The best laid plans …… Or an enjoyable alternative

“Where are you going for your summer cruise Jane?” ”Hopefully West, but if that does not prove possible, then France” The forecast did not look hopeful, citing strong southwesterlies all the week, putting an end to getting as far west as possible in the nine days at our disposal. Second choice France.

The crew arrived on Saturday, July 28th. armed with euros and passports and hope.E boarded Bluster, only to find the waterline trailing long weed despite a recent scrub. It has been even worse than usual this year, whether due to the weather or the new make of antifoul I tried. A quick scrub was necessary, …carried out by Oliver. If there is a horrid job to be done, Oliver is your man. See later.

Now we were ready to depart with a boat in good condition and a strong crew consisting of me (forget the strong bit). Jonathan (son and expert sailor) and his two student sons; Robbie the academic and another good sailor, and Oliver, the ever cheerful and ever willing inventive one.

Sunday, July 29th. HW Harwich 0821, HW Ramsgate 2118. Forecast SW4/5, 6 at times.

This meant neap tides making crossing the sands half way not possible so we opted for the outside route and entered the waypoints accordingly. It was not to be an easy passage. We rose early and had a good breakfast, not knowing when the next meal might be and crossed the Deben bar at 0826. the first bit on this route is a reach so we made good progress in a reasonable sea but a rising wind.

By 1040 a reef became necessary. Bluster has roller reefing and three rolls is about equivalent to one slab reef and that is what we put in. Either boy can do this remarkably quickly  lifejacket on and clipped on the the jackstay with a short length, which is very helpful. The wind continued to rise, force 6 by now and hard on, so at 1320 a second reef was put in. With the stronger wind came rain and greater waves. I cannot say it was ideal but we were getting there. For sustenance we relied on digestive biscuits and lime squash. No-one was seasick but I nearly was after a spell down below for the heads. It is alright for the blokes, although by now it was far too rough to go fore or aft.

Then at 1350 it was time to tack and things calmed down a bit. Also we had a good wind shift to W5 and let out one reef. We had to get round the Long Sand, and possibly the Kentish Knock and west was lovely. A quarter of an hour later we let out the remaining reef but quarter of and hour after that up came the wind again, on the nose. and in went the reef.

The weather was miserable and we still had a long way to go. This is further than the route you can take at Springs, and it was obvious we could be out all night tacking against such a strong wind with a beam tide. Help was necessary so on came the engine (not a very big one) and we progressed slowly with the mainsail to help.

We made a long tack out until we reached the edge of the chart, and then another long one back. Visibility was good all day and now we could see the Kent coast quite clearly but on this day curiously unreachable. This route takes you near or through endless wind farms. This was the first time I have actually sailed through one but they do get in the way. The next two hours were not exactly great but the land did get nearer and morale rose. Not that it had ever been too low. After all, France beckoned. At last, at 1900, we rounded the North Foreland and basked in the shelter of the land.

Of course the tide was strongly against us, but we knew it would be. Another disadvantage of the neaps route. Off went the engine and we revelled in the blessed peace. Then, to cap it all, the wind died away and for the last mile or two the peace was shattered.

Unbeknown to me, it was Ramsgate Week. A routine request for a berth resulted in the information that we were lucky, there was one berth left! I felt somehow perhaps we deserved it. It was getting dark by now and a weary crew moored up in Ramsgate harbour. We had made it! I suppose then weariness was caused by the sea conditions because we did take turns for an hour off and a kip down below, but it had been hard work. We finally sat down to supper at 2200hrs. That journey, sailing on a good day and a Spring tide, takes between ten and twelve hours (for Bluster). This one took fourteen. Never mind, on to France.

Monday, July 30th. HW Dover, 0928, 2201. Forecast, SW winds with a strong wind warning.

The hope for today was Boulogne but the tides dictated otherwise, so Dover it would have to be. Quite helpful really as it would give time to get in some fresh food and set us up for what we hoped would be a more comfoertable Channel crossing. The sun shone and Ramsgate was buzzing.

There were some fine boats racing including many Dutch, and some German, French and Belgian. For them conditions were perfect.  During one race there was an MOB and out raced the lifeboat and a helicopter. It must have been quite difficult and frightening in those conditions and I am glad to say he was safely rescued.

At 1410 we left our mooring, all clean and showered and well fed to face whatever the sea would throw at us today. We still had the one reef in so left that and put up half a jib to beat down the 15 miles to Dover. An hour later in went the second reef. Still in the shelter of the land Bluster was going like a train and it was an exhilarating sail.

Half an hour after that the wind was still rising and we realised that once we turned the corner at the South Foreland we would lose the shelter of the land and the wind would be head on and we just would not make it.

This was crunch time. Deciding to go back is so, so difficult, however necessary. Goodness knows what the wind strength was on the way back but it necessitated a third reef and a pocket handkerchief of a jib, and still we flew at 6.2kt. Bluster`s hull speed is 6.5kt. By 1710 hours we were back and luckily they still found room for us in another berth It was three hours of wonderful sailing but not exactly productive.

Over a welcome cuppa we set up our council of war. The five day forecast said these conditions were set to continue all week so it was good by France.

How often these days are we defeated by the wind. It is definitely a more frequent occurrance than it used to be, and my log books will bear that out. We had six days left and it was up to me to make them enjoyable. They had come a long way for this cruise. They wanted sailing. No bus-pass cruise was in order. They were all very philosophical about the turn of events and fell in readily with my suggestions. So we celebrated the sunshine and the holiday and the fact that the old boat had behaved so well, sitting in the cockpit, glasses in hand and nibbling prawns, olives and nuts.

Tuesday, July 31st. Forecast SW5/6, 7 at times.

Not a day for movement. There were odd jobs to be done. There always are on Bluster. The boys went into town and Jonathan and I at last solved the problem of getting the hand-held Garmin to record the time and position on the VHF. This facility could be vital in an emergency an had been plaguing me for over a year, in spite of several conversations with the ever helpful chap at the Garmin headquarters. The call is free and you get a real person to talk to. In the end they exchanges my set, although I had had it for a few years and, bingo, it worked. A fantastic service. In the afternoon we plugged a laptop into the Olympics and watched some brilliant riding, rowing and sailing.

We also had three proper meals! The rigging was howling round us, the sun shone and we got quite lazy. These meals are not exactly simple affairs as the boys are vegans and the facilities are two burners on a paraffin stove and no oven or fridge. Vegans are very strict and a slug found in the lettuce had to be put in a polybag with a lettuce leaf to be taken ashore and released in a nice, slug-friendly spot. If the cooking arrangements sound a bit primitive I assure you it was interesting, if rather slow. The waiting time was leavened by a plentiful supply of alcohol. It is amazing how much beer a student can put away with no apparent effect.

Wednesday, August 1st. HW Ramsgate 1151, HW Harty Ferry 1235

Getting up at dawn is never my favourite occupation but needs must and once the cosy bunk is left the worst is over. Everyone was brilliantly punctual and Ramsgate was at last left behind at 0500hrs. The wind was still in the SW but had moderated so out came the reefs and we plugged away past the Thanet coast guard station against the strong tide that is usual here and could not be avoided if we had it favourable along the Overland route.

This means we had to recourse to engine help and it still took 1hr 50min. to cover the five miles. As it was low water we had to keep a close eye on the depth round the North Foreland where the rock ledge extends as much as three and a half cables in places. Once round we sailed; full sail and no reefs well sheltered all the way by the long straight coast of Kent. First we passed Margate, then Westgate on Sea and then Birchington as we traversed the South and Gore Channels.

This is where it gets tricky and woe betide you if you you go this way without having corrected your charts this year. The Margate Hook Sand has extended and the channel between the Hook Spit buoy and the East Last has silted up and is closed. You would want to go through here if you were making for Sheerness but our route took us south along the Copperas Channel.

Two buoys are in place but the Reculver Sand, where Barnes Wallace tested the Bouncing Bomb to blow up the German dams with great ingenuity reminiscent of Heath Robinson, has extended Northwards and the whole area is now very shallow. The buoys are not very helpful and we had to devise our own dog leg route. With a fair wind. And plenty of strength to wind up the keels in a hurry if need be it was just a fun challenge and all went well.

The destination today was to be Faversham, up the river and said to be a beautiful old town and a place as yet unvisited by Bluster. Turning into the Swale meant a long tack but we had time to make it before the last chance to make it up to Faversham before the water left. There is reportedly a marina which was duly contacted on the VHF. First a girl answered and said she would get a man to ring back. Said man, goodness knows who he was, rang back to say you cannot come, we are full up and anyway there is a lot of barge movement at the moment.

Disappointing as Faversham was part of our revised cruise plan. So we continued up the Swale towards Conyer which was to have been our destination for the next day. Low and behold the VHF came on again. This time it was the harbourmaster who said of course you can come, we have plenty of room. We never got to the bottom of that one, but to turn back would have made us to late to get in so we lost out on Faversham.

Conyer also dries and has a limited time for entry but time was well in hand and luckily I had a detailed chartlet of the approach that I had sent from the Conyer Marina years ago but had never had the occasion to make use of. Coming from the East as we were it is fairly straightforward.

The harbourmaster sounded welcoming and gave rather garbled and complicated instructions as to what we would find and where to go. Conyer is an odd place. To port were several new blocks of flats which sounds awful but was attractive, and to starboard saltings where our acquisitive eyes immediately spotted samphire. We found our berth but no-one came to greet us which could have prevented our future problems. We tied up to a finger pontoon and prepared to settle.

The boys set off by dinghy to get the samphire for supper, with strict instructions to be back before the water left. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and picking samphire is sort of addictive. You always see just another lovely piece you must pick. You can guess the result.

The next wallow has a little water left so they manoeuvred in there and jumped up. pulling a very muddy dinghy after them which took much cleaning as there was no water around to help. Every bucket had to be carried from the tap a distance away.

While this was going on we realised that Bluster was settling to a steep side of mud. The wallow we had been allocated was obviously for a large boat and if we had been told we could have positioned Bluster in the centre  As it was we continually lengthened the warps as she slid down the side and the eventual angle was not too extreme. But the worst was yet to come.

When we thought we were truly settled she slid further and the fore starboard fairlead came under such pressure that it was pulled out of the deck, backing plate and all. Yet more trouble now emerged. The keels and rudder had been raised and the transducer removed , which is all you usually need to do, but not this time. The mud at Conyer is incredible; very soft and very deep. Owing to the way she had settled the rudder had dug in deep and was fully over to starboard, bearing the weight of the boat. It is an aluminium rudder and it was obvious it could not take that strain for long before it fractured. It had to dug out. This is where Oliver became the hero.

Standing on the transom ladder he scooped up fistful after fistful until he could reach no more, and it was still stuck fast. There was no question of getting into that mud. You would sink without trace. Defeat was not an option. So up with a galley floorboard and with one foot on that (it still sunk out of sight) and one on the ladder he finally cleared the rudder and saved the day. The state of him had to be seen to be believed. Somehow the mud was on everything.

Well over an hour later, after endless journeys to the tap we had a clean but damaged boat, a clean dinghy and a clean Oliver. Time for the pub, but not before starters of samphire on Bluster. All the way we walked past large blocks of flats. There is very little village and the only shop is a quarter of an hour’s walk away. Definitely a holiday location, with a large drying marina with full facilities.

Enquiries yielded the information that the boat owners come from far and wide, even as far as Manchester, because they love the remoteness. The pub is very old with a recent and sympathetic restoration, lovely, friendly people and super food. Being a vegan in a pub can be difficult but the chef specially took all the non-vegan ingredients out so the boys survived. I had a most beautiful piece of fish.

So ended rather a memorable day for three of us but Jonathan volunteered to get up at 0300hrs to reposition the boat. This worked well except that we were now too far from the pontoon for alighting. At least it was for me.

Thursday, August 2nd. HW Sheerness 1332

The earliest you can expect to get away from Conyer is two hours before high water and the only those with shallow draft will make it.. that gave us all morning to lick our wounds and for me to prepare the boat. You can hardly sail with a gaping hole in the foredeck. So how did I get ashore? Many, many years ago I designed some boards for the cabin seats, with four possible uses. These are strong planks with cross pieces on one side, and upholstered on the other.

By day they act a back rests which makes sitting really comfortable, and by night they reverse as leeboard which makes the bunks very snug. Mooring between close piles can be difficult, but slung from the side of the boat with upholstered side inwards they bridge the gap beautifully. They have proved their worth for all these uses. Now was the time for the fourth so far untested use; as a gangplank. It worked a treat.

The yard was very helpful and cut me a piece of plywood to my specifications and would not charge for it. The repair looked reasonable and has remained watertight, ready for a proper repair in the winter. The boys set off, on foot this time, to stock up on samphire. Oliver said he could live on nothing else until we pointed out he would be rather hungry most of the year. The samphire was at its best. It varies a lot with location and the time of year.

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the many instructions I have read as to how to get out this way. However, on a rising tide we chose the best route we could think of and got away with it. Lifting keels do spoil you.

The next excitement was the railway bridge. Reportedly this opens every half hour, but at the bridgemaster`s discretion. A call revealed we were again in luck, with only a few minutes wait. Oliver was on the helm practising jilling about in one place and then the bridge started lifting. As we were the only boat going through it was only going to lift high enough for us. The message came “come through now.” “no” said Oliver, “we cannot possibly get under that”.”Do as he says” said his father sternly. I must say it did look scary but of course it was OK.

Getting down the Medway was a bore, against wind and tide, but the only way to do it, so it was sail-motor-sail-motor all the way and very slow. The pilot warns of a strong cross current into the lock for Chatham marina and I have been in before without a problem, but this time it was horrific. We shot in on a very fast current and then had to slam on the brakes. The crew just gasped and held on tight.

Later, to celebrate our survival Oliver invented a lovely starter to accompany the preprandials. The recipe is cooked mashed samphire, cut olives, sun-dressed tomatoes, lemon juice and olive oil. I recommend it.


Friday, August 3rd.

The object of coming down to Chatham was to take the boys to the dockyard. They loved it, especially the rope making. Oliver is very keen on rope and string. In all his odd moments he made a super broach from whipping twine. It took him thirty hours he tells me and I shall wear it on club occasions.


Saturday, August 4th.

Locking out was a doddle. As usual for the week it was blowing hard from the SW so it was 4 rolls in the main and a reefed jib, later adding 2 more, (i.e. two reefs), what we need for a Force 6. We flew and rounded the Queenborough Spit buoy at 1635hrs. taking two hours compared with the five it took the day before. A lovely sail.

When we were last at Queenborough they had removed all the ropes from the visitors mooring buoys, making them hard to pick up as they are flat just above water level, On that occasion the harbourmaster was coming round to all arriving boats to give a hand and said they had been removed for `health and safety`! We were pleased to see that common sense has now prevailed and they are back. At weekends in summer there is now a free ferry service ashore; you just call on Ch8. The boys took advantage to stretch their legs.


Sunday, August 5th.
Home again. Would you believe it, after all that wind the day dawned calm and we had to motor nearly all the way back.

Well, it was not the West Country, it was not France, but it still managed to be voted a super cruise.

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