IV BEATING THE RETREAT
Tuesday morning at Breskens gave us four days if we were to get back to Woolverstone by the Sunday, which meant a fairly tight schedule, wind and tides allowing. Fortunately the latter at any rate were in our favour, with the west going ebb-stream beginning in the morning from Breskens at 09.00 that day. The tides are somewhat confusing at the mouth of the Westerschelde, not only for the reasons 1 have already mentioned but also as the tide continues to flow into the estuary for some two hours after high tide at Flushing and Breskens and after the actual level of the water has begun to drop. When it turns, it runs out in a hurry, needless to say!
The tide we had gave us time to stock up before breakfast with bread from the ‘Brood and Banket’ shop close to the Club House, which makes its own superb loaves, and to have some rolls and a couple of buns as a bonus as well as a good loaf to keep us going. (Now totally out of guilders, and somewhat low on Belgian Francs!)
Breskens lives by the tides and quite a fleet of yachts left the harbour with us to catch the best of the stream down the coast, with a force 3 off the land. South by west we could lay the coast and skimmed along, tide under us and the sea as calm as Harwich harbour, making the first seven miles to the Belgian border at Wielingen Sluis in only five minutes over the hour. Another hour and ten minutes found us off Zeebrugge mole, 15 miles under us, but the wind was slowly coming round to the west and we had to take a board into the coast. Even then the tide whipped under us but our third hour only took us four miles over the ground to Blankenberghe.
The breeze now veered all the way round to the north of west and as it came off the shore both it and the sea began to get up a little more. All the same it was calmer inshore and out of the main stream of the tide, and we were able after a while to make it along the coast on the port tack. Getting wetter, as the breeze got up to 4, but still remarkably warm. David climbed into his oilies and George decided for a while that swimming trunks alone would be warmer. An oily top did get put on however, not long afterwards!
It was an exhilarating sail and we held our own with the other yachts, but all the same it was quite hard work as the sea got choppier with the wind over the tide. We hadn’t before been to windward for any length of time fully laden and Merlin was certainly considerably wetter than usual with the extra weight up in her bow. An exercise of regular bailing began to keep the leeward boxes is the bow dry but even so we found that damp boxes were to become a matter against which we had to keep a fairly constant watch from then on. There must have been a gap somewhere in the steel bow fitting or one of its screws because the dampness that came in seemed to be creeping back from the bow as well as flowing forward from the cockpit. Eventually we wrapped all the boxes and bags in plastic bin liners before going to sea but even this was never completely foolproof. We kept our ready-use biscuits and wine bottles in a bucket behind the windward cockpit seat, and the Breskens buns and some sandwiches I had made were eagerly consumed.
After a little cloud at Blankenberghe it stayed sunny for the last leg, which always helps when it is a little wet, but even so when we arrived off Ostende we decided it wouldn’t be worth pressing on for the extra eight miles to Nieuwpoort with only an hour’s worth of tide left under us. Most of the other sailors had the same in mind and at 13.30 we entered the old familiar pier heads again, having taken only a few minutes over five hours to cover the twenty five miles from Breskens, which we thought quite reasonable.
Then followed some lunch, which was very welcome, and an afternoon’s exercise walking along the seafront, watching the yachts that were still trying, rather slowly, to press on down the coast into both the tide and the wind, now just beginning to blow the sand along the beach and into the bathers’ eyes.
We had come rather to fancy ourselves on the pontoon—primus routine and it seemed right to try it out in the middle of Ostende harbour. The weather was still fine and we had a successful repeat of the previous evening’s menu, stocking up internally for the next day’s leg, we hoped, to Dunquerque. A retired English couple on board a big converted MFV kindly helped us by getting the North Foreland shipping forecasts for us which were unfortunately not entirely favourable; a low had built up north of Shetland and the wind seemed set to stay in the west for a while, with some rain in the offing as well.
Friday morning lived up to expectations, colder and grey, and there was no great incentive to crawl out of our tent at a particularly early hour. Some croissants for breakfast assisted, however, and our neighbour on the MFV handed us the morning’s forecast from the North Foreland to make up for the shipping forecast which hadn’t given Thames and Dover for some reason. Not particularly heartening, SW 5 or 6 increasing 7 or 8 in Dover, then veering and decreasing westerly 3 or 4, with occasional rain, visibility good becoming poor for a time.
If we went it would be another wet sail with the wind against tide and blowing up, but it was only 8 miles to Nieuwpoort where we could slip in if it seemed too much to try the extra sixteen on to Dunkirk. We had a look at the sea and as it was still only blowing force 4 we decided to make a go of it. If the way got too bad before we’d even made Nieuwpoort there would always be Ostende to turn back to, and the wind was still just blowing off the land so we wouldn’t be on a lee shore.
The heaviest jib was hanked on and the ship made as weather-tight as possible before we left, and after a bit of a wait in the harbour for the ferries to clear away from the channel we set off. There’s always a feeling of anticipation when you leave Ostende. Passing out of the shelter of the North Sea Yacht Club to begin the long haul down to the sea you wonder if you’ve been deceived by its look and the feel of the wind when you went to test them on the piers. At first you’re sheltered by the beach but as you get closer to the pier heads, with the fishermen and promenaders on the planks above looking down at you, the wall of waves at the entrance rises higher ahead and the swell rolls slowly up the channel towards you. Cross currents of wind filter through the piers and the ship heels to them, the crew instinctively check oilskins and the gear’s sea stow, and suddenly the pierheads are there — the horizon opens, the tide picks you up and the wall of the sea, all confused, engulfs you.
And so it was, we hardened up to the wind and headed out to sea on the first tack. Navigation becomes less theoretical when going to windward and more a practical matter of bailing out the lee scuppers first, extricating the chart folder from a dry spot above the cardboard boxes and laying off a quick fix when you can with your hand before another wave comes down the back of your neck. Entries in the log also tend to become a little erratic and much truncated, remaining more in the memory than on paper unless absolutely vital.
Spells at the helm were best at about forty five minutes each, as you had to concentrate pretty continuously to avoid the biggest waves and anticipate the harder puffs, as well as keeping her sailing without losing either too much speed or your gain to windward. This was David’s country, and I am afraid that when I had my trick it was always a little wetter and a little slower than when I was doing the bailing.
Off Middelkerke, about half way to Nieuwpoort, the clew of the old heavy jib we were carrying became almost torn and in the calmer water closer to the beach David changed headsails before it got any worse. Very few people on the sands today, only a few walkers and dogs and certainly no windsurfers, though they would have had a good time if they had been out.
We passed Nieuwpoort piers at 13.00 and thought that if we could keep our timing we would make Dunquerque before the tide set too heavily against us — ‘somewhat wet’, though, the log reads. By now the seas were piling up more and the tide ran faster under us and three quarters of an hour later, before we got to De Panne, the head of our second jib pulled away from its wire tack. The wind had risen to force 5 and it would have been wise to turn round then even if the jib hadn’t gone, but with the decision made for us it was easier to do it. A very rapid surfing run on the return, quite fast enough without the jib, and we were in the Nieuwpoort pier heads by 14.20. Conserving fuel, we ran all the long way up to the new Marina and then had a short beat past its very narrow entrance into the yacht harbour itself.
Docked on the far side of the harbour from the club house, for an easier exit, we used the dinghy to ferry ourselves across to the club to give it some justification for coming with us. It had behaved very well all round, being most unpredictable only while running when the ship’s speed wasn’t constant.
No. 1 priority was to have the headsails mended and David duly tackled the most likely customer at the club’s bar, a stout old sailor who looked as though he knew the locals and hadn’t much else to do. His choice came up trumps and with a mixture of sign language and French, he and a young man with him piled us into his car and we headed off at breakneck speed into the unknown.
The first chandlery drew a blank and sent us to another one, a large hangar specialising in ‘water sports equipment’ mainly for windsurfing, with about a dozed different types of hull, all waiting for the Belgian windsurfing championships the next day. A sail loft, deserted and locked, and a blonde secretary who said she would look for the sail maker, but with a distinct lack of enthusiasm and an equally conspicuous lack of success. Some time later, just as we’d got into the car to drive on, a man went up the stairs to the sail loft and we all piled out again to follow him. He turned out to be the sail maker, and to have a waiting list for sail making until the end of September. Not much use. However, he sold us some large sheets of self adhesive terylene which we supplemented with some additional thread and a couple of needles, having only some thread of our own which was slightly too thick and a needle that I’d dropped overboard near Veere so we now had all we wanted for a DIY exercise.
Back into the car, our Belgian whistled us off to the Marina again and dropped us by the boat. He’d had something rather like Merlin at one time himself but it wasn’t clear what — if any — he had now; very kindly, however, he gave us his telephone number in case of need.
It began to rain as soon as we laid the sails out to dry, having washed them free of salt in the new showers at the club.
Nieuwpoort seems to have had an enormous injection of capital into its club. A brand new club house with separate huts for the young members and for ladies’ and gents’ changing, and more for bunk rooms and the local Sea Scouts. All are laid out on what appears to be a newly reclaimed piece of land between two arms of the harbour, very wind blown and treeless, the draw back being the distance (probably a mile or more) from the nearest shops and civilization. There is a second, even newer, marina to the left of the club harbour that appears to have a boat yard incorporated with it and looked to be more commercially minded, but we never got over there.
I hadn’t realised before that Nieuwpoort was such a centre for yachting, but being so cut off from its town it has the feeling very much of a “dormitory” for week enders from Brussels. We wondered where they all sailed to as the opportunities up and down the coast for a two day trip are fairly limited and there were a lot of largish sized yachts berthed there, but it transpired the next day that many of them simply headed straight out to sea, presumably to turn round and come back in the evening.
Friday night in the club house was certainly the “place” to be as we found when we tried to get in there for supper and were given a table all by itself near the door, reserved obviously for badly dressed Englishmen with large sail bags in tow. The fact that we ordered the cheapest meal on the menu and paid in French francs didn’t enhance “le standing” on our part with the manager, but the kitchen staff were very decent and let us dry both sails (it was only the damaged parts that really needed to be dry so most stayed in the bags) by the boiler overnight. The walls of the bar were covered with old British Admiralty charts, there was a ship’s binnacle in the middle of the room, and the floor was dotted with immaculately reefer jacketed young brussels sprouts, so we felt rather that had we arrived in a Swan 53 we might have been given better attention. Still, a club is a club and we’d had a very good turn from our stout gent, so we shouldn’t really complain!