V SLOW WALTZ AND QUICKSTEP
Alter a bit of a damp night Saturday morning dawned bright and the early shipping forecast told us of a north-westerly breeze becoming south east 3 to 4, followed by south west 5 to 6, as a ridge of high pressure pushed up from Biscay and was then, replaced by an incoming low. While it stayed north-west we could lay along the coast and make it to Calais, but the morning’s breeze was very light and still from the south west.
We had to wait for the tide, however, and also mend our sails before we could go. Fortified by coffee from the club house we sat on the terrace in the sun and stitched away until the heavy jib became passably strong, though not particularly beautiful, and our last Belgian francs had disappeared. I was trying to reconcile my Macmillan tide tables with a booklet I’d got at Breskens to work out the beginning of the west going stream but was having difficulties. Nieuwpoort’s tides were based not on Dover but on some port in France, whose local time I had no means of telling was the same as Belgium’s, and the Dutch booklet gave a time for Ostende, which however hard I tried, remained an hour different from Macmillan’s.
Notwithstanding the impasse, we set off at 11.30 with Dunquerque at sixteen miles, Dunquerque Ouest (the new harbour) at twenty, and Calais at thirty five miles to aim for. Wind south-west 2 but tide under us, so life was the same as the day before only a lot flatter. The wind came and went a bit and veered slowly round through west to northwest until we could eventually lay along the coast on the opposite tack from the one we had started on, and finally make it on a fetch.
Going to Dunquerque from the east one has either to go inside or outside the Hills Bank, which dries to two fathoms, and we thought there’d be more tide outside. Our passage was nonetheless slow, and when we covered the first eight miles, to the French border, in nearly three hours we began to revise our ideas of Calais. The visibility was tremendous as it was sunny most of the time without being hot, and from the French border off Bray les Dunes we could still just see the tall tower at Ostende, nearly twenty miles behind us.
This was no consolation for our speed, however, as the cranes at Dunquerque were approaching as slowly as Ostende was disappearing, and we thought back to our fast passages to and from the Schelde. Perhaps we’d been foolish to go to Holland, expecting as we were to get back to England the next day, I wondered, as the breeze dropped to north east 1, and Dunquerque harbour slowly came round to our beam. Yachts seemed to be going much better in by the beach but it was too far away to see if they were motoring or had more wind, and impossible to get to them. Between 15.45 and 16.45 we did about a knot and a half, and the wind came on round to the north. Our cruising always before had given us the opportunity to turn on an engine when this happened, and we began to learn patience that afternoon.
By 17.30 the wind had reached north east and the tide really seemed to have set against us, as our progress was not too good. We set the spinnaker and aimed for the new Dunquerque Ouest harbour, a little later passing a group of French motor boats fishing at anchor, who waved and didn’t seem to mind that they hadn’t caught anything. David spoke French at them, to show that we’d reached France, and even got a printable reply. The east bound stream was flowing fast under them, and must have been for more than an hour, as yachts had been passing us still along the shore. Most infuriating, and I resolved next year to return to Reeds. Also when passing Dunquerque to take the inshore channel unless it was blowing very hard from the north west.
The distance from Dunquerque to Dunquerque Ouest is five miles and we eventually reached the harbour entrance at twenty past seven, by which time the wind was south west 2 and it was about to rain. The harbour is clearly marked “forbidden to pleasure yachts” on the chart but we had no alternative, unless we turned back to Dunquerque itself, but to go in and see what was there.
The sea walls around it were made of concrete sugar—cubes even vaster than those at Zeebrugge, and quite dwarfing a car parked at the end of one of its arms. They curved round like the two pincers of a crab, their seaward ends being nearly two miles off the old beach, and enclose an outer harbour which must be a mile and a half wide. We entered and found it an enormous expanse of totally empty water devoid of any kind of human habitation on its shore, the only sign of life being a vast and apparently closed or unfinished power station and a long pier stretching out from it to take some non existent oil tankers, all quite still and empty. As we sailed across to the entrance to the inner harbour beyond, another area almost but not quite as large as the first, we eventually picked out some more fishermen on the sea wall—human life at last, which cheered us. It then began to rain, and with the rain came a little more wind that helped us until we reached the lee of the inner harbour entrance.
Past it, two arms of water either side where we could perhaps dock, but the first on the starboard hand showed no promise, being only a high empty quayside. Then to port an enormous barge with the letters NEPTUNE on her side, carrying a crane andm dwarfed beside it, a small white yacht with a light shining out from her cockpit hatch. Humanity at last! Cats paws drifted across the water and slowly we beat up to her, preparing to board. She flew a Dutch ensign and a Dutchman came out to help us alongside. Docked at last at 20.00 in steady rain, we had made good 20 miles in eight and a half hours — a rather significant drop in our speed making!
The Dutch couple took pity on the two drowned rats which had appeared next to them and invited us on board to dry out. As soon as we’d made tidy and put up our “tent” in double quick time we clambered aboard our neighbour and in a few seconds found ourselves in a warm dry cabin with a roof and lights, and cushioned seats — life transformed. The owners’ staple drink seemed to be brandy, so brandy we drank, very warming, and conversed in a mixture of broken English and smatterings of Dutch. It was their first trip really away from Holland and they were hoping to get to England, but had only a chart that took them to Dover. So we showed them ours and gave them a spare copy of our Imray’s Y series that would take them to Ramsgate.
More brandy, and we discovered that their boat was a Frans Maas 30, one of the last to be built before Maas went under, and were told that they’d over expanded in their smaller yachts, which had then been hardest hit by the recession. Their boat was certainly good, though, very roomy and well finished with teak, and a fast hull and not too high a freeboard to go with it. A little extra brandy, and we got on to the subject of cars, and then it wasn’t long before it was ten o’clock and we thought we’d better go and find something to eat — a quantity of brandy on a reasonably empty stomach having a more rapid effect than after a meal!
Thanking our hosts profusely, we clambered back through the rain to Merlin and stepped down into our “tent” to find it drying out much better than we had hoped for. The primus was soon going, once we’d wedged ourselves either side, and ravioli this time, with cabbage and sweetcorn, warmed’ and dried us and got up quite a fug in the cabin while it was cooking. A lot of juggling with pans went on until we eventually had three hot saucepans of grub, to make what turned out to be our best meal yet. Coffee to follow, and hot water for washing up, all a bit cramped but a good deal more comfortable than outside.
More juggling, this time with boxes, to get at our sleeping gear, and the lilos blew up magnificently with the extra spirit of the brandy. Eventually to bed, squeezing as far from the mast as we could, where the sounds of water were still flowing down. Alarm for an ungodly hour again, hoping that the rain would have passed on by come morning and the permanent south westerly returned.