Next morning was bright and sunny, as it should be at Ostende, but all the same we woke a lot later than we had the morning before!
The first-thing we discovered was our morning routine.
I forgot to mention our discovery of the evening one the night before, as we hadn’t really taken it in, but the two were much the same. Number one was to deflate the lilos — the easy part — which consisted mainly of lying on them to coax out the (remains of) the air so laboriously puffed in, the night before. The “tent” was disposed of quite easily and restored to its boom but the sleeping gear took longer. This lived in a fertiliser bag in the peak of the forepeak, behind two rows of boxes and our clothes-bags, to keep the driest. The boxes had to live in the bow all the time as there was nowhere else they could be guaranteed to stay dry, so out they all had to come and back again both night and morning before anything else could be unpacked. Putting them away, all the day’s clothes had to be extracted from their bags as they would then be sealed off for the day‘s sail too.
So it took a bit of time on the first occasion but we finally emerged triumphant, Merlin restored again to her seagoing self.
Then the customs men arrived to clear the next-door yacht. Panic set in. Luckily for us they decided they weren’t going to bother with us so we had a cleaning exercise, hanging sleeping bags etc. over the boom, and then decided to hit the town to stretch our legs before the east-going stream set in to take us up to Zeebrugge after lunch.
In our first flush of success in getting to the other side we both rather thought that we couldn’t go back to England without getting up to Holland first, although our original plan was to go straight down the coast to Calais and thence across to Ramsgate. As the wind was staying westerly Zeebrugge at least seemed possible so we went to the Bank and changed most of my Belgian francs into guilders, just in case, before having a large breakfast-cum-lunchtime omelette in a café . This turned out to be less cordon bleu than we had hoped for, but tant pis, it was Belgium, and neither of us could yet entirely believe that we were there.
Extreme midday heat; we stocked up with litres of wine from Madame Delhaize de Lion (the grocer’s shop) and Belgian bread from the boulangerie, and slipped just before 14.00..
We tacked out to the pierheads — that was fun, too — set the spinnaker and dozed our way up the coast in company with a small fleet of other little yachts. De Haan, the only Belgian resort that hasn’t yet been spoiled by a line or ever-higher blocks of flats, still with its red-roofed seaside houses climbing up the dune; Wenduine; Blankenberghe, and finally the vast new works at Zeebrugge, a long sea-wall creeping out to sea in front of the hotel by the foot of the old mole, totally obliterating its beach; a line of megalithic concrete sugar-cubes, dropped randomly one on another as if by a superhuman robot. It stretches out now a little further than the seaward end of the mole, shielding it from the flow of the stream, so no longer do you sail through the tide-rip below it, heading for the very wall, waiting for the final eddy to sweep you into the peace of the harbour inside.
No fewer than five ships were entering or leaving the harbour at once in a procession as we arrived by the lighthouse at the mole’s end. As a result we had to apply all the limited braking power at our disposal to stall ourselves until the entrance was sufficiently clear for us to slip round.
Somehow the breeze always seems to get up a little in the outer harbour at Zeebrugge once you’re round the mole. We had a most exhilarating sail past the new Naval dockyard and over the bones of the old HMS Iphigenia, sunk as a blockship in the 1918 Zeebrugge Raid, to the left-hand turn into the fishing-harbour. ‘Alberta’, the Royal Belgian Sailing Club’s little club house, still guards the entrance and gives expensive suppers in the evening but I gather, when the new harbour is finished, that they are hoping to be able to move somewhere closer to the sea and less caught up with the ships.
Once docked we made haste to balance out the prospective vast expenditure on our dinner by having a good hot shower and half a sauna for free — a. much better deal than Ostende — before the electrics and hot water ran out and then a couple of drinks on board before the sun went down.
Holland seemed the next logical step, it being still only Monday evening and the weather looking fine, although the navigator had doubts that we would get back in time if we pushed our luck too far. All the same we were both agreed that Merlin couldn’t get where she had without going into a canal, and the tide would be fair the next morning if we set off at first light. So the alarm was set.