Fog, Immigrants and Balloons – Sailing to Dieppe

One of our top reasons for basing ourselves down in Eastbourne, is so that we can explore some new areas, and particularly so that we can sail to France more often. We’ve been in Eastbourne for just under a month now and have so far managed two cross channel adventures. Our first was to Boulogne, and our most recent was to Dieppe.

This is a passage that I will remember for a very long time. It was the foggiest passage I’ve ever made in the UK (second only to the fog I experienced whilst on the Grand Banks, when sailing across the north Atlantic in 2018). The fog most certainly kept us on our toes. But it was also without a doubt the busiest day I’ve ever experienced for migrant crossings. Read on to hear about our sail to Dieppe on a foggy Thursday morning.

Locking out of Sovereign Marina in the early morning fog

Slipping lines…

Hodge and I were on deck for 5am, prepping RM while the children slept soundly in their cabins. Overnight the fog had filled in, and the marina had an eerie feel about it. The engines of some of the fishing boats were spluttering away, while their crew were getting ready for a hard day’s work.

I radioed the marina, and we were given the green light to proceed into the lock. If the fog was this thick inside the protection of the marina, what would it be like at sea?! We were about to find out.

We were joined by 4 fishing vessels in the lock. I’ve always been in awe of fishermen. They work so hard, in all sea states. Relentlessly and tirelessly putting to sea to feed us all. They’re fearless and brave. Regardless of my views on overfishing, and particularly of modern day fishing techniques, I respect them largely for their work ethic and fearlessness.

As the lock gates opened, the fishing boats disappeared into the fog, and we duly slipped lines. As we slowly made our way out, the true visibility was now apparent! At Sovereign harbour, a narrow channel is marked with lit buoys to safely guide you in and out of the marina – only one of these was just about visible, and that was no more than 15 metres away. On the wheel, I asked Hodge for clear instructions to keep us in the channel (we were 30 mins after low), and going ‘dead slow’, we meandered our way out into the darkness and fog. Straining our eyes to spot buoys, of the 6 we ought to have seen, we only managed to spot 2.

Sailing in the fog with limited visibility

Before long we were out of the narrow channel and in the open sea. Here (normally) there is a row of buoys and a ‘safe water mark’ you can follow. None of these were visible, so we decided the safest option was to get onto a heading of 170 degrees and aim for deeper waters and ultimately straight for the TSS.

With no wind, we were completely reliant on our engine, and we cautiously crawled our way through the fog. Hodge took the wheel and I assumed the role of navigator and lookout, keeping a sharp eye on the AIS for other vessels, and blasting our fog horn with one long blast every 90 seconds or so. It was barely possible to see the water, let alone anything else around us. These conditions are without a doubt challenging, even for the most experienced of sailors.

Over the radio we heard the ship’s captain of the BeauMaiden, who was anchored outside of New Haven. He was tracking a fishing vessel, whom wasn’t initially responding on the VHF. The fishing vessel was heading straight towards him, and he’d mustered his crew on deck ‘bracing for an impact’. That is first time, I’ve heard such a thing play out on radio. But these were not your everyday conditions. Thankfully, there was no collision.

Click here for: Top Tips for sailing in fog…
  • Don’t put to sea in foggy conditions unless you are incredibly experienced, and even then you may want to reconsider. Fog is disorientating and can be incredibly dangerous, if not treated with a huge amount of caution and the right level of awareness
  • AIS – if you have it, make sure it’s transmitting. Keep a close eye on your position vs other vessels (checking CPAs closely)
  • If you don’t have AIS, you could use Marine Traffic or similar app as a useful aid to see what else is around. But don’t forget not all boats will have it, so don’t overly rely on it!
  • Radar – we don’t have radar (yet) but if you have it, use it. It will pick up all the ‘things’ that AIS doesn’t
  • Radar reflector – even if you don’t have an active radar or a radar receiver, hoisting a passive reflector will help others spot you if they have radar
  • Fog horn – a lot of people don’t know at what point to use a fog horn. My view is, that if you are considering it, then it’s definitely time to start using it. No harm will come from using it too soon, but it could come if you start using it too late. If you think “there’s nothing about”, think again. You can’t see them, and they can’t see you. Use the fog horn.
  • Slow your speed – this is so important. Slow down, you can’t see!! Buy yourself time, and slow down
  • Listen – listen for fog horns and engines, if you can hear another vessel within your vicinity then slow your speed to ‘dead slow’, until you are completely sure that no collision risk exists
  • Lights – put your navigational lights on, this could mean you get seen slightly sooner than if you don’t
  • Keep a good log, and a close eye on your navigation and charts – if at any point you are unsure of your position, then stop and get your bearings before you carry on. If safe to do so, you may want to consider dropping anchor (don’t forget your sounds signals if you do)
  • This goes without saying, and is a requirement in all conditions, but keep a constant lookout and by all means (this one of the COLREGS) and needs to be observed more than ever in foggy conditions. Use whatever means you have, so as mentioned above radar, AIS, but also have your crew on deck and all on look-out
  • Make sure everyone that is on deck is wearing a life jacket, and ideally that they are tethered
Hodge with a foggy backdrop

The immigrants of the Channel.

As we slowly made our way towards the TSS, the radio was relentlessly alive. We were still in very dense fog. It was exciting, but also hard work and the level of concentration that was needed was immense. The water was glass-like. These are not the sort of conditions that many sailors will ever experience, and yet what we were about to hear over the radio was a volume of immigrant crossings like neither of us had been witness to before.

We are no stranger to these, we’ve once seen an upturned dinghy near the Dover straight, and we’ve heard many an incident over the VHF involving migrants.

A green, upturned dinghy had been spotted near Varne (a stretch of water in the Dover Strait), the ship’s captain was providing details to the Coastguard over the VHF. “Can you see any people or debris in the water?” the coastguard asked, she was nearly over spoken by another ship’s captain, he was reporting a mid-channel dinghy sighting “with lots of people onboard”. “Do they look distressed?” “Please proceed with caution and give the vessel a wide berth”. This was just the start of what would become hours and hours of sightings and reports by ships transiting the TSS, just a few miles to the north of us.

Another captain, “I’ve just seen a black dinghy… it is empty”, and another “I can see an upturned dinghy”. That was three empty dinghies so far, and 3 or 4 dinghies with “several people onboard”. In the thick, dense fog, we were hearing a stream of weary voices over the VHF.

Next the coastguard radioed a ship “We are detecting what looks like a small vessel within your immediate vicinity, please proceed with extreme caution and keep a sharp eye, please report what you see to us on ch 16”.  In this dense fog, it would of course be unlikely that they would see anything.

As I said above, these conditions are not the sort of conditions many people ought to put to see in. This dense fog is incredibly dangerous, even with the correct navigational instruments, but without those and with a sub-standard vessel the stakes are even higher.

We listened intently, as we picked our way through the first shipping lane, which thankfully was kind to us. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I can only imagine that on the French coast, the sun was out, and with glass flat water it looked like a good day to ‘make a break for it’. These poor, helpless people would have no idea what horror lay ahead in the fog, and unfortunately the traffickers simply don’t care.

They would have no navigational knowledge or instruments, would be lucky to have a life jacket, they are in vessels suitable for nothing more than a short hop to shore (if that!), and they are attempting to cross one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world. The gravity of what was unfolding around us was quite simply, horrifying.

This blog is not about politics. I understand people have heightened emotions with regards to the immigrant crisis, whichever side of the fence you sit. My view here is as a seafarer. And I cannot stress this enough; the situation is unimaginable, it is terrifying, it is absolute horror, and it is on our front door. 

As I’ve said above, both Hodge and I have experienced a lot of immigrant crossings before. But it was the sheer quantity that were coming through on the VHF which was unfathomable to us both. Our minds went to the upturned dinghies, and what had been their fate. In these conditions it would be impossible to spot them, and it’s likely that they had been helplessly run down by a ship or effortlessly upturned by a ship’s bow wave or wake. I can only imagine how utterly terrified the occupants must have been.

We heard a search and rescue operation underway near Varne, where it seemed that there was now a mixture of people in multiple dinghies as well as empty and upturned dinghies. Two RNLI vessels were in attendance, along with two UK Border Force vessels. What a truly a grave situation. And what an incredible job our RNLI volunteers do, day in, day out, saving lives at sea without agenda.

We later read that 562 migrants from 14 small boats had been rescued from the Dover Strait on that foggy Thursday last week.

Dieppe is nearly in our sights

A Gannet in the Dover Strait

As soon as we reached the buffer zone (a 5nm stretch of water between the two shipping lanes) the sky cleared and we could see the fog bank off our stern. As the sun shone, we dodged several fishing vessels. It was a welcome break, and so often the way with sailing! By now, the kids were up on deck, and had taken over ‘foghorn duty’ – they too were pleased to have a rest. On our beam a black dorsal fin appeared… a harbour porpoise leapt out of the water. What a juxtapose to just a few minutes earlier. Next, we spotted a Gannet flying low to the water, no doubt waiting to see what the fishermen haul up.

The dark grey band above the water line is the fog bank – quite incredible to see it like this

Hodge was on the helm, and I was busy down below. He shouted for me to get on deck. A few hundreds metres away something large and pink was floating on the surface. Was it a dinghy? It looked like two things… was it lifejackets? (Our minds clearly in overdrive from what we were hearing over the radio). We slowed our speed and altered course to investigate. It was in fact two helium balloons, adjoined by a ribbon. I hope whoever turned ‘16’ enjoyed these balloons and their birthday. I headed to the shrouds and armed with a boat hook, I was able to scoop the balloons out while Hodge slowed us down and put us in a good position. We had to carry out a similar manoeuvre for another ‘helium balloon recovery’ on our homeward passage, congratulations to whoever it was that celebrated their wedding anniversary with that balloon. Have I mentioned before on this blog that I think helium balloons should be banned?!

Me holding the recovered helium balloon – we so often spot these floating in the sea

After 5nm we were preparing to enter the next shipping lane, and with that the fog descended again (as I said above, so often the way with sailing!) Every now and then we would hear a blast of a fog horn. We kept a keen eye on our AIS and safely made our way through the patchy fog and into the French coastal waters. Once again the fog lifted, and we were able to enjoy a few hours of brilliant sunshine as we made our way towards the Port of Dieppe.

The Seven Sister ferry which sails a route from New Haven to Dieppe

Upon arrival, we were held offshore briefly while we waited for the Seven Sisters ferry to depart. The Jehan Ango Marina, in the centre of Dieppe was surprisingly empty, so we had our pick of berths on the visitors pontoon. Time for Moules and some French practice with the children.

Ruby May alongside in Dieppe Jehan Ango marina

What an interesting crossing it was – from the dense fog to the sheer volume of immigrant crossings, it was definitely a passage that will be in my mind for a very long time to come.

A few of the memorial plaques in the Notre Dame church – all tribute to seafarers who have been lost at sea near or from Dieppe

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