Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Off like a herd of turtles, to Calais

The infamous Calais Trip; or—Our first voluntary voyage to the unknown!

The New Year with our boat started really slowly, we had much to learn about living aboard in a foreign country without the accessibility that we take for granted in America.

For instance; if I need a new t-shirt at 11:00 PM, I have the option of finding an open 24 hour Wally World or Tarzhey. For that matter, if I need a tuxedo shirt, I can get one after 6:00 PM at just about any open Men’s Store in Jacksonville.

Not in the City of London. Nor in Westminster. Shops close at 6:00 PM sharp on Oxford Street. In the City? Shops are closed by 5:00 PM.

Fuhgeddabout boating supplies and parts. There were three “Yacht Chandleries” near the Thames River. One is Adlard Coles, a fine shop near Liverpool Street Station, they were more for charts and navigation supplies and a good place to get nautical publications. Closed at 5:00 PM. There was another one on the highway, about three hundred yards from the Old Mint, but they closed at 6:00 PM, but did not have quite the inventory. Finally, there was a really nice Chandlery by the Charing Cross Station, closed at 6:00 PM and more of the marine stuff that a tourist or non-boat owner would want.

None would have whatever I really needed at the moment, but they could order for me any part if it was in their catalog.

Catalog sales in the 90’s?

You bet. You see, there was not much different between me outfitting my boat and say, Ernest Shackleton preparing to order provisions and supplies for his Antarctic Expedition in 1914. The catalogs and the telephones were the same. Actually I’m being unfair; Shackleton had better access to marine supplies.

The Londoners are fiercely proud of their resistance to change. Why even bathroom plumbing is the same as it was before the war. WWI, that is. The hot water faucet is still on the left and the cold water faucet is on the right. Water apartheid.

But one good thing about Londoners and boating; I could not have picked a better place to learn about real sailing. Other than a small elite in Florida, the average St Johns River sailor has no idea how to really navigate (like your life depends) or for that matter how to do small tasks like reef sails (make smaller sail area when wind strength grows) or anchor when conditions require.

So as annoyed as I was at the time, I can look back and understand that I had to learn about patience.

I still have no patience, but I can try to be better nowadays…

The real problem was that I had a job that required me to be at one place from 0730-1700 and my personal life had needs that could not be met except between 0900 and 1700.

Fortunately for me, I had a boss (0-5) who’s boss (0-6) were very, very supportive of an enlisted person trying to do something untraditional that gave plenty of personal interaction between a US Navy Sailor and the London sailing community at large. This meant that I had some liberal flexibility in afternoons/days off.

Owning a live aboard sailboat had some challenges, though. I had to learn how to heat the boat in winter, with a U.S. based electrical system. I told you how we acquired propane for cooking. Lucky for us, there was a Safeway across the street. So the food thing was taken care of.
As we were gaining social acceptance and knowledge, naturally, the topic of conversation turned to the big Little Ship Club Rally in Calais, France. This event has been held since 1926 (War years excepted) and it is the first big event of the Sailing Season for the East Coast of UK sailors.
Read this cruising news article from the West Mersea Yacht Club

Naturally, Wildebeest was going to be at the Calais Rally.

I put on a brave face, talking incredible crap about looking forward to the trip and all that. The other thing is I have a lot of faith that things work out, so I go along with the flow.

Maybe the weather will cause us to wave off?

Not at the end of May Bank Holiday, traditionally one of the nicest weekends of the year.

I saved some money and invited my Mother to come out, and also my partner in crime Rich. Rich was in the Navy, serving at VR-58 at NAS Jacksonville as a Jet Mechanic. I loaned him the money to come out, also. This trip to Calais would hopefully be the highlight of our collective sailing careers. here is Rich the year before, on Wildebeest III:

Mom was flying into London Heathrow, Friday morning of the trip. I had CDR Pete Schwab’s favorite London Chauffeur go pick her up. This fellow was a great driver, he would throw a quick tour of the City at no extra charge to our Official Guests, and I asked him to give the tour to my mom as well.

Rich was flying into Gatwick, I explained how to catch the train to Victoria station and gave him the phone number to call when he got there, and I would get a cab to run him to St Katherine’s Dock.

This trip was becoming a logistical exercise; We had to ready the boat for sea, drop off the Siamese onto a friend’s boat for the weekend, gather special foods and most importantly: DO Not Forget the Mount Gay Rum!

After much running about on Friday morning, Rich called; I went and got him personally. He was not amused, having spent the last fifteen hours traveling without sleep. He began whining almost immediately.

I told him to shut the F&^%* Up, and for him to enjoy himself; this is going to be the greatest trip, evah!

We got back to the boat at about 1130, with the tide about to ebb; we had an hour to play with regard to locking out of St Katherine’s Dock and to depart to the East down the Thames. There are no openings except during high tide. Plan accordingly!

Mom showed up at about 1145, she was completely dizzy from her fifteen hour travel and the rapid tour of all the London Must-See sites out and about downtown, the Buckingham Palace, Pall Mall, Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly, the Strand, Fleet Street, the Tower and finally St Kat’s.


We bundled Mom onboard and almost immediately got underway.

“What, no time for a sandwich?” sayeth the Mom.

With the boombox blasting out the first cut of my then favorite disc; “Barometer Soup”, by Jimmy Buffett, we headed out the Thames River.
While speeding along with a following current, (we must have been doing about ten knots over the ground!) we pointed out the Cutty Sark, Greenwich, the Naval College, oh look; on the left is the “Prospect Of Whitby
"We’ll be sure to stop there next week…", I told Mom and Rich.

On past the Docklands, I pointed out the ruin where “Full Metal Jacket” was filmed which was supposed to be Hue City in the film. (Kubrick didn’t like to leave London, apparently)

Passing the Thames Barrier

Soon, we found ourselves approaching Sheerness, and our overnight destination at Queenborough. We tied up at a buoy about four PM, and settled into some dinner and wine, celebrating our two guests and the great journey.

We finally got to sleep around 9:30PM, looking at the tide going out by 4:00 AM, so be sure to wake up early!

I was wound up, and it was tough to get to sleep and equally tough to wake up at 3:30AM…

Reveille was held, I noticed a fog. Uh-oh. The tide waits for no man, and we nervously slipped our mooring and headed South down the Swale, heading for the Thames Estuary. We noticed another boat quietly departing, also. No doubt, heading for Calais.

It was dark and foggy. We drove with all eyes peeled for markers, using the trusty GPS to take us to our next waypoints. We were out of the Swale and began heading east, the tide carrying us swiftly towards the channel. It was wet, the winds were relatively calm and I could have turned a lump of coal to a diamond, with the tenseness I felt. There was a swell following us, and you could hear the water breaking on the shore, I was really feeling the fear.

Should we turn back to the safety and “known” situation at Queenborough, maybe go to Calais tomorrow, when the weather will be clearer? Press on?

The braver character in this story, Super-Spouse, tells weenie boy to quit second guessing and press on.

Breakfast and coffee was served up to Rich and I, it was toast and jam, with English Bacon for everyone in the crew. Good stuff!

Mom was slow to get up; she had jet lag keeping her down so I saw her sitting up trying to have coffee while the boat was hobby horsing up and down. Not looking too pleased about this trip, at all!

Soon, we found ourselves at Margate:

View Larger Map

The seas were picking up and the Southwest winds soon picked up to 15 knots. I whimpered to myself, “Here is where the fun begins!”

I called for Rich to help unfurl the head sail, because there was no way we were going to be able to just motor across twenty plus miles of choppy seas.

But to stay on the safe side, I was going to leave the engine running, 1. Because it did not start right up when I needed it a couple of weeks ago. 2. To increase our movement through the water. The Channel was looking fairly rough (It was nothing, believe me…) and I wanted to minimize the time spent in the open water.

Did I mention the two lanes of rapidly moving shipping, passing right to left?

The 150 Genoa rolled out and filled with air with a resounding “boom”, and we were off for the races! Wildebeest III was at a 45 degree angle, pushing shoulder into the mounting waves, I could feel that this boat was running like a thoroughbred, wanting to run as fast as it could. I mean, the boat felt truly alive!

A new experience, for sure. My oncoming Mal De Mer disappeared instantly, and I rode the wind and waves for the first time, feeling the vibration of the wind through the helm, and hearing the boom of water bouncing off our hull in a foamy wake.

As we rode the waves, I checked my Mom, who was hiding in the Vee Berth, lying on her back with her feet firmly pressed on the ceiling, holding her in place as the front end jumped too and fro.

“Mom, if you want to rest, you can go back to our berth; it is a lot calmer back there.”

“I’m fine”, she quietly replied. “Just leave me here… okay?”

I went back to the helm after noting our position. We were about a third of the way through and it had only been an hour and a half in the channel. We dodged a couple of freighters and maintained our beeline to the harbor of Calais.

We started seeing large ferries, traveling East and West, and the fog started to lift. It was still breezy, but I was really getting into the hang of driving the boat. I must admit that I was feeling more exhilarated than I had ever felt while sailing. We got to the dogleg turn into Calais Harbor; there is actually a Red Light/Green Light for entering the yacht harbor, due to ferry ships buzzing in and out at rapid clips.

The turn was made and we immediately got waked by a monster of a ferry, causing us to rock from side violently, until the Westerly wind caught our sail and balanced us out. This is when our fifty pound transformer, perched precariously on a counter decided to enter freefall and crash into our nice wooden deck, pointy side down creating a transformer sized divot. Spousal Unit gave me a wicked “what for” look rebuking me for not having placed the box in a more secure spot.

Sorry. I didn't think it would budge.

Green light for go came up and we whizzed as fast as five knots would take us into the waiting area, where we tied to a mooring ball awaiting the bridge opening into the yacht basin. It was about noon, local, I had been on the helm continuously for about eight hours.

What a trip! I was giddy, like a little girl at her biggest birthday party. With the sunshine we all came up on deck chatting with other yachts, and we said hello to the boat that followed us out of Queenborough. It turns out they had no idea where to go, but noticed that we had an American flag and RADAR, figured we knew what we were doing and so followed us out and along.


Looking at the next Google View, you can click on the minus sign and see the entrance to the Harbor, but at the bottom of the picture you can see the little boats moored, waiting for the Basin Ouest bridge/Lock for an opening:

View Larger Map

After about a half hour, the bridge opened and about ten of us made a mad dash to get in, and once in we milled around looking for a dock to tie up.

Being 13 meters, we did not want to be on the outside of a smaller boat. Remember the flail-ex at Queenborough, a couple weeks back? We don’t want to cause damage to a smaller boat, so I looked for a large boat. Just so happens that “Gallivant”, owned by Tom Davie (Former Commodore of the Little Ship Club!) was free, so we tied up. We made secure with fore and aft lines, spring lines and about a six pack of fenders.

Good thing we were tied to Tom, we did not have a ladder and a ladder is required to get on and off the boat onto the quay (pronounced “key”) at low tides. The tidal range was about eight feet.

We went ashore to sign in. I noticed a row of flag poles with flags of all the boats and nations present in the basin. I didn’t really think about mentioning our nationality, since I knew that Customs would be upon us in a minute. We said Bon Jour and all that, paid our weekend dues and went out to get a snack and drink at the Calais Yacht Basin club.

After the club closed for the afternoon, went to the Wildebeest III and noticed a UFO 34 sailboat called, “Don UFO” tied up outside us, with two odd looking ladies flitting to and fro.

“Oh, boy,” thought I, “Just what we need, frumpy English Ladies…”

Just then Roger (Nowadays of Beaujolais) pops out of the hatch!

Roger from later onboard Wildebeest III

Roger in Panama, two months ago.

We can’t seem to get away from this guy.

Roger and his boat partner “Terry” brought two passengers from the “Skippers and Crew” from the Little Ship Club.

By the way, we had briefed Roger all about our little deal from the past trip to Queenborough, but you can’t have bad luck in passengers twice, can you?

(For those of you familiar with foreshadowing, the last paragraph drips with it.)

Terry, Roger, Mom, Rich, Spousal Unit and I settled into some snacks and shared some wine and beer. Come sunset, we would all cruise over to the Basin Yacht Club for the Friday night party. We stopped by HMS Puncher (Royal Naval Training Ship) for a beer with the CO and XO.

HMS Puncher is invited annually to be part of the Little Ship Club’s Rally at Calais. This reminds the Club membership of close ties with the Royal Naval Voluntary Reserve before the War, and the Royal Navy shows gratitude for the memory of the Little Ships of Dunkirk (Many of those civilian vessels flew the Little Ship Club Burgee).

Anyway, Puncher always shows hospitality to the LSC members by carrying plenty of beer and wine. So we introduced ourselves as Active Duty USN, having sailed the ocean blue from London to Calais, and boy are we parched!

This began a boisterous night of sailor-like craziness and fun. Mom decided to try out the French Rums, and the rest of us enjoyed to local wines and beers.

Closing time came at 11:00 PM, and it having been a long day, we left for the Wildebeest III. With a convenient stop at the HMS Puncher with the Captain of said vessel, who invited us for a nightcap of champagne.


Reveille came at the crack of eight, hearing rustling coming from next door. During all of the hoo-raw of the night before, Spousal Unit had invited Roger and Terry and the crew of Gallivant over for Beignets and coffee.

It all seemed like fun the night before, but now we had to scramble about and straighten out the wreckage and make room for guests. I started coffee and the beignet mix, while SWWBO started heating the frying pan. We managed to serve about four dozen beignets and about four pots of desperately needed Melitta filtered Coffee.

We began the second clean up cycle when I noticed a sound of a beer can being opened;

Terry had reached into my special cooler and helped himself to a Pabst Blue Ribbon! WTF!!!

“What’s a Pa-st Blure Ribbon?” That is the spelling of what I heard.

“Only the finest beer made in America.” I replied.

“I haven’t heard of it, do they export it?”

“No, only in wartime”, I snarked.

“Pity, this is a fine Lager” complemented Terry.

I raised up our Frigate-sized National Ensign up the rear shrouds, to allow every shellback, polly-wog, snipe, and land-lubber the opportunity to know that the USN was in da howse!

You could actually hear a gasp, when people saw the huge Colors hit the breeze. John Stoneham, from Gallivant decided to raise his “Special Ensign” to answer ours, but his began to tear in the freshening breeze.

I. Felt. Horrible. That flag was a special end of World War II ensign that incorporated all of the Allied Flags in one. And it was very old and frail.

In typical British Stiff Upper Lip fashion, he shrugged it off and said he would have it repaired. John felt that our ludicrously large flag needed an answer Flag. (But he really enjoyed the nerve we had in displaying the flag, especially that it was indeed a Naval Ship’s Ensign.)

SO, now back to the cockpit, join Terry and Roger as they lay waste to my precious case of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. As the moments passed, other sailors came by wanting a can of this illusive Blue Ribbon treat, all passed complements for a fine and excellent import, and how they really preferred it to Budweiser.

The case was gone by noon, and everyone broke up for the afternoon. Some went to town, others for naps.

Mom emerged from the Vee-Berth around 11:00, none the worse for her big evening out. We got situated and walked into down town Calais, to check out the local scene.

More later, and especially more on the Pigeon Sisters.


Buck said...

Ah. And Ooooh! Well told, this!! We await the tale of the Pigeon Sisters... oh yes, we DO!

Liz said...

You really need to get a book deal - this is far better than Horatio Hornblower :)!

I saw the post come up in my feed reader and intended to just read the first paragraph and come back because I AM supposedly working AND on a deadline...

Great stuff!