Sailing To France – Getting Boarded By The French Border Force

Our last weekend on the water saw us sail from Chatham to our new home marina, Sovereign Marina in Eastbourne. En route, Hodge proposed in the most spectacular style, and a crazy weekend with friends and family followed. After the most incredible weekend of celebrations, we needed some downtime. Time to relax, do some ‘adventuring’ and escape from the craziness together. So to mark our first passage from our new home port, we decided to make a dash across the channel to Boulogne, via the infamous Sovereign Light.

The weekend saw us make a fabulous overnight passage, complete with sunset and sunrise, shooting stars, and a boarding from the French Border Force.

Locking out of Sovereign Harbour, Eastbourne

An upwind passage to Boulogne

Eager for our first sail from our new home marina, we head to Eastbourne after work. A few minor boat jobs need to be completed before we slip, including rigging a new flag halyard from our starboard spreader, ready for our Q and French courtesy flags. We’ve recently had the mast off, and done lots of work on our rigging, and hadn’t got round to replacing the flag halyard yet.

A quick trip to the first spreader to fit the new flag halyard

We’re keen to get away, there’s favourable tide, but a strong headwind, so we’re all too aware that this is going to be a long passage! We slip lines and lock out.

Beachy head behind us at sunset

The wind is blowing about F5 from the NE, and so this means we need to take a slightly longer route than we would normally plan for. Heading straight out and across the TSS, before making our way up the French coast. This gives us the opportunity to sail past the fantastic Sovereign Lighthouse though, which we’ve both been keen to do before it is dismantled and disappears permanently in a few weeks time. We were last here 2yrs ago, and it brings back fond memories.

Sovereign Light, Eastbourne – Soon to be dismantled

It’s slow progress, our sails are pinned in, and our engine is on. A beautiful sunset see’s us off, and before long we are offshore and alone at sea. The darkness descends, and it’s time to navigate the TSS. Taking the first stint on navigation, Hodge keeps a watchful eye on the AIS. We have to take avoiding action for a few ships – they always seem to come along in force when we least want them! Once in the middle of the shipping lanes, we head up and make a good course to windward. We switch roles, with Hodge taking the wheel and me taking nav duty, when suddenly 3 ships appear on our AIS screen. They’re 5 – 6 miles out, but 2 of them are on a collision course, and they’re fast moving. We keep a keen eye, and once they’re closer we take appropriate action, turning 90 degrees to show them our port light. It’s always a relief when you can no longer see the ominous white, green, and red light coming straight at you!

Our outbound track – from Eastbourne to Boulogne
Monitoring the AIS screen

With the TSS behind us, we resign to the fact that we’re not going to get in until after dawn, and decide to take 30 minute watches, to help give us some rest. We’ve not taken this approach before, we normally do an hour or two, but it feels like a good idea, and actually worked really effectively.

I take the first off-watch, and we rotate through 30 minute cycles from there. On my 1st watch alone I spot a shooting star whizz past to port. And on my final watch I spot another, this time it is far brighter and leaves a glittering trail in its wake. I let out an ‘oh wow’.

I love being on watch at night. The sky is bountiful, and you get a sense of peace that only a sailor can know. You hear every sound, and spot every movement in the darkness.

When I’m on watch the time passes quickly, helming by the stars, I line up a shroud, the forestay, or a spreader with a prominent star. It’s peaceful, and I allow myself to ponder anything from work situations, and global politics… through to well, nothing! Thoughts of sea stories and by-gone days come and go. A light appears on the horizon, and then disappears. We are alone in the darkness. I love it.

It’s time for my final watch, and Hodge’s final rest. We’re 6.5nm out from Boulogne, and there’s a faint hint of light on the horizon. I can make out the occasional lobster pot, a sure sign that we’re nearly there. In no time at all, Hodge joins me on deck, we drop the sails and round up towards the Boulogne lighthouse.

Boulogne lighthouse and port entrance

The entrance to Boulogne houses a submerged wall to port (obviously to be avoided at all costs!) we enter through a wide entrance, make our way along the sea wall until spotting a white painted rectangle (a mark that tell us it’s safe to turn). From here we turn to port and make our way along the channel to the marina. The channel is lined with small fishing boats. Sea gulls squawk hungrily awaiting the next catch to be landed.

White painted rectangle on the sea wall at Boulogne – this is the point at which you can turn 90 degrees and navigate the channel

With daylight breaking we make our way into the marina, which is surprisingly empty, with the exception of 2 -3 other vessels. The marina office is closed. We tie up, close the hatches and head to bed. It’s 7am.

Arriving into Boulogne marina at sunrise

Bienvenue to the French Border Force

We spent a fantastic afternoon and evening enjoying Boulogne, sampling some mandatory Moules-frites and Champagne. But it’s now time to head home.

Yacht Ruby May alongside in Boulogne marina (with a slightly unhappy head sail)

The clocks are changing to DST overnight, so after a short debate factoring in UTC, and the UTC+1 impacts we set an early alarm clock. It’s 5am DST when the alarm sounds. We’re on deck before long, I ready the lines and prep us for departure, while Hodge does a quick fix on our furling gear for our head sail which wouldn’t fully furl away. And in no time at all we are heading back out into familiar waters.

Leaving Boulogne in our wake as daylight breaks

This is going to be a speedy sail. We still have a solid F5/6 of NE breeze, which for our passage to Eastbourne is perfect. We head straight out, and aim for the TSS. We are making great speeds, with a double reefed main, and half a headsail. The TSS is clouded with fog, giving us between 0.5nm and 1nm of visibility. Far from ideal, but all too common in the Dover Strait. We set ourselves on to a 90 degree heading with the TSS, and keep a close watch on the AIS. I’m on nav duty, and there’s a fair few ships about. It’s eerie being so close to them, but not being able to see them. We hear the blasts of fog horns, and see the occasional silhouette, we alter course as necessary.

I spot a vessel off our stern at 0.5nm. I had seen it a few minutes before on AIS, but as it was on the same heading as us, I paid it no attention. I dart below, but it is no longer appearing on AIS. It’s outline could possibly make it a fishing vessel, it’s hard to tell. I keep a close eye, it appears to be heading straight for us. It slows, and it’s soon apparent that it is a grey Border Force vessel. The radio comes alive.

French Border Force – conversing with us on the VHF

They ask us a host of questions which we duly answer, and with that they announce that they are sending a RIB to us, and will be boarding our vessel. Instructing us to turn to a heading of 180 degrees and to slow our speed, we drop our sails and await their arrival. A rib speeds towards us, and 3 officers with guns climb aboard.

The border force climbing aboard – complete with pistols and clip boards!

They explain that they’re looking for stowaways, and need to search Ruby May. I take the wheel, and Hodge presents all of our paperwork. They ask question after question. Pouring over our insurance documents, purchase receipts, radio licences, and much more. An officer disappears below with Hodge and begins a very thorough search of below decks.

Occasional words are exchanged in French between the officers, and finally the atmosphere relaxes. An hour and 20 mins later, and they are done. The rib returns, they disembark and we wish each other well. They head back to the looming mother ship, and disappear into the fog.

All smiles when the officers leave and let us get on our way

Well, that was quite an experience. We had spent the whole duration of the search with no engine or sails, and I was quite proud to have held us on such a constant heading with no power. It’s the small things!

We hoist our main, head up on the wind, unfurl our jib, and we’re soon doing 7 knots and entering the second lane of the TSS. Once through the shipping, we bear away, putting us on a broad reach, and make our way home.

Slightly delayed, we lock in, hose down the decks and tidy up.

Homeward track – a whole 10nm shorter than the outbound

What an awesome first sail from our new home. And here’s to many many more.

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