2020 saw travel plans lay in tatters, with most of us being forced or choosing to stay at home for the majority of the year, while COVID-19 brought a wave of tragedy and mayhem across the globe. As sailors, Hodge and I were luckier than most – jumping on the boat when the government guidance allowed, and so at times we were able to enjoy the freedom and fresh air that sailing brings, escaping the chaos of the pandemic, whilst also staying safe and away from other people. Is there a better way to socially distance, than at sea?
In August, with the kids in their 5th month of home schooling, we decided to make a break for France. The weather was set to be perfect, a summer heat wave, and fair winds. In this blog post you can lose yourself in my diary from that week… Onboard the Artful Dodger as Hodge and I, along with my 3 children took to the seas for a 9 day adventure.
The magic of being on the water
It’s early evening, and we slip our lines and slowly start to make our way down the River Medway, on the South East coast of the UK. With a glorious setting sun on the horizon, and the warmth of the rays filling the air. Within a matter of minutes, we are all relaxing into life on board, marvelling at the sunset and beauty that surrounds us. As we turn the second meander, a small, round grey face appears off our stern. A curious seal, with beady black eyes is silently watching our every move, as we gently glide past. What a lovely sight, and a lovely send off (or welcome perhaps) I’ve never seen a seal so far inshore. We muse at the sight of it, and surmise that it was possibly indictive of how sea life has seemingly thrived in 2020, owing to a pandemic-induced reduction in shipping.
Mooring on a buoy approximately 10nm downstream, we sit up on deck and discuss our planned early start – a 40nm passage to Ramsgate (approx. 7 hours) . The night air is so warm, and the deep velvet-blue sky is littered with stars. Phosphorescence twinkles in the water around the boat as the tide rushes against our hull. It’s simply magical. The most perfect start to our holiday. With an oil lamp letting off a warm glow, we marvel at the beauty of nature before us, and decide that we should sleep on deck. As I drift off to sleep under the star-filled sky, I reflect on how fortunate we are to have this world at our fingertips.
Ramsgate and Eastbourne
In the morning, we set off early to Ramsgate, a port we’re both very familiar with. It’s a straightforward sail in lovely conditions. The children are happy taking shifts on the helm. And we get into the marina early in the afternoon. Allowing us to do some last minute victualling.
The marina is busy, there’s quite a few boats from France and the Netherlands, seemingly lots of people had the same idea as us! It’s so nice to see lots of other sailing families. Kids are taking turns to jump into the cool sea, whilst grown up’s lounge on deck enjoying drinks amid the summer heatwave.
Not before long, two border patrol officers amble alongside the Artful Dodger for a chat. With the heatwave, unfortunately there’s an up-tick in the volume of immigrants attempting to cross the channel. They inform us that they’re currently on the highest level of alert, and that we need to be diligent. We’re entertained with their stories of capturing drug and arms gangs, before they head off and we settle in for the night.
Another early start see’s us headed to Eastbourne. New to both of us, Eastbourne is approximately 10 hours along the coast. We sail peacefully in the Summer sun. Disturbed only by the occasional blast of the VHF. Several dinghies have been spotted, one reportedly containing between 15-20 people. You see it on the news, but the reality of being out on the water and the reality (now surrounding us) is quite an eye opener. There are people very close by, desperately trying to get to England, and whatever your thoughts on the issue, or your politics, the reality is that these people are risking their lives and it is dangerous. Dangerous and tragic.
Hodge disappears down below to check the chart. Off our starboard beam I spot something green in water. “Get the binoculars! There’s something in the water!” Hodge appears at the companionway, and I point to where I saw it, but it’s disappeared into the waves and we can’t spot it again. We keep a vigilant watch, but the allusive green object doesn’t reappear – were my eyes failing me? What if…? What if…? It was just a glimpse, a possible glimpse at that. It could have been trickery of the eye, as my senses are so heightened by all of the alerts on the VHF. As we sail further along the coast, the mysterious green object is on our minds, when over the VHF comes a sighting of a green upturned dinghy. It has to be what I spotted. This is just another day in the life of the border force and coastguard, as a call goes out to keep an eye out for ‘possible people in the water’ near another suspected migrant dinghy. This is such a grim juxtapose to our happy, holiday boat. Music blaring , and kids happily learning the joy of sailing, yet around us THIS is happening.
We carefully navigate our way towards Eastbourne and radio the marina to notify them of our impending arrival. As we make our way into the lock another boat radio’s in, they have engine failure and agree with the lock master that they are going to enter under sail. An impressive first attempt is made, but the boat unfortunately furled their sails too soon, and they end up bobbing about outside the marina, being watched by lots of spectators.
We moor up and venture off for a very quick drink, before heading back to the safety of our beloved boat. We light the oil lamp, put the kids to bed, and enjoy a few well-earned drinks on deck… we are sailors after all! We have another early start tomorrow – tomorrow we will point our nose towards Honfleur – 90nm away.
Sailing to Honfleur
We’ve got a long day ahead, but I’ve never seen the Sovereign Lighthouse before, and as we’re in the area we decide to take a detour. It’s due to be demolished, and so we sail in that direction. It’s a beautiful morning, with a perfect sunrise which peaked as we passed the infamous landmark. The lighthouse is an incredible site, rising from the waves like the Angel of the North. It’s tragic that it can’t be saved, and restored somehow.
From here we turn and head for the TSS, the motorway of the sea’s. The weather is so changeable, the only consistency is the sun. We have no wind, the hum of the engine is a mild irritant in such beautiful surroundings. Then out of nowhere the wind fills, both sails are up and we are flying. It’s on the beam, then on the nose, then behind us. And then it’s gone. The TSS is unusually quiet, we spot just two vessels. Marvellous.
After the TSS we agree to both take turns at getting some sleep… ‘The girls’ are first ‘off-watch’, so my daughter and I head below. I duly note our position in the log and close my eyes. There’s something so blissful about going off-watch! We fall asleep to the hum of the engine and the sounds of the water rushing past the hull. After what feels like no time at all the buzz of my alarm interrupts my peaceful dreams. My eyes open, and in a split second I’m wide awake. I call up to check everything’s ok, all is good. Our first ever double handed channel crossing, and all is going perfectly.
It’s the boys turn to go ‘off-watch’. I take the wheel and my daughter and I settle into our watch. Trimming the sails, and at times we are absolutely fly along. It’s heavenly up on deck. Does it get any better?
As the boys slept, it dawned on me that the clocks would likely change while they were asleep… would they get 3 hours, or would they get just 1! Alas, the alarm automatically changed itself and gave them a solid 2 hours of rest. Phew!
With everyone back on deck, we spot a small pod of Dolphins, one of my favourite sites. I’ve spent so many hours on the bow on previous adventures, with just Dolphins for company, it is one of my favourite things in life. They always surprise you when you least expect it, often appearing to raise your spirits. And with that it was “land ho!”… on the horizon we can just about make out a craggy coastline emerging. Straining our eyes and with the kids crowding to one side, pointing excitedly while donning their pyjamas, they confirm it is indeed land. Hello France!
As we edge closer to land, the children head to their bunks, and the humidity closes in. Huge anvil shape clouds tower in the sky above us. Darkness falls as we approach Le Havre channel, and the horizon is littered with lights. To the left of us there’s lights, there’s more to the right, behind us, in front of us.. Lights. Lights everywhere! Red, white, green specks twinkling all around us. In the world of sailing, all vessels must display a defined pattern of lights, so that other vessels can identify what the vessel ifs and in which direction it is heading. Scouring the horizon, we estimate that what we are seeing is upward of 20 vessels of differing varieties and sizes. This is going to make for some tricky navigation!
With that, there are some heavy rain drops on deck, and before long we are in the midst of an enormous thunderstorm. Cracks of lightening light up the sky, intermittently destroying our night vision. The rain falls, soaking our skin, and stinging our faces… we tirelessly scan the lights and calculate the movements of the vessels around us. It is very late and this navigational challenge, coupled with limited visibility is not at all what we need. Every now and then the noise of the rain is interrupted by a thunderclap. We weave our way safely through the traffic and finally enter the River Seine, both relieved that the rain has eased off and we are out of the dangers of the channel.
We are nearly there, the storm passes. And under the cloak of darkness we meander our way up the River Seine, finding the lock entrance, our timing was perfect. The lock only opens for in-bound vessels once an hour. We arrive with 10 minutes to spare. Exactly what we need after such a long day. The friendly lock keeper comes out to meet and welcome us.
A short while later, we raft safely alongside another vessel. Enjoy a quick toast to celebrate our safe arrival and then head to bed. It’s 4am.
Oh my eyes! Honfleur is, to put it simply, beautiful. We had been warned that the main basin (Vieux Basin) may be crowded. The books warn of sailors having to raft 10 deep. We take a stroll to have a look, and the basin is nearly empty. COVID means that sailing is just not happening much this Summer, and the end result is a near-empty marina in Honfleur. We have our pick of the pontoons, and opt for a spot close to it’s own wall ladder, so we can climb up to the street with ease.
The traditional basin boasts historic stone walls, that date back to the 17th century. Surrounded by busy, cobbled streets and the most pretty array of French town buildings. There’s bustling restaurants and bars. The architecture is just stunning. So diverse, and unique. There’s so much history here. In the heat of the French Summer we spend a couple of days enjoying as much cheese and Champagne as we can, exploring this beautiful town, taking in its incredible history and practicing our (somewhat ropey) French. It is heavenly.
Sailing – Honfleur to Fecamp
Before we know it, it’s time to move on. At mid-morning we slip lines and head back out into the River Seine. It’s fascinating to see it in the daylight. We reminisce on our arrival, and once again make our way across Le Havre channel. It is so much easier in the basking sunshine than in a thunderstorm at night!
We sail close haul, there’s 20kts of wind, and we’re flying along at a steady 7kts. It’s a short sail, just 35nm along the beautiful French coastline. We wonder at the sites on route… small towns, rural churches, a huge nuclear power plant (with an incredibly expansive no-sail exclusion zone). We navigate our way towards Fecamp (pronounced fey-kong). 5 prominent wind turbines and the Church of Notre Dame on the hill mark the start of our pilotage in to Fecamp.
Fecamp is very different to Honfleur. It’s an old town, but it’s much bigger, it’s more built up and has modern buildings. It’s not as affluent as Honfleur. Near the marina, we take shelter from a humid Summer rain storm, darting into an eatery. We’re only here for a night. So will be up early to explore.
There’s plenty to see, a Benedictine monastery lends to some beautiful architecture, and we of course, pay a visit to the local boulangerie. We enjoy lunch overlooking the marina and duly prep Artful before heading back out to sea.
Dieppe and a difficult decision
It is a windless day. The air is heavy and the sun is beaming. We motor along the front at Fecamp having one last look at the historic town. The children are becoming really quite competent sailors. They’ve transformed into diligent crew, helping prep the boat, tying and untying fenders and lines, helming and safely moving about the boat. They’re at home onboard, we all are. The water, sailing, it’s our happy place.
I’m on the helm as we leave Fecamp in our wake. And staying there for 6hrs, we’re all excited to spot various bright lights appear on the coastline. Pink, red, blue, lots of flashing lights. There’s a fun fair on the shore. Dieppe! The harbour itself is inconspicuous. We find a nice berth, near the shore ramp. The front at Dieppe is bustling – a long traditional stretch of French restaurants and bars. I’m immediately drawn in. It’s such a vibrant place, it’s abuzz . We briefly explore, before turning in and exploring properly in the morning.
Overnight the news breaks that the ‘travel bridge’ between France and the UK is closing. This means that if you travel to France you will need to quarantine for 14 days upon return. UK residents are encouraged to return to England asap and a cut off is set, after which time the quarantine is imposed. This news doesn’t come as a complete surprise, albeit it isn’t very welcome.
We spend the day exploring Dieppe, and enjoy a delicious meal on the front. We love it here. But the clock is ticking. We debate what to do. Do we stay? Do we head for Boulogne (our next planned port)?… do we really want to quarantine? We decide to head off, destined for Boulogne. By visiting Boulogne we wouldn’t make it back before the cut off and would have to quarantine.
Boulogne or maybe not
At 3am we slip lines. The children are sound asleep. It’s so peaceful on deck. As we leave the shore behind, we are once again surrounded by magical phosphorescence. This is a sight and a feeling that I will never tire of.
An interesting cargo ship appears on the horizon, with two support vessels, one of which came very close to us, clearly wishing us to change direction and keep a significant distance. We duly alter course and ponder what on earth the cargo could be. The support ships were high speed, and were making patrols for several miles around the vessel, at times switching off their AIS, so they couldn’t be detected. This was like nothing either of us had seen before.
The children rise, as the world wakes up. The sky is overcast, but it is lovely and warm. We’ve been discussing the quarantine and our decision. As we near Boulogne a pod of Dolphins greets us. The debate on-board is still very much in full flow – are we making the right decision opting to stay in France for another night or two? We are so torn by what to do. We’re in such a unique position, so many people are desperately trying to get back to the UK ahead of the quarantine, we can, but I am enjoying our trip, and I’m reluctant. We hold a family vote, and the vote is decisive, none of us actually want to endure a two week quarantine unnecessarily, when we have the option not to. It would be reckless to continue the trip. We survey our options, and turn our bow to port. Aborting our plan, we head for Dover.
Dover here we come…
Dover is a new port for us both, and although there will be no more French cheese and Champagne, we both feel relieved and happy with our decision. We will arrive within the quarantine deadline.
As we cross the channel, fog descends. The Dover Straight lies ahead of us. It’s the world’s busiest shipping lane and navigating it in the fog is not ideal. It’s still humid and windless. The sea is completely lifeless and flat. Once again, it is ideal weather for migrant crossings. It is also perfect weather for cross-channel swimmers! So as well as the usual shipping traffic, we have to juggle these elements, and all in the fog.
We both stay on deck for the duration of the TSS. Hodge is on the helm, and my role is navigation – making sure we steer a perfect 90 degree course across the shipping lanes, whilst at the same time keeping a close eye on anything that appears on our AIS. I diligently scan the horizon, announcing whether vessels are moving towards us, or away, whether they’re a threat (i.e. if there’s a collision risk), and whether we need to alter course. In these conditions you have to be hyper-alert. It’s exciting, and we work well as a team, safely making a perfect crossing.
We hear of lots of migrant vessels on the VHF. But most intriguingly we hear of and then pass two cross channel swim support vessels – small ribs shadowing a female swimmer. What an incredible feat. There is another attempt being discussed on the VHF, but the swimmer has abandoned. This is something neither of us have come across before. What an unusual end to our trip!
We spot the white cliffs of Dover on the horizon, and edge closer. With permission of the port control, we enter the Port of Dover. Ferries are loading and unloading. Idle cruise ships sit alongside the harbour wall, a sign of COVID-times. The port is an incredible site… we are such a small sailing vessel surrounded by giants, and the iconic white cliffs. What a privilege to sail into this historic port.
We find a berth, and head off for obligatory fish and chips. What a fantastic trip, what a perfect holiday. And of course, what a sensible decision to head home!