The story so far: My annual sailing trip was following a familiar pattern: poor food, lousy weather and the prospect of a bumpy channel crossing to Cherbourg before heading for the peaceful delights of Normandy. The thought of wonderful seafood restaurants and maybe even some sunshine are the only things keeping the boat’s anxious crew from throwing themselves into Cowes harbour before we set sail. Judging by the weather forecast my original misgivings about sailing in English waters look as if they are going to be confirmed. And how some.
At 4.30 am we slip our berth, the wind is howling and the halyards rattle ferociously against the mast, with a strong tide behind us we beat towards the Needles, the western exit from the Isle of Wight and our entrance to the English Channel proper. The weather is awful. Where the outgoing tide meets the open sea we were confronted with a strong south westerly gale on our nose; just past the Needles the boat plunges into very heavy seas with rolling white topped waves. The three crew, myself included, plus the captain at the helm are all stropped to the ship by lifeline as we buck and corkscrew through wave after wave of an unending inferno of water. Every couple of minutes an extra large wave engulfs us all in the cockpit – it is as if someone has thrown a bucket of sea water directly into your face, the salt water stinging your eyes and lips as your body is assaulted by the weight of the water throwing you back onto the wooden cockpit seating.
Once through the Needles and with dawn light breaking in the sky we can see the English coast disappearing slowly behind us. The captain gives up the helm as he feels sea sick and disappears below. He does this every trip. One year he brought his wife and three year old daughter along too and yet in relatively calm conditions they all went below to be sea sick for virtually the entire twelve hour trip. This is yet another memory jolter. Why do I do this, it happens every year, come rain, come shine?
The scratch crew will have to do all the navigation and helming – not so bad when it’s calm and sunny, but now it’s quite frankly frightening and the remainder of us are not quite land-lubbers, but hardly ocean-hardened sailors, with only a limited amount of experience to cope with these conditions. We put the boat onto auto helm and set it for 180 degrees to avoid us fighting with the helm throughout the whole voyage. The tide will take us east of Cherbourg but when it turns will swing us back towards our destination so that we can come into port with an incoming tide. Well that was the theory.
The weather is so bad us crew on deck don’t venture below for fear of being seasick ourselves; we all feel pretty marginal but are surviving the ordeal. As we cross the busy shipping lanes we keep alert for tankers, freighters and ferries bearing down us, at least the visibility isn’t too bad now we are in daylight. The wind abates a little, but the storm jib and the well-reefed sails are still the right combination for efficient, if slow sailing, as the wind moves to more on the beam. Six hours after the captain disappeared, he emerges, ashen-faced from below complaining he does not know what is wrong with him. Would seasickness be something to do with it, the disgruntled crew suggests humourlessly?
Looking at how far the tide and wind have sent the boat off track – sixteen miles to the east, however, once the tide turns in our favour it will push us towards our planned port. The skipper, in his wisdom, decides that we should forget the overnight in Cherbourg and make a dash for the Barfleur lighthouse and our final Normandy destination of St Vaast. This will mean us fighting the tide at Barfleur rather than benefiting from it as planned on the following day. He suggests that by switching on the engine it will counteract the notoriously strong, tidal effect. It was the wrong decision. And we all knew it but he was skipper, and it was his boat. As I glimpse the Barfleur lighthouse away in the distance I go below to get some rest, I’m tired, hungry, cold …is this a holiday or a survival course, I think to myself?
I awake an hour and half later as the captain and two other crew members are letting out the reefs to create more sail. I stagger about in the galley and make tea for everyone and then go back up on deck. The Barfleur lighthouse doesn’t seemed to have got any closer. We are doing about one and a half knots through the water and the engine is now on, we are virtually stationery.
After hours of battling and nearly eighteen hours of sailing we are nearly at our destination, it is just before ten am. Its pitch black. St Vaast is a difficult port to enter at night because of misleading buoys, a breakwater lighthouse to be avoided at all costs and treacherous rocks. We had agreed at the outset of our journey that under no circumstances would we arrive at night but that is what we have done. We strained to identify ‘Les Dents,’ an important marker point that ensures we don’t enter the harbour at the wrong side of the Isle de Tatihou. We ditched the satellite navigation and go back to traditional maritime maps to get a correct bearing. We eventually make it to the harbour entrance ten minutes before the marina lock gates open; we motor about waiting for them to allow us in, relieved and exhausted.
By the time we’d found a mooring and secured the boat, downed a glass of much needed whisky, it was too late to step ashore and sample the delights of French cuisine at one of the many excellent harbour side restaurants. Instead the skipper opens one of his oldest cassoulet tins (not the emblem of sophistication you might imagine), and served up the most revolting meal imaginable. I had forgotten, it was the captain’s signature dish.
The memory of this gastronomic finale to a horrible day remains with me; the passage of time has not tempered my view that the Adriatic, the Aegean or anywhere in the Mediterranean are immeasurably better places to experience the joys of sailing in Europe rather than our cold and unpredictable English waters.