Four o’clock on the morning of Sunday the 8th was still a very dark hour when the alarm awoke me and Felicity in a warm and comfortable bed in my parents’ house at Holbrook. David arrived with the dawn and after a cup of tea we drove out to Woolverstone with two cars laden to the roofs with gear.  (Knowing David’s likely scepticism as to the need for much of the edible stores Felicity had got together, she and I conspired not to show him exactly how much we had until it was too late to abandon the excess!)

After a couple of dinghy loads we found (surprise?) that everything didn’t quite fit into the cockpit and that there was precious little room for us. Nevertheless, scratching our heads and wondering what we would do with it all, we slipped our mooring and set off down the river under power with the dinghy, still full of gear as well, swinging from side to side in our wake. Felicity, waving on the hard, dwindled smaller behind us. It was still only 05.40 and we had a good few hours of daylight ahead.

Fortunately there was little wind in the Orwell and by the time we rounded Fagbury we were looking a little more shipshape and ready for sea, all the boxes wedged in the bow and Merlin herself feeling distinctly down by the head.

The engine was cut at Shotley Spit and we were soon out of the harbour. By 08.00, with spinnaker pulling under a westerly 2, the navigator had put us aground just before low water on the Cork Sand, a quarter of a mile South of the Cork Spit buoy. (It always has been one of his failings to cut across the Cork and while it seems so easy to think, when the echo-sounder has slowly gone down to 2 metres, that one must be nearly over the top, somehow one never quite is!) Totally the navigator’s fault but David was very understanding and with the minimum of epithets we downed spinnaker and bumped her over at maximum angle. Navigator, who had committed the cardinal sin of disregarding the bearing of the Roughs Tower and mistakenly believing one of the experimental buoys behind the Cork Sand to be the Cork Spit, resolved that if the vessel and crew were to return in one piece he must think harder and not take things for granted even in home waters. Lesson learnt (again!).

Sea as calm as we had ever known it and the westerly breeze picking up towards force 3, our average speed rose through 3 to 4 knots. We passed the Sunk at 10 o’clock and the Long Sand Head an hour later, just as the flood began to set us hard into the Thames. We had hot water in a thermos and made cups of coffee by the Trinity buoy, shirtsleeves rolled up, and ate marmalade sandwiches. Could the North Sea possibly be like this? Once before we’d rounded the Long Sand Head in David’s father’s Ajax, Osprey, but beyond that was virgin territory as far as we were concerned in Merlin. As the conditions were staying perfect and we weren’t behind time we made the decision not to head south for Ramsgate and David retired below for a kip. We had steered 120 degrees for Ostende since the Sunk and by noon had been carried down to the North Knock but were making nearly 5 knots; if it kept up we thought we ought still to be across before dark.

The next patch of the North Sea I always think of as the no-man’s land, from the Galloper (now some way to the north of us) across to the West Hinder, but since they have put in the shipping lanes it has grown shorter by some fifteen miles and now seems that much easier to cross. You can see the ships five miles beforehand (visibility permitting) and then have five miles of the traffic lane one way, a respite in the middle when you can put your hand on your heart and say “1 know how far I’ve gone, even if I don’t know quite where I am, North or South”, and then five miles of ships the other way. If you’re really lucky you might not even pass a wreck buoy in the second ‘lane’ which homes you in to the West Hinder and the final stretch to Ostende.

I always find it much easier crossing the no-man’s land on the flood as it’s a shorter distance to the West Hinder and if you’re too far south you know at least that you’ll hit the junction between the Hook van Holland and Schelde ‘lanes’ and the ships will all be going in different directions. If you cross with the north-going stream, on the other hand, and miss the lanes’ corner by the North Hinder or the Fairy Bank you can keep going for a very long time before you hit anything else. This probably sounds like a very uneducated form of navigation to those with RDF, VHF and SATNAV but those shipping lanes, if you use them with an echo-sounder in reserve, are really an extremely helpful navigational aid as well as a reassuring psychological half-way mark on the crossing. They wake you up, too!

As soon as we got into the no-man’s land and had sunk the North Knock astern of us the wind came round to the WSW and then died away, leaving us without our spinnaker and definitely down on the speed-scale. But it was sherry time and lunchtime and sunny and warm, and there was nothing in sight around us save the blue horizon.  However much everyone says we’re polluting our oceans you can still sometimes find a clear blue patch in the middle of the North Sea and we certainly found it on our way across that day. A limitless horizon too, forty miles between the steelworks of Dunkirk and the potential roar of the Maplin airport, is very balm to the soul after crawling for weeks down the shadows of London’s office blocks.

After lunch and the shipping forecast the breeze picked up, more to the SW, and my writing in the log deteriorated a little. ‘Query 6 knots’ it reads on crossing the south-bound lane at 15.00 and at 16.20 we had the rare good fortune to pass the wreck buoy close to port. The breeze now freshening to (as we had been told it would) SW 4, I altered course a little to starboard in case we made Ostende after the north (or rather east) going flood began on the coast and carried us past the entrance to Ostende harbour. The West Hinder came abeam at 17.40; we were sitting out now, moving fast on a fetch, and the sea was building up more as it does with the wind against tide along there.

By now it was less certain whether we would make the crossing before dark and our main concern was to get to Ostende as fast as we could. It had clouded over and the sea had returned to its more usual grey, with a few white horses kicking out of the wave-crests.

We kept an anxious lookout for the tall tower-block at Ostende but it remained elusive and our first landfall proved, on confirmation from the Ostendebank w. buoy, to be Nieuwpoort. You tend to feel that the course from Harwich ought to bring you to Belgium at right-angles from the sea but it doesn’t after all and it seemed as if we’d come a long way south of it by our change at the West Hinder. In fact, however, although we altered back 35 degrees to port at the Ostendebank West since the east-going stream hadn’t yet begun, we were only two or three miles south of our course and had the wind backed still more we would have found it extremely useful to have gained the southing.

Slack water at 20.55 found us at last between the pierheads at Ostende; dusk but not yet dark, relieved but not yet regretting, we had made it at last and crept slowly up the channel to the outer harbour, busying ourselves with fenders and warps. The glow of the windows at the North Sea Yacht Club came closer and moved past and, round the corner, appeared the lights of the quayside and the evening strollers of Ostende, After so many years of entering the harbour with a cabin and decks and an engine to start and a jib to clear off the foredeck, it seemed funny to ghost in as if we were dropping by the pound at Harwich. All we had to do was to slip into the first pontoon by the Dragons, instead of milling around, hailing the harbourmaster and mooring alongside another Englishman.” 21.15, docked Ostende” read the log  — 13 hours from Beach End to Ostende pierheads and 15 hours 35 minutes under way.

A quarter of an hour later we were having our first glasses of Belgian beer in the North Sea Yacht Club. But Hunger soon set in and we found an excellent cheap steak just off the harbour front, sunk it with a bottle of wine and had just sufficient blow left in our lungs to inflate our lilos and crash into a very deep sleep.