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Sailing In A Force 7. Chatham – Ramsgate And Back

Here I am, with salt in my hair. Exhausted. Frozen to the core. But what a fantastic weekend! I was aboard a Jeannau 35, called Spitfire for a weekend of sailing. The aim of the weekend: to continue to build miles and experience. It turned out to be a jolly jaunt down the coast to Ramsgate, followed by a force 7 bucking bronco ride back.

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I joined the boat on Friday evening. On-board were 4 novice crew, myself and a pro skipper. After checking the weather, discussing the plan, writing up passage and pilotage notes, we slipped lines at 9.30pm. In to the darkness of the Medway we headed downstream. Slowly meandering around the deep muddy river banks, spotting the twinkly lights of the channel marker buoys as we went. As my last night cruise of the Medway ended in a grounding, I was particularly on the ball with the navigation… calling the light signals, confirming, spotting, cross checking. This was text book pilotage.

We arrived at our mooring for the night in Queensboro. I bought us carefully alongside, feathering the tide in the darkness of the night. Excited for what tomorrow’s sail would bring, everyone headed to bed at 1.30am

Sailing from Queensboro to Ramsgate
Setting sail first thing in the morning, we left our overnight spot before heading out in to the Estuary. Disappointingly, there’s not a wave insight. Not a knot of wind. It is officially a ‘mill pond’. Perfect training time for our novice crew members, I helped the skipper with coaching them on a few topics, and everyone took a turn on the helm.

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Alongside in Queensboro

Motor sailing along the coast, we passed the beautiful towns of Seasalter and Whitstable, then Margate and finally made our approach to Ramsgate. It is now nightfall, and under the starry sky I took the helm, and followed the guiding lights of the channel in to the Royal Marina. A fairly uneventful, relaxing trip indeed.

We check the weather for the morning, it is definitely going to be a very different sailing experience tomorrow. Our prayers to the wind gods have been answered… you know what they say ‘be careful what you wish for!’…

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Ramsgate marina

The tale of two halves… Sailing from Ramsgate to Chatham
As soon as I awoke at 5.30am, I knew today was going to be a battle. Laying warm and cosily in my sleeping bag, in the darkness of my cabin, I can feel the boat rocking. The wind is howling, halyards are pinging, and the rain is streaming down my port hole window. We’d planned to set sail at 6am. So without delay I don my kit and rouse the rest of the bleary eyed crew. I’m a morning person, so can go from sleep to prepping a boat in a nano second, others definitely need a bit of coaxing with coffee!

I head up on deck and instruct another crew member to join me, we need to prep lines for slip, disconnect the shore power, run through the passage plan, do a ‘WOBBLE’ engine check, warm the engine up, switch on the nav lights, and drop our 1st way point on the plotter…. A lot to do and we need to get going. Ramsgate has a fairly shallow entrance, and we’re against the clock with the tide here. The last thing any of us want is to be stuck in the marina for hours on end, waiting for the tide.

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Ramsgate marina

We head off, a well-executed departure takes us out in to the channel… the waves are huge, and the wind is gusting 25 – 28kts. (In sailing terms these are officially Rough Seas, and it is a Force 7). With 2 reefs in the main we hoist and set off. This is going to be a challenging day, especially for our newbies.

The first slog is a punch in to the tide around the North Foreland headland, it’s rough at the best of times in this stretch, but today it is a bucking bronco ride. It takes nearly 3 hours to travel a fairly short distance round the headland. The waves are incredibly confused, at times they’re beam on, which makes me slightly nervous. We work to keep the boat under control, easing the main, working the sheets, and trying to stay on course, whilst also ensuring we don’t broach.

At times, the guard rail and more is in the water. But everyone’s mucking in and getting the job done. A couple of crew members look slightly nauseous, unfortunately this includes our skipper who had to fix the furler on the bow (not a pleasant experience in these conditions).

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Crew shot. With good friends in calmer waters during the trip…

Once we round the corner things get a little easier, the sea state is still rough, but the challenge now is the squalls. On the horizon marching towards the land is squall, after squall. Each one bringing with it an ammunition of razor sharp hail stones. With a 10 – 15 minute break in between each squall, we have just enough time to recover before the next fight. The tiny hail stones lashing against any exposed skin, the waves chaotically throwing the boat back and forth, the wind gusting and whipping up a frenzy all around.

Amid the chaos, and between squalls, there are 2 notably fantastic moments that really made me smile. Firstly immediately off our bow a black head appeared, a really big seal! Right in front of us. Staring straight at us, his whiskers twitching and eyes wide, as if confused by the insanity of what we are doing. He disappeared and a few seconds later appeared on our stern. A big chap, he stared once again, before disappearing in to the waves. It was magical. And then the next squall hit.

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The picture does not do this justice… at all!

The 2nd magical moment, was when a rainbow appeared to our port side. Small, but a perfect arc of vibrant colour. It shone in the beams of sunlight that were poking through the dark clouds of hail and drizzle. The foot of the arc was so close, it felt you could touch it. I did joke with the skipper that we should about turn and collect the pot of gold, this was met with a firm ‘No chance’ or maybe less polite words to the same effect!

I head below and start to cook. From experience, I know that people need to eat in these situations to help keep the dreaded sea sickness at bay. If anyone’s to go below, it has to be me. Bacon sandwiches should do the trick. The smell is welcome, steaming up to the crew above, I pass them up and they go down well (with most!)… the nausea hasn’t quite abated for all.

The battle continues. The mission? To get us home to Chatham safe and well, and as quickly as possible.

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Charting the best passage in to the Estuary and buoyed channel to avoid the incoming squall

Several hours pass, and with the end in sight, and another huge squall on the horizon I head below to assess the situation on the chart. We make a decision to alter our plan. Our skippers hands are bleeding – war wounds from his gloveless battle on the helm. He re-takes his position and I stay put at the chart table, calling up commands to give us the fastest, safest and best course for the last 40 minutes to the Estuary and in to the safe waters of the Medway channel.

In stormy waters, we navigate sand banks, wrecks and a variety of mischievous obstructions. To add to the challenge a huge commercial vessel with 3 tugs, and 2 further ships are currently navigating the same stretch. I feel the pressure. But do my best to stay cool headed, I know that if I make one mistake in these conditions and in these waters, we are all in deep trouble. “Head up a bit”… “Port a bit”… “That’s it, hold that course”. My eyes dart between our paper chart, the chart plotter and our depth. We are so close to safer, calmer, happier waters, but yet so far.

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Keeping an eye on our depth and track on the chartplotter

We’re finally in the main channel, on the final approach to the Medway. With the angry squall glaring at us, not far behind. We’re alongside the wreck of the Richard Montgomery, a stark reminder of how things can go wrong. And then within minutes we’re inshore and making our way in to the Medway meanders. Phew! What a relief and what an adventure.

A real sense of thankfulness, and accomplishment becalms the boat. And now we all just want to get home for showers and warmth. With a change of helm, and an opportunity for one of our more novice crew members to bring the boat home, I stay on deck pointing out the next mark and talking him in. The rest of the crew tend to the chaos below. Items that were stowed have come lose and are strewn around the galley and saloon, reminding us of the battle that we have just fought. Aside from this, our bilges desperately need bailing following a small leak on one of our bearings. The works doesn’t stop when you’re sailing, it just changes.

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The calm after the storm. Sun and blue sky peeping through the moody clouds, in the calm waters of the River Medway

The mood? We’re exhausted. It’s been a tough day. But as we gracefully slip in to our mooring spot in Chatham. We all feel like we’ve been on an adventure. We’ve all learnt a fair amount. For some it’s been the first time they’ve sailed, and has been an immense learning curve. For me, it’s been building on previous learning’s, supporting other crew, making critical navigational decisions, working quickly to prevent over powering. Putting in to action lots of previous learning’s.

What a great trip. Have you sailed this part of the Kent coast? I’d love to hear your stories and experiences, drop me a note in the comments.

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