Our Dutchman had told us that he would be up early to leave for Ramsgate as well, and also that he would get the midnight shipping forecast, but when we got up at 04.30 he hadn’t done either. Not that we blamed him, as it was a coldish morning and damp from the night’s rain. Dark turned to dawn as we made ready for a second sea crossing, and by the time we slipped from alongside our hosts there was a cold grey light and some moving cloud above us.
We had the wind aft across the great empty space of the outer harbour and made up the spinnaker sheets, warming quickly to the idea of a fast reach under the southerly 3 that was blowing behind us. An elation spread through us at the notion of the first good downwind passage since our outward leg to Flushing and at 05.30 Merlin sprang away the minute the spinnaker pulled out, as we left the outer harbour entrance. I was able to calculate her speed over the first quarter of an hour at 5.9 to 6 knots, with the last of the west going stream under us to start us on our first leg to the East Goodwin light ship. Visibility wasn’t much more than four miles, and we were glad to have the buoys of the big ship channel with us for a while. We kept a sharp look out ahead of us for the Sandettie light vessel, standing in the centre of the separation zone at the junction of the Thames and Maas channels, half way over to the East Goodwin.
The wind picked up a bit and we had some fine surges, but it was slowly coming round to the west at the same time and after an hour and a half and a good way under us we thought it prudent to hand the spinnaker before it got too hairy. She went more easily without it, and we lost little of our speed. This was of the essence as the morning forecast had placed an approaching low over Southern Ireland and the coastal stations seemed to indicate it had moved further east than that. Dover was forecast S 4 becoming SW 6 perhaps 8, and the clouds were building up fast ahead of us.
Ten minutes after the spinnaker came down we caught a last fix on Calais as the rain reached us and the clouds blotted out the horizon. During the next hour the sea built up and the breeze increased to 4 or 5, at the same time veering more ahead of us to the southwest. Sandettie remained elusive but we had evidently reached the shipping lanes, as a number of coasters and container ships passed us by. David was doing most of the helming and I was a little perplexed that nothing was in sight as we certainly should have been up to the light vessel by then. As we got across the shipping lanes we encountered the beginning of the north bound tide which had now set in with a vengeance and forced us to head up even more to windward, so that we were nearly close hauled and bailing quite regularly. A clutch of buoys appeared ahead and we just made it up to them —“Sandettie’ — but no light vessel. I then seemed to remember that the vessel is only placed there in winter (being a Frenchman I suppose), and we relaxed a little, knowing our position again.
A dozen or so Belgian racers came past on the opposite tack, reefed down and moving fast on the tide, and we waved heartily. Out there in the crossroads of the world it was good to know that there were other figures wet in their oilskins for pleasure, among the bland slab sided ocean monsters that ploughed so inexorably past us; someone else working their way over each wave rather than disdainfully pushing them aside. And yet it was comfort in a way to see the big ships appearing through the rainsqualls and to know that they should have us on their radar screens, but we were glad too that we could see them and that it was a breezy day with squalls that had taken us out there rather than a windless one with banks of Dover mist eddying around us, for then one ‘s trust in their radar operators has to become more fundamental. The feeling of one’s vulnerability in a small boat becomes more acute as one’s means of taking avoiding action diminishes!
After Sandettie we kept up to the wind as I wanted to be absolutely certain that we would make our landfall at the East Goodwin lightship. The north bound stream was running very hard and should a squall have overtaken us and Merlin been carried north of the light vessel we would with very little ceremony have joined our many fellow sailors on the Goodwins. Not a happy ending to the voyage!
I stood another small trick at the helm but David was better at keeping us (relatively) dry, so I returned to the bailing and nav. The tiller was hard work, driving her against the seas and willing the bow to lift up over the higher ones and spilling the wind from the main in the harder gusts. The skill came in choosing the narrow middle path between a waveful over the windward bow and an onslaught from leeward flowing past the sheet winch. Always the worst ones came just as the bailing was complete and I had turned to climb back to the windward deck, a moment’s anger from the sea throwing another three bucketfuls inboard in one fell swoop.
The East Goodwin fortunately appeared on the starboard bow when she should have done and the tide swept us down to her until just before ten o’clock we were able to bear away and find a level deck once more. Great bailing and a clean bilge again, sherry, and speed downwind. We may even have had some sandwiches, and certainly a number of flapjacks. The sky lightened and patches of blue shone through, and in no time at all the North Foreland appeared on the horizon. In no time at all, too, we had to harden up to the wind again to cut close to the northern tip of the Goodwins, if we were to have a chance of making Ramsgate on a single board.
We had to make the decision whether to press on to Harwich or to turn in to Ramsgate. It was still only 10.30 and the tide was just right to continue across the Thames Estuary: another three hours of north going stream to take us out to the Kentish Knock, then the flood to cross the Long Sand Head and up to Harwich so that we could fetch all the way in if it were to come round more to the west. Another forty miles, say eight hours fast sailing, and we should be home by opening time. On the other hand, the sky was clearing, the wind was freshening and Dover had read ‘possibly 8’. It would be foolish to be caught even in a 6 between the sand banks in the Thames Estuary with no safe anchorage to make for in less than twenty miles in any direction. It was almost certain to blow even if it was still just a good 5 now, and we had had a fairly tiring crossing thus far. We therefore headed up towards the Goodwins, and Ramsgate and lunch at the Royal Temple.
The visibility was now crystal clear. In towards Ramsgate, the cliffs of the Foreland gleamed in the sun and a host of sails came out from the harbour at Ramsgate. The navigator kept up a series of bearings on the north Goodwin light vessel and some closer buoys and we both kept a sharp lookout for bad water ahead.
There are two arms of the Goodwins at its northern tip, the eastern with plenty of water over it and the western with none. Between the two lies a deep channel, banking steeply on its western side from some sixteen metres to dry sand in the space of fifty yards or less. This was the patch we had to avoid. As we got into the deep channel David made it out ahead of us before I did, a line of curling breakers, Masefield’s ‘dancing, flashing green seas shaking white locks”, jostling and crowding amongst themselves, leaping one above the other, inviting us and seemed to cry together come and join us, try us if you will!” I saw the fatal fascination of the mermaids then, and we quickly bore away.
Downwind of the breakers we headed up again to Ramsgate, crossing the Gull channel as the yachts off the town broke out their spinnakers and sped away to the east. David steered excellently arid we made it to the Brake, off the harbour mouth, just without the need of a single tack. At 11.45 Merlin turned between the pier heads and we ran into the calm waters of the outer harbour.
The pontoons were crowded with racers, some arrived overnight from Nieuwpoort, others from the “Thanet week” races, which we found, were finishing that day. We took a berth next to a German couple, on their first visit to England, and were too small ourselves for anyone to lie alongside us. Customs cleared the German but paid scant attention to us, and before we had a chance to explain ourselves they had gone.
We had our lunch at the Royal Temple, unshaven and salt encrusted, and then a shower in the Ramsgate Marina “facilities”. The 13.55-shipping forecast gave Dover as SW 4 to 5 increasing 7 while the Varne at noon had been blowing SW 6 on a rising glass. We were glad not to have stayed at sea, although the sun was shining and in the shelter of the harbour all seemed quite calm and easy.
The racers came back in the afternoon, talking of the wind and milling around to berth, and the German was quite bemused “Why all this hassle” he asked, and certainly he was right, the yachtsmen on the continent make far less fuss than we do about berthing and usually accomplish it with a much greater degree of success!
An afternoon’s kip on board, and all too soon it was time for the lock gates to the inner harbour to open and the massed bands of Englishmen to race for the entrance. No quarter was shown and a large Westerly squeezed us just as we approached the narrow gateway itself, quite unconcerned at our lack of maneuverability or power under engine. Words were said, but with little effect.
Berthing in a vacant space next to a battered old motorboat we were accosted by its owner, a man of similar cleanliness of person and language as his vessel, and were told in rather basic words that his “mate” lived there and was arriving back soon. Any further discussion with him would have been only of a physical nature and as we were probably going to have to leave Merlin there unguarded for the next week we thought it might be better to choose an alternative spot. Somewhat reluctantly we withdrew, but noted as we had expected that when the gates closed his “mate” was still at sea (and had failed to return by the following weekend!)
The evening forecast still spoke of possible gales and on Monday morning, although it seemed fairly calm in the Downs, Honington gave a forecast of SW 5 tending to increase to 6 and then 7 later. The North Kent and Essex Coast weather stations confirmed this, and after some heart searching we agreed not to take the risk of crossing that day.
We packed the less valuable goods in the bow and tied the dinghy upside down over the cockpit. The more precious boxes of life saving equipment we were able to store with the engine under the care of a friendly attendant by the showers. Double springs and bow and stern warps, and we felt reasonably happy at leaving Merlin behind us. We ran to the bus, caught a train to London and we were both back at work after lunch. The sun had been out as we were carried along the North Kent coast, but the trees were bending a little to the wind and although both of us wondered every now arid then if we’d chickened out of it, looking back I’m certain it was the right decision.
It was a pity that we hadn’t got her “round the course” in one week and there was the risk that the next weekend’s winds might prove no more favourable than the last, but how much better that we reached a canal and are still here to write this tale than that either of us were carried, through a rash decision, to what Masefield called
“The sunless place of the wrecks where the waters sway
Gently, dreamily, quietly over desolate sands.”