,as a 17 year old crew member on the MV Bee working out of Newport on the Isle of Wight, the vessel was requisitioned by the RN and became one of the Dunkirk Small Ships. The crew were given the option of manning the boat, which they all accepted. They took the Bee to Dover and across for the evacuation where they made three pick-up runs via the inshore route. They made one of the last trips picking up French troops, had to be pulled off the beach by a naval boat and fouled one prop on hawsers, having to make the last recovery and return trip to Dover and the IW on one engine. I only had to sail there with modern aids and find my way into the harbour but still put it in perspective for me.
A link to the story of the MV Bee at Dunkirk: http://www.iowtodunkirk.com/the-bee-goes-to-war/
I did have a couple of incidents on the crossing in that, due to the constant watch keeping, I had to default to the male helms pee facility, the standby 2l plastic milk bottle. Whilst keeping my eyes about me and letting the flow go I noticed that the bottle was not getting any heavier to match my relief. A quick check revealed a split in the bottom of the bottle and a cockpit with evidence of the equipment failure. Would have been easier to default to the lady method and just use the cockpit floor in the first place! The second issue was me ending up with soggy nuts, not related to the above problem I must add. During one of the torrential rain burst I must have left my nuts uncovered and they were decidedly soggy, but I enjoy ginger nuts in whatever condition, even cold dunked.